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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Brad Gregory--Excluding God, or, It's all the fault of Duns Scotus


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Chapter One of The Unintended Reformation is probably the most often cited. Indeed, many of the negative reactions to the book focus on the thesis Gregory argues here. Ironically, the chapter is atypical inasmuch as the root of modern secularism identified here lies not in the Reformation itself but in late medieval theology, specifically the work of Duns Scotus. According to Gregory, Scotus' concept of "univocity" radically altered the traditional Christian understanding of God. In traditional Christian theology (i.e., in the work of the Church Fathers, the Eastern tradition, or the earlier scholastics such as Aquinas), God is radically other than creation. All creation depends on God and participates in God, but no concept drawn from creation (as all our concepts are) is adequate to describe God. God is not a specific example of a broader category of "things that exist." God transcends all our categories and all our language. For Aquinas--himself much less "apophatic" (i.e., more willing to make positive claims about God) than many other great theologians of the tradition--even "being" can only be predicated of creatures and God analogously. Creaturely "being" derives from God's and thus has something that resembles it, but the differences are always going to be far greater than the similarities.

Scotus, in contrast, believes that there is a concept of "being" that can be univocally applied to God and creatures. Gregory argues that this is, implicitly, a radical move that makes it possible to think and speak about God in the same way we do about creation. But he admits that in itself this highly abstruse theory would have had little effect. This is where the Reformation comes in. By shattering the unity of Western Christendom and igniting fierce debates about how we know God's revelation, the Reformation cast Europeans back on an abstract, philosophical concept of God, which had been subtly altered by Scotus. Hence, post-Reformation Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) increasingly tended to think of God as the greatest of beings within a universe that could in principle be explained through reason and natural law. As the rapidly developing disciplines of the natural sciences explained more and more of reality without reference to God, God's place within this cosmos dwindled to that of the First Cause of Deism, and eventually to Feuerbach's mere projection of the human mind.

There is a reason why this sweeping argument has drawn so much criticism. In the first place, it's generally a bad idea to rest big claims about intellectual history on Scotus if you aren't a Scotus expert, because Scotus is such a darn difficult author. (In fact, I have a paper on Calvin I have wanted to publish for years which, among other revisions, probably needs to have all the Scotus cut out.) While Scotus did say that one can predicate being univocally of God and creatures, this was a very narrow and technical point, and the people I know who know something about Scotus generally seem to agree that it won't bear the weight Gregory puts on it. While Gregory does cite Scotus scholarship, he generally doesn't seem to be familiar with the bulk of recent work on Scotus, or at least he doesn't cite that work. Instead, his view seems to owe a lot to a 20th-century Catholic polemical trope of blaming the Reformation on the distortions of late medieval theology. In the 1990s, the largely Anglican theological movement called "Radical Orthodoxy" embraced the idea that Scotus had been the point where the Western theological tradition Went Wrong, and many more broadly "post-liberal" theologians of different traditions make similar points, it seems to me. Gregory cites Fr. (now Bishop) Robert Barron's 2007 The Priority of Christ for his view on the significance of Scotus' adoption of the concept of the univocity of being. Now I myself am very sympathetic to this strand of recent theology. I think there may be something to the "blame Scotus" argument, in fact. But it's unwise to rest too much weight on these claims when generally speaking the people who are actual Scotus experts qualify them at best and scoff at them at worst.

Furthermore, the idea that post-Scotus theologians, including the Protestant Reformers, thought of God as fundamentally the same kind of being we are seems very strange. William Ockham, seen by many (including Gregory) as taking Scotus' innovations even further, had a radically "apophatic" view of God in which God's nature is pretty much completely unknowable and all we can talk about is God's will. And this is generally the approach of the Reformers. Calvin, contrary to the stereotype many hold of him, fulminates against the idea that God is arbitrary, to the point of rejecting the basic distinction all medieval theologians made between what God has chosen to do and what God could have done but didn't. (I write about this in that paper I referred to earlier.) He believes that all God's actions flow from his nature. But the nature, again, is fundamentally unknowable. The older Catholic polemical trope of blaming everything on the late medieval scholastics, in fact, was more likely to argue that Ockham in particular made God so entirely other from us that reason has nothing to say about God--and this is certainly a more plausible interpretation of at least some of the early Protestant theologians (most notably Luther).

But even if Gregory is all out to sea on what he says about Scotus, and wrong to suggest that the Reformers followed Scotus in this respect, that doesn't really affect the basic argument of the chapter, at least insofar as it supports the overall case made by the book. After all, blaming Scotus wouldn't, in itself, support Gregory's argument that the Reformation is the source of the modern secular world. Rather, Gregory's most significant argument is that the sharp disagreements about God's acts of revelation that took place in the Reformation left post-Reformation Christians with no sure ground to speak about God except that provided by reason and natural science. And put in that way, I think it's a highly plausible argument. Not conclusive--as various reviewers have pointed out, one can easily argue that post-Reformation developments, by no means determined by the Reformation, were more truly decisive than anything connected directly with Protestantism.

There's also a somewhat more nuanced way to put the argument than Gregory chooses, one that was made by Louis Bouyer in The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. In this way of thinking, late medieval philosophy and theology tended to set up an either/or between God and creation. This became central to the Reformation. The Reformers sought to tear down human agency in order to exalt divine agency, rather than seeing the two as occupying radically different metaphysical "space" and thus as fundamentally compatible, as Aquinas did. (For instance, Aquinas seems to have no problems speaking of God causing humans to act in a particular way--freely. And yet he generally defines freedom in a "libertarian" rather than a "compatibilist" way, as the ability to choose one of two contraries.) Arguably, the Reformation's exaltation of the divine against the human caused Europeans to think of the two as a zero-sum game, so that every discovery of natural causality pushed God into a smaller and smaller "corner." Even this only makes sense if we speak in terms of a very general ethos rather than specific ideas about nature, since all the Reformers would have insisted that, in Calvin's words, nature is the "theater of God's glory," and would have agreed with the medieval tradition that God is active in and through "secondary causes." (Their opposition of divine and human causality was pretty much limited to soteriology and revelation, it seems to me.)

All of that being said, it's surely hard to deny that most modern people do have assumptions about God that are radically different from those of the patristic and medieval traditions. The popularity of "Intelligent Design" among conservative Christians, with the assumption that this says something meaningful about God's activity in creation, is one indication of this. (I wrote two blog posts about ID which you can read here and here.) As a number of people have pointed out, nearly everything that Richard Dawkins and other "New Atheists" write betrays a radical ignorance of what Christians have historically meant when we speak of God. It's incredibly hard to get through to atheists on this, not least because so many Christians hold precisely the view the atheists are attacking. To be sure, most medieval people weren't educated in the nuances of theology and no doubt held "crude" views of God, but the prevalence of misunderstandings (or just a radically different set of assumptions about what "God" means) among highly educated people indicates that there really is some kind of major chasm in the Western intellectual tradition. As MacIntyre famously said about ethics, there has been an intellectual eclipse similar to what post-apocalyptic sci-fi often posits with regard to science. And while the Reformation itself clearly did not cause the chasm, Gregory's thesis that it threw Europeans back on the resources of a purely abstract, non-theological concept of God seems plausible.

Plausible of course doesn't necessarily mean convincing. This is a highly interesting chapter, but not the strongest way to begin the book given the speculative nature of the argument and the serious reasons to question major parts of it. In later posts, I'll discuss whether the later chapters make stronger arguments (spoiler: generally speaking I believe they do).

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Silence

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Several weeks ago, I finally watched Martin Scorsese's film Silence. Given the title and the theme, it's probably appropriate that it's taken me so long to write about it, though that's fairly typical for me.

For people who don't already know the film: it's based on a book by the Japanese novelist Shusako Endo, which is in turn based on historical events of the early 17th century during the Japanese persecution of Christians. A Portuguese Jesuit missionary, Christovao Ferreira, has disappeared in Japan, and rumor has it that he has apostasized. Two young priests are sent to find out what happened to him. After ministering to the persecuted Japanese Christians, they are betrayed and arrested. Both the novel and the film focus on one of them, a fictional character named Rodriguez (played by Andrew Garfield) who himself eventually follows Ferreira's footsteps and apostasizes.

The apostasy, in both book and film, is presented as a paradoxically Christian act. Rodriguez himself is never tortured--the Japanese authorities choose rather to torture Japanese Christians (who in some cases have already apostasized), telling Rodriguez that he can end their suffering by renouncing the faith himself. This is done by the ritual act of treading on a portrait of Christ, the "fumie." In the climax of the story, witnessing the tortures of the Japanese Christians, pressured by his own former mentor Ferreira with the argument that apostasy is the Christlike, unselfish thing to do, Rodriguez hears the voice of Christ saying, "You may trample. . . .it was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world." His renunciation of Christ is therefore, an ultimate act of discipleship--or at least this is the suggestion that Endo's narrative makes, followed by Scorsese's film.

I read the novel many years ago and need to reread it. From here on, I will refer primarily to the film. In Scorsese's telling, at least, Rodriguez is fulfilling not only a Christian ideal (imitatio Christi) but a Buddhist one. Both Japanese interrogators and his apostate mentor Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson, himself a Buddhist in real life) suggest that by ceasing to cling to his faith, he would be letting go of self, transcending all attachments in an act of pure compassion. Scorsese explicitly endorsed this interpretation of Rodriguez' apostasy in an interview with him I heard on NPR. It isn't surprising, then, that many conservative Catholics have reacted badly to the film (as many Japanese Catholics reacted badly to Endo's original novel). Furthermore, Ferreira also tells Rodriguez that Christianity is fundamentally unsuited to Japan, like a tree that can't take root in a swamp. He argues that since the Japanese have no conception of a spiritual reality transcending the natural world, even the converts who suffer and die heroically for their faith are really dying for an unrecognizable distortion of Christianity and are acting primarily out of personal loyalty to Rodriguez and the other missionaries.

If I remember rightly, these ideas are present in the original novel. But as a viewer of the film, I find them unconvincing. Scorsese never shows us a good reason to believe that Ferreira is right. The actual glimpses we get of Japanese Christians seem to contradict his claim that they aren't "really" converts to Christianity and are simply motivated by loyalty to the missionaries. (And why are they so loyal to the missionaries anyway?) The Japanese elites who mastermind the persecution are sophisticated and plausible, but they have utter contempt for their own commoners and, of course, are willing to use horrifying brutality in order to preserve their social order. Ferreira's narrative, and that of his Japanese masters, appears to be self-serving nonsense given the evidence we see in the film. In fact, in the world of the film, the Japanese peasants receive Christianity with joy as a message that brings them hope and meaning, and they cling to it stubbornly in the face of agonizing torment.

The film actually ignores a great deal that could be said on behalf of the Japanese authorities and against seventeenth-century Catholicism. Except for one moment when the Japanese "Inquisitor" thinks Rodriguez is inviting Japan to "marry" the Portuguese (as he points out, he's actually talking about the Church), the imperialist undertones of the conflict aren't really addressed. The Japanese had good reason to worry about the way the Portuguese colonizers used Catholicism to give themselves a foothold. In Sri Lanka and Southern India, the Portuguese persecuted Buddhism, destroying the holiest relic of Sri Lankan Buddhism (Buddha's tooth) in a public ceremony (the Buddhists now claim that this was a replica and that the real tooth is still intact). Even the use of the term "Inquisitor" for the Japanese persecutor is ironic, given its normal association with Catholicism. Had Rodriguez gone back to Europe and proclaimed that Christ had told him to apostasize, he would have encountered his own religion's Inquisitors quite quickly. While the brutality of the Catholic Inquisition has often been exaggerated and in fact paled in comparison to the methods the Japanese used, the fact remains that the Catholics of this era were quite willing to use torture and execution to preserve their social order against threats. Similarly, early modern Europe was not exactly a place in which the lives and human dignity of peasants were highly regarded. Japan and Europe had a great deal in common, in fact. The film makes no attempt to draw out these parallels. That isn't a criticism--it's not as if the social injustices of early modern Europe or the violence employed on behalf of the Catholic Church are unknown in our culture, or as if Hollywood is generally interested in presenting an unduly favorable picture of Catholicism. But since some Catholics have apparently dismissed the film as anti-Catholic, it's worth noting that in many respects it is, if anything, the reverse. Indeed, it is if anything an anti-Buddhist film, shattering the "peaceful Buddhist" positive stereotype many in the West indulge in and showing the brutality of which a Buddhist culture was capable.

That is not to deny the very real sympathy Scorsese clearly feels with Buddhism. The Buddhist understanding of "no-self" and compassion comes through very clearly. But ironically, it is Rodriguez, not Ferreira, who most fully embodies it. Neeson's Ferreira is weary and sad, "empty" in the negative Western sense as well as (or instead of) the positive Buddhist one. In the flashbacks the film provides, it seems that his apostasy, unlike that of Rodriguez, was prompted by his own torture, after he had already witnessed that of others (Rodriguez, in contrast, is never harmed physically). His explanations seem like ex post facto rationalizations. But they give Rodriguez the framework on which he will act when the spectacle of the Japanese converts' torment becomes unbearable. Rodriguez does what Ferreira suggests, and he arguably fulfills the "selfless" ideal Ferreira has held out to him, but he does it for deeply Christian reasons. And in the end, Christianity gets the last word, with a final shot of Rodriguez corpse, wrapped in flames as part of a Buddhist funeral, clutching a crucifix.

Silence is an ambiguous and tragic film, not a work of propaganda for one side or the other. It defies easy explanations, even those of its own director. It captures the paradoxes and ambiguities of religious faith as powerfully as any film I have ever seen. And, precisely because of that, it is one of the most profoundly Christian films ever produced, worthy of a place just a step below the sublime Of Gods and Men.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

An appreciation of the Reformation

1000 Years of German History Documentary 8: Martin Luther (1483 A.D)
As usual, I'd meant to have posted more on the Reformation leading up to the 500th anniversary tonight, including a series on Brad Gregory (only one post out in that so far). However, this is only the anniversary of the posting of the Theses, which is typically seen as the public beginning of the Protestant movement. So I'll be posting more in the months--and years--to come, perhaps up to (or even beyond) the anniversary of the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. Since I'll be 81 by then, this assumes that I will still be alive--and that we won't all have been enslaved by robot overlords, or slaughtered by a supervirus, or uploaded into an AI, or doomed to nuclear annihilation as a parlor game for billionaire playboys.

But tonight I'm going to set polemic aside and write about what is worth appreciating in the Protestant Reformation, and in Luther particularly, since this is his night.

Luther's 95 Theses were provoked by the public scandal of "indulgence-selling." Technically no selling took place--it was a lot like the "recommended donations" Christian radio and TV stations list these days. In return for a donation to the Church, people were given certificates assuring them of a partial or complete (the latter depending on certain spiritual conditions) forgiveness of the "debt of temporal punishment" due to sin. (I am not going to explain all of that here and now. If anyone reads this and wants it explained, post a comment asking and I'll be happy to oblige.) In other words, he was attacking a kind of popular religion in which people assuaged their fears of God's judgment (particularly of purgatory) by ritual acts.

The theology that produced the Theses, however, had been forged in the crucible of Luther's struggle with a very different strand of late medieval theology: an intense, internalized piety that did not rely on external rituals to pacify the conscience. In this rigorist theology, to be forgiven even in the sacrament of confession required genuine contrition and a love for God above all else. In the theology Luther was taught (a version of "nominalism" mediated by the fifteenth-century theologian Gabriel Biel), God had established a covenant that he would give grace to anyone who "did what is in them." This was meant to be reassuring--do your best and God will do the rest. But since "doing what is in you" was understood to mean loving God with all your heart, Luther found that it was not, in fact, in him at all. What was in him, after many efforts, was a smoldering resentment against the God who would demand such things in the name of the Gospel.

In the Presbyterian church where I played the organ last Sunday, the pastor said (in what was on the whole an excellent sermon) that late medieval Christians thought they would be justified by keeping the commandments of the Old Testament law. This isn't accurate. But from Luther's point of view, it would have been an improvement. Jesus made the law more difficult by internalizing it. And it was this internalized law that Luther had received as the Gospel--the "new law" of love, understood as a command to love God and neighbor at the very threshold of the spiritual life.

Luther's fundamental starting point, which he learned from his confessor and mentor Johann von Staupitz, was that God's love for us precedes and causes our love for God, not the other way round. For Staupitz, this was expressed through traditional Catholic devotional practices such as meditation on the Passion (something that, of course, would be central to Lutheranism as well, if in a somewhat altered form). But as early as portions of his first Psalm lectures (1513-15), and certainly in his Romans lectures (1515-16), Luther was moving beyond Staupitz. Staupitz was working within the broad Augustinian consensus of medieval theology (and indeed was part of the rigorously Augustinian wing of that theology), in which we are acceptable to God by being transformed by charity, infused by God into our hearts. Luther found this insufficient, because he worried that his charity was not enough and his transformation was too imperfect. Hence, he began to formulate a radical "negative theology," partly influenced by the German mystics, in which our only righteousness is our acknowledgment of our unrighteousness.

This is why, for Luther, the practice of selling indulgences, or indeed encouraging people to earn them as means of avoiding purgatorial punishment for themselves and others, was so abhorrent. It was not simply that such a practice was an "abuse" and exploited people (though Luther certainly cared about that) but that it defeated the whole purpose of repentance and, indeed, of purgatory. A truly repentant person would not run away from God's punishment, but would throw himself on God's mercy. Purgatory, as Luther saw it at this point, was a postmortem state of uncertainty about one's salvation, just as hell was the state of despair about one's salvation. When the soul acknowledged that it deserved hell, it would find itself in heaven. Indulgences were not just a financial scam--they were a spiritual scam, luring people into a nervous, self-justifying quest for spiritual comfort rather than the true peace that is only found when we stop trying to cajole God into accepting us.

Luther's mature doctrine of justification by faith alone was not yet present in the Theses or in the broader critique of scholastic theology out of which they arose. I'll write more about that theology (and the points where I disagree with it) later. But clearly Luther was right that much of the religion of his time--and of ours--is about trying to strike a deal of some kind with God, and that all such deals fundamentally miss the point and trap us further in the very doom we are seeking to escape.

In the film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the three heroes become trapped in something called "Devil's Snare"--a vine that winds itself around its victims more tightly the more they struggle. (This happens in the book too, but they get out by lighting a fire--there's good symbolism in that as well, to be sure.) Hermione calls out to the ever-nervous Ron, "Don't struggle--relax." Not an easy thing when you are being strangled to death by a sentient vine, but when he manages it, the tendrils loosen and he falls to the floor. Luther's soteriology is, fundamentally, that we are all caught in the devil's snare, and we only get out when we stop struggling. This is why he used extravagant, hyperbolic rhetoric such as the infamous advice to Melanchthon in 1521 to "sin boldly but believe yet more boldly."

There are all kinds of criticisms that could be made of the way Luther interpreted and applied this concept. But for all of us who have suffered various kinds of spiritual anxiety, the fundamental insight is vitally important. Anxiety about salvation, the worry that somehow we may be displeasing God if we do or say or believe the wrong thing, is at the root of much of the evil Christians have done over the centuries. That's why the focus on abuses and corruption is so wrongheaded, and so false to Luther, when talking about the Reformation. Much of the evil in the Church comes not from worldly prelates who don't care about the things they profess to believe (though when that happens, it's certainly harmful), but from people who are desperately, passionately attempting to secure their own standing with God, and who sacrifice other people on the altar of their own spiritual insecurities.

So here's the fundamental truth in the Protestant Reformation, which Christians of all traditions should honor and take to heart: the sacrifice is already offered. The victory is already won. We do not have to convince God to save us. We have to refocus our attention from our own anguished self-importance to the objective, sovereign, unshakeable act of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Among all the theologians of the Christian Church, Luther may be the one who points most consistently and most inexorably to the Cross. And that is why we all need him.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Unintended Reformation, part 1



Front Cover
I have been meaning for some time to write a review of Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation, which came out five years ago now and attracted a lot of attention. Reformation scholars, at least those focusing on theology, have, generally, panned the book, while Catholic apologists of course find it red meat.

Personally, I greeted it with delight when I first began to read it, as the book I would have wished to write myself if I had had the time and the learning to do so. On soberer analysis, it certainly has significant faults, and many of the objections that reviewers have raised are entirely valid. Nonetheless, I find the central thesis hard to dispute. No doubt some of this derives from my youthful exposure to the writing of Chesterton, but my years of studying the Reformation with David Steinmetz tended to confirm rather than refute that early impression. (It is only fair to say that Steinmetz himself was not a fan of Gregory's book--indeed the last conversation I ever had with him was in large part an argument on this very subject.)

The thesis is quite simple and is stated by the subtitle of the book: "How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society." Gregory argues that the division caused by the Reformation--the breakdown of the broad consensus on the basic questions of life that had characterized the Middle Ages--contributed decisively to the rise of a society in which these questions would be answered in secular ways, and indeed in which no coherent and unified answers would be possible. He articulates this in six specific ways, to each of which he dedicates a chapter:
1. Metaphysics (Excluding God): division over the proper understanding of divine revelation led Europeans to fall back on an already existing concept of God as the "greatest being" within a rationally comprehensible universe, a view of God which (unlike the more orthodox, apophatic view that had previously prevailed) would turn out to be "excluded" by the rise of modern science.
2. Epistemology (Relativizing Doctrines): division over what the proper doctrines were led inevitably to skepticism and relativism about the possibility of ultimate truth.
3. Politics (Controlling the Churches): the breakdown of a unified Church led to governmental control of religion, and eventually to the exclusion of religion from public life
4. Ethics (Subjectivizing Morality): The relativization of doctrinal claims, combined with the Protestant rejection of traditional Catholic soteriology and ethics, led to the breakdown of moral consensus described by Alistair MacIntyre in After Virtue.
5. Economics (Manufacturing the Goods Life): All of these previous developments, combined with the sheer chaos and violence of Reformation-era warfare, led to an unleashing of greed that, freed from the restraints of traditional Christian ethics, created modern capitalist society.
6. Secularizing Knowledge: The traditional understanding of education as a quest for truth beneath the broad umbrella of the Church turned into a purely secular quest for objective, rational knowledge, which, as in other areas of modern society, eventually broke down into subjectivism and pragmatism.

In subsequent posts, I'll look at each of these chapters in detail. But first I want to say something about Gregory's basic methodology, which I think has often been overlooked or simply dismissed contemptuously by his critics.

In his first book, Salvation at Stake, Gregory took on what he saw as reductive, secularist, theory-driven approaches to the phenomenon of martyrdom (specifically martyrdom at the hands of other Christians in the Reformation era). He insisted that we must attempt to understand sixteenth-century people on their own terms rather than claiming to understand them better than they understood themselves. This created a great kerfuffle at the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, but many Protestants as well as Catholics appreciated his respect for sixteenth-century Christians of all stripes. (In fact, I couldn't tell from the book that he was Catholic). While many Protestants have seen The Unintended Reformation as nothing more than Catholic propaganda, it needs to be understood in terms of his overall project of rescuing Reformation history from reductivism and what Gregory calls "supersessionism" (the view that our present inevitably followed from the past and is superior to it). Gregory sees the hyper-specialization of historical scholarship as an obstacle to serious, respectful analysis of the collective choices that made history take one turn rather than another. He is trying to do a kind of meta-history that all the scholarly fashions of our time militate against. Hence, I think that a lot of the criticisms misfire. We need to consider first whether, in fact, what he's trying to do can and should be done, and then whether he has, overall, succeeded in doing it (if it should be done).

I think that what he's trying to do is ambitious and, in the nature of things, impossible to do perfectly. He's working at such a large scale of generalization that he's certain to make a lot of mistakes--and he does. He also has a tendency to be overly grandiose and combative in tone (which got him in trouble with the previous book as well), and this puts people's backs up. But I think his book is, on the whole, a much-needed trumpet blast waking us up from the slumber of hyper-specialization and dreary reductionism.

One possible criticism is that while he argued in the previous book for understanding past figures on their own terms, in this book he claims that, in a way, he understands what happened in the Reformation better than the Reformers did. But I think Gregory would respond that he's not claiming that their actions were "really" something other than they thought they were, but simply that their sincere religious reforming efforts led to consequences down the road. And that is, as far as it goes, correct. Nonetheless, there are places where Gregory does seem to impose a "metanarrative" that distorts what the Reformers themselves thought they were doing. The first chapter of the book, on which a lot of reviews have concentrated, is unfortunately one of the major examples of this, as I'll explore in the next entry.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Saving the embryos: a new variation on the "trolley problem"

My friend David Schell has asked me (and several other prolifers he knows) to respond to the viral post describing Patrick Tomlinson's supposedly deadly challenge to the prolife position. Several good responses have already been written, including some fine posts on David's FB page. Here's mine.

In Tomlinson's scenario, we have a choice between saving a five-year-old child or 1000 embryos from a fire. This is, of course, a variant of the "trolley problem," and as in all such dilemmas, the situation is made artificially simple and stark. Tomlinson claims that no prolife person has ever said they would save the embryos, and that this proves that prolife people don't really believe that life begins at conception.

First of all, as others have pointed out, it's absurd to claim that if other people would act, under pressure, in ways that don't seem compatible with their declared beliefs, then they don't really hold those beliefs and you don't need to deal with the intellectual arguments for them. That reflects a very shallow understanding of human psychology, and perhaps a certain desperation to dismiss the actual philosophical arguments for life beginning at some point before birth.

Tomlinson's argument needs to be refined: rather than asking whether one would save the child or the embryos, he should ask which the prolifer thinks should be saved. That of course weakens the conflict he wants to create between prolifers' instincts and their alleged principles. But the fact that Tomlinson's original argument was specious isn't my fault. And it's still a dilemma--I feel considerable reluctance to say that it would be morally right to let a child die in order to save embryos. And here Tomlinson is right: this is because I, personally, am more certain a five-year-old child is a human being than I am that an embryo is a human being. It does not follow from this that there are no good reasons to protect embryonic life. Under pressure, in such a stark dilemma, I would most likely save (and think it right to save) the child. It does not follow that it is right to destroy embryos deliberately.

Like most polemicists on both sides, Tomlinson chooses the extreme example that suits his side of the argument. There is a wide range of room for "moderate" positions in which life begins at some point between conception and birth, and we aren't sure which. Thus, even if his example proved everything he might wish, it would not follow that life does not begin until birth.

But the biggest problem with Tomlinson's scenario, and with all variants of the trolley problem, it its utilitarianism. Tomlinson assumes that he's made the point especially strong by using a thousand embryos instead of just one. Some counter-arguments assume that the moral situation would be radically altered if, for instance, the embryos were essential to the continuation of the human race, or if instead of a five-year-old child the alternative was to save an old and sick person.

One of the fundamental moral principles which secular moralists (and some religious moralists too) seem to have abandoned in our culture is that the value of human life is not numerate. (There is, for instance, an entire moral argument against empathy on the grounds that empathy is "innumerate.") Of course, if we can save several lives rather than one, then all things being equal, we should do so. But because human life is of infinite value, multiplying the number of humans at stake does not fundamentally change the moral situation. Not only would it be legitimate, under many circumstances, to save one person rather than a thousand--but often it would be morally obligatory to do so.

If I had a choice between saving one of my daughters and saving a thousand people who were not close family members, I would save my daughter. And I would not think of this as an act of moral weakness. On the contrary, I would think it wrong to make the opposite choice. I have an overriding moral obligation to protect and nurture my children. That doesn't mean that I think their lives are more valuable than those of others--but they aren't less valuable either, and all human life is of infinite value.

A further basic error of a lot of modern secular ethics is the belief that action and inaction are morally equivalent. This stems from utilitarian consequentialism--the idea that what matters most is the result of our actions. Thus, if I let someone die or kill them, the result is the same so the moral quality of the act is the same. This is nonsense and leads to impossible moral dilemmas. And as Ben Shapiro has pointed out, it's implicit in this scenario's argument--that the choice to allow embryos to be destroyed in order to save a child makes moral objections to actively killing unborn children insincere.

In a real, plausible situation, the decision would almost certainly not boil down to two sharply opposed possibilities with the certainty that whichever I saved would live and whichever I didn't would die. My decision as to which of two lives (or groups of human lives) to save would depend on all kinds of factors: my responsibility to one or the other party, the helplessness and vulnerability of the parties, the possibility that others might save one or other of them, the likelihood that I would be able to save them, my physical proximity to them, and, yes, the relative numbers involved and the probable effect of saving or not saving those particular lives.

In short, this argument does have some value in making prolifers question whether we are really as sure that an embryo is a human person as we are that a five-year-old child is a person. But it does not do the work that Mr. Tomlinson and his many fans want it to do. But it is doing something else valuable--provoking all of us to think through more carefully why we believe what we believe and just what we mean when we say that human life has value.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Celebrating the Reformation: a reply to Sarah Condon

The Episcopal priest Sarah Condon has just written a defiant blog post expressing her frustration with (male) Protestant clergy who mourn the Reformation. She gives three basic reasons (or sets of reasons) for celebrating the Reformation:

1. Women can be ordained and clergy can be married (openly and legally--she points out correctly that a large number of medieval priests lived in illicit but tacitly accepted relationships with women, and that the women involved were called "whores" and had a low social status).

2. The Reformation allowed people to hear the Gospel of God's grace clearly and the Bible was translated into vernacular languages.

3. Sometimes God calls us to "burn it all down," pouring out his judgment on the established order. (Obviously this is dependent on the previous two points.)

To the first point: Rev. Condon says with certainty that we know that women would not be ordained if the Reformation had not occurred. Pope John Paul II would, of course, agree with her. But then, Rev. Condon doesn't agree with the Pope's reasons for thinking this (i.e., that the ordination of women is theologically impossible). From a purely historical point of view, I think the matter is much less certain than she claims. One of the big mistakes Protestants (and secular post-Protestants) make about Catholicism is to assume that Counter-Reformation Catholicism is what Catholicism would have been like if not for the Reformation (at least in all the aspects they consider bad--they are happy to take credit for what they consider real reform). Kingsley Amis' novel The Alteration is a really good example of this. We simply don't know what would have happened if Protestants had rejected schism as a means of reform. Maybe they would all have been stamped out without much trace, but I suspect not. And with regard to clerical marriage, where Condon makes the same claim, I'm fairly sure not. The possibility of allowing married clergy was seriously batted about in the Reformation era among Catholics, particularly as a means of healing the growing schism. One of the reasons it didn't happen was that schism happened anyway, and the Catholic Church adopted a very hostile attitude to signature Protestant demands even when there wasn't a clear doctrinal reason to do so. I am reasonably confident that there would be married clergy in the Catholic Church today if Protestants had pulled back from the doctrinal and liturgical demands that were genuinely incompatible with the Tradition and had doubled down on practical reforms. More on that later. First, a few more points about women and the Reformation.

Rev. Condon seems to follow a line of scholarship, which was once very common, holding that the Reformation was a liberating movement for women. She points to the role Katy Luther played in sometimes arguing theology with Luther and his friends and students. (From the quotes I remember in the Table Talk, I think she's exaggerating a bit--my memory is that Katharina played the role of the sympathetic and common-sense "uneducated woman" whose views were recorded with a bit of a patronizing smile--but I could be wrong, and Rev. Condon is right that at least they were recorded and she had her say.) But there's another approach, which has on the whole been more dominant in recent decades, I think (at least it seemed so when I was in grad school and I don't think it's waned since), which emphasizes the ways in which the Reformation doubled down on patriarchy. Lyndal Roper's book The Holy Household on the Reformation in Augsburg is one of the key works arguing this position, though her arguments have not been accepted without controversy. Amy Leonard has documented the stories of German nuns in the Reformation era who resisted the efforts of (male) Protestant clergy to "liberate" them from their vocations. (Of course there were other nuns, such as Katharina von Bora, who did find Protestantism liberating. But their stories may not be as typical as Protestant propaganda has claimed.) Sometimes these efforts were quite coercive and even, at least by threat, violent.

The Protestant Reformers by and large argued that women's only vocation was within the household. Martin Bucer objected to Catholic veneration of Mary in part because it made her a powerful figure in her own right over against her husband, whereas Bucer insisted that after the miraculous events of Jesus' birth Mary lived the life of a perfect and obedient housewife and should only be celebrated in that context. Luther said in his treatise on The Estate of Marriage (1522) that women were created to bear children and that it didn't matter if this wore them down and shortened their lives. (To be fair, as this Protestant website points out, he also said that childbearing was healthy for women and that it was better to have a short life in good health than a long life in bad health.) In medieval Catholicism, on the other hand, women often exercised powerful social roles with considerable independence from men. They weren't priests, true, but they were abbesses, anchorites, hospital workers. . . . There is a lot of evidence of women resisting the Reformation because their spirituality was focused on the very shrines and rituals that the Protestants destroyed. And yes, there are other examples of iconoclastic women who mocked Catholic piety by saying that they could piss as holy water as the priest could make, and so on. It's complicated--far more complicated than Rev. Condon's desire for celebration allows.

I am married to an Episcopal priest myself, so I understand how important vocation is. I understand that Rev. Condon probably experiences her vocation in a way that this particular essay does not do justice to. But as it stands, her way of speaking about it sounds like a confirmation of what many conservative Catholics and conservative Anglicans say, that women want ordination as an expression of personal power. It sounds as if she is saying "the unity of the Church doesn't matter--what matters is that I get what I want." Again, I'm sure that there's more to her sense of vocation than this, but in this particular piece of writing it doesn't come through, at least to me.

Her snarky and witty style no doubt contributes to this. But to be honest, this is one of my problems with the whole piece. I appreciate Rev. Condon's lively writing, but her rhetorical approach (indicated by the title, for starters) is of a piece with a general trend in our culture that I think is deeply toxic. The willingness to flout other people's sensibilities, to glory in being offensive, to jeer at what others hold sacred--I think we are drowning in these things already. I don't think more of this is needed, however justified Rev. Condon may find her particular cause. I know that many conservative Catholics and Anglicans treat ordained women this way. I can only say, inadequate as Rev. Condon will find it, that I protest passionately against it when I run into it. I think her anger and snark are understandable. I don't think they are particularly convincing to anyone not already in her corner. But perhaps she doesn't intend them to be.

As an Anglican priest, Rev. Condon presumably confesses regularly her faith in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I don't see how she can reconcile that profession with the cavalier way in which she mocks those (she claims they are all male, but I doubt that) who care about unity. Yes, of course, unity must be unity in truth and justice. But a love of unity itself is not something to be ashmed of.

Rev. Condon's second point is that the Reformation restored a proper understanding of grace. (She also claims that the Reformation is responsible for the Bible being in the vernacular, which ignores the multiple translations in multiple European languages that existed before the Reformation.) This isn't the place to deal with this claim, which is of course the basic Protestant claim and is a solid reason to celebrate the Reformation if true. Indeed, since I think the Reformation did give us some fresh insights on grace, it's a reason why I do celebrate aspects of the Reformation (but not the schism). But Reformation theology, taken "straight," does not liberate grace so much as segregate it. "Law" is allowed to reign in the affairs of this world, but banished from the Gospel. I don't think that's Biblical. The Sermon on the Mount is at the heart of the Gospel, as the Gospels themselves define it. Here's a basic challenge for Rev. Condon and other defenders of the Reformation: does racial justice belong to law or Gospel? Or, in other words, is a church that proclaims and practices racial segregation preaching the true Gospel?

Her final point is that sometimes God wants us to burn everything down. I think she's wrong there. Yes, there is divine judgment. Biblically, the harshest proclamations of judgment are against God's own people. The problem with "burning it all down" is that you are repudiating your former people and starting a new people, who presumably don't deserve God's judgment. But the new people always do too. After 500 years, is it really still credible to claim that the endless sequence of burning it all down that has marked Protestant history is God's will? But perhaps Rev. Condon doesn't mean that. She is, after all, an Anglican, a tradition distinguished from most other Protestant traditions precisely by its level of continuity with the past. So what does she actually mean by "burning it all down"? Wouldn't that, logically, lead her to abandon Anglicanism itself? (Not that I want her to do that--but she's not going to listen to me anyway!)


Saturday, October 07, 2017

High and Low

High and Low is a 1963 movie by Akira Kurosawa which I saw a few days ago. It's a modern police procedural, with the rather cliched plot of a kidnapper who taunts the father of his victim by phone and seems to have uncanny abilities to see what his target is doing. (Actually, perhaps it wasn't cliched in 1963.)

Except that the target of the extortion demand, played by Toshiro Mifune, isn't actually the father of the victim. The kidnapper has accidentally snatched the chauffeur's son instead. This sets up the fundamental moral conflict of the film. Will Mifune's character, a prosperous shoe manufacturer named about to clinch an important deal that will give him control of the company he works for, give up his professional ambitions by paying the massive ransom demanded by the kidnapper and thus plunge himself into debt. (Mifune has mortgaged everything he owns in order to raise the money for the buyout that will give him control of the company, and this is the money he would need to use to pay the kidnapper.) This makes the film more than just a taut procedural--though it is certainly that.

The moral challenge Mifune faces is presented in heavy-handed terms right after the kidnapping, when he thinks his son has been taken and declares, without hesitation, that of course he will pay whatever it takes to get him back. But Mifune's character is not cold-hearted or unsympathetic. He has worked his way to the position he has, although we find out eventually that he also owes a good deal of his status to his wife's inherited money. At the beginning of the movie, he is confronting the directors of the company over their desire to make shoddy, flashy shoes instead of the solid work he wants to turn out. Kurosawa first gives us a conflict between good and bad capitalism, and then casts doubt even on the "good capitalism."

The title of the film in Japanese, apparently, translates more literally as "Heaven and hell." It turns out that the kidnapper is motivated primarily by envy of Mifune's literally exalted status in a beautiful house on a hill overlooking Yokohama. Mifune hasn't done anything to hurt the kidnapper, and the latter's rage seems irrational, but Kurosawa makes us empathize with him in spite of our horror at his actions.

It may be relevant that in Buddhism, unlike Christianity, heaven and hell are temporary destinations. Gods, who live in heaven, are beings who have achieved happiness through their good actions in previous lives, just as Mifune has worked his way from a simple craftsman to a position of wealth and privilege. But in Buddhism, being a "god" is not a particularly desirable thing. The gods are typically unaware of the temporary nature of their bliss. Eventually they too will have to descend from the heights. Enlightenment results not simply from good actions, but from an awareness of the temporary, contingent nature of all reality, even apparently secure bliss. In Mahayana Buddhism, the spiritual ideal is the "bodhisattva," who takes a vow not to enter Nirvana until every other creature in the universe has been enlightened as well. At the end of the movie, having lost his fortune but gained a position with a smaller company where he can do the kind of work he wants to do, Mifune visits the kidnapper in prison. While the film ends on a somber note with the kidnapper's howls of rage and despair, Mifune's trajectory is a redemptive one for himself at least, from arrogant assumption of superiority to compassionate presence with someone who has done him (and others) great evil.