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.