Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Second Awakening

The Second Awakening

Meanwhile, the Protestant side of Christianity, especially evangelicalism, remained still a relatively small part of the faith worldwide, still splintering with every new idea. Specifically in the U.S. context, the Second Awakening from the 1790s to the 1840s was distinctive in two respects: the launch of entirely new denominations and millennialism.

The first of several splits was, predictably for the United States, around the problem of racial prejudice, as slave and free African-American Baptist and Methodist preachers emerged. One such figure was “Black Harry” Hosier, an illiterate freedman whose remarkable ability to memorize long biblical passages made him popular with white and black audiences; however, he was repeatedly passed over for ordination and barred from voting at the conference that formally established American Methodism. Another was Richard Allen, who was ordained by the Methodists in 1799 but also faced discrimination.

In 1816 Hosier and Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. As evidence that racial prejudice was widespread, in 1821 the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was founded as another denomination in New York City.

A similar split occurred among the Baptists, whose organization into local congregations already made for a loose denomination. Formed by slaves and free African Americans in South Carolina and Virginia, the denomination spread to other states, with a side effect of fostering the demand for freedom. During African-American revival meetings in Virginia in 1800, one leader, Gabriel Prosser, devised a plan for slave rebellion that was discovered and crushed before it started. After the Nat Turner Uprising of 1831, African-American congregations managed to maintain their independence in Baptist associations, but many Southern state legislatures passed laws requiring the presence of a white man at their meetings.

Fragmentation was further aided by another development, a sudden interest in the lurid, dreamlike visions in the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, which lends the work to a variety of interpretations.

Notably, Revelation 20:1–6 begins with the description of a vision as follows: “I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” During that millennium, the newly awakened U.S. evangelicals began to believe, Christ would preside over a golden age or earthly paradise before the final judgment. In the 1830s and 1840s, from a mixture of massive disillusionment with existing mainline Protestantism and fevered enthusiasm for Revelation and other extrabiblical sources, the Advent Movement emerged, which involved expectation of the impending Second Coming (or Advent) of Jesus.

One obvious outgrowth was Millerism, named after preacher William Miller, who was a forerunner of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Another less obvious development was the “holiness” movement, an attempt to emphasize Wesleyan teachings on sanctification, which led to an organizational break between mainline Methodist and Holiness churches.

Such discontent sparked a longing for “primitive” or original Christianity, which grew in popularity after U.S. independence. This made sense to immigrants from Britain of the early 19th century, who viewed the new nation as pristine and undefiled and the perfect place to restore Christianity. One group that resulted from such efforts was the Shakers, committed to simplicity and lifelong chastity.

More broad and secular was Restoration Movement, led by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, who resisted what they perceived as spiritual manipulation at revival camp meetings. In the South, revivals drawing on the ideas of the Campbells were led by Barton Stone. In the end, all reverted to the original emotional pressure techniques of the original model.

Another spinoff, the Latter-Day Saints or Mormons, was founded by Joseph Smith. A farmer in western New York, he claimed that in 1827 an angel showed him writings in “reformed Egyptian” engraved on golden plates buried in Cumorah Hill. Known as The Book of Mormon, the plates tell the story of an oddly Hebraic God’s revelations to the ancient original Americans and the appearance of Jesus Christ in the New World shortly after his resurrection. The angel is said to have conveyed God’s command to Smith to translate the plates into English so he could restore Christ’s true church in Smith’s time, “the latter days.”

The addition of new scripture, among other unusual practices and beliefs (including polygamy and the belief that African Americans are “cursed”), makes Mormonism an outright departure from Christianity as understood since the times of the apostles. It was not the last such deviation in the United States, but it remains the only full-fledged pseudo-Christian religion to spring out of the Second Awakening.

More mainstream effects sprung from the preaching of Presbyterians and Methodists who remained within their denomination but set the stage for new outcroppings in the Third Awakening.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Making of Pre-Vatican II Catholicism

Although the Catholic Church is the only Christian body present at every stage of the history of Christianity, the 19th century gave birth to a frozen Catholicism of unschooled, overly devout  laypeople led by an absurdly papist and clerical hierarchy. It was irrelevant to citizens and workers seeking just rights, rigidly Tridentine and roundly disregarded in the public square and the academy. When I was a youth it had a simple name: pre-Vatican II.

As the 19th century neared, the overwhelmingly Catholic majority in Europe and Spanish America was monarchical, absolutist in philosophy and politics and prone to popular piety; its Catholic faith and practice remained the soul and heart of society. Between 1789 and 1848, that worldview changed radically with the French Revolution and the emergence of socialism.

Two leaders of the Catholic Church, Popes Pius VI and IX, are most to blame for badly misreading the signs of their times. That failure led the Church to lose the working class, intellectuals and the new industrial era’s leaders.

The French Revolution’s anti-monarchical impulse included a kind of anti-clericalism fueled by popular criticism, even among devout Christians, of the privileges, wealth and even corruption of the clergy. To understand an ordinary French person’s perception of the clergy, consider the Estates General under the Old Regime, the king’s legislative and consultative assembly made up of various classes (or estates).

The composition and powers of the Estates-General never changed: representatives of the First Estate (clergy), Second Estate (the nobility) and Third Estate (commoners, in other words, all others). Of course, the Estates General was largely symbolic. When the revolution broke out, the king discovered that the last king to call them to meet was his grandfather.

This was the social stratification of much of continental Europe. Closest to the king, due to its alleged special connection to God, was the clergy, next was the nobility, then the rest. When the rest rose up against the king and nobility, the clergy was tossed out as so much dirty bathwater.

During two years known as the Reign of Terror, revolutionary authorities in France suppressed the Church, nationalized church property, exiled 30,000 priests and killed hundreds more. In October 1793 the Christian calendar was replaced with one that counted the date of the Revolution as Day One, and festivals of Liberty, Reason and the Supreme Being were scheduled along with forms of a new moral religion that included a deist Cult of the Supreme Being and the atheist Cult of Reason—briefly mandated by the government in April 1794.

Similarly, the Revolutions of 1848, the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history, aimed for democracy and an end to old feudal structures left in place by the Congress of Vienna of 1815, which with some cosmetic border touch-ups essentially restored the pre-French Revolution absolutist monarchies. It was an uprising led by new ideas such as popular liberalism, nationalism and socialism; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto was published as a battle cry in February, weeks after the first uprisings.

However, these revolts were not communist. Led by shaky ad hoc coalitions of reformers, the middle classes and workers they did not hold together. They began in January and February and the longest lasting, in Hungary, was crushed in August. Tens of thousands of people were killed and many more forced into exile. Nonetheless, serfdom was abolished in Austria and Hungary, the absolute monarchy ended in Denmark and parliamentary democracy was introduced in the Netherlands. Radical ideas were aloft, and the new, post-French Revolution capitalist bourgeoisie was chastened.

The two popes who lived through the aftermath of both revolts were not pleased. Pius VI rejected the French Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1791 and suspended priests who accepted it, protested the execution of Louis XVI and condemned the Declaration of the Rights of Man. France retaliated by seizing the papal territories of Avignon and Venaissin, and Napoleon eventually attacked the Papal States.

Public reaction to the papal defense of monarchy and the old order is evident in the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette, published in 1798. During a long audience with Pius VI, one of the most extensive scenes in the novel, Juliette shows off by presenting the pope with a verbal catalogue of alleged immoralities committed by his predecessors.

The response to 1848 came from Pius IX, also known as Pio Nono, the longest-reigning elected pope (from 1846 to 1878). Pio Nono effectively led a grand demarche to close every window, lock every door and make sure that not a single modern idea seeped into the holy sanctum of the Catholic Church.

Pio Nono’s pontificate is most notable for three telling developments: in 1854 he defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary; in 1864 he issued his Syllabus of Errors; in 1869 he convened the momentous First Vatican Council.

Mary’s immaculate conception was an ancient teaching derived largely from the treatment of Mary as God bearer. The ancient fathers wondered how someone tainted by the sin of Adam and Eve could be the bearer of God. Of course, that raises the question of how Mary could have been born immaculate to St. Anne and St. Joachim, and on and on.

Pio Nono did not invent the immaculate conception. A feast of the Conception of the Most Holy and All Pure Mother of God was celebrated in Syria on December 8 as early as the 5th century and had been bubbling up for centuries. Indeed, in response to some of the excesses of popular piety of the time, Pio Nono made it clear that Mary still needed redemption by her son; her sinless conception was a kind of preredemption. The declaration had broader consequences.

Ten years later, Pio Nono issued the Syllabus, a broadside against every possible non-Christian idea arising from the cauldron of the French Revolution. It condemned pantheism, naturalism, absolute rationalism, moderate rationalism, indifferentism and latitudinarianism, socialism, communism, secret societies, Bible societies and liberal clerical societies.

He condemned the notion that “Human reason, without any reference whatsoever to God, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil” as well as the notion that all the truths of religion proceed from reason. Condemned also was the idea that Catholicism should not be the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all others, as was proposed in many Catholic countries, and the notion of separation of church and state. He decried the idea of freedom of religion and worship. He expressly refused to accept the proposal that “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”

False, false, false, he said.

All this declaring got him into hot water. Some asked whether the pope had authority to define doctrine on his own, such as in the case of the Immaculate Conception. Pio Nono’s answer was to call the First Vatican Council in 1869, whose most momentous decision, under pressure from the pope himself, was to define papal infallibility.

Just to clarify, the council did not say that the pope could not make a mistake in anything; it only said that the pope is divinely protected from error “when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”

The council was set to discuss a document on the nature of the Church after a summer break. However, the Franco-Prussian War broke out and the Germans advanced and captured Emperor Napoleon III, eliminating the pope’s principal military protector. On September 20, 1870, the Kingdom of Italy captured Rome and annexed it. A month later Pius IX suspended the council, after which he fled Rome itself for a time, then returned to declare himself “imprisoned” in the Vatican.

The First Vatican Council was not formally closed until 1960, by Pope John XXIII, in preparation for the Second Vatican Council, which opened in 1962. From 1870 until then, having already lost the allegiance of the leading intellectual lights of the day in continental Europe, the attention of secular rulers and the following of the industrial working classes, the Church went into the long slumber of the pre-Vatican II era that I described at the beginning.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Scholars Say

The earliest public debate around liberal Protestant ideas started when German scholars attempted to get at the factual and historical Yeshua bar Yosif from Nazareth. Vaulting past the lack of impartial and verifiable documentation, they developed the tools of modern biblical criticism, which is still controversial in some church circles.

First in this line was Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), a philosopher and writer who leaned, like many U.S. Founding Fathers, toward Deism. In a small work originally circulated only among friends, he argued that Jesus was a Jewish political preacher who proposed a worldly new order. Pointing out differences between Jesus’ preaching and that of the apostles, Reimarus deemed Christianity an invention of the disciples, who stole Jesus’ body to fake his resurrection.

Reimarus set scholars off to the races on a new kind of research. The general public became involved only when David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) published his 1835 attempt at a historical portrayal in his Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined). The work instantly earned a reviewer’s sobriquet of “Iscariotism of our days” (a reference to Judas Iscariot), setting off a European scandal.

Originally a seminary student, Strauss later studied at the University of Tubingen, an association that makes him one of the first academics known in theological circles as the “wild boars” who came roaring out of the Black Forest. He studied for a year in Berlin under Schleiermacher and Hegel before returning to Tubingen.

In his Life of Jesus, Strauss did not go so far as to deny Jesus’ existence, but he called the miracles in the New Testament “mythical” additions. At the time, biblical scholars were divided between rationalists, who found logical and rational explanations for the seemingly miraculous, and supernaturalists, who defended the historical accuracy of biblical accounts and their claims of direct divine intervention. Strauss took a third way: he explained miracles as myths developed by early Christians as their faith in Jesus developed. This ushered in what was then an entirely new textual and historical approach to the rise of Christianity, which he called the theory of “demythologization.”

Strauss was excoriated by the traditional elements of society (Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, called Das Leben Jesu “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell”) and their supernaturalist academic cohorts as well as by the rationalists, notably Hegel fellow alum Bruno Bauer. The latter, also known for his association with Karl Marx and later Friedrich Nietzsche, was chosen by Hegelians to refute Strauss in their Journal of Philosophical Criticism, in which Bauer debunked Strauss’ claims to draw on Hegel, showing that they came from Schleiermacher instead.

The first academic movement of demythologization went far beyond the arcane disputes between Strauss and Bauer. It is best described by the title of a 1906 work by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, a ground-breaking history of early modern biblical studies. What matters for the purposes of faith is not so much the original rumblings and battles of debunkers as their effect on most serious biblical interpreters—except the most literalist.

Between the 1830s and the end of the 19th century, Schleiermacher’s approach expanded into entire fields of study. These started with textual criticism, or an examination of the text to identify its origin and trace its history, often by spotting errors that crept in as generations of scribes copied manuscripts.

Another skein is source criticism, which looks for the sources behind a biblical book or passage. Using this approach, traceable to 17th-century French priest Richard Simon, one of the most influential 19th century biblical scholars, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), developed a now widely accepted four-source documentary theory about most of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, attributed to Moses.

Wellhausen collated bits and pieces of various scholars’ theories about the Pentateuch. He expanded on source criticism to study the texts’ internal consistency (redaction criticism) and how various passages are woven together (form criticism) and arrived at four sources identifiable in the text by their characteristics. Scholars gave the sources, authors or schools of scribes the following names:
  • Jehovist (J), also called Yahwist (Jahwist in German), estimated to have been composed around 850 BCE, calls God Yahweh and includes much of Genesis and parts of Exodus and Numbers.
  • Elohist (E) from the use of the Hebrew name for God, Elohim, starts with Gen. 15, overlaps with J and dates to about 750 BCE.
  • Deuteronomist (D), identified originally by Wilhelm de Wette as material found only in Deuteronomy, believed to be composed around 621 BCE.
  • Priestly (P), a source split off from E that gave us material from Gen. 1 through Moses’ death at the end of Deuteronomy, probably written down around 500 BCE.

Although the four-source theory has enjoyed broad consensus, in recent years some elements have been called into question. Still, it provides very useful insight to readers who are not scholars.

For example, the current text of the story of the universal flood in Genesis 6 through 9 contains two distinct interwoven narratives (J and E). Why did the rabbis of the 5th and 6th century BCE weave them together? Because both were ancient and revered narratives retold by people of faith the rabbis did not feel authorized to undercut. This helps the nonscholar begin to grasp that biblical texts cannot be read as glibly as the morning newspaper or a religion blog.

Biblical criticism also stumbled, in the New Testament, with what is known as the Synoptic Problem: how is it that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke can be read as more or less parallel (in Greek, synoptikos) accounts, yet sometimes disagree in content, wording (including occasional key sayings) and order? Most of Mark is found in Matthew, but only about half of Mark is in Luke; in Matthew and Luke some 235 verses (someone actually counted) are very similar.

The answer, scholars still say, is the two-source theory. Introduced in 1838 by Christian Hermann Weisse (1801-1866), it was not widely accepted among German academics until 1863, when Heinrich Julius Holtzmann (1832-1910) endorsed it. This united what had been a denominational divide among scholars. Before Holtzmann, Catholic scholars tended toward a theory dating to the school of St. Augustine of Hippo, that Matthew was the basis for Mark, which Luke used, along with Matthew. Protestant biblical scholars sided with the early biblical critic Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812), who argued that Matthew begat Luke who begat Mark.

Weisse, however, argued for two sources only. The first is Mark, which almost everyone now agrees is the earliest gospel. The second is a hypothetical lost collection of “sayings of Jesus,” a document known as Q, from the German Quelle (source).

There are, of course, numerous other questions and theories debated by biblical scholars and many other tools of criticism. The research has also bred innumerable arguments among Christians, some of which are best left for later. For now, it’s enough to have an inkling of what it means when a discussion of the Bible includes the words “scholars say.”

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Birth of Liberal Protestantism

Just as Protestant enthusiasm was sweeping English-speaking North America and Britain, on the European continent, in Prussia, not far from the cradle of the Augustinian monk who launched the Reformation, there was ferment of a more intellectual variety. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), a theologian, philosopher and biblical scholar, became the first to attempt to grapple with the Enlightenment from a Christian position, giving rise to the modern Liberal Protestant school of thought.

The tendency he set in motion was, in some respects, at odds with the strongly emotional and popular religion of the Awakening and Evangelicalism. Schleiermacher poured the cold water of reason on biblical writ and belief in creeds as he grappled with Enlightenment ideas, including rationalism and empiricism. The latter admittedly called into question arguable and factually doubtful Christian views, a challenge to faith that persists in our era; Schleiermacher took a leap to feeling yet became enamored with then-new intellectual tools.

Enlightenment ideas developed against the backdrop of absolutist monarchies shielded in palaces from the shouts and cries of Bostonians dumping tea against a colonial tax and the French rabble storming the Bastille prison, as well as the sooty toot of the first steam engine and the clanging of the first factory gears. Schleiermacher was attempting to uphold a tradition of faith in the face of two central ideas that became the basis of all science, technology and, indeed, even capitalism today.

The first of these was the glibly optimistic 18th century notion that the power of the intellect to make sound choices, distinctions and deductions—reason—would, given correct facts, lead all people to the same conclusions. As Thomas Jefferson might have put it, all men will agree to what is self-evident, such as their equality, unalienable rights and so forth. On the list of things agreed on was Deism, a tenuous philosophical assent to a Creator, source of all—yet only in the sense of a clockmaker who has made a watch, then set it down on the worktable and gone on to better projects.

Uneasily born as its twin, the second proposition was a method of inquiry based on empiricism, a theory that knowledge comes only, or primarily, from sensory experience; since no one can see, touch, taste, hear or smell God, faith is unprovable, unreasonable and factually false. Admittedly, modern science has learned from, among other developments, Einstein’s overthrow of Newton, that factual knowledge is tentative and only probably true, subject to constant revision.

Associated with these ideas are brilliant minds of the 17th and 18th centuries. Descartes, Pascal, Locke, Hume and many others overthrew forever the monopoly of a world understanding based on invisible spirits and demons, which had held humanity in thrall since people lived in caves. Reason and factuality are notable for their continued currency as the basis of American society, despite their obvious flaws: reasonable people will disagree even given the same facts, and facts are not quite the same as truth.

Schleiermacher, the son and grandson of pastors, came from Pietism, a German Protestant movement that combined Lutheran emphasis on biblical doctrine with individual piety and living a vigorous Christian life, and an early education in a Moravian school that espoused the similarly reform-minded, biblical and pious views of Jan Hus, the pre-Reformation peasant leader from Bohemia. He nonetheless began life plagued with doubts about faith.

Starting with enrollment in the University of Halle, he encountered the full force of rationalism, including the ideas of Immanuel Kant and early biblical historical criticism, and became skeptical to the point of rejecting orthodox Christian teaching. Yet he remained a Christian in his own fashion, took up positions as a pastor and a professor of theology and slowly developed a view that threw out biblical writ, creeds and pseudorational dogmatic theology. Instead, he openly admitted religious feeling as the basis of a religion whose purpose was its own existence as a path from human experience to God.

On one hand, his writings address the writhing of those who embraced rationalism and empiricism and could no longer bring themselves back to dogmatic and archaic religious forms of the faith. On the other, he addressed the faith of those who viewed the mechanical outcome of Enlightenment “progress” as a challenge to belief and the destruction of social culture as they knew it.

He ended up turning Aquinas’ description of theology as faith seeking understanding on its head. In his work The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher states: “I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but believe so that I may understand … For anyone who has not believed will not experience, and anyone who has not experienced will not understand.”

In the same work he proclaims what is today understood as the centerpiece of his overall faith view: “The feeling of absolute dependence [on God], accordingly, is not to be explained as an awareness of the world’s existence, but only as an awareness of the existence of God, as the absolute undivided unity.” Schleiermacher leapt past the fight between orthodoxy and rationalism to the inner life of the soul and the human search for God. It is no longer God seeking human creatures, but the reverse.

At a time in which church institutions were, fatally as we shall see, aligned with a Continental monarchical order that had become ever more absolutist—in his own Prussia various denominations united under the monarchy for a time—Schleiermacher proposed a break, in a variety of ways.

He wrote a protofeminist article, “Idea for a Catechism of Reason for Noble Ladies,” and in an essay titled “Letters on the Occasion of the Political-Theological Task and the Open Letter of Jewish Householders” he rejected proposed civil assimilation of the Jews through baptism, which he argued would harm both Judaism and Christianity, and pushed for Jews’ full civil rights.

He is also one of the earliest Western thinkers, conceivably influenced by Kant, to reassert the unity of the body and soul, by merging what he calls “spiritualism” (or limiting the human being to the mind) and “materialism” (limiting the mind to the body) in what he calls “life.” This idea would have sat well with Jesus’ contemporary countrymen: ancient Hebrew uses exclusively concrete words for abstract ideas (wind or breath for spirit), as we have seen.

His most significant contribution grew out of his involvement in a then-raging academic debate: Does language precede thought, setting its order and serving as its necessary base? Or does thought dictate language? This arcane issue drew him into biblical interpretation, and he effectively became the father of modern hermeneutics, the art of interpretation and the study of explanation. The term was coined in the 1670s with reference intended to the Greek god Hermes, patron of messages, speech, writing and eloquence.

Hermeneutics was not new, nor much less invented by Schleiermacher. It was engaged in by Plato and Aristotle, the rabbis in the Talmud and even Christian biblical interpreters. Writing in the beginning of the third century, Origen of Alexandria was among the earliest Christian writers to suggest that much of the Bible is metaphorical or symbolic.

Language, Schleiermacher argued, is fundamental to human nature as a foundation of thought, self-consciousness, feeling and desire. It is social in nature even as inner communication. Language and thought give shape to human sensory images and are interdependent and bounded by each other. Meaning comes from words. People can be distinguished by their linguistic and conceptual differences.

Understanding verbal communication, distinct from explaining, applying or translating it, came first, he said, and should be applied to all texts, whether the Bible, law, literature or anything else. Interpretation of sacred texts must not rely on divine inspiration. The interpreter must assume that “misunderstanding occurs as a matter of course, and so understanding must be willed and sought at every point.” The text’s historical context and linguistic and psychological aspects of the author come into play. Interpretation is an inductive process but also intuitive and hypothetical.

Finally, interpretation must look at each text as a part the whole work within which it is placed and the language in which it is written. The historical context, genre and what is known about the author’s entire work are essential as well.

It is difficult today to make clear just how revolutionary these notions were. Difficult, that is, until we turn to their immediate effect, which is where we turn next.