Monday, February 11, 2013

Beginning the Protestant Reformation

I think I have mentioned before that I am taking a graduate course on Church History.  This semester I am in the second part of the course, which covers the Protestant Reformation up to the present day (which is a whole lot to squeeze in!) Here is a 7 Quick Takes I posted last semester with some highlights of part one of the course.  What I enjoyed most last semester was that being about the early Church, it was essentially about the history of the Catholic Church itself, with recognition of historic schisms or heresies included. 

This semester, now that we are going into learning about Protestantism, it looks like the course is shifting to being purely a history of Protestantism without much further inclusion of Catholic history.  On one hand, this is understandable in that this is a Protestant seminary, and it is pertinent for students to learn the history of their own traditions.  On the other hand, it is annoying that a course which should encompass the history of Christianity as a whole seems to be shifting focus and paying far less attention to what is the largest Christian Church. 

Here are a few brief thoughts on what I've learned so far about the beginning of the Reformation (by a combined means of the course and my husband, who thankfully is a medievalist who can help me know when the textbook is lying biased):

The most stereotypical backstory of the Protestant Reformation is how corrupt the Church was in the late middle ages. Two things on this:

1. Yes, but not completely. There is an important semantic distinction that I think needs to be made.  Yes, there was some corruption in the Church. It may have been widespread or localized or significant, or only to some degree.  To say that the Church itself was corrupt is incorrect and inaccurate in a couple of ways.  Most pertinent historically, the phrase is too vague. How much corruption, and performed by which individuals, makes "the (whole) Church is corrupt" an accurate statement?  Theologically, really, how could the whole Church be corrupt? It cannot be. If the church as a whole was corrupt, it would not have prevailed as long as it has. The Church cannot be corrupt. It is Divine.

2. Yes, but so what? There was some corruption in the Church.  But this is not what caused the Reformation, nor does it justify the fact that it happened.  Martin Luther did observe corruption, as many likely did, but his ultimate reason for breaking from the Catholic Church was theological, most specifically, about salvation theology.  Whether there had been corruption or not, in many or some aspects of ecclesial operation, Luther was unhappy (scrupulously so) with Catholic salvation theology (to the extent that it was developed at the time) and  took it upon himself to try to change it.  He objected not primarily to the corruption of practice of indulgences, but to a theology that he (mistakenly) thought meant man could earn his way into heaven. 

Even if there hadn't been any corruption concerning indulgences, Luther would have went with his newly perceived theology anyway.  The idea of indulgence (even corruption-free) simply does not fit into Luther's theology.  This further goes to show that the indulgence issue was not what mainly fueled the Protestant reformation.

Interestingly, my husband has explained to me that at this time, in the late middle ages, there was not yet a hard and fast definition of what Catholic salvation theology was.  The Church had defined what it did not believe, like when various heresies were dismissed, but within the guidelines of orthodoxy, there was room for speculation, and several concurrent theories, including those of St. Thomas Aquinas and a guy named William of Ockham.  The Ockhamist view was what Luther had likely been taught, and this semi-Pelagian view that one earns grace through deeds ("If you do what is in you, God will not deny you grace") is the particular view that Luther was reacting against.  Some scholars think that had he read or been taught the Thomist view, which put less stress on earning grace by doing one's best) he may have had less of a problem.

It is also relevant that Luther was not simply critiquing the Church's theology and tradition for the sake of doing it.  Luther had been overly scrupulous about his own salvation.  "He felt unworthy of God's love, and he was not convinced that he was doing enough to be saved." (1)  Luther was not a bad monk, and Gonzalez points out that he tried to live out his monastic vows as best he could.  He frequented the sacrament of penance, but still constantly stressed about his sinfulness.  Eventually his scrupulosity pushed him to feelings of fear and bitterness toward God.  Instead of seeking help and correction for his feelings, he attempts to change the theology to make it suit his feelings.  He does this by re-interpreting Scripture, and insisting that we are saved by faith alone.

This post by Caitlin at Catholic Cookie Jar gives a summary about Protestant and Catholic salvation teachings.

(1) Justo Gonzalez, the Story of Christianity Vol II (New york: HarperCollins, 2010), 22.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Celebrity Divorce, Same-Sex Marriage

“[This] is the huge heresy of Precedent.  It is the view that because we have got into a mess we must grow messier to suit it; that because we have taken a wrong turn some time ago, we must go forward and not backwards; that because we have lost our way, we must lose our map also and because we have missed our ideal, we must forget it.”
—G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World.

Some time ago, there was a  rather popular  meme running around the internet that went something to the effect of this: “Celebrity A was divorced after only 3 months of marriage, Celebrity B was divorced after 3 weeks of marriage, Celebrity C was divorced after 3 days of marriage, therefore gay marriage will not harm the sanctity of marriage.”  The precise argument (let us call it the Celebrity Divorce Argument) here is sufficiently vague that it is hard to follow and several interpretations are possible.  Those who say it probably mean either:

1. Since divorce happens regularly and does not harm the sanctity of marriage, same  sex marriage will also not harm marriage.  


2.  Marriage is already in such trouble from the commonness of divorce, that Christians shouldn’t care if gay marriage makes it any worse.   


3. Christians are hypocrites for opposing same sex marriage, but not opposing divorce. 

Part of the challenge of answering the Celebrity Divorce Argument (CDA), lies in knowing exactly what it means.  It could mean several different and logically incompatible things.  The third interpretation may be easily dismissed.  At best it is simply an instance of the ad hominem  fallacy since it tries to judge the truth of a position (the moral permissibility of gay marriage) by attacking the person who holds it.  And at any rate, most people opposed to gay marriage are probably opposed to divorce as well.  This leaves the first two interpretations of the CDA.   

 I have been suspicious of the argument since I first heard it, but have had nothing particularly insightful to say and so took the wiser course and said nothing.  It happens that I still have nothing of value to say, but happily, while reading G.K. Chesterton’s book, What is Wrong with the World, I found that Chesterton did.  He was speaking specifically of another modern error, yet the principle remains the same.  To the man who would claim the CDA, that with divorce so common, we ought not oppose same sex marriage, Chesterton would reply that this is merely the heresy of Precedent, that “because the world is a mess, we should grow messier to suit it.”  One might as well claim that because a man is halfway toward falling off a cliff, he must not resist falling the rest of the way, or that because he has cancer of the lungs, he ought not care about getting disease of the heart as well. 

With common divorce, society fell half off the cliff.  A permanent relationship for mutual love and help, dedicated to the upbringing of children became a temporary relationship and children grew optional.  With the rest of the fall, and the allowance of gay marriage, marriage becomes now solely about the individual adult, a temporary living arrangement based on state recognition of romantic attachment. 

We may be halfway toward falling off the cliff, but that is no reason to fall the rest of the way.  We may have lost our way, but that is no reason to lose our minds as well.   

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Manhattan for Beads, Mankind for Condoms

Tradition generally holds that in 1626, Peter Minuit, leader of the Dutch colony in the New World,  purchased the Island of Manhattan for about 24 dollars worth of trinkets.  Today, this is often presented as a classic example of American Indian ill-use at the hands of European colonists.  I do not dwell here on potential errors in this view (1), but am here content to let it stand as an example for purposes of illustration.  Similarly, moderns regret how European colonists would sometimes attempt to cause Indians to become drunk and dependant on alcohol in order to cheat them in trade.  In essence, colonists knew that by causing Indians to become dependent on alcohol, they would abandon their freedom.  Drunk men are easily cheated. 

Modern man is just as drunk as the Indians of Colonial America.  Where the Indians were drunk on alcohol, man today is drunk on something else.  The modern world is drunk on sex.  A man can scarce think otherwise when condoms are widely handed out on college campuses and in high schools, or given the popularity of Playboy (magazine and digital content) and cheap romances.  One might likewise point to the widespread use of sex in advertising, on TV, and in movies, to sell all manner of nonsense to a drunk public.  For a drunk man is a man with little sales resistance. 

Just like colonists wanted the American Indian drunk and dependant on alcohol, so too do modern “colonists” want man drunk on sex.  Advertisers want man drunk in order to sell him trash.  Sex sells cars, tools, soap, perfume, and alcohol (the better to get one doubly drunk).  The reason is simple enough.  As the American Indians gave something up for the alcohol on which they became dependant, so man gives something up by his drunkenness on sex.  He gives up some degree of his freedom and some degree of his humanity.

Advertisers are not the only ones who want man drunk on sex.  The federal government does as well.  The US government has commanded that all employers, even those with religious objections, must provide free contraceptive coverage to their employees.  Desperate for the free contraception, and drunk on the need to gratify his sex instinct, man, like American Indians dependant on alcohol, gives something up.  Among other things, he gives up his conscience.  By declaring that religious entities must provide contraception though it violates their religious beliefs and consciences, the government has claimed authority over man’s conscience.  It has claimed the power to tell man when he may follow his religious beliefs and when he may not.  In exchange, it offers free contraception, the ability to further gratify one’s sex instinct.  Alcohol for trinkets and land, contraception for one’s conscience, both for man’s freedom. 

Man often sells himself too cheaply; the flaw runs deep in human nature.  But when he sells his conscience away for free contraception, when he prizes the gratification of the instinct over his conscience, he gives up himself for too mean a price.  As Fulton Sheen said, "Our hopes and our liberties are sold too cheap when they are bartered away to him who feeds the body and leaves the soul naked." Judas sold God for 30 pieces of silver; when man gives himself to the government for free contraception, he is little better.  Judas thought he sold God, Who really gave himself for man.  When he sells his conscience for 30 shekals, though, man gives himself for nothing. 

(1). This would consist of about $1000 dollars today, that the event is only badly attested in one source, that the claim the Island was sold for beads and trinkets is not in that early source, and that the concept of sale for the Dutch was probably different from modern concepts of sale.