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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 of 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.