Saturday, September 22, 2018

Fruits Not Windows: An Essay on Judgement

"I have no desire to make windows into men's souls"-Elizabeth I

The above quote reflects, perhaps, the best sentiment to emerge from the Elizabethan era, one that was a relatively just order, though one highly unstable. It was a time marked with much apprehension, suspense, and confusion. Mary Tudor showed how quickly the Reformational gains made under Edward VI could vanish in a puff of smoke (quite literally). Yet, even before her, the despotism of Henry VII revealed a callousness of royal privilege: the almost comical politique of burning three "Lutherans" and three Papalists in 1540 shows how insecure any royal officer could be. The quite extraordinary careers of Stephen Gardiner and Thomas Cranmer offer a vision into what kind of men could survive the Tudor court: shifting, subtle, patient, and shrewd. Even to this day neither Cranmer nor Gardiner are well understood, with their motives and changes still under debate.

Elizabeth, herself, was someone whose very succession to the throne depended upon astute cunning and discernment. And when it came to the role of ruling England and "governing" England's reformed church (she modified Henry's title from head to governor), she employed the same careful tact, though she was not without motives. Survival was never for its own sake, but reforms and changes always required an eye towards longevity. Her own views were idiosyncratic: she kept a crucifix for personal devotion, and yet when her coronation involved a liturgical candle procession, she had them removed saying, "we see well enough". She supported many of the continental exiles during the Marian years, but she restrained many of them from pushing ecclesiastical reforms. When Edmund Grindal, a solidly "puritan" churchman, became Archbishop of Canterbury, his tenure was cut short when he refused to crackdown on "Prophesyings", gatherings of ministers and educated laity to discuss Scripture outside of official jurisdiction. Elizabeth's later reign, under the archbishopric of John Whitgift, has sometimes been considered as anti-Calvinist, but reflected a more aggressive middle course, hounding vocal reformers. Here is where the comical episode of Martin Marprelate, with ecclesiastical reformers playing the role of Inspector Clouseau, chasing down an illusive pseudonym and his roving printing press. And yet this continued puritan pressure was only possible through various high placed and high ranking officials who maintained this tension. Perhaps the genius of Elizabeth's reign was in keeping all of these moving parts in tension.

I don't write all of these things to extol Elizabeth's reign. She was not, despite her propaganda mill and her cult, Gloriana or the Fairy Queene. And yet her general policy, and later antagonism with "puritans", reveals a helpful insight that many Christians ought to understand and appreciate.

Elizabethan ecclesiastical policy was decidedly Reformational, in that it pursued a broadly Two-Governments approach, and National. And yet it lacked a certain vigor that, perhaps, was due to historical context. The Church of England was engaged in a slow process of being present through England as a whole. There were still many who remained faithful to the old ways, unhappy with liturgical changes (e.g. service in vernacular, Reformation doctrines, ecclesiastical changes). And then there were still many who were in the fuzzy "church papist" category, people who conformed but had no interest to change away from Roman traditions. They could, if policy reversed, revert to the Roman fold, even if they were not zealous papists, as the Jesuit missionaries sought to inculcate. Given this context, the Church of England could, and did, accommodate a plurality of perspectives, even within its leadership. From the more vigorously Genevan to the blended mix of older practices and moderated Lutheran doctrines, the Church of England comprehended many. Elizabeth's own concern for older practices (i.e. she found the marriage of bishops and priests disturbing) left an imprint on a Church that does not map onto Luther's vocational theology. The ordained ministry still retained a sacral character, even if what that meant was unclear. This ambiguity set the stage for later conflicts in the Stuart era.

What do I mean that the Tudor Church of England did not map onto vocational theology? The key element in this doctrinal matrix (and vocation, as Luther explicated it, is far more important than the mere doctrine itself) is the idea that the mundane became integrated into the sacred work of the church through the two-kinds of righteousness. In this doctrine, one has a righteous standing before God and a righteous standing before the world, which are categorically different. Whereas the atonement provides for the former, with the work of justification decisively vindicating the Christian before the Judgement Seat, the latter flows from the process of sanctification, though it befits a natural creation order that even pagans may reflect. The latter is civic righteousness, how one functions in the world, in the family, the state, and the church. For Luther, now that the Christian has a fully righteous standing before God, he is turned loose to serve the world. As Luther would put it, God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.

Yet Luther's doctrine of sacraments, and even his specific understanding of justification, kept this first kind of righteousness tethered to the worship of the church. Take the eucharist, believe, and renew one's sense of justification once again. Even Calvin held to a similar view. But later Calvinists, pushing away from such a view of the sacraments, began to push this assurance of the first kind of righteousness into the realm of the second kind. One did not do works 'for' God, but determined a sense of one's standing before God in how one did those works before the world. Here is where Weber's thesis comes into play. There was a need to endlessly work, exert, strive, push, and gain in the mundane world to prove one's salvation, always alert and attentive to providential signs of one's election. And yet the criteria were confused. Was wealth a sign of God's blessing or curse? Was a sudden death proof of one's reprobation? Was one's insecurity a sign of God's continued work or a sign of creeping doubt, that your faith was fraudulent? I don't think the concern to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" is, necessarily, some form of psychosis as many anti-Calvinists will assert.

And yet it can. The two kinds of righteousness doctrine is situated within vocational theology, which the Reformed generally integrated. Vocational theology is an integration of one's mundane labors into forging God's government on Earth, not the Spiritual Government that is wholly internal, but the Earthly Government, God's natural creational order that ought to be in place. Thus, since Christ took care of one's stand in God's Spiritual Kingdom, one must work and strive in the Earthly Kingdom to do God's work. And yet when detached from the sacraments, this adds a particularly redemptive and activist flavor. For if my election can be made sure through good works, the inverse is true, namely that those who do not pursue the moral activity of building the commonwealth (however that is, specifically, defined) are most likely reprobate. Here is the origin of connecting poverty and sinfulness, as many Puritans (defined as the "hotter sort of Protestants") believed poverty was a sign of moral failure, of sloth and indigence, or a judgement on some other moral failure, where God took away their riches. Combined with a national church, zealous reformers wanted to "purify" the church of the ungodly, which not only meant a smaller assembly, but a disenfranchised, second-class, citizen population.

Of course Elizabeth, and many of her privy councilors, would have none of that. Here is where the situation is ugly. Elizabethan government believed that, outside of the essentials necessary to salvation, all things adiaphora, or indifferent, were left to her rule. Thus, as John Hooper would discover, not wearing the surplice was an act of civil disobedience, an attack on the queen's rule. Elizabeth's government would not budge, it was a test of her legitimacy and England's polity. Thus the debate on what faithfulness meant was now tethered to a political authority, capable of deciding for the church what was and what was not valid to discuss. And yet while puritan concerns may seem, on a superficial gloss, about mere fidelity to God, this included the same concepts of national church and boundary setting. By the era of the civil wars and the revolution, John Milton was disgusted with the Presbyterian party who embodied the persecuting spirit of Rome. But even the Independents, of which Milton was a rather idiosyncratic member, were not about abolishing the national structure, only its centralized ecclesiastical center. As the Cromwellian era of the Triers showed, the Independents were not averse of regulating the various congregations of England, even if these standards were far more lax than the Presbyterians and far less centralized than episcopalians, whether of a more puritanical or Laudian stripe. The state, under the reign of the saints, would set the parameters of godliness, something that the Elizabethan reign was not willing to do, yet it too adhered to a sacral state.

Yet when we reject the vocational theology matrix, two-governments, and the concept of a national church, one can appreciate the truth in Elizabeth's sentiments. It comports with Jesus' teaching about bearing fruit, which is always a provisional judgement that does not neglect the need for congregations and individual Christians to exercise discernment. When St. Paul turns out the incestuous adulterer to Satan, it is an excommunication that is to have, in time, a restorative effect. It has nothing to do with questions of election or predestination, which only are read into the passage. It is only when these doctrines are situated into doctrines of creation or of God that they begin to take over everything. Rather than election being a comfort, a sign read backwards from identification with Christ to say, "wow, my destiny is fixed with His", or predestination being a means to understand God's sovereign provisions through all of time and space, they begin to become a metaphysical blueprint to all of reality, destroying all tensions that Scripture maintains. Formally, all Protestants, even many shades of puritan, adhered to this same concept, and yet it, functionally, started to rapidly devolve into claims and fears of reprobation. Every event could signal one's election or reprobation, and thus attempts to situate one's election into one's good works or one's assurance only fueled concerns. Excommunication could easily be read as a sure sign of hellfire, either for one's self or the excommunicating congregation. And yet St. Paul's warnings should not be taken lightly either. I may be making a subtle distinction, but there is a difference between being on the way to perdition and being a reprobate. The Reformation's juridical emphasis in doctrines of atonement introduced a far too static notion of salvation, with the distinction between justification and sanctification becoming more than an artificial distinction for the purposes of discussion. But that's a topic for another time.

Funny enough, the "puritans" earned the contempt of being called "anabaptists". It's fair to say that there are a variety of anabaptists, and in this era it recalled the nightmare at Munster, a millenarian experiment gone wrong and brutally suppressed. And yet the original anabaptists of Zurich were, perhaps, the far graver threat. Their brutal murder and suppression dried up the fruitful debates happening among them, involving what it meant for the church to be something set a part from all other civil and social institutions. Rather than the coextensive identification between Zuricher and Christian that occurred under Zwingli's partnership with the city elders, men like Manz, Grebel and Blaurock began to process of what it meant to be a Christian who lived in Zurich, the limits to involvement and identification with the polity. As Zwingli candidly admitted, it was this difference, situated around the practice of baptism, that separated them; otherwise Zwinglians and Anabaptists agreed in every other point of doctrine. Thus, there's no reason to think they'd find Elizabeth's statement objectionable. Rather, by separating the church from the state, they wanted the church to exercise the practices of discipline without referent to the agenda of the magistrate. To expel someone from the church did not mean a corresponding civil penalty (as it was in Geneva), let alone being a form of state penalty (i.e. in disciplining, pastors acted as agents of the state). And yet out of willful misunderstanding or inability to comprehend, accusers blackened the project of the radical reformation that continues up to today. Still many Protestant polemicists don't understand the issues.

When it comes historical recollection and research, we should appreciate how discerning someone's fruits is not making windows into men's souls. I used to practice that insufferable Evangelical habit of trying to determine whether people were "saved", usually more well-known figures. We can only assess which path someone may have been on through how they obeyed Christ's precepts, pursued His will, and conformed to His image. We have no access to someone's psyche; we cannot see whether someone's faith is "authentic" or their repentance is "genuine". I'm not even sure how much we can even discern of ourselves, where avid self-justification and deception can cloud our own motivations and memory obscure how one acted in a situation. When it comes to ourselves, we may pay attention to the flits of thought and stirrings of love and desire, but we can only have surety of our salvation in clinging to Christ's promises. In contrast to the collapse of predestination/election into the "first things", Christ short-circuits this approach. The collapsing Tower of Siloam, the crippled woman, even Lazarus' death are given no providential meaning aside from revelation of the Messiah. The same applies to historical analysis. Our goal is not to determine the saints, but patterns of righteousness that conform to the canon of Scripture. We follow the heroes of faith in so much as they follow Christ, but the historical record is inevitably foggy.

The Letter to the Hebrews is a text that contains warnings that are both hypothetical and real. Like the Israelites traveling to Canaan, not all made it and their disobedience brought about their destruction. However, this warning emphasizes a way. We can only take comfort in obedience to the promises of Christ. Confess your sins, repent and believe. It's in this way we discern fruits without making windows into men's souls. May we learn from the blessings and errors of the past, whatever their provenance, and repent of our foolishness.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Babel of Monks: The Protestant Ethos, the Middle Ages, and the Lust for Power

The core claim of Weber's "spirit of capitalism" theory is that there was something particular about an idealized Protestant ethic, which for Weber was always a refined Calvinism, that midwifed in this new era. While Benjamin Franklin idealized this new spirit, he depended upon the idealized "puritan" in Richard Baxter. This spirit of capitalism, to sum it up, is utility, growth, prosperity, progress, for its own sake. It is development as an end in itself; a total collapsing of ends into means. Of course it is thinly glossed as concern for the future, the greater good, or some other temporally or spatially diffuse and distant abstract. It is the spirit of utility (as the late John Hughes put it).

Now there's a lot of faults in Weber's historical scaffolding of his theory, though it's something he's potentially aware of. Weber depended primarily on various other scholars to bolster his historical data when discussing the "puritans" (a highly fraught term), the pietists, the methodists, and the "baptists" (which he lumps together Anabaptists, Quakers, as well as Anglo-American Baptists). Much of the historical data should not concern us, because Weber's primary interaction was with Richard Baxter. Weber doesn't care for Baxter's idiosyncratic theology, but types the moral effects of Baxter's doctrine to show how the spirit of utility functioned. What it was, as Weber called it, was worldly asceticism.

To put it briefly, Weber saw Luther's innovative doctrine of vocation as crucial to bridging one of the primary goals of the Reformation: to empty the monasteries. But this point was done not so much as to abolish the monasteries, but to turn every city, town and parish towards monastic discipline. Luther was not merely conceiving of all life as before God, but that all of this life before God was the moral activity par excellence  for pleasing God. But for Luther there were other concerns or doctrines that gave vocation a more "traditionist" (as Weber calls it) tinge. Luther's vocational theology lacked an aggressive and invasive edge, used more to keep all peoples in their place within the feudal order. Luther was still very much a Medieval man, anti-scholastic but not quite a Renaissance man like many other reformers. I don't say this to his credit or his condemnation; it simply was.

However, this doctrine of vocation, under certain Calvinists (but not really Calvin himself), radicalized under predestinarian emphasis that slowly shifted from a subset of soteriology to a subset of creation. In other words, the conversation shifted context from the Christ's work of salvation in time to metaphysical order of creation and recreation, to the very beginnings where God decreed the existence of all things and in their place. Weber offers a social-psychological diagnosis, but we don't need to go with that. All we need to recognize in his argument is that the doctrine of vocation had turn all of life into a monastery, and the shift in doctrinal loci created an experiential predestination that was visibly determined through life. Weber's Puritans turned all of life into monastic labor in pursuit of salvation.

It's from here that Weber sees this Protestant ethic as creating the spirit of capitalism. There was now an emphasis on fulfilling one's civil duties not as a means to some other end (whether it was spiritual activities or for leisure). The mundane realms of life were now duties impressed upon the Christian through which he would determine his salvation. If he slowed down or slipped up, this might mean he was in fact not elect at all. The condemnation of senseless activity, whether idle conversation, games, frivolous interests, etc., was for the purposes of godliness, which meant plunging one's self into profitable work. It was not money one was after (though the reception of it was a sign of God's blessing), but a need to work. And yet the acquisition of riches was itself breeding a temptation that many a Puritan feared. Riches meant God's favor, but riches created a hatred for God that only continually cycled. It's this strenuous labor oriented not to mere greed or pleasure, but to acquisition itself which Weber sees as a set of practices that, when stripped of their theological garb, became the spirit of Capitalism. The major shift was not so much in capitalistic practices themselves, but a full-throated justification and moralizing of them. Gain, profit, success, progress, growth, etc. all of these were oriented upwards towards God in a never-ending chain.

Again, to iterate, Weber's historical reconstruction is faulty, and highly dependent on the work of Troeltsch and his various schemata for church history. However, there's one quote that really stands out to me as touching on something fundamental. The bolded is the key:

"Christian asceticism, at first fleeing from the world into solitude, had already ruled the world which it had renounced from the monastery and through the Church. But it had, on the whole ,left the naturally spontaneous character of daily life in the world untouched. Now it strode into the market-place of life, slammed the door of the monastery behind it, and undertook to penetrate just that daily routine of life with its methodicalness, to fashion it into a life in the world, but neither of nor for this world."

What Weber is ultimately describing is how the monastic spirit escaped and mutated. It was Medieval monastic orders that pioneered developments in counting time, forming comprehensive schedules, and oriented an entire life towards upward ascent. With the Reformation, this spirit was carried into worldly activity. But the key here about the spirit is its disposition towards power. The monastic order was built upon a Christian empire, where it ruled through the church, though indirectly. To draw a few threads together in Weber: the monks were the spiritual industrial bourgeois, unlike the spiritual aristocracy of the princes of the church. The monk was, ultimately, oriented towards himself in pursuing salvation, which was achieved through a full commitment to the totalizing labor regimen.

While Weber lumps in Mennonites, and that might be fair in terms of their actual history, it's interesting to note how this spirit fixated on power. It was about ruling and controlling, which in the world of monasteries was a very small world cordoned off. The split off from the evangelical councils of perfection allowed a tiered Christianity, where the lower sorts were just second-class citizens. With the collapse of this distinction, the monastic spirit demanded total compliance from all to this regimen oriented towards salvation. In some cases, this meant enforced hypocrisy for the reprobate, but for those willing to break away, it meant creating relentless soldiers of godly gain. These churches created their own emptying, with children and grandchildren imbibing the ethic without the doctrine.

What's wrong with this ethic? Why can't we say that the spirit of capitalism is merely the corruption of the spirit of godliness, an anti-Christ masquerading? Because the Protestant ethic is fundamentally the spirit of Babel, of building up and up and up, despite doctrinal claims of man's fallibility and humility. It's the spirit of hunger that feeds on and on. Even while many Puritans were strict sabbatarians, they had no interest in the principle of the sabbath. A day of rest was really another test of godliness; a means to the end of one's moral performance. At least, that's conceptually what it is, whether many people, or even many puritans, followed this logic rigorously is inconsequential.

What's at stake is a vision of piety. While I have sympathies with Richard Baxter, his moral program was this industrious spirit of ever rising gain. It is a spirit of conquest. One should not be satisfied with one's labor when it provided enough, but should always work. It's not the urgency of a specific need, but the very path towards salvation. The ironic problem, perhaps, is that while the puritans Baxter typifies saw a depth of sin, their dourness arose from their optimism about sin being overcome. Creation became not so much God's excessive joy, extraneous and contingent, but a series of interlocking parts that reflected a stern and stark utility. Every thing that was served a rigid purpose. But even more so, because these kinds of puritans believed in temporal blessings, the dourness gave a flash of paradise. While the saints' everlasting rest was on the other side, this vision was an ever vanishing horizon. Baxter admonished his readers that one must always be at work, whether for God or for the commonwealth. While I'm sure some confessional trolls will point to this fact as evidence of his Arminianism, it's a moot point. Weber's discussion of a spirit is in a moral practice, not in doctrinal intricacies. Arminian Methodists and high Calvinist Presbyterians shared this practice, even if it emerged from different doctrinal matrices.

As I bolded in the quote above, all of these points emerge from a vision of power and conquest. While superficially many monastic approaches appear to be an attempt to return to the apostolic doctrines, there's a very different context. The former ruled the world through the temporal sword, though they were (until the worldly ascetics) embarrassed about it. Rather than a church participating in Christ's work and person, re-presenting it through its ministries and preaching, oriented for the world in the world, though not of the world, we get the fork-tongued lamb. Christ conquered through death, and yet the monastic spirit offers a very different path. In some ways, it comes down to Luther's distinction between theology of glory and theology of cross, a way of understanding the work of Christ and the shape of Human history.

There's something deeply disturbed about the ethos of much of Protestantism, but because it radically mutated something foul in the Middle Ages. From various research, I've come to appreciate much about the Medieval period*. The various corporations, guilds, and feudal divisions of power kept singular domination in check. Various commoners had recourse to action and protection within the civic world. It had a political model that was, perhaps, more tolerant and peaceable than we'd might expect. And yet perhaps the darkest corner of western Europe was hidden away in the monasteries, breeding a disposition to life that when "unleashed" (metaphorically speaking) it formed what Weber called an "iron cage" around the world. Of course, I'm not, nor is Weber, suggesting that there was an inevitable causal chain from Medieval monasteries to Wall Street. This story is submerging all the various social, economic, and political realities that went into changing and transforming the world where this ethos could even take root, develop, mutate, spread, and dominate. It still exists today, though not in the language of bankers, but in the concepts like potential, goals, progress, innovation, growth, etc.

While I think peace and rest coinciding, and enveloping work, is part of a distinctly Christian vision, my main point of concern is the role and form of power. To be made into the form of Christ is to share in His sufferings and in His power. It means that life comes not through ascendance and gain, but in the joy set before us of a willingness to sacrifice, to give away what is ours, to be spilled out. Even in the beginning this was so, as Eve was taken from Adam's side as he lay in a deep sleep. In our sin soaked world, this birth looks like the Messiah's side pierced with blood and water flowing. And yet it is the calling to which all Christians, as all churches, are called to. This is the true, and original, definition of vocation. It is to be a Christian, or, as William Stringfellow put it, a calling to be a human being as he/she is supposed to be. Thanksgiving is the ultimate counterpoint to the spirituality of progress.

Post Script: There are various elements within the Middle Ages that can make me both love and hate the Middle Ages. There are reason it was both a better and worse time to the early modern world birthed from the Renaissance/Reformation. It was both a better time and a worse time to be a faithful Christian. Contrary to Reformation hagiography, there were many soft divisions within Roman oversight, and even groups that carved out a life for themselves, that survived well enough before the Reformation came. In some ways, the Reformation divisions destroyed some of these communities and ways of life, creating new categories that erased the more ambiguous, but tolerable, life before, making it now intolerable. There are ways in which I both sympathize with and oppose a medieval catholic ethos. Sadly, many of its good parts were erased, though I owe it to Anglo-Catholics like Neville Figgis for retrieving it for contemporary appreciation.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Cthonic Capitalism, or the Fearful Service of Slumbering gods

The earliest records for the Greek god Zeus refers to a giant python like creature who emerges from a tunnel that led to the Underworld. To this Zeus, Greeks would offer various gifts of wine, meat, handicrafts, even (maybe) human sacrifices. These rituals did not disappear from the bright sun of Hellenism as we know it, with the comically Human and brutal gods reigning from Olympus, but went, fittingly, underground. Many Greek cults had a plurality of cults that varied from region to region. Whereas in Athens, Apollo was inspiration for uplifting arts, in parts of Asia Minor he was the Plague Bringer, who reigned down his arrows, bringing rats and vermin to decimate those he was angry with. The cthonic gods were not loved in the least, but were terrible forces of cosmic horror that required propitiation despite whatever the peoples might think. The serpentine Zeus was perhaps the most graphic; many of these gods lacked any semblance of an appearance, many times being abstract forces of darkness beyond comprehension. They were simply the forces of the Earth that man must placate if he wished to live.

We'll come back to the significance of this intro, but I'm going to shift gears to talking about Max Weber's Spirit of Capitalism thesis, which I plan to write a few posts about. I decided to actually read the work, and I was blown away by how so many who quote, reference, cite, refute, or attack have clearly never read or have only a loose understanding of. I couldn't believe the level of sophistication, given that I thought I knew who I was dealing with.

Weber's thesis is not very complex, but it is very precise. Rhetorically, Weber asks what he means by "spirit of capitalism", and with self-deprecating accuses himself of using a somewhat pretentious term. He repeatedly and intermittently gives a via negativa account to cover himself. He is not saying that the Reformation or Protestants caused or created Capitalism. He's well aware that there are varieties of institutions, practices, and orientations that befit capitalism, dating as far back as Egypt, Han China, and Rome. He's also aware that the reformers, from Luther to Calvin, were generally hostile to many elements that constituted capitalism. Luther had a very feudal mindset when it came to social relations and, somewhat naively, could not grasp how wealth could create wealth (i.e. not that it was immoral, but that it was some kind of thievery or deception)*. Calvin was one of the most liberal reformers, permitting interests on loans, but only if it was low, supervised, and oriented for the public good. Weber is also well aware that Calvin's attitude was rather relaxed in comparison with the Huguenots and Dutch Reformed, who debated or effected a ban on money lenders and bankers from church communion.

Thus, so far, Weber explicitly denies that Capitalism arose only in the 17th century West, and he explicitly denies that the Reformation caused the growth of Capitalism. He also denies, with the above citations, that Reformed Protestants created the spirit of Capitalism, which he intends to document. Their responsibility is accidental, and he documents how many Reformed peoples are hostile to the interests of capital, just as many capitalists, who imbibe this spirit, are hostile or coldly indifferent to all forms and varieties of religion. Weber is very clear and careful to state that he is not interested in the ideas Protestants held, but in their social effects, the results of their adherence. He is not making a moral judgement about Protestantism or Catholicism, but trying to show a path. He's not, as more modern Roman Catholic critics do, interested in blaming the Reformation for making the world a worse place. In addition, Weber call it a "spirit" because while it is empirically typified in a few, it is a general reflection on a variety of trends and beliefs that animate systems of belief

Then what is the spirit of capitalism? John Hughes best explains this point by renaming it as the "spirit of utility". Weber defines this point through a variety of citations from Benjamin Franklin, with apt phrases like "Time is Money", and a general tenor of making profit into an end-in-itself. Or, as the spirit of utility, it is when means totally absorbs ends, where the means is the end in itself. Thus, as Marx would put it, if money is pure-exchange value, a pure means to some other ends, the spirit of capitalism makes this concept its only end. After quoting Franklin, Weber summarizes the point this way:

"The peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the ideal of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the idea of a duty of the individual toward the increase of his capital, which is assumed as an end in itself. Truly what is here preached is not simply a means of making one's way in the world, but a peculiar ethic. The infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty. That is the essence of the matter. It is not mere business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is an ethos."
Thus, Weber distinguishes someone like Franklin from the Fugger banking clan. Jacob Fugger is quoted as never ceasing to pursue wealth because he wants to continue to earn more. For Weber, this disposition is precisely *not* the spirit of capitalism, because the desire for money was not framed as an obligation and duty, but only a personal desire. Fugger did not find himself righteous for what he was doing, only pursuing what he wanted. Thus, the spirit of capitalism is totally disconnected from typical avarice, which Weber says is everywhere and in all times. The spirit is not about earning as a means that leads to some other end, whether one's pleasure, a desired social state, or happiness. Quite the contrary. Weber sees the spirit emerging from what gets translated as "worldly asceticism"**, a disposition that can be, and often is, oriented against eudaimonist happiness, the pursuit of a joyful life well-lived. I'll get into this point more in the next post or two, but it's this "worldly asceticism" that the "Protestant ethic" (whether it's Quakers, Baptists, Pietists, Puritans, or others***) passed on into the spirit of capitalism. One can pursue profit for no other end, exhibiting an almost irrational**** frugality and sternness.

What's the cash out? Weber's concept of the spirit of capitalism should be disturbing and weird. It should seem rather alien and strange. Who actually believes this? Does anyone truly make utility the end of all things? Weber, interestingly, says that Franklin's audience reveals that it is not the high-bourgeois who carry this spirit, who may form little dynasties seeking after social prestige. Rather, Franklin's audience was lower-middling industrial sorts. Weber's point is not to say that there is some ruling cabal who believe this doctrine and disseminate it, nor that there are many who believe in this spirit. Rather, it's that this spirit, through various historical circumstances, began to dominate all others, forming the backbone of various social structures that force compliance. Weber describes how European peasants of a traditionalist background generally averred from doing any more work necessary for their standard of living, despite incentives. And yet, in the US, many former peasants quickly adapted to the conditions of the factory. Education came not from a program, but life conditions. Forced into a new situation, people were slowly being molded to work in such a way where profit was the end, despite very few actually pursuing this course of action. It's the matrix for action.

The example is that many businessmen do not believe in, or pursue, the spirit of capitalism, but are forced to submit to its logic. They will say that their business must continue to grow and expand, generating more wealth and expanding its capital holding, if it wants to survive. Despite one's wishes, growth is required, lest one cease to be competitive and go out of business. An amorphous and faceless "Industry" or "Market" dictates one's behaviors, even if you don't like it. There's no end to most businesses: they must grow ad infinitum towards no particular purpose or goal. It's in this sense that businesses cease to serve their creators, but that owners must now service their business. The business is life.

Of course there are various outs, perhaps a willingness to be poor or take a chance, but many have goals that, if they want to be met, must obey the logic of a certain system. Here is where we connect the cthonic gods. It's not that the ancients liked these gods, but feared them and their ability to strip these farmers of their families, homes, crops, even lives. They dominated from underground, dread spirits that remained in the shadows, but whose whisper would chill the blood. They were cosmic forces, terrible and obscene, but cosmic forces nonetheless. What Weber has described is a peculiar divinity which most people abhor, but also fear. They hate this spirit, but serve it nonetheless. It's worth taking his diagnosis into consideration.


*I think Weber is right to point out that when it came to social matters, Luther was generally a dullard. According to Weber, Luther's growing conservatism (what he calls "traditionalism") influenced his novel doctrine of vocation. Turning away from the monasteries, Luther invented the idea that one's worldly activity is a divinely given "calling", which had previously only referred to one's conversion to Christ or an inward call to live the monastic life. It's the latter definition that Luther, utilizing and deracinating the mysticism of Johann Tauler, turns upside down. Now one's work becomes not only something needed for survival, pleasure, or social good, but the highest form of moral activity. In Luther's doctrine of two righteousness, freed from seeking God's pleasure, man could now exercise a love of neighbor through civil righteousness, an offspring, but not a sign, of one's salvation. Thus, Luther believed that the specialization of labor was a social good, for in having to depend on one another, one would have to foster a certain love for neighbor and reduce one's pride through dependence. But, as Weber notes by citing both Adam Smith and Blaise Pascal, Luther did not understand that specialized labor could easily thrive and succeed when people acted out of self-interest and benign selfishness (Smith), or that any labor, even the most trivial, can create arrogant lordlings within their tiny dominions (Pascal). Experience, I think, prove both Smith and Pascal correct.

** This term is a rather deceptive translation. "Worldly asceticism" does not mean worldly in the sense of only having cares for physical things. Rather, worldly refers to forming ascetic disciplines within a given civil society. Perhaps it is better translated "in-the-world asceticism", in contrast to monks who fled the world, retreating to monasteries or cells. As a conjunction between a rationalistic providential scheme and good works as a visible sign of one's salvation, everything one does with temporal things is the exemplary way of serving God. I'll attend to this concept more in another post.

***Weber believes that while Luther and Lutheranism is Protestant and created the key theological concept of "vocation", that it's not the fullest embodiment of Protestantism. Weber is not making this point to say Lutheranism is half-Catholic or anything polemical. Rather, he argues that orthodox Lutheranism crystallized a traditionalist social ethic from Luther, in addition to making doctrine supreme over any moral action. From his fights with the "Fanatics", Luther was incredibly wary of anything that looked like works-righteousness, and thus always kept good works as a secondary or tertiary mark of the Christian or the church. As I'll discuss in a later post, it was this transformation of good works as a sign of salvation that developed this distinctly Protestant ethos of "worldly asceticism".

****Weber is very clear to say that, while the spirit of Capitalism requires a rational calculating within a stabilizing/stabilized market environment, the claim of rationalism is always subjective. One must always be standing from somewhere, and from someone who sees profit as its own reward, oriented to an always receding future, it is rational. However, if one's end is pleasure, or the glory of God, or anything else, the practices seem utterly irrational if not self-destruction and masochistic.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Problem with Supererogation

"VOLUNTARY Works besides, over, and above, God's Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants." Article XIV, 39 Articles of Religion

 The Reformation generally condemnation what were called works of supererogation, or works that go above and beyond. This concept features within the Medieval framework of merit, where one's access to Heaven depended upon acquiring enough merit. Christ's gracious work had created an ecclesiastical structure that would manage the collection and distribution of meritorious works, thus opening up the gates of paradise. Of course, within this framework, Christ's atoning work, along with the various saints who pursued a life of holiness, not only acquired salvation for themselves but a surplus. One of the duties of the Papacy was to possess the key to this treasury of merits. Therefore, one could not only participate in the works of the Roman Church to acquire merit, but one could gain access to the surplus merit through Papal dispensations. These dispensations, indulgences, were usually contingently available deeds on behalf of the Church (e.g. fighting a crusade). But they could be meritorious donations for papal projects. Here, under the extravagant salesmanship of Johann Tetzel, indulgences as cash for salvation became the thing that set Martin Luther into action.

But as Luther would discover, the entire papal merit structure seems to be a gross exercise of injustice. Why, Luther asked, would the Papacy withhold salvation? If he had access to the merits of all saints, even Christ Himself, why would he not open that treasury and bless the world? Luther, and many other reformers, would not reject the concept of merit, but they would blow a part the Church's claims to have access to it. Part of this theological demolition was to attack the idea of surplus merit. The Christian had access to Christ's merit through the logic of imputation, and that was sufficient for everyone in the whole world and beyond. One gains access through union to Christ, acquiring the whole thing. Luther used the metaphor of a prince marrying a street-girl, who, in Teutonic marital law, had equal access to her husband's goods and he had to hers. The prince gained nothing but the girl, but the girl got her prince and the riches that befit his bride. If this were the case, then the idea of additional works, things that go above and beyond what God had called His people to do, is a moot point.

And yet even as creedal statements from the first and second generation of the Reformation condemned supererogation, the same concept appeared again. Stripped of the Medieval and Roman merit complex, various Protestants brought supererogation back in under the cover of night. These supererogatory concepts were, to name two making covenants and the spiritual-carnal dichotomy.

In the first instance, various Protestants, out of zeal, made covenantal statements of which they bound themselves in oaths. The New England Puritans did this, and it became normative with every new congregation formed. So did the Scottish Presbyterians, making the Solemn League and Covenant, which many English Presbyterians joined in on as well. But, as Roger Williams pointed out in his debate with Cotton Mather, who gave these groups the right to make a covenant with God? Is general silence or seeming success an implicit agreement on God's part? Williams found the entire idea to be blasphemous, waving a paper before God's face who is seemingly dumb in response to it.

Making these covenants really flowed from a concern with the first issue, the gradation of Christians between those who were godly, the spiritual, and those who were profane, the carnal. Now Scripture gives categories of maturity: some Christians can only grapple with the basics of faith and must anchor themselves in them before moving onto more complex issues and greater tasks. As per biological maturity, the extent of one's abilities is in whether one can perform them, not so much if they ought to. In other words, an toddler can't run a marathon, even if he tried, and while he could begin, someone, out of wisdom, should prevent him lest he hurt himself.

But this is different from gradations of Christians. For Richard Baxter, there were 8 varieties of Christian, from the puritan superstar to the man who thinks the moon is a divine being. Scripture speaks of maturity, but there's no gradation in terms of status. Either one is a Christian or one is not, an apostate. And if one is a Christian, one might be still young in the faith, and only capable of handling certain things. But such a state is only for a time. Instead, the gradation on Christians is a reintroduction of monkery, of second-class citizens who are either Christian by some minimal bar entry, or not really Christian at all, but saved through lucky associations. Part of these problems spawn from the need to maintain a national church, which the varieties of puritans did. But even without an official, established, church, the concept of a Christian society or culture can continue to exert a pull on dividing up those who are nominally Christian, or think with a Christian worldview, or something of that sort, but still are not living as top-class Christians.

The problem here is in a kind of segregation mentality, but not only so. Many of the things that people consider as setting themselves a part, while not following a doctrine of merit, are works that go above and beyond what God has called. Wearing a denim jumper is, for some, considered a work that sets the godly out from among the wicked, or at least the "nominal". Hence there's an entire Christian culture industry that feeds off of this supererogatory mindset: consuming entertainment that makes one a member of the godly. But, of course, where was it commanded to do such and such a works? The basic ethics of a life obeying Christ are vitiated, because one can now succeed them, always to their own doom.

Thus, the Reformational motto of soli deo gloria stands in marked contrast to the Jesuit's ad maiorem gloriam dei. For the Jesuits, one can always surpass oneself in the glory one offers to God. Not only is this mindset a breeding ground for pride and despair, but it is easily a trap to fall into commanding new works that many times end up undermining Christ's commands. It's this logic that underpinned the situational ethics of casuistry, where serving God as a king, despite it requiring real politik of murder and intrigue, ultimately is a greater work for the kingdom of God. The end is a desire to be more holy than God. It's the ethos that Dostoevksy captured in his Grand Inquisitor: a mutant form of love for God became a virulent hatred of the same.

And as the New England Congregationalists did, they pursued obedience to a false covenant unto murder, theft, man-stealing, and ultimately self-destruction. The project was a failure, for even within a generation, the children of the covenant found themselves unwilling and unable to become full Christians. The result? The Halfway Covenant, where they could become Church members through a kind of second-class citizenship. It wasn't liberal tolerance that passed this legislation, but the real fear that the entire project would collapse. One can't have a government of the saints when there are none left. Eventually these requirements slipped and slipped in pursuit of the godly society, with New England's Congregational establishment becoming solidly unitarian and then deist. The pursuit of the Kingdom of God as the chosen elect, set to remake the world, ended in nothing but a wholly secularized and morally deflated society. Even up unto the Civil War, it was the Quakers and Evangelicals who generally attacked the sins of slavery. The Congregational churches, instead, sat silent and generally complicit, with many of their members a part of the financial cabal that profited handsomely from the cotton trade, and slaves as financial capital investments, insured, mortgaged, and sold.

To try to exceed Christ's commands is to call Him a fool, or at least not truly wise. We presume we know what God wants beyond what He commanded. What height of arrogance and blasphemy! And yet it is often the norm for those who, feeling their socio-political empire slipping away, try to save themselves a remnant. Normally the Anabaptists get blamed for this sin of supererogation, and yet their initial unwillingness to participate derived from nothing of the sort. Instead it emerged from a general interest to obey the actual commands of Christ. Not until they were bloodied, beaten, murdered, and harassed into a quiet corner of Europe did the Anabaptists, fearful of their numbers and presence, began to become what we think of them today.

In the end, many who wanted to do more than God didn't even do what He required, and in so doing covered themselves many times in the blood of the saints and the oppressed. That's the real tragedy in all of it. Supererogation becomes a doctrinal matrix that allows you to worship power and build Babel in Christ's name. Lord help us.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Suspension: A Definition in Fragments

I want to put out a brief definition for my theological concept of suspension that I have been trying to hammer out over various posts, sometimes having gone the wrong direction before getting back on the right road. Thus, here are various fragments for consideration on what, precisely, I mean:

-As a preliminary, the claim for neutrality that undergirds liberalism is a sleight of hand. The major claims of the Enlightenment were only ever claims on a universal scope for meaning derived from "nature" because a larger social consensus was being sought after. However, when weaponized in an industrial, bureaucratic, centralized state with at least the capacity for global empire, it became a means of conquest. The result is a kind of deadly nominally secular, but actually sacral, order where the ideologies of Liberty, Reason, History, Progress, Nature, etc. wreak havoc. Contrary to various 20th century post-marxists, the end is not nigh, but we're really just dealing with another haunted political order, what Jacques Ellu termed the New Demons.

-However, the fact that the original intent in the liberal project failed does not mean that it was wholly fruitless or somehow malignant. It wasn't necessarily or in fact. Within the political orders of the Dutch (where a state-church was mostly neutralized) or the United States, there were periods of relative good, though it was not full in scope (e.g. Dutch in East Indies; US treatment of various Indian nations and its continued chattel slavery). But these failures do not detract from the fact that were benefits too. While I'm thinking more broadly in terms of social peace and equity, these categories themselves derive from a biblically informed ethic. I will return to this point, but suffice to say, the liberal project or the early modern accidental formation of toleration had bright spots.

-The key component that made these polities good in terms of social order was the embrace of toleration. What that meant was that the state, defined as a network of governing offices that coordinated with ultimate appeal in some central, but not necessarily centralizing or bureaucratic, node, did not decide on theological questions. However, and here's the kicker, that is itself a theological claim. One has to make a claim about the limits of knowledge, the relativity of good, the acceptance of boundaries, to forge such an order. Of course, this method was rare in the actualization of toleration policies; most of the time these were achieved through stalemate or diffusion.

-Here is where the governing theory of James Madison and Roger Williams overlap. Madison's federalism derived an official toleration from a pessimistic theory of man's violence and cruelty. Working from a given social context, since various bodies all exist, tolerance is worked out as an official policy of ceasefire. Of course, each group would have to agree to this ceasefire from their own principles (or lack thereof). Williams, on the other hand, enacted a similar policy, but one derived from his Christian faith. Believing coercion and persecution were not tools of conversion, and the church deriving power and authority not from the state, Williams designed a polity with an explicitly secular core that emerged from a biblical conviction. The Christian slays with the sword of the spirit, cutting hearts, not with iron swords. From a distinctly theological core, Williams proceeds to forge a civic order for the things that are mundane, which, again, requires a recognition of what is holy. Here, Williams would be able to determine the things that were, or were not, harmful to the "mere civility" (c.f. Teresa Bejan) of the commonwealth. Thus, while some murders could be justified as religious (e.g. Aztec human sacrifice), they were banned whereas night-time, shamanistic, ritual dances of Indians were permitted. Why? Because Williams knew the gods were nothing and that the Lord did not want hypocritical faith by forcing these Indians, through punishments and strictures, to be Christians when they were not.

-Suspension is a conceptualization of what Williams did, but applied more broadly. One does not need to buy land and start from scratch or flee from the sacral society one inhabits (though in Williams' case, he was driven out). Instead, the Christian must understand that the best path forward is two-fold. One, that the Christian must not actively pursue an alliance with the state or attempt to place a cross upon it. St. Daniel is exemplar: a slave in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, he confessed the God of Israel and fulfilled his obligation, enacting equity and seeing it as of relative importance. The exiled Israel was the people of God, not Babylon, and the people would one day leave, whereas Babylon would one day collapse. Here is the distinction between the holy and the common. The referent of the Holy City allowed Jews to refrain from seeing in Babylon as their home and end. They sought to live among themselves, raise their families, plant their gardens, but sigh for Zion.

-Two, as in the case of Daniel, God may place a church, or a Christian, in a position to not only confess Christ in the emperor's court, but to govern. While Daniel could continue to be exemplar, we might turn to the role of SS.Ezra and Nehemiah in rebuilding the Temple when the Jews returned to Jerusalem. While N.T. Wright is correct in noting that the Return was not much of a return, and that many rabbis understood that there was still a further redemption further off, the Return itself signified the prophetic figure of Redemption. In matching the contours of St. John's Revelation, the people of God are walking in the fullness and yet they are surrounded in a hostile world, where they survive and clamor before God for their Lord and God to open the seals. Preterism is mistaken in seeing Revelation as a symbolic representation of what had already happened. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD may be, providentially, a revelation of the fulfillment of God's purposes, it is not in Scripture and thus not canonical. In other words, it is not a binding event, not an infallibly preserved teaching tool for the Church. With Ezra and Nehemiah, as with John, the People of God returned, and yet they still remain in an empire that can, at a variance, be opposed and supportive. When supportive, the result may be a level of recognition by those who remain outside of the Kingdom but, through God's hand, exercise power and delegate it to the Children. Here, Oliver O'Donovan is correct, though  too optimistic, to see that the award of secular power is a God-given blessing for fidelity, not a goal. But caution and eternal vigilance is necessary. O'Donovan lists Constantine as an example, which might be fair if we focus on how churches could arbitrate civil disputes, and whose decisions were accepted in imperial jurisprudence. However, what I've called Eusebianism is never far behind, a sacralization of this order and the inevitable perpetuation of this order, by any means necessary. Constantine is not so much the problem, but his significance and his legacy. Here, Roger Williams would be an example of the blessings of fidelity. The Exile and the Return are Scriptural recapitulations of the descent into Egypt and Israel's ascension up into the Land. I need to do more work on the figural shape of Ezra and Nehemiah to flesh this out more.

-Thus, it is from a distinctly Christian conviction about man's corruptibility and redemption that refuses to replace the sword of the Spirit with one of bronze. It is from Christ's revelation and work that the categories of holy and common are understood and can be applied. Suspension is the Christian discernment of a political order, refusing to ride the beast. It is remaining a part of the chaste bride who the dragon chases and hunts, rather than being a part of the whore who gives herself to the kings of men, drinks from the golden chalice, and rides the beast. It is to join with Moses, choosing Christ over Egypt, and fleeing into the wilderness than inheriting the pleasures of Pharaoh. We must discern ourselves in whatever polity we're born into and apart of from the vantage, primarily, of Christ and not our ethnic or kin ties. These may inform incidentals and have relative values, things to use as mere common things, of no ultimate importance, and ultimately for the purposes of giving God the glory.

-It is primarily the goal for the Church to be the Church, in all its weird and strangeness, as we live in whatever commonwealth. We must decide things according to Scripturally conditioned logic, with hearts and minds given over to the Spirit to be conformed to Christ. Neville Figgis is correct in how he understands the Church's role as the Society, but found as a mere social body among social bodies. We ought to preach the gospel and be one among many, even as we know that the tiny mustard seed will grow and grow into a large tree, doing more for the birds of the air than any other. However, Figgis never understood how the catholick Church would always be afflicted by its mirror opposite, the Church of the Anti-Christ, the Whore, the Lamb with the voice of a Dragon. Let us have discernment to know the times and the places. The Revelation of Jesus Christ tells us that it will happen that the whore will ride the beast, but we also know her downfall and the conflagration of Babylon. We know that the Celestial City will come down from the Clouds, that Earth and Heaven will be one, and that peace will reign. Our goal is to be heralds, joining with the Spirit as that Bride and saying: Come!

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Real Error of Pelagianism

I'm skimming and jumping around on "ascetic pneumatology", tracing this doctrine from John Cassian to Gregory the Great. The concept of "ascetic pneumatology" is how John Cassian, Augustine, and various other Latin theologians, connected the doctrine of the Holy Spirit to broader questions of Christian salvation, formation of the virtues, and bearing the image of God. Thomas Humphries (the author) makes a very interesting point of connection. He argues that the claim for the divinity of the Holy Spirit, once accepted, opened up a variety of questions about the interaction between the Christian and God. Thus, the victory of the Holy Spirit's consubstantial equality with God, decisively upheld in Constantinople at 383, laid the foundations for the Pelagian controversy a few decades earlier.

Augustine's understanding of Human righteousness became linked to his trinitarian pneumatology and formed his (in)famous prayer for God to command what He wills and to give what He commands (i.e. the Christian needs help in fulfilling the commandment). While Augustine's theology hardened in the controversy, there were various Augustinian approaches to attacking Pelagianism, even non-Augustinian theologies that were anti-Pelagian (such as John Cassian). It was Cassian who really makes this point stick, writing in a brief for the council of Ephesus in 431 that connected Nestorius' theology of two-natures to Pelagius' theology of God's grace in salvation. Both of them, for Cassian, failed to properly understand God's relations and workings with man, and fell into error. It's for this reason that the council of Ephesus restated the condemnation of Pelagius with Nestorius.

And that's an otherwise odd connection, because Pelagius maintained an orthodox trinitarian confession. Hence why Augustine was angry when an eastern council exonerated Pelagius: they were only concerned with his how he understood the Godhead. Pelagius' mistake, which only amplified with the varieties of Pelagianism that emerged, was that he had unhinged ethics and sanctification, for lack of a better concept, from the person and work of the Spirit in Christ's body. Here is a good summary from Humphries about Pelagius' error:

"The sad curiosity about Pelagian pneumatology is that it had potential to bridge part of the gap that opened between his anthropology and Augustine’s. Pelagius has what counted in his own day as an orthodox understanding of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. He has hints of an ascetic pneumatology developed around baptism and post-baptismal sanctity. Baptized Christians gain the indwelling Spirit. Continuing in holiness includes maintaining the presence of the Spirit within. In this, Pelagius reminds us of Leo and the vast majority of other Christians who speak of the dignity of baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, Pelagius did not use pneumatology in his explanations of traditional ascetic activities, like fasting, vigils, reading scripture, or contemplation. Nor did Pelagius understand an appeal to the action of the Holy Spirit as a solution to the issues raised in the debate which took his name. Perhaps this is because Pelagius never thought his theology was deficient. No solution is needed where no problem is perceived. 
... 
We should note the use of key verses in Augustine’s arguments; Rom. 5:5 and 8:14–15 have been central to the arguments quoted here. These verses allow Augustine to shift the conversation from grace and will to the agency of the Holy Spirit in transforming human interiority. Shifting the vocabulary from “grace” to the “Holy Spirit” is more than a verbal play. It allows Augustine to speak not simply of a human person affected in various ways by some thing, but by some person. Where Pelagius spoke of the Spirit as a sign of the glory to come, Augustine speaks of the Spirit working within human lives. For Pelagius, the Spirit (merely) points the way; for Augustine, the Spirit leads the way. Where Pelagius speaks of the human response to God’s love, Augustine speaks of human transformation in divine love. Because the Holy Spirit is the divine love which binds the Trinity, and the same divine love operates within Christians, Augustine unites his Trinitarian theology and his anthropology. Pelagius was never able to connect his Trinitarian theology with his (p.82)anthropology, and so, was never able to move into the discussion of the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Christian. Augustine has a significant point to make in this argument: the Holy Spirit acts to heal what is broken and strengthen what is weak in human lives. Instead of destroying human agency, this enables it."
However, not every Augustinian understood their master's route. They began to combat Pelagius for failing to properly understand grace, sin, and God's election, following in the same error of not connecting a life of virtue to the work and personal presence of the Holy Spirit. Prosper of Aquitaine's earliest work fell into the same Pelagian trap:

In his response to Cassian, Prosper continues to think in terms of what I call a model of competing agencies. At the heart of this model is an exclusive “or:” either the human wills and God does not, or God wills and the human does not.44 Such a model of competing agencies drives much of the Pelagian concern to argue that human agency is prior to grace. Where there are two agents, one must be the “real” actor, while the other agent bears no responsibility. Pelagians were concerned to argue that humans are the “real” actors in our own lives, and this seems to force grace to be something other than a causal agent. God could aid human actions, but could not be a direct agent.
Prosper's later theology, having been chastened through debate with Cassian and further reading of Augustine, began to shift the problem away from predestination towards God's salvific will in general, how it is that Christians are saved. Discovering a stronger pneumatology allowed Prosper to maintain his emphases on God's monergistic salvation, even as such is worked out through a freeing of the Human will from bondage.

The cash-out value, I think, for this debate is how best to understand communion with God and salvation. Fundamentally Pelagius' mistake was to separate God's work and man's work through a failure to apply pneumatology to ascesis, to ethics and the path Christians had to walk. Prosper's slow realization hindered his ability to articulate these problems, whereas John Cassian had understood the root problem much earlier. Cassian understood that the Spirit worked through "monastic practices", which amounted to reading Scripture, prayer, fasting, vigils (e.g. staying up all night, foregoing sleep, for prayer). For Cassian, the prompting to do these things, and the benefits accrued in one's character, were gifts of the Spirit and products of His work. Prosper failed to understand Cassian's pre-Augustinian formulae and attacked him as semi-Pelagian. But for Cassian, there was never a time when the Spirit was not at work in the Christian and, since his main emphasis was on monastic communities, Cassian never discussed the conversion experience to Christ. The debate between Augustine and Pelagius centered on the life in Christ, not life afterwards. Not even Pelagius denied that salvation came through grace from faith alone, only that once that salvation was wrought (e.g. once one was a Christian) the emphasis shifted to striving forward.

This ancient debate helps to appreciate the broad Reformation emphasis to bring the monks into the village and to make the village a monastery; in other words, to make all Christians live in the fullness of the faith and no second-class or tiered citizenship. If pneumatology and ascesis/sanctification are held together, I think this path would get around many of the antinomian and legalist debates that plague many of these discussions, producing hyper-calvinists and open theists, worldlings and pharisaical legalists.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

A Brief Sigh

I spent an hour watching a few videos and reading a few articles from pop-atheists, and I had to just shake my head. Looking at a particular patheos blog, which as a platform is rather despicable and mercenary, I'm always amazed at how atheists function as their own bizarre online sub-culture clique. They indulge in the same herd mentality as any other online forum, utilize magical thinking in abstracts, and like to puff themselves up with atheist conversion stories and their own derivative and paper-thin morality.

It's at once frustrating and disheartening to hear these people talk. Many know very little, and usually are atheists from experience. Hence, the general tenor is a conversion story full of angst or enlightenment. That's fine, it sociologically fits the American milieu from whence they emerge. Which is what really gets me because they are just the shadows cast from American Evangelicalism, an offshoot. And that's what crushes me.

Like a mirror image of the political spectrum, they tend to embrace the liberalized progressivist talking-points of the Democratic party, just as much of Evangelicalism functions as a religious branch of the GOP. They don't have much to stand on, and these 2-D atheists trade blows back and forth with simple-minded evangelicals, using philosophical broth that has cooked off through centuries of interesting thought and engagement. One appeals to Religion and the other appeals to Science. Or they do a kind of dance back and forth. I get it that at a certain cognitive level, people might engage with this material, but from my vantage, and I'm not trying to stand on a pedestal, it looks like a waste of time. Understanding and learning are not nearly as prioritized and useful as rhetoric and wit, with the latter generally mistaken for the former. What really kicks me is that in both instances the interlocutors think themselves educated.

But intellectual poverty doesn't bother me as much as the moral depravity. Because Evangelical apologists and Atheist preachers are the residue of American political culture, they both reflect the apathetic and vicious imperial mindset. Both are distinctly American and flag-waving in their own respective ways, but these confessional atheists are to be pitied in the way the Evangelicals are not. The latter flaunt their wickedness and meanness by blaspheming the name of Christ through their political machinations. The way is broad for there have been many ways to celebrate and cheerlead the empire, whether it's the odd, unflagging, support some give to Trump or it's mendacious celebration of John McCain.

The odd thing is that whether they're engaged in a debate over evolution or the objectivity of morality, they both worship the same gods. The even sadder irony is that many atheists convert because they want freedom, which, again, follows a similar trajectory for many evangelical conversion narratives. It makes me sad because both seem to be pursuing some real good, and yet both reflect a sociological phenomenon that seems like the same crass base that makes for good salesmanship and crowd psychology. They still thrive in, and love, the platitudes of our murder-machine empire; what one calls the Lord Almighty or Jesus Christ, the other calls Freedom, Life, Reason, or Science. They're just names, cloaks for the same functional cash-out: a comfortable, white-collared, middle class life with cheap goods, a finger-wagging moralism, a black-hole memory, and an intolerable superiority-complex. The vanguard of the revolution and the clerical guardians tend to be cut from the same cloth, resulting in the same obscene foolishness because the root is never assessed, but left buried.

Thankfully some of these converted atheists have a natural iconoclastic tendency, and sometimes tip over golden calves in their pursuit of ritual purity. That's a good thing, and they point a finger at the hypocrisy and poor argumentation that many offer. It's true we all fall short of the glory of God and sin is rampant, but that ought never to be an excuse or a justification. It's clear as day: the Nations blaspheme the name of God on account of Israel. As many early apologists, like Origen, stated: the proof of the faith is in the life of the church, weak and beggarly people surpassing all expectation and loving one another in a way that defied death. None of these martyrs thought themselves sinless or saviors, they all relied on the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. And yet we must admit that these early apologists have a point, namely because they didn't sweep away the Scriptural injunction. The failures of Christians, including the beast-worshiping Evangelicals, make the faith less credible. Does that mean conversions don't happen, that people are not rescued through saving knowledge of Jesus Christ? No, but it does mean the hope of all ages does not shine brightly, caked over with mud of moral filth and failure. Of course, as I'm fond of saying, repentance is the chief virtue, and the lack of humility, recognition of frailty, and actually renouncing the pomp of the world, a turning back on it, is a sign that this virtue is neglected. That's not to say that the world would accept, or even recognize, repentance, but even so it's non existent.

The whole ordeal is sad. Impoverished intellects, impoverished souls, flitting about with nonsense and in the dim twilight of a decayed, blood-drinking, empire. The goal is not to be loud-mouths, to be storming stages and grabbing up power. Many apologists do little but impress their base with rhetorical wizardry and pat-answers that, under further inspection, are unsatisfying. And yet their work still serves a purpose, just as the church of atheism does, and so do all of these things.

The world still sits under the sign of the cross, and the only hope is the punctured bottom, the crucified Lord who sits reigning in the Highest.

Addendum: I want to make it perfectly clear that I see myself as a part of this problem. I do not mean to sound thundering from a place of moral perfection or intellectual clarity. Instead, I swim and drink the same milieu, and it has poisoned my soul. I struggle with various moral failures, and sin clings to my bones even as I have renounced, and continue to renounce, it day by day, in light of my baptism into Christ's death. I sigh because it is, at once, looking back on something I've escaped from, and knowing how much I can never quite escape it. Redemption is going all the way to the bottom, where the Word made flesh punctured the various lowest regions. The only way up and out is not climbing a ladder, but hurtling downwards. Our prayer should always be for the Lord to remember us when He comes into His kingdom; the only difference between what I'm saying and the beast worshipers of Evangelical and atheist stripes is the difference between the thieves hanging next to Jesus. In one sense, there's nothing at all different; in another, it's everything.

Post-addendum: I should say that this post was partially inspired through a rehashing of Matt Slick's CARM and his daughter's apostasy to the 2-D atheism, self-proclaiming that "Freedom" is her god. Her story sounds like Dan Barker's, and many other atheists I'm sure, who revel, perhaps with tears of joy, over being released from an all seeing eye in the sky. Someone once put Barker's conversion narrative side by side with John Bunyan's, and the parallels are striking. For Rachael Slick and Dan Barker, the offer of freedom offers a fresh-blast of existential thrill, to know that one can walk without groveling. But, again, this smacks of Charles Wesley's hymn: "my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee".

And while this parallel should perhaps raise questions about the form of Christianity they left, it's perhaps more interesting to look at the style of apologetics that both Matt and Rachael engage in. According to her testimony, Rachael saw the light when she was trapped in the question of morality's objective, and absolute, existence. This same question has been posed to Matt, and he gave a quick and pat answer that is a watered-down version of the Westminster Confession's account. But in both cases, the Slicks' apologetic strategy is fundamentally ideological. In other words, Truth is defined coextensively with a logic (or one variety of logic), so that the processing of a given logic defines the parameters of reality. It's not so much a question of it's real and therefore it's true, but belief x and belief y require belief z, thus I must obey.

This approach is purely ideological, because ideas take precedence rather than being a modes of intellectual approach. Models and systems are means to approach the data of reality, not the Really Real that squeezes reality into its mold. And yet without intellectual categories, we'd have no idea what we're doing or looking at; it is fundamentally impossible to even imagine a mind that does not categorize. Empiricism is a defunct epistemic system, but it was a reaction to the obscene systems-building that the Reformation debates took on. Historically, it makes sense and was a good, even if it is faulty and unwieldy. The reality is more dialectical, as we must constantly revise categories to constantly adjust to what is before us.

Perhaps Rachael left this mode of thought behind, but I really doubt it. In this way, she is the heir of her father, whose approach seems to answer all of the questions, but only after their being filtered through the system. Slick is not the worst systematician, and, as I said above, his work has been a blessing for me (and I'm sure many others). And yet, the approach, as ideological, is a deification of a system of logic. It will call itself "biblical", but that means that the system claims to be derived from the biblical source-material.

I'm not saying this apologetic method created Rachael's atheism, but it will ultimately dull the intellect even as it appears hyper-rational. Things outside of the system can't exist, and thus must be warped to fit or discarded. But the intellectual humility required for the slower pace method of what we might call "critical realism" is not good for the apologetics or debate circuit, whether atheist, christian, or whatever. And so it is rejected. Truth is crucified by the forces of logic; the same irony as the Messiah being crucified by the priesthood and the lawyers.