Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The saints: Friends or patrons?

There is a lot in Elizabeth Johnson's Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading Of The Communion Of Saints. It touches on several aspects of eschatology in addition to its discussion of the communion of saints. For now, though, I want to focus on her essential distinction between the patronage model and the companionship model of the communion of saints.

By the fifth century, the Christian church had begun to adopt the Roman system of patronage as a way to understand the communion of saints. In this understanding the martyrs and saints were seen as patrons, that is, someone with special influence (because of the holiness of their life and/or their martyr's death) who could intercede with God on behalf of their client/petitioner. Over time - and for a variety of reasons - the saints became understanding and effective patrons who interceded with a remote, even judgmental, Christ. The saints were pictured as courtiers in a hierarchy of importance, headed by Mary, gathered around the throne of Christ. Each was thought to have their own sphere of influence ("patron saints"). Mutuality was obscured or even eliminated. There were the saints and there were the commoners on earth, appealing to their betters for a favor.

The Reformation criticized this model, particularly as it manifested itself in the invocation of saints. They claimed that it obscured Christ's role as mediator and, worse, "it distorts faith, turning the 'kindly Mediator' into a 'dreaded Judge'". Furthermore, they said, there is not scriptural warrant for it and no promise that the saints can hear the prayers. The conservative, Lutheran Reformation retained the practice of remembering and honoring (though not invoking) the saints for three purposes:

  • to thank God for them
  • to allow our faith to be strengthened by theirs
  • to imitate them
Vatican II, according to Johnson, brought reform to the doctrine of the communion of saints that was very much in line with the Reformation criticisms. Broadly speaking (see the book for all the details), it moved toward a companionship model for the communion of saints. It recognized that the saints were fellow travellers - paradigmatic, of course, but part of the whole people of God. Ordinary folks in their pursuit of sanctity in everyday life were part of this same fellowship called to holiness. The system became more Christ-centered.

The companionship model is what we see in the New Testament and, according to Johnson, was the dominant metaphor for the communion of saints before the patronage model took hold. The phrase "cloud of witnesses" in Hebrews is the classic statement of the companionship model.

Johnson says that there is room in the companionship model for invocation, though she stresses that even in Catholic theology this has never been required of laypeople. Her concern, however, is to encourage those practices amenable to a companionship model of the saints. We should remember the saints and imitate them. We should thank God for them. We should lament their sufferings, which in some cases will inspire us to work for justice in our world.

Johnson did not mount a defense (or even much of a discussion) of the practice of invocation. In fact, she de-emphasizes it. As I was reading I also began wondering about Eastern Orthodox practice. I know they invoke the saints but I do not know whether they adopted the patronage model or if they work from completely different principles. Neither Peter Brown nor Elizabeth Johnson address this.

Apart from the issue of invocation, though, this is an excellent book. For those who might be concerned with the feminist aspect, there is no need to worry. She does criticize the traditional, patronage model for, among other things, its patriarchalism. I believe many of her criticisms are valid. Even if I did not, however, the critical aspects are not dominant. It is a remarkably helpful book.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tolkien's tragic conservatism

As I've been rereading Lord of the Rings (for the third or fourth time) I've become aware of how deeply conservative it is. (Perhaps this is because I have myself become less conservative.)

The most telling characteristic is the pervasive sense of hierarchy. Most people seem to know their place, even the bad guys - though for them it's a more servile awareness. Women play almost no role in the books. The chief exception, of course, is Galadriel. Arwen, who plays a larger role in the movies, more or less stays home - literally - sewing. Examples could be multiplied but I don't think it's necessary.

To my mind, its more distinctly conservative feature is its sense of loss and the diminishing course of history. Everywhere the travelers find signs of a lost, nobler age. Those with the greatest knowledge of the past - the elves - are the characters that elicit (in me, anyway) a sense of pathos or, more accurately, sehnsucht. They're painfully beautiful, especially because they know their time is passing away. The happiest of Middle Earth's folk are the hobbits, who have very little knowledge of history or the goings-on of the world around them. The wise are those who know that theirs is a lesser age.

This is encapsulated perfectly in Galadriel's idea of "the long defeat". The battle against evil is not a straightforward story of mounting victories. The number of defeats is large, perhaps larger than the number of victories. And even those victories are not complete. Evil is never fully defeated. The great battle between Sauron and the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, which looms large in the background of the story, isn't decisive. Sauron's spirit lives on and Isildur, who takes the One Ring, is overcome by temptation and refuses to destroy it. For those who fight the long defeat, battles must be fought without expectation of victory. It's not hard to make the connection to the conservative side of the culture wars.

All of this resonates with cultural and "temperamental" conservatives. Maybe not so much for mainstream conservatives, tied as they are to the fortunes of electoral politics. I suspect those types are less truly conservative than the cultural or temperamental conservatives anyway. Tolkien's conservatism is not that of the Tea Party or the neoconservatives. It's much more akin to the conservatism of Wendell Berry, who once said that he is one who mourns for what is lost. It's a tragic conservatism. I don't much admire the rigid hierarchy of Tolkien's work, but there remains in it what Lewis described as "beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Does resurgent polytheism explain the rise of the cult of the saints?

A confession: I have always assumed that the cult of the saints was a resurgence of polytheism within Christianity. Turns out, Peter Brown tells me, I'm not only wrong but I got that idea from David Hume.

In The Natural History of Religion, Hume argued that monotheism is not humanity's natural religious impulse. Monotheism is, rather, an intellectual achievement resulting from a coherent and rational view of the universe. It is also always in danger of the corrupting influence of "the vulgar" - that mass of humanity that is incapable (for a variety of reasons) of such intellectual achievement. The history of religious thought is the story of the oscillation between the intellectual and the vulgar. Edward Gibbon picked up this idea from Hume and from there it became part of the intellectual furniture of modern people (including me, who have never read Hume or Gibbon at any length).

This "two-tiered" model has as one of its premises that popular religion is an unchanging collection of prejudices and superstitions permanently lodged in the brains of the unsophisticated. The religion of the intellectuals may change, but the religion of the vulgar does not. Another premise of the model is that changes in religious beliefs or practices can often be explained by changes in the power dynamics between the elites and the masses, e.g., polytheism increases as the masses grow more powerful (or the elites grow weaker).

It's easy to see how this model has been applied to the rise of the cult of the saints. One theory is that the elites lost much of their power in the crisis of the third century, which opened the way for superstitious fears and practices. Another theory is that mass conversions when Christianity was made the state religion forced the leadership to accept the pagan practices that the new converts brought with them. Whatever theory is correct, the idea is that the power of popular religion increased and the cult of the saints (as a form of polytheism, ancestor worship, etc) rose with it.

But what is known about the history of the cult of the saints does not conform to this model. First, as to the question of elites versus the masses, the Christian leaders knew that when they were formulating dogmas that many of the laypeople would find them difficult to understand. On the other hand, both the elites and the regular folk shared religious practices. There was no significant difference based on class or education. Bishops celebrated masses in the presence of holy graves and relics (something that was deeply disturbing to non-Christians - but more on that momentarily). In fact, the importance of holy graves was something that distinguished Latin Christianity from both Judaism and Islam. There were holy graves in Judaism and Islam, of course, and they were important - but they were to the side, so to speak, of mainstream belief and practice. They were never fully embraced by the religious leadership. That tension did not exist in Latin Christianity.

More importantly, though, the cult of the saints - far from being a resurgence of popular religion - represented a distinct break from traditional Mediterranean beliefs and practices concerning the dead. Brown describes those beliefs in this way:
One thing can be said with certainty about the religion of the late-antique Mediterranean: while it may not have been markedly more "otherworldy," it was most emphatically "upperworldy." Its starting point was belief in a fault that ran across the face of the universe. Above the moon, the divine quality of the universe was shown in the untarnished stability of the stars. The earth lay beneath the moon, in sentina mundi - so many dregs at the bottom of a clear glass. Death could mean the crossing of that fault. At death, the soul would separate from a body compounded of earthly dregs, and would gain, or regain, a place intimately congruent with its true nature above the earth in the heavy clusters of the Milky Way. Whether this was forever, or, as Jews and Christians hoped, only for the long hiatus before the resurrection of the dead, the dead body joined in the instability and opacity of the world beneath the moon, while the soul enjoyed the unmovable clarity of the remainder of the universe.
As Brown states, Christians also held this belief about the "fault line". The graves of the martyrs and saints, however, were places of contact between heaven and earth. The departed saint was believed to be specially present at the grave, as proven by the presence of a quality of holiness and power characteristic of the saint. The belief of the masses was that heaven and earth did not join in this way. The Greek and Roman cult of the heroes (to which the cult of the saints is often compared) isn't even that similar. The worship of the gods was kept distinct from the cult of the heroes, unlike in Christianity. And for Christians, it was precisely because the departed were human beings with a close relationship with God that they were effective intercessors for the living. That is an idea utterly foreign to the cult of the heroes.

The cult of the saints, which involved physical veneration of relics and bodies, also violated common taboos against the touching of dead things. Cemeteries were often located outside cities because the people wanted to keep the dead at a distance. Christians, on the other hand, started building shrines in the middle of these cemeteries, sometimes to the extent that they became cities outside of the cities. "Tomb and altar were joined." Shrines and graves of the saints became public places, as opposed to the common belief that graves were private places for the family of the deceased.

The cult of the saints, therefore, was neither a point of tension between Christian elites and commoners nor was it a resurgence of the "religion of the vulgar". Now, whether we accept the cult of the saints is another question - but at least we can be reasonably sure it wasn't mere polytheism.

Hopefully I'll have more to say on this subject as I make my way through the book.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Relinquish triumphalistic dreams

Douglas John Hall, "Cross and Context":
Instead of waiting for wave after wave of militant secularism, materialism, atheism, etc., aided and abetted by the growing public awareness of religious plurality, to wash over them, the churches should take the initiative in their own disestablishment. Instead of clinging to absurd and outmoded visions of grandeur, which were never Christ's intention for his church, serious Christian communities ought now to relinquish triumphalistic dreams of majority status and influence in high places and ask themselves about the possibilities of witnessing to God's justice and love from the edges of empire—which is where prophetic religion has always lived. Instead of mourning their losses or naively hoping for their recovery, Christians who are serious about their faith ought to ask themselves why all the metaphors Jesus uses to depict his "little flock" are metaphors of smallness: salt, yeast, light — small things that can serve larger causes because they do not aim to become big themselves. I loved what a onetime fellow student at Union Seminary, Albert van den Heuvel, once wrote: "The real humiliation of the church is its refusal to be humiliated!"

Such a message, which is of course nothing more nor less than the application of the theology of the cross to ecclesiology, is largely still an unwelcome one in churches that not long ago were at the center of things. But it remains, I believe, the existential challenge of the present and future. The greatest dangers to human welfare in today's global village are all of them products of, or backed by, religions driven by immodest claims to ultimacy. A Christianity that still hankers after Christendom, as nearly all of us did until quite recently, can only increase the reign of death that is tearing our planet apart. Only a nontriumphalistic Christianity, an ecclesia crucis, can contribute to the healing of the nations.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Religious reading vs. consumerist reading

In Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion, Paul J. Griffiths differentiates between religious reading and consumerist reading.

Consumerist readers "treat what they read only as objects for consumption, to be discarded when the end for which they were read has been achieved". Griffiths offers modern academic reading as an example:
Academic readers consume the works of others and produce their own; they are defined and given status by the body of literature they control and upon which they are accredited to give authoritative (expert) voice for proper reward; they cite and mention (rather than religiously read), and are in turn judged largely by the extent to which the works they produce (again, the industrial metaphor, the image of mass production) are cited and mentioned.
As you'd guess, Griffiths' book is a jeremiad (his word) snuck in under the respectable imprint of Oxford University Press. He makes it clear that he believes consumerist reading is destructive.

Religious reading, says Griffiths, "has to do primarily with the establishment of certain relations between readers and the things they read". Religious reading treats its object with reverence, as an inexhaustible treasure house which continually yields new objects of wonder and "always precedes, exceeds, and in the end supersedes its readers". Religious readers "are seen as intrinsically capable of reading and as morally required to read". The metaphors here are not industrial, but biological, e.g., rumination, eating, digesting.
For the religious reader, the work read is an object of overpowering delight and great beauty. It can never be discarded because it can never be exhausted. It can only be reread, with reverence and ecstasy.

About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.