What is more…

an excercise in getting to the point

Month: October, 2012

Troeltsch – “Social Teaching of the Christian Churches” – Dualisms and Dual Morality in Early Catholicism

According to Troeltsch, the early Church saw the rise of a sharp distinction between Church and world, as well as a rise of a double morality, in which monastics began to practice ultra-ascetical disciplines while the laity were governed by a more accommodating set of moral norms. In Chapter 1, Troeltsch also notes the impact this had on the ethic of early Catholicism. From an ethic guided by absolute individualism (and thus universalism), it shifted to a focus on ascetical behavior, aimed at denying the “world” and procuring merit through the mediation of the Church. In a word: “Ascetic meritorious love swallows up individualism” (111).[1] In what follows I will attempt to trace the sociological effects of the shift from the Pauline and Gospel ethic to the ethic of early Catholicism. The difficulty with Troeltsch is that his argument is not particularly linear or cumulative—rather it is fugal. One must be able to recognize the theme that gets repeated over and over again, with different emphases each time. The theme, as far as I read it, in this section is “tension.” There are various tensions within the church’s social teachings that end up either in a “dual morality” or in a paradoxical “dualism” (or sometimes both). In my presentation of this section of Troeltsch, I will focus primarily on how this tension arises with respect to various social spheres (e.g. property, work, callings, family and slavery, charity, science, and state), and how it gives rise to dual morality or dualism in the church.

First, to set the stage: Initially the church had little overlapping concern with the Social, especially with the state, as Troeltsch defines it. The church and state were like non-overlapping circles. Early on, the influence of the church was mainly on the “most accessible point” (112), i.e. the family. Over time, the circles began to overlap more and more, and the church began to have a stronger effect on economic life of society, and eventually on the state—although Troeltsch is always quick to point out that the sociological impact of the ancient church was always fairly minimal, when compared with the medieval church, at least.

The first social sphere Troeltsch examines is that of property. According to Troeltsch, the absolute rejection of private property was never a viable option in the early church. Claims that seem to put such a view forward are actually hyperbolic exhortations to generous charity (115). With the increased socioeconomic diversity, however, a new problem did emerge: viz. “The Rich.” The problem of what to do about rich people was a complex one. While the institution of private property in itself remained untouched, it was unclear what amount of property was appropriate, although many agreed that one should only have the minimum necessary. The Church reached a two-fold solution. First, there was an “ethic of compromise” in which private property and even “riches” were allowed to the lay people in the Church and to the Church itself, so long as it was accompanied by an “inner detachment” and a spirit of generosity. At the same time, the way of monasticism did away with private property altogether, renouncing it in the name of ascetic denial (117-118). [Dualism & Dual Morality]

In a related matter, the early church had an ambivalent relationship toward work. On the one hand it was encouraged for its disciplinary effects on the individual, and this even in the monastery where private property was abolished. On the other hand, it was seen as a result of the fall and a punishment for sin (119). According to Troeltsch the early Catholic church was characterized by a dualism of a “practical wisdom” with regard to economics (i.e. she gained much through her work), accompanied by an under-theorization of the relation between work and sustenance, as manifested by constant exhortations to rely constantly on God to provide for daily needs. [Dualism]

In the early church there was no robust sense of calling as there was in the medieval church (in one way, monasticism) and in the Reformation church (in another, as described by Luther). Insofar as differences in class existed, they were largely believed to be a result of the fall and a punishment for sin (121). Most Christians believed that external inequality could coexist with internal, spiritual equality in the church. For the early Christians, one was to stay in their current calling, not because of any inherent goodness of the calling, but simply because the short eschatological horizon meant that it was most important to avoid those means of employment manifestly incompatible with Christianity (i.e. supporting the pagan idol worship) (123). In the third century, with the rise of Christians in the upper echelons of society, things became more complicated. Here one sees an “evading and softening [of] these rules” (125) about participation in various vocations. When Constantine converted to Christianity, the most important impediment to participation in society was taken away—i.e. the pagan emperor-cult (125). Christians could now be encouraged to endure the present social order (still a result of the fall), in order to uphold the good of social order (c.f. Augustine in City of God). And yet, the more the church became identified with a fallen world and its orders, the greater became the importance of a monasticism that could “redress the balance by a rigid practice of Christian principles” (126). “Thus in her attitude towards the social and economic organizations of the day the Church was divided between submission to the conditions imposed by sin and insistence on the monastic communistic ideal of love” (127, emphasis added). [Dual Morality]

The early church had much to say about the realm of the family. It supported a strict family ethic, which included monogamy, prohibition of extramarital relations, strict discipline of children, and prohibition of exposure of infants. In this regard, “there was a ‘perpetual struggle between the highest ideals of Christianity… and the motives of the secular legal system’” (130). This meant a high view of a particular picture of family life. At the same time, however, there was also a parallel morality of celibacy and virginity among the monastics. Family was affirmed as part of the good order of creation, but it was also something that some gave up for the sake of a higher, supernatural end. “The sex ethic split into two parts… In this respect the development of the sex ethic was typical of the whole ethic of the Early Christian Church” (132). [Dual Morality]

Insofar as slavery was affected by family relations, the church had an influence upon it. But insofar as it was an expression of the social sphere and the economic order of the State, the church did not try to alter it. Fully aware of “the inconsistency between [slavery] and the inner freedom and equality which was the Christian ideal” (133), the Church allowed it to continue to exist. [Dualism]

Early on charity had the following marks: it took place in tight, homogenous communities; it was largely private and philanthropic; it was primarily about expressing and acting out of love for neighbor. Later (post Constantine?), charity had changed. It now took place in the context of a large diverse society; it was depersonalized and institutionalized; and it was performed more and more as a means of obtaining merit, rather than for love’s sake (135-137). The institutionalization of charity is also related to the rise of the bishops and clergy as a “new class,” awarded “more and more privileges” (138) by the Emperor. These privileges for the Church were turned toward care of the poor and social welfare; the bishops became “patron of the poor and wretched” (140). Without fundamentally changing the oppressive Social order itself, the privileges of the church functioned as a “corrective and a softening of existing conditions” (141) – while, at the same time, the rise of a new clergy class had the effect of further separating the church from the world. [Dualism?]

Troeltsch’s final—and most extensive—exploration concerns the relationship between church and state. The early church, according to Troeltsch, was marked by a fairly strict dichotomy between Church/Kingdom of God, on one side, and State/World, on the other (146). The “world” was not thought of as in cosmological or metaphysical terms, but rather as a passing age (aion houtos, saeculum) between Fall and parousia. The state, on the one hand, was part of this passing age, a result of the fall, and therefore part of this “world.” On the other hand it was good, insofar as it was from God and used by God for social order and to punish sins (148).

As the church grew in size and influence, it inevitably compromised the element of antithesis. Some “minimum” form of secular institutions were necessary to uphold common life. But how much was this “minimum”? “This was the question which divided Christianity into two great camps” (149). Most of the church came to acquiesce more and more to the secular conditions of the empire, but “monasticism restricted this ‘minimum’ as far as it was humanly possibly to do so” (149).

How did Christians come to justify their (tentative) affirmation of the state? First, early Christian apologists began to appropriate the Stoic doctrine of Natural Law (150). Especially after Constantine, many Church Fathers based their acceptance of the laws of the State on the theory that positive laws “proceed from the Divine Law of Nature, which is identical with the Decalogue” (152). But this introduced a conundrum: what should one think about laws that are manifestly bad? The Stoics felt this tension as well, and “found their solution in isolating the primitive period, or the Golden Age” (152) in which the “Law of Nature prevailed completely” (152). Christians took a similar route. The fact that positive law no longer directly reflects the Divine Natural law is a result of human sinfulness. At the same time, the fact the Natural Law as we have it does not exactly match the Divine Natural Law (of the primitive state) is not simply a result of the corruption of our faculty of reason after the Fall. Rather “it is the transformation of the Law of Nature, which, according to the Divine Will, took place after the Fall” (153). Postlapsarian Natural Law “can only become evident in the form of an order of law and compulsion” (153). This gives rise to the distinction between a “relative Natural Law, corresponding to the conditions of the general sinfulness of humanity” and the “absolute Natural Laws of the Primitive State” (154, emphasis added). The “harsher aspects” of positive law, according to this view were a result of sin, but were also used by God as a remedy for sin.

Along with Natural Law, the church also stressed “theocratic absolutism” (158). This was a way of understanding the authority of the emperor to make positive laws. While they might have gone the way of the Stoics, and conceived of a free transfer of authority to the princeps occurring in the primitive state, the church fathers more often affirmed that “the authority of the Emperor comes from God” (156)—whether by the grace of God (if it is a good Emperor) or by the wrath of God (if it is a bad Emperor) (156). As regards this second (theocratic) conception, the authority of the Empire could only be limited by its source of authority, i.e. God. Practically speaking, this meant that the Church (“the institution in which God is incarnate” (157)) claimed authority over the Emperor “in all spiritual things, in questions of dogma, of the law of the Church, of ecclesiastical property, of ecclesiastical legislation,” etc. (157).  In so doing, the Church “hallows” the State.

This dualistic theory—combining “the theory of relative Natural Law and the theory of theocratic absolutism”—had various outcomes in the social realm. First was the “division of labor” between Church and State, with the Emperor ruling in the secular affairs of State, and the Church ruling “in everything which concerned religion and the Church” (158). Another outcome was that the Church also began to utilize the State for her own ends, i.e. to secure a “unity which was enforced by the powers of the State, and not by the inherent logic of the ideas contained in the doctrine of the Church” (159). [Dualism]

Troeltsch’s final say on this dualist theory of state is damning, and worth quoting at length:

“The Christian theory of Natural Law—in which the pure Natural Law of the Primitive State, the entirely opposite relative Natural Law of the fallen State, the positive law, which often included the greatest abominations, and that true goodness which, in spire of all these ideas of Natural Law, is the only source of the supreme power of the theocracy, were in continual conflict—as a scientific theory it is wretchedly confused, but as a practical doctrine it is of the highest importance for the history of civilization and social evolution” (160).

In the end, I am left with the following questions: (1) Does the heuristic of “dualism” vs “dual morality” illuminate—or obscure—Troeltsch’s understanding of the early medieval catholic social ethic? Is there a better overarching way of explaining this section? (2) How does Troeltsch’s historical treatment help us understanding Christian appeals to “Natural Law”? Is his distinction between relative and absolute natural law correct? (3) Using some of the concepts that Troeltsch introduces, as well as some of our readings for this week, how might we begin to explain a Christian doctrine of political authority, either for the ancient church or for our own day?


[1] Although Troeltsch notes that individualism was preserved through the ideas of Christian love, monasticism, and contemplation (111).

Love & Justice (5) – Niebuhr’s Nature & Destiny of Man, vol. 1.

For this post I would like to do something a little different than usual. I want to compare Reinhold Niebuhr’s general structure of theological anthropology, with special attention to his doctrine of sin, with work done in the sociology of knowledge by Peter Berger and Arnold Gehlen. As I hope to make clear presently, Niebuhr’s anthropology tracks very closely with Berger and Gehlen’s conception of man’s condition in modernity. The basic question I would like to pose is this: does this fact indicate that Niebuhr’s theological anthropology is conditioned by his location in modernity? Or, if it is indeed a true description of anthropology, then what implications does Berger and Gehlen’s description of modernity have for the modern person’s prospects for overcoming sin?

I will begin with Gehlen and Berger. According to Arnold Gehlen, compared to other species in the animal kingdom, human beings are particularly unfinished at birth. They do not have a developed instinctual apparatus to guide their behavior. They do not know when they are in danger, when their existence is threated, or how to protect themselves. Because of this fact, humans must build institutions—patterns of thought, behavior, and social relationships. These institutions do for human beings what instincts do for other animals in the world; they provide a framework for the social defense against the contingencies of nature. According to Gehlen, human experience is essentially divided into two parts: (a) the background part of our experience that is taken-for-granted, and (b) the foreground part of our experience, in which we think, reflect, ponder, and deliberate. In traditional (pre-modern) societies, most of human life took place as background; it was mostly taken-for-granted. With modernity we have the movement of more and more of human experience into the foreground. Things that were previously taken-for-granted now become a matter of choice. Berger, building on Gehlen, has pointed to the way in which this proliferation of choice changes the way in which each person relates to their own self. The proliferation of choice increases the existential anxiety as each person must calculate their own “life-plan,” simultaneously relating to a plethora of possible future worlds. The plurality of choices is, according to Berger, an inherently destabilizing force. Further, there are fewer and fewer stable institutions in modernity than there were in traditional societies. Religion, which once serves as a cohesive social factor, is now something that one chooses, based on “religious preference.” One must choose, a condition Berger refers to as “the heretical imperative.”[1]

Let us move to Niebuhr. According to Niebuhr, humankind is made both in the image of God, and as a creature of God. This means three things, in particular. First, humans have a spiritual dimension characterized especially by “self-transcendence.” Second, humans are weak, dependent, and finite creatures. Third, evil in human beings is a consequence of their “inevitable though not necessary unwillingness to acknowledge [their] dependence, to accept [their] finiteness and to admit [their] insecurity” (150).[2]  Humans are “insecure and involved in natural contingency,” and, instead of trusting God to take care of them, they “seek to overcome insecurity by a will-to-power which overreaches the limits of human creatureliness” (178). The problem is an inability to hold together self-transcendence and finitude under the trust in God. “Since he is involved in the contingencies and necessities of the natural process on the one hand and since, on the other, he stands outside of them and foresees their caprices and perils, he is anxious. In his anxiety he seeks to transmute his finiteness into infinity, his weakness into strength, his dependence into independence” (251).

The parallels between Niebuhr, on the one hand, and Gehlen and Berger, on the other, are striking. Both stress the condition of contingency and vulnerability that humans find themselves in. Both also stress the fact that humans are able to transcend their own immediate lived-reality and imagine alternative possible realities. Finally, both stress the anxiety that inevitably comes along with this combination of factors. The difference is that, for Gehlen and Berger, the confluence of contingency and freedom has been greatly expanded because of the facts of pluralism and choice. For Niebuhr, freedom and finitude are basic characteristics of the human situation, made clear in both the biblical narrative and in our experience of history. The answer to the anxiety that Niebuhr offers are theological virtues of faith, hope, and love—each of which comes to us as both a requirement and an ideal, but never as a fully achievable reality (271). Berger and Gehlen, are more diagnostic, and less interested in offering any “solutions” or theological explanations of the anxiety that results from contingency and choice.

The question I am left with is the following: if Gehlen and Berger are right about their description of the movement of more and more human experience from the background into the foreground (what they call “deinstitutionalization”), then what does this mean for Niebuhr’s theory of sin? A skeptic might reply that this demonstrates that Niebuhr is falling into the trap of being overly influenced by the spirit of the times. His theological scheme is merely a “projection” (Feuerbach) of the modern condition, or an instance of “natural theology” (Barth), in the bad sense. Or, alternatively, it may be the case that Niebuhr’s description is, in fact, both biblical and true to experience. If this is so, then it might be the case that Gehlen and Berger are pointing to an aspect of modernity that would intensify the “temptation to sin” that Niebuhr so eloquently describes. Perhaps the modern person finds herself in a unique situation, in which the anxiety of freedom and finitude is heightened, and her proclivity to sin in order to escape or deny this condition is also heightened.


[1] See especially Peter Berger, The Homeless Mind, chapter 3 and The Heretical Imperative, chapter 1.

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny of Man. All in text references are from this work.

What is a Saint?

In two works–Athanasius’s Life of St. Antony and the Rule of St. Benedict–we have a picture of Christian sainthood that, seen from our modern perspective, seem to hold together disparate aspects of human personality. On the one hand, each presents an ascetical attitude that seems overly obsessed with the mortification of sin and would seem to lead to a moroseness unbefitting for a flourishing human life. On the other hand, each shows hints of a deeper joy and unique (dare we say, eccentric?) personality that shines through.

Athanasius’s Life of Antony is a hagiography of the famous desert father, St. Antony. In Athanasius’s telling, Antony, upon hearing the words of the Gospel, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” does precisely that. He sells all that he owns, places his younger sister into a convent for safe-keeping, and retreats into the desert to wrestle with his demons—literally and figuratively. Antony’s asceticism was legendary (and perhaps exaggerated). According to Athanasius he lived in a tomb for nearly twenty years, surviving on meager portions of bread and water. At the end of this period, Athanasius present Antony in terms that seem consistent with a stoic sage: “He maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by reason and steadfast in that which accords with nature.” At first glance, Antony’s achieved perfection seems to transform him into super-human figure—or, if not super-human, than at least less human, in the sense of being one to whom we might relate. “The state of his soul was one of purity, for it was not constricted by grief, nor relaxed by pleasure, nor affected by either laughter or dejection.” This doesn’t sound like someone most of us would want to be around. On the other hand, the text indicates that “Antony was loved by all.” He celebrated whatever was of worth in any person, and strove to put that into practice.[1] Antony was, in all likelihood, a peculiar fellow who attracted people not only by his legendary ascetic feats but by the quality of his personality and individuality.

This is important because Antony’s biography/hagiography had an enormous influence on the early medieval ideal of Christian sainthood. St. Augustine was famously influenced by The Life of St. Antony in his own conversion experience. Through Augustine’s Confessions, the ideal of the desert fathers continued to have influence in the medieval Latin church, and is reflected in the Rule of St. Benedict. Of note for our present purposes is the ladder of humility by which the Christian is exalted into sanctity. With each step of humility, the humble brother achieves new heights of ascetic discipline. Finally, in the twelfth step, “not only that a monk should be humble of heart, but also that his humility should be apparent in his physical appearance to those who see him… he should always have his head bowed, his eyes fixed on the ground, and should at every moment be considering his guilt for his sins and thinking that he is even now being presented for the dread judgment.” This would seem to be the picture of the morose Christian monk that is satirized throughout the middle-ages. But the end result, according to Benedict, is that “he now begins to keep effortlessly and naturally and habitually, influenced now not by any fear of hell but by the force of long practice, and the very delight he experiences in virtue.”

Above all, I believe, the aspect of radical asceticism is less essential to the Christian view of sainthood than the fact that the saint are those who have whole-heartedly lived in the light of the love of God, and are therefore more genuinely themselves, unique individuals. This does not mean that they are perfect, but that their life takes on a different tenor because it reflects the presence of God in a distinct way. According to Buechner,

“Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy. Not happiness that comes and goes with the moments that occasion it, but joy that is always there like an underground spring no matter how dark and terrible the night. To be a saint is to be a little out of one’s mind, which is a very good thing to be a little out of from time to time. It is to live a life that is always giving itself away and yet is always full…. Beneath all our yearning for whatever glitters brightest in this world lies our yearning for this kind of life.”[2]

 


[1] As will become clear, my own understanding of “sainthood” has been influenced by the writings of Frederick Buechner. With regard to the Life of St. Antony, Buechner’s writings, especially his Pulitzer nominated novel Godric, have illuminated the tension between the humanity of the saints and the literary genre of hagiography.

[2] From The Magnificent Defeat.