Saturday, July 25, 2020

Secularisation in a Secular Age

One of the other things I didn't like about Charles Taylor's book is his theory of secularisation. While he does not explicitly blame Protestantism for the phenomenon he does see it as being a significant factor.  But what if it he is right and Protestantism does lead to secularisation, how does that explain the precipitous decline of religion in Catholic countries?

The implication in Taylor's book is that Western culture as a whole has undergone the changes he describes--religion being transformed from a holistic thing into a mental one--and this phenomenon is equally applicable to Catholic as is to formerly Protestant cultures. Once again I don't buy it.

One of the interesting things to note is that secularism tends to be far more militant in formerly Catholic countries than it tends to be in Protestant ones.  Now while it's true that a dechristianising "protestant mindset" will result in a different atheism from a catholic one, a dechristianisation that is the result of protestantisation should produce a secular culture that is similar to the Northern European model of religious indifference instead of the observed hate. Protestantism does not appear the culprit here and some other mechanism is at play.

It's my contention here that Protestantism is not the primary mechanism of secularisation, rather that secularisation is the result of decline in Grace, and given the cultural differences between the two religions, the effects of secularisation will be culturally contingent. Reasons may change but old habits die hard.

Catholicism, with its strong sense of of party clerical hierarchy, and it's emphasis of the collective over the individual is going to drift towards secular models of the same. Hence the the much more prominent presence of militant socialistic parties in these countries.The more puritanical the Catholicism the more puritanical its secular equivalent. One of the disquieting things that struck me after reading Orwell was just how similar the pre-Vatican Two Catholic Church was to the Russian communist Party in ideological structure. If the clergy party said 2+2=5 it was the role of the proletariat to believe.  Part of the reason I believe that the Church as a whole may have lost some of God's grace is precisely because of the fact that it elevated clerical authority above the truth, not to mention other matters.

Mainline Protestantism, with its strong sense of individual autonomy and tolerance, on the other hand, will decay into milder, yet more sincerely held,  forms of socialism   But that really depends on the particular variant of Protestantism. The more puritanical branches are liable to morph into something particularly nasty. To put in in a more succinct way:

Catholicism - Grace = Communism
Mainline Protestantism - Grace = Socialism
Puritanism - Grace = Pol Pot.  (That's assuming that God's grace is extended to Puritans.)

The point I want to make when it comes to Protestantism, I do think although it was separated from the Catholic Church, God did extend his Grace to some of the branches of it. Other branches were excluded from it. As a religious/epistemological system Protestantism is wide open to error but the same quality that makes error so easy, is also the faculty that makes legitimate Christian innovation possible and it was those branches which enjoyed God's grace and favour.  Where I think Taylor--and others-- make the error is in looking a Protestantism only though its errant, graceless branches: confusing the lack of Grace with Protestantism. 

I've been struggling to find a term which accurately explains how Taylor got it wrong.  The omission of Grace in a book about secularisation is really an attempt to explain spiritual phenomenon in a non-spiritual way.  You see the same thing in Jordan Peterson's understanding of religion which was also strongly influenced by Jung. You also see it in books trying to understand the phenomenon through sociological analysis. There's something not quite right about it.

And I think the person who got this right was Owen Barfield,* who described the phenomenon as Residual Unresolved Positivism. (Thanks Bruce Charlton.) It's basically trying to understand religion as psychological phenomenon and not a spiritual one.  The problem with this approach is that you approach religion as a problem of psychology instead of seeing as a problem approached though the lens of Christian understanding. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

Excarnation III: Paragraphs to Ponder.

While the effects of an excarnational culture can most easily be seen in the domain of sexuality, it's most pernicious effects lay in other areas. While reading up on the subject, I stumbled across this article by Professor Andrew Sandlin, which I think is worth some thought;
The Bible does not exalt spirit over matter; Jesus is Lord of the invisible and visible world (Col. 1:15–17). Yet ever since pagan Greek ideas of the inferiority of the material world infected Christianity, the church has battled with excarnation. Even as the church prays, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10), many Christians view the world outside the church — economics, politics, entertainment, education, and architecture — as inescapably “carnal” (fleshly) and unfit for Christian influence. So the church retreats to an excarnated spirituality.
Prayer, interior dialogue, and contemplation of heaven are considered spiritual, while working to re-criminalise abortion, de-legitimize same-sex “marriage,” combat pornography, and reduce government theft programmes in the form of confiscatory taxation are relatively unimportant and, in fact, a diversion from the church’s real, excarnated tasks. Escape from evil within the created order rather than confrontation with and victory over it is the excarnational agenda. Christianity is reduced to a “personal devotional hobby.”

But Advent stares us unflinchingly in the face with the truth that the present world, immaterial and material, is cursed by sin and is to be redeemed by the death and resurrection of our Lord. The most evil being in the universe is pure spirit, but Jesus was born and lived and died and rose from the dead and lives forever in a body. He is profoundly interested in the world, including the material world. He came healing the sick and exorcising demons from tortured bodies. To trust in the Messiah for salvation is to surrender oneself mind, soul, body — our entire self — to him (Rom. 12:1–2)
He is as interested in purging sin from gangsta rap and abortion clinics and fraudulent bond-rating agencies and Bauhaus architecture as he is from Christian hearts and families and churches. The cleansing power of the Gospel does not simply take souls to heaven; it transforms everything it touches.
If I had to define what Caritas is, it would be; a potency, when realised in act, perfects form. Or in other words, Christian love, in act, transforms things into their perfection. Now the important thing to recognise is that it is a transformative power, not simply of the individual but of the world. The excarnational approach neutralises this resulting in a de-Christianisation of the culture. You end up with a world of beautiful churches but terrible public administration: Catholic and Orthodox Europe?

This type of Christianity seeks to avoid the world, not engage it, and hence all the various types of "Benedict Options" out there. Combine it with a Tolstoyan/Pacifist interpretation of the Bible and you've a got a combination that is unable to resist the collapse of Christian civilisation. And yet this was not always the case. I'm currently reading Owen Chadwick's, The Secularisation of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century: it's a really good book. But I was struck by this passage which is so out of spirit with our times:
To the middle twentieth century, where priests are expected to be of the left and to encourage revolution in South America or southern Africa, this is a more surprising juxtaposition than men of the nineteenth century found it. Here, for example, is a speech made by Archdeacon Christopher Wordsworth, son of a Master of Trinity, nephew of a poet, soon to be Bishop of Lincoln, at a Tory meeting in Reading on t February 1865. He engaged to define Conservatism:
What, gentlemen, is Conservatism? It is the application of Christianity to civil government. And what is English Conservatism? It is the adoption of the principles of the Church of England as the groundwork of legislation.[ED] Gentlemen, I say it with reverence, the most Conservative book in the world is the Bible, and the next most Conservative book in the world is the Book of Common Prayer.
The Church the mainstay of order — that is the conviction common to both sides; both of the revolutionary who wants to overthrow order and therefore the Church, and of the conservative who wane to maintain order and therefore the Church. The religious revival of the nineteenth century, evident in all countries of western Europe, did not depend upon faith in the political usefulness of Churches. They did not even depend only upon the background rattle of ghostly tumbrils on the streets. But this shadow of social ruin was quite important as a religious force. We can the more easily understand it when we remember how in our time Nazi terror forced many western Europeans back to enquire into their moral principles and thereby contributed, for a time, to a revival of religion.
One of the great effects of Reformation was to shift the cultural importance of various elements in society. In the Catholic/Orthodox world, where the clergy was to retain much of it's dominance, society continued to be "weighted" to the spiritual whereas, despite its theology, Protestant society resulted in a more of an engagement in "earthly" affairs. Protestantism was far better at "applied" Christianity.

It's my opinion the while Catholicism has remained relatively ideologically uncorrupted by modernity, its Clericalism and emphasis on "spirituality" has resulted in an impotent Church. Protestantism on the other hand was better able to apply Christianity to the "affairs of the world" and transform it. As it has withered so has the world's ability to resist modernity and as I see it, the Catholic Church is going to have to "protestantise" if we plan to get out of this mess.

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


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.