Saturday, May 28, 2016

ΠΡΑΞΕΙΣ ΑΠΟΣΤΟΛΩΝ

ΠΡΑΞΕΙΣ ΑΠΟΣΤΟΛΩΝ. In recent years, I've come to find the title of the book commonly known as the Acts of the Apostles.

Historical study provides us with some idea of the complex compositional history of Acts. Intended as the second part of Luke's narrative, the book is thought to be either a stylized literary construct, or perhaps a tantalizing glimpse into an actual diary of early Christian activity. Whatever the case may be, between the fourth and sixth century we see the title ΠΡΑΞΕΙΣ ΑΠΟΣΤΟΛΩΝ attached to the book.

The manuscript history could provide us with an important indicator of the early church's reflection on the book. Although there is no indication the book was known by any other title in its history, the available manuscript history, it can be argued, suggests the appellation by which the book is known could have coincided with the increased influence of philosophical thought in the early Church (truly, what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?) If historical critical scholarship is correct and the titles of the New Testament books were often applied at a later date, then we can legitimately ask how both the concept of praxis in philosophy and among the ascetic discipline of early Christian monastics may have influenced the early Church's conceptualization of the second part of the Luke-Acts literary unit.

Early Christian monasticism inherited the philosophical distinction between theoria (or theoretical knowledge) and that of practical knowledge. In the monastic schema (perhaps best exemplified in Cassian's Conferences) practical knowledge or praxis (the action of daily life) is required before one can acquire theoria. There is no such thing as simply going off and contemplating the transcendent. One acquires the "credibility" to learn theoria (or the contemplative knowledge of God) through mastery of daily life. This is typically demonstrated through the varying early Christian forms of asceticism and monastic rules.

Monasticism traditionally, therefore, grounds the Christian in the experience and mastery of one's daily life, without which any pretense to some sort of contemplative insight into the being and nature of God ought to suspect.

It is, in retrospect, one of the greatest tragedies in Christianity that guides for the praxis of the Christian life were relegated to monasteries whereas the non-monastic clergy and laity were largely left with simple admonitions against sin and exhortations to piety. The deeper reflection on the means and purpose of the Christian life was reserved for groups of men (predominately) who were effectively directed away from any deep embedded role within the largely (and presumably Christian) society.

This is not to say that everyone should be a monk or that monasticism ought to be applied outside of the traditional monastic context. This said, the idea that we should be concerned with the praxis of the Christian life (and what it looks like) seems to have renewed relevance as Western culture continues to distance itself from anything resembling a Christian presupposition or worldview. In a cultural context in which Christianity is no longer conceived as the elementary foundation of the worldview and is increasingly seen as either one option among many in religious marketplace, if not an outdated notion needing to be replaced, Christianity must be able to clearly enunciate a praxis for life. If not to distinguish itself for a broader culture to which it is now alien, then to provide its members some greater context in which to have the experiential realization of their religion - an item of urgency given the percentages that fall away from their religion in favor of a more non-committal worldview.

What does it look like to live Christianity for the duration of one's life? What does a life enmeshed in a Christian worldview look like? How ought it be achieved? How does Christian praxis align with the most elemental milestones in our growth and understanding? And to what end? What is the point at which one can say life is no longer for the flesh, but the spirit, or, at what point does one achieve such growth that one begins to glean some perceptible sense of understanding the divine? These and other questions of a similar quality take on more importance as Christianity ceases to be something inherited from the culture and becomes more and more something intentionally sought by the individual.

Should there be some quality of the Christian life that distinguishes it from the secular life? The response to this proposition by many "moderns" among more mainline denominations in the 60s and 70s was a resounding "NO!" Corresponding with this rejection, there has been a decline in among the same denominations, both of ordained clergy and active adherence. Does the correspondence equal causation? This is always a difficult point to argue. What may be said is that if there is no distinction between the praxis of the Christian life and that of the secular life, why bother accepting religious precepts and restrictions?

If intellectual musing seems befuddled by the thought that there should be something distinctive about the Christian life compared to the secular life, the popular imagination still has some sense that there ought to be something different about people claiming Christian affiliation. I recently spoke with a women who describes herself as liberal and "very forward thinking and progressive." She noted that she has known many evangelicals and to the one, two traits always presented themselves: 1) morally conservative and not squeamish about calling something wrong, 2) always ready to give you the shirt off of their back. She remarked, "it is kind of weird. We think we're being so inclusive and open to everyone, but we're kind of cold. Meanwhile, the people we perceive as constantly rejecting others is probably the most open to other people, in that they're not indifferent to you."

Is this sentiment all inclusive of the praxis of Christianity? I would hope not!  However, it begins to underscore that Christianity has the most to offer when it inculcates a life that is distinct from the status quo and perceptions of this women illustrate one way in which this could become apparent.

We live in a post-Christian world. It is time to seriously reflect upon how we ought to do so.

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