Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What we owe Clement

Those who invent the contradictions that allow society to run on its smooth course surely deserve recognition. Among these inventors, one of the most important was Clement of Alexandria.

Not for his famous dime a dozen misogyny. Rather, it was Clement who managed once and for all to squeeze around a famous passage in the Gospels. In Matthew 19, Jesus is depicted as the sage to whom people come expecting wisdom – a common motif in sage narratives. And after giving the answer to how one can get into heaven – be as a child – he proceeds to make a pretty grave announcement:

“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. 24 And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.25 When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? 26 But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”

The passage in Matthew is dramatized in Luke:

“And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? 19 And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God. 20 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother. 21 And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up. 22 Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. 23 And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich. 24 And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.26 And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved? 27 And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”

The variations on this theme give us: 1. a series of pronouncements about who gets into the kingdom of heaven and who doesn’t; 2. examples of the “last” – like children – who do get into heaven; and 3. examples of the first (Pharisees, the rich) who come after the last.

The disciples in both cases express astonishment – in Luke, the astonishment has much to do with their desire to secure positions in the kingdom of heaven – and Jesus assures them that what he is saying may seem humanly impossible, but that all things are possible with God.

There’s no indication in the text that he is retracting his statement about the wealthy – or about Pharisees. This presented a problem to the early church, since, like all successful institutions, it soon found itself involved with the wealthy and with money. Luckily, the saying about how all things are possible with God – which would include all things, such as whoring, violence,gluttony, etc. – was seized as an easy out specifically for the wealthy (and not for whores or gladiators, etc.). The man whose eye lit upon how to push a camel through the eye of a needle was Clement of Alexandria.

At the center of what became the orthodox interpretation of the passage, Clement writes:

“Those then who are actuated by a love of the truth and love of their brethren, and neither are rudely insolent towards such rich as are called, nor, on the other hand, cringe to them for their own avaricious ends, must first by the word relieve them of their groundless despair, and show with the requisite explanation of the oracles of the Lord that the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven is not quite cut off from them if they obey the commandments; then admonish them that they entertain a causeless fear, and that the Lord gladly receives them, provided they are willing; and then, in addition, exhibit and teach how and by what deeds and dispositions they shall win the objects of hope, inasmuch as it is neither out of their reach, nor, on the other hand, attained without effort; but, as is the case with athletes -- to compare things small and perishing with things great and immortal -- let the man who is endowed with worldly wealth reckon that this depends on himself. For among those, one man, because he despaired of being able to conquer and gain crowns, did not give in his name for the contest; while another, whose mind was inspired with this hope, and yet did not submit to the appropriate labours, and diet, and exercises, remained uncrowned, and was balked in his expectations. So also let not the man that has been invested with worldly wealth proclaim himself excluded at the outset from the Saviour's lists, provided he is a believer and one who contemplates the greatness of God's philanthropy; nor let him, on the other hand, expect to grasp the crowns of immortality without struggle and effort, continuing untrained, and without contest. But let him go and put himself under the Word as his trainer, and Christ the President of the contest; and for his prescribed food and drink let him have the New Testament of the Lord; and for exercises, the commandments; and for elegance and ornament, the fair dispositions, love, faith, hope, knowledge of the truth, gentleness, meekness, pity, gravity: so that, when by the last trumpet the signal shall be given for the race and departure hence, as from the stadium of life, he may with a good conscience present himself victorious before the Judge who confers the rewards, confessedly worthy of the Fatherland on high, to which he returns with crowns and the acclamations of angels.”

This is an interesting variation on the Luke story. The rich man, after all, turned away in sorrow. And that sorrow, in Clement’s account, turns to a despair that creates rich monsters, who turn away entirely from God. Clement lightly skips over the cause of that despair – that the wealthy man definitely didn’t want to give up being wealthy – which is of course the whole point of the story's existence – and softly reconciles opposites by welcoming the rich, on God’s behalf, into the ecclesia, where they are not required to give all they have to the poor. It is true that this saying of Jesus' somehow does exist, Clement doesn't deny it – but it is a hint, more than a commandment. God, like a mafia captain, might come into your store and say, nice place you have here. Wouldn’t want anything to happen to it – but he isn’t expecting you to shut the store, just give him a cut of the proceeds.

Thus, Clement’s middle ground promotes a cult of philanthropy among the wealthy that reproduces a recognizable state-like role for the church. Rather than giving away all your goods, giving away some of them to the poor – through the medium of the church – suffices. This is a rich moment in economic history – without this middle way, without allowing wealth to have some entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven, the unique relationship of religion to society that grew up in the West could not have existed.

The very position taking of the disciples shows why. While it is all very well to say that the last shall be first, in the Kingdom, when things are righted, won’t the last, then, be the wealthy? Surely infinite poverty is not the prospect offered in the Kingdom. And so, what is right in the Kingdom surely should reflect what is right in the world.

Of course, it is difficult to penetrate what the sage in the gospels is saying, here, as paradoxes pile on paradoxes. Paul, who in all likelihood knew less about what Jesus said than we do, clearly grasped the stylistic essence of the message he did know about with his metaphor of the mirror within which we see darkly.

Augustine added to Clement’s thesis one of his own. Augustine was a great reader, and he noticed that in the context of the story in Luke, Jesus had begun by saying none is good – even he himself – except God. Augustine’s intuition was that this radical claim meant that there were two messages in the text – one for an audience of the impossibly good, the perfectionists, and one for the vast majority. Richard Newhouser, in The Early History of Greed, sees Augustine’s rejection of giving away all one has to the poor – the perfectionist act – as crucial to his rejection of Pelagianism – for it was one of Pelagius’ major claims that the rich should do just that.

What is lost in this controversy is why it would be sinful to be wealthy in the first place. Why would Jesus advice anyone to give all they have to the poor? As Deng Xiaoping once put it, to be rich is glorious. What is wrong with that?

This question points us to another question: how systematic is wisdom? Does the sage’s view of virtue depend upon an insight into the systematic connection of things in the world, or is it, instead, a scattering of occasions? Is it that Jesus is operating within the economy of the limited good? In the peasant view, what one person has, another person does not have – all goods embody a struggle within the limited store of goods. Or is it the struggle itself that is pointed to – to have wealth, it is necessary to rule over men in some way, and to rule over men is to force them to do things for your own advantage.

Or, finally, it may be that wisdom simply isn't made to be pressed like this - that the inhuman thing is to expect consistency.

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