English 233: Introduction to
Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment
Synthesizing the results
of our explication of
In explicating the biblical stories of the Creation of the Universe and the Fall of Mankind, we went through the story from beginning to end, stopping from time to time to draw out what we thought might be the implications carried by the explicit details that together make up "the letter of the text." That is, the order we followed in generating our thoughts about the story was dictated by the order of happenings in the narrative: the notes we took thus relate to each other in a chronological fashion. Now it is time to review what we came up with to see if we can detect patterns of relationship among the connotations we have spelled out. In doing this, we will have to devise some suitable logical pattern: our aim is to sketch the outline of a systematic body of doctrine presumably authorized by the text. That is, we want to move from doing a running commentary on the subtext of the text to fashioning the theology it supposedly sponsors.
In class we went about this by constructing a conception of THE CONDITIONS OF RIGHT ORDER implicit in the narrative. As we developed this notion, we continually clarified it by developing its foil, the corresponding concept of "disorder."
But it turns out that, at the same time, social
relationships are, in this story, implicitly thought of
in organic terms - i.e., as if the
social unit (master/servant) were a kind of living
organism. The idea of "right
order" thus translates into a notion of health.
Health, in turn, is thought of in a way that, as it happens, is reflected in the etymology of the English terms "heal," "well," "wealth," and "whole": the basic idea is one of unity.
Sickness (on whatever level - cosmic, social, bodily, spiritual) is thus a form of internal breaking or fracture. Hence the implicit emergence and association, at crucial points in the narrative of the Fall, of the concepts of duplicity (divorce between proffered appearance and reserved realty) / loss of integrity / corruption / disintegration / "gap." (Here, too, we unpacked the metaphors archeologically embedded, as it were, in the Latin etymologies of these now abstract terms.) This shows up in, for example, in the various ways in which the consequence of sin (its punishment) is understood as a reflection (literally "bending back") of sin itself upon its agent.
The connection of suffering with sin likewise follows from the identification of sin with splitting apart, the dissolution of the many-made-one into the merely many, each element for itself: separation --> opposition/conflict/clashing --> pain (in childbirth, in husbandry).
The role of medicine, correspondingly, is "to heal"
in the sense of "to make whole." Hence the role, under
the Christian conception of Original Sin, of atonement
("at-one-ment," or reconciliation: the
bringing together of parties who have become estranged or
"distanced" from each other). Hence the
idiom according to which the divine grace "poured out
upon" individuals by way of the sacraments is spoken of as a
kind of "healing balm." In musical
terms: the atonement makes possible the
re-establishment of concord from dissonance and
disharmony. In political terms: it makes
possible the replacement of war by peace.
Right Order, remember, is not only what humanity has fallen from. It is also the condition which the divine plan aims to see restored. Hence the conception of it importantly determines the conception not only of what has been lost but of what is to be restored, and hence of the means by which the restoration can or must be accomplished. In Christianity, this means it will affect discussion of the atonement. (The complementary determining factor, of course, will be the conception of the nature of sin, as the condition of the falleness which is to be overcome.)
(1) The first condition we found ourselves having to specify
was that servants and masters be correctly distributed with
respect to each other. That is,
one who seeks to serve another being who is not his
proper master is guilty of idolatry.
For the rest, cosmic/social/psychological/bodily health
requires that masters and servants fulfil their mutual
obligations to each other. These are:
the SERVANT: (3) must trust the master
must extend credit
to the master
must have faith in the master's character as a good master (cf. the characteristics set forth above: adequate wisdom, righteousness, and power)
(4) must be worthy of the master's trust
The several equivalent descriptions (trust/trustworthiness; authority of the word to be believed and obeyed; credit; faith) above are important to keep severally in mind. That is, they are not just "different ways of saying the same things." If that were so, it would not matter which of them one bothered to remember. Rather, by bringing different elements of whole idea into the foreground of explicitness, they lend themselves to being brought to mind in different contexts. And by being understood as equivalent to their alternatives, they offer to bring those others (with their different range of explicit relations) into those contexts. In other words, they fan out (in virtue of their distinctness) into other important themes, and (in virtue of their equivalence) serve to unify these.
B. The language of believing/obeying the master's word lends itself to clarifying connections with some important issues that might otherwise strike us as puzzling.
2. Moreover, recall that the Bible itself is, in the traditional Christian picture of things, regarded as pre-eminently the Word of God. Then consider that one of the Words we are commanded therein to obey is to believe that comprehensive Word itself - on pain of suffering the death penalty. These reflections help bring into relief a remarkable feature of the world-picture we are considering: it contains within itself, for any mentality that operates from within it, a powerful incentive not to step outside it. That is: insofar as "willingness to imagine that what one believes might be false" is a necessary ingredient of "having an open mind," and insofar as this willingness amounts to "suspending belief" (or at least to "suspending disbelief" in what Scripture appears to deny), the prospect of risking doubt comes forward under the guise of a temptation-to-be-refused - and one to which is attached something that, if we were to be open-minded about it, we would be inclined to characterize as a terroristic threat. If skepticism is a sin, and sin is damnable, can we afford even to hear out the heretic, apostate or unbeliever?
b. It also represents a
potential obstacle in dealing with the
issues raised in this course, for
students on both sides of the divide of
belief. Those who are
convinced of the correctness of the
reading we have been elaborating, may
feel trepidation at the prospect of
"looking at it critically from
postulates." Yet this
will be necessary if we are to hope to
understand the work of Bacon, Descartes,
Galileo, and Voltaire. At the
same time, those who find the picture we
are elaborating to be "weird"
from the outset may be restrained from
trying to see "how it might make
sense from the inside" by the fear
that, were one to succeed in doing this,
one might not be able to "exit back
to sanity." As we shall see, the
German philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed
as the motto for the Enlightenment the
maxim sapere aude! -
"Dare to know!" Yet it is
difficult to undertake this daring if one
is convinced in advance that it is fatal
to do so.
Additionally, we should ask ourselves whether one can have an adequate grasp of the meaning of any potential belief without some appreciation in detail of what belief in that view would commit one to deny.
C. The language of credit is useful in contexts in which sin is spoken of as "putting man in debt," debts being something that "must be paid." Since right order requires that master and servant reciprocally extend credit to each other, the refusal on the part of the servant to do so leaves him "in debt."
D. The language of faith
lends itself best to several important pieces of work,
2. Since sin correspondingly
appears as "breach of faith," this
language puts us on a footing to understand why
so much emphasis gets laid, in the Reformation
period, on issues connected with the doctrine of
"justification by faith." Are we (as
Luther maintained) saved "by faith
alone"? Or are we, as the Council of Trent
insisted, saved by faith and works?
Whatever the answer, the centrality of
"faith" in the various Christian
theologies of redemption cannot be made sense of
if one does not appreciate that the condition it
is understood to be the remedy for (i.e., sin) is
understood as a breaking of faith. If
lack of faith is what put God and man asunder, it
is not to be wondered at that faith would be
looked to as the bonding agent by which, from the
human side, they might be brought back together.
3. Thinking of the fundamental
obligation of man as "keeping faith"
highlights an important fact about the Christian
picture of history and morality: the
centrality of the will in the
Christian conception of the human constitution
and of the nature of God. God's
commands are, from this point of view, regarded
as having the character of Law - i.e., being
binding, obligatory to be obeyed - because
they express the Creator's will for His
creation. And part of what it is
traditionally understood to mean to say that man
is made "in the image of" God is that
human beings, uniquely among other creatures
(with the possible exception of angels, if there
are such) possess a capacity of choice, or will. Indeed,
even belief is seen as rooted in choice,
or will, rather than in the intellect.
Hence the centrality, among Christians, of the debate over "freedom of the will." There are many aspects of this.
b. Even more direct,
because it is independent of God's willing
such a history, is the argument that Adam
and Eve's freedom of will is inconsistent
with the postulate of God's
omniscience: how could Adam
and Eve not have sinned if God had
foreknowledge of what they would do, as
he must if he is omniscient? That
is: how can we speak of
foreknowledge of their act if it were not
necessary, before their act, that they in
fact eventually act as they did?
c. These controversies
focus on the question of pre-lapsarian
freedom of the will. A
different set of disputes has to do with
the freedom of fallen
humanity. Specifically, the
question has to do with the role of
divine grace in making possible the
necessary "act of faith"
incumbent upon individuals who aim at
repairing the breach between God and man,
wrought by sin (original and
individual). Are fallen
servants, at least after baptism, capable
of extending this act of faith on their
own? Can they, by their own efforts,
accomplish believing in God's word
(Jesus' promise), and adhering to it
(where it expresses God's will)? Or must
everything be done by God Himself?
This view was contested by,
among others, Saint Thomas
Aquinas (d. 1274), who
held that there was enough of
mankind's originally created
nature left over after the fall
to afford individuals sufficient
capacity to extend an initial
effort on behalf of their own
salvation (by believing in Jesus'
promise of the
redemption). God will
reward this effort with the gift
of grace necessary to accomplish
A crucial thesis of Calvin's
theology is that the saved are
elected from eternity, and there
is nothing any individual can do
to affect his salvation or
Calvin maintained that the proper
way for human beings to conceive
of the goal of life is not
as the salvation of oneself, but
rather as the glorification of
God. One should not
worry if one is damned, since if
one is, then [the argument goes]
the proper response would be
"So be it. Thy
Will be done." Yet the
damned will not be capable of
willing this. Freedom
of the will, from this
perspective, is an illusion to be
dispensed with. It is
not required in order to affirm
the justice of God's punishment
of the wicked.
4. Finally, that the second aspect
of "keeping faith" translates into
"being loyal" may be useful in
helping some of us imagine why sin was thought so
abominable as to be justly punishable by torture
(in childbirth and earning one's living) and
death. Those of us who find it
difficult to "enter into" the
traditional Christian picture of history on this
point may find that this language offers a
serviceable gate. Disloyalty is
betrayal; betrayal is treason; and treason is a
concept to which we may find it easier to attach
strong feelings about the justice of strong
The concept of sin
The foil concept to "right order" is, of course, FALLENESS. All
along we have been working in bits and pieces of its
description. To summarize, let's stress its
comprehensiveness, in the traditional Christian picture, by
spelling out its parallel symptoms on four
levels. Together these make the picture of a
thoroughly broken world. This brokenness is a symptom
of the fact that, since Original Sin, REBELLION is the
general condition of the universe: in every domain,
the servant seeks either to overthrow or to ignore its master.
A. Nature, ordained to man as its end, is in
perpetual insurrection against him.
B. Society is plagued by
discord: brother rises against brother (Cain murders
Abel); fraud is rampant; usurpation and insubordination abound;
foreign and civil war breaks out continually.
C. The human constitution is wracked by
In everyone, the appetites and passions can no
longer be commanded by the will, but go their own
autonomous way. The will, in turn,
refuses to be guided by what the intellect
informs it to be the Law (when it does so inform
it, since the corrupt will can pervert the
intellect itself, making the latter say what the
passions insist on hearing). In other
words, the "flesh" tends to have its
way with the "spirit." This is the
inherent tendency towards sin (turning away from
God to the [lower] self) that Augustine calls
D. Man is "locked into" a posture of
rebellion against God.
It sets the stage for theologians discussions about what God's plan is for reclaiming humanity from the condition of sin. As we shall see, it is a controversy over this question - the technical term is "justification" - that was the theological occasion for the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation. There was much more to the Reformation than even the gamut theological issues that eventually came to divide Catholics and Protestants. But these issues are important for our course, because they are an especially crucial site of the crises in authority in the early modern period.
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This page last updated 15 October 1997.