Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Dialectic of the Reformation, in A Nutshell

Why would anyone have any difficulty in choosing between God and the Devil, if he really believed that such a devil existed? After all, the consequence of joining the Devil’s party is (by definition) eternal damnation - torture without end, hopeless of any respite or redemption. Once this premise is accepted, even a thoroughly amoral person, lacking gratitude to God and motivated by the purest self-interest, would be mad to choose such a course, since any temporary benefit it might yield must surely be utterly dwarfed by an eternity of pain. Imagine such a cynic defeating the theological safety features (if you will) of the Church, and achieving salvation by dint of mere forbearance from sin.

At first, a Lutheran emphasis upon salvation by faith alone might seem to solve this problem, since mere behavioral prudence, without gratitude to God, only a desire to avoid Hell, agnostically hedging one’s bets as in Pascal’s famous wager – would not be enough to avoid damnation. Without robust doctrinal belief, such a person would be damned under the Protestant dispensation. As Luther wrote in On Christian Liberty in 1520: “As the man is, whether believer or unbeliever, so also is his work — good if it was done in faith, wicked if it was done in unbelief.” (p.70). But this raises twin difficulties, each of which is often cited in Catholic apologetics.

First, Luther’s premise entails that a life of good works – be they motivated by obedience to authority (whether that of Mother Church or that of “Scripture alone”), decency of impulse (Blake wrote, “Jesus had no principles but was all virtue and acted entirely on impulse”), or fear of damnation – results in eternal torture if the doer of those myriad good deeds should fail to achieve the cognitive state of full conviction that the Christian doctrine is actually and literally true. Conversely, if Luther is to be taken at his word, a serial murderer like Macbeth (or an unrepentant, merely regretful Satanist like Doctor Faustus) could be saved by merely believing that God is real, without ever loving (or even submitting to) Him. A madman, for that matter, could slaughter hundreds of innocent people in the full but false conviction that Jesus Christ (the God this same madman happens to worship with passion and gratitude) had commanded him to do so (unfortunately, not a rare occurrence). So long as that madman also believed whatever core elements of Christian doctrine Luther regarded as decisive for salvation, he would enter into Heaven at his death.

Without impugning the judgment of such a God, nor even doubting the sublime-yet-creepy genius of Martin Luther, surely an observer can be excused for regarding such a doctrine as rather strange.

To be fair, Luther goes on to disambiguate his thesis until “faith” comes to include not only belief, but also several other inward relations to God, among them submission, love, gratitude, and so on. But if such an expanded definition of “faith” had in fact solved the problem, then John Calvin could not have redirected the course of the Reformation with his own radical and costly solution to precisely this Lutheran problem. And this leads us to the second of our two difficulties.

Sharing Luther’s notion that good conduct alone is not enough to win salvation, Calvin went on to notice the fact that no mere mortal can simply decide to be fully convinced that a given proposition is true, any more than he or she can decide to love Someone whom he merely fears (for example, Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel 1984), no matter how he might yearn (on whatever grounds) for such conviction. So Calvin declared that the human will is entirely useless in the matter of Heaven and Hell: for him, neither bodily action nor spiritual passion nor mental conviction can affect the postmortem fate of the soul in any way whatsoever. The saved and the damned are so because of God’s will, which predestined those outcomes before history began, for divine reasons that Calvin regarded as totally (and rightly, and permanently) mysterious. The best a person can do in such a predicament is to try and avoid despair, not because success in doing so might earn salvation through faith – it can’t – but merely to cope with the fear of damnation, the anxiety of never knowing one’s eternal fate, let alone knowing any grounds for it, and the terror of such a God’s absolute and apparently arbitrary power. Max Weber’s great work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism remains an incisive critique of the eventual results of this Calvinist turn.

Return to Luther’s doctrine for a moment, reading from another passage occurring somewhat earlier in the same essay, On Christian Liberty (a marvel of Protestant argumentation which he wrote in Latin for the benefit of His Holiness Pope Leo X, and then translated into German for popular study). Note that throughout his works, when Luther uses the term that translates to English “justification,” he is referring to Salvation, that is, admission into Heaven and freedom from Hell.

…since faith alone justifies, it is clear that the inner man cannot be justified, freed, or saved by any outer work or action at all, and that these works, whatever their character, have nothing to do with this inner man. On the other hand, only ungodliness and unbelief of heart, and no outer work, make him guilty and a damnable servant of sin. (56)

One can indeed acquire conviction through various means – by osmosis, having grown up amid a community whose commonly held web of interlocking assumptions is itself the unexamined content of one’s consciousness; or through an individual intuition; or through the workings of the intellect, assessing the relative merits and limitations of competing claims to truth; or by the grace of God – it is simply not within the power of the human mind to choose those propositions of which it is convinced. No matter your prudence, passion, or piety, you cannot obey a command to believe any proposition to which your intellect does not actually assent – you might yearn to believe, but that is not belief itself. Religious traditions which emphasize right action in the external world (where other people live, often with unmet needs) – such as Judaism and Catholicism – are not captive to this particular dilemma, since they invite their adherents to walk the alternative road to God’s favor, that of right conduct itself. For Jews, there are mitzvot (commandments) to be fulfilled, some of which are done directly for God, others for one’s fellow human beings; similarly, for Catholics, there are sacraments to be done as well as righteous deeds to be performed. Although Islam, like the Protestant traditions, also requires certain ritual observances and robustly fosters right action, devotees of texts like Calvin’s Institutes, the Sermons of Jonathan Edwards and other Puritan clergy, and indeed the Holy Koran are often utterly terrified by the vehement threats of Hellfire they find there, especially because any intellectual doubt they experience entails shame before God, anger against oneself, and horror of the eventual eternal consequences. To be sure, religious thinkers of these traditions can and do provide strong solutions to the dilemmas I have articulated; what I am claiming is simply that this is the problem before them, not that they can or cannot resolve it.

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