Monday, July 2, 2012

Nice has never been a virtue (the shifting conception of God)

I have noted the development of para-theology in several related posts. I do this neither to justify or criticize such a development, only to, I hope, provide some narrative of the changing popular conception of God in the West as well as offer a description of a very real religious moment in Western culture, for better or worse depending upon one's perspective. This shift may or may not be of some consequence - it is impossible to say if the conceptualizations floated about have any staying power or probability. However, they are here; they are very real and, I believe, seriously reckoned with, be it from a religious, philosophical, or theological point of view. As some of you may know, I am in the process of researching a book (well, series of books) on this subject. What follows is an observation that will likely not make it into any manuscript but it is worth jotting a few lines on the subject nevertheless.

One of the reasons behind the popular metamorphosis of God in the West is our changing presumption of what God must be based upon our experience of what human beings are. The experience of humanity has colored our perception of God in the past. The experience of medieval Christendom and its distant monarchs in whom resided absolute authority gave rise a conception of Jesus as the distant celestial judge, as can often be seen in medieval iconography of the celestial Christ. This in turn gave rise to the cult of the saints as it is popularly thought of in the West, by Catholic and non-Catholic alike. That is, an assemblage of heavenly patrons with awesome powers of intercession who plead one's case before the seat of divine judgment regularly. Most imminent among them is the matron of heaven herself, the Virgin Mary, the Mater Dei whose role as the birth giver of God, though still, paradoxically, subject to God's judgment like the rest of us, yields immeasurable influence in the Creator's decisions.

Times of course change. The popular piety of the middle ages underwent a long decline as the West moved into the Renaissance and succeeding eras of culture. While the concept of saintly intercession remains, the context in which it is believed to happen, thought entirely celestial, lacks the imagery of petition before the throne of judgment. God is no longer seen as a Deity constantly watching his earthly subjects and decreeing a daily judgment upon their lives. In the Roman liturgy, the effects have been notable. Whereas the previous Missal was littered with collects in the sanctoral that did not hesitate to ask God for the efficacious intercession of a given saint (in contradistinction from the cult of the saints in popular piety), duly noting our lack of merit for such intercession, the present Missal tones down such language. Saints are approached as models or exemplars of divine caritas and their intercession is conceived of as a function of said divine caritas.

This shift can be seen when comparing a number of collects currently in the sanctoral to their counterparts in the 1962 Missale Romanum. This is not to say that the concepts of intercession before the seat of divine judgment has been entirely or of God as judge of humanity has been removed from the Roman liturgy. It remains, though like many medieval accretions it has been greatly redacted in the revision of the liturgical books following Vatican II. The comparison I am going to draw, therefore, while typical, is not uniform in the contemporary form of the Roman rite. For this comparison, though many more prayers could be used, I am going to examine the proper collect from the feast of St. Rita (May 22nd).

Deus, qui sanctae Ritae tantum gratiam conferre dignatus es,
at inimicos dilligeret, et in corde ac fronte caritatis et passionis tua
signa portaret: da nobis, quaesumus, eius intercessione et meritis;
inimicis nostris sic parcere, et passionis tuae dolores contemplari,
ut promissa mitibus ac lugentibus praemia consequamur. (Missale Romanum 1962)

Largire nobis, quaesumus, Domine, 
sapientiam crucis et fortitudinem
quibus beatam Ritam ditare dignatus es,
ut, in tribulatione cum Christo patientes,
paschali eius mysterio intimius participare valeamus. (Missale Romanum 2002)

The most obvious observation to make is that we have two distinct collects, both composed (to the best of my knowledge) in the twentieth century. The prayers exemplify how the change in theological paradigm has influenced even the Roman rite - which should not be surprising as the Roman liturgy (and the Latin liturgy in general) has always born influences from the culture, including popular theological beliefs. The original collect demonstrates the tendency to appeal to the merits of the saint and, it seems, subtly correlates the saint's intercessory "power" with her merits in the eyes of God. The prayer does not necessarily appeal to the Deity's nature as reason the prayer's efficacy. God does not do this or that because it is in the divine nature so to do. Rather, God does or could do the desired action of the prayer on account of the merits of the heavenly counterpart making the case for the earthly supplicants. This is, admittedly, a very old concept in the history of religions. The prayer from the 1962 Missale Romanum follows the assumption of a heavenly "pantheon" a successive degree of "lesser" heavenly beings who are closer in proximity to human supplication on account of having been human and to divine efficacy on account of having been transfigured into celestial being (read: saint) following the cessation of physical existence.

By comparison, the collect of the 2002 Missale Romanum follows certain biblical presumptions about the nature of the Deity and his relationship to humanity. The evocation of the paschal mystery simultaneously alludes to Jesus' life as parallel to the Pasch as well as the concept of God presented in the paschal narrative of the Old Testament. God is the transcendent who may become immanent at any given moment and there are definitive actions God undertakes in the moment of immanence in favor of the people in covenant with him. This collect does not presume a distant divinity for which we need a heavenly counterpart of special merit. The collect presumes our merit to receive the divine action on account of the covenant between us and God; the divine action could/would occur in a context of relationship with the Deity itself. Aficionados of the older liturgy will correctly remark that this collect is somewhat at odds with traditional Catholic piety. However, such persons should reckon with the fact that the concept of the divine nature intimated by the prayer and the relationship of the Deity to humanity is quite biblical and, if the gospels have any credibility, is in reasonable proximity to Jesus' own concept of God.

This is not to say that the older liturgy is less biblical in its orientation or more enchained to medieval tendencies. It is not; there are indeed many prayers in the Missale Romanum of 1962 that readily betray a pre-medieval influence and are closer to certain strains of biblical thought - the secret from the seventh Sunday after Pentecost and much of the Roman Canon are two fine examples of this. This is to say, however, medieval presumptions eventually found their way into the old missal and regular Catholic prayer.
A consequence of the theological orientation of the prayer from the 2002 Missale Romanum is the abandonment of God as conceived in the medieval period. However, as Christian liturgy has continued to be revised among all denominational lines the rejection of God's judgment has become more expansive. It is not merely the medieval concept, but indeed the notion that God would judge a human being at all that has become anathematized in Western culture. We can see this in the revisions of many funeral rites among Western Christians. The idea that the soul requires a period to be judged by God has largely been redacted out of many funeral rites and indeed there is the presumption that the human soul is immediately transposed into heaven. To the best of my knowledge, the conservative backlash against this development has been largely limited to a few eccentric voices.

The common retort one encounters in reaction to these developments, both in Christian liturgy and in popular theology (or para-theology) is that such persons ignore the scriptural instances or the logical conclusion that God does indeed judge. It seems that contemporary Westerners, especially in the States, desire a divinity of niceness as opposed to justice. The compassionate Jesus, more conservative voices would retort, ignores the Jesus who picked up a whip in the temple, warned his followers that he could conceivably deny knowing them to the Father, etc. True, the God of eternal niceness and anti-judgment is a bit too facile; however, to reject this conception of God outright would ignore the cultural necessity that has inspired this palpable theological notion.

If one were to take a popular survey and asked what characteristics mark a person as holy, one would find that there is a popular belief, even in more conservative camps, that a holy person is fundamentally nice - even tempered, not prone to anger, always seeking a way to help. This popular presumption is in reaction to the at times unyielding cruelty, if not inhumanity, of our contemporary culture. How many interactions does the contemporary American engage in during which he or she feels his or her humanity has been ignored if not denied? It seems our society is constructed in such a manner that institutional protocol triumphs over individual interaction, policy trumps all things and quashes the normal impulse to treat another humanly. Our society appears geared in such a way so as to totally dehumanize, both the person facilitating the active dehumanization and the person receiving such treatment. It is easy enough, and probably more common, to forgo an in depth societal analysis of the situation and simply boil it down to receiving cruel or indifferent treatment and desiring the other party to be nice. We desire some form of reprieve from policy induced maltreatment and we note, almost as a godsend, when we receive such reprieve. It is the difference between being stopped by a state police officer who follows policy to the detail without any affect and the one who will try to engage you on a somewhat personal level, at least to the point of discerning the context of the offense. We will likely go away from that cop who cuts us a break with a sense of gratitude. We'll view the other with no degree of sympathy, reeling from the blunt force of policy and rarely recognizing that as dehumanized as the policy renders us, it has already render the officer - and rarely does it give him a reprieve.

We live in a society in which institutional policy and procedure affords us precious few chances to be human. Our society in turn, I believe, seeks a God who is polar opposite of the society we increasingly experience. For lack of philosophical or theological depth, what we're seeking in God receives a rough and ready description as kindness or nice. This is our contemporary definition of holy; this is our popularly held cure for the wounded soul. Indeed, there are many wounded souls. Sometime back I was invited to attend a Lenten church mission in a suburb of Long Island. It was led by a priest-nun pair from a religious order and placed a good deal of emphasis on tactile experience. This particular day included the use of oils and reminded me of aroma therapy. At one point, they conducted a healing ritual and present an "oil of human kindness," the purpose of which was to facilitate reconciliation. You would forgive your enemy and the person who wronged you would become open to conversion of heart. To be blunt, the whole thing was rather tacky and left me wondering if this very wealthy area of Long Island couldn't afford something of more substance and better quality. That was during the event. It still seems tacky to me now, however, it has, in retrospect, demonstrated that there is a pervasive need in our culture for kindness and compassion. There are many people, even among the affluent, who feel hurt, wronged, or wounded and the desire is for something more than healing, it is for a total change of behavior. In a context such as a Lenten mission, this is a change of behavior that s believed to be accomplishable only through some divine intervention, a miracle believed to be possible because regardless what God is, God must be kind - because this seems to be the one thing our culture isn't.

Does this theology float with me? Not really - there may be a need to be nice, but for the extremely oppressed there is a need for a God of vengeance. However, I think a thoughtful look at our culture can tell you where this theology comes from. We always seek to receive from God things we otherwise cannot have. I do not, as a matter of principle, endorse the concept of God as "divine human kindness." It is far too limited and stifles the dynamism of the Deity as presented in the canon. Furthermore, such limitations on human behavior are likely to drive the development of religious inspired neurosis. This being said, I do believe all persons prone to observing religion or the developments in theology should take note - it is a very real process that has left a strong mark on the popular conception of the Godhead.