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Exiled in Place

Another shot has been fired by Adrian Vermeule, that indomitable professor at Harvard Law, in the recent row amongst certain conservative and traditional Catholics on how to deal with the problem of liberalism. Vermeule takes aim at ostensibly traditionally minded Catholics who hold that at least a maintenance of peace with the secular liberal order is possible and desirable. Vermeule, contra our friend Ross Douthat and others, believes that it is not. In this we at Thermidor tend to share Vermeule's perspective and he makes the argument cogently and well. Do read it.

In the course of making his argument against compromise with liberalism, however, Vermeule also ventures to make the claim that the Church's sojourning, exilic character should make impossible any Catholic "theology of place." One might note the strangeness of such a claim coming from the member of a church which attaches Christ's deliverance of the Keys to St. Peter uniquely to a particular geographical see, and which grants that local see a mystical indefectibility in matters of faith for all time ("theology of place" indeed), but let's not dwell on that. Vermeule says that he is attacking a particularly Anglo (or Anglican) form of sentimental nostalgia for foggy churchyards exemplified by Roger Scruton, which may indeed need some criticizing, but in taking aim at "theology of place" as such, Vermeule implicates a much broader orthodox Christian tradition.

The character of the Church as a sojourning society having no permanent home in the fallen world of our age can't be denied. Not only due to 1 Peter, which Vermeule cites, but also Christ's example: the Son of man having no place to lay his head (Matt. 8:20), along with many of his teachings on the necessity of detaching from worldly attachments in order to follow him, such as his statements to "hate father and mother" (Luke 14:26) and "let the dead bury the dead" (Luke 9:60).

But this truth must be held in tension with the reality of human beings as particular creatures embedded in a physical world, wherein the maintenance of life only comes by way of attachment to certain places. Just as we don't take Christ's "hate father and mother" statement as an abrogation of the command to "honor father and mother," (instead recognizing it as a relativizing of family commitments in comparison to allegiance to Christ), neither is the understanding of the Church sojourning as exiles through this world to be taken to undermine the realities of embodied physical life, and thus the importance of place and its capacity to be sanctified.

The desert fathers witness both to the 'placelessness' of Christianity and the Church, but also attached themselves to particular places in the desert and established cenobitic monasteries. The monastics are the witnesses par excellence of the otherworldly, eschatological life which makes itself present among us, through their radical acceptance of consecrated celibacy (following Christ), complete material dispossession (also following Christ), and a life drenched in prayer and worship devoted fully to God. Yet this is regularly done while sanctifying particular places. To take one example, St. Catherine's monastery on Mt. Sinai was founded in the mid 6th century under St. Justinian the Great, and is still there today. The monks there live the spiritual life of exile from the world and yet know the sacredness of that place, maintaining their traditions and life while rooted there for over a millennium. The prayers have sunk into the soil and it has become hallowed ground. It's fair to say this represents a robust "theology of place," while simultaneously witnessing strongly to the exilic nature of the Church.

As with much in Christianity, there is a mystical element that is not being reckoned with when sojourning and exile are placed as logically hostile to rootedness and place. God and man are, logically, absolutely distinct: Creator and created, Infinite and finite, Timeless and temporal etc. And yet in the incarnation the rationally inconceivable—God become man—actually happens. The incarnation is the root mystery which establishes the Church's mysteriological (or sacramental) character. And just as we don't say the fact that, for instance, the Eucharist is Christ's true Body and Blood means that it is not also bread and wine, neither do we say that because the Church is sojourning in the world as a universal polity under Christ, that it therefore does not attach itself at all to any place or places.

It is liberalism, not Christianity, in fact, which presents the most comprehensive and vicious polemic against place. The liberal state progressively aims to supplant parents to mold children into good consumers and content-producers, while the universalizing logic of the market relentlessly dissolves ties to the most intimate of our associations and attachments, including the family, a settled home, and traditional way of life. As is liberalism's wont, this too is a parody and inversion of Christian detachment, which aims at an ascetic detachment from passions and worldly cares in favor of heavenly ones. While liberalism loosens attachment to family and place, not for spiritual exile and being joined to God, but for a hedonistic, atomized wandering which attaches one even more tightly to the material things of the earth—things which are inferior to even the natural attachments of family and place.

Christianity relativizes and subordinates family and place to the higher goods of the Church and the Kingdom without ever losing sight of the truth that God-become-man, the universal-become-particular, has set a pattern which subordinates place and space without destroying them. Which, indeed, sanctifies them. If the polemic against place, rooted in the Church's exilic, sojourning character, is taken too far it follows liberalism down the path of false, disincarnate universalism.

Exile was originally a curse. When man was expelled from Paradise, the Place where communion between God and man and peace with the natural world was enjoyed, he became an exile. Part of the incarnational logic—whereby God descends to the depths of reality, not only to the lowness of a humble human life, but even to the depths of Hades, and cuts a path to glory through them—leads to what was once seen as degraded and low becoming imbued with His grace. To such an extent that even something like death, that ultimate enemy of humankind which was the result of man's willful rebellion against God, is taken on by Christ on the Cross and becomes a path to theosis. In a similar fashion, exile from Paradise, from a rootedness in a particular sacred 'place', was not God's original plan for mankind, but He in turn becomes exiled for our sake, having no place to lay his head, and transforms exile into the path of glory. The experience of Paradise, once connected to a particular place, can now be accessed from any place—but not from no-place.

Exile was experienced by the people of Israel as a literal, physical fact. But for the Church it becomes primarily a spiritual truth. We must become exiled from the fallen world in our hearts, finding no contentment in material pleasures or worldly systems (like liberalism), wherever we happen to be physically.

Today is the feast of Theophany in which we commemorate the Baptism of Christ in the Orthodox Church. In the Orthodox tradition we hear in our hymnography and seen in our icons that Christ's descent into the waters was was not for his own purification (for he had no need to be purified), but was done in order to purify and sanctify the waters, and indeed the entire cosmos. Far from degrading place, this elevates place and makes the natural world a theater where we can commune with God through the elements which we have worked with the labor of our hands, such as bread and wine. Offering up creation, cultivated by us in our particular places, as a sacrifice to God, God returns to us his life-giving Body and Blood in a most sacred exchange.

Vermeule sagely warns against identifying the Church and her mission completely with any particular place or epoch of time. This indeed is to be avoided. And it does seem that the likes of Scruton can cross this line at times, turning nostalgia into a principle to be adhered to. But everything which is good needs a theology, and place is no exception. The two errors to be avoided are a universalism which neglects the incarnate nature of Christ and his Church, and a particularism which mistakes the good things of home, family, and nation for ultimate ends in themselves. We must, in other words, eschew both a total erasure of place, as well as an idolatry of place, but decidedly not that most necessary discipline of a theology of place.

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