Monday, December 05, 2011

Religion helped develop our 'better angels'*

To prove his point that past eras were violent almost beyond our current imagining, Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined rather revels in chronicling the brutalities of the late middle ages and early renaissance, particularly those carried out in the name of God by religious authorities -- in crusade, Inquisition, and, once the protestant movements got going, centuries of religious war.  At times, he slips into the 'new atheist' mode of attack, and his contempt gets a bit thick -- and as one dimensional, I'm beginning to think, as idealizations of 'the age of faith' by earlier generations of historians, or by fundamentalists today.

At the same time, Pinker makes much of the study of the "civilizing process" carried out by a certain Norbert Elias, who focused on, of all things, etiquette books, and mapped out the steadily rising standards of self-control -- e.g., of bodily fluids, and of impulses and gestures toward violence in polite company -- that those guidebooks prescribe.  The development of the basics of what we now compartmentalize and trivialize as manners tracks the centuries of dramatic reduction in homicide rates in Europe, from about the 12th century through the 20th.

One part of the civilizing story that Pinker has so far ignored is the rise of a less punitive, more nurturing and accessible concept of God-- a God who could be encountered on an individual basis in a safe private space. This softening and some cases literal maternalizing of God took place, ironically, throughout centuries of Inquisition, dogmatic enforcement, and political strife within the Catholic church; ultimately, the personalization of worship helped trigger the Reformation and hence the centuries of religious warfare which Pinker asserts to be proportionately as lethal at some points as the wars of the twentieth century.



As is implicit in Pinker's core premise, the softening/civilizing and great bloodletting were happening simultaneously. But what he seems reluctant so far to acknowledge (I'm in Chapter 4 of 10, but we're already focused on the Enlightenment) is that the rise of introspection, empathy, outreach to the vulnerable and less fortunate, and other prerequisites of the civilizing process occurred in large part through changes in religious doctrine and practice.

Caroline Bynum, in a remarkable collection of essays titled Jesus as Mother, traces changes in the concept of God that accompanied the development of various forms of monastic worship for men and women in the later middle ages. She tells a story that seems relevant to Pinker's:
The God of early medieval writing and art is a judge and king, to whom propitiation is offered by the hordes of monks presenting correct and beautiful prayers before countless altars; Christ is a prince, reigning from the throne of the cross after defeating humankind's captor, and Mary is his queen. The fundamental dramas of religion are cosmic -- wars between Christ and the devil, saints or angels and demons...In contrast, eleventh- and twelfth-century writers begin to stress Christ's humanity, both in affective and sentimentalized responses to the gospel story...and in a new compulsion to build into the christian life a literal imitation of the details of Jesus' ministry. The fundamental religious drama is now located with the self, and it is less a battle than a journey--a journey toward God. Hagiography, whose subjects more and more frequently are  women and laity, focuses increasingly on inner virtues and experiences (often accompanied by external phenomena such as trances, levitation, and stigmata) rather than grand actions on the stage of history. Alongside the increase in efforts to stimulate affective responses, twelfth-century religious writing (most of which was produced by men) shows an outburst of mystical theology after hundreds of years of silence about it and a great increase in devotion to female figures, in use of feminine metaphors, and in admiration for characteristics (e.g., tears, weakness, and mercy or 'ethical irrationality') that people of the period stereotyped as feminine (pp. 16-17).

Intimate personal communion with a loving, patient, education-minded and decidedly nonjudgmental God found startling expression in the writings of Julian of Norwich, an anchoress who spent her adult life in the latter part of the fourteenth century enclosed in an alcove of the Church of St. Julian of Norwich in the English city of that name. Therein she devoted her time to contemplating and in a sense constantly re-enacting an ecstatic series of 'shewings' that occurred, she tells us, when she was sick to the point of death in her thirtieth year. In this experience, as she describes it, she traveled into the body of Christ through the wound in his side and there was shown various startling truths about the nature of humanity's unity with God.  Julian has become something of a rock star with feminist theologians because her central image for this unity is God as mother, enclosing humanity within his body. She means this more than literally: for Julian, an earthly mother's relationship with her child is an imperfect figura for divine motherhood, not the other way around:
For in that same time that God knit him to our body in the maiden's womb, he took our sensual soul, in which taking, he us all having beclosed in him, he oned [joined] it to our substance. IN which oneing he was perfect man, for Christ, having knit in him all man that shall be saved, is perfect man.
    Thus our lady is our mother, in whom we be all beclosed and of her born in Christ, for she that is mother of our savior is mother of all that been saved in our savior; and our savior is our very [true] mother, in whom we be endlessly born and never shall come out of him.
The universe, then, is one giant womb.  That is, a very safe space. It might be noted that the lucky beings enclosed therein are "all that shall be saved," which would seem to leave out all that shall not be. But Julian's compassion extended so far that she was quite certain that God had shown her that all will be saved: in her famous formulation, "all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well."  According to church doctrine of the time, that is (apparent) heresy. Hence Julian spent the rest of her life contemplating the conundrum: how could church doctrine be true, and her revelation also be true?  If she got the answer wrong, and put it in writing, she could conceivably have ended up broken on one of those wheels that Pinker describes with such relish. 

Julian deals with the harsh concepts of the devil, hell, and ultimately even sin by quarantining them. They are real insofar as they are part of the way human beings see the world, but they are not part of God's perspective. Their reality is "saved" only because God, through the incarnation, incorporates the human way of seeing into his own.  They are real because we see them, but God does not, and ultimately we will see as God sees.

One might retort, so what? Julian's way of understanding sin and damnation was not adopted; she was not widely read in her time. True enough. But she existed in a milieu that made such formulations possible. Her conception of the relationship between God and human,and of human epistemology, if not the full sweep of her compassion, incorporated ideas that were widely shared.

Those ideas helped develop the concept of the individual as we have inherited it. So I argued in an article, excerpted at some length here. The upshot:
Julian adopts a widespread strategy of spiritual inquiry and self-definition when she declares, "I understood non higher stature in this life than childhood in feebleness and failing of might and of wit in to the time that our gracious mother hath brought us up to our father's bliss." This stance of child-before-the-mother is used by major religious and secular writers [of the late middle ages] alike to establish a safe field, overseen by a numinous guarantor, for inquiry into the nature of human desire, will, and perception.

While the emotional keynote of the child-before-the-mother stance is reassurance, the intellectual thrust is toward education, the spiritual growth of the individual. In Julian's understanding of the human condition, falling is, first, a necessary means to knowledge, and second, a lesson that takes place in a kind of baby-proofed spiritual nursery:

for it needeth us to fall, and it needeth us to see it; for if we fell not, we should not know how feeble and how wretched we be of our self, nor also we should not so fulsomely know the marvelous love of our maker..and by the assay of this falling we shall have an high and a marvelous knowing of love in God without end...The mother may suffer the child to fall some time and be diseased in diverse manner, for its own profit, but she may never suffer that any manner of peril come to her child for love.

The sequence of 'showings' that make up Julian's revelation constitutes a safe space into which Julian may retreat at will: she is enjoined to "take it, and learn it, and keep thee therein, and comfort thee therewith, and trust thereto, and thou shalt not be overcome." The need to establish such a safe space and the imperative to dramatize an educative process founded, as Julian's is, upon error and correction give shape to major literary forms of the Late Middle Ages: the poem of consolation or confession, the dream vision, the debate. In these framed dialogues, a numinous interlocuter [e.g., dead relative, mythological figure, dead author] often serves as a kind of special education teacher addressing questions or illustrations toward the particular learning disability of the disordered soul. As Julian puts it, "our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts that I might make."
In centuries when the upper classes were learning not to blow their noses in tablecloths or spear their meat or shit in doorways, they were also learning new ways to interact as pupil and teacher, new ways to care for their own souls and those of others -- though as Pinker emphasizes, the latter could include torturing them to death for the alleged sake of their eternal salvation. Be that as it may, the civilizing process took place through religion as much as in spite in of it.
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* Forgive the re-post: this originally went up on Sat. Dec. 3, and I didn't want to bury it.

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