Monday, January 29, 2018

Luther & the Enchantment of the World (Ten Questions)

The questions are my own. But the answers are all quotations from Mark Mattes's brilliant book, Martin Luther's Theology of Beauty: A Reappraisal (2017).

1. Did Luther disenchant the world? 
One can have an enchanted world without the Platonic itinerary leading beyond the senses to the intellect, and from the intellect to the soul, and from the soul to the divine. Luther does not rule out analogy altogether, but analogy is best established ex post facto: through the light of Christ's resurrection such analogies become obvious in nature and human relations (14).
With Luther, we can and should affirm a depth to material reality. His is no protosecular perspective. Indeed, God as masked is ever working through creatures to provide for creaturely needs or to impose consequences upon creatures who overstep their bounds. But law alone is not definitive of reality. Reality is defined by the gospel as well. The gospel undermines the hierarchical scheme as a scale that alone traverses reality, particularly when it is interpreted as a ladder by which sinners can climb to God. From the perspective of the gospel, if the cosmic ladder should abide as a helpful heuristic tool to interpret reality, then it can only be a one-way ladder from God to sinners. Indeed, law as accusatory comes to end in Christ (Rom. 10:4). Beauty, then, is not a self-perfecting of nature by means of supernatural aid; instead, it is calling forth a new creation into being through grace (2 Cor. 5:17) (165).
 2. Was Luther a nominalist?
For nominalists like Ockham, all that exists are particular entities having particular qualities...  Luther was educated in the Ockhamist (nominalist) tradition. However, his teachers were more eclectic in their approach to the status of universals that they supposed. While the approach of Luther's teacher Trutvetter assumed a theory of participation of creatures in God, which is closer to a realist position on the status of universals as objective realities... [Luther's] approach, similar to that of his teachers, is more fluid than his self-designation [as a nominalist] would indicate. When he calls himself a modernus, he is referring to semantic and logical skills he gained from disputational methodology...  but he thinks in terms of "natures" as sets of possibilities by which we generalize and classify objects in the world. In theology, however, he could at times think in terms or appropriate language very similar to that of the realists.  For instance, when he describes Christ as the forma of faith, in which believers share the same form as the object of their knowledge, Christ, then Chris is the reality as such, the universal (if you will), and believers as "Christs" have their reality as participating in Christ, as Christ's instantiations in the world (21-23).
3. But come on, he's still a nominalist, right?
[G]iven that the nominalists held that God of his absolute power (de potentia absoluta) could declare humans "righteous only because God accepts" them "as such quite apart from any infusion of grace" (the doctrine of acceptance), Luther was decisively antinominalist. For Luther, "imputation is nothing else but the work of grace. And grace, instead of being the arbitrary will of God, works the justification of the sinner because of Jesus Christ" (citing Hägglund,'s 'Was Luther a Nominalist?) (27).

Luther's training was in nominalist logic, but his spirituality was deeply indebted to mysticism, which, seeing the soul as a bride of Christ as a groom, is apt to honor images of the believer's union with Christ. Luther reworks both traditions in light of the gospel. Because God in his being is not merely or solely equivalent to, coterminous with, or reducible to eternal law, as nominalism taught, Luther discovered that God in his proper work is merciful and loving. Likewise, union with Christ is no reward for piety but a gift received in faith. Luther's eclecticism is not inconsistent, because his standard for evaluating philosophy is primarily the requirement of clarifying and advancing the gospel, which philosophy is called to serve. Luther's theological ontology is not one that pits relationality against participation; instead, divine favor (relation) grants a new being (participation). (17).
4. Then was Luther a realist?
For nominalists, grace elevates nature by requiring humans to honor what God has enjoined them to do via covenant (pactum), while for realists, grace perfects humans as they more and more conform to eternal law. For Luther, both views fail to love God for his own sake because we seek our own self-fulfillment as we exercise our potential even in our quest for salvation. ...for Luther, theology does not prefect philosophy (realism) nor is it parallel to philosophy (nominalism); instead, it sets limits to philosophy, which surreptitiously seeks to enter theology's arena (matters of infinite and/or grace) and also exploits its logical tools for rigorous clarification of doctrine (25).
The distinction between law and gospel governs Luther's approach to philosophy. Nominalism and realism are no longer alternatives for him because their conclusions must each be evaluated in light of the law/gospel distinction. Luther charts a new path beyond that philosophical debate. In Christ, men and women are new creations, new beings, and they are not merely the set of all who claim Christ as their own but instead share in the form of Christ and so instantiate Christ himself in their service, which is similar to but not the same as realism. Even so, his overall positioning of philosophy in relation to theology has a nominalist contour [which] has its place when restricted to this-worldly matters. (42).
 5. But didn't Luther ruin the beauty of the medieval universe?
In a sense, Luther affirms the pancalism [everything is beautiful] of his predecessors, but not on the basis of establishing the convertibility of the transcendentals of goodness and beauty on metaphysical grounds. Indeed, God is hidden because wheat humans experience is often not God's beauty, but what appears to be God's indifference or downright antagonism. If there is to be any certainty with respect to beauty, it will be had in Christ alone. Christ is goodness and beauty, and through Christ humans can understand the world as creation, as gift and as God's communication to us.  In other words, the gospel opens creation as beautiful and conforms the human intuition of its beauty...  not on the basis of an intellectual argument but because faith resituates humanity away from its tendency to claim some divine status for itself and toward a childlike trust the receives the goodness of creation as it comes to humanity from the Creator.

That sinners are clothed with an alien righteousness that makes them beautiful is a trait that they can claim before both God and the world. Believers have a new identity in Christ - beauty. Likewise, enjoying this beauty in Christ, they can be open to the beauty with which God surrounds them in the world  (112).
6. But wasn't Luther hamstrung by Scotus's univocity?
For nouvelle théologie (as outlined by Boersma) "participation" is supposed to be that middle that allows both nature and supernature to be connected, as the imperfect is to the perfect. But this is quite literally beauty as glory, an aesthetics of perfectibility and not receptivity, attempting an ascent into God. Luther should be interpreted through neither the lens of univocity nor that of analogy. Instead, God sets the conditions for everything that exists, including being. Only through Christ do we have access to God as merciful and loving. Nor can Luther be accused of contributing to a "nominalist fragmentation of created order," which regards sensible objects as separate from in and in competition with one another and separate from their transcendent origin. For Luther, creatures are properly related to God through faith, which permits God to be God for them, and they are properly related to each other when they serve (thus, when they are not in constant antagonism with each other)... (180).
7. But if Luther isn't to blame, who is?
Secularity is best understood not as the dismantling of the Platonic infrastructure of Western thought (since, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, it is a series of footnotes on Plato), but as the dismantling of a biblical worldview. Modern philosophers and literati have offered unrelenting critiques of a biblical worldview so that the "self" may be unencumbered by "tradition," "authority," and ultimately God. Such matters should not intervene in its quest for greater self-discovery and self-awareness however it achieves those ends, provided no harm is done to others (180-181). Even more than foreclosing on Plato, undermining or eliminating a biblical worldview - as happened in the thinking of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) - guarantees a secular outlook (181).
8. Still, does Luther really have any contribution to make to aesthetics?
It is often claimed that the Reformation led to a "secularization" of art. But, as noted, disenchantment with nature is not due to Luther's theology but is a result of early modernity's attempt to free itself from the shackles of a biblical worldview because it was perceived as heteronomous, a threat to human freedom as self-definition (194).
While [John] Milbank, following [Charles] Taylor, sees [the Romantic claim that beauty will save us] as an unintended consequence of the Reformation's valuation of daily and family life, it is hard to see it as faithful to the Reformation. Instead, it is a detachment from, distancing from, or even rebellion against the Reformation. The Reformation honored the secular sphere not as secular in the sense of a religiously vacant, neutral, or "naked" public realm but instead as another locus - other than the gospel - of God's providential agency. [Romantic artistic tendencies] can be unmasked as an aesthetics of perfectibility, albeit in a secular mode, where God serves no longer as the objective standard of perfection but as the individual's own inner compass indicating whether self-actualizaing autopoiesis has been achieved. It too, for Luther, would be an unnatural desire needing to be "extinguished," since it fails to accord with the truth that God's forgiveness and promise are sufficient to bring meaning and wholeness to life [197).
9. But Christian Neoplatonism still has much to offer, right?
The Reformer agrees with the medieval assumption that everything perceived is a manifestation of the divine, but he models a different, non-Platonic approach. Indeed, he counters Neoplatonism, with its tendency to see matter as something to be superseded by intellect or spirit, at work in Karlstadt, Zwingli, and the Schwärmerei. Luther has no disenchanted worldview. But his enchanted world is free of the attempt to self-justify through merit by climbing the itinerary of the spiritual ladder. Hence, "all that our body does outwardly and physically, if God's Word is added to it and it is done in faith, is in reality and in name done spiritually. Nothing can be so material, fleshly, or outward that it does not become spiritual when done in the Word and in faith... He is present everywhere, but He does not wish that you grope for Him everywhere. Grope rather where the Words is. There you will lay hold of Him right" (citing LW 37:92; 36:342) (176-177).
No doubt, Platonic perspectives helped many early Christian sort through many aspects of the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity. But Christians should not take their stand on the value of Plato's philosophy. The current North American religious milieu has been described as "gnostic," more than anything honoring a "sacred self" or core within each individual. Truth be told, many contemporary gnostics are fairly Platonic-like, valuing the nebulous, intangible, and everlasting "self" in place of the ancient category of the "soul," but obviously are not Christian (180).
10. Is there anything remotely resembling Luther in Hans Urs von Balthasar's theological aesthetics or David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite?
Von Balthasar comes as close to Luther as a Roman Catholic can when he restates the nature of form in a cruciform way on the basis of an analogia Christi (analogy of Christ) as a countermove to Karl Barth's christomonistic rejection of the analogia entis (analogy of being). Von Balthasar writes, "If the Cross radically puts an end to all worldly aesthetics, then precisely this end marks the decisive emergence of the divine aesthetic" (citing Balthasar, Glory of the Lord I, 471) (200).
[F]or Luther, in contrast to David Bentley Hart's metaphysical approach to infinity, it is clear that outside or apart from Christ, infinity is ambiguous; it is not clear that it is good or beautiful. It may well be tantamount to Hegel's "bad infinite": one damn thing unendingly following another (158). But the fact that Luther falls short of offering a comprehensive aesthetic upheld by a single principle or series of principles applicable for all times and places actually rings true with David Bentley Hart's contention that the word "beauty," "indicates nothing: neither exactly as a quality, nor a property, nor a function, not even really a subjective reaction to an object or occurrence, it offers no phenomenological purchase on aesthetic experience. And yet nothing else impresses itself upon our attention with at once so wonderful a power and so evocative an immediacy. Beauty is there, abroad in the order of things, given again and again in a way that defies description and denial with equal impertinence" (citing Hart, Beauty of the Infinite, 16) (189).
That'll settle the Manichees. But don't take my word for it. Buy this book!