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.

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Rome's Advantage over Amsterdam

As much as Jason and the Callers may think of their crossing the Tiber as the fix to Protestantism’s anarchy, another set of converts finds Rome congenial precisely because it has more resources for transforming culture. This is where the idea that neo-Calvinism is making the world safe for Roman Catholicism has some plausibility. After all, Calvinism only fixes so much. It may get you to 1550 Geneva or 1618 Amsterdam. But what about the problems that Protestantism introduced to Europe by upending Christendom in the West. If you give someone a taste for a Christian society, can they ever be satisfied with the kind of disquiet that Protestantism introduced?

That question explains why Hilaire Belloc thought Protestantism was a heresy and Rome the answer to the West’s problems:

1. It was not a particular movement but a general one, i.e., it did not propound a particular heresy which could be debated and exploded, condemned by the authority of the Church, as had hitherto been every other heresy or heretical movement. Nor did it, after the various heretical propositions had been condemned, set up (as had Mohammedanism or the Albigensian movement) a separate religion over against the old orthodoxy. Rather did it create a certain separate which we still call “Protestantism.” It produced indeed a crop of heresies, but not one heresy_and its characteristic was that all its heresies attained and prolonged a common savour: that which we call “Protestantism” today.

2. Though the immediate fruits of the Reformation decayed, as had those of many other heresies in the past, yet the disruption it had produced remained and the main principle_reaction against a united spiritual authority_so continued in vigour as both to break up our European civilization in the West and to launch at last a general doubt, spreading more and more widely. None of the older heresies did that, for they were each definite. Each had proposed to supplant or to rival the existing Catholic Church; but the Reformation movement proposed rather to dissolve the Catholic Church_and we know what measure success has been attained by that effort! . . .

But let it be noted that this breakdown of the older anti-Catholic thing, the Protestant culture, shows no sign of being followed by an hegemony of the Catholic culture. There is no sign as yet of a reaction towards the domination of Catholic ideas_the full restoration of the Faith by which Europe and all our civilization can alone be saved.

It nearly always happens that when you get rid of one evil you find yourself faced with another hitherto unsuspected; and so it is now with the breakdown of the Protestant hegemony. We are entering a new phase, “The Modern Phase,” as I have called it, in which very different problems face the Eternal Church and a very different enemy will challenge her existence and the salvation of the world which depends upon her.

R.J. Snell, a recent convert, echoes Belloc on Rome’s cultural potentialities while sounding very different from Jason and the Callers on dogma and papal infallibility:

. . . Lumen Fidei is making no claim of empty pietism but rather an acutely prescient observation when stating that “once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim,” for the light of faith provides an illuminating source of “every aspect of human existence,” and thus is integral and non-reductive in its knowledge. Such a light, the encyclical continues, given our sinful state, “cannot come from ourselves but … must come from God.” Further, this light does not merely sweep us out of our troubles and into some serene realm of transcendence, but transforms us by God’s love, giving us “fresh vision, new eyes to see”—faith allows us, again, and also here and now, to begin the recovery of thought, memory, imagination, and freedom.

The faith is about far more than social recovery and advance, for in the end faith gives us an encounter and union with the living God, but faith never provides less than the possibility of social recovery. While God gives us Himself, and this is ultimate, it was not below Christ to heal the lame, teach the unknowing, and work as a carpenter; just as Christ engages us in our natural and temporal concerns, so too does faith, this Humanism of the Cross, bring new vision and light to the spiritual impoverishment surrounding us. . . .

The Church exists not for itself but for others. We exist for evangelization, for the health and welfare of souls. But persons are not souls only, they are, in the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a unity of soul and body so profound that “neither the spiritualism that despises the body not the materials that considers the spirit a mere manifestation of the material do justice … to the unity of the human being.” As such, we exist for others as complete and integral persons—for an integral humanism.

But just as 2kers question neo-Calvinists on cultural transformation, so they ask Rome’s apologists whether the point of Christ’s death was to save Western Civilization. Of course, apologists might think that question too blunt, and that the relationship between Christ and culture requires nuance. It may, but the kind of sensibility that led Christ to say that his kingdom was not of this world or Paul to say that the unseen things are really the permanent things, not philosophy or the arts, were also responsible for figures like Thomas Aquinas writing that:

Some truths about God exceed all the ability of the human reason. Such is the truth that God is trinune. But there are some truths which the natural reason also is able to reach. Such are that God exists, that He is one, and the like.

In other words, not everyone is cut out for a liberal arts education with a major in one of the humanities and you don’t need a B.A. to be a Christian to trust the triune God. Plumbers and farmers understand more truth, if they trust Christ, than the smartest of philosophers. That is, at least, one way of reading Aquinas on faith and reason.

This gap between Christ and culture is also behind the fourth stanza of Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress”:

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

In the world of otherworldly Christianity, a believer goes straight to the head of the class, and gets to by-pass Philosophy 101 and Intro to the Classics, simply by faith (or baptism as Rome understands it).

And yet, neo-Calvinists, who have the memo on the eternal and the temporal, have yet to reflect on it. That may owe to Abraham Kuyper’s own refusal to unhitch Christ and culture and his concomitant demand for integralism:

Hence, as a central phenomenon in the development of humanity, Calvinism is not only entitled to an honorable position by the side of Paganistic, Islamistic and Romanistic forms, since like these it represents a peculiar principle dominating the whole of life, but it also meets every required condition for the advancement of human development to a higher stage. And yet this would remain a bare possibility without any corresponding reality, if history did not testify that Calvinism has actually caused the stream of human life to flow in another channel, and has ennobled the social life of the nations. . .

. . . only by Calvinism the psalm of liberty found its way from the troubled conscience to the lips; that Calvinism has captured and guaranteed to us our constitutional civil rights; and that simultaneously with this there went out from Western Europe that mighty movement which promoted the revival of science and art, opened new avenues to commerce and trade, beautified domestic and social life, exalted the middle classes to positions of honor, caused philanthropy to abound, and more than all this, elevated, purified, and ennobled moral life by puritanic seriousness ; and then judge for yourselves whether it will do to banish any longer this God-given Calvinism to the archives of history, and whether it is so much of a dream to conceive that Calvinism has yet a blessing to bring and a bright hope to unveil for the future. (Lectures on Calvinism, 38-40)

At the end of the nineteenth century, Calvinism’s fortunes may have looked a lot brighter than Rome’s did. The Roman Church was under a virtual lock down from the Vatican amid encyclicals against Americanism and Modernism and church dogma about papal supremacy and infallibility. But that is no longer the case. Not only can Rome boast five U.S. Supreme Court justices, but the texts of Western civilization chalk up more Roman Catholic believers than Protestant saints (and they ARE saints). In another hundred years, the tables may turn again. But Protestantism will never be able to claim that it shaped the West as much as an older version of Western Christianity did.

So if Protestants want to compete in the Christian olympics, perhaps they should forget the events of Great Books and Christian political theology and put their talent and resources into soteriology, worship, and church government. Even if they don’t bring home the gold, they can take comfort from knowing the streets of paradise are paved with it.