Tuesday, April 26, 2016

I am a Papist, I Am a Puritan

It is tempting, in religious affairs as in any others, to treat minor disagreements as marks of absolute difference.  So just as Democrats and Republicans, in their squabbles, often lose sight of the fact that they are all equally Americans, so too Protestants and Roman Catholics have historically acted as though only one side or the other could be truly Christian.

John Donne was having none of it -- or at any rate, as little as he could get away with.  In an era when this absolute difference was actually enshrined in law, and yet more deeply in popular culture -- and when Anglicanism itself was torn sharply between its Puritan and Episcopalian sides -- he spent much of his ministry publicly walking a fine line.

On one hand, he was a Protestant's Protestant -- one of the Anglican representatives to the Synod of Dort, much travelled in Germany, disliked by Laud and given to taunting the Jesuits whenever he could.  On the other hand, Donne had been raised Catholic in a family of martyrs (including not one but two Jesuits); his brother had died a prisoner for the old faith, his unconverted mother lived in the Deanery of St Paul's.  Both Donne and his wife were relations of the celebrated martyr St Thomas More, and his movement to Anglicanism had been slow and painful.

It is not rare, in his preaching, for Donne to play with his auditors, coyly offering one side of himself, and depending upon them to remember the existence of the other. Our favorite example is this passage from a sermon on Acts 23:6-7, in which he expands upon Paul's exclamation to the Sanhedrin ("Men, brothers, I am a Pharisee!").  We have re-punctuated for clarity:

Beloved, there are some things in which all religions agree: the worship of God, the holinesse of life; and therefore, if when I study this holinesse of life, and fast and pray and submit my selfe to discreet and medicinall mortifications for the subduing of my body, any man will say “this is Papisticall, Papists doe this,” it is a blessed protestation, and no man is the lesse a Protestant nor the worse a Protestant for making it:  “Men and brethren, I am a Papist; that is I will fast and pray as much as any Papist and enable my selfe for the service of my God as seriously, as sedulously, as laboriously, as any Papist.” 
So if when I startle and am affected at a blasphemous oath as at a wound upon my Saviour, if when I avoyd the conversation of those men that prophane the Lord’s Day, any other will say to me “this is Puritanicall, all Puritans do this,” it is a blessed protestation and no man is the lesse a Protestant nor the worse a Protestant for making it: “Men and brethren, I am a Puritan; that is, I wil endeavour to be pure as my Father in heaven is pure, as far as any Puritan."

It is delightful to imagine the impact of such statements upon a congregation keenly sensitive to the language of theological partisanship. I am a Papist! I am a Puritan!  They are shocked, thrilled, and at the same time relieved by their knowledge that he is neither.

It is the Anglican "middle way," of course (although Donne himself offered Lutheranism as a middle path between Papism and Calvinism), and a call to such unity in faith as may have been possible at the time.  It is also the rhetorical device called coincidentia oppositorum, a cousin to the paradox by which some Lutherans call themselves "Evangelical Catholics."  

But Donne's trope, in its cultural context, is far stronger than merely saying "I am A Protestant Catholic" or whatever.  It is closer to a modern preacher saying "I am a Fundamentalist Liberal," but even that does not evoke the bare-knived enmity of the parties in question.  Perhaps we could get the same effect by saying, if there were occasion to do so, "I am a Terrorist for Peace."

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Another Thing Luther Didn't Say

As we have often observed, many of the best things Martin Luther ever said were in fact said by somebody else.  Likewise Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill.

An ELCA synod celebrated Earth Day this year by posting a pretty little meme to Facebook:

The sentiment is lovely. After all, traditional Christianity has long spoken of reading the "Book of Nature," meaning that God is revealed in the Creation.  But did Luther ever say this?

Some Facebook discussion ensued, little of it supported by research.  "How beautiful," said one.  "Doesn't sound like Luther," said another.  "Natural theology be damned," snorted a third.  That sort of thing, which substitutes opinion for fact.

One participant suggested, perhaps a bit wistfully, that this was a paraphrase of a remark from Luther's 1527 essay That The Words "This is My Body" etc. Stand Fast Against the Fanatics.  The precise passage she cited goes like this:

The Scriptures teach us ... that the right hand of God is not a specific place on which a body must or may be, such as on a golden throne, but is is the almighty power of God, which at one and the same time can be nowhere and yet must be everywhere. [....] 
On the other hand, [the power of God] must be present in essence at all places, even in the tiniest tree leaf.  The reason is this:  it is God who creates, effects, and preserves all things through his almighty power and right hand, as our Creed confesses.  [LW 37:59, alt.]

This is Luther the ubiquitarian at work, and as such it represents a somewhat polemical position, over against the Swiss Reformers who argued that Christ, sitting at the right hand in celestial glory, could not reasonably be said to be present also in the terrestrial bread and wine.

But saying that Christ can be present in the whole Creation at once is not quite the same as saying that the message of salvation can be discovered in nature.  Not to mention that the words are entirely different.

So what is the actual source of "trees, flowers, clouds and stars"?

Funny story, with an emphasis upon "story.".

In the early 1860s, a popular novelist and poet named Elizabeth Rundle Charles was asked by an editor to write a book about Luther's life.  The result was The Chronicles of the Schoenberg-Cotta Family (1862), a curious novel that pretends to tell the story of Luther through the yes of his neighbors.  It is available on Project Gutenberg, if you are interested.

In the voice of a neighbor girl, Else, Charles tells a tale about sitting with Katie during the Doctor's absence at the Coburg in 1530. Luther using the family garden as a sort of living catechism:

It is delightful too, [Frau Luther] says, to listen to the heavenly theology [her husband] draws from birds and leaves and flowers, and the commonest gifts of God or events of life. At table, a plate of fruit will open to him a whole volume of God's bounty, on which he will discourse. Or, taking a rose in his hand, he will say, "A man who could make one rose like this would be accounted most wonderful; and God scatters countless such flowers around us! But the very infinity of his gifts makes us blind to them." 
And one evening, he said of a little bird, warbling its last little song before it went to roost, "Ah, dear little bird! he has chosen his shelter, and is quietly rocking himself to sleep, without a care for to-morrow's lodging; calmly holding by his little twig, and leaving God to think for him." 
In spring he loves to direct her attention to the little points and tufts of life peeping everywhere from the brown earth or the bare branches. "Who," he said, "that had never witnessed a spring-time would have guessed, two months since, that these lifeless branches had concealed within them all that hidden power of life? It will be thus with us at the resurrection. God writes his gospel, not in the Bible alone, but in trees, and flowers, and clouds, and stars." 
And thus, to Mistress Luther, that little garden, with his presence and his discourse, has become like an illuminated Gospel and Psalter.

In context, this actually does sound more like Luther.  It is less about finding salvation in nature than about finding in nature images of the salvation we have encountered in the external Word.  Rundle, who had certainly read a great deal in preparation for her book, may very well have had a source in Luther's works.  or she may have invented this from whole cloth.

Until somebody comes up with something better, though, we are going to call this one a phony.  So far as the evidence goes, Luther neither said nor wrote the words to which people have been heedlessly appending his name for lo these 150 years.