Disenchantment, Christian Style

Protestants get a lot of blame for removing the sacred canopy that covered Christendom with a sacramental presence. But when you know the history of religion maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, monotheistic faiths have regularly rejected those pieties or ideas that locate divine ways in ordinary affairs. Steve Bruce explains:

The religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia were profoundly cosmological. The human world was embedded in a cosmic order that embraced the entire universe, with no sharp distinction between the human and the non-human. Greek and Roman gods even mated with humans. Such continuity between people and the gods was broken by the religion of the Jews. As Berger puts it: ‘The Old Testament posits a God who stands outside the cosmos, which is his creation but which he confronts and does not permeate.’ He created it and he would end it, but, between start and finish, the world could be seen as having its own structure and logic. The God of Ancient Israel was a radically transcendent God. . . . There was a thoroughly demythologized universe between human kind and God. (God is Dead: Secularization in the West, 6)

Christians (should) get secularization honestly.


Voluntarism Redux?

The news of Francis’ washing the feet of a Muslim woman has revealed a new wrinkle in my understanding of papal supremacy. Those in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome are not entirely sure what to make of the pope not complying with established procedures in the liturgy prescribed for Holy Thursday. Here is one report that features discontent among traditionalists:

The church’s liturgical law holds that only men can participate in the rite, given that Jesus’ apostles were all male. Priests and bishops have routinely petitioned for exemptions to include women, but the law is clear.

Francis, however, is the church’s chief lawmaker, so in theory he can do whatever he wants.

“The pope does not need anybody’s permission to make exceptions to how ecclesiastical law relates to him,” noted conservative columnist Jimmy Akin in the National Catholic Register. But Akin echoed concerns raised by canon lawyer Edward Peters, an adviser to the Vatican’s high court, that Francis was setting a “questionable example” by simply ignoring the church’s own rules.

“People naturally imitate their leader. That’s the whole point behind Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. He was explicitly and intentionally setting an example for them,” he said. “Pope Francis knows that he is setting an example.”

The inclusion of women in the rite is problematic for some because it could be seen as an opening of sorts to women’s ordination. The Catholic Church restricts the priesthood to men, arguing that Jesus and his 12 apostles were male.

Francis is clearly opposed to women’s ordination. But by washing the feet of women, he jolted traditionalists who for years have been unbending in insisting that the ritual is for men only and proudly holding up as evidence documentation from the Vatican’s liturgy office saying so.

For the attempt by a conservative to justify Francis’ actions, see this.

The question that Francis raises is whether the pope is bound by church law and teaching or whether by virtue of his supremacy, power, and infallibility whatever he does is right.

One answer might be the one favored by the Callers who are my instructors in all things conservative Roman Catholic. When talking about papal infallibility, for instance, Bryan Cross is quick to note that this authority is carefully prescribed:

If it were true that (a) the ratified decisions of ecumenical councils regarding faith or morals, taught definitively to be held by all the faithful, contradicted each other, or (b) that the definitive papal proclamations to be held by all the faithful on matters of faith or morals contradicted each other, or (c) the teachings in (a) contradicted the teachings in (b), that would not only be a “serious problem” for the doctrine of magisterial infallibility; it would demolish the entire Catholic paradigm. But none of those three has occurred, and Horton does not even point to an alleged case where one of those three occurred.

Have councils erred? Yes. Think of the Robber Council of Ephesus in 449, or the Council of Rimini in 359. But they did not err when the conditions in (a) were met. Have popes erred? Again yes. Think of the errors of Pope Vigilius and Pope Honorius, and the way Urban VIII handled the Galileo case. But no popes have erred under the conditions specified in (b). The Catholic doctrine of magisterial infallibility is not falsified by errors of the sort just mentioned, because it is a highly qualified doctrine, such that divine protection from error is assured only under very specific conditions.

This reading of infallibility implies that the pope does not have unlimited power. It means that popes do actually sin and err, and that they are bound but notions already defined that specify the nature of sin and error. In other words, popes need to submit to a rule of law and teaching. At least, that is one way of reading Cross’ version of the hierarchy.

Another answer to the question of relations between papal supremacy and the rule of law might invoke medieval debates about voluntarism, a no-no in the history of Christian theology according to some historical theologians. I am no expert on nominalism, realism and the debates of late medieval theologians, but among nominalists developed the idea of voluntarism, a view which located moral goodness more in God’s will (whatever he does is right) than in an abstract set of laws (which God established and needs to follow). This view of God, the argument goes, became one that the Protestants used to assert that God’s ways transcended the church’s rules and authority. As such, voluntarism was the fast track to undoing papal authority.

Theological voluntarism or Divine Command Theory holds that an act is rendered moral neither by its consequences (utilitarian or consequentialist ethics) nor by its nature (deontological ethics), but instead merely by virtue of its being commanded by God. According to William of Ockham, probably the most famous proponent of Divine Command Theory, murder would have been moral had God commanded it; and moreover, it is hypothetically conceivable that God might “change His mind” and alter the moral order by deciding to start commanding murder.

By decoupling morality from rational analysis of the nature of acts and their consequences, then, Divine Command Theory implies that we cannot know moral truth except by divine revelation.

To many atheists, that is the sum of all religious ethics, especially religious sexual ethics: x is right and y is wrong simply because God says so. Christina committed this error throughout her lecture, referring to various religious teachings on sexuality as random sets of taboos. While atheists are free to ground moral judgment in human wellbeing, she explained, religious ethicists classify an act as right or wrong based on whether their sacred text tells them that “God likes it” or not.

That might not be such a mischaracterization of Divine Command Theory, and, in fairness, it is true that there have been prominent theologians who have embraced some version of theological voluntarism—the original Protestant Reformers, for instance, borrowed heavily from Ockham’s philosophy.

So a question that Francis’ acts raises for those who defend it because a pope is not subject to the law is whether a danger exists of repeating the error of volutarism. If Ockham and the Reformers were wrong to view God as transcending the law, is it not equally wrong to put the pope in that position? And for those intellectual conservatives who regularly blame Ockham and voluntarism for the collapse of Christendom, is it possible that a certain view of papal supremacy contributes to a similar dynamic, that of separating divine law from the institutions that are supposed to embody (even incarnate) it?

This question reminded me of a post that Ross Douthat wrote in response to David Bentley Hart about contemporary gnosticism and atheism.

Having spent a fair amount of time reading the various manuals of therapeutic spirituality for my recent book on American religion, I came away convinced that the Deepak Chopras and Eckhart Tolles and Elizabeth Gilberts are, indeed, enchanted “with the self in its particularity” — but that they’re also eager (desperately so, at times) to reconcile this enchantment with the God Within with the traditional monotheistic quest for the God Without, rather than treating one as a substitution for the other.

There’s no question which of the two Gods these authors ultimate privilege — hence the tendency toward spiritual solipsism that Hart rightly identifies. (If the God you find within disagrees with the God of your scriptures or your traditions, well, so much the worse for your scriptures or your traditions.) But this privileging does not amount to anything like a true denial of transcendance.

After reading this I thought some about private revelations and the rejection of such notions in the Reformed confessions. Scripture is the norm for Protestants. God stands above Scripture. He has not revealed everything in Scripture. But what he has revealed is true and it reflects his mind. It is not a shadow even if it does not reveal everything that God knows. For that reason, Protestants are very squeamish about adding to Scripture, whether private revelations or new writings or traditions of men.

But if you are not so bibliocentric, if you believe an apostle or an officer has access to truth that does not exist in Scripture (or even tradition), what standard do you have for evaluating whether the apostle or officer or tongues-speaker is speaking the truth? I don’t know if defenders of Francis worry about placing an authority beyond common or accepted standards of truth and goodness the way that Protestants have and do. But if they don’t, are they in danger of re-doing Ockham?

Blame It on the Reformation (Part 1)

In the first chapter of The Unintended Reformation: How A Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Belknap/Harvard), Brad S. Gregory tries to account for the Reformation’s role in the disenchantment of the medieval cosmos and the eventual dominance of a secular, scientific understanding of the universe:

Protestant reformers sought to restore a proper understanding of the relationship between God and creation as they respectively understood it. Nevertheless, some of their departures from the traditional Christian view seem to have implied univocal metaphysical assumptions in ways that probably did contribute to an eventual conception of a disenchanted natural world. One such departure was their variegated rejection of sacramentality as it was understood by the Roman church, not only with respect to the church’s seven sacraments, but also as a comprehensive, biblical view of reality in which the transcendent God manifests himself in and through the natural, material world.

I have been in conversations before with Roman Catholics about a sacramental view of the universe and it still leaves be flummoxed. It is akin to the Reformed w-w phenomenon where Christianity is nothing unless it provides a comprehensive account of everything. Aside from such similarities, a sacramental view of the universe where nature is filled with grace (and according to Gregory makes plausible the weekly real presence of Christ in the Mass) would seem to undermine the significance and uniqueness of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. If God is present everywhere in a gracious and sacramental way, then why bother with the real sacraments? Gregory’s understanding of the “traditional” Christian view against which the Reformers reacted is not one apparently shared by the U.S. Bishops responsible for the Baltimore Catechism:

136. Q. What is a Sacrament?
A. A Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.
137. Q. How many Sacraments are there?
A. There are seven Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.
138. Q. Whence have the Sacraments the power of giving grace?
A. The Sacraments have the power of giving grace from the merits of Jesus Christ.
139. Q. What grace do the Sacraments give?
A. Some of the Sacraments give sanctifying grace, and others increase it in our souls.

I suppose Gregory is aware of this and would not want to say that a sunrise or a waterfall are sacraments. If that’s so, then he needs to qualify what he means by a “sacramental” view of the universe. But he doesn’t:

Desacramentalized and denuded of God’s presence via a metaphysical univocity and Occam’s razor, the natural world would cease to be either the Catholic theater of God’s grace or the playground of Satan as Luther’s princeps mundi. Instead, it would become so much raw material awaiting the imprint of human desires. (57)

Gregory’s failure to qualify sacramentality reminds me of a point that the sociologist Steve Bruce made effectively about the transcendent God professed by Jews and early Christians in contrast to the polytheistic religions of their contemporaries. Here I borrow a few paragraphs from A Secular Faith which follow Bruce:

Christianity’s friendliness to if not encouragement of the secular is just as obvious to those who evaluate not only the differences between East and West, or between Christian and Muslim, but the rise and development of modernity, for some the much feared engine of secularization in Europe and North America. Steve Bruce, a British sociologist of religion, observes that one of the key factors in modernization is another infelicitous word, to which sociology is prone, rationalization. By this he means the eradication of the cosmic order typical of civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia in which distinctions between the natural and supernatural worlds, or between the human and non-human were fluid or non-existent. In effect, the divine was bound up with the cosmos, immanent in and throughout the world. But with rise of monotheism in ancient Israel, God became radically transcendent and other. As Bruce explains, the God of Israel “was so distanced from [his followers] as to be beyond magical manipulation.” This deity’s laws could be known and had to be obeyed, but he could not be “bribed, cajoled, or tricked into doing his worshipers’ will.” Bruce argues that in the same way that ancient Judaism introduced a transcendent God into ancient near eastern religion, Christianity did the same in the Roman Empire where previously “a horde of gods, or spirits, often behaving in an arbitrary fashion and operating at cross purposes, makes the relationship of supernatural and natural worlds unpredictable.” Christianity “systematized” the supernatural and made religion much less a matter of magic than a code of conduct or right response to divine order.

Although Roman Catholicism, in Bruce’s scheme, began to remythologize the cosmos and people the universe with angels, saints, and other “semi-divine beings,” the Protestant Reformation “demythologized” the world. . . . For Bruce, Protestantism “eliminated ritual and sacramental manipulation of God, and restored the process of ethical rationalization.” Historians of science have argued that this sort of rationalization was key to the development of scientific discovery. As Bruce explains, “Modern science is not easy for cultures which believe that the world is pervaded by supernatural spirits or that the divinities are unpredictable” because systematic inquiry into the natural world assumes that “the behaviour of matter is indeed regular.” Consequently, with Protestantism the domain over which religion “offered the most compelling explanations” narrowed considerably. In fact, the Protestant Reformation’s secularizing impulse reduced the power of the church and “made way for a variety of thought and for the questioning of tradition which is so vital to natural science.” (247-48)

Gregory makes it clear that he is not comfortable with the disenchanted world of modern science. But what he does not apparently consider is that such disenchantment follows from a rigorously monotheistic faith where God is completely other, except when he intervenes miraculously to reveal himself to his creatures. In between those breakthroughs, humans have no definite knowledge of what God is up to, or what developments in history or nature mean. Discomfort with a God who is beyond our ways and who only reveals himself in limited (though blessed) ways seems to be one reason why people are hostile to Calvinism (and may even explain why neo-Calvinists want to break down distinctions between the sacred and secular — they want the universe to be an obvious theater not of God’s grace but of Christ’s sovereignty).