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Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Victory of Reason--a review

Rodney Stark is one of the foremost living sociologists of religion. His 2000 book Acts of Faith, co-written with Roger Finke, expounded an extremely influential "supply-side" theory of religion as a social phenomenon, countering the "secularization" thesis and arguing that there was a pretty steady "demand" for the "goods" provided by religion. Differences in religious commitment over time or across space were due to supply rather than demand. People had different kinds of religious needs, so that in a "free religious market" a wide variety of religious "suppliers" would develop, competing with each other for "market share." Under those circumstances, most people would have a supplier that met their needs, and thus would become actively involved in a religious community. But when a religious "monopoly" was imposed (as in a traditional European state-church society), people whose needs were not met by the official religion would have little interest in religion. Stark and Finke further argued that religious groups are most successful when they make significant demands on people as well as offering significant benefits. If the benefits of community membership are available without significant commitment, then the community will attract "freeloaders" and will not seem worthy of commitment. Communities that stand in "high tension" with the surrounding society, Stark and Finke argued, are likely to grow, as long as their demands are not impossibly high and as long as they offer benefits (both this-worldly and other-worldly) that compensate people for the costs of high commitment. But as religious communities grow, they tend to relax their demands and eventually become indistinguishable from other groups, making membership less and less worthwhile. This book was a systematic exposition of ideas already developed in historical form in the 1992 study The Churching of America, which described American religious history as the story of continual challenges to the reigning "mainline" churches by upstart competitors whose success eventually turned them into the new "mainline." These two books have provided a great deal of ammunition to American religious conservatives arguing that the mainline churches are declining because of their liberalism (though it's not clear to me that "high/low tension maps neatly onto "conservative/liberal"). When Ross Douthat wrote "Can Liberal Christianity be Saved" in 2012, he was essentially repeating the Stark/Finke thesis in a more polemical form.

Meanwhile, starting with The Rise of Christianity in 1996, Stark has written a series of historical studies (without Finke's collaboration) applying his sociological theories to the history of Western Christian civilization. I've looked at a couple of these, but the only one I've read all the way through is The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (2005). I read it several years ago, but didn't get around to writing a full review. Since I had it checked out recently for another project, I decided to remedy that deficiency.

The Victory of Reason builds on the work of Stanley Jaki on science to argue that the distinctive Western culture of technological innovation and economic enterprise was the creation of Christian faith. In contrast to Weber, Stark argues that capitalism was born in the Middle Ages and was not peculiar to Protestants, although in the last two chapters he criticizes post-Reformation Catholicism for taking an "anticapitalist" stance. His approach could be called an "ecumenical Whig" narrative. Whereas the traditional "Whig" narrative, in either its Protestant or secular forms, paints a picture of gradual emancipation from the shackles of traditional theology, Stark argues that the emancipation (from premodern, pagan ways of thinking) was a gradual process initiated and guided by Christian faith and was well underway long before the Reformation.

Many of Stark's points have considerable merit. He rightly demolishes the myth of a stagnant and anti-intellectual "Dark Ages," pointing out for instance that even the early Middle Ages were a time of great technological innovation, which of course accelerated rapidly after 1000. He is right, I think, to point out that many aspects of Christian thought have a deep affinity with many aspects of modern Western culture. For instance, the claim that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament leads naturally to the conclusion that God reveals Himself in a progressive manner (this is not actually the point that Stark made, but I'm helping him out here). The Christian doctrine of salvation may indeed be seen as the source of a certain kind of "individualism." And so on.

But even where Stark has legitimate points, he overstates them, undercutting his argument by trying to claim too much. He presents Christianity as a thoroughly progressive religion, ignoring or downplaying the copious examples of Christian theologians glorifying a perfect past and deploring current trends as part of the inevitable decline that would precede the Second Coming. He's not content to show that there are elements of Christian thought that favor science, while others might promote suspicion of science. No, Christianity in its essence must be shown to be thoroughly pro-scientific. The same is true with his discussion of slavery and of capitalism (in his view, Christianity is solidly opposed to the former and supportive of the latter).

One major issue that crops up throughout the book is the question of what it means for Christianity as a whole to be the cause of a social phenomenon. How does one distinguish between the things that happened in Christian culture in spite of Christianity (or simply in disregard for Christianity) and the things caused by Christianity? Stark's commonsense approach seems to be to argue that if some aspect of medieval culture was a break from the Roman past, then it is due to Christianity. So Christianity can't be blamed for slavery, because that was Roman. It should be credited with the withering away of slavery, because that was a change from Roman culture. But can every difference between medieval Europe and the ancient world really be credited to Christianity? Are no other factors at work? This assumption becomes even harder to sustain when we start talking about later developments in Western civilization, like religious freedom or the final abolition of slavery.

Stark's discussion of monastic capitalism founders on a failure to address this distinction. He cites scholarship showing what economic powerhouses medieval monasteries were and how they contributed to economic and technological progress. Fair enough. But he never mentions the frequent complaints about monastic "corruption" and the incessant efforts at reforming monasteries to return them to their original ideal as austere centers of study and prayer. Perhaps in fact a case can be made that the reformers didn't have a problem with monasteries being centers of economic enterprise. But I'm skeptical, and at any rate Stark doesn't even attempt to make that case. He never discusses the question of how monastic reformers (among the most important religious figures in the Middle Ages) saw monastic economic activity at all.

A further serious problem with the book is Stark's use of sources. In chapter two, on medieval progress, Stark speaks disparagingly of "most scholars" who accept the myth of the Dark Ages. What does he mean by this? Probably he is speaking of generalists like Daniel Boorstin, not actual scholars of the Middle Ages themselves. Of course, Stark is heavily dependent on such scholars, as his footnotes show. His rhetoric sometimes gives the impression that he is heroically refuting the errors of "scholars" by virtue of his own deep knowledge of the primary sources. But that obviously isn't true. When he cites primary sources, it is usually via secondary sources. On one occasion (chap. 2, n. 109), he cites the Summa Theologiae of Aquinas without any specification of which part of that voluminous work he is using. Fortunately, it wasn't hard to look up the question he was referring to, since he gave its title in the text. But this demonstrates just how vague and sloppy his acquaintance with his primary sources is.

Furthermore, his use of primary sources is not only highly selective but often just plain wrong, revealing a complete lack of understanding of the intellectual context of the patristic and medieval periods. Stark claims that he is citing the "major" figures, particularly Augustine and Aquinas, because they were the most influential and representative (p. 7). Fair enough. But he departs from this when it suits him, citing Nicole d'Oresme (hardly a household name, which he covers by calling him "great, if neglected") on p. 14 in support of the "clockmaker" image of creation, which Stark does not substantiate from either Augustine or Aquinas. More to the point are his repeated distortions and misunderstandings of both Augustine and Aquinas.

Stark tries to enlist both theologians for a doctrine of progress. He cites a passage from Augustine's City of God  (bk. 22, chap. 24) celebrating human ingenuity in developing various kinds of crafts. But Stark not only fails to discuss the passage's context, but uses ellipses to conceal from the reader the fact that in the middle of the very sentence he is citing Augustine refers to the harmful uses human beings have made of this God-given creativity. Augustine's overall point is to celebrate God's goodness and the goodness of creation, but acknowledge that human beings have made a bad use of this good creation through their sinfulness. To call this picture of the human condition "optimistic," as Stark does, reflects a lack of understanding of the overall thrust of the City of God and of Augustine's thought as a whole. As for Stark's citations supposedly showing that Augustine believed in theological progress, one of them (Stark 9) is, again, from a secondary source, but seems to be talking about the life to come, not a progress within history. The other passage, from Confessions, bk. 12, chap. 18 (cited in Stark 11), does not in fact say that the reader of Scripture may understand a passage better than the author (which is what Stark says it means), but that if the reader misinterprets the author's meaning but gets something true from the text, this doesn't really matter, because all truth comes from the mind of God and what really matters is to understand the mind of God. This isn't a modern doctrine of progress at all. Rather, it reflects Augustine's Platonic epistemology in which all knowledge comes by "divine illumination." To understand anything is to understand it in the eternal Truth. What matters in a text is not primarily the intention of the human author, but the eternal Truth reflected by the human words. Nothing further from a modern way of thinking about texts could be imagined, though perhaps there are some affinities with postmodernism.

Stark's errors in attempting to enlist Augustine for the doctrine of progress, however, pale in comparison to his interpretations of Aquinas and other medieval sources with regard to capitalism. Stark claims that Aquinas defines the "just price" purely in terms of supply and demand (65). But in the passage Stark cites (he doesn't say so, but it's ST II/II, Question 77, art. 1), Aquinas says exactly the opposite.  Stark seems not to understand that the opening section of any article of the Summa consists of objections to which Aquinas will reply later. He cites Aquinas saying (Objection 2) that everyone wants to buy low and sell high, as if Aquinas were approving of this behavior. But in fact Aquinas is quoting Augustine, who was quoting a saying of "a certain jester." And as Aquinas points out in the reply to the objection, Augustine quotes the jester only to condemn his saying as wicked. In the body of the article ("Whether it is lawful to sell a thing for more than it is worth") Aquinas makes it clear that the buyer's need for an item has no relevance to the just price of the item. A seller may charge more to compensate himself for the loss he suffers in giving up the item, but not to exploit the buyer's demand for the item:
Yet if the one derive a great advantage by becoming possessed of the other man's property, and the seller be not at a loss through being without that thing, the latter ought not to raise the price, because the advantage accruing to the buyer, is not due to the seller, but to a circumstance affecting the buyer. Now no man should sell what is not his, though he may charge for the loss he suffers.
Stark points to a passage (from the reply to Objection 1) in which Aquinas says that the just price is not fixed with "mathematical precision." Stark interprets this to mean that the just price is not "objective" but depends on supply and demand. Rather, Aquinas is saying simply that there isn't a precise sum but that the just price falls within a certain range, so that some variation is legitimate without violating justice. He is not saying that the just price is fixed purely by market laws. Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between the specific need of an individual buyer, of which Aquinas is speaking above, and a broader pattern of supply and demand. Perhaps Aquinas and Albert do define just price in terms of supply and demand in this broader sense. But Stark hasn't made the case with regard to Aquinas--the passage he himself cites is rejecting the view that a seller can charge more based on demand--and he has clearly misinterpreted Aquinas pretty badly by taking a passage from an objection as if it represented Aquinas' own view.

Stark's one solid point (though he doesn't give a citation--it comes from article 3 of the same question) is that Aquinas defends the legitimacy of a merchant selling wheat for a high price while not telling the buyers that other merchants would soon be arriving with more wheat. This does seem to imply that a "just price" for Aquinas relates to the laws of supply and demand. However, I still think that this is best explained by the interpretation that Aquinas thinks there is an objective just price which consists of a spectrum of possible prices rather than a single fixed sum. Within that spectrum, the laws of supply and demand apply. Outside it, a higher or lower price would be objectively unjust to buyer or seller respectively. Furthermore, even here Stark misrepresents Aquinas by saying that the situation involves a famine, which makes the price of wheat high. (Apparently Murray Rothbard also cites the passage this way--Stark doesn't cite Rothbard but one has to wonder if perhaps Rothbard is an unacknowledged source here.) Aquinas doesn't mention a famine. Given what he has to say in article 1 about exploiting the buyer's need, it seems dubious that he would justify the merchant's "price gouging" if he were taking advantage of starving people. Rather, Aquinas speaks more generally of "a place where wheat commands a high price." In support of Stark and Rothbard is the fact that the similar example in Cicero's De Officiis does involve a famine. Furthermore, Aquinas cites a different part of this passage from Cicero in Objection 2, showing that he is familiar with the discussion. But Cicero decides the question the other way--a virtuous person will not take advantage of the starving people. I would like to see some sold scholarly discussion of this passage and will look further into it, but at best Stark's characterization of Aquinas' position is extremely one-sided.

Stark may be confusing Aquinas with the Spanish "late scholastics" of the sixteenth century, who allegedly did define a just price in terms of demand. (I don't know myself that this is true, but it is commonly alleged and I am not personally familiar with these authors. If so, it would be ironic given Stark's characterization of post-Reformation Spanish "anti-capitalism.") Stark also cites Albert the Great, but again only through a secondary source.

Stark admits that Aquinas is "confusing" about usury. The confusion, I think, comes from Stark's inability to grasp that for Aquinas just profit has to do with compensating the seller for loss and for the time spent. Aquinas is very clear that a seller is not justified in simply charging whatever the market will support.

Stark further misrepresents the medieval attitude to private property (78-79), citing an author known as "Norman Anonymous" referring to private property as a "human right." Stark seems to think that this means what it would mean for someone in the Enlightenment--a basic right guaranteed by natural law. But in fact the passage as Stark cites it says the opposite: "God has made poor and rich from the one and the same clay; poor and rich are supported on one and the same earth. It is by human right that we say 'My estate, my house, my servant." (As usual, Stark is citing this via secondary sources.) The passage is clearly saying the same thing Aquinas would say later: that by natural law everything is held in common. "Human right" in this context means human law and custom, in accord with natural law but not necessarily mandated by it. Aquinas, as Stark points out, says that private property is necessary--but it is necessary for pragmatic reasons, to avoid confusion and conflict. Once again, Stark's ignorance of the basic categories of medieval thought serves him--and his readers--very poorly.

Certainly Stark should be cut some slack given that he's writing a book for a general audience, going outside his own primary area of specialization. We need more of that, and it's unfair for people with more specialist knowledge to jump on such books and nit-pick. But my objections above go beyond pointing out specific errors in detail. Stark systematically cherry-picks passages out of context to support an interpretation of the medieval Christian tradition as solidly in favor of private property, supply-and-demand economics, and technological progress.

Stark's failures in The Victory of Reason are frustrating because the secularist myths he takes on badly need to be debunked. Many of his points about the vitality of medieval culture (including science and technology) are important and badly need to be made in the face of widespread misunderstanding. But unfortunately, Stark creates an equally distorted picture of his own, so that I cannot in good conscience recommend this book to people who need to be informed on the positive achievements of medieval civilization. Christians who cite Stark as an authority are setting themselves up for embarrassment, or worse, engaging (however innocently) in a project of benevolent deception. Medieval culture did have elements that favored scientific, technological, and economic progress. It also had strong currents of nostalgic idealization of a past "golden age," suspicion of economic activity as worldly and sinful, and mistrust of any kind of secular learning as ultimately pointless in a world where the salvation of one's soul was the primary concern. Neither the first set of trends nor the other are the whole picture, and they interacted with each other in complex ways. Both of them had roots in Christianity as well as in non-Christian sources. But on the whole, the second set of attitudes were more likely to be identified with the most devout and spiritually respected members of society. Stark's thesis founders on this fact. Medieval Christianity was not in fact distinguished from other religions by its joyful embrace of progress or its enthusiasm for scientific and economic activity. If anything, at least in comparison with the other two great monotheistic religions, the opposite was the case. As a Christian, I do not think that this is something to be ashamed of. I certainly find much in the medieval "vale of tears" tradition to be dubious, and I often find the great poets and artists of the Middle Ages wiser than the single-mindedly devotional authors, precisely because of their gusto for life combined with deep piety (The Imitation of Christ is great, but the Divine Comedy and Piers Plowman are far greater.). But the fact remains that Christianity is an irreducibly ascetic tradition. It teaches us to value what the world despises and despise what the world values. It cuts across our desires for fame and power and wealth with a sword of flame. Stark doesn't get this. For much of his career he has described himself as an unbeliever, but for about the past decade he has identified as an "independent Christian." In a 2007 interview, he made the revealing comment: "I have always been a “cultural” Christian in that I have always been strongly committed to Western Civilization." It is none of my business to judge the authenticity of his present Christian faith, but it's clear that in his own self-understanding it is simply a development of his longstanding commitment to Western civilization. Christianity does not exist in order to prop up Western civilization. Christianity exists to proclaim the Kingdom of God, which stands in judgment on all civilizations. Stark's ideological biases lead him to treat the civilization-building aspects of Christianity as fundamental and the "world-denying" aspects as peripheral (when he doesn't deny or ignore them outright).Thus, throughout his career, Stark has defined Christianity and its benefits in primarily secular terms. This is understandable given where he's coming from. But people steeped in orthodox Christianity, whose starting point is the Cross and Resurrection rather than the glories of Western Civilization, ought to know better. Stark is, for Christians, like Egypt in the OT prophetic warnings: a reed that breaks when you rest on him. Better trust in the Lord of Hosts, whose power works through weakness and who laughs at civilizations and economic systems, especially when they boast of divine blessing.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ten theses on gay marriage

OK, since no one (except Stephen Milliken) is excited about monism, here are some theses about gay marriage:

1. Gay marriage really is the redefinition of marriage to make it gender neutral. It is not simply the granting of "equal access" to an institution whose meaning remains the same.

2. However, given the shifts that have taken place in our cultural understanding of marriage, such a redefinition makes sense. That is to say, we have privatized the concept of marriage and defined it in terms of the desires and needs of individuals, while questioning traditional "essentialist" ideas about gender. Hence, it no longer makes sense to many people to define marriage in gendered terms.

3. The trend toward erasing gender differentiation is the root of gay marriage.

4. Gender differentiation is a natural given of the human condition and thus should not be erased, but the way it has been expressed historically is always shaped by sin, and so the recent reaction to gender norms is both a needed correction and itself the source of a new set of sinful "cultural constructions."

5. The concept of "homosexuality" as an intrinsic part of some people's identity, defining who they are, is probably best seen as a modern invention, parallel with the concept of race, and shaped by particular kinds of gender norms in the modern West. If homosexuality is to be seen as an intrinsic part of a person's identity, then it ought to be affirmed as a good part of God's creation. But it is not clear that it ought to be seen in these terms, given its culturally constructed nature.

6. Opposition to gay marriage rests on the belief that gay men ought to be treated just like straight men in terms of marriage law, and gay women like straight women.  In that sense it is radically different from opposition to racial intermarriage to which it is often compared. However, it's true that this results in gay couples being treated differently from straight couples.

7. Whatever one's position on gay marriage per se, it is abominable that same-sex couples are not able to have practical benefits such as visitation rights and joint tax returns. This really is a question of simple justice, and as long as these basic legal benefits are only extended to married couples, civil marriage for same-sex couples is indeed a basic mandate of justice.

8. Civil unions, the briefly considered and swiftly abandoned compromise, are not "separate but equal" if they are made available to everyone. Marriage, of course, already was available to every adult as an individual, but not to every couple (that is, gay people could marry, but they had to marry members of the opposite sex. While this may seem to be a "useless" right, it is nonetheless exactly the same right that straight people have.) Hence, there would be no inequality in retaining the word "marriage" for opposite-sex unions, while granting identical practical rights to any two (or possibly more) adults who wished to enter into a civil union. (Of course, this would not necessarily imply a sexual relationship, which simply isn't the business of the state one way or the other.)  However, given the present state of affairs, the best approach may be for the state to drop the word "marriage" altogether.

9. Contrary to common belief, the specifically Christian arguments for gay marriage (rooted in the overturning of gender norms in Jesus) are much stronger than the secular arguments, which are generally question-begging (inasmuch as they assume the validity of broader cultural shifts which genuine conservatives wish to contest in the first place).

10. Faithful, loving relationships between equals are always, in themselves, good. Hence, the pictures of happy couples celebrating yesterday ought to be cause of rejoicing to all decent people, whether or not we agree that "marriage" is the right word to use for those unions.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Monism part 2



Stephen Milliken, who provoked my first post on monism, pointed out that I never actually got around to defining it.

Indeed--with good reason, since it seems to me to be a term that can mean several things. I'm more interested in teasing out what those several things could be than in deciding which of them is the right definition. Insofar as I provided one, it was "that all things emanate from God." But as I pointed out, that's rather ambiguous.

Stephen then gives one possible definition:

for God to really be God, there cannot exist something which does not first find its origin in God. For if there was something that exists was not first found in God, evil perhaps, it would be said to have its own eternality and existence in some way distinct and separate from God. Thus, I do not think it probably for this to be the case for anything, including what we call bad things. That’s why, to not give them too much credit, I like Lewis’ construct of evil as a perversion or a twisting of an original good. However, if I can be nit-picky, even this perversion, to exist, must itself have an ultimate origin in this God thing.

The first sentence is, I think, totally orthodox. The problem comes when you throw evil into the mix. That's why Christians have historically said (Lewis didn't make this up) that evil is not a thing in itself--it's a privation, a lack of something that should be there. This lack has powerful effects--it distorts the nature of the created thing in question. So a human being with the "goods" of physical strength, intelligence, etc., but lacking a rightly ordered will, can do horrific evil, and the more of these goods one has the more evil one can do.

In the traditional view, the privation doesn't have to be "traced back" to a source, because it isn't a thing itself. But this is a difficult concept. William Babcock pointed out the difficulties that Augustine gets himself into in this regard in his article, "The Human and the Angelic Fall," in Augustine: From Rhetor to Theologian (1992). Humans fell because Satan tempted them; Satan fell because? . . . . well, because he turned away from God to himself. But why would a good being, in a state of glory and bliss, do a thing like that, unless the Creator in some way caused him to? The origin of evil is perhaps the single most difficult problem in orthodox Christian theology, and I can see why you have problems with the conventional account. But if one endorses a robust theology of free will (more robust than Augustine's mature position), then one can argue that the "perversion" doesn't find its origin in God--only the ability to choose freely does. (I've been reading Greg Boyd, and while I don't agree with him on a lot of points, I think he's right to challenge any view that says that evil is something God looks on with some kind of acquiescence because it's part of a bigger plan.)
Anyway, I think it is tricky to suggest that we are to separate Creator and creation, which, importantly, the former is supposedly pure spirit and the latter is (or is defined by the former) what is material or non-spirit. Are we not setting ourselves up to value spirit over matter?

This is certainly a tricky question. As I believe I said in the first post, the traditional position at least since the 13th century in the West has been that angels are also wholly immaterial. Aquinas, who championed this position, argues that the difference between even such immaterial beings and God is that they are a "compound of existence and essence." I'm not sure I'm convinced, but I'm also not sure it's orthodox to say that angels are in some sense material. So I'm not necessarily defending the view that all created beings are in some sense material. Using Thomist terms, what I would say is that all created beings are in part potentiality and not pure act, as God is.

I think part of the problem is that because our minds are the part of us that most consciously shares in the divine nature, and are also the most "immaterial" part of us, we tend to equate "spirit" with "idea." And the Platonic heritage pushes us in that direction. I think this is where the Platonic heritage needs to be challenged, and perhaps, ironically, why the teaching that angels are immaterial is important. The Creator/creature distinction is much more radical than the material/immaterial distinction. Whatever it means for angels to be "spirit," angels are far more unlike God than they are unlike us. In fact, due to the Incarnation, there's an important sense in which we are more like God than angels are. God isn't the highest angel. So it can be true that God is immaterial without that being the fundamental thing that makes God God.


I think we can say that both "created spirit" and "created matter" reflect something of God without saying that God is both spirit and matter. "Spirit" is a less inadequate term for God than "matter," because it doesn't affirm something that is simply false about God. Matter is, in itself, limitation. Spirit is freedom from that kind of limitation. It is, in itself, a negative term about the absence of certain kinds of limitations. Or so it seems to me. Of course, created spirits would have their own kinds of limitations. But we wouldn't necessarily know much about those. That's why idolatry (in the literal, traditional, pagan sense of the word) is such a temptation. From our perspective, angels/gods look a lot like God, because angels are free of many of the limitations that make us unlike God. We have trouble seeing the far more radical ways in which "gods" are unlike God.


The Catholic theologian Stephen Webb has written a book called Mormon Christianity which argues, apparently, that God is beyond both spirit and matter and thus can be said in some sense to be material, just as he can be said in some sense to be spirit. I am not convinced by this, but it's interesting and I have not yet read the book.

A more traditional position can be found in Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict). I find his discussion of the Christian concept of God and how it relates to Greek philosophy (in Part One of the book-actually not the first part because there is a lengthy "Introduction" on the nature of belief) very helpful. On p. 146, he sums up the orthodox understanding of God as spirit this way:



The boundless spirit who bears in himself the totality of "Being" reaches beyond the "greatest," so that to him it is small, and he reaches into the smallest, because to him nothing is too small. Precisely this overstepping of the greatest and reaching down into the smallest is the true nature of absolute spirit.
That is why I don't believe that saying God is "pure spirit" or "pure good" somehow limits God's ability to sustain all creation from within, as you and I agree that He does.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

In defense of Lent: or, why outward rules help us avoid works-righteousness

Traditional spiritual disciplines and the observance of the liturgical year have been making a comeback among Protestants. This is, from my perspective, a very good thing. I may wince when United Methodists speak of an "Ash Wednesday meal," but I'm happy that they are celebrating it at all. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that the growth of interest in Ash Wednesday and similar practices is causing some pushback. Brian Lee, a Reformed pastor in Washington D.C., has just written an article celebrating Ash Wednesday by denouncing it in time-honored Reformed fashion. 

Lee evokes the iconic moment of the early Swiss Reformation: the sausage-eating party during Lent held by followers of Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich in Lent 1522. As Lee points out, Zwingli defended the sausages on the grounds of "Christian liberty," and this rejection of traditional ritual practices remained the norm in Reformed Protestantism and its free-church offshoots (i.e., pretty much everyone except Lutherans and Anglicans) until quite recently. But as Lee acknowledges, the times are changing: Lent is popular. Lee suggests that this has something to do with the "emergent church," or maybe with religious pluralism and the acceptance of other people's traditions.  He suggests, with a thinly veiled sneer, that Lent is "cool." He ignores the basic reason why many Protestants are returning to these practices: the conviction that traditional practices are valuable embodiments of historic Christian faith, and helpful correctives to the secularism and subjectivism of our culture. More on that later.

Lee's main theological argument against Lenten fasting is that it is spiritually effective. That is to say, that it makes us feel more spiritual because we have met a self-imposed goal. This, he argues, is a legalistic trap: we don't acknowledge our deep-rooted sinfulness, because we treat sin as something superficial that can be dealt with through a spiritual discipline. We salve our consciences with ritual practice instead of acknowledging that the rot runs deeper than any action of ours can ever reach.

This is, of course, well-worn territory. In Reformed and other conservative Protestant circles, an accusation of "works righteousness" hardly even needs an argument to support it--the mere phrase causes good Protestants to cover their ears and run in horror lest they be contaminated. And Lee's argument has a good deal of merit in it--certainly what he describes is a temptation of Lenten fasting or any other spiritual practice. In my experience, liturgical Christians of all stripes are well aware of this danger and warn against it frequently. 

The Reformed argument as rehearsed by Lee conflates two separate but related issues, both of them a concern in the Reformation:

1. The proper relationship of justification to sanctification. That is to say, Protestants have historically said that a person's standing before God as righteous depends not what God does in them through the power of the Spirit (sanctification) but on the believer's acceptance of Christ's righteousness through faith. This is easily conflated with the question of

2. The sanctifying value or lack of value of actions not explicitly prescribed in Scripture. That is to say, a whole range of practices developed in the early and medieval Church which were intended to open people up to transformation by the Holy Spirit. In the Western Church in particular, these practices were often either required by the Church under pain of mortal sin (Mass attendance, yearly confession, observance of Lenten and Friday fasting), or encouraged by the Church and sweetened by the offer of "indulgences" which would lessen a person's suffering in Purgatory. The Protestant Reformers rejected indulgences, of course, but they also rejected the idea that the Church could require any practices not taught in Scripture as a condition for right standing with God. Since the Protestants also held to justification by faith alone (point 1), the question of whether "human ordinances" were necessary parts of the Christian life was easily conflated with the question of whether even Scripturally mandated practices made a person "worthy" of final salvation.

So, for instance, no traditional Protestant would deny that all Christians in right standing with God will pray, will do works of love to the neighbor, will repent of sin and strive not to give in to the works of the flesh, etc. In traditional Protestant theology, these truly good works are believed to flow "naturally" from faith. A believer will do these things, though not perfectly and never trusting in them for salvation. It seems to me that it is logically possible to say similarly that a true believer will want to obey the divinely ordained authority of the Church, and thus that adherence to those minimal fasting practices (and church attendance on holy days, etc.) mandated by the Catholic Church is similarly a mark of true faith. But since Catholics don't believe in sola fide, this point is moot. 

This is probably the best point to "confess" that I don't believe in sola fide either. Or more precisely, I believe that the distinction between justification and sanctification misses the point and fails to solve the real problem. There is no right answer to the question "how do I attain right standing with God," because it's the wrong question. The question is rather, "how do I open myself up to God's free and generous grace so that I can be delivered from the prison of myself and transformed into a spring of life-giving love for others?" This is relevant to the present discussion only because I find the general Protestant worry about spiritual practices to be silly. I don't think that there's anything wrong with engaging in a spiritual discipline in order to become closer to God, as long as by "closer to God" I mean "a more loving person" and not simply "a person who has nice feelings about his own spirituality" or worse "a person convinced of his own spiritual superiority."

Now back to the main point . . . . 

Historically, the position of more liturgical Protestants has been not that liturgical practices are mandatory but that they are helpful ways of doing things that we all agree true believers will do. We all know that believers pray: well, we have the Liturgy of the Hours (as in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer) to guide us in doing so. We know that we are to worship together: well, we have a liturgical calendar and traditions to guide us in doing so. These practices aren't seen as necessary per se, but as helpful.

Lee does not claim, as some in the more radical wings of the Reformed tradition have done, that practices not explicitly mandated in Scripture are wrong. He accepts the legitimacy in principle of the argument that such practices may be spiritually helpful, and then he argues that Lenten fasting isn't helpful. Fair enough. But the question he doesn't answer is: how then should believers fast? Or should they fast at all?

To me it seems clear that fasting, like prayer and common worship and the sacraments and works of mercy and sexual chastity, is one of those basic elements of the Christian faith clearly ordained in Scripture. Jesus in Matt. 6 assumes that His followers will fast, just as they will pray and give alms. Mark 2:20 seems to say that Jesus' followers will (and should) fast after His ascension. I recognize that alternative interpretations of these passages are possible (as almost always with any passage of Scripture), but I don't know Lee's position. He says at one point that Jesus has reduced all OT practices to love, but he obviously doesn't think that this means that Christians shouldn't celebrate the sacraments, for instance. (In fact, looking up his church's website I found that they are actually very liturgical and celebrate the Eucharist weekly. I have a lot more common ground with Lee than my first reading of this article had led me to think.) 

Assuming for the moment, then, that fasting is something Christians should do, how should they do it? Lee makes a couple dismissive remarks about the practice of fasting based on one's own spiritual impulses, so he doesn't seem to be advocating that. So does he advocate the historic Puritan practice of calling a fast for reasons of ecclesial or national significance? I.e., a communal fast but one occasioned by some specific danger or sin rather than by a liturgical calendar? That seems to be the only option left, unless he's rejecting fasting altogether. But in this case we are simply fasting at the behest of church (or, historically in Reformed countries, national or civic) authorities. How is this actually better than fasting in obedience to the historic wisdom of the Church as a whole?

In fact, isn't liturgical fasting a lot less likely to give rise to the dangers against which Lee warns than either of the alternatives? If I fast to further my own spiritual journey, I may well see myself as spiritually superior. Communal fasts for specific reasons are better in that regard, but historically they have often given rise to a sense of communal self-righteousness and have led to violence or persecution against perceived ungodly "others" (as has liturgical fasting, of course). In other words, there doesn't seem to be any escape from the spiritual dangers of fasting except not to fast at all. (Which may be what Lee is advocating, but he doesn't state the case clearly.) Liturgical fasting has plenty of dangers, but at least in liturgical fasting we are humbly submitting to ancient and widespread practices that bring us together with other believers rather than setting us apart. Hopefully my liturgical fasting will further my own "spiritual journey," but that isn't really the main point. In fact, liturgical practices don't really have to have a "point." They are joyful expressions of faith--bodily ways of entering into the story of salvation. I trust that God will use them to my good and the good of others, but I don't have to sit around checking my spiritual temperature all the time. Such endless spiritual hypochondria is the deadliest form of "works righteousness," it seems to me, and it shows up among all earnest Christians, whatever their theology. 

But even granting all of Lee's basic theological points, his case against Lenten fasting still fails utterly, at least if my own experience is any guide. He argues that Lent is bad for us because we can fulfill it and thus delude ourselves that we are pleasing to God. 

Well, that's not my experience. Every Lent I fail. Every Lent I draw up ambitious plans of spiritual improvement and fall flat on my face. I have never yet met a Lenten discipline I couldn't manage to violate at some point. And in my experience this is more common than not among liturgical Christians. I don't know these people who are supposedly walking around priding themselves on their fasting prowess. These folks may exist, and perhaps they would be better off without Lent, at least for a while. But not only am I not one of them, I have never heard Lent taught or seen it practiced in a way that would be likely to encourage that kind of delusion. Marshall Shelly, a wise and eloquent Episcopal priest who served as interim vicar at the parish I attended in New Jersey, warned us all sternly that our Lent and Holy Week practices were going to be failures, and we should expect them to be. Jesus' disciples fell asleep when He watched in Gethsemane, and if we follow the estimable tradition of signing up to "watch with Jesus" on Holy Thursday, we will too. 

Indeed, that's one good reason for engaging in ascetic practices above and beyond those of our community, in spite of the dangers of self-righteousness. As with physical exercises or intellectual challenges, our spiritual exercises should always be a little too hard for us. If we can do them, we're not pushing ourselves enough. 

In Lee's own Reformed tradition, the law is generally held to have three purposes. The third is to guide us in our journey of obedience to Christ and love of neighbor, and I've argued above that Lenten fasting serves this purpose well. The second is to restrain evil in society. I'm not too interested in that purpose here, but arguably Lenten fasting does this too, in the sense that it promotes a culture of restraint and  (when combined with almsgiving) of generosity toward the poor, even if most of the people engaging in it are damnable hypocrites.

But the first purpose of the law, in both Lutheran and Reformed theology, is to hold up a mirror both of God's holiness and our own sinfulness. And Lent does this well. Not only do the Scripture readings and preaching in liturgical churches during this season focus on sin and repentance, and on God's gracious forgiveness, but the very practice of attempting to fast brings me face to face with my sinfulness. First of all, of course, fasting confronts me with my addiction to comfort and pleasure. But more disturbingly, it confronts me with the fact that if my comforts and pleasures are withdrawn, I'm not a very nice person to be around. I have been grouchy to my wife today. I have been impatient with my brilliant homeschooled daughter Catherine, who has inherited all my ADD and who just would not focus on her addition problems or practice her piano diligently enough. And I have responded with pompous anger to a sincere challenge by an earnest Christian pastor directed against a religious practice to which I'm attached.

So yes, this post is probably an expression of sinfulness too (though I still think what I'm saying is mostly right). We are all sinners. And even though I'm not one of those mythical ascetic athletes who actually keep their Lenten disciplines, Pastor Lee is certainly right inasmuch as I do think it's kind of cool to be a liturgical Christian. Indeed, in my heart of hearts or maybe nearer the surface than that I think I'm superior to mindless American evangelicals who think that Christianity is all about praise songs and private prayer time and don't revel in the richness of Christian tradition the way I do. 

But here's the thing: Lent didn't make me that way. I was a conceited, self-righteous Wesleyan Holiness prig before I was a conceited, self-righteous Anglican snob. (It is possible, after all, to think oneself superior because one doesn't practice "meaningless rituals" like Lent.) I dare to think (and most people who know me seem to agree) that I'm a bit less obnoxious than I used to be, but who knows? Maybe the historic spiritual practices of the Faith which I practice so imperfectly and sporadically didn't have anything to do with that. Maybe I'm just a bit older and sadder than I used to be and I would be just as nice or nicer if I were a Calvinist, or  a Pentecostal, or a Buddhist, or an atheist. 

And so, to round off my sinful Ash Wednesday, I'm going to go eat dinner with those United Methodists. No doubt I will be sneering inwardly at how much better Anglicans would do things. No doubt, if God were keeping score, I'll be racking up more negative points than positive ones.

But the only hope any of us has is that God doesn't keep score. 

And that is the point of Lent. (Well, other than the fact that it's cool, of course.)


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Some thoughts on monism and Christianity

A friend and former student recently asked me what to think about "monism." Is it compatible with Christianity? Are "monism" and "dualism" the only alternatives, or is there a third one?

I think we need to start by defining "monism" and thinking about just what the problems might be with it from a Christian perspective. And the best place to start for that is surely the very beginning--i.e., the doctrine of creation :)


There are three possible positions on creation from a broadly theist perspective:

1. God and matter coexist eternally, and God gives "form" to matter. This is the most clearly heretical, and the most clearly dualist. It is the version maintained by "dualist" versions of Hindu philosophy, by most of the ancient Greeks (including Plato, if I'm not mistaken!), by Mormons, and by modern process theologians. it is also, if you read purely from a historical point of view, the most likely interpretation of Genesis 1 (I think one can make a case for "bara" meaning "create out of nothing," but it's a case that really depends heavily on reading Scripture through later Christian tradition--which I think is the correct way to read, of course!) The problem with it from an orthodox Christian perspective is that if there are "two eternities" then God isn't the source of everything and thus one can say that there are two Gods. It's central to Christian piety to say that God is in fact the source of everything that exists. Which is, in a sense, a form of monism, whatever later distinctions we make.

2. Everything "emanates" from God. This I think is the position that can be called "monism." IN this view, it is true in some sense to say that everything is God. Ultimately God is the only reality and creation's distinction from God is not ultimate. This is the view of Vedanta philosophy--the version of Hindu philosophy best known in the West and probably most important within India as well, though that's harder for me to evaluate. It's also, of course, the view of modern "idealist" philosophers in the West, often influenced by Indian philosophy. And historically it was, as far as I can tell, the view of the Neo-Platonists (as opposed to Plato himself), though I may be wrong and they may still have been dualists with regard to matter. This is also considered unorthodox in the Christian tradition, and in fact most modern Christians would pounce on this as the most obviously heretical view--but in fact I think it's harder to explain just why this is wrong. More on this in a minute.

3. Creation out of nothing. This, of course, is the orthodox answer, clearly in the saddle by the time of Athanasius in the early fourth century. But it raises philosophical puzzles. Since "nothing" isn't a thing, how can you talk about something being "created out of" it? In the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas argues that the word "of" ("ex" in Latin) has two possible meanings:
a. It refers to order: that is, it means that first there was nothing, and then there was creation. (To make things more complicated, Aquinas thinks that this is a logical rather than necessarily temporal order.) Or
b. It is included under the negation found in the word "nothing." That is to say, it means "not created out of anything." In this sense, the phrase simply denies that there is any material cause of being taken as a whole. God is not the material cause (indeed, since for Aquinas God is pure form, God can't be the material cause of anything), but there is no eternal material cause either. This does not mean that there is no cause at all (as in a silly atheist article I ran into the other day, which claimed that "creation out of nothing" means that creation just pops randomly into being). In Aristotelian philosophy there are four causes: efficient, formal, material, and final. The universe taken as a whole has no material cause, and God is the cause in the other three senses: God's will is the efficient cause, God's glory is the final cause, and God's knowledge of Himself as capable of being imitated is the formal cause.

In other words, for Aquinas creation out of nothing means that God knows that finite imitations of His infinite goodness can exist, and sovereignly chooses to bring these imitations into existence. They exist only by participation in the being of God. Indeed, Aquinas uses the word "emanation" (which modern Christians tend to associate with the second view of creation and think of as "New Agey") repeatedly in describing how things come into existence.

So what is the real difference between the second and third views? I think there are two big differences:

1. In the orthodox Christian view, a real relationship between creatures and God is possible.The goal is not to lose our identity in God but to know God as the source of our being and become eternally more and more like God, while remaining always infinitely less than God. I don't know that I'm willing to say that this is impossible in the "creation out of God" view. There are forms of Hinduism which start from Vedanta principles but try to find room for a real relationship with God. I do not understand these philosophies well enough to analyze or evaluate them, but certainly the concept of "creation out of nothing" helps give shape to the idea of a relationship between us and God.

2. A clearer difference is that in the creation out of nothing view, it is possible for human beings to be eternally separated from God. Even here, though, I think a case can be made that the orthodox Christian view actually has elements of "emanationism," precisely because annihilation isn't seen as an option. Creation out of nothing would seem to imply that if separated from God we would cease to exist, and there are those who have maintained this position. But the mainstream, historic Christian view is that those created in God's image who choose to remain separated from God will in some sense remain in existence. It looks as if, then, in the Christian view the gift of life in God's image is irrevocable, and this is best explained by the idea that there is something "divine" within us which cannot simply cease to exist once God has created us (and yes, that raises a lot of debates about animals that I don't want to get into in this post!). Yet we don't say that if a person is damned, part of God is damned. In fact, God has no parts in the classic, historic view.

To summarize all of this . . . it looks very much as if the orthodox Christian view comes close to monism, while maintaining the possibility of real relationship between us and God and the possibility that we will not finally be united to God.

How does this affect our relationship with our own bodies, which is the concern behind the original question?

I'm going against N. T. Wright and the whole trend of modern (at least Protestant) theology when I say this, but I think that a neo-Platonic, panentheistic, modified emanationist view of the kind I've been articulating does best justice to the question of how we relate to our bodies.

In this view, as articulated by Aquinas, God knows Himself as imitable in a variety of ways, arranged in a hierarchy: Angels (pure spirit, but created by God)
Human beings (embodied creatures capable of abstract thought and free choice)
"Brute" animals (embodied creatures capable of moving around and of sensory responses to their environment, including basic mental activity but not reason or free choice)
Plants (embodied creatures capable of growing and receiving nourishment)
Inanimate things (bodies with no life at all)

In this way of thinking, each of these "ranks" as you go down shares in less of the being of God (this was traditionally called the "Great Chain of Being"). In this view, humans are "amphibians" (to use C. S. Lewis' vivid term). They have a rational soul which, as with other living things, serves as the form of their bodies. But unlike other animals, not to say plants, human beings can think and love.

There are all kinds of problems with Aquinas' articulation of this, both in terms of the philosophy of his own day and in terms of contemporary concerns. For one thing, what does it mean for there to be wholly immaterial beings that are still created and finite? Furthermore, if angels are seen as "pure intellect," then are our souls, when "liberated" from the body, essentially the same as angels? That would be the pure "Platonic" view attacked by most modern Christians, but Aquinas doesn't think this. He thinks, with Aristotle, that the soul is the form of the body. It would seem to follow that the soul can't exist without the body. Aquinas thinks it can, but that it isn't a full human person in that state. He believes that form is made individual by matter, which means both that angels aren't individual members of a species (each angel is its own species) and that disembodied human souls are only individuals because their bodies have somehow put a stamp on them.

In contemporary terms, the biggest objection to Aquinas' view tends to be his treatment of non-human animals. Are they really incapable of reason and choice? Aquinas' view certainly wasn't as extreme as that of, say, Descartes, who thought that animals were just machines. But it clearly has problems.

So why would I hold to some version of this as my starting point for thinking about the body? I think the key point in this traditional view is the great chain of being--that everything exists by participation according to its degree in the eternal, infinite Being of God. Mind and body are different simply because we can say with qualifications that God knows and wills, whereas we can't say that God (apart from the Incarnation) has a body. In other words, our intellect, memory, and will constitute that part of us that is most directly like God. This doesn't mean that our minds are our "real selves" and our bodies are temporary possessions, and it certainly doesn't mean that our bodies are bad. Creation is God's gracious decision to make things that reflect Himself while being distinct from Himself. Both our minds and our bodies do this, but in different ways and to radically different degrees. The best thought is thought that is heavily embedded in our bodiliness, and the best bodies are bodies that are shot through with knowledge and love. The goal--the mission we have been given by God with our very being--is to unify mind and body, not separate them. One of the reasons Christians have reacted against the traditional view is that it's always been shadowed by the ghost of Plato's Phaedo, whispering "the real job is to separate mind and body." That's where the Platonic heritage does need to be sharply critiqued and even rejected. The fundamental distinction to be made isn't between mind and body, but between Creator and creation. All the distinctions within creation are just variations on a theme: the many ways in which God's glory can be reflected in that which God has caused to exist.



Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Yes, it is still Christmas until January 6.

This raises a possible solution to the whole Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays dilemma. Why not wait to say Merry Christmas until Christmas day, and then surprise people with it for the Twelve Days of Christmas? You might still offend people, but you would at least not be predictable.

Our society seems increasingly to be falling into a rut of empty, slogan-ridden conflict, in which people throw cliches at each other, or more likely pat each other on the back for accepting the same cliches.

We need to become more adventurous, mischievous, and persistent in challenging these false dichotomies and these empty slogans.

What if Christians stopped using the Incarnation of the Logos as a party shibboleth and instead took it as the occasion for riotous joy, generous love, and playful defiance of the powers that think they rule the world?

Monday, September 16, 2013

A flawed argument against contraception

This post arises from a discussion I've been having online with Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong. It began when Dave cited a passage from Calvin condemning contraception on the ground that it is a form of pre-emptive murder. As an offshoot of that discussion, Dave has posted a succinct statement of the "murder analogy" argument against contraception. The core argument goes as follows:


A) Contraception is a deliberate act of preventing the conception of Person X who would have been conceived had the persons been open to new life.

B ) Therefore, the goal or intention is to obliterate the (earthly) existence of Person X.

C) That is also the goal of a murder: to obliterate the (earthly) existence of Person X.

D) Therefore, in the deepest sense, contraception and murder are alike, and evil.

E) Contraception, however, takes it a step further and disallows even the *beginning* of Person X who might have been / would have been conceived, BUT for contraception.

F) Thus, it not only obliterates the earthly existence of Person X, but any existence whatsoever of the Person, in terms of having an eternal soul.

G) In that sense, contraception is even more anti-life than murder is.

H) Therefore, in a qualified, specific sense, contraception can almost be said to be as heinous and wicked as (and philosophically equal to) murder.
This argument doesn't work, because you can't commit a crime against a nonexistent entity. A hypothetical person who would have been conceived under some counterfactual circumstances or other is a nonsensical construct. I can prevent a particular sperm from making contact with a particular egg. But hypothetical people aren't people. I have no moral duties toward them whatsoever. Murder is wrong because it involves malice toward an existing person.


Step F makes the logical problems in the argument even more evident. You can't "obliterate" the existence of that which does not exist.


Furthermore, as someone pointed out when Dave originally posted this argument on his Facebook page, the argument proves too much, because a married couple who choose to go for a walk instead of having sex are also committing "murder" by this logic. If preventing the existence of "Person X" is akin to murder, then whether one does so by abstaining from sex or by engaging in non-procreative sex is irrelevant to the nature of the crime against Person X. You can't import other (much more solid) objections against contraception into _this_ argument, if the argument is to stand on its own two feet. Certainly _if_ non-procreative sex is wrong on other grounds _and_ preventing a person’s existence is wrong, then committing both sins together would be worse than committing only one of them. But if preventing a person’s existence is a crime against them, then it’s a crime no matter how innocent the thing-you’re-doing-instead-of-procreating would otherwise have been.


I can see two ways in which the argument might have some merit, logically:


1. If one could “mess with time” either through time-travel or foreknowledge. So, for instance, if you go back in time to prevent someone who does exist from being conceived, then you are motivated by malice against a specific person whom you know in your present. Of course, we don’t know if this is even possible. Perhaps prophecy could be seen as another example of “messing with time.” So when Merlin in That Hideous Strength tells Jane that she has failed to conceive a child who would have delivered Logres, that makes a certain amount of sense (though it may involve Molinist “middle knowledge,” which is a philosophically controversial concept), because Merlin is capable of prophecy. Even then, though, it makes no sense to say that she did so deliberately, since she did it before she heard the prophecy. Once she heard the prophecy, she could have intentions toward “the child prophesied.” I’m still not sure that it would make sense to say that she committed a crime against said child, though. Her crime, on Merlin’s premises, was rather against Logres.

2. More solidly, the “preformationist” theory to which Calvin and many other premoderns adhered allows you to talk about crimes against future people. If the "seed" is an incipient person or "potential person" then it makes sense to speak of preventing it from fulfilling its potential. Whether that's actually a crime against the future person is  a difficult philosophical issue, I think, but a case could be made that it is. And that's what I take Calvin to be arguing. Dave responded to my initial objections to the use he was making of the Calvin passage by saying that I was "failing to see the forest for the trees." On the contrary, I'm pointing out that the trees in this particular forest won't make the kind of lumber Dave needs. Without preformationism (or time travel) the “quasi-murder” argument fails utterly, because there’s no one to commit a crime against.