What Are Exile Politics?

Thus, the heavenly City, so long as it is wayfaring on earth, not only makes use of earthly peace but fosters and actively pursues along with other humans beings a common platform in regard to all that concerns our purely human life and does not interfere with faith and worship.  (Of course, though, the City of God subordinates this earthly peace to that of heaven.)
– Augustine, City of God, Book 19

Exile politics, drawing on the advice of Jeremiah to the Israelites taken into exile in Babylon, recognizes that the church is not properly at home in this word. Exile politics rejects theocracy and theonomy, Constantinianism and Christendom, while still recognizing that in a post-colonial, post-Christendom age, the church wields cultural power, whether it likes that or not. Accordingly, Christians-as-exiles work as a counterculture that seeks the common good, leveraging that influence where it exists. Nevertheless, opportunities exist to confound expectations.

Discipleship in the way of Jesus inevitably confounds expectations.

Exile politics are neither liberal nor conservative, but strategic, rooted not in an exterior political philosophy of any sort, but rooted in the identity of the church-in-exile, the recognition that Christ is Lord, and that all powers that claim lordship are thus pretenders, to be identified with the powers and principalities spoken of in the New Testament, who could not understand the wisdom of God and thus crucified the lord of glory.

Exile politics are the politics of those who suffer.

As the church inevitably joins the suffering messiah, it joins as well the suffering of all Christ’s brothers and sisters, all God’s children, all created in the imago dei, the least of these, the people of the land. The church may make strategic use of the vestiges of cultural influence it has inherited, but it must be put to use not for its own ends, nor for the maintenance of the church’s power, prestige and influence as such, but for those who suffer along with the suffering messiah.

Modern Ontology – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 4

Parts 2 and 3.

In my last post, I summarized the complex and contradictory ways that chief representatives of the protestant traditions worked within an assumed ontology that was neither pre-modern nor yet recognizably modern. Today’s post extends this summary to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and, indirectly of a number of evangelical and pentecostal groups across the United States and abroad.

IV. Inheritors of a Diminished Sacramentality

The Reformation resulted in unprecedented levels of social change and upheaval. In part, this followed naturally from the disenchantment that drove Reformation ideals. Once the social order is no longer understood as participation in divine order, and once religious vocations are de-sacramentalized, room is opened up for such change. By the time John Wesley is born at the beginning of the 18th century, decades after the publication of Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, disenchantment is itself institutionalized in many ways.

Wesley, being a practical and pastoral theologian, seldom deals in abstract philosophical speculation. Still, his theology and practice clearly reflect his acceptance of and, at times, creative interaction with the diminished sacramental metaphysics characteristic of modernity. In a sermon, Wesley writes that “God acts everywhere, and therefore is everywhere; for it is an utter impossibility that any being, created or uncreated, should work there it is not. God acts in heaven, in earth, and under the earth, throughout the whole compass of his creation.”[1] In this same sermon, Wesley refers to Newton’s hypothesis that a gaseous quasi-material called ether filled the space in which all objects moved and interacted, saying “And it is now generally supposed that all space is full.”[2] Yet this theory was falling out of favor, prompting Wesley to argue on theological grounds, “Perhaps it cannot be proved that all space is filled with matter. But the heathen himself will bear witness… All things are full of God.’”[3] Earlier in his life Wesley wrote that “There is no place empty of God… every point of infinite space is full of God.”[4]

This conception stands in interesting tension with Wesley’s insistence that God was not knowable through nature. In his first sermon, preached at St. Mary’s in Oxford in November of 1730, he narrated the way the Creator formed Adam and Eve with the ability to know God directly, and the way that the fall destroyed this epistemological relationship.[5] In the post-lapsarian world, for Wesley, the only possible true epistemology was one of revelation, a prevenient grace that intrudes into a world that is otherwise intelligible yet insufficiently so. Yet even the secular was full of God and could be so sensed. Charles Wesley captures this in the phrase, “Author of every work divine,/ Who dost through both Creations shine:/ The God of nature and of grace.”[6] Though Wesley never explicates his metaphysical or ontological suppositions, his views may be characterized as a world of grace, being graced, known by grace. In contrast to the views of Scotus, Ockham, Hubmaier and Luther above, Wesley has a surprisingly high sacramental ontology.

This results in a soteriology less individualistic and anthropocentric than many contemporaries. In a tract, Wesley explained his conception of salvation

By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.[7]

Wesley’s emphasis on “recovery of the divine nature,” frequently called “total sanctification” or “Christian perfection,” echoes the doctrine of theosis. Moreover, Wesley’s late sermon “The General Deliverance” begins moving from a view that centers on humans to an account of salvation that has the created world as its center focus. Perhaps this renewed emphasis on nature follows directly from Wesley’s ontology: The God of nature and of grace must not be concerned solely with humans.

[1] Sermon 118, “On the Omnipresence of God.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.,

[4] Sermon 69, “The Imperfection of Human Knowledge.”

[5] Thomas R. Albin, “Experience of God” in The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies, ed. William J. Abraham and James E. Kirby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 382.

[6] Charles Wesley, Hymns of Petition and Thanksgiving for the Promise of the Father, #28, cited in Michael Lodahl, God of Nature and of Grace: Reading the World in a Wesleyan Way (Nashville, TN: Kingswood Books, 2003), 129.

[7] John Wesley, “A Further Appeal to Men of Religion and Reason,” 1786.

“Turning the other cheek” as Transformative Act

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not retaliate against evil. Rather, whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to them the other as well. And let the one who brings you to court for your shirt have your coat as well. And whoever commandeers you for one mile, go with them two miles. To the one who asks something of you, give; to the one who begs to borrow from you, do not refuse.


The four examples of Matthew 5:38-42 rely heavily on knowledge of the culture and customs. The first example deals with interpersonal violence—even what we may today term “domestic violence”—as for a right-handed person striking somebody on the right cheek requires a backhanded blow. This was an extreme humiliation in both Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures.[1] The term ῥαπιζω is a forceful, violent term. To “turn the other cheek” to such a blow is to ask in effect for a proper punch, one that would elevate the one being hit to an equal level with the attacker. It is an act of moral courage—and in many cases the only act available to a person in a position to receive such a blow: slave to master, son to father, wife to husband.[2] “The gesture exposes the act of the offender as what it is: morally repulsive and improper.”[3] Wink summarizes the meaning of the gesture as stating to the attacker, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me.”[4]

The second example moves from the interpersonal realm to the legal. The one who is suing another for their χιτών is to be given the victim’s ἰμάτιον as well, an action in violation of Levitical law, which demands that a person cannot be stripped of their cloak or overcoat, and if it is taken in pledge must be returned each day at sunset (Exo 22:26-27). Thus, to give the overcoat to the oppressor is to symbolically mark them as such. Moreover, if the oppressor has genuinely taken away a defendant’s undershirt, then removing the overcoat will leave the defendant standing nude, or next to it, the ultimate symbol of one who has been unfairly robbed. Luz remarks that “the obvious absurdity of the example in leaving the victim standing naked does not exclude its sound logic.”[5]

The third example moves from legal and economic indebtedness to military oppression. The one who will force you to go one mile is a Roman soldier, enforcing a practice of commandeering subjugated peoples apparently adopted from the Persian Empire (hence the Persian term ἐγγαρεύσει). Further, the one mile (μιλιὀν ἑν) is a technical term, specifically used in Roman legal documents.[6] This example thus demonstrates the latent Galilean hostility toward Rome, while also underscoring the full scope of the call to non-retaliation. Wink argues that penalties existed for military auxiliaries who conscripted labor for more than one mile, and that by volunteering to work beyond that, one assumes control of the situation, creating the farcical situation of a soldier demanding his load returned to him.[7]

The practical likelihood of these three examples is very low, but the teaching is nonetheless provocative. Luz comments they demand more than they explicitly say. “Their intention is not that they simply be obeyed literally; they are to be obeyed in such a way that in new situations what they demand is repeatedly to be discovered anew in freedom but in a similar radicality.”[8] Wink himself comments that the point of this behavior is not that the demand would be “plausible,” in terms of solving concrete political problems, but that it would be “a sigh of the oppressed,” expressions of protest against “dehumanizing spirals of violence.”[9] The final example, calling the listener to give and lend without interest or return, is much more general in its scope, less exaggerated, perhaps emphasizing a call to a concrete solidarity within community.


In August 2013 a man entered an elementary school outside Atlanta, GA, with an AK-47. Shots were fired, police were called, and shots were exchanged between the man and the police. A CNN article asks, “What do you do?” It provides an answer that could have come directly from the Sermon on the Mount:

If you’re Antoinette Tuff, who works in the front office at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy just outside Atlanta, you don’t run. You talk. You divulge your personal struggles to the gunman, you tell him you love him, you even proactively offer to walk outside with him to surrender so police won’t shoot.[10]

It is true that Tuff was trained in conflict resolution; indeed, this demonstrates an internalization of the values of the Sermon on the Mount, a prior commitment to find creative alternatives to retaliation. It is likewise true that in many concrete situations such “creative alternatives” will end in death and disaster. Stanley Hauerwas observes that Jesus does not promise that if we turn the other cheek we will avoid being hit again. Nonretaliation is not a strategy to get what we want by other means. Rather, Jesus calls us to the practice of nonretaliation because that is the form that God’s care of us took in his cross.[11]

Precisely what is required for a community to be formed in such practices as Jesus commands in Matt 5:38-42 is the patience that faith in such a God makes possible.

[1] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Commentary, ed. Helmut Koester (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 289.

[2] Ibid., 290.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 185.

[5] Luz, Sermon, 291.

[6] Walter Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, 406.

[7] Wink, Engaging, 186.

[8] Luz, Matthew, 274.

[9] Wink, Engaging, 187.

[10] “Antoinette Tuff Hailed as ‘True Hero’ out of Georgia School Shooting,” CNN.com, accessed December 8, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/21/us/georgia-school-gunshots/index.html.

[11] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 72.

Modern Ontology – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 3

Parts 1 and 2.

In my last post, I described in the briefest possible terms the intellectual underpinnings of the shift from a pre-modern to a modern ontology. In this installment, I will examine the complex way that the inheritors of this new mode of thinking worked it out in their theological work. We will look at the Radical Reformer Balthasar Hubmaier and magisterial reformers Luther and Calvin. What is evident is that while their thought would not have been possible within the ontology described in part one, they do not embody a purely modern ontology either, and move toward it in complex and at times contradictory ways.

III. Sacramentality Diminished

Balthasar Hubmaier (c. 1480 – 1528) occupies a fascinating and instructive place within Reformation thought. He embodied a libertarian anthropology we could anachronistically label hyper-Arminian.[1] He derived this anthropology from Bernard of Clairvaux (Hubmaier’s Von der Freiheit is virtually a paraphrase of Bernard’s De gratia[2]), and maintained or even intensified it long after rejecting Bernard’s Cistercian monastic theological grounding. Despite being the first Radical Reformer to undergo adult baptism, Bernard perceived himself as a faithful Lutheran (indeed, preached Lutheranism from Catholic pulpits before leaving his position at Nikolsberg), and stood the rest of his career as the only Anabaptist who nonetheless held to the ex opere operato effectiveness of the sacraments.[3] Both these differences are instructive for discerning the underlying ontology still in flux in Hubmaier and Luther’s day.

We may well ask how any Anabaptist could believe he was following Lutheran doctrine. Hubmaier was never uninformed as to Luther’s positions, and began by arguing from the pulpit a point-by-point refutation of the 95 Theses.[4] Hubmaier continued reading Luther’s publications, however, and by 1519 became enamored of the reformer’s critiques and hermeneutical strategy. It was in this year Luther wrote that “Baptism and the Supper mean nothing without previous faith—they are like a sign outside a pub that serves no alcohol,”[5] a phrase that Hubmaier would go on to quote verbatim in his speaking and writing the rest of his life.  On this basis, Hubmaier reasoned that infants, who could not have a previous faith, could not be baptized.[6] Luther entertained this idea, but concluded against it. Why? On the basis of the distinction between glaub, personal faith, and fides, the faith of the community who baptizes, “which may or may not immediately manifest itself in outward belief.”[7] Both Luther and Hubmaier embrace sacramental views of baptism. Both regard it as effective, not symbolic, and for both the effectiveness proceeds from faith. At the same time, we can see Hubmaier occupying the more intuitively modern position, as he directly links the faith to the one being baptized. Luther’s conception of faith on behalf of another is more sympathetic, more “magical” than modern ontology can easily account for. Both Luther and Hubmaier are products of shifting ontology, but Hubmaier “[carries] to logical extremes the most philosophically ‘realist’ versions of baptismal and Eucharistic doctrine available in the sixteenth century.”[8] Over against this “philosophically realist” version of the sacraments stands Hubmaier’s continued dependence on Bernard, “who recognized glimpses of the imago Dei throughout the created order and accordingly held that events in the tangible realm could participate in the divinity of the superior immaterial realm.”[9] In other words, Bernard held to a sacramental ontology. Hubmaier followed Bernard’s anthropology, unhooking it from ontology, and ended up in the unique position of the only sacramental Anabaptist. He thus highlights the complexities of Reformation-era Christian philosophy: still sacramental in some ways (as Luther attests), already wholly disenchanted in others (as the Anabaptists more generally demonstrate).

John Calvin is different still.  In some ways, Calvin can be seen as a strong reaction against the developments of late Medieval Catholicism, a resistance against the diminution of sacramental metaphysics. The doctrine of justification in particular “ceased in this period to do with a sharing in the divine nature and became more a matter of bare divine decree, without ontological infusion.”[10] It is clear to see how this kind of view became possible only in the aftermath of the kinds of philosophical moves made by Scotus and Ockham. Calvin’s emphasis on the “unified divine glory” cannot stand these kinds of moves. “Like Aquinas and unlike Scotus, Calvin allows that creaturely freedom in its very freedom is fully and absolutely determined by God—since the two do not compete with each other in a zero-sum game.”[11] Calvin’s account of predestination, in other words, is predicated on a sacramental metaphysics of participation, which may account for how incomprehensible it appears to modern Christians.[12]

In contrast to an Arminius or a Wesley, therefore, Calvin is a bulwark against disenchantment. Likewise, in contrast to Luther’s account of consubstantiation, Calvin’s eucharistic theology is strikingly participationist: “If God is not in the elements by local spatial presence, as in Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation, but nonetheless the Eucharist conveys a spiritual sharing in Christ’s body in heven, then is not this also a kind of participation of the finite in the infinite?”[13] Yet Calvin can also be read as an “immense energy behind the denial of the sacred.”[14] Calvin is seldom explicit about his metaphysical underpinnings and, moreover, led strong attacks on the rituals of the Catholic Church, as they were based not in personal faith but in “magic.” “This fight is not carried on because enchantment is totally untrue [for Calvin], but rather because it is necessarily ungodly.”[15]

[1] Kirk R. MacGregor, A Central European Synthesis of Radical and Magisterial Reform: The Sacramental Theology of Balthasar Hubmaier (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2006), vi.

[2] Ibid., 39-89.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Ibid, 98.

[5] My translation. “Tauf und das Nachmal nichts sollen on vorgeenden glauben: Sy seyend… wie ainn rayff vor dem wirtshauβ on wein.” Martin Luther, “Ein Sermon von dem neuen Testament, das ist von fer heiligen Messe,” in Luthers Werke, 6:363.

[6] MacGregor, 26.

[7] Ibid., 256.

[8] MacGregor, 255.

[9] Ibid.

[10] John Milbank, “Alternative Protestantism” in Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition, ed. James K. A. Smith and James Olthuis (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2005), 27.

[11] Milbank, Alternative Protestantism, 29.

[12] It must be noted, of course, that Calvinists after Calvin often make recourse to modern rather than sacramental modes of explanation, such as distinctions between God’s absolute and ordained will.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Taylor, 77.

[15] Ibid., 80.

Modern Ontology – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 2

In my last entry, I examined Charles Taylor’s explanation of what a pre-modern ontology consisted in. I value Taylor’s work extremely, in large part because instead of focusing simply on the articulation of the beliefs of significant individuals, he focuses on reconstructing an entire habitus: “the lifestyle, values, dispositions and expectations of particular social groups that are acquired through the activities and experiences of everyday life.” 

I, however, will not be able to do that, and must instead work with significant thinkers. In today’s post, I will examine the philosophical groundwork that was laid during the high medieval period (the same period Taylor was discussing on the level of habitus), which in turn permitted the development of a modernist epistemology and ontology. Subsequent posts will look at the thinking of key Reformation thinkers as they work out this new construal in various ways. 


II. Foundations of Ontological Change

The world described in my last post is a sacramental world, where elements are thought to cohere with one another in ways moderns regard as magical, because it rested on a sacramental ontology. This ontology understood reality (or being) as participating in God in a neo-platonic sense (we can trace this from early times through Athanasius and into Aquinas). Knowledge concomitantly was understood as functioning by sacramental analogy, in a schema in which

both faith and reason are included within the more generic framework of participation in the mind of God: to reason truly one must be already illumined by God, while revelation itself is but a higher measure of such illumination, conjoined intrinsically and inseparably with a created event which symbolically discloses that transcendent reality, to which all created events to a lesser degree also point.[1]

 This is what is meant by a sacramental ontology.

Duns Scotus (1266 – 1308), however, “argued that the idea of analogous being simply does not make sense.”[2] James K.A. Smith describes Scotus’s perspective: “Both the Creator and the creature exist in the same way or in the same sense. Being, now, becomes a category that is unhooked from participation in God and is a more neutral or abstract qualifier that is applied to God and creatures in the same way.”[3] Hans Boersma explains that this concept of Scotus’s, the univocity of being as opposed to participation, “serves as one of the blades of modernity’s scissors that cut the real, sacramental presence of God in the natural world.”[4] Scotus’s univocity of being flattens the ontological horizon. This by no means demanded the diminution of sacramentality, but it was a necessary and even sufficient condition for thinkers to do so. With this framework in place, it became possible to “understand being in an unambiguous, sheerly  ‘existential’ sense, as the object of a proposition, without reference to God, who is later claimed ‘to be’ in the same univocal manner.”[5]

A second philosophical move that allowed of the reconfiguring of sacramentality was the move of William of Ockham (1287 – 1347) toward nominalism.[6] In a debate that can be traced in virtually identical terms to Plato and Aristotle, Ockham favored the Aristotelian assertion that universal forms have no existence independent of the minds that perceive (rightly or wrongly) the commonality between disparate objects. Hence, Ockham’s main point was that “there is no need to postulate any factors other than the mind and individual things in order to explain the universal. The universal concept arises simply because there are varying degrees of similarity between things.”[7]

For Ockham, any two things were similar not because they shared or participated in some “form” or “nature,” but simply because God (who, thanks to Scotus’s univocity of being, is no longer necessarily tied to the conditions of creation) willed them to be similar.[8] This willing on God’s part is arbitrary as regards creation: God could have willed otherwise. With these two pieces in place, it was inevitable that nature would come to be seen as “fully equipped to act without special divine assistance.”[9]  Moreover, “if the actual order of nature functioned as an independent entity directed only by its own teleology, the elevation to grace had to be regarded as a divine addition to the realm of nature.”[10] Nature had become, in principle, disenchanted: whereas all things had been understood to participate in the being of God and find their coherence therein, now two distinct orders could be perceived, and places such as churches and graveyards as well as acts such as the Eucharist or baptism could be seen as belonging in one or the other. This is the first step, both logically and chronologically, in the modern diminution of sacramentality.

A similar move occurred along moral grounds, and we see in a successive series of attempts at reform a critique of the established church’s handling of the power that it possessed in the form of blessed bread, blessed candles, holy water, saints’ relics and the like. The church had always had to “police the boundary between the licit and the illicit” uses of such power, as “there were always dubious uses of causal power, like employing the Host as a love charm; and frankly evil ones, like a Mass for the dead said for a living person, in order to hasten his demise.”[11] But beginning with Wycliffe (1320–1384) and the Lollards, then the Hussites, and eventually taking root in the Protestant Reformation was a critique of the whole concept that these things had power in themselves irrespective of the merit or intentions of the one invoking the power.[12] This came to a head particularly in Northern European debates over indulgences, a central issue to the Reformation. Yet for the moral and social critique to enter into the realm of arguments that could be leveled in the first place, the kinds of philosophical moves Scotus and Ockham had put in play were required. The Reformers, then, were not the initiators of modernity, as might appear on a surface–level reading, but were the first inheritors of modernity come of age.

This inheritance is what we will be examining next. 

[1] John Milbank, “The Theological Critique of Philosophy,” Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (London, Routledge: 1999), 24.

[2] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 74.

[3] James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology (Grand Rapids,

MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 97.

[4] Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 74.

[5] John Milbank, “Only Theology Overcomes Metaphysics,” New Blackfriars 76 (1995): 334.

[6] “Toward” as Ockham affirmed the existence of universals as concepts in our minds, therefore remaining, technically, a conceptualist rather than a nominalist himself. Nevertheless, it was doubtless Ockham who pushed the

[7] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 3 vols. (New York, NY: Image/Doubleday, 1963), III:69.

[8] Boersma, Heavenly Participation, 81.

[9] Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1993), 177.

[10] Ibid., emphasis mine.

[11] Taylor, 72.

[12] Taylor, 72.


Modern Ontology – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 1

The basis of modernity is its rationalist ontology, which in a secular society is held by believer and skeptic alike. To call our age secular is not merely to say that unbelief has become an option, or even the default. Rather, even our forms of belief have become secular. In a coming series of posts, I will examine the rise of the rationalist – or “disenchanted” – ontology from the high middle ages through the Reformation. 

Today’s post will look at Charles’ Taylor’s account of the worldview we’ve left behind and largely forgotten. (Interestingly, J.R.R. Tolkien managed to enter imaginatively into this worldview, and it would be a profitable study to work out the implicit ontology of his work and compare it with Taylor’s account. A task for another time, I’m afraid.)

Charles Taylor’s Account of The Enchanted World

In the opening pages of his magisterial A Secular Age, Charles Taylor (b. 1931) states that the defining characteristic the secular age in which we find ourselves—modernity—is a sense of “disenchantment.”[1] This is actually a double observation, an explanation about a point in history that is itself fraught with history. Taylor himself realizes this, explaining that “our use of this word bespeaks our sense that [the world] was once enchanted.”[2] We know this, moreover, because it is an understanding that we are trained into as we grow up—it is a hidden part of our education process. We are told not to indulge in “magical” thinking, or in “myth”; we are told that visionaries are “ahead of their time”; we are told that to be “medieval” is akin to being “barbaric.” In Taylor’s terms, these subtle cues are part of the “disciplines of disenchantment,” at once making it clear that we come from an intellectually dangerous past and that we must work to maintain the achievements of secularity: “our past is sedimented in our present.”[3]

In what did this “enchanted” past consist? At the most obvious level, a cosmos inhabited by spirits and other extra-human agents, both benevolent and malevolent: demons, angels, spirits of forest and wilderness, as well as the cult of the saints.[4] These extra-human agents were not simply conceived of as disembodied minds, as some may hold in our post-Cartesian age, but “were often linked to centres [sic] where their relics resided.”[5] These relics, as well as other powerful objects (e.g. candles blessed at Candlemas), were “loci of spiritual power; which is why they had to be treated with care, and if abused could wreak terrible damage.”[6] And what must be stressed is that in the enchanted world, these sorts of objects and locales have power and meaning ex opere operato: their power in no way proceeds from meaning imbued to them in a person’s mind. The object/agent distinction, in other words, is a modern achievement.

Further, while extra-human agents can at first be easily understood on the analogy of human intention (many modern Christians believe quite strongly in disembodied angels, demons and spirits of loved ones), not all cosmic forces in the enchanted world can function on this kind of intelligible analogy:  “There is a whole gamut of them, which progressively depart from the personal, until we need a quite different model; that of cosmic realities which nevertheless incorporate certain meanings; and hence can affect us.”[7] For instance, moderns may feel depressed and be assured that their depression is a result of a chemical imbalance, or a repressed memory. They do not, except in poetic terms, tend to identify with their depression (in any case, the wisdom of our age urges them not to). But a medieval European will not be helped by learning from his physician “that his mood comes from black bile. Because this doesn’t permit a distancing. Black bile is melancholy. Now he just knows he’s in the grips of the real thing.”[8]

In the same way that bile is identified with melancholia in a sense that eludes cause and effect, a graveyard is identified with sacred ground, a saint’s bones with both healing- and moral power, the calendar year with sacred history, and the social order with sacred order.[9] Most importantly, all of this functioned at the level of naïve belief. It was held by common people and the elite alike. Not only was modern secularism not held to, its concepts were not even within the lexicon, so to speak, of either the intellectuals or “common people” of the age. The alternative to this enchanted, sacramental world had to be constructed, and precisely because of the identification of the way things are and their participation in a divine order, this was a difficult alternative to achieve, and it took root among the philosophers long before its influence was felt more broadly.


[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 28.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Taylor, 32.

[7] Ibid., 37.

[8] Ibid., emphasis original.

[9] Ibid., 61. 

Too often the eucharist is a way of taking God for granted by accepting too easily the formula that sacrifices are necessary for the common good. Jesus had to die, unfortunately, but thank God that he did! Likewise, animals have to die, unfortunately, but they taste so good! In both cases, the sacrificial victim is objectified as a necessary means to some extrinsic end. The victims are appropriate because they were meant to be delivered unto human hands… To eat a meal of sacrifice, it is almost impossible not to think that the inevitable has occurred, thus relieving one of responsibility and obligation. The eucharist that repeats Christ’s sacrifice (and puts the liturgist in the role of the sacrificer) confirms us in our belief that sacrifices of innocent lives for our own good are good in themselves. 


-Stephen H Webb, On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals