New address: 24 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210-1409.
James Luther Adams, published in On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1976). Used with permission.
Note: Bold text did not appear in the original. It is added here to highlight passages mentioned in "Preparing to lead this workshop" in the workshop's Introduction.
James Luther Adams, published in On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1976). Used with permission.
Note: Bold text did not appear in the original. It is added here to highlight passages mentioned in "Preparing to lead this workshop" in the workshop's Introduction.
"It was in the earliest seventies," Charles Sanders Peirce tells us, "that a knot of us young men in Old Cambridge, calling ourselves, half-ironically, half-defiantly, 'The Metaphysical Club'—for agnosticism was then riding its high horse, and was frowning superbly upon all metaphysics—used to meet, sometimes in my study, sometimes in that of William James. It may be that some of our old-time confederates would today not care to have such wild-oats-sowings made public, though there was nothing but boiled oats, milk, and sugar in the mess."
One of the residues of these wild-oats-sowings is what is called the pragmatic theory of meaning. We learn from Peirce that the theory was initially stimulated by the British psychologist Alexander Bain's definition of belief, as "that upon which" a person "is prepared to act." Peirce goes on to say that "from this definition, pragmatism is scarce more than a corollary." He gave his own formulation to this theory of meaning in two articles for the Popular Science Monthly entitled "The Fixation of Belief" and "How to Make Our Ideas Clear." Here he sets forth the view that the essence of a belief is a habit or disposition to act, that different beliefs are distinguished by the different habits of action they involve, and that the rule for clarifying the conceptual elements in beliefs is to refer them to "the habits of action." In extension of these ideas he says, "Thus, we come down to what is tangible and practical, as the root of every real distinction of thought, no matter how subtle it may be; and there is no distinction of meaning so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice." He wants to leave no uncertainty about this. He continues, "Our idea of anything is our idea of its sensible effects; and if we fancy that we have any other, we deceive ourselves." The rule for attaining clarity of apprehension of meaning is this: "Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object."
Obviously, such a definition of the meaning of belief is a definition of only one kind of meaning. Peirce was fully aware of this limitation of the pragmatic theory of meaning. He made many attempts to express the pragmatic principle in a form that really satisfied him, in a form that would exclude nonsense without at the same time being a "barrier to inquiry." We need not here rehearse what Peirce considered the nonsense that should be excluded. We recall, however, that A.O. Lovejoy in his essay on "The Thirteen Pragmatisms" (1908) demonstrated that the pragmatists failed "to attach some single and stable meaning to the term 'pragmatism'." In face of this assertion James was actually enthusiastic. This was fine, he thought, for it proved how "open" pragmatism is—an attitude very different from Peirce's scrupulosities and soul-searchings. It must be emphasized that Peirce's pragmatic theory is not a theory of truth but a theory of meaning, one possible theory of meaning. William James carried the theory beyond this view when he asserted that it would enable us to come into better working touch with reality, and that the true idea is the idea it is best for us to have, best in the long run. Here truth becomes a subspecies of goodness. James at one time even made beauty a subspecies of goodness, for he wrote that an evening at a symphony concert has been wasted on a young man if on returning home he is not kinder to his grandmother.
More strictly within the province of the pragmatist theory of meaning is the question emphasized by the pragmatists. They asked regarding our beliefs, what difference to our practice and to our expectations it will make to believe this rather than that. William James was initially interested in the pragmatic theory of meaning as a "method of settling metaphysical disputes which might otherwise be endless"; and he held that if we examine many metaphysical hypotheses as we should examine scientific hypotheses—by considering what difference it would make to particular occurrences if the hypothesis were true—we find absolutely no difference among them. The basic intention of the pragmatic theory of meaning is to observe the relations between thought and action, or, speaking more precisely with Peirce, the relations between symbols and action. The life of man is viewed as essentially a life of action, action in the formation of symbols and action in bringing about practical consequences in terms of the symbols.
An extension of the pragmatic theory of meaning has been devised by the Oxford linguistic philosophers, under the influence of Wittgenstein. The Oxford philosophers define meaning in terms of linguistic use. The definition of meaning is put forward as a practical methodological rule. Thus, to ask how X is used, or in what context X is used significantly, is a device or "idiom," as Ryle calls it, to remind us first of the fact that words mean in different ways, and that the meaning of any word is always relative to the context in which it is used.
Now, it is not to my purpose, nor is it within my competence, to review even briefly the stages by which the Oxford philosophers have discriminated different meanings of meaning, descriptive and otherwise. Nor do we need to consider the utilitarianism that infects the thought of some of these linguistic philosophers. The important thing to note is that considerable emphasis has been placed on the idea that the meaning of a term is to be observed in the use or uses to which it is put, and also that expressions have meaning only in context. Thus, Nowell-Smith says that, instead of the question, "What does the word 'X' mean?" we should always ask the two questions, "For what job is the word 'X' used?" and "Under what conditions is it proper to use the word for that job?" Here, too, meaning is understood partly in terms of context. We shall return presently to this sort of question.
At this juncture I would like to refer to R.B. Braithwaite, who has formulated the pragmatic theory of meaning in a special way.
As a positivist empiricist he rejects theological statements at their face value, for example, theological statements in the Apostles' Creed; but he does not deny that they have pragmatic meaning. This meaning is to be observed in their implications for ethical behavior. Christianity, he concludes, aims to promote "an agapeistic way of life." Consequently, Braithwaite not long ago joined the Church of England, in the high-church branch. It is said that he sent out engraved invitations to his friends in Cambridge when his child was to be christened, and that following the service one of his agnostic colleagues asked him in puzzlement, "You say that you do not believe the Apostles' Creed as a theological affirmation. How, then, can you repeat it in church?" To which Braithwaite gave the ready answer, "That is simple enough. All I have to do is to omit the first two words." This response reminds one of the limitations Peirce placed upon the pragmatic theory.
Now, the central idea contained in the pragmatic theory, namely, that the meaning of a symbol is to be observed in its effect on action, on habits, is the principal, or at least the initial, text of my discussion of one approach to method in the study of Christian ethics. But I want to extend the application of the theory. We may say that the pragmatic theory of meaning is already implied in the New Testament saying, "By their fruits shall you know them." Ordinarily, however, this New Testament axiom is interpreted in terms of personal or interpersonal behavior and not in terms of institutional behavior. Probably this interpretation is wrong, for the admonition in the New Testament runs, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and mind and soul." In any event, the early pragmatists appear to have restricted the application of the theory. They did not use it in such a way as to include an examination of the institutional consequences of belief. William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, for example, shows extremely little interest in the institutional consequences of religious experience and belief. He confines attention to consequences for individual behavior. This is true also of Braithwaite's interpretation of what he calls "the agapeistic ways of life." It is true also of many a systematic theology. Sometimes the only place where one is shown the social-organizational consequences of religious symbols may be in the section on the doctrine of the church. Otherwise, one is not shown what difference the belief or the theology makes for institutional behavior.
Here a distinction made by Ernst Troeltsch becomes pertinent. In his critique of Kohler's work on Ideas and Persons in Christian history he says that Kohler entertains the illusion that one can understand the history of the faith without studying the role of institutions. In his Problems der Ethik Troeltsch explicates what he calls the distinction between subjective and objective virtues. Subjective virtues appear in the immediate relations between the individual and God, the individual and the neighbor, and the individual and the self (in interior dialogue). Objective virtues, on the other hand, appear in those relationships that require institutional incarnation, though of course objective virtues presuppose subjective ones. From this perspective a person is not only good as such, but that person is also a good parent, a good administrator, a good citizen.
Roger Mehl of Strasbourg in his essay for the Geneva conference on Christian Ethics in a Changing World, comments tellingly on this differentiation:
For a long time it was thought that social life was no more than the sum of relationships between individuals and that in consequence, social ethics was no different from personal ethics... It is undoubtedly to the credit of the different socialist movements and ideologies that they have brought out (even at the price of indifference to the individual ethic and the virtues of the private citizen) the original character of social ethics... Socialism discovered that the chief problems of social ethics are problems of structures. These are objective realities, which evolve in accordance with their own laws. (John C. Bennett, ed., Christian Social Ethics in a Changing World. New York: Association Press, 1966, pp. 44-45).
This statement, which points to the concern of Social Ethics with social structures, gives me occasion to present some basic presuppositions that must be borne in mind if one is to employ the pragmatic approach to the study of religious ethics. These are broad-gauged presuppositions that require more extensive consideration than is possible here. Yet, they must be mentioned at least briefly.
I. The perspectives of religious ethics depend upon theological perspectives, and these theological perspectives are the sui generis. They possess their own intrinsic character, and when best understood they exhibit an inner coherence and consistency. To be sure, considerable variety obtains with respect to the formulation of the basic perspectives, a wide spectrum that includes different types of piety. A main task of theology and of theological ethics is to achieve clarity and consistency regarding the perspective and the formulation chosen, a clarity that reflects awareness of alternative possibilities. We have already indicated that the intrinsic quality of these perspectives is not the concern of the pragmatic theory of meaning.
Now, if theological perspectives are recognized as sui generis, then two false conceptions must be rejected. First, the view that the controlling perspectives may be explained as merely the consequences of psychological or social conditioning. And, second, the view that theology may be collapsed into ethical demands. This reduction is illustrated by Braithwaite's conception of the meaning of Christianity as an agapeistic way of life. An analogous reduction is to be observed in the Marxist attempt to transform metaphysics into social criticism. In this view, metaphysics is only a hidden social theory; more precisely stated, it is only ideology. Even though these views must be rejected insofar as they claim to be adequate, we should add, however, that the theology that does not examine the social consequences of belief is in this respect meaningless from the point of view of the sociological pragmatic theory of meaning.
II. In the study of religious ethics a major purpose is to discern the "ordering" or the type of ordering that reflects the impact of its characteristic symbolism. This symbolism may exercise a positive influence upon the general cultural ethos, upon the structure of personality, and upon the institutional sphere. Or it may reveal the influence of these factors. Actually, the social-ethical as well as the personal-ethical content of the religious symbolism may in large measure be taken over from the immediate social milieu. In the institutional sphere, for example, both of these processes can be discerned. The symbols in the long run may exercise a clearly positive influence, even to the extent of changing the power structure; on the other hand, the power structures within which the symbols function may determine or deflect the interpretation of the symbols. The use made of a symbol may vary according to the social status or frustration or demands of particular social groups: the use made of a symbol by a ruling group will be different from the use made by a deprived group. In this whole area of analysis both substructure and superstructure must be taken into account.
Both can affect the perception of the situation. These differentiations also appear in the study of the history of Christian ethics, so much so that the history must again and again be reconceived in order to take into account new perceptions. Consider, for example, the marked changes that have taken place in the past century with respect to the definition of the Renaissance. Once the Renaissance was defined in the contours proposed by Jacob Burckhardt, the study of the symbolism and its influence was markedly affected. But when Konrad Burdach redefined the Renaissance in terms of renewal movements of the Middle Ages, the study of the symbolism and its influences changed considerably. During the past generation or two analogous differentiations have appeared with respect to the definition and influence of the Protestant ethic. Max Weber constructed his conception of it in a special way. By concentrating attention on the economic sphere and by excluding the political sphere from attention he arrived at an ideal type of Protestant ethic quite different from the type that emerges if one takes seriously into account the theocratic, political motifs in Calvinism and Puritanism. Indeed, his construction is extremely lopsided. He ignores precisely those elements in Puritanism that presented a much broader conception of vocation than the puritanism he constructs. This broader conception of vocation, which included a political, reformist activism, not only supplemented but also brought under radical criticism the narrower conception that Weber stresses.
These problems of analysis are perennial, and thus the study of influences is bound to be tentative and even ambiguous in outcome. Nevertheless, one can say that symbolism when effective provides some sort of ordering of experience and its sanctions. Indeed, if one is to find out the meaning of religious symbolism past or present, the pragmatic theory suggests that one must as the believer what he in the name of the symbolism wishes change or not changed; and one should ask also what aspects of existence are a matter of indifference. If the religious symbol does not call for change or interpretation of social structures, then to this extent is meaningless (from the pragmatic perspective).
III. As the Oxford linguists remind us, a variety of meanings may be attached to or be latent in a particular word or symbol or in a particular complex of symbols. This variety of meaning becomes evident when one examines the contexts within which the symbol appears. The pragmatic meaning of a belief may be interpreted in differing ways in different times and places, partly because of the great diversity of nonreligious as well as of religious conditions (or contexts) at various stages of the social process. Besides this consideration one must take into account what Schelling called "the infinity of the idea," the fact that any fundamental symbol is pregnant with, latent with, a variety of implications or connotations. This variety almost inevitably appears in time, for symbols belong to history, that is to the temporal sphere. This aspect of symbols is a mystery. Why; for example, should one have to wait until the twelfth century for a Joachim di Fiore to use the doctrine of the Trinity to devise a periodization of history according to which society was moving out of the current period, the period of the Son, to a third period, the period of the Spirit, a period of new freedom in which there would be a transfer of power from the secular to the religious clergy? That question is simply unanswerable. Nevertheless, one can say that the Joachites and their descendants exemplify the changing meaning of symbols as understood in relation to context. Presently we shall consider some other examples of change of pragmatic meaning in terms of change of context or in terms of change in purpose.
IV. This consideration leads to a fourth observation. Certain symbols lend themselves more readily to application in the area of subjective virtues, others to application in the area of objective virtues. Metanoia, for example, has generally been symbolically powerful in the realm of subjective virtues, although in primitive Christianity this change of heart-mind-soul resulted in membership in a new community and thus brought about some change in the realm of objective virtues. It is worth noting here that the conservative Lutheran jurist Friedrich Julius Stahl in the nineteenth century held that the concept of conversion (as well as of redemption) must apply to society and social institutions as well as to persons. A similar duality appears in the concept of the demonic. In the New Testament the concept refers not only to a psychic phenomenon of possession but also to a social-cultural force in the world, that is, to the corruption of the culture and its institutions which is to be overcome by the Kingship of Christ. It can no longer be said that Augustine was the first to relate the concept of the demonic to both the psychological realm and the sphere of culture and institutions. This scope of reference appeared earlier in the New Testament.
The symbol, the kingdom of God, is likewise the type of symbol that readily lends itself to pragmatic meaningfulness in both the psychological and the institutional sphere. It is a metaphor drawn from the area of politics, and just as it is drawn from this area so it repeatedly finds application in the social-institutional sphere. In this respect it is like the concept of the covenant, a major integrating conception in the Bible and one of the most powerful in the Reformed tradition for the shaping of both ecclesiological and political theory. In the Old Testament the political symbols king and covenant point to the societal demands of Jahwe. Men are responsible for the total character of the society. "God hath a controversy with his people." On the other hand, an interpretation popular in the past century held that "the kingdom of heaven is within you." This is a false translation and a lamentable reduction. Joel Cadbury has suggested that the saying should be translated, "the kingdom of heaven is available to you (among you)." This translation at least can avoid the reductionist interpretation that stresses only the interiorization of the kingdom which itself, to be sure, is an integral aspect of the symbol.
The broader scope and application of the concept of the kingdom is strikingly formulated by Talcott Parsons in his recent extensive article on "Christianity," in the new International Encyclopedia the Social Sciences:
... the Christian movement crystallized a new pattern of value!! not only for the salvation of human souls but also for the nature of the societies in which men should live on earth. This pattern, the conception of a "kingdom" or, in Augustine's term, a "city" of men living according to the divine mandate on earth, became increasingly institutionalized through a series of stages, which this article will attempt to sketch. Later it became the appropriate framework of societal values for the modern type of society.
The symbolic powerfulness and societal relevance of these political symbols have been made markedly evident in Paul Lehmann's Ethics in a Christian Context and in Martin Buber's The Kingship of God. Another political symbol should be mentioned here in passing, the concept of the warrior, which figures largely in certain sections of the Old Testament and which came to the fore again in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance and in some measure also in Puritanism.
There is another symbol that possesses as great a variety of connotation as any of the symbols already mentioned. This is the domestic type of symbol which of course lends itself to elaborate conjugation, the concept of the family, of God and his children, of bride and groom, of brothers and sisters. The domestic symbol can point to more intimate interpersonal cathexis than the political symbol (as, for example, in Hosea's use). At the same time it can replace or serve as a surrogate for the political metaphor, to be observed especially in patriarchal theories of societal order. It is fascinating to observe the use of domestic symbolism by Friedrich Julius Stahl, a principal shaper of the Throne-and-Altar tradition in Germany in the nineteenth century. Stahl connects the patriarchal symbol with the doctrine of justification by faith: God's relation to man is personal, it is that of the father. Then by analogy he infers that the Christian state is an authoritarian one in which the emperor as father directly concerns himself quite personally for the sake of his people. The basic principle then becomes "authority, not majority." This combination of ideas he calls "the Protestant principle."
The Roman Catholic political theorist Carl Schmitt in his work a generation ago on Politische Theologie attempted to show the ways in which domestic symbols of a patriarchal character have figured in religious interpretations of the political order. Here he contrasts patriarchal authority that is majestically above the law and the trivial democratic leveling that issues from the rule of law. Perhaps it was the influence of his own application of the pragmatic theory of meaning that led him to support Nazism. In any event, for him the crucial struggle in the modern period is the struggle between the conception of law and the conception of the transcendent person of God and of the ruler. Here he approaches the position of Stahl with his "Protestant principle." He overlooks, however, the ways in which individualistic philanthropic liberalism has used domestic symbolism—the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man—to articulate a religious conception of democracy. It is a striking thing that when the promoters of the Social Gospel wished to give a broader scope to religious and social responsibility under a sovereign God they placed a new interpretation upon a political (rather than a domestic) symbol, the Kingdom of God. This symbol was no longer to be interpreted as pointing only to the kingdom that is within (ct. Rauschenbusch's corollary, the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of evil-a societal, institutional conception).
At this point we should observe in passing that the biological or organic symbol, the body, must rank as one of the most powerful and persistent metaphors in history. It appears recurrently in both the Orient and the Occident. It figures as a psycho-political symbol, for example, in Plato, determining a hierarchical form of social organization. In this way it functions as one of the major symbols of conservatism in the history of political theory (comparable in this respect to the conception of "the chain of being"). The jurisdiction of the organic metaphor reaches from Plato and St. Paul through the Reformation and Romanticism to Vatican Council II, a span that suggests the wide range of possibilities. A similar variety of interpretation obtains with respect to the symbol of the covenant.
This variety of interpretation, obviously, is a major characteristic of the basic symbols, political, domestic, and organic, that have been used to indicate the societal consequences of respective interpretations of the divine mandate for man not only in secular society but also in ecclesiastical polity. Accordingly, one can find most of the spectrum of social theories under the rubric of each of these types of symbol, the spectrum from spiritual anarchism to monolithic authoritarianism.
The symbol that has exhibited a greater consistency of interpretation is the psychological symbol, the Holy Spirit. We have already referred to Joachim di Fiore's conception of the Third Era, the period of the new freedom under the aegis of the Holy Spirit. In general, the sanction of the Holy Spirit has been appealed to in order to break through rigid bureaucracy and to promote individual freedom. We think here of the outpourings of the Spirit in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Radical Reformation, in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revivalism, and in contemporary charismatic leadership and in glossalalia. Radicalizing Rudolf Sohm's conception of charisma in opposition to law, Max Weber constructed his typology of authority, making charismatic authority the innovating power that repeatedly in history breaks through traditional and legal structures. The societal impact of conceptions of the Spirit is thus shown to be a fundamental and recurrent factor in the history of social organization.
The crucial roles that societal images play gives us reason to assert that in employing the method suggested by the pragmatic theory of meaning our typologies of religious perspectives are quite inadequate if we do not take into account the implications of these various perspectives for the spheres of both the subjective and the objective virtues. It is unfortunate that such a fruitful typology as that of H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture, with its articulation of the different types of piety—Christ above Culture, Christ in Culture, Christ Transforming Culture, etc.—does not examine the different kinds of social organization promoted by these different types of piety. Similar types of social theory appear under the different rubrics of Niebuhr's general typology. Insofar as this is true, we may suspect that a. full application of the pragmatic theory of meaning cannot be effected in terms of the types as Niebuhr defines them. But no one knew this better than Niebuhr himself. Indeed, if one wishes to find an exemplification of the pragmatic theory of meaning in the sociological sphere, one finds it ready to hand in his volume, The Kingdom of God in America, where he gives explicit attention to what he calls "institutionalizing the kingdom." But the point I am stressing is that typologies should include the spectrum of social-organizational, that is, of institutional consequences of the various types of piety as they find expression in integrating images. In large degree these consequences, as we have seen, are related to metaphorical images.
Whitehead, in speaking of metaphors, asserts that the fundamental choice for the metaphysician is the selection of a ruling metaphor to express his conception of reality, and he makes a strong case for the claim. He calls this procedure the method of imaginative rationality, the devising of hypotheses whereby pervasive elements and structures may be discerned. He shows, for example, how metaphors drawn from mathematics have dominated in one period and from biology in another. His own metaphysics is based upon metaphors drawn from the spheres of psychology and biology, metaphors that he explicates in his panpsychic organicism. Insofar as these central symbols play a role in his ethics, the pragmatic theory of meaning raises the question as to the psychological and sociological consequences of the use of these metaphors.
The reference to Whitehead's method reminds us that the great integrating metaphors of Christian ethics that have influenced human behavior may not properly be studied or understood by means of a narrow conceptual analysis. They by no means have alone influenced behavior. Two things we have already hinted at must be mentioned here again. First, the metaphor has to be understood in the context of convictions about the nature of man and God, the nature of history, the nature and content of faith. Indeed, the entire Gestalt of Christian theology and piety must be taken into account if the inner meaning of a particular metaphor is to be properly understood. This consideration makes the application of the pragmatic theory of meaning much less simple than the formulation of the theory at first suggests.
The second consideration is, as we have already indicated, that in order to be effective an integrating idea or metaphor possessing social-ethical implications must be given articulation in a particular historical situation. It cannot be adequately explicated in a social vacuum. Let us take an example from Ernst Troeltsch, namely, the historical situation in which a reigning conservatism is faced with protesting movements. Troeltsch's characterization of conservatism is a masterly one. Conservatism, generally employing an organic metaphor, emphasizes above all, he says, the "natural inequalities" of humankind. Ethical values are derived from the acceptance of these inequalities. For these values conservatism claims the support of a realism that is not blinded by optimistic enthusiasm. The power structure, the separation of the classes, the need for strong leadership, the fundamental skepticism regarding the wisdom of the populace, are taken to be the dispositions that God has given to us; only in the context of this hierarchical structure does the conservative expect to achieve the good life. The powers that have historically evolved are to be regarded as God's ordinances to which one must submit as to a divine institution. They exist by the grace of God and demand submission. The recognition of sin should engender humility, readiness to be obedient and to be faithful to assigned tasks. A struggle for power on the part of the lower classes in order to change the system is the consequence of sin. Those in control of power maintain it by force in the service of God and the community. Through their service the natural process is to be purified and ennobled. Freedom for the average Christian is inner freedom. It can never become the principle of a political structure. The maintenance of the system is itself taken to be the will of God.
Now, in the face of this philosophy of conservatism a protesting movement must select symbolically powerful concepts if success is to be expected. The countersymbols selected will be calculated to undermine the religious sanctions claimed by the conservatives and to provide sanctions for fundamental social change. This means that the countersymbols must serve a dual purpose: first, they must reconceptualize the conservatism and thus show its injustice; and second, they must point in new directions. In both of these processes a pragmatic theory of meaning will attempt to function; first to show the inadequacy of the previous symbolism (largely by reason of its institutional consequences), and second to provide symbols that point in the direction of new institutional forms. A characteristic bifurcation can appear in this process. It may be that the countersymbols employed will serve primarily as radical criticism of the old regime and will be somewhat irrelevant or ineffective for purposes of positive construction. Moreover, a new constructive symbolization may in turn lend itself to opposite or at least to divergent interpretations. Here again bifurcation appears. Both of these types of bifurcation can be illustrated by the familiar example of the Declaration of Independence in relation to the constitutional convention that followed the Revolution. The symbols of the Declaration for the most part were effective in making attack upon the old regime. But additional symbols were required "in order to form a more perfect union." And then division appeared again. Indeed, the same symbols were appealed to in order to define the more perfect union in varying ways. In these processes differing applications of the pragmatic theory of meaning came to the fore. In all of this we see a general feature of social change; namely, that new symbols and their pragmatic meaning always take their shape in face of a particular historical situation and in face of a previously regnant symbolism. History is made by latching onto what already has happened and onto what is occurring. Accordingly, the study of the pragmatic meaning of symbols cannot be adequately undertaken merely through the analysis of concepts, as though history proceeded from book to book or from theorem to theorem. It requires analysis of concepts in their contingent social situation and in terms of the social functions of the symbols, old and new.
There is no evidence that Peirce or James or Wittgenstein or Braithwaite has been concerned about this kind of analysis, particularly as it relates to the institutional consequences of belief or of symbols. Here we may observe that in general two kinds of answers have been offered by others, and not only by Christians. Each of those answers gives a special twist to the notion that the consequences of religious belief should appear in the realm of institutions. The first answer is that the demand for institutionalization requires the slow transformation of institutions. This is the answer of gradualism, of piece-by-piece transformation. One may call this the meroscopic answer, the attack upon crucial parts or segments of the problem. The second answer is that the entire system must be transformed. This second is the revolutionary or systemic or holoscopic answer.
It must be recognized, however, that institutionalization has an ambiguous character. It may give order to social existence, but it may also impose intolerable fetters. A certain type of religious belief may in a given situation only serve to increase rigidity, to sanction petrification. Religious belief of this sort may simply redouble the intensity of adherence to the Establishment, where improved means serve unimproved ends. Here nothing fails like success. The outcome may exemplify Howard Becker's definition of primitive religion: that set of motor habits that induces automatic resistance to change. This kind of religion finds illustration in the use that, alas, has been made of every one of the symbols we have discussed. Often the outcome represents an ethos quite contrary to that which prevailed at the beginning of a movement. Max Weber had in mind this kind of exploitation of symbols when he said that the Protestant Ethic began with a doctrine of freedom in the demand for freedom of vocation and has ended by imprisoning us in the iron cage of "specialists without spirit."
Despite the ambiguities of institutionalization, we must be wary of the claim that social change simply requires a change of attitude. Attitudes do not necessarily find expression in institutional criticism and change. At least they do not do so soon enough. Something of this sort must be said about the currently burgeoning theology of hope. A theology of hope that does not indicate the specific institutional changes that are required is not yet a theology that follows through to the consequences of religious belief. It can leave us in the mood of Augustine when he prayed, "0 God, make me chaste, but not yet." White suburbia today is bursting with new attitudes and with new hope but not with importunate demand for social change.
Troeltsch's description of the theology of conservatism may seem at first blush to be of something far away and long ago. But it is a transcription not only of the eighteenth-century ancien regime. It is a transcription also of the system of apartheid in South Africa. And for certain contingents of the Black Power movement in the United States it is a description not only of the racist system of discrimination but also of the system that keeps almost a quarter of the nation in poverty and dependency. Further, contemporary feminists can easily recognize the contours of this theology in everyday patterns of male-female relations.
If we ask the question how we are to get out of the cages in which we live, cages that are gilded with racism and sexism, we all recognize that a crucial question is that of the redistribution of power. The means to overcome our "unconquered past" of racism and sexism brings us to two fundamental aspects of our problem of the consequences of religious belief.
I. The consequences of religious belief will depend largely upon the distribution of power and whether or not the consequences are intended. If the social system is monolithic, the prevailing religious belief will have monolithic consequences. A different sort of consequence can issue only from a separation of powers that opens the space for new religious belief and for new consequences. It is a striking fact that already in the Bible one can discover this sort of shift again and again taking place. The late Henri Frankfurt discerned this separation of powers in the advent of the idea of a double covenant. The prophets, he pointed out, stood on the covenant of Jahwe with the people, and they attacked the monarchy for its betrayal of its own covenant with Jahwe. Max Weber has suggested that the Hebrew prophets, by not being attached to the court, represent an anticipation of the modern free press. Likewise, the early Christian community broke with the Establishment, and as much with the Roman as with the Jewish Establishment. They insisted that religious organization must be independent of the civic power. These early Christians also made membership in the community transcend class, ethnic, and familial status. In short, the Christians formed a new kind of association as the proclaimer of a new freedom in Christ and an exhibition of the institutional consequence of their belief in this freedom. Thus the association could be at the same time the bearer and the institutional exemplification of its own message. An analogous outcome is to be seen in the institutional consequences of Athanasian orthodoxy at Nicaea. The Athanasians rejected the idea that the emperor, along with Christ, was a mediator: they forbade the emperor to sit in the chancel, restricting him to the nave; the arrangements were institutional consequences of religious belief. We can trace this pattern down the centuries as it recurrently challenges a monolithic Establishment—in the conciliar movement, in the abolition of the monolithic idea of "Christendom" (the dependence of civil rights upon religious confession), in the struggle for "comprehension" and for Nonconformity and Independency, in the ecclesiola in ecclesia, in the idea and institutional implementation of the priesthood of all believers, in the autonomy of pietistic groups, in the encouragement of freedom of inquiry, in the development of dissenting academies, in the encouragement and defense of trades unions, and in the current civil rights and women's movements. Analogous tendencies have appeared in Roman Catholicism—initially in the emergence of religious orders, later in the principle of subsidiarity, in the responsibilities assigned to collegial configurations, and in the lay apostolate. All of these institutional consequences of religious belief have served to disperse power and responsibility. The divisions of power were at the same time consequences and causes, consequences of religious conviction and conditions for the emergence of new convictions in new situations, in short, for the emergence of mutual criticism. In the main they presuppose that no one configuration of authority and power can be trusted.
II. What we have said of the significance of the division of power for the sake of the freedom of religious belief to find new institutional incarnation, may also be said regarding the importance of this division for the sake of the criticism of ethical ideals. If no single configuration of power may be trusted, so also no single ethical idea or virtue may be adopted as final or trustworthy. William Hazlitt once said that the trouble with the man with one idea is not that he has an idea—that is rare enough. The trouble is that he has no other. That way lies demonry. "In my father's house they have many mansions." Accordingly, the consequence of religious belief under a sovereign God must always be a rejection of idolatry before any one ethical idea and a promotion of "free trade" and tension among ideals. Following Pascal, we might call this the ethos of opposite virtues. According to him, the Christian has the obligation to exhibit opposite virtues and to occupy the distance between them. That is, we confront the obligation to pursue simultaneously the opposite virtues of freedom and order, freedom and equality, participation and privacy, and justice and mercy. Because of the tension among the demands in the open situation, it should be clear that either in the sphere of subjective virtues or in that of objective, institutional virtues any attempt to deduce precise pragmatic judgments from a given creedal position is likely to be overzealous in intention and to reveal ideological taint—the desire to protect special privilege. Nonetheless, it is generally possible to advocate various social-ethical emphases or pragmatic meanings that derive from differing creedal positions. But the divisions and tensions of which we have spoken remain.
These divisions and tensions have never been more nobly or more powerfully depicted than by Giotto in the murals of the Arena Chapel at Padua. This chapel is a brick box, barrel-vaulted within. Over the chancel Giotto painted the Eternal, surrounded by swaying angels, and listening to the counterpleas of Justice and Mercy concerning doomed mankind; the Archangel Gabriel is serenely awaiting the message that should bring Christ to Mary's womb and salvation to earth. This is the Prologue. Opposite on the entrance wall is the Epilogue—a last judgment, with Christ enthroned as Supreme Judge and Redeemer amid the Apostles. These tensions within the divine economy bespeak the tensions and contrarieties that belong to the human condition as well. Without them, religious belief and the consequences of religious belief are doomed to degenerate into deformity, disillusion, and destruction, and to call forth from the Stygian depths both hybris and nemesis. For, ultimately, the consequences of religious belief are not in our hands.
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Last updated on Thursday, February 7, 2013.
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