Calvinism, the Modern, Etc.

Continuing in the book I cited last night, Essays on Pierre Bayle and Religious Controversy, it’s interesting to note the author’s extended discussion of several prominent Calvinist pastors throughout the 17th century. These men–such as John Cameron (1579-1625), Pierre Du Moulin (1568-1658), and Jean Claude (no dates)–apparently accepted the Cartesian reduction of the epistemological process to the isolated individual, and made this principle the cornerstone of their attacks upon the Counter-Reformation’s appeal to the “Antiquity” of the Catholic Church. Rex argues from such examples that the 17th century Protestants and their 18th century heirs who continued developing the method of Cartesian doubt even beyond Descartes himself were very instrumental in bringing about the Age of Reason.

It’s interesting that I’ve taken so much flack from some Modern Calvinists, willfully uninformed of philosophy’s historical relationship to expressions of faith, merely because I have asserted a connection between their views and those of the Enlightenment, and yet it has taken only a couple of weeks of research to uncover some pretty serious Calvinist capitulations to the spirit of the age (in the seventeenth century) and the rising tide of Enlightenment. A couple of months ago I did some serious reading on the 19th century aspects of Enlightenment philosophy, particularly that of Thomas Reid, whose “Scottish Common Sense Realism” was deeply relied upon by many Calvinist theologians of the day, so I don’t think I’ve been out of bounds to say the things I’ve said. Clearly, we in the Reformed world do have some things to answer for, and cannot dishonestly pretend that the faults in the Church and in society are always the fault of other people (the “idolators”).

But the story doesn’t necessarily end pessimistically, with Calvinists being these great arch-villains out to destroy Christendom and establish the Enlightenment concept of the absolute primacy of the individual as over against all communal concerns. I want to be quick to say that it seems to me from wading through these early Modern controversies that the truth is far more complicated than such easy judgments can convey. Just as the capitulations of many influential popes to worldly philosophy do not necessarily constitute objections against the Papacy per se, likewise the capitulations by many influential Calvinists to worldly philosophy (then or now) do not necessarily constitute objections against Calvinism itself. The terrible religious wars of the late-16th and early to mid-17th centuries had two parties, not just one–and since both parties were Christian it would seem that both parties have to face honestly the results of their scandalous warfare in the world that was created out of the ashes of that warfare. I want to say two things about this scandal and the contemporary results of it.

First, Christianity is not a “timeless truth” that stands outside of impacting cultures and being framed by them, but at the same time it is “independent” of cultures in the narrow sense that the Gospel cannot be utterly destroyed by mere human machinations in the space time world. Thus, there’s no reason for us in the Reformed world to face our failures and be afraid that our whole faith is going to fall apart if we are shown to have messed some things up pretty badly. Christianity is not Modernity, no matter how much Modern Christians propagandized by Enlightenment rhetoric about “the Dark Ages” find it difficult to separate the two. Furthermore, for the Reformed it is worth asking what in the world semper reformanda would actually mean in the world outside of our theological textbooks if we could never be convicted of having erred.

Second, still less is there any compelling call for us taking seriously the triumphalistic claims of many Roman Catholic apologists that the Reformation just about single-handedly created Modernity, and so doggone those nasty rebels Luther and Calvin for overthrowing “the ancient and constant faith of the Universal Church”. On the contrary, the Roman Catholics had more than enough complicity themselves in bringing about Modernity (Modernity is premised on a resurrection of the ancient pagan order, and Rome has always been terribly interested in mining the pagan order for “good things” that it can adapt to service Christianity), and there are some pretty compelling historical reasons why Modern propaganda against Christianity almost always focuses on Roman Catholic priests and the Roman Catholic Church as an institution. Modernity doesn’t really understand Catholicism, granted, but Modernity is very largely a reaction to problems that the Roman Catholic Church implicitly owns every time it trumpets its exclusive authority claims. So to be frank, what Roman Catholic apologists today think they have a right to gloat about is simply beyond me.

As for those of us Protestants who fear facing our own failures and having to actually do something about reforming (ourselves, that is, and not just everyone else), we need only to first learn a little historical humility and sympathy so as to be able to better understand our own profound connections to the catholic Christian past and so to better evaluate the things that have made us what we are, and second to unlearn the terrible theological-social perfectionism bequeathed to us by the great 19th century apostasy (one aspect of which I have written about here). Calvinism doesn’t have to be a synonym for Cartesianism, nor is there anything about it that requires a man to focus only on “soteriology” and let the rest of the world burn. As Gary North wrote somewhere, a prime failing of Calvinists over the last 250 years has been to progressively whittle Calvinism down to TULIP, and since nobody outside our camp wants a TULIP we have ended up with very little to offer anyone else. It’s time we worked–and worked hard–to change that.

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A Calvinist *and* A Skeptic

I’m finding my study time these days divided between more Medieval stuff (particular my ongoing work on conciliarism, and also some more investigations into realism and nominalism) and the Modern stuff that came after it. In the last six weeks, for instance, I wrote three major essays–all of them on Modern thinkers (Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, and John Locke). I had planned on leaving it there for a while, but various hints in the research for those papers have led me to one Pierre Bayle, a Huguenot (French Calvinist) who lived from 1647-1706.

Bayle is an important figure for understanding the rise of Modernity because his immense literary output, designed to grapple with the intense religious problems of the seventeenth century, became in the eighteenth century a virtual pre-made blueprint for the Enlightenment. Upon establishing connections between the Christian Pierre Bayle and such eminent unbelieving philosophes of the eighteenth century such as Voltaire (1694-1778), it thus becomes interesting to observe that Bayle was a Calvinist. And not just a Calvinist, but simultaneously a Calvinist and a “skeptic”–that is, he attempted to pioneer what he called a “faith founded on the ruins of reason.”

To understand how that seemingly incompatible combination was even possible one has to understand a few things about Medieval Scholasticism and the Reformation and post-Reformation reactions against it, the great intellectual-social shift from Reason to Will that I wrote a few blog entries about last week, and the broad-ranging attempts (all of them ultimately unsuccessful) throughout the late sixteenth century and into the late seventeenth by both Catholics and Protestants to keep a devastated Christendom alive and kicking. I plan to write more on Bayle as time allows (I have an essay on him about 1/3 done at the moment, and it will be of the same length and caliber as the ones listed above), but for now I found this quote interesting:

Calvinism in the later seventeenth century was no longer the doctrine of Calvin himself; it was rather the orthodox doctrine, stemming from Calvin but differing more and more from him in emphasis and perspective, as it was reformulated and developed to meet the exigencies of the period between the Synod of Dordrecht and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1618-1685). The period has been somewhat neglected by historians of Calvinism, for the understandable reason that it produced no great thinkers and no great writers. French Protestantism in this century has seemed a relatively unimportant minority phenomenon, more and more ignored and finally obliterated by the Revocation. Yet it is also true that this unheeded minority was attempting–albeit unsuccessfully–to exist in the same intellectual, social and political order as Catholicism, and that it sometimes followed patterns quite similar to those of its Catholic antagonists. It faced many of the same problems, underwent a number of the same influences, and finally headed toward much the same kind of crisis.–Walter E. Rex, Essays on Pierre Bayle and Religious Controversy (The Hague, 1965), pg. xiii

I find this quote, particularly the last sentence, to be particularly interesting because there is a growing conviction among many Calvinists today that we have lost a great deal of our heritage and have traded it in for a mess of Enlightenment pottage–indeed, in many ways our Calvinism has become Enlightenment Calvinism. A big part of understanding how this happened is the work of the Calvinist Pierre Bayle, which to no small degree pivoted around the use of the methodology of Pyrrhonistic skepticism, an ancient Greek philosophical school which sought by means of positing endless objections and reductions to create a total suspension of judgment regarding reason’s ability to prove anything. Pyrrhonism, in fact, played significant roles in the polemics of both Reformation and Counter-Reformation forces against each other all throughout the sixteenth century–just as in today’s bitter apologetic wars one finds both sides back then attempting to reduce the other’s criterion of “authority” to a destruction of the very possibility of knowledge. It is most ironic that one of the most brilliant Calvinist thinkers ever would play an instrumental role in first the rise of a paradigm (the Enlightenment) entirely contradictory not only to Calvinism but to Christianity itself, and second in the eventual distortion of Calvinism itself. But as often appears in other subjects (like, say, the pretty and utterly false little story that papal theorists tell about how the Papacy has always been a divinely-given force for unity in the Church) history is just full of bitter little ironies like that. More on this later, but I close with another quote from Rex about the controversies of the seventeenth century leading up to the work of Bayle:

…These were desultory affairs in the main, where mutual accusations of bad faith and dazzling flights of oratory for the galleries too often replaced an honest answering of questions, and, at the termination of which, victory was sometimes celebrated on both sides with Te Deum’s in the Cathedral an solemn prayers of rejoicing in the Temple. The accounts of them make tedious reading and we are apt to forget the earnest purpose which brought them into being: the common desire to thrash the issues out at last, to be done with them, and hence to decide the burning question of schism once and for all.–Ibid., pg. 5

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Thoughts on Athens and Jerusalem

Courtesy of an Orthodox friend, I pass along this very stimulating blog article on Athens and Jerusalem. I think the author’s categorization of the options as “the radical infection school” and the school that just continues what the Fathers started is itself a bit simplistic (for reasons partly outlined in my own posts called “Gotta Get Rid of the Finitude”), but overall this article is a very thought-provoking one and is, in my opinion, headed in the right direction.

Particularly important, I think, is his contention that the forces within Protestantism that seek to totally “de-Hellenize” Christianity–that is, even at the cost of radically modifying or losing the classical patristic formulations about God in the Creeds–must not be allowed to have their way. I think that he is correct that a victory of this viewpoint will serve only to increase division amongst Christians, perpetuate the present condition of cultural captivity of Christianity to Secularism, and perhaps ultimately even result in the loss of the faith itself. I think that it is incorrect to brush off all critiques of harmful Hellenistic influences upon the faith (I refer to Colin Gunton’s book The Triune Creator, which carefully documents the obscuration in the later Middle Ages of the doctrine of ex nihilo creation by an overemphasis on Greek” categories) but at the same time I would agree that a project of “de-Hellenizing” should not be absolutized in the name of reaching some mythical “pure New Testament” religion–which in any case would, like the biographical results of most “Quests for the Historical Jesus”, wind up creating a faith in the mere image of the demythologizer himself.

Lastly, the article reminded me of this one by my pastor, Peter Leithart: The Hemlock and the Cross.

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Arthur C. Clarke Vs. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

Paging through the latest issue of Popular Science I found an article on the popular science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame). A couple of interesting points from the article:

(1) Clarke, a thoroughgoing atheist, was pals with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Clarke very incompletely narrates the last time he saw Lewis, which involved the men (there were some others, unnamed by Clarke) coming out of a pub. According to Clarke, Lewis looked at Clarke and the others and said, “I think you are very wicked people, but wouldn’t the world be a dull place if everyone was good?” I haven’t read all of Clarke’s works, but what I have read makes me think Lewis was right in his description of the man as “wicked”.

(2) Clarke believes that “Religion is the most malevolent and persistent of all mind-viruses. We should get rid of it as quick as we can.” Upon hearing this the interviewer asked if Clarke thought there would one day be a “vaccination” to get rid of the religion “virus”. Clarke thought for a moment and then said, “I’m working on the novel right now.”

(3) I find it especially interesting that Clarke was somewhat close to Lewis and Tolkien. Clarke is well known in science fiction circles for coining what has come to be called “Clarke’s Law”–the naturalistic maxim that “Any sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magic to the unenlightened.” This radical reduction of reality is interesting because Lewis and Tolkien as Christians seemed to have no trouble integrating the natural and the supernatural without said reductionism (e.g., Uncle Andrew’s rings; Gandalf’s staff and the the Rings of Power). One can amusingly imagine Clarke arriving at, say, Rivendell and being lectured by Elrond on the real truth of reality: “Any sufficiently advanced magic will appear as mere technology to the darkness of unbelief.”

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The Ancient-Medieval VS. the Modern: Equal and Opposite Distortions of Trinitarian Metaphysics (?)

Just about everything I’m reading these days seems to come back to one central point: the distinction between the Ancient and Medieval societas and the Modern societas hinges upon the replacement of ratio (reason) by voluntas (will). That is, the Ancient / Medieval systems all placed the highest emphasis upon reason (which is public) and correspondingly devalued will (which is private), but the Modern systems reverse the emphasis.

[Warning: Oversimplifications Present] The Ancient and Medieval systems, all focused on an overpowering quest for the Supremely Rational, are driven toward Absolute Unity, and hence in these systems the most “rational” form of government is thought to be Monarchy (literally, “the rule of one”). Accordingly, societies operating in this framework are always afraid of “chaos”, and so they are constantly tempted toward absolute monarchy–the most rational way to work out the rational impulse toward the One. By contrast the Modern systems, all focused on an equal and opposite overpowering quest for the Supremely Volitional, are driven toward Absolute Diversity, and hence in these systems the most “free” system of government is thought to be Democracy (literally, “the rule of the many”). Accordingly, societies operating in this framework are always afraid of “coercion”, and so they are constantly tempted toward absolute individualism–the most willful way to work out the willful impulse toward the Many.

And yet, ironically, the absolute monarchy’s quest for “Reason” generates an identification of public and private that ultimately reduces to the absolute will of the lone individual, while the absolute democracy’s quest for “Will” generates a separation of public and private that ultimately reduces to the absolute rationalism of the overarching Government. I think this is part of what the Reformed philosopher Cornelius Van Til meant by his oft-repeated remark that non-Christian systems are always vacillating between “rationality” and “irrationality”, while only Christianity has the potential to avoid the extremes because only Christianity is true to reality. But if this is true, then the interesting thing about all of this appears to be the fundamentally anti-Trinitarian implications of all projects to elevate one or the other side of a starkly construed dichotomy over the other side. One / Many, Objective / Subjective, Authority / Liberty, Community / Individual, Public / Private, Reason / Will…all of these dichotomies seem to result in equal and opposite distortions of a humanity that is in reality made in the image of Someone who is simultaneously both sides of what we split apart and dichotomize.

In other words, Christian politics has never yet, in all of 2,000 years, managed to produce a societas that is actually consistent with Trinitarian metaphysics and epistemology, but has simply remained stuck within the confines of a pagan ontology / epistemology. I don’t know how to get out of the rut myself, but the more I read about these things the more I realize that we must get out of the rut. Between the pagan extremes of Emperor worship and the Nietzschean “will to power” is a distinctively Christian contribution to the concept and practice of social order that we’re simply missing, and to the extent that we miss it we are failing to be faithful to the Gospel, which, as we read in Acts, “turned the world upside down”.

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Reason Vs. Will, Christendom Vs. Secularism, and the Triumph of “Intolerant Tolerance”

This is most likely going to be a tough entry to follow, and I apologize in advance for that. These aren’t easy subjects, and to be honest, I’m writing this entry mostly to try to organize my own thoughts on these matters. But please do comment if you see problems or want to make clarifications.A.J. Conyers closes out his book The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit, with a discussion on the distinction between “the authentic practice of toleration” and “the modern doctrine of toleration”. He analyzes the problems with the latter as focusing on two major issues. First is the Enlightenment’s dichotomization of “public” and “private”, where the former increasingly has become the playground of the Sovereign State and where religion has been increasingly confined to the latter category. Second is the loss of a meaningful way to speak of the telos of life (what pre-Modern Christian thinkers called life’s “final cause”). The responses to the unthinkable atrocities that were the Wars of Religion–the responses, that is, of both Christian thinkers and unbelievers–were largely reactionary, and thus they ended up merely substituting a new set of problems for the old.

Particularly (to bring in material from other readings I’m doing), the shift from Reason to Will that had already been going on in Christendom in the later Medieval conflicts between “realist-rationalists” and “nominalist-voluntarists” was gradually but profoundly secularized. Let me draw out this contrast starkly for the sake of illustration. In the late Medieval discussions about Reason and Will, the “traditional” realist-rationalist doctrine that Reason was prior to Will became a serious source of dismay for many Christian thinkers influenced by the nominalist-voluntarist view. As the nominalists understood it, the realist-rationalist view was pressed to the point where the very liberty of God was held hostage to the Rational Order formally said to exist in His own mind but practically treated as if it existed outside of Him as a limiting force on what He could do. The nominalist-voluntarists reacted decisively to this over-emphasis upon Reason and declared that God was possessed of a kind of ultimate free will. He was free in terms of His “absolute power” (potentia absoluta) to do anything He wished that would not involve a formal contradiction (such as, to use a modern rhetorical example, making a rock so big that not even He could lift it). The stability of the world and our ability to know it was to be guaranteed by an appeal to God’s covenantal condescension (i.e., His willful activity of making a pact with man). As distinguished from his “absolute power” (potentia absoluta), God’s condescension would operate in terms of His “ordinary power” (potentia ordinata).

As an illustration, consider on the one hand the charge against Medieval nominalism that it led to “skepticism” because Reason could no longer be thought of as giving us privileged and infallible epistemological access to the world. Against this charge, the nominalist Pierre d’Ailly proposed instead that “in God it is the same to will and to understand”. For d’Ailly, although the divine will, the divine freedom from external rational compulsion, could literally do anything it liked, it would not literally do anything it liked. This was because God limited Himself by His gracious covenant with men, which He willed to sovereignly uphold no matter what. On the other hand, five hundred years after d’Ailly the triumph of the Modern Secularist view (parasitically attached to the Christian debates of the later Middle Ages, which the parasite itself calls “the Dark Ages”) is seen in the radical unbeliever Friedrich Nietzsche’s madman shouting that God has died, that we humans are His pallbearers, and that all that remains for us is an attempt to transcend our own finitude via the “will to power”. In a striking reversal of the older realist-rationalist paradigm, secularism has elevated Will above Reason. With no appeal to a transcendent God possible, secularism has thrown everything into a state of utter flux (because all that is left is the immanent individual will). There are many ways that this reversal could be illustrated, but here is one that I’ve come up with in my ongoing work on Medieval ecclesiology’s relationship to the Reformation. Consider that if the problem the Church faced in the high Middle Ages was the tyranny of absolute papalism, the problem she faces in the Modern Age is the tyranny of absolute populism.

To connect all of this back to the first paragraph, the problem of the secular age comes to be seen through the lens of what Conyers calls “the modern doctrine of toleration” as opposed to “the authentic practice of toleration”. This distinction highlights the world of difference between on the one hand bearing with someone who is in error, but on the other hand giving up the ability to say he is in error because one has embraced a “neutral” viewpoint that lets both parties do their own thing in their Private Sanctuary and still get along in the Public Square. The rise of the Modern State came on the heels of the dramatic decline of Medieval Christendom, and, since nature abhors a vacuum, as the Church retreated from her former role in shaping and guiding the culture the State moved in to take up the slack. Even Christian thinkers such as Rene Descartes, Pierre Bayle, and John Locke reacted to the horrors of the Wars of Religion and their lesser cousins by increasingly widening the gap between faith and reason. Bayle’s goal, for instance, despite being a Calvinist, was to create a “faith founded on the ruins of reason.” Through this time of transition, guided by men like Bayle, Will (the private) came to dominate Reason (the public).

This shift resulted in the pursuit of power above the pursuit of understanding. For will is the purpose to make things happen, and thus it naturally allies with power, the ability to make them happen. As encroaching Modernity fell upon and devoured the ruins of Western Christendom, the only answer to the widespread chaos caused by runamuck Will was, ironically, the re-imposition from the outside of Reason–common standards that everyone would adhere to so as to maintain basic social order. The agent of this re-imposition of Reason turned out to be the only force capable of coercing men to do anything: the Secular State. The State exercised its will, its power, and restored order–but at a terrible price that we Christians are only beginning to comprehend.

That price is a “mass culture” premised upon the tacit agreement of everyone who partakes in it to “tolerate” others. It is important to understand that in this sense “tolerate” does not mean merely “agree to get along with” (this is not necessarily a bad thing), but instead “agreement with the will of the guarantor of the culture”–meaning, the Secular State. The State is the only true wielder of a “free will,” and thus ofpower, in our age. All other potential wielders, such as the family and the Church, have been stripped of their ability to obligate the “free” individual. In order to keep its power the State must actively discourage competition. Thus, the State has a vested interest in avoiding the topic of authorities outside of itself–religion for example. It has a vested interest in using its power to constantly propagandize everyone in its territory with materials that foster final allegiance solely to itself. The major exception to its silence would be, of course, where it is necessary to issue some “legal” pontification about the “self-evident truth” of the “separation” of Religion and State–which inevitably and conveniently favors only the State.

Hence, in a world where all talk of the telos, the goal, the final end, of finite life under the sun has been relativized, locked up inside the realm of the “private” sphere, it is correspondingly true that all talk of societal and ethical and rational order has been trivialized, cut down to fit the mass culture that is the only possible inhabitant of the “public” sphere. The cultural movers and shakers constantly educate us in lessons that subtly reinforce the idea that “God is conspicuous by His absence.” And after all, there only two truths in this world, “death and taxes,” and both truths are under the control of the State. Amazingly, we Protestants are generally speaking pretty happy with this way of life so long as the State allows us to have the freedom to preach our “doctrines.” We will accept the State’s understanding of “toleration” in the Public Square and its corollary of the confinement of our religion to within the four walls of our own homes and churches. “My country ’tis of thee / sweet land of liberty”, we sing without really understanding that the cost of our “liberty” is more than the shed blood of our military men fighting to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Speaking of American political philosophy, it is interesting to note (as many have) that the “God” who is so prominently mentioned on our money and in our Pledge of Allegiance, and so flippantly invoked by politicians when they are courting the otherwise despised “Religious Right,” is not the Triune God of Holy Scripture. America’s God is, rather, a Unitarian entity who propagates a vaguely nondescript “monotheism” that is, oddly, quite comfortable allowing a “polytheistic” right of each man to ‘worship Him in his own way.” This brings to mind Conyer’s remarks on the dangers of portraying Christianity as merely a “monotheistic” religion:

Thus, “religiously motivated political monotheism has always been used in order to legitimate domination, from the emperor cults of the ancient world, Byzantium and the absolute ideologies of the seventeenth century, down to the dictatorships of the twentieth.” [citing Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), pg. 131] By contrast, the doctrine of the Trinity has acted to prevent and expose the excesses of monotheism. For, by virtue of the Trinitarian nature of God, the significance of God’s unity is shared with his diversity. In answer to the question, “What is real, the unity of things or the diversity of things?” the Trinity answers both. In political terms this might be asked by questioning whether it is the larger, centralized nation that makes up people, or is it the local, the informal, the organic associations. Tutored by a strong, principled monotheism (such as Islam, for instance) we might be persuaded to answer in favor of the more comprehensive political body. Taught, however, in the school of Trinitarian thought, we might be persuaded that both the local and the national, both the particular and the comprehensive, have their distinct and significant roles to play. In a word, Trinitarian thought prepares us for thinking of society in terms of distributed roles, separation of powers, and a federalist view of social associations. [A.J. Conyers, The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit (Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Company, 2001), pg. 212]

Note that Christianity is not merely “monotheistic”, but is Trinitarian monotheism. This makes it presuppositionally impossible for the Christian to divide his loyalties in the way that the Secular State commands in its doctrine of “toleration,” and thus, this means that the Christian simply cannot afford to accept the public / private dichotomy that drives the entire Modern project. The Christian cannot follow John Locke’s dictum that in the New Testament era there can be no such thing as a Christendom, for to make this concession is fundamentally to concede autonomy to the Secular State–and thus to indulge in a process of making Christianity the slave of the State.

To borrow some phrases I sharply criticized in my entry Secularism, Sacralism, and the Christian Antithesis, II, Christ is not to be worshipped in an “off the street place” while “tolerating” the idol who stands in the Public Square. On the contrary, Christ must be enthroned in the Public Square as well as in the private heart, for to paraphrase J. Gresham Machen, “There is no area of life that Jesus Christ does not claim and demand ‘Mine’!” This means that whatever our responsibilities to Conyers’s “authentic practice of toleration,” we cannot accept the modern “doctrine of toleration.” Born in the fires of the destruction of the Christendom that was, it has sucked the life right out of the public witness of Christianity and even now prevents us from working on the Christendom that will be.

I’ll end this entry with a couple of quotes from Conyers that hopefully will give the “big picture”:

[The dream for a comprehensive solution on the level of the created things] eventually disappoints because one finds that the problems that created oppression on the local level exist at the more comprehensive level as well. But because power has become both greater and more remote, the oppression it brings with it inevitably becomes more difficult to remove. At the local level people whose character is more likely to be known to us oppress us. As the centers of power become further removed from us, they act upon us in a more impersonal way, but also–because the machinery that makes it all possible is bureaucratic in nature–in a more inflexible way. We are saved from the personal animosity of the malicious neighbor only to to be delivered into the hands of the indifferent, faceless, nameless, unknown functionary–or else the celebrity ruler who we only think we know. The anonymity and abstractness of the whole process fixes us all the more firmly in its grip.

At the conceptual level, what makes this process possible is the steady conversion of society, over a long period of time, but at an accelerated rate in the twentieth century to the notion that social life is framed by a national government at one end and the autonomous individual at the other–the bipolar vision of society. It is a vision that serves the interests of centralized power. [A.J. Conyers, The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit (Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Company, 2001), pg. 222]

…the very character of modernity has accorded tolerance the status of a secular virtue. It is a virtue inasmuch as it strengthens a certain predisposition toward life together. It is secular in that the predisposition it strengthens is one of postponing or diverting the quest for meaning that is an essential component of social cohesion and the forming of groups or associations. Religion, of course, is what we call that quest, along with the practices and habits of the heart that it engenders. The religious impulse is strong enough to bind people together, and also strong enough to set them at deadly odds with each other.

Toleration, as we modern people have defined it, is the decision to replace that quest [the religious quest] with one both practical and material in nature. Thus, it actually lessens the binding authority of community life, an authority that makes subtle appeal to manners, traditions, group sanctions, and respect for elders. At the same time, the ersatz virtue [of tolerance] increases the need for organization, authority exerted from outside the group, formal laws, as well as emphasizing the protection of abstract “rights” that are divorced from what the living community calls the “good.” In recent American culture, one need only take note of the lessening authority of the family and the increasing role of government policy to get a sense of what this means at the street level. [Ibid., pg. 226]

But since the working out of what is “good” is difficult at best in any context, it becomes increasingly difficult as the opportunities for power and wealth expand the horizons of possible social organization. The organized community (the state) outstrips the natural community which is organic in its growth and development, growing out of forces and needs that are internal to the life of the group. The organized community’s size and the fact that it is actually constituted by external authority makes commitment to an ecumenical concept or what is indeed the summum bonum, the highest good, all the more difficult to maintain. For while an idea of the good is clearly essential to the organic community, it is not strictly necessary to the organized community; for the organic community grows out of its purpose, but an organized community reflects its alien authority or its formal principle. At the same time, economic and political opportunities thrive on efficiency, while the philosophical and religious questions take time. Conflicts are expensive, not often productive of wealth, and are probably unresolvable in the short run. Modern people have elected efficiency and the superficial accord of common pragmatic goals rather than the protracted struggles for ideals, which have all too often, historically, erupted into violent conflict. It is easy to see why toleration is often the virtue of the middle class, the class that values above all comfort and safety. It is also the virtue that the elite most wish for the middle class to have, making the business of ruling all the more efficient and profitable. [Ibid., pp. 227-228]

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The Sterility of Rationalism

I keep running into these interesting little quotes that I feel I just have to share because they are so wonderfully expressed. This one goes to my frequent criticisms of “rationalist” methods of knowing truth–that is, methods which base themselves on mere rational a priorisms considered by individual minds to be “self-evident” and upon which are subsequently built grand “indubitable” structures of logical implications.

…A man may aim for the best, he may build systems better than Plato’s Republic, or More’s Utopia or Campanella’s Republic of the Sun etc., but all such ideas will turn out to have some inadequacies and deficiencies once you try to put them into practice. Men’s passions, which feed upon one another in prodigious variety, will soon ruin the hopes which these fine systems inspire. Note what happens when mathematicians attempt to apply to the material world their speculations concerning points and lines. They can do everything they want with their lines and their areas, for they are pure ideas of the mind; and the mind allows us to strip away what we please of their dimensions, which is why we can demonstrate the most elegant things possible concerning the nature of the circle, or the infinite divisibility of the continuum. But it all founders when we apply it to matter which exists outside of our minds–hard and impenetrable matter. This may serve as a metaphor for real human passions when confronted by the speculative theories of a man who has formed an idea of a perfect government.–Pierre Bayle, Historical and Critical Dictionary, “Hobbes”, Remark E, in Bayle: Political Writings, ed. Sally L. Jenkinson (Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 86-87

Now Bayle, the 17th century Calvinist “skeptic” I wrote about in another entry, was writing of the political theory of the 16th century thinker Thomas Hobbes, showing some of the “inconveniences” that might arise from Hobbes’s theory of the supremacy of the civil Sovereign over all religious concerns. But I can’t help but apply Bayle’s words, particularly in the last few sentences about the ability of mathematics to be disconnected from space and time reality, to other fields of intellectual endeavor. I can think of some ecclesiological theories and some theories of historical reconstruction, for instance, which are grossly guilty of treating the actually existing physical world with the kind of tidy, sterile abstractionism of the mathematician elegantly speculating about his ideas about lines and their areas, but never realizing that all the elegance of the ideas simply fails to connect with real lines and their real areas.

People who talk grandiosely about the ecclesiological theories of their Church and their Church only as being the perpetually-valid “divinely-willed order of things” that merely in its definitions fully answers every objection before they can ever even be made, or who treat historical work like it’s simply a matter of tracing out the progression of the “internal dynamic” of ideas would appear to be particularly in need of heeding this criticism of Bayle’s. Flesh-and-blood may not be everything, but neither can it be reduced to brute rational axioms. Christian epistemology should not strive to vindicate materialist reductionism, but neither should it strive to vindicate rationalist reductionism. I say it often, but I guess it just can’t be said enough: There are more options than these available to creatures living in a world of the God who is both One and Many, both Reason and Will, both Transcendent and Immanent. We believe in the Incarnation of the Word. Why then, do we still think like pagan Greeks?

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What I Think of Evangelicals and Evangelicalism

I’m really trying to get away from the “blog wars” and minimize further fallout because of misunderstandings and things said in the heat of controversy. In this light I’ve been shown a posting from a message board wherein the author opines that I have “a blind, passionate hate of Evangelicals”. This is not correct, but I do understand why this individual thinks this of me.

In part it’s personal: he believes that he “handpicked” me to be a part of his ministry team and then I subsequently betrayed his trust by adopting viewpoints that go against his ministry’s “Evangelical” tenets. In part it’s also theological: his theology is, by his own admission, extremely pessimistic about the mass of humanity, believing that most people are damned and very, very few will ever heed the true Gospel. It’s very easy with this kind of theology to take extreme umbrage at others disagreeing with oneself, and the extremely rigorously-policed nature of this gentleman’s Internet community is a very good proof of how such pessimism overflows into one’s self-concept (opposition to me = persecution of me, and occurs because the opponent doesn’t like the Truth) and one’s treatment of others (extremely harsh language used of other people’s motivations while oddly being blind to the sinfulness of one’s own behavior toward them). And partly it’s also because I do tend to speak in generalities that don’t always capture the nuances of things and which a given person might perhaps justly feel upset over if it appears he’s being lumped in with things he doesn’t hold. I can’t do anything about the first two reasons, but I could stand some improvement in the third, and will have to pledge myself to work on it.

Now regarding the “blind, passionate hate of Evangelicals” I supposedly harbor, it is true that at one point in these awful controversies (and if I remember aright it may have been in a post to this very gentleman himself) I did state that I “hate the Evangelical religion”. There was a reason I said that, but I may not have made that reason clear at the time, or even if I did the mere use of the word “hate” on my part has since been combined with my vigorous opposition to theology such as this particular gentleman holds, and the result is now being touted as a prime example of the “ramblings of emotion-charged, historically inept idiots.”

Well, alright then. I guess all I can do is say that NO, I do not hate Evangelicals as people. They are my Christian brothers and I do have an obligation to love them and bear with them and believe the best of them, and all the other similar Scriptural injunctions. To be sure I have often failed
in these duties. But I do not hate Evangelicals as people. The remark I made to the effect that I “hate the Evangelical religion” was a reference to certain very bad features of my own upbringing in what I would have to broadly consider the “Evangelical” tradition–features which caused me no end of spiritual grief as I got older and which I believe only the Reformed faith saved my spiritual sanity from. I do see many of these features operating in the type of “Evangelical” religion that said gentleman practices (though I make no representations about his spiritual life, which I know nothing of), and this certainly helps to account for some of the hostility that has come out during the “blog wars”.

I do not like the Modern American Evangelical religion, but oppose it most strongly. I do not hate Evangelical people, but I am very strongly against their basic religious paradigm. I think that epistemologically and sociologically it is a thinly Christianized form of humanism and that even though there are many good Christian men and women within it who do the best they can to serve Christ to the best of their ability, this does not mean no criticisms are due to the basic paradigm or that the flaws of the paradigm may be simply looked over in the name of what this gentlemen calls “preserving the bonds of peace” with the brethren. It is very difficult to have peace with gentleman who, like this particular one, try to confine True Christianity (“the brethren”) within excessively narrow doctrinal confines and add to this rigorist position an attitude that finds it very difficult to avoid the most extreme sorts of denunciations upon having their views challenged to even a moderate degree. I am sorry that my opposition to Evangelicalism has caused this individual to believe that I hate Evangelical people, because it’s just not true. But at this point in the troubles, I am really not sure what can be done to get the discussions back on a decent footing. I am open to suggestions.

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Leibniz on Healing the Protestant / Catholic Schism

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, most often known for his intricate philosophy of “monadology”, was a 17th century Protestant intellectual leader who, in in the aftermath of the Wars of Religion and the evident rise of Secular Modernity, passionately desired the reunification of the Church. Though a committed Protestant, it seems that Leibniz had access to a different set of working assumptions than we living today are accustomed to, for in the words of one of his modern expositors he “became the defender of a reformed and truly universal Papacy; at the same time he vigorously defended the Conciliar Movement of the fifteenth century, believing that if it had succeeded, the Reformation would have been unnecessary and the ‘universal’ authorities (Pope and Holy Roman Emperor) would still be viable.” [Editor’s Introduction to Leibniz: Political Writings, trans. and ed. Patrick Riley, second edition (Cambridge University Press, 1988), pg. 1.]

Although his cause in this regard was ultimately unsuccessful, it was not for lack of passionate arguing and a longing for the peace of the Church and Christian society. In his correspondence with the Catholic political absolutist Bishop Bossuet, Leibniz urged a mutual policy of forebearance between Catholics and Protestants, agreeing that the issues of separation were extremely serious but insisting that they were not such as could not be overcome if all sides would adopt charitable analysis of each other’s views rather than the rigid dogmatism that had so lately ripped Christian Europe apart in the Wars of Religion. In one letter to Bossuet, Leibniz responded with uncharacteristic sharpness to his impression that the Bishop was simply unwilling to consider any sort of compromise with “heretics”:

To say that you cannot consent to a new examination [of the Council of Trent], is only to renew the old equivocations: a new examination is necessary at least for the benefit of those who have a right to doubt a pretended infallible decision; and your party is deceiving itself in trying to derive any advantage from this [Council], as if it were permitted that a band of minor Italian bishops, courtesans and hangers-on from Rome (who were believed to be little-educated and little mindful of true Christianity) fabricate in a corner of the Alps, in a manner highly disapproved by the most serious men of their times, decisions which are to obligate the whole Church.–Cited in ibid., pg. 31

Elsewhere Leibniz opined that

The essence of Catholicism is not external communion with Rome…the true and essential communion, which makes us part of the body of Jesus Christ, is charity. All those who maintain the schism by their fault, by creating obstacles to reconciliation, contrary to charity, are truly schismatics: instead of which those who are ready to do everything that can be done to re-establish external communion are Catholics in effect.—Cited in ibid, pg. 31

But most interesting about Leibniz’s correspondence with Bishop Bossuet is the following extract, which shows his commitment to avoiding portraying the issues of the schism as trivial and simultaneously his conciliatory spirit:


I do not want to delay a moment in responding to your letter, [which is] so full of goodness, in as much as it reached me the day after I thought of an important example which can serve in the matter of the reunion [of the Catholics and Protestants]. You have all the reason in the world to say that one must not take as easy that which, at bottom, is not such at all. I grant that the thing is difficult because of its nature and of circumstances, and I never contemplated easiness in such a matter. But is a question of establishing, above all, that which is possible or permissible. Now, all that which has been done, and of which there are examples approved by the Church, is possible; and it seems that the Protestant party is so considerable that one must do everything that can be done for them. The Calixtins of Bohemia were much less [considerable]; nevertheless you see, by the executorial letter of the Council of Basel, which I attach here, that in taking them back [the Church] suspended a notorious decree of the Council of Constance, with respect to them; namely, that which decided that the use of the two species [of communion] is not commanded of all the faithful. The Calixtins did not recognize the authority of the Council of Constance at all and, not agreeing in the slightest with this decision, Pope Eugene and the Council of Basel passed over this matter and did not demand that they submit to it, but left the matter to a new future decision by the Church…

Judge, Monseigneur, whether the greater part of the German-speaking people does not deserve at least as much accomodativeness as was shown toward the Bohemians. I beg you to consider this example well, and to tell me your feelings about it. Would it not be better, for Rome and for the common good, to regain so many nations, though one would have to remain in a state of disagreement on some points for some time—since it is true that these differences would be still less considerable than some of those which are tolerated within the Roman Church, such as, for example, the point concerning the necessity of the love of God, and the point of probabilism, to say nothing of the great difference between Rome and France? If, however, the matter were treated as it should be, I believe that the Protestants would one day be able to explain their views concerning dogma much more favorably than seems [likely] at first, above all if they saw signs of a true zeal for effective reform of abuses, particularly with respect to worship…

You will recall, Monseigneur, that it was agreed that it would be necessary to join three means in order to arrive at a peaceable reunion. The first is the means of exposition concerning certain controversies, by showing that, when people understand each other well, there may be agreement. These controversies are verbal at bottom, though they are quite often taken as real and have caused a good deal of noise and evil…The second means is that of deference, when one party gives way to the other and grants it something in certain matters. If these are dogmas, this can be brought about only by good proofs; but it is not our plan to enter into this at present. If they are practices, people can and must sometimes give way to each other, in bringing about what seems best for enlightenment and peace. We believe that our doctors [of theology] can give way on some dogmas [which are] received among them, and [that] yours [can] as well; but it turns out that these dogmas are not universally established or received among either group. And we are also of the opinion that one must, as soon as possible, return to the hierarchy and government of the body of the visible Church, recognizing the leadership of its head, and conform so far as is reasonable to the enlightened practices which obtain on your [the Catholic] side: as we hold that, on your side, one must apply himself strongly to abolish certain abusive practices which are only too well publicly established in some places, particularly with respect to the worship of images—which is disapproved even on your side by wise persons, and sometimes even by regulations. And the occasion of reunion with the Protestants can be useful to authorized and well-intentioned persons of your party (among whom I number the Pope who is zealous, as he ought to be) in realizing that which the courtiers at Rome once eluded by their strategems at the Council of Trent, that is, the purging of the Church of several abuses—to which the liberty not to allow them, which will be left to our side, will contribute a great deal, and will seem the less extraordinary because the Greeks, the Maronites and other easterners [who were] reconciled with the Roman Church have kept their rites, and because the Council of Florence approved it.

The third means is that of abstraction or suspension, or leaving out of account certain points on which one cannot agree, or on which one could not agree so soon, by setting them aside, either forever, when they are of little importance, or until the decision of a future ecumenical Council. And this means must come to the aid of the two others, in certain permitted cases, to shorten their length. For we agree that it is necessary to lay down, as the foundation of the whole negotiation, the great maxim that each, on his side, must make the most extreme effort which is possible without injuring his conscience, by showing the greatest obligingness for the others that he can have without offending God: in order to forward the great work of reunion in so far as he can, [and] to obviate such great evils as those which the schism has brought about, that is, the loss of so many thousands of souls and the spilling of so much Christian blood, not to speak of other miseries which this schism has caused and will be able to cause if it is not stopped. Thus everyone can be re-united under a single hierarchy even before all the dogmas ordinarily insisted upon by your side are agreed on, or all the abuses disapproved by our side are redressed: provided that everyone takes certain essential steps which can be agreed on at the beginning of the reunion.–“Excerpts from Two Letters to Bossuet Concerning the Re-Unification of Christendom”, in Leibniz: Political Writings, trans. and ed. Patrick Riley, second edition (Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 189-190

The Christendom that Leibniz wished to see restored and preserved even as the Medieval era was giving way to the Modern is gone, but the terrible schism between Catholics and Protestants remains. Indeed, in many ways it has been exacerbated by the crisis of Secularism that both have had to face apart from each other, and which has negatively affected both in their own peculiar ways. It is obviously not possible for either Catholics or Protestants to follow every piece of Leibniz’s advice and there are some on both sides who will doubtless take radical offense at the mere suggestion of having to admit serious problems on their side which require forebearance with equally serious problems on the other side. But regardless of polemical felt-needs, surely it is still possible to see in our brother Leibniz’s words a genuinely committed Protestantism which yet maintains a vibrant hope for the future reconciliation of the divided parts of the Church.

Although the present schism is not unilaterally our fault, because we do contribute a great deal to its maintenance it must be said that there is no intrinsic necessity for Protestantism to be oriented around a perpetual ethic of schism. We cannot change Rome, but we can, by God’s grace, change ourselves. We do not have to give up what is important to us (the Gospel) in order to have hope for the future and try to work for it today. And not to needlessly harp on one of my favorite subjects, Leibniz’s points about the Conciliar Movement are of particular relevance here. Protestants of the past knew what this was about and could use it to great effect in discussions with their Catholic opponents. One wonders what has happened to Modern Protestantism that we do not know what Leibniz knew and therefore find the prospect of duplicating his attitude to be so alien to our way of life.

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Leibniz on the Wise and the Powerful

It is to be hoped that the most powerful be always the most wise, or that the most wise be the most powerful; but human wisdom is quite limited, and often the greatest minds make the greatest mistakes.–Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, “Excerpts from Two Letters to Landgraf Ernst of Hesse-Rheinfels Concerning Absolute Power and Resistance”, in Leibniz: Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pg. 186

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