The Less Worthy Bits of Puritanism

Maybe I am not philosophically inclined. Maybe I am too American and hence of a pragmatic frame of mind. Maybe I like cats too much. But if I owned a gun I would reach for it whenever theologians and pastors enter into realms speculative.

One of the areas of study I teach most prone to speculation is the way that theologians and philosophers relied on faculty psychology as if the will, motivation, choice, and affections are as easy to spot as the genitalia of an unborn child through a sonogram, or as if Sigmund Freud’s popularity owed to the ease of curing psychological woes.

Here’s an example of the murky realm surrounding faculty psychology upon which Puritans spilled so much ink:

Edwards’s psychology assimilated affections and will, motive and choice. The will (choice) was as the greatest apparent good (motive). Motive was choice or volition. Action followed choice, in appropriate circumstances, because God as the efficient cause, although human motive or volition might occasion action. (Bruce Kuklick, Churchmen and Philosophers, 100)

But get this. Not everyone agreed with Edwards, like Nathaniel Taylor:

Taylor’s psychology differed. For him, motives were distinct from choice or volition, and volition caused action. Taylor’s psychology was tripartite, consisting of the affections, will, and understanding; Edwards’s was dual, consisting of the affections (emotions/will) and understanding. (Kuklick, 100)

Is anyone willing to stake salvation on any of these — wait for it — speculations? Or is this plain as day?

But for Puritans, such speculations were part and parcel of the self-reflection that secured assurance of salvation:

Religious experience — in particular, conversion — involved a process which engaged all the faculties of the soul, but which was most deeply rooted in the affections. And the experience, whether in conversion or in the worship that followed, was one in which the believer acted, and was not just acted upon, in virtually every phase. . . . In the early stages of the process of conversion the Holy Spirit drew the chose to Christ, given that the man affected had been elected to receive what [Richard] Mather called the grace of faith (a phrase with Thomistic implications). Mather agreed with most Puritan divines that a man who had been consigned to Hell might experience the same feelings that gripped a saint in the first steps of conversion. . . . At this point the sinner becomes aware of his helplessness; and emptied of his pride he is ready for the knowledge of Christ, a knowledge that the law cannot convey. Comprehending this knowledge is the responsibility of reason, or understanding, but not exclusively so if the whole soul is to be renewed. . . . The knowledge must “affect” them in such a way that they approve and love it. At this point with all the faculties deeply informed, and moved, the grace of faith is infused by the Lord into the soul. (Robert Middlekauff, The Mathers, 64-65)

And your scriptural text is?

I understand the great debt that modern day psychology owes to Puritan speculations about the inner gears of the soul. But is that where Reformed Protestants with the Puritan fetish really want the legacy of Puritanism to go? Can John Piper generate enough earnestness to make any of this comprehensible?

Psychological Disorder or Simply Bad Manners?

Here is a plea to Kevin C. Rhoades, bishop of the Roman Catholic parish of Ft. Wayne/South Bend: call off Christian Smith! Please!!

Apparently, Smith is so caught up in his conversion to Rome that he has failed to join his fellow communicants in their Fortnight for Freedom. As many may know, Smith has not only joined the Roman Catholic Church, but the distinguished sociologist of American religion has also written two books that justify his move. One takes on the problems of sola scriptura, the other explains how evangelicals can become Roman Catholic. Why those books were not enough is a mystery. But here we are, smack dab in the Freedom Fortnight, and Smith has posted through Pete Enns a piece about the narcissism of conservative Presbyterians:

But for present purposes, what the narcissism of small differences very powerfully explains, I think, is the prevailing tendency among conservative Reformed and Presbyterian Christians in the U.S. to spend so much time, energy, and attention arguing over and policing and prosecuting what in reality are relatively minor—sometimes absolutely obscure—matters of doctrine.

It is not just that they were traumatized by losing Princeton to the liberals and so always feel on edge. Those who sustain the entertainments of doctrinal and biblical legalisms are also in fact so darn similar to each other, and that theological and organizational proximity makes what are often really only very small differences seem life shaking.

If you look at the fine print of this piece you will find no examples of such mountain-out-of-mole-hill making. (But even uninformed readers might connect the dots to Enns, Westminster, and the controversy over inerrancy a few years ago.)

I do not doubt that conservative Presbyterians do this, though whether we need to invoke Freud is another matter. As John Muether pointed out in a comment to Smith’s post:

This is what Neuhaus called the law of theological propinquity — one reserves most strident criticism for those closest, in part as an effort at boundary maintenance. It seems to apply to sociological theory as much as reformed doctrine.

I suspect that even in Roman Catholic circles, if Smith looked hard enough, he might find such forms of boundary maintenance, like those distinguishing Opus Dei from Call to Action. In fact, the United States is thriving on differences that might look to Turks or Japanese like small differences. Do Republicans and Democrats really differ on the economy and national defense? Do Irish-Americans really look at the world differently from Swedish-Americans?

So why would Smith go out of his way to reduce the convictions of his former friends, communicants, and family members to psychological malfunctioning? One explanation might be narcissism itself. Smith is so caught up with his own pilgrimage that he needs to justify it. As his own definition of narcissism attests:

It is narcissistic because it is driven by a quest, very real even if unacknowledged, to feed the importance of one’s own identity even at the expense of others and the church.

This is not meant to be merely an echo response. Smith’s books deserve more comment than this post, and his arguments will receive scrutiny in the forthcoming book that Muether and I are writing. What is meant here is that a smart guy like Smith should have enough intelligence to consider his own posture in these debates, not to mention the manners of an assured convert who doesn’t need to wear his faith on his sleeve and make others feel uncomfortable. Could it be that Smith is still suffering from the evangelical piety he used to defend?