Monday, February 08, 2010

Bulwarks of Belief (B van den Berg; Repost)

By the fifteenth century, Europe had emerged from the Age of Calamity (as referenced by one of my history books), or an age of anxiety as described by Charles Taylor (p.88).

In this new era comes two major societal transformations: the Renaissance and the Reformation. On page 75, Taylor turns his attention to the impact of one particular Protestant theology, Calvanism. It emerges* during the Reformation as a continuation of St. Augustine's thoughts on God's sovereignty and our predestination, as furthered by John (Jean) Calvin.

* Could they be the Emergents of their day? But I digress ...

According to Taylor, the Reformation - and particularly Calvanism - is central to the "abolition of the cosmos" (that is, the loss of the enchanted world) and the "eventual creation of a humanist alternative to faith". The Calvanist approach to faith leaves little room for mystery. In an attempt to create a rigid system of theology (and by rigid, I mean the need to have everything figured out), there is a "lock on the mysteries" (p.78). Anyone with experience in Calvanism recognizes this trait; there is little room for mystery or wonder. Taylor states that this "offers a model for the later humanist hostility to mystery" (p78).

Taylor discusses three levels that are emphasized with the Calvanist Reform: 1) a disciplined personal life, 2) a well ordered society, and 3) a right inner attitude. The third level creates a cycle that oscillates between salvation and depravity. We are saved, but before we become too comfortable we are reminded that we are depraved, but before we become too distraught we are reminded that we are saved ... The second level results in attempts to engineer society through social reforms, and causes the pendulum to swing between spasms of Arminianism and Calvinism.

Finally, this age also sees the "succession of elites from popular culture" (p.87). The elites begin to view moments of anti-structure (that is, the times the populace lets off steam, such as Carnival) as simply depraved acts, whereas previously they would have actively participated; there had been little difference in the activities of elites (clergy, nobility) and the common folk. It is here that Taylor argues this is the forerunner of political correctness. There is also the establishment of a "less enchanted" version of the Catholic church by the elites.

And now, for my own observations:

Recognizing that Taylor doesn't normally opine, his use of phrases like "horrifying conclusions" (p.78) and "repelling people from the faith" (p.79) make it easy to infer his views on Calvanism. Without forgetting about the log in my own eye, the phrases could be applied to his own Catholic faith too. There have been many other so-called Christian institutions fraught with corruption, playgrounds for bloodshed, politics, and power (in the manner of repelling people from the faith). I agree with him more so on the Problem of Evil - which cannot be addressed by Calvanism - and the movement towards total disenchantment (abolition of mystery). Whereas one cannot base an entire system of theology on Romans 9, one cannot dismiss it either.

I am hesitant to accept that one specific Protestant theology can be given as large a responsibility for ushering in certain aspects of the modern secular age as Taylor initially suggests, but there are over 700 pages left and I hope to find more answers there.

I gave thought to our own elites in North Atlantic societies; whereas the sixteenth century saw a succession between elites and the common folk, our own society sees an entire class of elites created by popular culture. We create icons out of movie stars, athletes, musicians, and politicians (for example, the recent Obama Mania). We adore them, gossip about them, keep track of them, and then discard them when they no longer interest us (or fail us). This is almost akin to the anti-structure described by Taylor, such as fools made king for a day, or a child in Bishop's clothes. Is our society coming full circle on some of these things?

Finally, his quick statement about the birth of political correctness could have used more fleshing out (as in, some data or studies to support his argument). What can I say? zetetic skepsis ...

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