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The Christianity of gnosis eclipsed by a Christianity of progress

Monday, 1 Sep 2014

Boniface VIII on Staff and Scrip, Dr John Dunn.

Boniface VIII's Papal Bull of 1302

Luther’s rhetoric of antithesis contrasted the destructive force, which he clearly associated with usury and a reversion to the Law with, as he saw it, the sacred, fecund, clear, ordered unity of the mystery, based on a theology of the cross. He associated the first of these antithetical states with the disordered and fragmented nature of fallen man. Whilst in the latter, he valued the hierarchical harmony of original justice - the Truth no less.

In the modern world, we have come to think about sin in a subjective way and have completely lost sight of the objectivity with which it was once understood. The medieval mind felt itself sufficiently in touch with objective truth to know that sin was a disruption of the objective nature of things. It was a blindness to the truth.

This cast of mind defined original justice as order and original sin as disorder, or a rebellion against the cosmic hierarchy. It was vertical in orientation and in accord with the famous (or notorious) Papal Bull of 1302: ‘The way of religion is to lead the things which are lower to the things which are higher, through the things which are intermediate...’* Social institutions assumed a sacramental character as the outward and imperfect expression of a supreme spiritual reality, in which the forces of destruction and disorder were held at bay. Society itself was conceived as a single organism, a people of God, which lived out St Paul’s metaphor of the church as the body of Christ.

The social organism was founded on the principle of unity in multiplicity. Each thing was considered to be in a relationship with something else in conformity with their respective natures, and thus in conformity with the right to fulfil those natures.

Hierarchy in the social organism was accepted as an extension of the cosmic harmony, without which a reversion the fallenstate of man would ensue. Without hierarchy there would be disorder; the realisation of a particular nature would clash with all other natures seeking fulfilment.

This contrasts with modern thought, in which an individual right is always absolute and therefore excludes all others. Any attempt to give all rights equal validity fails, because equality destroys rights, i.e. the right of a nature to be what it is. Equality is eventually reached on a commodity basis, on the purely quantitative plane of numerical unities (1 = 1), which is only possible through the destruction of all the qualitative differences that make up these diverse natures. Equality destroys diversity and a right ends up being the right to nothing.

In the medieval social organism, it was accepted that hierarchy was needed to preserve this right, which must renounce its absoluteness and consent to its own relativity. One right would have more of a right to something than another; but this renunciation was not felt as resignation and compromise, it was based on something other than constraint. There was no police enforcement of the law in medieval society. The hierarchical subordination of individuals in the social organism was regulated by their degree of proximity to the Principle. This required the submission of the creature to the Creator,the relative to the Absolute. By this act of submission, all natures had access to a formal and qualitative equality, not horizontally amongst themselves, but vertically with regard to God.

A refusal to submit would be tantamount to repeating the Fall, the act of revolt that had repercussions all along the hierarchical axis. The natures forming this axis were not destroyed by that act of original sin, but they could no longer fulfil themselves according to their truth: they were the stones of a toppled building scattered on the ground. By Adam’s sin ‘original justice was taken away, whereby not only were the lower powers of the soul held together under the control of reason, without any disorder whatsoever, but the whole body was held together in subjection to the soul, without any defect.’ (St Thomas)

The destruction of original justice had resulted in a new order. In reality this was a disorder but, and this is the critical point, it was not self-apparent, precisely because there was no longer any access to the criteria of the original hierarchy, which alone could reveal it to be a disorder. This meant the disorder was lived as an order. Adam could not have known the truth of sin. Moreover, it is not by chance that the dogma of original sin was not elaborated in the Old Testament, but by St Paul. As if to emphasise this great unknowing, Christ repeatedly exposed the Pharisaical adherence to the Law of his detractors as sinful self-righteousness. The point made was that no-one could understand what happened on the last day of earthly Paradise until the day of Christ’s passion. In Jean Borella’s words, ‘we needed to wait for the Incarnation of that One who is Truth, infinite Wisdom, Sun of Justice, Hypostatic Hierarchy, the Divine Word, for the injustice of sin to be fully and totally revealed’.**

The Pharisaic followers of the Law handed Christ over to that epitome of worldly pragmatism, Pontius Pilate. Thus in the Passion, Christ confronted all that was contemptible in the state of fallen man: self-righteousness and pragmatism. To Pilate’s question ‘so you are a king?’ Jesus answered ‘you say I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth...’ The pragmatic Pilate responds with the question ‘What is truth?”

Subjectivism and moral relativism are betrayed in the very question. They were prominent too in the self-righteousness of the Jews who, together with Pilate, spurned the truth in condemning Christ. The truth in all its grandeur and purity was not apparent before the raising of Christ on the cross. From that point, the world could only be true to the extent that it reflected God,the creative logic and the eternal reason that brought it into being. For with Christ’s passion a new hierarchy came into being that united man to other men in their union with God, through Christ. If the truth is objective, then ‘bearing witness to the truth’ means giving priority to God and his will - the truth of the cosmic hierarchy - over against the interests of this world and its powers. The antithesis stated in these terms could not be more stark - choose God or the devil.

We have seen that medieval society sought to reflect the truth in an order of faith that stretched from the parish church and manor, to kingship, the Holy Roman Empire and Christendom. Securing the resultant social organism meant the maintenance of a constant vigilance against forces wholly inimicable to Christic justice, namely the Muslim threat externally and the practice of usury internally - that latter, as we have seen, drew the strictures of the major church councils in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as well as the expulsions of the Jews from England (1290), France (1306) and Spain (1492).

No wonder the increased acceptance of usury and a reversion to the Law in theology was met with so much hostility by Luther. To him, and to others who saw this coming years before, Calvinistic covenantal theology was indeed a replaying of the Fall. At this point a cyclical historicism emerged, just as a Judaic linear understanding of history became dominant. The former existed amongst the scattered ruins of the past, whilst the latter pressed ahead in a manner that would later become triumphalist progressivism and liberalism. A traditionalist Christianity of gnosis, with an emphasis on the cross, was eclipsed by a Christianity of progress, with its emphasis on the Law. The component parts of Christianity split apart, the vertically orientated, which was Hellenistic and pagan in origin, from the horizontally orientated, which was Judaic in origin and earth-bound.

* The Papal Bull: Unam Sanctum of Boniface VIII, quoted in R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Pelican, p.34.
**Jean Borella, The Secret of the Christian Way, State University of New York Press, 2001, p.101.

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