Friday, April 20, 2012

Dangerous alliances in the age of piety

Piety is a word that has undergone numerous semantic shifts. For anyone who knows Latin, he realizes that piety stems from the Latin word pietas which means duty or responsibility. And, to an Ancient Roman, responsibility and duty were to three things in this order: 1) Gods 2) State 3) Family. Only after those three had been satisfied could the individual's concerns have been dealt with. The hero of Rome's national epic was Aeneas whose name was frequently joined with the epithet of pius, or pious. Of course, it was the abandonment of this pietas by ambitious men starting in the mid 2nd century B.C. that lead to the Roman Republic's downfall and the rise of the Caesars.

Today, piety now is measured largely on an individual level. We say that such a man is pious. What do we mean by that? We mean that he is devout, goes to church, says prayers, etc.. In other words, he meets merely external descriptors. Even the media may be praiseworthy of such a pious man but will unleash the attack dogs if it's actually discovered that the outward displays are manifestations of actual belief in those things. Hence that is why many in the media describe Catholic politicians as pious and will praise them for supporting Roe v. Wade and vice-versa.

Piety is relativism. Unfortunately, many Orthodox Christians and other Christian groups are using piety as the basis in which to form alliances to deal with social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, same-sex adoption, death penalty, etc. That is not to say that it is a bad thing to join forces, but when you consider that an Evangelical and an Orthodox Christian may believe similarly that gay marriage is wrong, but when it comes to why, they have completely different answers. And that bodes for disaster.

The why is doctrine. And we must be very clear that the history of Christianity, even in its darkest moments, were many struggles over doctrine. Doctrine was the cause of bloodshed and schism and heresy; it was not piety. The Catholics and the Lutherans may well have agreed that music was perfectly appropriate for the worship of God (which is a concern of piety) but they didn't ally themselves and go after the Calvinists who had no place for music. Doctrine stood in the way.

Councils were convened not to discuss matters of piety (though some canons did address things like kneeling), but to solidify and prevent dissent from established church doctrine which was being challenged.

Today, we see morality (which is a form of piety) becoming the bridge between various confessions of Christianity. I read frequent articles about how different churches are "coming together" to combat the social ills of our time. It is a laudable but it is also dangerous. Though we may come to the same answer, the way to get to that answer is so diverse. It's a Machiavellian "ends justify the means." One can be right for the wrong reasons. The problem is that many are overlooking the doctrinal differences. It's fighting a common enemy without having a common goal. Many of the Evangelicals and mainstream Protestants and Roman Catholics with whom we seek these alliances have the same common enemy. But let us say those enemies are vanquished. Doctrine will once again come up.

I'm not suggesting that doctrine be replaced or watered down. God forbid! But we must be very careful, especially in this age of false ecumenism, to understand that unity can only be achieved by total union to the Church.

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