Why is “Catholic” a Gloss for “Creation”? (or why “sacramental” needs a moratorium)

This is from a comment response to a post here (with slight editing so as to make my writing look better than it is).

The divide is not between some generic “catholic” Church (which oddly includes magisterial Protestants) versus the more modern “Baptist”, but rather the older one of nature and grace. Modern evangelicalism looks a lot more like medieval Romanism in this regard than many would care to admit. The classic Protestant position admits that nature is already a reflection of the divine and possesses its own integrity. This is also why it is no surprise to find great works of techne among even the non-believers and pagans (see for instance, the sons of Cain in Gen. 4:20-22).

It isn’t obvious how the “good writers” are uniquely influenced by their “catholic” or “paedobaptist” theology. O’Connor loves the pentecostals in her works, and the most common “sacramental” occurrence is sermonic by way of speech, even prophetic critique.

Lewis is an all-time great, atop my list of heroes, but he’s as much Barfield as he is Hooker.  Augustine, Plato, and Hegel walk into a bar…

Merton is Catholic, but deeply fascinated by Eastern and non-Christian thought.

We could add more modern day “catholic”-feeling writers who are nothing of the sort: Borges, Eco, or even Cormac McCarthy. I see folks mining these guys for “sacramental” mystique all of the time, but I doubt they’d actually like what they got from a conversation with any of them.

And let’s not throw Bunyan out the window simply due to familiarity. He was really a Baptist. Like for real. Yet he was also pretty much the #1 best seller until Harry Potter (which is an interesting conversation itself).

The fact of the matter is that good writing is a product of anthropology. It’s nature in all of its good divine-reflecting glory. There are too many great writers from Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and even atheist backgrounds for us to miss this point, and again, it isn’t always so easy to tell whether they are drawing inspiration from or reacting against their backgrounds. To pick the best for “our team” after the fact is just poor manners.

“Worldview,” “sacramental,” and “catholic” are all tired and need to be put to bed.


10 thoughts on “Why is “Catholic” a Gloss for “Creation”? (or why “sacramental” needs a moratorium)

  1. I read the original post, Rev., and I think there is a notable plethora/derth of writers, though I agree with you and don’t think it’s a sacramental/catholic/worldview/etc. issue.

    What is it that Doug Wilson says about Christian Book Stores? Whatever it is that drives folks into those also causes the mainline modern evangelical culture not to revere good writing, to seek after it, to demand it. I don’t think it’s some deep and different feeling about words, but there is a simple supply and demand issue. There is limited demand from the evangelical populous, and thus, a limited supply.

    Think of Lewis publishing the individual screwtape letters in the Guardian. Do we have an appetite for that?

  2. Pingback: Why is “Catholic” a Gloss for “Creation”? (or why “sacramental … - Christian IBD

  3. I am not sure it is time to put them to sleep. That is what moderns do when they start to win. They get tired and move on to something newer and more cutting edge. I think its probably time to buckle down and fill some of these things out more thouroughly, for sure, and start banging back the creeping vines, but lets not give up the garden when we’ve finally got some little green shoots just because the weeds grow in fertile soil too.

    And I hope you and your wife are still doing well.

  4. Ann Lowrey,

    An appreciation of classical learning and liberal arts would be a good start at writing the wrongs, as well as “conservative” Christians of all sorts allowing themselves to become comfortable with quality in study, art, and production.

    I’d blame modern philosophy’s departmentalization of knowledge (specialization) as well as its separation of the older unity of goodness, truth, and beauty as one reason. There’s also the more prominent consumerism. Evangelical writers are mostly writing pulp because that’s where the market is. It is also simply the case that most people wouldn’t know where else to look anyway.

    And of course, there’s no necessary need for an Evangelical to go out and write a book “for the Evangelicals.” He should go out and write a book for God’s glory, his own fulfillment, and the integrity of the calling of literature. Then it’s up to the Evangelicals to notice (which will take us back to my first point).

  5. Jason,

    It’s good to hear from you. For the sake of full disclosure, I have to say that I’m not really for modifying the standing project of worldview-ism, but instead a resourcement of classical and Protestant philosophy. If you have already read Allan Bloom’s masterful Closing of the American Mind, you can see a pretty clear parallel between his charge of “The German Connection” and “The Nietzscheanization of the Left” with much rhetoric amongst “Christian culture” circles.” If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend grabbing a copy and giving it a close read. The use of “culture,” “value,” “commitment,” and “perspective” as intellectual categories is unmistakeable, and it actually serves to obliterate the more classical position of objectivity and the union of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

    “Worldview” (weltanschauung) as an intellectual tool is itself a product of German idealism, and it prioritizes epistemology and sociology to metaphysics. We have not set up a new garden when we use this methodology, but rather join the modernists in their own garden which is already in full bloom.

    Within that framework comes the misuse of terms like “sacramental” and “catholic” to signify, not what they literally mean, but rather certain unstated aesthetic commitments (and often quite un-Reformed theological assumptions).

  6. I think this point from your comment is important: “Within that framework comes the misuse of terms like “sacramental” and “catholic” to signify, not what they literally mean, but rather certain unstated aesthetic commitments (and often quite un-Reformed theological assumptions).”

    It’s not that these terms are bad, wrong, or even misguiding when used well. Like when we consider the linkage between creation and the sacraments, for example. But exactly like you mentioned, “sacramental” has come to mean a wooey aesthetic. Consider this slightly modified poem:

    God, who guided men to think,
    who has laid it down that wisdom
    comes alone through suffering.
    Still there drips in sleep agains the heart
    griefs of memory; against
    our pleasure we are temperate.
    From God who sits in grandeur
    grace comes somehow violent.

    Sacramental, right? I guess that means Aeschylus was ahead of his time.

  7. Hi Steven, it’s good to see you writing again.

    I see the world to be so fragmented, that it’s just overwhelming to even to think about where you might start. Then you (I) realize how old you (I) are (am) and how little time is left just to live, much less to try to begin to take on a project such as this one, and it’s easy to despair.

    Then you realize, “There’s a pearl of great price.” I must sell everything that I have and buy it. And that pearl is Christ.

    Reading this blog post, I wanted to quote something that Robert Reymond said, that the word “sacrament” is a word “for which I have no particular fondness.” Everett Ferguson, in his “The Church of Christ,” says “This book has consciously avoided a separate category of ‘sacraments’ in its organization of the material. Such a category is a later theological construct for which there is no explicit New Testament authorization.” There is one thing, and it is that God, seeing man in his helpless, fallen state, first promised to redeem him, then kept that promise and condescended to take on flesh and in doing so, He Himself saved helpless, fallen man.

    “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” The other categories that get imposed upon that are for the most part not very helpful at all and are sometimes quite harmful.

  8. Hey John,

    I’ve got no problem with “sacramental” in the true sense. I believe that God gave us particular pledges of His grace, to be used within the context of the covenant of grace, and I believe these sacraments play a very important role in our personal understanding of salvation and assurance, giving us particular identities within the visible church.

    My complaint here is with taking the term to mean something different and then applying it to aesthetics, supposing that a “sacramental aesthetic” must be inspired and caused by a “sacramental theology.”

  9. Put me in the category of “I’ve got no problem with “sacramental” in the true sense, but I have no great fondness for the word.” There has simply been too much emphasis put on it, as you say, to the detriment of all else that God has made, which he said was “very good.” His “very good” is very good indeed.

  10. Talking about Catholic writers in English is a little like talking about female ice skaters in Jamaica. For a Catholic, English might as well be a heathen tongue. True, I speak it, and sometimes pray in it, but most often I pray in God’s own Castillian, when I am by myself at least. But that short list of writers (Merton, O’Connor, Chesterton, etc.) represents a very small, incestuous group regardless of their talent. More often than not, the conservative American Christian is proudly monolingual, or adverse to picking up a darn translation the prose of which may not be the best. All the same, once you’ve traversed the thoughts of Pascal or the sacred rhymes of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the Catholic literary universe does not seem so small or homogenous. Literature is literature, and the fact that we try to extract the sacred from it speaks to the poverty of the contemporary imagination. American Christianity has always been filled with spiritual Quixotes looking for a past that was never there.

    I always like to point out that, in reality, there are no really notable Catholic writers from Latin America in the last century or so. Those who have some Catholic imagery in their writings, like Gabriela Mistral or Carlos Fuentes, are often more agnostic, spiritist, or secular in their point of view. The story of most writers in the Catholic world is that they might have some nostalgia for their (mandatory) Catholic upbringing, but most hate the clergy and think the Church is a backwards enemy of progress. But as they say, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. That is far from a ringing endorsement of the “sacramental” point of view.

    As I am fond of saying, most American Christians would hate living in a regular Catholic society. That’s why most intellectuals worth reading down there are agnostics or outright militant atheistic Marxists. For them, the clergy takes advantage of the people using superstitious rituals and images that they barely believe in themselves. I am a rare duck, because I happen to like that stuff and don’t particularly care for that “real Christianity” rubbish. But “sacramental” is way more sloppy in the real world than what is acceptable to the comfort level of the average American Christian, Catholic or Protestant.

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