Can Fairy Tales Do More than the Holy Spirit?

As much as I live and breathe and have my being in conservative circles in the United States, I cannot understand how conservatives who are Christians can write so cheerfully about virtue and what it takes to cultivate it:

Mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture the virtues. It might even backfire, especially when the presentation is heavily exhortative and the pupil’s will is coerced. Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination. A good moral education addresses both the cognitive and affective dimensions of human nature. Stories are an irreplaceable medium of this kind of moral education. This is the education of character.

The Greek word for character literally means an impression. Moral character is an impression stamped upon the self. Character is defined by its orientation, consistency, and constancy. Today we often equate freedom with morality and goodness. But this is naïve because freedom is transcendent and the precondition of choice itself. Depending upon his character, an individual will be drawn toward either goodness or wickedness. Moral and immoral behavior is freedom enacted either for good or for ill.

The great fairy tales and children’s fantasy stories attractively depict character and virtue. In these stories, the virtues glimmer as if in a looking glass, and wickedness and deception are unmasked of their pretensions to goodness and truth. These stories make us face the unvarnished truth about ourselves while compelling us to consider what kind of people we want to be.

Calvinists have a problem with this, obviously, since they put the T in Total Depravity. But shouldn’t any Christian who considers himself Augustinian or any theist who believes in the fall (recorded in the not so fair tale of Genesis)? Can’t we at least, if you’re not going to talk about effectual calling, reserve some space for baptism and the sacraments more generally?

Or, are we supposed to conclude that a kid reared on Beauty and the Beast has as much a shot at virtue as the one who’s baptized? If that’s the case, then why is cult so much the bedrock of culture?

Fishermen Need Not Apply

Does the path to sanctification (or virtue) really lie in a liberal education?

Liberal education, according to Blessed Cardinal Newman, is primarily formation of the mind enabling it to seek, know, and contemplate truth, which is the good of the intellect and which prepares us to know fully and love fully the One who is the truth. But I do not think education of the mind is sufficient. Just as a specialist education in one field or skill should not come before a generalist and integrative education in the principles and mindset of all fields, education of the mind alone or as foremost is imbalanced, and can lead to extreme deformations in the soul, such as hyper intellectualism, an inability to act decisively, and a lack of emotional intelligence and integration. In addition to the mind, there must also be an education of the body in endurance and long-suffering, the imagination in beauty, and the will in the good. All this is to say that a proper education is an education of the whole person, but the person is neither his intellect, his will, his imagination, his memory, nor his body. He is, rather, his heart. And the heart is what WCC educates best.

Why is the heart so important? In a word, God. God makes His presence known in our hearts, and we see God with our heart, not our eyes, and not even our intellects. But the synthesis of all our powers at the very core of our being. The heart is supernaturally educated by grace, the sacraments, the life of Christian charity, and the teachings of the Catholic Church, but the heart needs a robust natural education in order for the supernatural formation to take root and bear fruit. How can the heart be educated? Only by a “curriculum of the heart,” one that forms and perfects all our powers in different disciplines: humanities, the moral imagination; the fine arts, the aesthetic sense; the outdoors, the will, the senses, and our character; math and science, our powers of observation and interpretation; philosophy, our critical and questioning powers, our dialectical mind; and theology, our contemplative essence.

Imagine if Peter and Paul had had to go to college before attending seminary with their Lord. Jesus would be dead and they’d be rising seniors.

Or maybe, just maybe, word, sacrament, and prayer work independently of philosophy and literature. Nothing wrong with education and in Protestant circles, literacy was pretty important for participating in the worship service — hymn singing and all. But education will not save us. If we know that in politics, why not (Christian) religion?

Sense and More Sense

This may explain the appeal of the English, especially when they can see through the bombast of American exceptionalism under the cover of religious zeal:

Much as we all admire the United States and have great affection for many of its citizens, I rather feel your post of July 4th. showed up one of the less attractive traits of Americans which is to assume that what happens in the USA has universal significance for the rest of mankind. You’re not of course alone in this on Ref21 (yes, I’m looking at you, Leon Brown!) but some of us become a touch peeved if you seem to be implying that the outcome of that little contretemps that thankfully subsided in 1783 is somehow to be celebrated by all Presbyterians. (I should point out (if I don’t, they surely will!!) that this also rather excludes Reformed Baptists such as our brother Jeremy Walker, but as he is too busy celebrating the release of the Logos 5 Puritan Felt Hat Platinum Edition, he has little time left to celebrate anything else).

For example, when you say the Declaration of Independence ‘declares the sovereignty of God’ do you mean that Thomas Jefferson and others thought the term ‘Creator’ referred to the God of the Bible? If the main intent was to declare the sovereignty of God, would you not actually just refer to Him as ‘God’? And if this is a clever terminological compromise to accommodate Jefferson, Paine etc. doesn’t that somewhat limit the concept of the sovereignty of God? Meanwhile, poor old George III was part of a coronation ceremony that talked of God explicitly, and culminated in the anointing of the sovereign. This ceremony was used again for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. It is said that her anointing by the Archbishop of Canterbury (not very Presbyterian, I grant you, but they still have the 39 Articles!) in Westminster was the most important aspect to her of the whole ceremony, and it could be argued is a symbol that much better demonstrates the sovereignty of God over the civil power than changing God’s name to ‘Creator’ in a document. I need hardly point out that God’s people in the Old Testament also considered it a sufficient assertion of God’s Sovereignty over the monarch.

When you say the declaration and the constitution were drawn up by covenant representatives, I don’t doubt you. However, when you go on to argue that the US system of government is therefore like the Presbyterian form of government I can only agree with you up to a point. You see, in one there is a King of whom the covenant representatives are representatives of, whom He appoints, albeit they are drawn from His people. In the other, there is no King, or perhaps a different King, the People from whom not only are the covenant representatives drawn but whom they also supposed to serve. Noticing the difference, I leave it to others to ponder the potential dangers such an imbalance might lead to but, if you live in the US, I suggest a good place to start might be today’s newspaper.

And while we’re on the subject of covenant representatives (and, for that matter, balance), ‘the need for strong local and state governments, along with strong families and churches, to protect the people for the tyranny of the national executive.’, is all well and good and most necessary. However, as Carl Truman has repeatedly pointed out, the issue of the day is not the ability to restrain the executive but the Supreme Court, which for Christians or anyone else, given the weaknesses of the US Constitution, will prove to be very hard to do.

Finally, speaking as one who counts himself spiritually and temperamentally in the line of the English Puritans, I would not be so quick to glory in Presbyterian rebellion. Just on a point of accuracy, it was Charles I who ‘launched’ the Civil War by raising his standard at Nottingham, not the Puritans in Parliament. (I know, I know they cut of his head in the end, but none of them really wanted to!). But it could be said that both the Covenanters and the Rebels of 1775 (as well as those involved in more recent troubles in Ulster) were far too quick to arms and far too slow to lay them down. This trait, and there is some link to the forms of Christian religion dominant in those countries, was seen again in the US 70 years or so later, still the only country to fight a murderous and divisive Civil War over the issue of the abolition of slavery. So when someone on July 4th. accuses the English of having ‘a particular allergy to a thoroughgoing Reformed Church’ (Sorry to bring up Liam’s post, but the injustice of it still rankles even after 12 months.) the ‘particular allergy’ we actually have is to a heap of corpses, and the bitterness and sectarianism that endures as a result.

In all fairness, the mention of U.S. newspapers’ contents was a cheap shot since the English dailies don’t exactly reveal a well ordered society in the U.K. while they do reveal a number of ladies showing their naughty bits. Still, the call to humility away for chauvinism is well taken (especially when it remains humble).

Pagan Virtue or Angel Unawares?

I wonder if the w-wists out there have considered how much travelers to foreign countries need to trust people with the wrong w-w (only two exist, right?). Of course, back in the States we depend on pagans to drive on the right (spatially and legally) side of the road, give us correct change (not for buying a lottery ticket, of course), and remove the plaque from between our teeth. But when you don’t really know the currency or the language, your levels of trust go way up. The airline pilot is a biggie. Baggage handlers sure do make life easier if they make the correct transfers and place the bags on the designated carousel. And taxi drivers, who speak maybe 4 words of English, are particularly helpful when they deliver you to an apartment on an out of the way alley that you know even the best of cabbies in New York City would never know. (Plus, the name of the alley is longer than the alley itself, so long that you can’t even put it in the address field when reserving a taxi.)

And then comes the unexpected graciousness of temporary Italian neighbors. The other night as Mrs. Hart and I went out for dinner (her first night in Rome), I left without my key. Doors in Rome seem to come with latches that automatically lock. So we were locked out of our flat and had no phone. Our computers were inside and so email was out. Plus, the owner of the flat was away in Paris. I had no idea what to do other than break in the door or break down in sobs.

A neighbor, however, came to the rescue. It took about two minutes of hand gestures and pantomime to explain that that we were locked out of an apartment that we were renting for the short term. She called someone who knew our owner, who in turn called our owner, who in turn called a friend who had a spare key, who in turn drove ten minutes to let us use the key. In the meantime, our neighbor had gone out to buy a bottle of water for us while we waited for the key to arrive. Within 15 minutes we were back in business and headed out for dinner. And I was thanking the dear Lord that we did not have to try to use security guards from the institution where I am studying to make arrangements for a lock smith and for alternate housing for the night.

I still can’t believe what a kind providence this woman’s intervention was.

So, given my views of the fall, how do I account for this exceptionally gracious assistance? Common grace seems to be niggardly, as if this person only does something nice because God made her do it. An angel unaware might work and that would allow me to retain a view that pagans really are incapable of doing good.

Or maybe all people have a residue of goodness in them that is the after effect of being created in the image of God. Of course, they cannot do anything sufficiently good to merit God’s favor. But they can recognize right from wrong, the kindness of helping a stranger from the hurtful nature of ignoring someone’s distress.

Then again, I’m sure the obedience boys will tell us how this woman is not sanctified. In which case, I’m glad she can’t read English.

Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Moralism

While away this summer I read Mary Gordon’s Final Payments, a story about a Roman Catholic women, with a strongly plagued conscience, who figures out to do with her life after her father dies, a man whom she had offended and to whom she tried to make amends by taking care of him (a stroke incapacitated him) for eleven years. It is a novel about growing up in pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism and whiffs of what the new order are like emerge. But it is not a heavily religious novel. It does, though, have this observation about Protestantism in comparison to Roman Catholicism:

Protestants, it said, thought about moral issues, drank water and ate crakcers, took care to exercise and had a notion that charity was synonymous with good works. Catholics, on the other hand, thought about eternity, drank wine, smoked cigards, were somtimes extravavgant, but knew that charity was a fire in the heart of God and never confused it with that Protestant invention, philanthropy.

It is an odd take on Protestantism since one of Trent’s major objections to the Reformation was the idea that one could be saved apart from good works (of course, I’d need to qualify that as the Reformed confessions did). For Rome, Protestantism was an open invitation to licentiousness and antinomianism. Now, Gordon, among others, is telling us we are moralists.

Ross Douthat’s recent post on Jody Bottom’s switch on gay marriage (Bottom was formerly editor of First Things) reminded me of this passage from Gordon and my plan to comment on it:

In the longstanding, not-unjustified stereotypes of Western religious conflict, Roman Catholicism was generally seen as far more accommodating and tolerant — or, alternatively, more decadent and lax — than its Protestant rivals on matters related to the human body and the human heart. The structure of Catholicism, with its elevation of religious life in all its varied forms above the family unit, was always friendlier to what today we might call non-heteronormative aspirations, male and female, than many other churches (and, indeed, than many other civilizations). The emphasis that the church’s sacramental life placed on the cycle of confession-sin-repentance, as Bottum notes, tended to create a moral economy in which fallenness was taken for granted, and wider latitude extended to people who persisted in their sins than was sometimes the case in the sterner, Calvin-influenced precincts of Christendom. (The old Protestant image of Jesuitical confessors performing elaborate logical contortions to minimize the gravity of moral faults — and has — some basis in reality.) And then of course the deeply carnal nature of Catholic liturgy and art and culture created a broad religio-aesthetic landscape in which a wide diversity of enfleshed desires could be projected, expressed, sublimated, channeled, fulfilled.

This historical and cultural backdrop helps explain several things about how the gay marriage debate has played out among American Catholics. (And elsewhere, as well.) First, it’s probably one of the reasons why Catholics as a demographic have tilted somewhat more strongly in favor of same-sex marriage than other major Christian groups.

Of course, Rome was not always tolerant of all form of deviancy. It did give us the Inquisition, the Index of Books, and bishops at Vatican I were excommunicated for not endorsing papal supremacy and infallibility. Why the church would fudge on morality but not on words, ideas, or authority, or not see how looking the other way on morality might actually jeopardize authority is another matter.

What I find intriguing about Douthat’s piece is this kind of admission about Roman Catholic laxity in the context of a major sex scandal. Again, I don’t like going after the child abuse business because it is a case of hitting a man when he is down. But would the kind of leniency Douthat describes account in part for a culture that covered up what priests did? Wouldn’t that also explain why Vatican officials ignored the enormous indiscretions of the Renaissance popes? Might it not also explain why the Vatican was cozy — too much at times — with fascist governments? Sure, you could say that the fascists were anti-Communist. But John Lukacs has long argued that Communism is closer to Christianity than fascism. In other words, rather than a strength, Douthat’s depiction of Rome is a weakness (some would say major).

Meanwhile, the church did advocate celibacy, poverty and other forms of self-abasement as the surest way to salvation for monks, nuns, and clergy. Maybe they needed to be forgiving of sexual shenanigans since the laity didn’t have a clear guide for life in the secular world.

One last thought concerns the severity of Calvinism. I have no doubt that Calvinism draws its share of moralists — just say hello to the theonomists. But if you read through the registry of Geneva’s consistory — at roughly the very time when Englishmen were being inspired to be Puritans (as in purify church and society) — you see remarkable patience with the sins of the Genevans. One case, for instance, involved a man who had gotten his married chambermaid pregnant through fornication. This fellow’s penalty: he was admonished and sent to the city council who imprisoned him for 9 days. (Registers of the Consistory of Geneva, Vol. 1, 388-89). If this example is any indication — and I’ve only skimmed the Register, the moralism that afflicts contemporary Reformed Protestants may have less to do with Reformation theology than the spread of middle class virtues and an egalitarian intolerance of difference.

Bottom line: I’m not sure why Douthat finds this side of Rome appealing. Nor am I certain that moralism is inherent to Calvinism.

When the PCUSA Was Almost the USA Church

James Hutson in Church and State in America tells this story:

In 1798 John Adams experienced how inflammatory the exercise of a familiar religious act by a national official could be in a country that had been taught to cultivate and cherish republican jealousy. On March 23 of that year, when the nation was in the midst of a “quasi-war” with France, Adams proclaimed a national day of fasting and humiliation, a practice that American magistrates had followed since the earliest days of the seventeenth century. It so happened that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church was meeting in Philadelphia when Adams issues his proclamation. Though not a Presbyterian, Adams was branded one by his political opponents and was accused of scheming to rivet a Presbyterian establishment on the nation, the evidence being his fast day proclamation. “A general suspicion prevailed,” he wrote, “that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an establishment as a national church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical project.” The result of his fast day proclamation, Adams claimed, was his defeat in the presidential election of 1800.

Hutson gives evidence why Americans should never have suspected that Presbyterians would be the national church. The reason is that their theology was entirely incompatible with one of the major reasons the founders gave for religion being important to a free society. According to Rev. Samuel West, of Massachusetts:

perhaps no one if of greater importance to promote the peace and safety of the community than the doctrine of a future state of reward and punishment; for we shall find that persons are often restrained from gross immoralities by the fear of future miseries, when civil penalties prove insufficient for that purpose. A doctrine of such amazing importance to promote the civil good of society ought to be very strongly impress’d upon the minds of men in order to render it beneficial to society. (111)

Since Presbyterians and Lutherans who trusted Christ no longer feared future punishments, they were immune to such incentives to civic virtue. In fact, Calvinism’s may have been a threat to civil society as republicans conceived it.

The 2Ker's Burden

Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart, has been receiving a lot of attention. It is a book about the growing divergence between elites and average Americans, and shows that the wealthy and well educated are far more conservative in their way of life than many assume. Ross Douthat at the New York Times has been largely favorable and at the conclusion of one of his posts, he writes something about traditional morality which suggests you don’t need to be a Christian or a social conservative to understand the value of good behavior.

Finally, Murray makes a very convincing case . . . for the power of so-called “traditional values” to foster human flourishing even in economic landscapes that aren’t as favorable to less-educated workers as was, say, the aftermath of the Treaty of Detroit. Even acknowledging all the challenges (globalization, the decline of manufacturing, mass low-skilled immigration) that have beset blue collar America over the last thirty years, it is still the case that if you marry the mother or father of your children, take work when you can find it and take pride in what you do, attend church and participate as much as possible in the life of your community, and strive to conduct yourself with honesty and integrity, you are very likely to not only escape material poverty, but more importantly to find happiness in life. This case for the persistent advantages of private virtue does not disprove more purely economic analyses of what’s gone wrong in American life, but it should at the very least complicate them, and suggest a different starting place for discussions of the common good than the ground that most liberals prefer to occupy. This is where “Coming Apart” proves its worth: Even for the many readers who will raise an eyebrow (or two) at Murray’s stringently libertarian prescriptions, the story he tells should be a powerful reminder that societies flourish or fail not only in the debates over how to tax and spend and regulate, but in the harder-to-reach places where culture and economics meet.

The 2k kicker is that the two-kingdom proponent has to say yes and no to this assessment (as Douthat, himself a Roman Catholic might admit). The happiness that Murray describes and that Douthat lauds is good and valuable for people and societies this side of glory as part of God’s providential care for his creation. But this happiness is not ultimate. The happiness of Christianity is paradoxically available not only to the well bred and well off, but also to thieves hung on crosses. And in some cases, human flourishing may actually prevent people from seeing their need for ultimate happiness.

This means that the danger of much conservatism, especially the kind promoted by neo-Calvinist inspired transformers and social conservatives, is to identify salvation with human flourishing. If you make that kind of identification, you also make it hard for people who lead sinful lives (which includes faithful spouses and productive businessmen) to see their need for a happiness that is only available to those who will admit that their incomes, stable families, and civic involvement count for nothing when it comes to spiritual flourishing.