Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Observations on Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Culture; Or is God like the Laws of Physics?

Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

John 4:20-21, 23-24

For some time I’ve been reading up on theological literature from the broad range of Christian traditions, and I’m beginning to realise that the differences in theology ultimately arise from differences in the cultural understanding of God.

To put it very brief and crudely, all the differences between Protestants and Catholics/Eastern Orthodox can be simply summarized as this: Protestants have a much more “personalized” view of God, whereas Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have a much more, erm, “stuff-like” view of God. Naturally to say this is not that say that all Protestants/Catholics/Eastern Orthodox conform to this, there are many charismatics and Pentecostals whose view of God would be something very close to that of the Eastern Orthodox in it’s “stuff-like” view of the Holy Spirit. (Being “full” of the Spirit’s presence anyone?), but if one were to speaks of the essence of the difference between the various theological traditions, this would be it.

To explain this thesis further, the idea is that Protestant’s view of God sees God more like a subject a personal subject with Will and words. God is inherently a person who wills and decides and lets himself known by speaking words, and many theologians have rightly pointed out that our immediate forefather is William of Ockham and the Nominalist tradition (although I would argue the tradition runs through Tertullian and St Anselm whose work I’m reading now which has an amazing emphasis on the Will of God). Anyway, God according to this conception, is a conscious being. God decides, He wills, he decrees, in words, he commands, and obliges, and it is in his willing and speaking whereby God acts. (Thus the Protestant emphasis on the Kerygma as the locus of God’s activity in the Church.)

But the Catholic/Eastern Orthodox view of God is… well, more primitive for a lack of a better word. God works via, erm, stuff and things. God “infuses” grace and virtues into souls. If you perform certain rituals, things become sanctified and holy, statues, rosaries, places and icons. And these holy things possesses spiritual “power”. Notice the rather physical theological language of the Catholic/Eastern Orthodox. Beneath the natural physical world teems an entire universe of spiritual stuff and things which can be “transferred” by physical contact, by performing certain rituals, grace is “infused”, things and persons are “powerful”, etc.

God as Energy and Stuff

As a blogger writes very helpfully about his Russian Orthodox friend,

I’ve been mulling over why what he says and does is so alien to me. I think a lot of it comes down to one basic, fundamental difference–he thinks of divine matters largely in terms of a power to be harnessed. God is not thoroughly impersonal, but at the very least, he is emanating or parceling out some kind of power that can be tapped into by doing the right things. Someone who reads too much theology is free to blast me in the comments for not using the right technical, theological terminology, but this friend of mine doesn’t, so why should I?

I first noticed this when he talked about the monasteries in Russia. The first word he used to describe monks was “powerful.” The fastidious life of monks allows them to tap into great power and profoundly shape invisible realities–it really sounds a bit Star Wars the way he talks about it–and they basically live on a higher plane than the rest of us. At one particular monastery, they have saved bread cooked by a particularly powerful monk hundreds of years ago and bake it into new loaves in order to distribute the holy energy to others. Icons work a similar way–by being painted the right way, blessed with the right words, and anointed with the right reagents, they too are imbued with great power, many of them with miraculous healing power.

Cue someone explaining to me that this is a “sacramental” or “spiritual” view of reality compared to my “rationalist,” “materialist,” and “inert” view of reality.

The thing is, I think the difference is not really about “reality;” it’s a view of God. I think the above way of thinking is probably tied to Plato somehow, but I’m not philosophically educated enough to say. It certainly seems to fit in a general “nature of things and how they are manipulated” sort of thinking. In this case, it’s the nature of the power God is radiating and how it can be obtained, controlled, parceled out, or whatever (Stop stop! We have fancy Greek theological words for those things! It changes everything!).

On a personal note, I have Eastern friends who incidentally also speaks of prayers by certain people or groups also in the same language, they are “powerful”, etc. So I do think he’s on to something here.

God as Will and Word

This blogger than goes on to explain the Lutheran (and properly Protestant!) conception of reality,

The progenitor of the Lutheran view of God is probably William of Ockham, who basically swept all the quasi-Platonist reasoning about the abstract nature of things and insisted that all that matters is what God wills or says. We don’t go to the lengths Ockham did in pretty much ascribing pure arbitrariness to God, and Lutheranism is certainly tempered by far more than purely philosophical considerations, but I think the Lutheran emphasis on what God says has its origins there. So when an Orthodox fellow talks about how an icon gets its power, which, at least for my friend, is in purely impersonal terms, a Lutheran hears, “Since a very holy person painted it thusly and did such and so to it, God most certainly will do this and that to it.” That sounds rather absurd to us, but not to him, because he’s not thinking in such terms–he’s thinking about it in a way not far removed from the way I think about the way chemicals will react in a certain way if I mix them together in a certain fashion.

For the Lutheran, the way God interacts with the world is absolutely inseparable from his will, and what we can know of his will is absolutely impenetrable without his word. This shows up everywhere in our theology and practice, and it is why things like icons and extra sacraments aren’t just differences–they simply do not make sense to us. We’re looking for whether God has decided he would do this, or where he has declared that such a thing is true. Did God say that we could put the Holy Spirit in this oil? Does he really care how you paint the eyes on St Symeon? What has he promised to those who abstain from meat twice a week? For the Orthodox, it’s sufficient to believe that nature of reality makes it so; everything is obvious enough without answering such questions. I’m not being polemical at all. When I ask such questions, my friend looks at me like I am completely ignorant about painfully obvious truths, as though I have asked whether God has said that the sky is blue or that the Cubs are going to lose.

On God, Science and Nature

Needless to say, I do think the Catholic/Eastern Orthodox view of God and reality is rather pre-scientific. (And I don’t see why they should feel insulted by this label as they often proudly boast of their pedigree to the primitive church and fathers, an Anglican term by the way.) The universe is alive with spiritual realities. Things, icons, statues, holy oils and holy water and holy bells and holy candles, etc are all alive with spiritual power and blessings which can change things and lives. Just think of the Catholic culture of relics whereby dead saints of the past left behind some trace of their “holy power” in their stuff which is infused with their spiritual goodness, or the Eastern Orthodox example of the bread above.

I’ve noted before about how Protestantism maybe the necessary precursor to the scientific revolution, so I’ll just summarised my arguments here. Protestant iconoclasm denounced the idea that God’s grace and spiritual activity can be found in icons, statues and places as gross idolatry and superstition and declared that God’s grace and action can be found only in God’s Word in the heart and grasped only by faith and not in special places or items. Thus, this “de-spiritualisation” of nature, the idea that nature and things are alive to spiritual activity and intentions, paved the way for a purely “mechanical” view of nature, things operated purely by the laws of physics which can be described in precise mathematical terms, and don’t change their nature simply because some priest has sprinkled “holy” water or “holy” oil upon it. Descartes, a loyal Roman Catholic and one of the father of analytic geometry, declared that give him motion and matter and he construct the universe, was denounced as an atheist. It fell eventually upon the nominal Anglican Isaac Newton to be the father of mathematical physics. (And is it any accident that most of the major advances in mathematics physics are made by British physicists, Newton, Maxwell, etc and German physicists, Gauss, Heisenberg, etc and are mainly Protestants?)

But to maintain a strictly “de-spiritualised” view of nature requires considerable discipline and trust in the Word alone, as idolatry and infusing spiritual power and reality in nature and things is a very basic and primitive human instinct and is as old as human history (just think of New Age and stuff). Even today Evangelicals are themselves feeling lost in a “dis-enchanted world” bereaved of God’s presence and are starting to speak of how God “undergrids” nature and is the foundation of the laws of physics and acts through them (although I can’t help wondering what on earth does it mean to speak of God “enacts the laws of physics”, does he simply mechanically run it? How is a mechanical God who indifferent runs the laws of physics suppose to “re-enchant” nature?) Then again, Evangelicalism and Reformed theology in general as I’ve noted again and again, are really closet Romans without robes as since they don’t have the “real presence” of Christ acting in Word and Sacrament alone in this world so they’ll need to find God’s activity elsewhere.

Conclusion: An Example in Ordination

Anyway, I digress. I guess for me as one of those nihilistic Protestants decried by both Catholics and Evangelicals alike, I think that it takes an act of bad faith, self-deception and dishonesty to “re-enchant” nature and attempt to think of them as possessing more activity than that prescribed by the laws of physics and that it seems (to me!) patently absurd to think that God is going to pay extra careful attention to my prayers simply because I pray in a special place or have in my pockets some special icon or holy item or whatever.

But then again, that is just my Protestant prejudice. Such arguments of “absurdity” would simply go right past the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, who think that special places and icons and people do draw God’s attention more. But that is simply because they just have a very different conception of God as I’ve noted from the start. Their concept of God is more like the laws of physics, maybe I should call it the laws of spiritual physics. Holiness and spiritual power can be located on the map. And these holiness and spiritual power travels and is transmitted via physical contact and movements, and through stuff, etc. God isn’t really so much a person who acts according to Will and Word but is more like a personal force, “energies” in the word of the Eastern Orthodox.

This is a very important difference to be aware of when discussing theology with them. And to end off, I’ll simply use one of my old examples on ordination.

According to the Catholics/Eastern Orthodox, ordination is this special rite whereby by the laying of hands, some spiritual gift or power is transferred from one predecessor, necessarily a bishop, to one’s successor. This transfer works only if you perform a valid “sacrament” or ordination. If you don’t do the ritual rightly, then no spiritual gift or power is transferred, the person being ordained isn’t changed at all and is not a valid priest or whatever.

But to the Protestant, this language makes absolutely no sense. The Protestant doesn’t think of God’s activity in such a “stuff-like” manner as the Catholics. The Protestant would “translate” this talk as “If the correct people (a person in “apostolic succession”) who possesses the right stuff says a couple of words in the correct manner, then God is going to “transfer” the spiritual stuff from one person to another.” The Protestant will always be asking, what does God think? What’s God’s will? Remember for the Protestant, God is a conscious being more than an impersonal force, thus the Protestant would immediately refer to the “God’s perspective” to understand the issue.

This is why to the Protestant, the idea of disputing over the “validity” of ordinations is simply ludicrous. Recently the Chinese government wants to have a couple of bishops in the Catholic Church ordained without the permission of the Pope. According to the Catholic conception, a bishop who performs the ordination in accordance to the right rite, will have made a “valid” ordination, in that the “spiritual power” is really transferred, but this ordination though “valid”, would be “illicit”, because it is not approved by the Pope.

But this distinction is meaningless to the Protestant. To us, we would imagine God saying, “I DO NOT approve of this ordination because my Vicar on earth has not given his permission! But dammit I can’t stop my spiritual power from being transferred because you got me with your valid sacraments. But I STILL don’t approve of it! It’s valid but not illicit!”

But then again, that just our Protestant prejudice. And of course, we do think that in the John 4 quote at the start, Jesus is really removing spiritual significance from places and things to truth…


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This entry was posted on July 29, 2012 by in Uncategorized.
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