For the Umpteenth Time, Grace is Not Nature

Once again the lame argument that nominalism (and its Protestant progeny) severed the chain of being and gave us Walmart:

One can now readily see the theological pitfalls of this position. It means that in Genesis, when God called creation ‘good’—it was only because He said so, not because it was really good. It also contravenes the testimony of the Old Testament, where creation as seen as reflecting the beauty and goodness of God—Dreher quotes Psalm 19:2, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Finally, Ockham’s position is at odds with the reality of the Incarnation itself, along with the reality of the visible Church and the sacramental system. (Certainly it is now apparent how nominalism helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation.)

In the context of the Christian faith, the errors and perils of nominalism may seem manifest, but what about its broader cultural implications? As Dreher explains, once the world had been emptied of inherent meaning and bore only that meaning imposed on it by God, the next big step was to replace God with man.

How and why did this happen?

The real answer, of course, is beyond our scope, but we can briefly point to it here. (See Dreher’s second chapter, “The Roots of the Crisis” for the full summary.) Once the sacred chain connecting all being to God was severed, creation shrunk back from its Creator: the world became a smaller place.

Hello! The heavens declaring the glory of God doesn’t make the heavens a sacrament.

Hello! Affirming the profound chasm between Creator and creature (can you say transcendence?) does not destroy the light of nature that shows “that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might” (Confession of Faith 21.1).

Hello! Saying that God’s ways are not our ways is not to deny that God superintends all things.

In fact, if you believe in providence:

God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy. (Confession of Faith 5.1)

you can also believe in sacraments:

A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ; wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers. (Shorter Catechism 91)

But if you so closely identify God with his creation, you may have trouble distinguishing the church from Europe. Hillaire Belloc anyone?

Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe.

Surely, somewhere in all those Aristotelian categories appropriated by Aquinas, Roman Catholics have a way of distinguishing the world from God who is a “spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” You have to preserve those incommunicable attributes of God somehow.

When Did Christianity Become Imperial?

Pierre Manent begs more than he explains:

What to do about our diminished collective capacity is the great political question of Europe. Whether in relation to European unification or to Islam, it is clear that we have nothing pertinent to say if we refrain from making claims about European identity. One way to outline essential characteristics of European political and spiritual life is to contrast them with certain fundamental features of Muslim life.

Running the risk of a somewhat rough stylization, we might say something like the following: Islam throughout its history has largely preserved the form, the impulse, and the consciousness of empire (traits that are found with renewed vigor today), while Western Christianity, though born in an imperial form, and very much subject to great missionary and conquering movements, found its relative stability in a very different arrangement. Islam was never able to abandon the imperial form that ­Christianity could never assume in a lasting way. Christianity instead found its form in the nation, or in the plurality of nations once called “Christendom,” then “Europe.”

Anyone who reads the first pope Peter, finds little sense of Christian empire:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:9-11 ESV)

The early church thought of itself more in exile than as part of the establishment. Then came Constantine. Then came empire. Then came establishment. Only with the novos ordo seclorum did Europeans begin to question the fit between Christianity and empire.

Help From Across the Pond

Additional returns on Protestant efforts to transform culture:

Taken together, Stewart, Sutton, and Wacker offer important new perspectives on the means by which America was born again. America has become a holy nation, but those who are most responsible for it so often refuse to recognize it. But these books also suggest the extent to which evangelicalism itself has been born again. In the course of the past century, even as its cultural power steadily increased, the “old-time religion” has been revolutionized. Across the board, the doctrinal and political specifics that once shaped popular Protestantism have given way to what evangelical-turned-Catholic sociologist Christian Smith has described as a “moralistic therapeutic deism.” This religious style mimics the structure of evangelical theology while advancing only a few of its ethical demands.

Investigating this trend, Todd M. Brenneman’s Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (2014) analyses the rhetorical and media strategies of several best-selling evangelical ministers. Despite some differences, Brenneman argues, Max Lucado, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, and other celebrity preachers share a common exhortative style. Their pitch mixes ideas that are often atypical of the evangelical theological heritage in a mélange of unreason and sentiment. In their presentations, theology is reduced to clichés that reiterate the image of a “fatherly God desperately in love with his children…a God who is infatuated with human beings.” . . .

As the recent books discussed here suggest, the religious and political divisions that have so often beset born-again Protestants have become increasingly pronounced. In this era of “designer” religion, as believers become increasingly divided in their religious and political convictions, their moments of common purpose become ever more difficult to identify. Evangelical religion has won America at the price of its own evisceration. Contemporary evangelicals might have much more in common with those associated with “the heretical origins of the American republic” than they could ever have imagined. They tried to change the nation by re-inhabiting the zeitgeist, but the zeitgeist swallowed them in mid-transformation. For the evangelicals who made it all possible, the redemption of America has come at enormous cost.

Too bad evangelicals didn’t learn from Roman Catholics about the danger of identifying faith with place:

The West, still primitive, discovered through the Crusades the intensive culture, the accumulated wealth, the fixed civilized traditions of the Greek Empire and of the town of Constantinople. It discovered also, in a vivid new experience, the East. The mere covering of so much land, the mere seeing of so many sights by a million men expanded and broke the walls of the mind of the Dark Ages. The Mediterranean came to be covered with Christian ships, and took its place again with fertile rapidity as the great highway of exchange.

Europe awoke. All architecture is transformed, and that quite new thing, the Gothic, arises. The conception of representative assembly, monastic in origin, fruitfully transferred to civilian soil, appears in the institutions of Christendom. The vernacular languages appear, and with them the beginnings of our literature: the Tuscan, the Castilian, the Langue d’Oc, the Northern French, somewhat later the English. Even the primitive tongues that had always kept their vitality from beyond recorded time, the Celtic and the German [Footnote: I mean, in neither of the groups of tongues as we first find them recorded, for by that time each—especially the German—was full of Southern words borrowed from the Empire; but the original stocks which survived side by side with this new vocabulary. For instance, our first knowledge of Teutonic dialect is of the eighth century (the so-called Early Gothic is a fraud) but even then quite half the words or more are truly German, apparently unaffected by the Imperial laws and speech.] begin to take on new creative powers and to produce a new literature. That fundamental institution of Europe, the University, arises; first in Italy, immediately after in Paris—which last becomes the type and centre of the scheme.

The central civil governments begin to correspond to their natural limits, the English monarchy is fixed first, the French kingdom is coalescing, the Spanish regions will soon combine. The Middle Ages are born.

The flower of that capital experiment in the history of our race was the thirteenth century. Edward I. of England, St. Louis of France, Pope Innocent III., were the types of its governing manhood. Everywhere Europe was renewed; there were new white walls around the cities, new white Gothic churches in the towns, new castles on the hills, law codified, the classics rediscovered, the questions of philosophy sprung to activity and producing in their first vigor, as it were, the summit of expository power in St. Thomas, surely the strongest, the most virile, intellect which our European blood has given to the world.

Two notes mark the time for anyone who is acquainted with its building, its letters, and its wars: a note of youth, and a note of content. Europe was imagined to be at last achieved, and that ineradicable dream of a permanent and satisfactory society seemed to have taken on flesh and to have come to live forever among Christian men.

No such permanence and no such good is permitted to humanity; and the great experiment, as I have called it, was destined to fail.

While it flourished, all that is specially characteristic of our European descent and nature stood visibly present in the daily life, and in the large, as in the small, institutions, of Europe.

Our property in land and instruments was well divided among many or all; we produced the peasant; we maintained the independent craftsman; we founded coöperative industry. In arms that military type arose which lives upon the virtues proper to arms and detests the vices arms may breed. Above all, an intense and living appetite for truth, a perception of reality, invigorated these generations. They saw what was before them, they called things by their names. Never was political or social formula less divorced from fact, never was the mass of our civilization better welded—and in spite of all this the thing did not endure.

Not In My Expertise's Backyard

Academics are a touchy lot. First, the liberal Roman Catholic academics who questioned the bona fides of a man who writes op-ed columns for — get this — the liberal New York Times!!!. Now, a history prof (thanks to John Fea) in Wales who faults Niall Ferguson for not showing poper deference to professional specialization in an op-ed column about Islam and Europe:

Gibbon, then, saw the demise of the Roman empire in the fifth century as a peculiarly western tragedy; it was also one that risked happening again. No modern specialist of the period would accept Gibbon’s analysis as anything more than the posturing of an Enlightenment intellectual decrying the forces of “superstition” and “barbarism”. That Ferguson chooses to do so fits neatly with the primacy and ascendancy of the West in his historical vision. In this he is not alone: a string of right-wing commentators in the United States have expounded a similar vision equating modern America with ancient Rome, and issuing dire warnings that it risks a similar fate. This perspective has been subject to withering deconstruction by the late Jack Goody, who argued in his The Theft of History (2006) that much of world history has been shoehorned into a narrative framework derived from and designed to satisfy the experience of the West. It also purposefully leaves out of the picture the dynamic interactions and genuinely shared histories of the West and the rest of the world. But that is not a story that suits an agenda of “us” pitted against “them”.

What’s odd about this quibbling is that I don’t suppose Dr. Humphries would disagree with Ferguson about the barbarity of the Paris attacks. So barbarism, as bad as that word it, carries a degree of plausibility after what we’ve seen from the efforts of ISIS.

Nor do I suspect Dr. Humphries would really dispute the primacy and the ascendancy of the West to which Ferguson appeals. Sure, Humphries likely laments that supremacy as much as Ferguson celebrates it. But would Europe and North America really be facing Islamic terrorists if not for the dominance of the West in the Middle East? In fact, would the West even be the source of a global political and economic order had not Europeans began to fight back against Muslims first in the Crusades and then in the Reconquista and beyond? Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World was partly inspired by a hope to find more precious metals to fund the defeat of Islam. Would Jack Goody’s point about the “theft of history” even make sense if not for the West (for good — my living in the U.S. — and for ill — slavery) dominating the globe?

Again, that’s not to say that the West is innocent or should be celebrated. It doesn’t take a lot of historical imagination to appreciate Muslim resentment about the presence of Christians and westerners in formerly Muslim dominated territories. It may not even take much imagination to acknowledge that all people celebrate war and defeat of enemies — think the Battle of Lepanto and the Rosary. But simply to fault Ferguson for insensitivity to the standards of historical journals in the service of an op-ed piece while also failing to concede the sources of the historic opposition between Christendom and Islam, whether in its overtly Christian or secularized versions for Europeans, is to get lost in the weeds of academic pretense.

Would the French and Muslims be served better by reading historical monographs or by recognizing the antagonism divides them?

But I Have Stopped Beating My Wife, Really!

I don’t know which is more annoying, Yankee fans or Christians arguing that their religion is the basis for all good things. Here are a couple recent iterations on Christianity and the West from opposite sides of the Tiber. First, the pastor who would turn the world upside down (even though like it when beverages remain in their containers — odd, that), David Robertson:

The worst place to be an atheist is in an atheist country. Conversely the best place is a country where a Christian tolerance and view of humanity is deeply rooted within the structures, institutions and psyche of the nation. The vision of a ‘benign secularism’ is at best a fantastical dream. The choice is not between a theocratic Presbyterian Taliban state run by evangelical rednecks, waffling wooly liberal clergy and authoritarian paedophile priests, or an absolutist state where religion is reduced to the status of a knitting club. Why can we not reinvent the traditional Scottish model of an open tolerant State founded upon and with the ethos of, a biblical Christianity which recognizes that neither the State nor the Church is Absolute? Our societies metro-elites want the fruits of Christianity, without the roots. That’s not how the universe works. If post –referendum Scotland is to flourish then we need to heed the mottos of our two greatest cities and make them the anthems for the renewed nation. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain”. “Let Scotland flourish by the preaching of the Word.”

Second, from Roman Catholic professor, Donald DeMarco:

Christianity has supplied culture with invaluable benefits, including the notion that man has an inalienable dignity, that marriage is a sacred institution, and that justice and mercy should prevail. Without these benefits man is denied his proper functioning and risks being enslaved by the state. Christianity should not be reduced to something private since, in its proper mode, it confers immense benefits to culture.

More recently, two major American prelates have written thoughtful books on why Catholicism should not be private. Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap., in Render Unto Caesar (2008) states that no other community than the Catholic Church understands better “why the health of our public life requires men and women of strong moral character in political service.” The Church, not the state, teaches and proclaims the importance of virtue and good character. He laments that America is now exporting “violence, greed, vulgarity, abortion, a rejection of children.”

I have no reluctance in worrying along with Pastor Robertson about the excesses of social activists, nor is it implausible that, as professor DeMarco points out, Christianity advanced certain virtues that were advantageous in ways the the pagan world’s ethics weren’t. But cheerleaders for Christianity and cherry pickers of the past will never persuade their adversaries when they ignore the bad things that Christians did, or forget about the lack of freedom and equality that accompanied established Christianity. A Christian social activist is just as scary as a secular one. Thinking that Christians running things is better than non-Christians running those same things is frankly dishonest. And here I would have thought that Christians would excel in honesty. Antinomianism anyone?

Turkey In the Middle

The trip to Turkey for college honors students will not include the Harts this year — a seminar in Rome conflicts with the Turkey trip. But I continue to follow Turkish developments while finding Ottoman and Turkish history fascinating for teaching and reflection on the West and the relations between religion and secularity. (Have I mentioned that Orhan Pamuk is a gifted writer?)

Turkey is the place where East meets West. For many centuries East stood for Islam and West for Christianity (first Eastern then Roman). For the last century East has stood for Turkishness (a secular construct thanks to Ataturk and the Kemalists, who borrowed freely from the French Revolution’s laïcité) and West has stood for post-Christian secularism. The latest wrinkle in East-West Turkisk relations is an Islamic ruling party that is pro-development in a way that would make the Cato Institute happy and has led journalists to coin the term Islamo-Calvinist, a party in addition that has also sought admission to the European Union after how many decades of being a good ally in NATO. But for all of these ties between Turkey and the West, Islam apparently continues to be the stumbling block. A recent op-ed from the Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet Daily News, put it this way:

At the end of the day, being a practicing Muslim and using religion for political gains may not be mutually exclusive for some politicians. It all depends on how you look at religion and politics. But this type of questioning among Europeans demonstrates the state of confusion about Erdoğan.

In the early days of his prime ministry, he was welcomed by European leaders and applauded as the great reformer of Turkey. At one stage, even U.S. president Barack Obama said Erdoğan was among the three of four leaders he kept talking on the phone.

Nowadays, Erdoğan’s popularity has taken a dive among Western leaders. “When there is a problem in Europe, one leader takes up the phone and calls the other one and has a frank discussion. But with Erdoğan, there is no leader willing to talk to him directly about issues of concern,” a European diplomat told me. . . . What had separated Turkey from Middle Eastern, Arab, Muslim countries, despite living in the same geography as them, was the fact that we had a leadership that – as a NATO and Council of Europe member and as an EU candidate – at least tried to talk the same language as Europe. Now we have a leadership that increasingly talks a different language than Europeans. It’s no wonder that it was Rusian President Vladimir Putin who was the only one rushing to congratulate Erdoğan after his local election victory in March.

And yet, Erdoğan’s Islamic outlook (at least an Ottomanian version thereof) may actually be responsible for his unthinkable outreach to Armenians. Here is how Mustafa Akyol explained Erdoğan’s almost-apology:

. . . let me also note that this relatively more open-minded stance on “the Armenian issue” by Erdoğan and his party, compared to the rigidity of former political elites of Turkey, has some ideological roots as well. In a nutshell, Erdoğan’s “Ottomanism” simply gives him more room to be reformist vis-a-vis the Armenians (and the Kurds, for that matter), than the “Turkish nationalism” that the former elites subscribed to.

The reason is “Ottomanism” implies a broad umbrella under which Turks co-existed peacefully with other peoples of the empire, including the Armenians and the Kurds. The tragic expulsion of Armenians in 1915 was not an outcome of this pluralist Ottoman paradigm. It was an outcome of the fall of that paradigm. The Young Turks, who decided on the exodus, were subscribers of a new ideology called “Turkish nationalism,” which was, as one must see, a response to the Serbian, Greek and Bulgarian nationalisms of the Balkans.

Soon after the foundation of the Republic, the more secularist version of the Young Turk ideology evolved into Kemalism and became the official creed. Today, Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party), which had defeated the Kemalist establishment, is building a post-Kemalist Turkey. In this view, the expulsion of Armenians and the forced assimilation of the Kurds are historic mistakes that should be corrected.

In short, the very ideology of the AKP allows itself to take formerly unthinkable steps to reconcile with the Kurds and Armenians.

In other words, Turkey’s Islamic past, seasoned as it was with encounters with the West, is capable of magnanimity that Europeans still find difficult (at least when it comes to Muslims).

I’m not pretending to be an expert on any of this, but when it comes to thinking about Christianity and the West, America as a “Christian nation,” religion in the public square, and the “forces” of secularization, throwing Islam and the Turks into the discussion always complicates categories. And recognizing the complexity of the world and humans’ experience of it should be a welcome priority for all those who measure life in square inches.

Having Your Christendom and Enjoying Personal Freedoms Too

Maybe not.

Here’s the thing. You cannot have the Europe of the Holy Roman Empire without the papacy. And what goes with this is that you can’t have the Christian Europe that we associate with Christendom and not also include historical events like the Crusades and the ghettoization of Jews. The Christendom model did not improve greatly under Protestant hands. Calvin had his bout with Servetus, the Puritans (even far away from Christendom) with Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. The monotheism of Christianity and the idea that freedom of conscience applied only to rightly formed consciences (consciences that knew the truth) did not co-exist well with modern notions of freedom of religion, the press, academic freedom, or free speech.

And yet, Christians who worry about secular societies continue to laud Christendom.

. . . religious liberals often condemn Christian conservatives for supposedly clinging to Christendom by defending traditional morals in society or civil religion. Some on the Religious left deride the whole project of “Christendom” as an egregious compromise of true Christianity dating back to Constantine. For them, Christendom means centuries of theocracy, conquest, empire, slavery and hypocrisy.

Christendom indeed has included nearly all the faults alleged, but it did not invent any of them. Theocracy, conquest, empire, slavery and hypocrisy have been intrinsic to nearly all human history. What the critics forget is that Christendom also refined the social conscience and capacity for reform to challenge its own moral failures. Christendom developed human rights and legal equality, social tolerance, constitutional democracy, free enterprise, technology, modern science and medicine, new levels of arts and literature, and refined notions of charity.

This is cherry-picking of a particularly glaring kind.

Granted, the modern West owes much of its political and intellectual resources to medieval Europe. Just consult any of the books by Francis Oakley. But this kind of sweeping Christendom’s problems under the rug of “look at all we did for you” is foolhardy. It is especially so when coming from a Protestant whose ancestors bear much of the blame for upending Christendom, that unified Christian society for which so many anti-secularists long, and who are hardly part of the “we” of Christendom.

The Roman Catholic nature of Christendom becomes especially difficult for neo-Protestants when claims like this follow:

Religious liberals need to reconsider their hostility to Christendom, remembering that the original Social Gospel, with its thirst for justice, was unabashedly Christendom-centered. And religious conservatives, without reducing their passion for needed moral reforms, should be mindful of their blessings and position of unrealized strength.

This is a highly ironic rendering of the Social Gospel since those Progressive Protestants were among the most anti-Catholic Americans. They ranked Roman Catholicism as problems needing to be eliminated in Christian America, right along side socialism, atheism, and Mormonism. The Social Gospelers were do-gooders to be sure, but their “vision” of the United States did not include full acceptance of non-Protestants. (And not to be missed is that by putting the social in Social Gospel, the Social Gospelers also fudged the gospel, a point that reinforces a reading of the Reformation as a recovery of the gospel from a church that put a Christian society above the word of God.) “Letting goods and kindred go,” one of the famous lines from “A Mighty Fortress,” had as much to do with leaving behind Christendom as it did with suffering persecution for the faith.

In other words, defenders of Christendom cannot have their cake and eat it. Christendom, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, was premised on the suppression (either formal or informal) of false beliefs. It was not liberal or tolerant as moderns have come to understand those terms. For defenders of Christendom to act as if a Christian society is the harbinger of modern freedoms and no threat to unbelievers or other faiths is one of the greater examples of binging and purging.

Christians Assimilated (but compromised?)

A terrific book review, now a little long in the tooth, of two books on Europe and its immigrant populations is worth pondering for a variety of reasons but it got me thinking specifically about the assimilation of Christians in a secular republic like the United States. Here is a striking passage:

PEOPLE WHO ASK whether better government policies could have made Muslim immigration to Europe less of a debacle tend to look at Britain and France as two ends of a spectrum of approaches. Britain has let immigrants go their own way. It has been multiculturalist, laissez-faire, tolerant of partial allegiances and unintegrated identities. If you are a Sikh policeman, you can wear your turban on duty. In immigration as in other matters, the United Kingdom is unusually disorderly and willing to run the risk that “parallel societies” will form; but it does offer immigrants more self-respect and freedom of religion. France, by contrast, favors the assimilatory pressures of the melting pot. It wants immigrants to embrace a single model of republican citizenship. France’s model may sound condescending and hypocritical, but at its best it can convince a newcomer that the country’s thousand-year-old history belongs to him as much as anyone. It is a fool’s errand to call either the French or the British approach “better.” Each is built out of thousand-year-old habits of political culture. But immigration experts tend to laud whichever of the two has led to riots less recently.

What was I thinking:

1) it is hard to assimilate people of diverse cultural backgrounds and religious heritages into a peaceful, moderately ordered, and free society. Americans often bemoan the size of the government, the disregard for morality, or the inconsistency of cultural expectations (myself included). But keeping very different groups relatively calm and peaceful is no mean feat (especially if you believe what Reformed Protestants do about human nature).

2) Where does the U.S. fall in this model? In some ways it looks more like its cultural grandparent, Britain. But we also have conformist expectations that resemble the French (which likely owes to our adopting a republican form of government under the influence of Enlightenment political thought).

3) If Christians who complain about the decadence of the U.S. only kvetch and do not riot, is their desire to follow God weaker than Muslims?

4) If Christians want non-Christians to fit in with American norms that stem from Christian convictions, are they doing the same thing as the French even though for religious as opposed to enlightened reasons?