Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Excarnation II



But this understates the difficulties. That Christianity has often been seen as another form of Platonism, even worse in that it seems to give such an important place to punishment and sacrifice, is not just a function of the denseness or  the ill will of the critics. The Gospel message doesn't fit into the categories which have come down to us through ages of human history, and is recurrently being twisted, even by its own adherents, to make sense in these terms.

This means that there are clearly wrong versions of Christian faith. But it doesn't mean that we can give a single right version to replace them. The hold of these categories which come to us through our history, including that of our pre-Axial religious life, is so great that we have trouble thinking through what the Christian revelation means. The wrong categories often come more "naturally" to us. So we operate with a certain amount of unclarity and confusion. This is the condition of doing theology.
Perhaps the most obvious area in Christian culture where the tendency for excarnation has been felt is in the Christian approach to sexuality.  Taylor doesn't devote a great deal of his book to the subject and the  impression I get is that  he is far more "liberal" than I am, but it would be a mistake to think his critique of excarnation is an attempt to "liberalise" Christian sexual ethics. Taylor does not go into an extensive historical treatment of the subject but simply reminds the reader of the the hostility that Christianity has towards sexual desire. No matter how the act is realised, there always seems to be an element of sin associated with it. This continual association of corruption with the desire itself resulted in a Christianity that was nearly always hostile to its expression. As this blog has mentioned before, it was only after two millennia of Christian thinking that unitive element of sexual desire was recognised as legitimate, and even then conditionally.

Whatever its reasons, Christianity's hostility to sex has resulted in theological treatment which links sin to its expression in nearly all instances, even within marriage. However this position  creates an anthropological vision which regards mans sexual nature as evil.  Therefore the good man in such a vision is a man who has literally "chopped off" his sexual nature. Now some defenders of the traditional position will argue that it is important to control an appetite as rowdy as sexual desire due to all the damage it can do, but difference between regulation and suppression is a matter of degree, and the Church regulated hard.

Really hard.

Yet, sexual desire is a constitutive element of human nature so the traditional Christian opposition to Eros was an attack on the human constitution. To quote Taylor:
And in this, it follows much of Christian sensibility over the ages, which has also own uneasy about many aspects of human flourishing, has been uncertain and ambivalent about them. Take sexual fulfillment for instance. For centuries, the midiaeval church taught that sexual intercourse was essentially to be directed to procreation, and you shouldn't enjoy it too heartily even then. The Reformers tried to rehabilitate sexual relations among married couples, but in practice the emphasis on its being carried out to the glory of God put a damper on sexual pleasure....... Now that there is a tension between fulfillment and piety should not surprise us in a world distorted by sin, that is, separation from God. But we have to avoid turning this into a constitutive incompatibility. This, however, is what both exclusive humanism on one hand, and the sensibility of much conservative Christianity on the other, tend to do. The first take for granted that what is dedicated to God must detract from human fulfillment. The second are so focused on the denial and restriction of desire that they easily fall into a mirror image of the secular stance: following God means denying yourself.
It's hard to beat the beast when you're both playing the same tune.

The problem with this approach is that it seriously impaired the Christian understanding of sexuality and created a state off affairs which many found repellent and pushed them into the secular world.
But there is another charge against the aspiration to transcend, not just futile and self-defeating, but that it actually damages us, unfits us for the  pursuit of human fulfillment. It does this by inducing in us hate and disgust at our human desires and neediness. It inculcates a repulsion at our limitations and poisons the joy we might otherwise feel in the satisfactions of human life as it is.

Here the enemy is not so much Greek polytheistic fantasy and Greek philosophy but Christianity, especially in its Augustinian forms. Here Nussbaum takes up one of the central themes, one of the constitutive polemics of our secular age, as I am trying to describe it. Hatred at Christianity for having defamed, polluted, impure ordinary human sensual desire is one of the most powerful motivations which impelled people to take the option for an exclusive humanism once it became thinkable.

What Christianity tried to do--especially Catholicism--is refashion Eros into a "platonic" version of itself, stripping the carnal element of it to its bare minimum and hence deforming it in the process. It tried to create sex without sexuality. It is also why--for the average person--it really has lost all authority of matters of sexuality. It speaks of sexuality in a way that the common man cannot relate to.

To consider what I mean take the following from commentator Chent in a recent post.
"Rape is sex without consent, and it can definitely occur in marriage."

Yes, a definition that is not found in the Bible or the tradition of the Church but it is the standard feminist definition.

The Bible never talks about consent. And even less about consent being the basis of the morality of sexual intercourse. The basis is marriage. [ED]

Of course, this does not mean "sex on demand" at any time or place". Nobody said that. But constant denial of sex is a serious sin and a break of marital vows. "You must not deprive each other, except by mutual consent for a limited time, to leave yourselves free for prayer, and to come together again afterwards; otherwise Satan may take advantage of any lack of self-control to put you to the test." (1 Corinthians 7,5)

Don't get me wrong. Of course, I am against a husband forcing himself on his wife. Not because it is rape (it is not, according to the Bible), but because it is aggression. Because an evil is not an excuse to commit another evil.
Commentator Chent puts forward a very orthodox and traditional interpretation of conjugal rights. But what's important to note here is that any dimension of desire [Eros] is not even factored into the analysis. Access to the partner is seen in strictly legal terms  and the erotic constituents of the sexual act which facilitate it, are considered irrelevant to the legitimisation of access. It's a thoroughly decarnalised understanding of sexuality. Furthermore, even the other partner's right to resist is also grounded in legal terms of access,  not in the lack of facilitation of the erotic faculty. It's as if we were having a discussion of property rights and not sexual responsiveness. The underlying approach being predicated on the notions that desire is irrelevant to the act or that the desire is evil and should not be factored in. To top it off, any attempt to introduce this element into the discussion is seen as Feminism or heresy.

And even here Chent is justified in his charge. Because the notion of factoring desire into the analysis of the situation is outside the traditionalist Christian tradition.  But this creates a tension between human nature which instinctively grasps the importance of Eros, and the Church's legalistic tradition which ignores the element.

What Christianity it tried to do is create a sexuality without Eros: it's teaching on the subject clashing with human nature. But because Christianity has been unable to address issues of sexuality convincingly within its own tradition, external non-Christian forces have filled the gap and thereby gained legitimacy.


*Quotes from Taylor's Secular Age.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Excarnation

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
John 1:14
Charles Taylor's omission of the role of Grace in the mechanics of belief, in my opinion, fatally flaws his book with regard to understanding the phenomenon of secularisation. However, his book is not without merit, and where I think he is at his strongest is when he links the phenomenon of secularisation to the excarnation of the Christian religion.

Taylor, who is a romantic phenomenologist, describes excarnation as:
the steady disembodying of spiritual life, so that it is less and less carried in deeply meaningful bodily forms, and lies more and more in the head.
It could be said that this is the central thesis of his book and whats really interesting is that in many ways he is on the same page as some of the early Nouvelle-Theologians who were trying to understand why Christianity was declining in the West.  For Taylor, the transformation of Christianity from something one "felt" into a "philosophical system" that one mainly appreciated in thought fueled the rise of atheism. A Thomistic "cold and logical proof" was no substitute for the experience of God and in this regard Taylor echos the complaints of some of the more astute Christian theologians of the late 19th Century. It could be said that  Christianity in becoming hyper-rational also became boring.

I actually think that his criticism of the increasing rationalism of Christian rationality is flawed from a certain perspective . The problem isn't so much about the drift from the body to the head but the relationship between the body and the spirit.  Taylor tends to see excarnation in the drift from the body to the head, but as I see it, excarnation is the separation of the body from the the head.


The Thomistic understanding of man recognised that while body and spirit were different things they were "one" in reality, like the two sides of the same coin, and the human person was both spirit and flesh.  In technical language, Thomism asserted the hylomorphic nature of man.  Now the first point to recognise here the the relationship between spirit and flesh was intertwined. This impetricate relationship in many ways limited the expression of each element of this duality. The human soul was in some way a reflection of the flesh and the flesh was a reflection of the soul. The second point to recognise here is that while the spirit/mind/soul directed the body,  in many ways the body gave man his human nature and thereby a teleology which the soul aimed to achieve.

What this meant is that the soul could not direct the body in a direction contrary to human nature but rather it had to directed in a way which perfected it.   The soul was not given exclusive rights to make man as it wanted him to be rather human nature put limits on it.  The soul had to deal with the body's reality of hunger but it could not direct the body to eliminate it for the repertoire of human appetites.The point being that any governance of the body by the soul had to made with some kind of reference to the body as it actually was.


On the other hand, from some of the early days of Christianity there have existed elements and tendencies that have seen the relationship between the body and flesh as oppositional. Instead of seeing the body as a hylomophic reality they saw it as a duality.  This mode of thinking hierarchically ordered the relationship between the two, with the spirit being put above the flesh on a moral dimension. This type of relationship also sees the role of the spirit to constantly subordinate the flesh without reference to it, its innate nature is seen as a constant source of ruin to the spirit. A disassociation between the two is constantly at play and there is a continual attempt to separate the body from the mind. It is this attitude that I would consider excarnational.


No matter how much of gloss you try and put on it, certain strains of early Christianity appear to have had strong excarnational tendencies, with Augustine being a representative of this school of thought. Chesterton recognised that Christianity was beginning to veer and it was only through the efforts of Aquinas (and others) that it was bought back on course.  As Chesterton said;

The evil is always both within and without the Church; but in a wilder form outside and a milder form inside. So it was, again, in the seventeenth century, when there was Calvinism outside and Jansenism inside.And so it was in the thirteenth century, when the obvious danger outside was in the revolution of the Albigensians;but the potential danger inside was in the very traditionalism of the Augustinians. For the Augustinians derived only from Augustine, and Augustine derived partly from Plato, and Plato was right, but not quite right. It is a mathematical fact that if a line be not perfectly directed towards a point,it will actually go further away from it as it comes nearer to it. After a thousand years of extension, the miscalculation of Platonism had come very near to Manicheanism.
What Chesterton is saying here is that Augustinian Christianity sails very close to Manicheanism and without very strong explicit checks, can drift over quite easily into that error. The achievement of Aquinas was to ring-fence the faith. The problem was that the Reformation tore those fences down, with a result that Augustinianism reasserted itself. Not only in the Protestant Calvinistic strands of Christianity but in Catholicism itself.

Now what's interesting is how this theological change affected our culture and our understanding of ourselves. As I see it, it encouraged several different tendencies:


Firstly, it emphasised a division between the body and the mind.

Secondly, it elevated the mind above the body.
Thirdly, it facilitated the puritanical mindset by delegitimising the the carnal dimension of the human person.
Fourthly, It tipped the cultural balance in favor of the theoretical over the real 
Fifthly, it enabled the formation of "constructed" identities which sought to escape their carnal limitations.

I suppose the best example of this line of reasoning is exemplified by the transgender movement, which draws much of its cultural legitimacy from the Christian-Manichean heritage. Here self-identity is seen as being divorced from its carnal incarnation. With the prioritisation of the spirit over the flesh inherent in such a schema, it becomes extremely difficult to delegitimise requests for "gender reassignment"  in a culture where identity is seen  primarily as a mental construct with priority over its existing its carnal manifestations. Where the spirit is separate from the flesh it's quite possible to be assigned the wrong flesh, where the relationship is hylomorphic it's impossible.

The problem with excarnational perspective is that it separates the spirit/mind from human nature and allows for the construction of mental identities independent of human nature and which see themselves superior to it. It is this mechanism with fuels the pride associated with puritanism.


While this perspective has wrecked the most havoc with regard to human sexuality it--something I want to touch on in the next post and answer Chent--it's pernicious effects on Western culture has been far and wide.

Take for example politics.

Nativism tends to see political society as instinctively originating from a people.  To the nativist, the body politic is not simply an abstraction but a manifestation of a carnal reality. Romania differs from England because the Romanians are different from the English, and these differences are apparent instinctively. Even if the laws were the same, there would still be a difference. For the nativist, Romania is not an idea, Romania is not a proposition,  it's a collection of Romanians.

But apparently nativism is bad.

Modern political theory sees political society arising from legal citizenship. Here the state is built upon abstract legal rights independent of their carnal manifestations. A man can be a Frenchman, Nigerian or Chinese or a woman for that matter, simply by virtue of the their legally constructed identity independent of their carnal manifestations. What unites is the idea,  the carnal reality is irrelevant.

Political citizenship here is not seen as having any carnal dimension as the disembodied self, in abstract, is the foundational principle of such a polity, irrespective of whether human nature recognises such a commonality.  For example, to put it crudely American political theory is premised on the notion that "inside every Gook there is an American waiting to come out" and it's never questioned  whether the "Gookiness" of the Gook puts any limits on their ability on being American. American legal theory is "colour blind" and does not see the U.S. as having a carnal embodiment. Now there are many Americans who would doubt this but no where in the constitution does race feature.


Had the U.S. really lived up to its ideals at the time of its inception I image that it would have destroyed itself or transformed into a Brazilian type of state. What made America "work" following its establishment were legislative and judicial"interpretations" which effectively "carnalised" the idea of America, through legal instruments which limited migration and unjustly limited rights to the Caucasian peoples. And even here there were immense difficulties. I'm not passing judgement on this, only recognising the facts, and it's only when the U.S. has been called to task over its hypocrisy between its founding principles and legal practice has the U.S. begun to socially unravel. The problem with U.S. and Enlightenment political theory is that ideas are all that  matter and that human nature needs to be pushed aside.

It's political decarnalisation.

With regard to the matter of secularisation, does God give his blessing to a decarnalised theology? If not, that would explain a lot of the current state of affairs.



Monday, June 08, 2020

Thoughts on Dreher's Collapsing Imperium


 who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,  quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

Hebrews 11:33-34


A digression.

One of the reasons why I write so much about theology is because I feel that the only force that can stop the decline of the West is the resurrection of religion.  And I know how far-fetched and idiotic it can appear to many.

One of the common tropes among conservatives is the notion that as a religion liberalises it dies.  Protestant Churches which have gone liberal are dying. I'm not saying this as a mark of triumph, simply as an observation of fact.  The same thing has happened to the Catholic Church, but as this blog has written about in the past, the collapse of the Catholicism in the 1960's could not have happened without the help of "traditional" religion  which undermined its foundations. The Sixties revolution worked because the faith, much like the French Army in the 1930's, was strong on paper but otherwise weak.

What I'm trying to get at is the notion that any deviation from orthodoxy, either in Left or Right forms is going to undermine the faith. Bad theology means bad religion, which means weak religion. Priests and prophets that preach rubbish are not going to get the support of God.  Grace, my good fellows is the motive force of belief and when you take it away, belief withers.  The Church does not fade because it is liberal or conservative, it fades because it is wrong.  That's why, in ye olde days, the prophets of restoration preached the notion of getting back on track.

These thoughts came to me once again after reading a recent post by Rod Dreher. Fleeing the Collapsing Imperium. It and the Benedict Option are works which are in keeping with soy contemporary Christianity. It is a Christianity that is unable to assert itself in the face of evil and it has totally deligitimised any notion of legitimate defense. It is the Christianity of a Church dying.

I think Dreher is accurately seeing what is coming to the faithful, but his Christianity--which is quite mainstream--is unable to do anything to stop it. It expects, at best, to run away and find refuge or to be left alone.  At worst, it expects a test of wills where the Christian expects to take a continually beating--sustained by the faith--till evil exhausts itself.   The virtue is in the suffering. The hope is that there is always a place to escape to.

This type of Christianity is not a Christianity that can be squared with the traditions of our forefathers. If we regard the Church as diachronic, in other words, as existing throughout time, our forefathers must look upon our modern Christianity as something foreign to their understanding of it.

The Sieges of Vienna and Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, the Morean Wars, could never have been fought by a modern Christianity. Dreher--and the theologians upon which his religion is based--would have run away, or stood by and taken the punishment from the Ottomans. The other problem with this modern approach is that it deligtimises any legitimate form of defence against evil--say Western powers in WW2--while all enjoying the benefits of their sacrifice.

How to evaluate this theologically?

If we accept the notion that Grace, Goodness and Faith are somehow correlated we got to conclude that something has gone badly astray in the Christian religion from the times of our forefathers. In the Age of Christian Warfare the faith was strong, in the Age of Christian pacifism the faith is week.  I can't prove the link, I only note the correlation. 

I suspect that the reason why we live in a faithless age is because God may not be pleased with a soy Christianity.

Note: I'm not advocating anyone do anything stupid, given the inflammatory times. This post is meant to provoke some THOUGHTS on the relationship between legitimate defence and the Christian Religion, not to provoke some armed insurrection.


Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Charles Taylor: The Protestant Motive

One of the other aspects of Charles Taylor's book that bothered me was his understanding of the  forces behind the Reformation.

As Taylor explains it, religous development within the socio-cultural enviroment  that was the Middle Ages resulted in a "two speed" Christianity.  On one hand, there was the "higher" Christianity which was represented by the ascetic ideals of the monks and religious,  and there there was the "lower" level which represented everyone else. [Sorry for the wall of text but brevity is not Taylor's strong point]
The tension arises when it comes to determining what is the Christian life for those who are engaged in full human flourishing [Ed: Taylor uses the term "flourishing" in a way different to modern religous though seeing human flourishing in opposition to spiritual virtue], through work, family, civic life, friends, building for society and the future, and so on. The holy renouncer puts the two together in that his/her renunciation can directly serve works of mercy, healing. But how about the person engaged in ordinary life, married, with children, living from the land or from a trade?

An answer can be given valid in theory for everyone: Go beyond the kind of affirmation of the good of life which the ordinary homme moyen sensuel makes, which is very much focused on my own good, my own life, and might even be willing to sacrifice endless others to this; and connect to the affirmation of God, his agape, which loves all mankind, and is ready to give without stint, to let go of what I hold in order to be part of the movement of love.

But for the ordinary householder this answer seems to require something paradoxical: living in all the practices and institutions of flourishing, but at the same time not fully in them. Being in them but not of them; being in them, but yet at a distance, ready to lose them. Augustine put it: use the things of this world, but don't enjoy them; uti, not frui. Or do it all for the glory of God, in the Loyola-Calvin formulation.

The big problem is working out what this means. Any attempt to tie it down faces two opposite dangers. One is to set the element of renunciation so high as to make the life of flourishing a travesty of itself. In particular, think of the teaching to the laity in the Middle Ages about married sexuality. It totally excluded any sexual joy. The other is, to set a bare minimum. Think of the minimum necessary for salvation: keeping certain important commandments. But then we know even these will often be broken; so in the end the minimum demands simply that you repent in time.

The end result here is that an inherent danger built into this tension itself now befalls us. We clearly set the renunciative vocations above the ordinary lay ones. There are first- and second-class Christians; the second being in a sense carried by the first. We fall back into hierarchical complementarity.

Whereas the crucial truth that we wanted to hold on to was the complementariry of all lives and vocations, where we all serve under God, and can't put some above others.

So there seems to be a dilemma here, between demanding too much renunciation from the ordinary person, on one hand, and relaxing these demands, but at the cost of a multi-speed system, on the other.

Radical Protestantism utterly rejects the multi-speed system, and in the name of this abolishes the supposedly higher, renunciative vocations; but also builds renunciation into ordinary life. It avoids the second horn, but comes close to the first danger above: loading ordinary flourishing with a burden of renunciation it cannot carry. It in fact fills out the picture of what the properly sanctified life would be with a severe set of moral demands. This seems to be unavoidable in the logic of rejecting complementarity, because if we really must hold that all vocations are equally demanding, and don't want this to be a levelling down, then all must be at the most exigent pitch.

Images of order and disorder were important here. The justified, sanctified person eschewed disordered conduct, put his/her life in order, made an end of drunkenness, fornication, unbridled speech, immoderate laughter, fights, violence, etc.

Moreover, Calvinists shared with many people of the day, particularly elites, a strong sense of the scandal of social disorder, that the general behaviour was sinful in the above ways, and that society as a whole was given over to disorder, vice, injustice, blasphemy, etc. It was an important goal to remedy this, on the social and not only the personal level.

Here is where it becomes significant" that Protestantism is in the line of continuity with mediaeval reform, attempting to raise general standards, not satisfied with a world in which only a few integrally fulfill the gospel, but trying to make certain pious practices absolutely general.

But in view of the importance now given to social order, the generalization of moral demands involved not only placing high moral demands on one's own life, but also putting order into society. This was not seen as involving a watering down of the standards of personal morality, but as completing them. Calvin held that we have to control the vices of the whole society, lest the vicious infect the others. We are all responsible for each other, and for society as a whole."

And indeed, getting the degree of order which Calvinist societies often aimed at--e.g., Geneva, New England—was quite exceptional in history, and was unprecedented. It involved a leap higher than what had gone before, and was understood as such.

But, of course, the idea was not that human beings could do this on their own. Only the power of God could make this possible. We had to recognize our own helplessness, and turn to God in faith, in order to achieve this. This is what made the whole enterprise utterly different from a new and more highly moralized view about human flourishing. Only those who were turned quite beyond human flourishing, to God, building this order for the glory of God and not for human convenience, could pull it off.
According to the him, one of the motive forces of the Reformation was to get rid of the two speed system and to replace it with a universal one. Now, this may be true for some of the radical elements of Protestantism at the time,  but Taylor neglects the elephant in the room i.e. the prevailing corruption and moral laxity in the Catholic Church.
It's important to note that when Luther started his protest he wasn't intending to leave the Church. A far more tenable theory is that motive force behind the Protestant revolution was the disgust at the machinations of some of the "higher" up clergy, in much the same way modern Catholics are disgusted at the failure of the clergy in dealing the with sexual abuse of minors. Protestantism became a reform movement to clean up the Catholic Church.

Trouble had been brewing for a while and reform movements were attempted well before Luther but its clear that the successful christianisation of European society in the middle ages resulted in a large number of  "lower down" Christians noticing the divergence between theory and practice, especially by those "higher up". And in a world where religion was important this was going to cause a whole world of trouble.

This is why I think the Ernst Troeltsch is right in saying that Protestantism was a continuation of medievalism. It was an attempt by "low level" Christian society to make the Christian elites, live up to the Christian ideals. It wasn't simply an issue of theological innovation as Taylor asserts as  a lot of the Protestantisms seemed quite OK with the "two speed" system.   And it wasn't an attempt to impose asceticsm on the world as much as it was an attempt to impose holiness. But the problem is that holiness was understood as being ascetic.

And this is where the problem lays, there's no conception of an unascetic holiness.


Taylor tends to see Protestantism as reinforcing the distinction between body and spirit but fails to mention that this tendency has always been present in Catholicism. The whole point of Thomism was to produce a counter-force to this tendency and reinforce the unity of the body and spirit. In a weird sort of way, the Protestant Reformation was able to to reassert this, contrary to what Taylor says.

The idea of vocation, in Protestantism, meant that even the lowly, in their trades and simple profession could be holy by executing whatever office they had in life in a Christian manner faithfully. Holiness became more a tangible everyday thing instead of a profession of renunciation associated with the clergy. Indeed, in many ways, some of the strains of Protestantism were profoundly Thomistic. That's not to say that other strains of Protestantism weren't profoundly Augustinian in their approach it's just that Protestant effect on Western Civilisation was far more complex than Taylor asserts and in many ways it expressed itself in tendencies which were the fulfillment of Catholicism. What I'm saying is that Protestantism per se did not lead to atheism rather that its effects on Christianity were complex and Taylor does not do it justice.

In fact, the more I look at Protestantism the more I'm convinced that it was providential insofar as it led to a reform of Catholicism, but the price paid for elite intransigence was horrific and a separation from the clergy--even though it was corrupt--meant that the Protestant system would eventually wither--at least in Europe.  And what I mean by this is that Protestantism seems, to me at least, to have been sustained by some kind of special Grace which serves Providence, even though it is separated from the sacraments.

A Protestantism sustained by Grace does not lead to atheism.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Charles Taylor: The Enchanted World

One of the concepts that Taylor wants to put across in his book was that the process of secularisation was abetted by a loss of the sense of "enchantment' in the pre-Modern world. Enchantment, as I understood him to mean it, meant that the world we lived in was seen as being infused with supernatural forces of both good and bad kinds.   Trees and rocks could be good, streams bad, forests foreboding and all of which could pass the "their magic" onto the individual  According to Taylor this worldview aided religious belief and the loss of it was one of the factors which led to secularisation.

 Taylor holds that this belief in "enchantment" resulted in the individual being "porous". Porosity in this instance being an "openness" to experiential states which would lead to transcendence. It also generated a sense of external agency affecting the human condition.

Now one of the things he tries to get across is that the rise of Protestantism  set forth a chain of events which resulted in a loss of this worldview.  The Protestant mindset resulted in a man that was less open and more "buffered" in the sense that there was less of a sense of external agency and more of inner responsibility for the outcome of a mans affairs. I'm not doing Taylor in this brief description but essentially the shift was that from being at the mercy of the gods to being agents of self-control responsible largely for their own destiny.

I personally don't buy it.

Protestantism may have resulted in more individual responsibility but it doesn't follow that the more responsible a man the less "enchanted" he is.

Rather Christianity itself was rather disenchanting. Good old Roman Catholicism seem quite keen to get rid of the pagan Gods and idols. As Eugene Weber mentioned in his book, Catholic priests, especially of the more stricter Jansenist/Augustinian types took to the destruction of pagan symbols and shrines with quite a bit of gusto.  Christianity as a whole wanted to drive out all the other Gods for the one true God.  It wasn't just the humanists doing the disenchanting.  And the Old Testament is full of contempt about worshiping rocks and wooden idols

What I think that Taylor--obscured in all his verbiage-- is trying to get at is that superstition i.e. enchantment, was one of the foundations of belief. Once again this is humanism 101 and really doesn't help the Christian analysis with regard to the process of secularisation.  Faith and superstition are two separate things.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Charles Taylor's, A Secular Age.



One of the main contentions of this blog is that politics is downstream from culture. Culture, itself is largely formed by values, which are in turn strongly influenced by religion.  It's also this blogs contention that the decline in religion is the main cause for the decline in the West and that any hope of its restoration is also contingent upon the return of religion.  I know it would be easier to propose some political program that advocate this approach but my own analysis of the situation, over many years, has led me to the conclusion that there is no other way.

That's why for a while now I've taken an interest in the process of secularisation. I've been away for the blog for the past few weeks because, firstly, for professional reasons I've been busy with matters concerning the virus. Secondly, because I've been working through Charles Taylor's, A Secular Age.

Dear God, what a slog!

I've read some quite awful medical textbooks which have made the eyes glaze over but Taylor's book, in my opinion, is in a league of its own. I found it an incredibly difficult book. Not because the concepts that Taylor is trying to get across are difficult to understand, rather, they are drowned in a series of digressions, back-tracks, changes in perspectives and verbosity that obscures more than clarify. And that's a shame because Taylor does have a few interesting things to say, it's only that they are drowned in an ocean of verbiage.  Given the high praise the book has received, I thought that it must be me who has the problem, but after reading up on several other reviews of the book I realised  I was not the only one. Apparently, Taylor was asked to write a condensed version of the book, but bristled at the idea since he felt that the book should have been longer!

To those interested in sparing themselves the pain, someone else has done a highly recommended "summary" of it and I referred to it as well to see if I wasn't misreading him. I also compared my thoughts with those of several other commentators as well. I feel I have a measure of the man and his ideas.

Part of the reason why the book is so long is because Taylor approaches the subject as a romantic Hegelian phenomenologist. He writes about the subject of belief from the experiential perspective. i.e how does religious belief, or lack of it, feel with respect to the individual. This is not a book about cognition and more about the experience of religion.  Overlaid is a Hegelian historical approach in analysing the cultural forces which impacted upon the systems of belief, and the individual's response to them.  Taylor examines these in depth and with a degree of thoroughness. But this approach opens itself up to endless digressions, backtracking and conceptual obscurity and  hence the book's length. (I can see why Taylor wanted a longer book).  I also  got the impression that there were many times that the English language failed to give Taylor a term for the concept he was trying to express. Terms such as " Fullness", "Enchantment", "frames"  and " Buffered-self", etc. were imperfect expressions of the ideas he was trying to get across.  It's about the historical gestalt of belief.  In some instances the German language has a better terminology for what Taylor is trying to express.

I would say that the central thesis of this book is that modern unbelief is prevalent  because of the change in what Taylor calls  European man's "frame" i.e. weltanshauung, that occurred as a result of the social and cultural developments that followed the Reformation. Western man started off inhabiting an "enchanted" frame where spirits and magic were understood as being entangled in the material world and ended up viewing the world through a cold instrumental rationalism which was hostile to anything outside it. i.e. the Immanent frame.

Taylor does not say that these frames preclude the faith, simply that  the earlier perspectives or "frames" made the faith easy, modern ones make it difficult. The drift towards secularism is as a result of a change in our worldview. Taylor's insight is that modern secular age is not really strictly secular but is inhabited by beings who find their own grey zone of belief as the result of the unique equilibrium achieved in each particular individual by balance of cultural, personal, psychological and social forces which can vary over time to find a new stable point. These forces work on the individual resulting in them being "cross pressured." It's not the secular age is an age of unbelief, it's an age of a variety of different kinds of belief.

I got the impression that Taylor thought this a better state of affairs than a world of militant secularism  i.e some religion is better than  none, but from my perspective this is a mistaken evaluation. For what matters to me as a Christian, and someone who hopes for restoration of the West, is the re-establishment of the Christian faith and the fact that people choose a false god over militant secularism is of no comfort at all.

I've got to say that I found this book really disappointing and don't understand what the hype is all about. I think it obscures more than it clarifies the loss of faith in the West. There are many reasons why I didn't like this book. Some of which are;

Firstly, the book approaches the subject of faith through a purely immanent frame. As I understood Taylor, faith is ultimately the product of personal choice conditioned by cultural circumstances. The theological element of religion is ignored. I want to delve into this in the next post but I feel that this approach fatally cripples the book in its understanding of the mechanics of secularisation.

Secondly,  I think he gives Catholicism a relatively free pass with regard to setting the conditions for secularisation. Second rate Thomism was as a profound solvent of belief as hyper-Augustinian Protestantism. I feel that in a book of this length Taylor should have given it some consideration.

Thirdly,  I think Taylor's interpretation of the Reformation is open to some serious challenge. Some of his understandings of Protestant motivations I found highly unconvincing.

Fourthly, Taylor's definition of secularisation means a religious freedom rather  than dechristianisation. For a Christian, getting people to believe in the Buddha may not be secular but it does nothing for the Christian cause. The book really should of been called, Belief in a Post Christian Age.

Still, as much as I really didn't like this book I have to commend it for several reasons:

Firstly, most people are not strict logicians, and the experience of religion is more a feeling that a logical demonstration. Taylor's approach therefore is more akin to how the average person experiences religion as opposed to how the convert or true believer does, and is therefore useful in understanding the basis religion or secularisation as a mass phenomenon.  Taylor does not take the approach of the zealot.

Secondly, there are nuggets of wisdom in this book but finding them is like panning for gold. You've got to sift a lot of waste--and verbiage-- to find them.

Thirdly, the Hegelian approach is probably a better way of approaching the gestalt of cultural phenomenon rather than a simple reductionist one.  Western secularisation is the product of multiple factors and simple reductions that explain everything i.e. race, The Enlightement, nominalism, etc. sometimes obscure more than clarify the issue. A lot of the critiques of modernity especially in the non-official Right are reductionist and are therefore blind to important factors that are outside their thrust. Their popularity most probably rests on the fact that most people can't juggle more than one variable in their head at any time. With stuff like this you have to do multifactoral analysis to do them justice.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, Taylor introduces the concept of excarnation. This is a hugely important topic that deserves a lot more thought since in my opinion it is one of the main drivers of secularisation.  This blog introduced this concept several years ago [Preen] calling it decarnalisation. It was a pleasant surprise to see something thinking along the same lines! I think it is an important concept with regard to the weakening of the Christian faith and while this blog only touched on the subject Taylor pushes the idea further.

As said before,  this book is an increadible difficult read. And despite its incredible verbiage, what haunts this book is what is not is only indirectly mentioned, i.e. the spirit of Augustine or at least a fanatical interpretation of his teachings. I honestly don't actually think that this is good book about secularisation but what I do think that this book is a good book on how unchecked asceticism can deform and undermine Christianity.  While reading this book, I formed the opinion that an excellent companion book to this one is G.K. Chesterton's, St Thomas Aquinas. Chesterton, with both brevity and clarity, explains what was stake when Aquinas provided an antidote to the platonic tendencies in Augustine. The Reformation was in many ways justified but in providing a corrective to many of the abuses of the time in some way reversed this victory.

Bonus: A good review of the book.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Some Comments

Unfortunately  I've been unwell for the last ten days and haven't been able to post.

One of the reasons I put up the posts on modernity is because Weber, in my opinion, puts up a far more convincing and thoroughgoing explanation as to why religion collapsed in the West with the onset of Modernity compared to any other I have seen. What I like about his approach is that it focused more on the experiential aspect of religion rather than its rational validity.  Many attempt to explain the decline of religion as a consequence of a triumph of alternate--philosophical--explanations of reality, whereas Weber sees religions decline as coming about primarily due to daily irrelevance, annoyance and competition from other newly available interests.  Interestingly, unlike many, he doesn't see Modernity and Religion as being intrinsically opposed and lays much of the blame on the hostility between the two on the clergy which he admits did not seem to know how to respond to the changes that it was experiencing.

This latter aspect is one that is worth more reflecting on. Human nature may remain the same but circumstances change, and a Church that cannot adapt to circumstances is a church that is going to have a very hard time. Many may read this as implying that the Church needs to "change with the times" or "be up to date", but that's not what I'm trying to get across.

Consider, for example, the practice of giving alms. The Church may have been right to emphasise this in previous times where there was no alternative social welfare service, but now in the world of universal social security the Church simply becomes another aid organisation, effectively "competing" against the State for their provision.  Rather where the Church seems to do well is when it tries to provide a solution for the "crisis" of the times.  I mean, in Communist countries, the Church was the resistance with its emphasis on human rights. But what this means is that the Church must be adaptable to circumstances while maintaining its deposit of the faith.

Unfortunately two things seem to have occurred which have stymied it in its approach. Firstly, there has been an exaggerated sense of tradition which has stymied its ability to deal with novel situations and secondly, I am increasingly of the opinion that it has lapsed into a Manichean type of heresy if not explicitly in theology then implicitly by practice.  Things need to change and imagine they will but I expect it will be a lay driven phenomenon and not a clerical one.

Anyway it's Lent now and I'm meant to take on some commitment for the season which is mean to improve my spiritual well-being. So I have decide to tackle Charles Taylor's, A Secular Age, again. I tried it before but it really didn't inspire. It's a sort of Lenten mortification. Blogging will therefore be very light over this period.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Modernity: The Return of Manicheanism

"The priest is the law, prohibition, forbiddance," wrote the Abbe Larichesse of Cantal in an 1865 study of confession. Familiar with claims that people avoided church because its doctrines ignored human passions, he did not see laxity as a valid remedy. No wonder that, by 1883, we find the public prosecutor at Grenoble noting that the reserve and mistrust with which the peasants of Isere treated their priests was "a form of self-defense" against the clergy's attempts to trespass on their freedom of conscience in newly reserved domains like family affairs and politics. An article in a clerical review published in the last year of the century summed it all up: "The clergy is unpopular. To men of the people the priest is by definition a hostile being." It was in this guise that many priests worked hard to saw off the branch on which they sat.
Interestingly, Weber devotes two chapters in his book on the transformative changes in the relationship between the clergy and the laity bought about by the process of modernisation. Weber sees the transformation arising as consequence and confluence of many factors,  both internal and external to the clergy themselves.  But I think the important point to remember is that prior to modernity, the Church was in equilibrium with the agricultural society of Europe, the process of modernisation destroying this equilibrium. Relgious commentators tend to see the Church as a victim of modernity, but it wasn't like the Church was passive in these events, it seemed to have responded wrongly and thus further damaged its situation. 

The French revolution had polarised society and established a militant anti-clerical element in it, and its easy to blame the dissolution of religion on forces which openly sought to undermine the Church. Yet this line of reasoning tends to neglect some of the self-destructive actions which the Church took.  Clearly, it mistook what it was up against. Much Christian literature on the subject of secularisation tends to focus on the philosophical dimension of this battle, ignoring the sociological dimensions which were far more corrosive to everyday belief.
Thus clerical or anticlerical politics affected the popular mind indirectly. They helped to sap tradition and disintegrate practices that had been part of life for centuries. But political arguments as the cities knew them would not and could not engage the countryside until the country mind had shifted to the wavelength of the city. This would take a long time. Meanwhile, the existence, the pervasiveness, the vigilance of politico-religious conflicts discredited what had long been undisputed and advanced alternative attitudes. As the century ended, a portion of clerical opinion recognized the  counterproductive effect of political involvement. My own belief is that pettier factors, more closely linked with the personality of the priest and his relations with the  community, contributed at least as much to calling him into question.
It's here where  Weber--and Pope Francis-- seem to have a far more intuitive grasp of the problems of Christianity than many realise. Just as all politics is local, all religion is personal, and the line of argument that Weber advocates is that personal factors rather than philosophical arguments were far more influential when it came to dissolution of religious belief.

Even in pre-Modern times there was tension between the priest and the people. He notes that one of the perennial problems that faced the priest was that of securing an adequate income. This created a tension with the laity who resented the contributions that they were effectively forced to make, especially in the environment of constrained means that many of the rural French lived in. Once again it wasn't the decisive factor but it was one which pushed people away.
The priest often appears as tyrant or exploiter, manipulating his monopoly of the essential rites of passage. Thus, at Bouan (Ariege) the gendarmes reported that he expected gifts or refused the holy sacraments and would not attend the dying, however poor they were, unless he was first paid nine francs. Nine francs in 1862 was a great deal of money! What little success Protestantism had in the countryside at mid-century reflected the peasants' attempts to escape from the high fees exacted by some priests. In Yonne,(Ariege), the Limousin, we hear that "the popular classes" were turned away by clerical demands for money. Protestantism was cheap. A novel about the Limousin countryside (written by a priest) records frequent grumbles about the cost of masses, burials, and other services. A Protestant sympathizer remarks that the Protestant minister provides his parishioners a bench to sit on and a stove to warm the chapel, advantages that one did not find in the Catholic church
There were, however, other factors at play:
The consoling cleric undoubtedly existed, but when we meet the priest he is always saying no. No drinking on the Sabbath, or in periods when a mass is being said, or while processions pass. No Sunday morning markets. Too many pigs-disgusting animals; people feast on them when they should be fasting. The fishermen work on Sundays, the priests persuade fish merchants not to buy fish on that day. The reactions were expectable. At Usclades (Ardeche), the priest entered the local tavern to silence "certain songs," but had to retreat under a barrage of insults, followed by snowballs! In a village nearby the priest ran out of church to put an end to a noisy farandole troubling the evening prayers, broke the drum with his fist, and barely escaped lynching. Men were becoming less willing to accept this kind of interference, and even less willing to admit the priest's right to interfere in their private lives.
Weber notes that there was a change in the nature of the French clergy during the 19th Century resulting in it become more austere. It went puritan.
One thing it sought to lick-and with a determination that cost it even greater popular sympathies-was the festival and the vulgar rejoicing that accompanied it[ED]. In Morbihan a local man of letters expressed regret in 1863 that priests, who once, far from condemning dancing, had given it tacit approval by coming to watch and applaud, had become rigorous and reproving. The permissive priest of yore was gone. For the new, stern cure, popular feasting went on for far too long. [ED] It kept a man from work not only while it lasted, but while he painfully recuperated in its aftermath. In any case, as the Oc ditty had it, "There is no feast without a morrow." A feastday was likely to run into two or three, its participants carried away by the unaccustomed respite. What was much worse was the abandoned behavior: the unchaste dress of women and lewdness of the men, the return home at dawn, the drunkenness and debauchery without measure.
and;
There has been some discussion whether the "Jansenism" of many graduates of nineteenth-century seminaries contributed to what has been called deChristianization- itself a misleading term if it suggests more than the abandoning of church rituals. As early as 1828 an old Yonne priest, trained before the Revolution, had criticized his younger colleagues: "The young reformers of humankind flatly refuse absolution to all but girls who do not dance and lads who never go to taverns ... and in this way they avoid the trouble of confessions." Doubtful about this view, Latreille and Remond remark that after all this was no more than "a certain moral rigorism or harshness, ... frequent in that clerical generation." Yet moral rigorism should not be underrated when its effects touched every aspect of popular observance and turned the priest into a killjoy [ED]-a resident and interfering Mrs. Grundy.
and;
We have seen that straitened means condemned the priests to rapacity. There was less excuse for their authoritarianism. The best historian of the French priesthood in the nineteenth century, Father Joseph Brugerette, has attributed the unpopularity of priests to their "absolutist and retrograde ideas," which in his view ran counter to the ideals of greater social and political independence that were gaining ground. My own view is that the tendency toward independence, itself a product of novel possibilities, did not suggest rebellion against the priest or a complete break with him; it simply made it possible. Like the stern schoolteacher, the authoritarian priest was the product of an authoritarian family in an authoritarian society. They would all be challenged in due course, when  opportunity offered. The priest's immediate problem was not that he was too absolutist, but that he was less retrograde than the villagers he sought to direct. Venality lost friends, but attempted reform lost more.
What's interesting to see here is the transformation of French Catholicism from a "traditionally" more permissive variety into a more austere one. Weber raises the subject of Jansenism as being a potential source of this transformation, but in my opinion pseudo-Jansenism i.e Manicheanism is the more likely culprit.  Faced with the challenge of the modernity the Church retreated into a an austere spirtuality as a means of escape.
"Modern" religion extolled new cults (the Virgin, the Blessed Heart of Jesus, the Holy Sacrament) over familiar ones, and sought to purify practice. The clergy had always shown a certain hostility to popular rejoicing as essentially pagan; feasting was gross, libertine, leading to violence and keeping peasants away from church services. Unable to eliminate such feasts, the Church incorporated them but did not cease to treat them with suspicion [ED]. Around mid-century the hierarchy set about purification. Balazuc, in Ardeche, boasted a Confrerie de Saint-Antoine (better known as the Fraternity of the Cow, because its members killed one every year and distributed its meat to the poor). In 1845 the priest found the fraternal banquets were too washed down with wine and suppressed the confrerie. His action set off a riot, but it was final in Balazuc and representative of a wider trend. Religious congregations and fraternities, especially penitents, had lost sight of their original purpose, which was to aid the poor, bury the indigent, honor their members in death. They had become social and drinking societies-blancs le matin et gris le soir, they said in Velay-or political clubs, their chief public function restricted to marching in processions wearing colorful, awesome robes and hoods. "This form of devotion no longer corresponded to the mentality of the population," commented a canon. Certainly not to the mentality of reforming clergymen. Far gone in their worldly ways, the penitents were reformed to death and left to expire slowly in the first two decades of the Third Republic. They were replaced with  associations specifically dedicated to prayer and to pious works. The result was a setback on both sides: the new associations, which the clergy sponsored, sometimes wilted or died; meanwhile, the old groups, abandoned by the clergy, withered badly also. "In a few years," wrote Edward Harrison Barker in 1893, "there will be no Blue Penitents at Figeac. As the old members of the confraternity die, there are no postulants to fill their places.
This is an extraordinary passage which shows the damage an "excessive sprituality" can inflict on a public faith. It also shows the symbiotic nature of spirituality and corporeal practice. Separate one from the other and they both die, and it's a great example of what happens when you try to clericise the laity. Reading these passages makes me want to go Protestant. Where, for goodness sake, is dancing prohibited in the Bible, or reasonably derived from it? An yet this is what a generation of clergy thought of as sin. It wasn't moral rigorism as much as it was a distortion of Christianity.
Dancing, in any case, competed with the contemplation and the prayer that should command Sundays-the day of the Lord. "Today Sunday does not belong to the Lord, but to dancing," sighed La Semaine religieuse of Montpellier in 1877. But Sunday brought for most the only intermission in hard labor. They wanted to enjoy it as they could, and there was a widespread custom that after mass or vespers people danced. Priests denounced this, and also railed against the reels and jigs that joined on saints' feast days and pilgrimages. They tended to react to local fiddlers as if they were unclean sinners. We hear of one in Vernajoul (Ariege) who made a scene when the minstrels scheduled to play during the afternoon's celebrations of the Emperor's Day, August 15, escorted the mayor to church service in the morning. The report of the incident cites "his well-known feelings against music, dancing,.........A folklorist of the 1880's expressed regret at the oversensitivity of priests and warned that when these diversions held on pilgrimage days ended, the pilgrimages would end too. He was not fundamentally wrong. Pilgrimages endured, but when they were no longer part of popular rejoicings they represented only a religion from which the life had been drained away. Moreover, the danger to such institutions of the Church was all the greater because the Church was becoming more dispensable. Around 1900 the priest of Morette (Isere) refused absolution to a girl unless she promised to give up dancing. "If you don't want to give it, keep id" answered the girl.
Modernity gave people options, but the Manichean transformation of the Church worked to repel them from the old order. The destruction of the the faith was not a one sided affair. Many were working from within to undermine the old order.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Modernity: The Forces of Secularity

IN THE MID-1870's 35,387,703 of the 36,000,000 people in France were listed in the official census as Catholics. The rest declared themselves Protestants (something under 600,000), Jews (5,000), or freethinkers (80,000). The secular clergy of the Catholic church alone included 55,169 priests, one for every 639 inhabitants. Roman Catholicism remained, as it had been in 1801, "the religion of the majority of Frenchmen."

One of the things which completely blindsided the Catholic Church was the collapse of the faith among ordinary people following Vatican Two. This in turn has clouded many of the "interpretations" of the Council, with many of the Traditionalists blaming it for the Church's problems.  Yet astute minds had recognised long before the Council that serious problems were fermenting. In 1944, two french priests involved with the care of the working class published a survey of the state of the faith in that demographic. France, Pays de Mission?, shocked the clerical establishment in its estimate that eight million of France's working class were essentially pagan. What had happened in the period since 1870?  Remember this was 1944, well before Vatican Two.

Most analyses of secularisation tend to take a intellectual approach to the problem of the loss of faith but in my opinion this tends to focus on that small element of society that actually thinks and ignores the mass of men who experience their faith rather than intellectualise about it. This in turn leads to "intellectual" approaches towards re-Christianisation which have largely failed.  Weber, in my opinion, sees the practice of religion as being a consequence of an interplay with a wide variety of social and personal forces and in my opinion gives a far more convincing analysis as to why religion collapsed  in the face of modernity.

As mentioned before Weber paints a picture of a pre-modernity equilibrium between social circumstances and religious faith, weak or strong, which favored religion. But astute observers noted that much of the relgious zeal of the past was intermixed with intermixed with a great deal of worldliness. In a strongly "local" world the church had both a religious and sociological function, with each underpinning the other, and what modernity did is totally undercut the sociological dimension.
"Sunday, the peasants go to church," wrote Madame Romieu at the end of the Second Empire, "some moved by religious feeling, most by habit or by fear of what people say." One went to church because it was the thing to do on Sunday, because it was one of the few social occasions of the week, because it was an opportunity for talking business or meeting friends, acquaintances, relatives. It was--especially for the women, once men had grasped at the opportunities that fairs held out-the sole occasion to escape the isolation in which many lived, the major recreation or diversion in a restricted life. Observance business, and pleasure were combined. One went to mass wearing one's Sunday best, and given the muddy cart tracks, this often meant special paths, mass roads, chemins de messe. Public announcements were made by the village crier as the  congregation left the service, public sales were often timed to fall after it, one could slip off later to call on the notary or the doctor, or drop in to the tavern, circle, or cafe. Even if a majority did not attend the service but went about their work as on any other day, "a multitude of peasants gathered in front of the church, discussed politics, made deals, filled the taverns."
In a world where entertainment was scarce, church provided a certain festive diversion. Those attending might well "love the high mass, the rich ornaments, seeing a great many statues of saints in their churches." Writing about his grandmother, Charles Peguy presented church attendance as a treat for the lonely child raised in a woodcutter's hut in Bourbonnais in the early 1800's : "When she was good, she was allowed to go on Sunday to mass in the village she wore her sabots because one doesn't go to church barefoot, and she was happy because that's where everybody met, where they exchanged news, where one heard about deaths, marriages, births, where gossip flowed about what was going on, where servants were hired."
Technological limits placed practical restriction on the ability of people to leave their local circumstances and the only show in town was the Church. What modernity did is give people alternatives.
We see that in the churches, as in the schools, non-attendance is a way of measuring ineffectiveness. The growing numbers of migrant workers going to the cities added to this trend. Urban workers worked Sundays and holidays, or did so very often. The more earnest the man, the more he worked. The less responsible were the more likely to get drunk during their free time. The Church did not see them either way. Like the Revolution, acquaintance with the city did not destroy religious sentiment. It simply made nonconformity possible or created another kind of conformity. Men who attended church at home because their peers did ceased to attend church where such attendance was  exceptional. The city merely provided an opportunity for the collapse of practices "shallowly rooted in the personality." Returning migrants may well have lost whatever impulse to religious conformity they had left with. They did not necessarily bandy this about so long as the priest retained his influence in the community. But they were ready to welcome emancipation when it came.
At any rate, all observers seem to have sensed the shallowness of faith behind the slackness of observance. In Beauce respectable farmers, "preoccupied by the care to augment their fortune, work to this end even on Sunday during the services, so that the churches are deserted." Not that they lacked respect for religion, "but they consider that the time they would spend in church would be lost for their work and their fortune."  Not challenge, but indifference and hardheadedness. One farmer declared that he would rather go to hell, since heaven was too high and far away. He was not interested in salvation ("it's not in my way of thinking; ... it's not done"). The paradise he sought was here on earth. "The absence of religious sentiment [in the countryside, especially] is such that there are communes where scarcely one marriage in six is blessed in church" (Yonne, 1862) .
What Weber argues is that modernity gave the people the real world option of not practicing religion in a way that was not possible prior to modernity. It's true that there were modernist elements that actually tried to stifle religion but the real solvent were the new opportunities afforded by modernity. City life, particularly, was different and provided for more anonymity--and opportunities for alternatives-- than life in the village. Life in small local communities is difficult to live anonymously and peer pressure tends to encourage conformity, not that there was much else to do. What all observers seem to note is that religious rot did not really set in till the last two decades of the 19th Century, just as French modernisation was gaining steam and well after the French Revolution with all of its Enlightenment Ideas.
In 1874 the bishop of Limoges bewailed "this grievous inertia of the masses." Alain Corbin, who has found no evidence of a great increase in religious indifference in the Limousin before 1870, notes a "brutal fall of religious practice" just about that time~not yet the godlessness the bishop of Limoges described in 1875, "but indifference, an incurable apathy, the total abandonment of religious duties, [and] universal disaffection." In the Limousin the Church's identification with the Moral Order brought anticlericalism. But even there, as almost everywhere, the most detached or hostile
maintained their loyalty to rites of passage and local festivals. More generally, as in Puy-de-Dome, "the religious question leaves our countrymen indifferent." though they "continue to go to church on Sunday out of habit."
and,
From the Church's point of view, every innovation only made things worse. The bicycle was blamed for enabling young people to avoid mass. Tourists, visitors, and returning emigrants felt increasingly free to speak of their indifference to religious practice or even their scorn of it. Military service side-by-side with "pagan" urban workers made some peasants ashamed of a show of piety as a mark of their bumpkin backwardness. Finally, with war in 1914 there came a culmination of the pressures toward detachment. Yet, how far and fast would all these factors have worked if religion had been solidly anchored in personality?
Weber hits the nail on the head here by recognising that a "personal" faith "anchored in personality" is a different thing than an apparent faith of custom, habit and convenience. What modernity exposed is that the "personal faith" was strongly lacking and that a lot of religious practice was a habit contingent upon circumstances. Modernity changed the circumstances and exposed the shallowness in religious belief.  What Weber is hinting at--in a roundabout way-- is the notion that a strong faith is not opposed to modernity its just that weak faith is corroded by it.  And pre-Modern Europe had a lot of weak faith. What Weber is getting at is that  Modernity is not a solvent of religion, it is a solvent of weak and superficial religion, it separates the wheat from the chaff.

The other element at play here was not so much the philosophy of scientific materialism but the practical consequences of it. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, in a world where life was precarious and the means for mastering nature extremely limited, prayer and religion were of some utility to the peasant:
Living was marginal, disaster inexplicable and uncontrollable. This added to the countryman's Winnie-thePooh syndrome of seeing the trace of fantastic monsters in tracks that he had made himself. Where harm and ill-fortune were swiftly come by, nothing was easier than to claim that they were punishments of heaven. Long centuries of trying to mollify and coax the powerful conjured up a religion where fear almost excluded love, a faith bent to flatter and do honor to the heavenly lords in order to obtain their protection or avoid their ire. Power and irascibility were what impressed. The peasants would not work their cattle on the feasts of the nastiest saints, the ones most likely to resent and revenge any irreverence; they sought to discover what "thrashing saint" lay behind their illness. Kindly saints could be invoked when they were needed; in grimmer mood, they evoked well-conditioned submission. 
God was far away. The saints were near. Both were anthropomorphic. Saints were intercessors. One did not address God directly, but prayed to saints to request his favors, rewarded them if the crop was good or the weather fair, ....
Practical science gave men some form of control over the environment and was therefore more useful than religion. Whatever its philosophical underpinnings--something the average man doesn't even consider---the insights and power bought about by science had practical consequences. Why pray to God when chemical fertilizers will do the trick?
A peasant quoted by Gaston Mery in 1907 explained: "We compare what the teacher gives us with what the priest can give. Well, he gives us more. It's the teacher that has taught us how to read, and that is useful in life. He has taught us how to reckon and that is even more useful ... and then that is not all. If we need advice for our taxes, for our business, we just go to see him. He's got books and papers about farming, about fertilizer." The things one could see, the things one could touch, were taking over; and the school rode forward on their tide. The peasant's need had shifted from consolation to advice on concrete matters; and on this level, at this time at least, the presbytery could not keep up with the school.
and,
Yet phosphates, chemical fertilizers, and schooling had spelled the beginning of the end. In 1893, a drought year in Bourbonnais when many men were having masses said for their emaciated cattle (which died anyway), the priest reproached Henry Norre, a self-taught man who farmed not far from Cerilly, for not attending church. "I haven't got the time," he answered. "And really, I haven't got much confidence in your remedies for the beasts. My remedies are better; you can check." Daniel Halevy quotes another story about Norre. This time the farmer returned from the railway station with a cartful of fertilizer and met the priest. "What are you carting there?" "Chemicals." "But that is very bad; they burn the soil" "Monsieur le cure," said Norre, "I've tried everything. I've had masses said and got no profit from them. I've bought chemicals and they worked. I'll stick to the better merchandise." It was the requiem of nineteenth-century religion.





Monday, January 20, 2020

Modernity: Chemins D'Enfer


Ed: Sorry, it's a long post but I think its important and Weber says it better than I can.

What comes across in Weber's book on the modernisation of France is the pivotal role that roads and more importantly, railways had in modernisation.  It really is difficult to overstate just how deeply the railway changed society but  suffice to say that Modernity would have been impossible without it. To understand the effect it produced its important to understand what life was like for the average peasant before it.

Prior to the invention of the railway, life was local with all that implies. The economy was local, social interactions were local as were materials and means. Economically, it meant that it was a world of limited economic opportunities which in turn produced a mode of life that was conditioned by these limited means.
Since for a long time they recognized few changes indeed as suitable, the peasant masses were widely regarded as passive, stubborn, and stupid. Yet we can see now that their narrow vision was the vision of frightened men in desperate circumstances; that the village was a lifeboat striving to keep afloat in heavy seas, its culture a combination of discipline and reassurance designed to keep its occupants alive. Insecurity was the rule, existence consistently marginal. Tradition, routine, vigorous adherence to the family and the community- and to their rules-alone made existence possible. The village was
an association for mutual aid. Lands, pastures, and ovens were generally ruled in common; dates for sowing and harvesting were set for one and all. Since all had to pull together, no deviance could be tolerated.

In such circumstances, innovation was almost inconceivable. Routine ruled: the structural balance attained by a long process of trial and error, reinforced by isolation and physical circumstances. At Tarascon (Ariege) in 1852, "the agricultural population thinks present agricultural methods have reached their peak of development and must not be set aside, being the fruit of long experience." Wisdom was doing things the way they always had been done, the way they were supposed to be done. "If you do as your neighbor does, you do neither ill nor well," advises a proverb of Franche-Comte. To the peasant, routine connoted not mindless labor but precious experience, what had worked and hence would work again, the accumulated wisdom without which life could not be maintained. For the Landais farmer, wrote Jean Ricard in 19I1, the past was "a guarantee of the present; in freeing himself from it he would fear to compromise the future."
and
Many peasants, says the Comte de Neufbourg in a book full of good sense and quite ignored, "live from day to day, and routine foresees things for them. We should not mock or destroy this routine: it would be missed, it is their wisdom." Subsistence farming-raising a bit of everything and making one's own bread and clothing-was a matter not of blind routine but of calculated necessity: "When one buys one's bread there is never any money left." Routine, concludes Daniel Faucher, is "the precious fruit of experience, a treasury of wisdom"; the peasant abandons it "only when assured that he can do so without damage." And that, as we have seen, is what happened.
Traditional communities continued to operate in the traditional manner as long as conditions retained their traditional shape: low productivity, market fluctuations beyond the producer's control, a low rate of savings, little surplus. What surplus the peasant could accumulate was taken from him in taxes or usurious interest, spent on church buildings and feasts, or invested in land. But land did not increase total production until capital investment in improvements became both possible and thinkable. And this did not happen until the market became an accessible reality, that is, until the expanding communications network brought it within reach. Economic growth could then proceed at a faster pace,· and producers could literally change their minds about what they were doing and to what end. Road and rail were the decisive factors in this change. Schools shaped and accelerated it. 
When you live an existence that is perilously close to starvation you minimise risk. Tradition was useful for precisely for that reason, and just as there are no atheists in foxholes, the precarious mode of existence, where death and ruin was a frequent and sudden occurrence, focused men on the afterlife and was conducive to religion. And it produced a certain mindset.
The very use of terms like out-of-date reflects a viewpoint alien to the traditional order. In a world highly dependent on natural conditions, seasonal and liturgical rhythms governed people's sense of time. Every situation had its earlier precedent, equivalent, or analogy. It was in the past that people sought lessons for the present: not new lessons but old ones that were never out-of date. Past and present were not two but one: a continuum of time lived, not a series of units measured by the clock. A feast or a fire, a harvest good or bad, a family event, lived on in memory and served as a more natural point of reference than the calendar. Songs and tales about events a century old evoked
powerful emotions. Proximity in time was relative, almost unimportant

Traditional time had no fixed units of measure; there was not even a break between work and leisure. Even the loss of time (comings and goings, pauses, waiting) passed largely unnoticed because integrated in routine and unquestioned. We have seen, for example, that land was often counted in the units of man or animal time it took to work it: not a fixed measure but one relative to conditions. Conditions also determined the value of time: it was cheap, very cheap, when everything else was scarce.
The railway changed everything. Weber quotes French statisticians that noted that were a railway appeared economic activity increased by about ten times. The railway bought prosperity but "prosperity" does not convey the profound change in the mode of life that it bought about.
The area around Die also changed radically after 1880. The region had stayed almost self-sufficient. So long as mules were the only means of transport, there was no point in growing commercialcrops for export, for instance fruit, to which its climate was well suited. Once roads and railroads breached the mountains and connected "this cell of the French Alps" to the life that flowed only some miles away, past the Drome gorges in the Rhone valley's plains, buyers appeared for cattle, lavender, and in due course fruit from newly developed orchards; chemical fertilizer and superphosphates could reach the narrow valleys and help meet new demands; rye gave way to wheat; comfort replaced grinding poverty. The profound transformation can be dated to the railway's coming in 1894 and the years immediately following, when the peasants became used to it and learned how to handle the formalities involved in shipping and receiving merchandise. The outside world, which till then had had little bearing on their own, now came in with a rush: skills like writing invoices and bills of lading, counting, and schooling in general acquired concrete meaning as occasions to use them multiplied. It was a story that repeated itself elsewhere
To illustrate just one way in which prosperity eroded the old order, consider the effect of dress and fashion on maintaining the social order. It's easy to maintain a heirarchy when the clothing you wear marks you out for belonging to a certain social class. However the prosperity bought about by rail also bought better clothing and the ability to keep up with fashion,  which in turn started undermining at the obvious social distinctions.  By the 1880's, Weber reports of how many people upper classes were lamenting about people dressing "above their station." On its own it means nothing, but taken in totality with all the other changes, it was part of a  force replacing the old order which was unstoppable.
My purpose is not to chronicle the growth of the wine industry or of any other, but to suggest what the presence of viable and accessible roads and rails did to people and to their way of life. It changed them radically. It opened possibilities sometimes sighed for but never within reach. The turning wheels on road and railway, even wheelbarrows, meant vastly greater carrying power, more movement and faster movement, more productivity and more resources,more choice or at least more freedom to choose. ..... Roads and rails brought men into the market, permitted them to drink wine or sell it profitably, or to develop crops that could not be marketed before, and to give up growing others that could now be bought more cheaply. They also brought ruin to local   enterprises no longer protected by earlier isolation, to outdated occupational groups like the riverboatmen, and to producers of mediocre local goods or crops fated to be  outmatched by specialized ones......The move was not only in space, but in time and mind as well: roads and rails introduced new foods into the diet, new materials in the building of the house, new objects in its interior, new tools in the fields about it, new things to do on holidays, and new kinds of clothes to wear. They offered opportunities for enterprise and hence for social mobility that were not there before; the jobs that went with roads and railways alone were temptations that set many on the move.
and,
A few peasants had watches and displayed them with pride. But even to them a watch was "a horse in the stable," useless when one could refer to cockcrows, to the stars, to the sun's touching this or that rock or tree, or to one's own shadow. As with watches, so with the calendar. The calendar year meant nothing, the rhythm of seasons everything. In Auvergne the basic division was between winter, from All Souls to Saint George's day (November I-April 23), and summer, when beasts could sleep out of doors. In Franche-Comte, summer was divided not into months but into "times": the time for going outdoors (patchi fou, going out), essentially spring; the times for haying and for harvesting. In the late autumn and winter, there were "times" for sewing and for vieillin (veillees) .
In the French language, temps refers to both weather and duration: two concepts to us but not to the peasant whose longer hours of work came in the fair weather of the summer. To the farmer, time is work; life is work; work brings subsistence and independence. In the city, time and work have another meaning: productivity, surplus, profit, comfort, leisure. In late-nineteenth century France these two notions of time clashed, and one disappeared. No other outcome was possible. The new world of markets and of schools worked only on its kind of time; and the difference was fundamental. Old skills based on watching and imitating what one's elders did, old forms of intuition learned from the wise or simply discovered in oneself, gave way before the new techniques and practices of rationality. Success was achieved not by harder work, greater strength, or inspired guessing, but by superior reasoning. The new process was rational ("we do this because"), quantitative ("this way we turn out that much more"), abstract ("these are the rules"). Internalized rhythms of labor were replaced by learned skills and norms. A man who thinks his work is no worse, certainly, than one who does not; but he is certainly different.
What Weber documents is the change in the mindset of the common man bought about by the new prosperity. And it was a change which was qualitative, discontinuous with the mindset of the past. And it was a mindset which I feel did not actively reject the past as much as it found it irrelevant and not of any use.  Charles Taylor talks about the change from the "porous" to the "buffered" self but the approach he takes is far too intellectual and implies a conscious choice in the state of being whereas what Weber describes is an adaptation to a new state of affairs: more evolutionary than deliberately revolutionary. Less a philosophical position than a pragmatic acceptance of affairs in the minds of the average man.

For Christianity, especially Catholicism, this change in mindset proved disastrous. But it should no have had to have been so.  While it's true that the old equilibrium between the agrarian existence of Europe and Christianity had been shattered  a new one could have probably been achieved had the Church the capacity to adapt, but it didn't. Instead it took a reactionary stance that went well beyond doctrinal lines and shot itself in the foot by doing so. Perhaps this is best expressed by the actions of Pope Gregory the XVI, who in an attempt to forestall modernity banned the introduction of railways into the Papal states.  His successor, seeing the benefits of technology and the benefits it conferred to the poor reversed this decision and thereby contributed to the modernity which Christianity has been unable to deal with.

I suppose what I'm trying to say here in this post is that engineering and not the Enlightenment is the pre-eminent dimension of Modernity.


Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Modernity: The Way We Were

  
Those who express regret at the passing of the level-headed, vigorous, hard working countryman of yore have no idea what he was really like-no more, in many cases, than his contemporaries had. As Philip Gaskell observes, of the Scottish Highlander in roughly the same period: "He lived not in· picturesque, rural felicity, but in conditions of penury and squalor that can only be fairly compared with those of a famine area in contemporary India, and that were tolerable only because they were traditional and familiar" .

One of the books which has strongly shaped my interpretation of modern history is, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernisation of Rural France, 1870-1914 by Eugen Weber. The book has won numerous accolades and is considered one of the influential texts of modernisation theory. Weber has a great writing style and the genius of the book is writing it from the perspective of the peasant/worker rather than from the vantage of the upper or intellectual class. Through numerous anecdotal examples of the effect of modernisation on the "little" people, Weber is able to convey the profound changes and transformation of the traditional French way of life that it was able to effect.

I think many of the traditionalist intellectuals who despair of the changes modernity has bought about tend to focus on the intellectual and philosophical developments which enabled the modern degeneracy. But what is often ignored in this analysis is the profound way technology and organisation, morally neutral things in themselves, utterly uprooted the traditional way of life independently of any corruption of ideas. It's not just the ideas but the "environment" matters as well.

Weber, while taking a humanist approach, is not a sentimentalist and his description of pre-Modern France, i.e the France of the recent Enlightenment is pretty brutal, and dispels any notions of a of an idyllic Christendom of milk and honey that is so often intimated by Christian Traditionalists. The life lived by the average man prior to modernity was strictly local...and hard.  Through page after page Weber describes the grinding affect of poverty on peoples lives. Death through overwork, neglect of those who cannot produce, risk aversion--which stifled innovation--and poverty, endless poverty.
Peasants in Upper Quercy began work at dawn, ended late at night, often went to work their own plot by moonlight after having worked another's land by day. "No more rest and no more easel" lamented a landowner near Nantes in 1856. "Everyone scrimps, ... works without care for rest or food, ... to buy a plot of land from some neighbor ruined by usury ."
The more ambitious you were, the harder you worked. Benolt Malon's father, employed on a Forez farm, was free to work his potato patch and his kitchen garden on Sunday after church. He died at thirty-three of pleurisy, which he contracted as he hurried to get to his freshly planted potatoes. As late as 1908 in the marshlands of the Vendee a man farming four hectares with only a spade (thus able to work no more than four ares a day) left home at five in the morning, returned at seven in the evening, and never saw his children. · Hard labor without chains-to which one remained bound by necessity and from which only death could bring release.
The other impression that Weber is able to convey is the sense and primacy  of locality in the Pre-Modern world. For many people, life was lived almost entirely within a circle of ten miles across. Isolation meant that ideas and customs arose endogenously and locally with the result that each region developed its own unique identity. On the other hand, the isolation locked the community out from the outside world and its ideas.

The only "trans-local" institutional presence in these rural areas of France was the Church which usually formed the focus and defacto administrative body of the locality. In essence, given the environmental and technical limitations it had a captive market and over time it developed a symbiotic relationship with its communities. Time, as well as agricultural production, was organised through the Church calendar, knowledge was dispensed by the priests, all significant events such as births, deaths and marriages had a religious involvement. A local public celebrations and feasts were usually Church run affairs. Religion and agricultural localism had become integrated.

But the religiosity of the people was not one of doctrinal purity, instead it was mixed with a strong sense of magic and superstition. And while many of the priests were conscious of the mixture and tried to rid the peasantry of these unwanted additions to the faith, the fact was--as Weber demonstrates through numerous anecdotes--an accomodation was reached whereby the Priest tolerated--and frequently suffered--for these foibles of the faithful.

But what I think Weber conveys quite well is how Pre-Modern society was the way it was because of the interplay--and equilibrium-- between cultural factors and physical constraints. And this is really important, because modernity is not just simply the consequence of "bad philosophy" but its also the consequence of technological advancements which were able to break down many of the constraints of the past, destroying the equilibrium.  Once you recognise this important point you realise that technology is as much of a solvent Old World as are some of the corrupt ideas of certain strands of the Enlightenment.  Christian restorationists, wanting to go "back",  have to reckon not just with bad philosophy but also with good technology,  that point being that any restoration of the Old World is impossible except apocalyptically.

In essence, what Weber's book does is demonstrate to a certain degree, Lewis Mumford's thesis in Technics and Civilisation: namely the key feature of modernity is the increasing integration of the machine into civilisation with the consequent possibilities and transformations that it brings. Mumford also recognised that while the machine was integral to the modern world the direction which the modern world took was a function of the values to which the machine was applied.  Any Western restoration, which in my opinion requires the rebuilding of Christianity, is going to have to stop trying to restore the past but will instead have to rely on the capturing of modernity.