Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Why the Pontificator and I Don't Agree What the Issue Is

Fr. Kimel ("the Pontificator") has replied to my post "'How Do I Get a Gracious God?' in the Intertestamental Era." Unfortunately, since neither appear to see each others' reply as at all relevant to the points originally raised there isn't so much dialogue as a mere exchange of opinions.

But let me try to analyze why we aren't on the same page. The main reason, I think, is that we use different loci to analyze Luther's theology and especially his anfechtung (roughly "temptation"). For me, the place to go to for an understanding of the role of anfecthtung in Luther's theology is public writings like the Bondage of the Will, which contains several discussions of the temptation to hate God and reject Him. (His commentaries on Romans contains similar passages). The Pontificator, as he shows in his reply, sees the place to go as Luther's autobiographical comments in which he describes his six hours of confession, and so on.

This difference in starting point has an important influence on our conclusions. In his published works, Luther's temptations are presented in their theological context, as things that flow out of his right or wrong view of God and man. His temptations thus appear as personal versions of general theological dilemmas, such as the theodicy question. As I have tried to show (if you're interested you can follow the links in my original post), Luther's intense thoughts on this question, as seen in his published works such as Bondage of the Will, show parallels with those in, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe and the apocryphal Jewish writing 2 Esdras. Common themes include the injustice of the world in which the wicked flourish and the innocent are tormented, the fact that we are born with ignorance, lusts, and hatreds that so often damn us, and these burdens weigh so much heavier on some than others, the contrast of happy animals with miserable man whose superior gifts are not a gift but a curse because virtually all misuse it, the agony of having no way to intercede for one's loved ones : these are all common themes in this "temptation" to curse God and die. Reflections of many of these same themes can be found in the writings of Paul. (I forbear to cite Job and the Psalms.) By contrast, when one focuses on Luther's autobiographical reflections, the issue naturally becomes one of Luther's personal peculiarities, seemingly unrelated to any theological issue. As usual in reading a explanation of one's personal history, one naturally plays up the introspective angle, when Luther as a theologian (as opposed to a recounter of his own story) played up the extrinsically presented occasions for doubt and unbelief.

The problem with this focus on autobiography is that, of course, we have no way of knowing if Paul or any other figure of the time was similarly introspective. None of them have left us anything like Luther's "Tabletalk." What was Paul like as a Rabbinic Jew? Did he obsessively wash his hands? Was he morbidly afraid of contact with Gentiles? Who knows? After all, we don't even know what his "thorn in the flesh" was. As a result, we are free to imagine Paul or the early Christians as being entirely free from all of the personal peculiarities we find in all the people around us, simply because there was no genre for a "warts and all" biography in the Judeo-Christian world of the time.* And when we ask about the everyday pastoral realities in the early church (say first four centuries) -- e.g. "was conviction of sin a big part in their conversion?" -- the fact is, unless there is some vast body of material I don't know about, we are all dealing mostly in speculation. There just isn't a whole lot of evidence to go on, and accusations of projection point in many different directions.** Thus it seems to me to be far fairer and more likely to produce enlightenment if we compare like with like: Paul's writings about divine justice in the damnation of those we love in Romans, with that in (for example) Bondage of the Will or 2 Esdras, rather than comparing the apple of Paul's theological writings with the orange of Luther's autobiographical comments at the dinner table.

As indicated in his title, Fr. Kimel thinks the crux of the issue is "who is responsible for Luther's anfechtung"? This is another outgrowth of his seeing such anfechtungen as a species of spiritual illness. Perhaps it is relevant to some other debate over Luther's anfechtung, but I don't think it is relevant to my reading of it. Why? Because I don't blame the catalogue of "temptation"-inducing thoughts I presented above on late medieval Catholicism, on Judaism, on double predestination or any other culturally/theologically contingent phenomenon. I blame them on the facts of life that anyone can see around them. One can eliminate such thoughts only by eliminating injustice, unbelief, and immorality in the world, or else by abandoning belief in a just and good Creator who orders all things and is holy and condemns sin. (Let me just state, as I have a number of times, I don't believe free will solves the issue at all. Uriel's comfort is no comfort to those who mourn.)

What might solve it, of course (while presenting many other problems) is universalism (as the frequent universalist commentator Joel points out). Perhaps I should not have implied that Fr. Kimel is unusual in his leaning to universalism, when of course we all have this tendency which is the tendency of the era (I've changed that in the original post). (It is fair to point out that of all the "conservative" Christian church bodies, the Catholic one appears to be the most accomodating to universalism.) But if one believes in one's gut the potential reality and danger of hell for the whole world that scoffs at Christ, then anfechtung will come. (And with it psychological explanations: "Oh, you're just projecting your hostility at people who won't conform to your rigid ideas of goodness.")

To me the question is not "Who is (the bad guy or doctrine) responsible for Luther's anfechtung?" but given that pretty much all believers in a good, just, and holy Creator God will feel that way if they are sensitive to the weight of sin and suffering in the world, what do we do about it? What is the proper theological response?

*Augustine's Confession are the exception that prove the rule; and even that is, it seems, rather evasive on many points.

**Is there a common human nature, such that people in the past are fundamentally like us, or rather should we say that "the past is a foreign country"? This is one of those big questions on which historical fashion floats first one way and then another. Perhaps another basic difference between Fr. Kimel and myself is that I am fairly skeptical of the "discovery of the self" or the "invention of childhood" or "the rise of the modern" or the "origin of consciousness in the break down of the bicameral mind" and all the other Hegelian narratives of unconscious exteriorizing past to conscious introspective present.