Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

"Law Like Love"--4th Myth--Fundamentalists and Fideists

Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

Law, fulminates the fideistic ecclesiastic, the imam from his pulpit distrustful of Reason, revolves around revealed truth, and so is found exclusively in revelation, in a “priestly book.” In the West, the “priestly book” is most certainly the Christian Bible. Or perhaps the Law is found in the cleric’s extrapolation and musings on the “priestly book,” that is, the authority of the sermon which comes to the people from the high pulpit. Finally, perhaps the Law is to be found in the institution of the church, its dogma, represented by Auden through the synecdoche of the steeple.

In these stanzas, Auden appears to tie together and reject both Protestant and Catholic notions of Law. First, he objects to the notion of Law as Will as advanced by the Protestants. The objections do not appear to be specifically aimed at whether the theories of Law advanced by Christian theorists within their ecclesiastical communities is true, but whether they are of any practical use in a time and place where there is no longer any belief in such ecclesial structures, i.e., whether they have any practical application among an “unpriestly” people.

One of the points Auden appears to advance is that under the Protestant theories Reason, in all events, is not to be found in Law, and so the “unpriestly people,” especially the unbelievers, do not comprehend it. What is advocated here by the “priest” is law based upon revealed authority alone, Law as Will, with no relation to Reason. Ultimately, what is espoused is a fideistic or voluntaristic notion of Law, a divine positivism, which is as objectionable as a human positivism, since both essentially say that Law is will, whether the will be that of a human or divine legislator. By and large, Auden refers to the Protestant conception of law, inasmuch as most Protestants rejected the natural Law, a Law based upon Reason, and relied instead on religious positivism for their source of Law. This is the teaching of Luther and Calvin, and, by and large, the inheritance of Protestantism, which rejected the Catholic notion of the Natural Law. Law under this notion becomes inscrutable to Reason. It is a product of Fiat, and demands an unreasonable (or unreasoning) consent.

Auden placed the blame of modern society’s ills at the threshold of the Cathedral at Wittenberg.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad
Find out what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.[i]

As Auden had written earlier in his one-act play The Dance of Death completed in August 1933:

Luther and Calvin put in a word
The god of your priests, they said, is absurd.
His laws are inscrutable and depend upon grace . . . .[ii]

Equally, we could point to the Muslim rejection of the natural law and its notion of Law as Divine Will and say,

Law, says the imam with an imamish look,
Expounding to those who are not the ulama,
Law is the words in my Quran,
Law is my minbar and my mosque.

For Auden, the revealed will of God alone is not a sufficient foundation of Law, for how then can we expect obedience from the unbelievers, from the “unpriestly people,” from those that are not of the household of Faith? Thus, such a fideistic theory of law has both practical and theoretical flaws.

Historically, such a theory of the Reformers, which allowed for no common basis for law, was to lead to the Wars of Religion, the temporary respite in the formula cuius regio eius religio, and finally to the French Revolution and an atheistic or pseudo-atheistic Liberalism.

It is significant to point out that Auden was just beginning his venture into Christianity when he wrote this poem. As Anthony Hecht puts it in a vivid image borrowed from Auden himself, Auden’s Christianity in late 1939 and early 1940 was like Moses’ view of the Promised Land, that is, Auden had only a “Pisgah view of distant salvation.”[iii] In entering his incipient life as a Christian at the time Auden wrote this poem, he had not accepted any communal or ecclesial notion of Christianity and, though he had a felt need for an Unconditional or Absolute, it did not rely on any creed or communal worship. His Christianity was existential, subjective, and not tied to any creed or ecclesial communion. Though later he was to recognize the important of communal worship, and that led to his formal reception into the Episcopal Church, this was not his attitude in 1939 and 1940. Thus, though Auden recognized the Protestant reformer’s historical role in disassembling the Western order, he did not envision in any sense a return to Catholicism. His point was that the West had to discover its “base,” and one that did not rely on the rejected Catholicism of the past. He rejected the institutional Church, and, adopting an extreme Augustinianism, he appears to advocated the Protestant notion that man after the Fall remained in God’s image, but not in His likeness (i.e., suffered from depravity), and so had lost the faculty of recognizing the Natural Law. This was contrary to the Catholic teaching (which he called Thomist) that man remained made in both God’s image and likeness, though born in a state of original sin and needing God’s justice and grace to bring him back into a full relationship.[iv] The faculty in man was not so ruined by the Fall that he was unable to use reason to grasp the natural moral law, though, in practice, because of weakness of will, bad habits, ignorance, or failure to use right reason, man often failed to abide by the natural moral law.

“The basic weakness of the democracies is the failure to realize that if you give up Catholicism—and I think we must—one has to discover one’s base again and that is a very long and exhausting job.” Auden opined that the modern democracies were like a “lazy protestant living off the fat of his Catholic past and imagining that metaphysics and mysticism are unnecessary—the virtues will be kept alive by good form.” [v]
Perhaps also Auden makes reference to the precursor of the Christian dispensation, the Jewish Priest and the Jewish Law. In the poem “For the Time Being,” Auden has the narrator say:

Where is the Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh reign
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone. Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own?[vi]
Auden was fascinated by the communal aspects of Judaism, and, for a time, attracted by the communal aspects of Judaism, he even contemplated a conversion to Judaism. But Auden would have recognized that there is no merit in imposing the demands of the Torah on an unbelieving, stiff-necked people. Like the Star beckoned the Magi, more is required to patch up the disorder in the West than “orthodox sophrosyne.”[vii]

Auden then directs his attention to yet another myth of Law; one which begs the question; one which seems particularly tautological.

[i] Auden, “September 1, 1939,” This is the interpretation given by Hecht. See Hecht, The Hidden Law, 157. In support, Hecht quotes Auden’s introduction to a five-volume anthology entitled Poets of the English Language co-edited with Normal Holmes Pearson: “[T]he publication of Luther’s ninety-five Theses in 1517 . . . end[s] five centuries of uninterrupted humanism during which the energies of European civilization were directed towards making the whole of reality universally visible to the physical eye or to the eye of reason, on the assumption that there was no truth, however mysterious, that could not be objectified in an image or a syllogism. This humanistic period begins with Anselm’s ontological proof of the existence of God . . . . [and] remains secure until Luther.”
[ii] Quoted in Mendelson, Early Auden, 269. The final stanza addresses how the Reformation fideism ultimately led to classical economic liberalism of Adam Smith: “So laissez-faire please for the chosen race.”
[iii] Hecht, The Hidden Law, 244. The attributive noun Pisgah refers to mountain summit in the land of Moab, in the territory of Reuben, where Balak offered up sacrifices, and, more importantly, from which Moses viewed, but had not yet entered, the promised land. See Num. 21:20; 23:14 and Deut. 3:27.
[iv] Mendelson, Later Auden, 484 (note). Mendelson states: “Catholics, following Aquinas, argued that an analogia entis remained, a likeness between God and man that enabled humanity to recognize natural law.”
[v] Mendelson, Later Auden, 143 (quoting from a letter to Spender dated April or May 1940).
[vi] Auden, Collected Poems. “The refrain lines, the first and the last, suggest that in the deluded hope of being saved by orthodox religious law, the people of Israel had surrendered either the voice of private conscience of the mores and regulations of secular society. And the invocation of Flesh, contrasted with Mind, should recall a similar opposition of the same faculties, represented by Rousseau and Plato, in the New Year Letter.” Hecht, The Hidden Law, 255.
[vii] Auden, Completed Poems. Sophrosyne means right or prudent reasoning.

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