The Damages of Capitalism


There are many different perspectives from which to critique capitalism as it actually exists. Libertarians critique capitalism as it actually exists for accepting far too much government intervention. Leftists critique it for its tendency to centralize wealth in the hands of a small elite. Environmentalists critique for its prioritizing short-term profits over long-term stewardship of the planet. As a Christian theologian, however, I am more interested in critiquing capitalism from a theological perspective. Christian theology is not a compartmentalized exercise but must touch on every part of life, including capitalism.

What is “capitalism as it actually exists,” more simply identified as the global market? It is not the same thing as “the free market,” though many who have fought for more purely free market policies have shaped the global market and pushed its expansion globally. Capitalism is not simply the elements of free market or libertarian ideology. Capitalism is not simply free enterprise, free trade, private property, loaning on interest, etc. These are only some components of capitalism.

Rather, capitalism is “a system in which all major economic actors are dependent on the market for their basic requirements of life. Other societies have had markets, often on a large scale; but only in capitalism is market dependence the fundamental condition of life for everyone. And that is equally true of capitalists [that is, owners] and workers.”[1] This mass dependence upon the market makes the market the arbiter of life and death for the majority of the world. It is, more significantly, a way of thinking about the world.

Christians skeptical of the claims of the market metanarrative are nonetheless shaped by it, through the practices and rituals associated with daily life, which are inexorably shaped by the selfsame narrative. James K. A. Smith calls these practices and rituals “secular liturgies,” which “constitute a pedagogy, a training of our hearts and loves.”[2] Smith refers to this pedagogical nexus as the liturgy of the shopping mall, which through “visual and visceral media” trains us into its implicit, consumer-capitalist vision.[3] “The mall” is only Smith’s central image for what is actually an omnipresent reality of American life, just as present in the home, the gym, public streets, public schools, television, and computer screens: involuntary, inevitable, intrusive, virtually inescapable. The theology of the market is not merely implicit in its theories, but is enacted upon the individuals and groups who participate in it, willingly or otherwise.

Whereas the defenders of the global market boast increased freedom for all its members, the history of capitalism expansion does not bear this out. Catholic political theologian William Cavanaugh observes three significant areas in which, as the market spreads through globalization, it actually produces “unfreedom.” The first is advertising, a multibillion dollar industry that directs and creates both desire and dissatisfaction among populations. Whereas marketing portends to be “information about products so that consumers may make choices that are both informed and voluntary,” it is as the same time “a machine fully capable of creating desire and delivering it to its intended goal.”[4] Indeed, these are interrelated functions: “Marketing can manipulate desire successfully in part because of its success in convincing the broader public of consumers that it is not manipulating their desires.”[5] Cavanaugh seems particularly scandalized by General Motors’s department dedicated to “the generation of dissatisfaction” among customers who own cars that would otherwise long be useful. (One perceives the same trend to an even greater degree today among computer and cell phone marketing.) Secondly, global capitalism leads to the establishment of massively asymmetrical power relations within companies themselves. In 1980, the average American CEO made forty-two times what the average worker for the company made; by 1999 that ratio had increased to 475:1.[6] What Cavanaugh cites is a specific instance of a more general trend within post-industrial nations toward the accumulation of wealth among a small elite. French economist Thomas Piketty argues persuasively that this is not an aberration, but is a necessary outcome of a steady, stable market in which the rate of return for invested wealth exceeds the overall economic growth rate. Except in cases of remarkable growth, as from a non-repeatable technological boom or spike in population, this is the natural working of the market. If Piketty is correct, an “inegalitarian spiral” of wealth imbalance is intrinsic to capitalism, even in societies with a strong social safety net and aggressive investment in “upskilling” the work force.[7] As the owners of capital gain power, labor loses power. This trend is tied in part to the capability of transnational companies to move production overseas, where they pay wages as low as thirty cents an hour, which gives employers the power to say to the workers of a community, “You can accept this, or you can have no jobs. Take your pick.” Cavanaugh cites examples of overseas workers for American and transnational companies, working sixteen-hour days for wages that do not support their livelihood in dangerous and harmful conditions, often under armed guard. Frequently, corporations move production to areas already destabilized by global trade expansion, in tangent with bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which have “been pressed into service to promote economic globalization.”[8] A salient instance of this is the rush for American companies to open manufacturing centers in Mexico following the signing of NAFTA in 1994. Proponents of free trade in Mexico had amended the constitution in 1992 to privatize the ejidos, lands that had for generations been communally held and worked by peasants.[9] Janet Parker observes that due to this privatization, “the loss of these communally held lands, which are the life-blood of many indigenous populations, has greatly accelerated.”[10] These decisions were made specifically in order to facilitate a full transition to a market economy, to enable more free trade, yet in so doing it created the conditions in which the exploitation Cavanaugh laments can occur.

Why do companies do this? Cavanaugh notes that it is because they can, but also notes that in many cases it is because they must, which brings us to the third aspect of the “unfreedom” that free-market ideology produces. In an economy of unbridled powers competing, managers and other employees often find themselves powerless to do the things they would want, driven instead by market forces beyond their control. Managers often lament having to close American plants to ship production overseas.

In a world of consumption without ends, it is assumed that the consumer will want to maximize his or her own power at the expense of the laborer, and the manager does not feel free to resist this logic, lest his or her own corporation fall victim to competition from other corporations that are better positioned to take advantage of cheap labor.[11]

The same is the case for farmers who find they must change to a monoculture due to the demands of the market even as that both depletes their soil and makes them more dependent on the market and, hence, less free. The same is also true of consumers who might believe sweatshops are unethical, but either cannot afford to or could not imagine a way to purchase clothing not produced in them.

In this way, bodies of various kinds are splintered. Local residential communities become fractured along economic or class lines, leading to ghettoization, suburban sprawl, “white flight,” and gated communities.[12] Relationships between producer and consumer are sundered, as production is moved across the planet, or else occurs virtually in secret, as in most industrial farming in the United States.[13] Post-industrial centers of capital continue extracting resources from the majority world while embodying ways of life that cannot possibly be extended to much of the world: the U.S. alone constitutes 5% of the world population, while consuming approximately 25% of the world’s energy.[14] Thus the First World becomes increasingly incapable of relating morally to the majority at all. Pope Francis argues in Laudato si that the global north has accrued a moral “ecological debt,” owed to the global south, following effects on the worldwide ecology resultant from “the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.”[15] Far from uniting the world, globalization is thus far shattering it.

Even individual, literal human bodies are broken in the market’s machinations. In researching the tendency of aggressive free market capitalists to treat disasters as “exciting market opportunities,” Naomi Klein uncovered decades of what she terms “the shock doctrine.”[16] The shock doctrine rests on the recognition that the expansion of the market into new territories requires steps—the privatization of previously public options, government deregulation, and deep cuts to social spending—that are deeply unpopular. In order to see these implemented, coercion of entire populations has at times been necessary. In the aftermath of natural disasters, as in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina or Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami, rebuilding was accompanied with social restructuring.[17] In the absence of natural cataclysm, however, “infamous human rights violations…were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for introduction of radical free-market ‘reforms.’”[18] Klein explores the Argentinean junta’s “disappearing” of up to thirty thousand people during the 1970s, the social upheaval following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the Falklands War in 1982, the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis in which Yeltsin consolidated power to unilaterally privatize through military force and having opposing parliament members arrested, as well as less extreme instances of social disruption either presaged by or accompanying market transition. By no means did all expansions of the market depend on these kind of violent destabilizing factors, but the most extreme involved both the backing of the U.S. military and the direct involvement of Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics, as in Argentina under Videla and Chile under Pinochet. In these cases, large numbers of people were “disappeared” and tortured. Luis Justo, who has since ascended to chair the bioethics department at Comahue National University in Argentina, narrates that

more than 30 years ago I asked my surgical instructor about petechial lesions on the scrotums of some criminals interned in the surgical ward. The shocking answer was, “Oh, yes, the police make them all go through ‘the machine’ before taking them to the hospital.” The machine, the “picana electrica,” was a device for torturing prisoners with electric shocks, usually in the vagina, testicles, mouth, anus, or nipples. I was horrified by the fact itself but no less by the matter of fact tone in which the answer was given. As a medical student I was pretty powerless, but I went to the head of the surgical service and tried to lodge a formal complaint. I was rebuffed without any chance to make my argument heard.[19]

Individual bodies were tortured, not usually to extract information, but in order to intimidate and silence political dissent against changes being instituted. “As a means of extracting information during interrogations,” Klein observes, “torture is notoriously unreliable, but as a means of terrorizing and controlling populations, nothing is quite as effective.”[20] It remains unknown precisely how many of the disappeared were tortured, how many killed, but “from Chile to China to Iraq, torture has been a silent partner in the global free-market crusade.”[21] There is a sense, of course, in which this partnership is purely indirect. While the Nestlé Corporation will fight to restrict water from being defined as a human right in order to sell that same water to residents at huge profits—a form of economic violence—they do not direct their employees to the murder and torture of those residents.[22] Almost universally, the CEOs and employees of corporations, as well as public investors, are appalled by the violent excesses that can accompany a society in market transition even as their livelihoods are dependent upon it.

However, Klein argues that to the degree that globalization of the market frequently depends on “creative destruction” of traditional (non-capitalist) ways of life this violence is not an aberration, but is systemic. She cites former secretary general of Argentina’s Agrarian Leagues, Sergio Tammasella, who was tortured and imprisoned for five years. During the Argentine Tribunal Against Impunity he was given the opportunity to name individual soldiers who had abused him. Instead, he stated that the abuse he, his wife, and fellow members of the Agrarian Leagues had suffered could not be isolated from the economic interests such suffering served.

Foreign monopolies impose crops on us, they impose chemicals that pollute our earth, impose technology and ideology. All this through the oligarchy which owns the land and controls the politics. But we must remember—the oligarchy is also controlled by the very same monopolies, the very same Ford Motors, Monsanto, Philip Morris. It’s the structure we have to change. That is what I have come to denounce. That’s all.[23]

It is abundantly clear that the institutions of the market must be reassessed from the perspective of an ethic of life. Hinkelammert and Duchrow write that “every practical proposal regarding alternative institutions and actions is to be checked and judged by whether it is de facto useful to real life and whether anyone was excluded from the process of devising it or would not benefit from its consequences.”[24] They track the development of the institution of property—and the limits imposed upon it—across the history of Israel, noting the ways that the institution adapted to these precise concerns.

In the ban on interest of the Book of the Covenant (after 722 BCE) the point is to prevent a threat to life through the property mechanism of debt. Deuteronomy (622) adds the periodic cancellation of debt and debt bondage, if they have come about at all through the ownership mechanism. In the holiness law of the priestly writings (sixth century BCE) property is finally stripped of absoluteness because the earth and people “belong” to God and therefore people only have usage rights to the earth—with the consequence that every generation has to regain access to its own means of production. In the light of the political and ideological absolutization of the property-based economy brought about through the Hellenistic and Roman empires, faithful Jews and Christians can only opt to resist. They choose between God and Mammon and set up alternatives in small, attractive groups that freely share their property so that there are no poor in their midst.[25]

This is an historical—indeed, a Biblical—example of economic institutions being adapted and rebuilt from the bottom up. Similar proposals are on offer today. A Universal Basic Income (UBI) offered to every person in a society is one way to create a sort of virtual commons, empowering and protecting the most vulnerable in society without creating the same kinds of inefficiencies and patronizing stigma as means-based welfare.[26] The Movimento Sem Terra movement in Brazil struggles for fundamental land reform, an obvious necessity when homeless individuals and foreclosed homes ceaselessly coexist.[27] Cavanaugh points to cooperative corporations, which attempt to navigate Christian values and capitalist aims by embracing distributism, the form of “third-way” economics championed by Hillaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton. A prominent example is the Mondragon corporation, which is worker-owned and -governed. Within the company, “The highest-paid employee can make no more than six times what the lowest-paid makes; 10 percent of surpluses are given directly to community development projects.”[28]

Whatever policies one finds attractive and tenable, what is clear is that capitalism as exists is destructive of life on earth, destructive of relationships, and to the degree that it shapes Christian believers in ways contrary to the love of God and neighbor and stewardship of the earth, can rightly be called antichrist. Believers are thus impelled to condemn such a system and work for its conversion to something that brings life and promotes flourishing, both in our backyards and across the globe.

                [1] Ellen Meiksins Wood, “Capitalism’s Gravediggers,” Jacobin, 12 April, 2014, accessed 19 April 2016,

[2] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Character Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2009), 94.

[3] Ibid., 96.

[4] William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 16.

[5] Ibid., 16-7.

[6] Cavanaugh, 18.

                [7] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014).

[8] Janet Parker, “And God Said, Let There Be Many,” in Global Neighbors: Christian Faith and Moral Obligation in Today’s Economy, ed. Douglas A. Hicks and Mark Valeri (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 143.

[9] Maria Teresa Vazquez Castillo, Land Privatization in Mexico: Urbanization Formation of Regions, and Globalization in Ejidos (New York: Routledge, 2004), 1-3.

[10] Parker, 149.

[11] Cavanaugh, 22.

[12] David Gruesel, “The Injustice of Gated Communities,” Think Christian, 19 April, 2012, accessed 16 April, 2016,

[13] Matthew C. Halteman, Compassionate Eating as Care of Creation (Washington, DC: Humane Society of the United States, 2008), 23-36.

[14] Smith, Desiring, 101.

[15] Francis, Laudato si, sec. 51.

[16] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007), 9.

[17] Klein, 8.

[18] Ibid., 9-10.

[19] Luis Justo, “Argentina: Torture, Silence, and Medical Teaching,” British Medical Journal 326, no. 7403 (June 21, 2003): 1405.

[20] Klein, 126.

[21] Ibid., 15.

[22] See Kelly Price, “Nestlé: The Global Search for Liquid Gold,” Urban Times, 11 June 2014, accessed 16 April, 2016,; Matthew Boesler, “Bottled Water Costs 2000x More Than Tap,” Business Insider, 12 July 2013, accessed 16 April, 2016, bottled-water-costs-2000x-more-than-tap-2013-7.

[23] Klein, 127.

                [24] Franz J. Hinkelammert and Ulrich Duchrow, Property for People, Not for Profit: Alternatives to the Global Tyranny of Capital (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 161.

                [25] Ibid., 162.

                [26] Scott Santens, “Why Should We Support the Idea of a Universal Basic Income,” Huffington Post, 26 June, 2015, accessed 19 April, 2016,

                [27] Duchrow and Hinkelammert, 171.

[28] Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, 27. From the perspective of free-market ideology, there is no difference between this organization and Nestlé, to the degree both are free from state intervention and both consist of entities entering into contracts uncoerced. While the market lacks any mechanism or perspective by which to say which of these situations is “better,” a Christian account can clearly point to the good that Mondragon does: “Not only is the company successful and laborers highly satisfied with their work, but the communities in which Mondragon plays a significant part enjoy lower crime rates, lower rates of domestic violence, higher rates of education, and better physical and emotional health than neighboring communities.” Apart from these sorts of universally relevant measures, this cooperative form of management accords with Cavanaugh’s reading of the eucharist itself, as “the very distinction between what is mine and what is yours breaks down in the body of Christ.”

Thinking Morally about Same-Sex Love

Let us suppose that, as Robert Gagnon argues,[1] the scriptural presumption against the moral legitimacy of same-sex love is thorough and without exception. Not all exegetes agree with this interpretation, but let us set the exegetical question aside for now. Even if the Bible indeed says it, and we believe it, that does not necessarily settle a moral issue for us. The Bible, after all, offers no moral objection to slavery, and though slavery in the ancient world was not the racialized slavery of the American antebellum south, neither was it something that we would countenance today. Slaves in the society in which the New Testament was composed could be raped, beaten, and in certain circumstances legally killed by their masters.[2] Thinking morally about applying scripture to our lives is a move beyond mere exegesis—the reading and interpreting of texts in their original contexts—to hermeneutics—what Richard Hays refers to as an “integrative act of the imagination” in which “we are necessarily engaged in metaphor-making, placing our community’s life imaginatively within the world articulated by the texts.”[3] For Christian communities, hermeneutics are tested by their practical outliving, by “their capacity to produce persons and communities whose character is commensurate with Jesus Christ and thereby pleasing to God.”[4]

Moral reasoning based on the norms of the natural order has traditionally been referred to as natural theology or natural law thought. On the other hand, thinking that privileges the experiences of the individual or of the community that seeks to interpret the world has been labeled as “narrative theology.” We cannot, however, sharply divide these areas of thought. Because natural law seeks the conditions for human flourishing, it must accord with the experiences of actual humans. We must therefore take a phenomenological approach to understanding romantic love and sexuality: what they are for and when they are disordered.

Why do romantic love and sexuality emerge in humans in the first place? Many theorists posit reproduction or social constructionism as evolutionary foundations of romantic love, but James Giles proposes a vulnerability and care theory that I find very persuasive and also compatible with the main themes of the Bible. For Giles, “The experience of being in love involves a complex of desires for reciprocal vulnerability in order to care and be cared for.”[5] Accordingly, sexual desire involves “the physical expression of these [romantic] desires in the form of desires for mutual baring in order to caress and be caressed.”[6]

Vulnerability, dependence, and care have also become central to Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the moral life. For some time, MacIntyre had worked to establish an account of morality that was purely sociological, based in communal practices and tradition. In the introduction to his 2001 Dependent Rational Animals, he writes, “I now judge that I was in error in supposing an ethics independent of biology to be possible.”[7] MacIntyre thus seeks to reunite nature and narrative in his work.

Virtue always requires a telos, an end, a concrete conception of the good toward which actions should be oriented. Living morally as an embodied human, for MacIntyre, requires an awareness of two sets of irreducible biological facts: “Those concerning our vulnerabilities and afflictions and those concerning the extent of our dependence on particular others.”[8] The most basic fact of human life is that each one of us is born and maintained alive in a state of moral debt. Within such a natural order, the fundamental virtues are ones of “acknowledged dependence,” of which MacIntyre emphasizes “just generosity” and “elementary truthfulness.” Just generosity consists of three patterns of giving and receiving: affective/emotional relationships, hospitality, and openness to urgent need. Elementary truthfulness demands that we allow the other in any relationship to learn what they need to know, not concealing our own need to learn (that is, admitting our vulnerability), and not withdrawing from the circle of learning in some kind of “ironic detachment.”[9] Just generosity and elementary truthfulness are at the same time obligations that we as humans owe to one another and skills in which we strive to grow.

This account of the meaning inherent in human embodiment does not rely on strict gender binary or gender subordination. All human beings are infinitely indebted. As MacIntyre notes, some debts are measurable, but every parent’s “initial commitments” are in “in important respects unconditional,” because we never know what becoming a parent will end up demanding of us, and the human race could not carry on without such unconditional commitment.[10] Because all are infinitely indebted, all are equally bound to embrace the virtues of generosity and truthfulness, virtues that can only be established in relationship to particular others, that is, specific people as opposed to “humankind in general.” The reciprocal vulnerability of romantic relationships makes them a key institution for the cultivation of such virtues, and there is no compelling reason to presume that the genders of the individuals involved undoes that. Same-sex partners are as capable of generosity and truthfulness as opposite-sex partners, as these virtues do not rely on the natural subordination of one gender to another. Not only does gender subordination not figure into the virtues of acknowledged dependence, certain accounts of masculinity are toxic to them.[11] We may finally note in passing, though a much fuller account could be developed, that acknowledged dependence, just generosity, and elementary truthfulness are among the most central and persistent scriptural themes.

Robert Gagnon, however, perceives the gender binary as significant, not only because of his reliance upon biblical cosmology, but also on rationalist grounds. He writes that

If men and women are not really all that different…why is there little attraction to the opposite sex on the part of many homosexuals? For example, in male homosexuality, there must be something distinctively and significantly male in males, a masculine dimension utterly lacking in females, that causes some males to be attracted exclusively to other males and not, for example, to a female who exhibits stereotypically masculine traits.[12]

For Gagnon, this is what makes same-sex love unnatural and immoral: attraction to someone of one’s own gender is “sexual self-absorption and narcissism, or, perhaps worse, sexual self-deception.”[13] Self-absorption and self-deception would be clear violations of generosity and truthfulness. Gagnon’s analysis is problematic, however, as it defines essence (in this case, of gender) as infinitely more significant than individual identity. On Gagnon’s account, any attraction between two people of the same gender is in fact love of self, rather than love of another person, as no two men are more different from one another than any man from any woman. As a man, the only things I can love about another man are aspects of myself. I find this claim entirely unconvincing, as should everyone who has ever been in love with an individual and not every individual of a given gender. Moreover, as Paul Jewett observes, what makes a person other is not a matter of mere biological difference, but recognition of that person as an individual, “who is different from us and whom we may not seek constantly to conform to our desires.”[14] Otherness is not a biological feature, but a moral stance.

In fact, most elements of gender differentiation are deeply cultural and “anchored in the routines of the division of labor and the routines of one’s physical body.” [15] Isolde Karle observes that “each person (man or woman) is required (both implicitly and explicitly) constantly to emphasize those characteristics that correspond to the social definition of his or her gender identity and to carry out corresponding practices while suppressing inappropriate behaviors.”[16] Even the most basic aspects of daily routine—ways of walking, vocal intonation—are socially policed and “charged with an ethic, a politics and a cosmology.”[17] Thus, “women learn to smile, look down, and accept interruptions. In a particular way, women are taught how to sit, occupy space, and adopt appropriate postures.”[18]

Even at the biological level, there is no clear basis on which to speak of essential sex. There are many varieties of biologically intersex individuals, the result of various incongruities of up to five different biological variables, ranging from chromosomal factors in cell nuclei to external genitalia.[19]

It is not impossible for a “male” fetus (XY chromosomes and testes) to develop into a female—complete with labia, clitoris, a short vagina, breasts, feminine musculoskeletal structure, and female gender identity. This is the common pattern for intersexed persons with androgen insensitivity syndrome, one of the more common intersex conditions. Similarly, it is not impossible for a “female” fetus (XX chromosomes and ovaries) to develop into a male—complete with a phallus capable of vaginal penetration, male pattern hair growth, voice descent, masculine musculoskeletal development, and male gender identity—as is possible in more severe cases of congenital adrenal hypoplasia.[20]

Indeed, some individuals may never discover the underlying intersexual state of their gender identity. Gender is utterly irreducible to specific biological factors, and instead appears to emerge from some interstice of biological, mental, affective, social, and spiritual factors. As Megan DeFranza pointedly summarizes, “Males, females, and intersexed persons are all made of the same ‘stuff.’ We belong to the same order of being.”[21]

What do we do, then, with the exegesis that we set aside earlier? If scripture indeed condemns same-sex love as such, it is because scripture assumes a specific natural order with which human acts are either moral or intrinsically disordered. At this point, we may well ask why Paul would choose homoeroticism as the premier example of human rebellion in Romans 1. What makes it so clearly “contrary to nature” for Paul? Two major reasons present themselves, one literary and one social. First, there are clear literary-symbolic reasons for Paul to select same-sex eroticism as his illustration here. At the crowning of the creation account we find the gender binary, man and woman created together, divided, and reunited. Women pairing themselves with other women, and men with men, are a clear literary antonym to this. Indeed, Paul narrates a cosmic exchange, as human rebellion ends in this scene so antithetical to the creation account. Paul surely has Genesis 1-3 in mind here, but makes more direct reference to the Greek Life of Adam and Eve (sometimes called the Apocalypse of Moses), in which explicit mention is made of Adam and Eve “suppressing the truth,” “exchanging their glory for mortality” and exchanging their dominion for “unnatural subservience” to animals.[22] This is significant, as Greek Life narrates the fall somewhat differently from the Genesis account. The narrative is placed in the mouth of Eve, recounting the events to her children. Whereas Genesis portrays the serpent as the deceiver and does not mention Satan, Greek Life portrays Satan telling Eve through the serpent (a separate character from Satan) that he will only give her fruit from the tree if she will compel Adam to eat of it as well. She vows to do so, and though instantly upon eating she is shamed to perceive her nakedness and the deprivation of “the glory with which [she] was clothed” (20:3), she nonetheless carries out the plan to deceive Adam and force him to eat as well. (This may account for why Paul refers to women “exchanging” their natural relations for unnatural before mentioning men doing so, though other explanations are on offer.)[23] We cannot say conclusively how highly Paul regarded the account of Greek Life of Adam and Eve. He may have taken its fuller account of the fall narrative as entirely authoritative, or he may have regarded it as an expansive work that was literally untrue but highlighted important themes left implicit in the Genesis narrative. In any case, he clearly affirmed the elements that he incorporated into his own mini-creation account in Romans 1, and Greek Life seems to have informed how he understood φυσις/nature, and thus what “accords with” or “opposes” nature.

The second driving reason for Paul to choose homoeroticism as the premier illustration of fallenness is the culture in which Paul lived. A reader today who peruses Greco-Roman literature depicting or referencing homoeroticism cannot help but come away alarmed and disturbed by the practices with which Paul would have been most familiar. Virtually all same-sex contact was oppressive or violent: promiscuity, prostitution, and pederasty.[24] In Roman society, the distinction between active and passive partners in male same-sex acts was of extreme importance, with the active partner being considered especially masculine precisely because the passive partner was being “used, humiliated, and physically and morally damaged.” [25] Sarah Ruden writes that, “Heterosexual penetration could be harmless in the Christian community, in marriage… homosexual penetration could be harmless nowhere. There were no gay households; there were in fact no gay institutions or gay culture at all, in the sense of times or places in which it was mutually safe for men to have anal sex with one another.”[26] Ruden cites a wide number of writings—mostly journal entries and poems written so as to appear light-hearted—from leering men hoping to use slaves and young boys (one writes of his love for boys aged twelve to sixteen, allowing that possibly one could be attracted to a boy so old as seventeen, but warning that “if someone has a yen for older boys, he’s not playing anymore but looking to get some of what he gives”), as well as boys fearful of being so used. [27] Ruden is impressed that while many Greco-Roman moralists and satirists “lit into” passive homosexuality—that is, into the victims—Paul leveled his criticism against men who engage in such acts, and thereby shame not the victim, but themselves.[28]

However, this analysis (like the more popular work of John Boswell) fails to account for Paul’s mention of female same-sex relationships, which were of a fundamentally different character. Surely, this omission is in part because there is vastly more extant Greco-Roman writing about male same-sex relationships than female. Bernadette Brooten, however, has amassed a tremendous amount of ancient material on the subject, focusing upon the poems of Sappho, Greek erotic spells and potions (some of which were used by women to attract women they loved), astrological texts, medical texts, and dream interpretation manuals. The attitudes reflected across this wide spectrum of materials reflects the consistent and persistent belief that the natural role for women was passivity, and thus “Paul condemns sexual relations between women as ‘unnatural’ because he shares the widely held cultural view that women are passive by nature and therefore should remain passive in sexual relations.”[29] Paul upholds heterosexuality for the same reason he expects women to submit to men: the misogynistic assumptions of his cultural worldview.

Given that our scientific, philosophical, and experiential resources do not support this understanding of nature, are we pressed to reconsider the naturalness of what the authors of scripture knew to be unnatural? This is a complex hermeneutical question. The Bible, according to Charles Cosgrove, “contains both momentous and trivial instances of scientifically outmoded empirical knowledge. To take a weighty example, the temporal and cosmological aspects of much early Christian eschatology is [sic] untenable within the modern scientific worldview. An inconsequential example is the Gospel saying, ‘The eye is the lamp of the body…,’ which assumes that the eye is a source of light.”[30] With the exception of extreme fundamentalists—such as flat-earth conspiracy theorists and geocentrists—Christians have typically been content to grant that such empirical knowledge falls outside the scope and purpose of scripture, which is rather theological, historical, and moral. Difficulty arises, however, when scripture makes theological or moral determinations on the basis of empirical presuppositions that cannot be maintained. As David Balch observes, “Our ecclesiastical debates do not concern simply Paul’s ethics and ours, but Paul’s science and ethics and our science and ethics.”[31] The author of First Timothy presumes that women are “weaker” than men and more easily deceived. This reflects the widespread Hellenistic view that men are rational and women passional.[32] For this reason, he does not permit women to hold authority over men. While some churches continue in both this descriptive and hermeneutic posture, contemporary understanding largely rejects the notion that women are by nature less capable of rational decision-making, and many Christians therefore regard the strictures on women exercising leadership as culturally bound. We may likewise regard the scriptural presupposition that same-sex love is sinful because it is unnatural as a culturally bound perspective.

                [1] Dan O. Via and Robert A. J. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 88-9.

                [2] For a brief overview, see Jennifer A. Glancy, Slavery as a Moral Problem in the Early Church and Today (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011).

                [3] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: HarperCollins, 1996), 8.

                [4] Ibid., 9.

[5] James Giles, “A Theory of Love and Sexual Desire,” abstract, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 24, no. 4 (1994): 339.

[6] Giles, 339.

[7] Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 2001), 2.

[8] Ibid., 1.

[9] MacIntyre, 119-52.

[10] Ibid., 90.

                [11]See, e.g., J. A. Mangan, ‘Manufactured’ Masculinity: Making Imperial Manliness, Morality and Militarism (London: Routledge, 2014).

[12] Via and Gagnon, 90. It is interesting that Gagnon essentially takes the argument from orientation and re-purposes it to his own non-affirming ends.

[13] Ibid., 91.

[14] Paul K. Jewett, Who We Are: Our Dignity as Human: A New-Evangelical Theology, ed. Marguerite Shuster (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 339.

[15] Isolde Karle, “Beyond Distinct Gender Identities,” The Depth of the Human Person: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Michael Welker (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014), 335.

[16] Karle, 335.

[17] Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination (Cambridge: Polity, 2002), 27-8.

[18] Karle, 335.

[19] Megan K. DeFranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2015), 23-67.

[20] DeFranza, 173.

[21] Ibid.

[22] John R. Levison, “Adam and Eve in Romans 1.18–25 and the Greek Life of Adam and Eve,” New Testament Studies 50, no. 4 (October, 2004): 519.

[23] Cranfield, 126-7.

[24] Loader, 137.

[25] Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in his own Time (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), 49.

[26] Ruden, 49.

[27] Ibid., 60.

[28] Ibid., 66.

[29] Bernadette Brooten, Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 216.

[30] Charles H. Cosgrove, Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five Hermeneutical Rules (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 116.

[31] David L. Balch, “Concluding Observations by the Editor, Including a Comparison of Christian with Jewish Interpretation,” in David L. Balch, ed., Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 300.

[32] Cosgrove, 144.

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,”, accessed December 8, 2013,

[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.