Sunday, April 03, 2005

Second thinking second thoughts

I have misstated, to a serious degree, the case of Protestantism and culture. This is to be expected, in part; blog postings are first drafts, at best, but (pace, my friends) that doesn’t make them more “real.” If anything, that makes them more subject to reality, and to correction.

A part of what Protestantism came to be about was mediation between humanity and God. In the Protestant view, the primary purpose of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church was to mediate between holy God and sinful humanity. But, according to the Protestant critique, especially from the Reformed side of Protestantism, this was the problem with the Roman Catholic church: that the Church had replaced Christ as the mediator. The “Reformation,” accordingly, sought to correct this error, and in doing so emphasized a lack of mediation; emphasized, in fact, that no mediator was required. But access to God is always mediated; that is not God’s requirement, but human choice. God spoke directly to Abraham, according to Genesis; and directly to Moses, according to Exodus. But when God appeared on Sinai to talk to Moses, in the sight of the people of Israel, the people were terrified. The theophany on the mountaintop: the thunder and lightning that signalled the Creator’s presence in the creation, was too much for them, and they hid in their tents. When Moses came down, they told him to ask God if God would speak to Moses alone, because just standing by watching what happened on top of the mountain was too much for them. From that time forward, Israel always relied on mediators between themselves and their God.

Ironically, this can be explained in terms of modern ethical theory. Looked at from the point of view of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential ethics, Israel chose for all humankind. In this case, however, that choice ‘stuck.’ We all, of course, in terms of Sartre’s ethics, make this choice: for ourselves, and for all humanity. Sartre meant it as a burden, but we have taken it as being relieved of a burden. Hiding in our tents, we don’t have to witness the awesome presence of God; we can rely on a mediator, an agent, a go-between. Even Protestantism doesn’t want to have God unmediated: otherwise one of the pillars of the community of believers is removed, and the institution is made even more vulnerable and fragile. On the other hand, knowledge of God is always mediated. Who among us has first hand knowledge of God? The Roman Catholic church mediated God, and shaped Western European culture. The Reformed churches of Protestantism let culture mediate God. The Protestant work ethic; the congregationally based institutions; the heavy reliance on the “priesthood of all believers.”

And now Western culture is no longer willing to provide that service.

The core problem is: faith is not a question of will. It is a matter of discipline, based upon calling. I remember, all too vaguely, an “X-Files” episode that stuck with me only because of the ending; and perhaps I imagined it, because I never saw it again. At the end of the story, somehow connected with the case of the week, Scully was talking to her priest, and he was telling her to entertain the idea that God was, perhaps, still speaking to people. Scully said that worried her even more than if God was silent, and the priest asked why. “what if God is speaking, and no one is listening?” Faith is a question of openness; but Protestantism (aside from Anglican traditions) never cultivated much sense of the mystical. Perhaps the Protestant work ethic made that impossible. In fact, one root of Wordsworth’s near-worship of nature is the absence of any mystical tradition in the Protestantism that made the Industrial Revolution both possible, and so devastating to human society.

But hearing God is not a question of will, of exertion of effort; it is a matter of openness, of being responsive to a calling that may be no more powerful than an inclination. Protestantism leaned on the crutch of will provided by the culture, which was all too happy to support the white pillared churches as symbols of community, stability, and tradition: until they no longer served that purpose, and newer, more enticing, and more remunerative opportunities came along. Now we don’t just live dispersed on ribbon roads, but on electronic highways: we live on a shattered glass crazed with paths leading to video games and cable channels and internet sites and books and magazines and radio stations and satellite radio, as well as TV…..

And if God is still talking, who has time, or feels the need, to listen? If God blesses our efforts and our efforts prove good because of God’s blessing, who needs God anymore? CD’s and DVD’s and computer games and cable channels provide all the distraction and comfort we could ask, and with no effort from us. Happy creatures that we are, who can awaken us to our misery?

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