Reverse Whiggism

It comes from the bottom of the magazine pile, but Michael Brendan Dougherty shows what it would be like to have J. Gresham Machen trapped in a Roman Catholic convert’s body:

. . . read Richard Weaver on William of Ockham. Find some of Hilaire Belloc’s wilder statements that The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith. Go page through Warren H. Carroll’s “A History of Christendom.” You can find these notions informing the fiction of Robert Hugh Benson who thought that the re-adoption of a few Christian principles would bring back the colored uniforms and heraldry of medieval guilds. Or pick any number of pamphlets by the enthusiastic prelates of the Society of St. Pius X. The great signposts are all there, Ockham, 1517, Westphalia, 1789 and all the rest. Suddenly you have what Lilla very aptly describes as a “an inverted Whiggism—a Whiggism for depressives.”

I’ve had this view articulated to me even by a Jewish scholar at Bard College, who told me that the Reformation ruined everything after I had given him hints that I was initiated enough to hear this.

There are a couple of fallacies hiding behind this line of thinking. Chiefly, this reverse Whiggism seems to take it for granted that the point of Christianity is Christendom, as if Jesus was born in Bethlehem to build Chartres and compose the Summa Theologica. And therefore everything from 1295 to now is a story of punctuated decline.

I like Chartres and the Summa fine but Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.

And, I think even at one point Lilla almost falls for the other error crouching behind this way of thinking when he writes “despite centuries of internal conflicts over papal authority and external conflicts with the Eastern Church and the Turks, the Roman Catholic Church did indeed seem triumphant.”

Really? Certainly there were eras and areas where the Church had the kind of comfort to develop its own kind of medieval hipster ironies.

But we’re really fooling ourselves if we think the Catholic (or catholic) orthodoxy had a kind of super-hold on Europe, and we just stupidly abandoned it. People now treat the monastic movement like it was some kind of naturally occurring balancing act that just kicked in once Christianity got imperial approval. No, it was the response of certain Christians to what they felt was an age in crisis. Theological competition was not a novelty of the Reformation. After all, the Church councils did not slay Arianism by force of argument. They merely announced a hoped-for death sentence for a heresy that took centuries to vanquish.

Roman Catholic spirituality of the church without Yankees banners, indeed.


7 thoughts on “Reverse Whiggism

  1. Another reason to opt out of the Christ-died-for-culture business:

    For many in the West, the idea that a church would take an overtly hawkish stance in the conflict in Syria is an utterly foreign concept.

    But then, the Russian Orthodox Church is not Western, said Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the church’s most recognizable spokesperson, in his spartan downtown Moscow office.

    “The idea that church and state should be alienated from each other is not a characteristic of Orthodox civilization,” said the wispy-bearded senior cleric, whose eyes almost seem to burn. “It’s a characteristic of the West.”

    Not well known or understood in the West, the Russian Orthodox Church has been Russia’s chief source of spiritual identity for most of its 1,000-year existence. Though it was nearly destroyed by the communists, it has since rebounded sharply to become once again the Kremlin’s ideological bulwark.

    As that relationship has solidified, the church has also integrated with the military. Russian media frequently run photos of priests blessing weaponry, including war planes, while Orthodox chaplains are embedded in most military units. And now, it is underscoring its enthusiastic backing for Russia’s military intervention in Syria—a fight Chaplin dramatically describes as “a holy war against terrorism.”

    “Russia has been attacked many times,” Chaplin said. “This is not a religious war, not a Christian-Muslim conflict, but for us, the struggle against terrorism definitely has a spiritual dimension.”


  2. “as if Jesus was born in Bethlehem to build Chartres and compose the Summa Theologica” what a silly idea. He came to make sure that we pull back from “the edge of suicide” on climate change.


  3. priests blessing weaponry, including war planes

    How long until TGC starts this nonsense too?

    This Christmas, our faith and work channel—Every Square Inch—wants to celebrate products made by companies founded by Christian entrepreneurs. As entrepreneurs, they created something from nothing and, along the way, have given people jobs, contributed to the economy, engaged in ethical business practices, been generous with their neighbors, and expressed the creativity of God

    Coffee makers and hipster clothes made it, but where’s the bombs, drones and toilet plungers?


  4. Carl Truman— Nevertheless, there is a price to pay here—to return to the confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is inevitably to return to the divisions of that era. The challenge which Machen poses to the church is, on one level, the challenge to take the particularity of confessional subscription seriously. And doing so may well militate against significant co-belligerence in the secular sphere. Though perhaps Machen’s view might be that such co-belligerence, when it has taken on a quasi-ecclesiastical hue, was always actually an IRONIC PART OF THE PROBLEM, rather than a stepping-stone to the solution.


  5. Trueman:

    Indeed, in its repudiation of all forms of external authority and its exaltation of the individual, the modernism which Machen critiqued has become something much more obviously antithetical to the faith and something much uglier and much nastier.

    O look, Darryl. Your acolytes have been arguing for their own internal Holy Spirit against the Church’s. Ugly, nasty.

    Whose Holy Spirit shall we trust, Luther’s or Augustine’s? Darryl Hart’s? Dr. Zrim’s?

    Look at your fruits. Sister Ali quotes the Bible and is mocked for it.


  6. vd, t, correction. Protestants argue for Word and Spirit, the Spirit who inspired holy writ.

    You mock Old Life, claim the Holy Spirit, and don’t go to mass. Don’t break that mirror.


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