October 25, 2013 by lucieromarin
“If I could have been certain of the reader’s goodwill, I would have called [this book] ‘ultrasupernaturalism.’ For that is the real character of the enthusiast; he expects more evident results from the grace of God than we others. He sees what effects religion can have, does sometimes have, in transforming a man’s whole life and outlook; these exceptional cases (so we are content to think them) are for him the average standard of religious achievement.”
This is from Ronald Knox‘s wonderful work, ‘Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion.’ It’s a great book; a history of heresy and crankiness from the early church onwards, and both Catholic and Protestant quirks are treated equally. It’s charitable throughout (you never get the opinion that the writer thinks he’s better than the rest of the world) and I loved his way of connecting eras and personalities, so that a handful of seemingly disparate threads was gradually revealed to be a pattern, one with its own devastating internal logic and a gradual, secret, unstoppable diffusion throughout time.
I know that not everyone is always going to feel up to 500+ pages of Christian subcultures and sub-histories, but there’s something for everyone in the description of ultrasupernaturalism, as it is presented in the opening pages, for which of us hasn’t encountered ultrasupernaturalism, either within religious circles or without them? Some non-religious people and ultra-religious people share a common conviction: if there’s sin, weakness, or even minor imperfection in a community, then there cannot be any grace in that community, and the whole thing must be denounced as hypocritical and a fraud. Both look at religious communities, both see their imperfections, both believe that if these people really had something to do with God, then none of those imperfections would exist. One ends by abandoning religion; the other ends by deciding that he and his church will, finally, Do Religion Properly, and gives birth to a schism at best and a cult at worst. The only reason they don’t realise that they’re like each other is because they’re looking at a different set of imperfections.
Well, in fairness, it was Our Lord Himself who said, “By their fruits you shall know them,” – I’m not suggesting here that we never look for those fruits. Sometimes this is the best thing – after all, the whole Society of St Vincent de Paul grew out of an atheist’s charge to Blessed Frederic Ozanam – “Show us your works!” I’m also certainly not suggesting that faults have some kind of right to be covered up. What I am saying is that we’re not always obliged to take the admonitions of perfectionists to heart. The frustrated ultrasupernaturalist may not understand why you persist with a community that includes So Many Awful People and Awful Opinions, or How You Can Bear to Go To Mass There With That Inferior Liturgy…but this is his problem, not yours.
Getting to know the history of ultrasupernaturalism is pretty liberating for burnt-out conservatives. Suddenly, a whole lot of the choleric urgency and inter-subcultural wars around you will make a lot more sense; once you see the myriad ways in which this has been repeated throughout history, you’re less likely to feel beholden to its more recent manifestations. It’s also useful for anyone who has to deal with the secular equivalent of ultrasupernaturalism. In short, anyone who wants to spend time telling you that you’re doing religion wrong, and whose arguments consist of observations about how imperfect this, this, and this person are – rather than, say, actually presenting a studied theological case against you – is, most likely, not speaking thus because of his beautiful, intimate conversation with Our Lord, but because he’s forgotten the parable of the wheat and the tares. And this means that you don’t have to spend any time on his opinion!
And a fine prose stylist…
On the modern development of the idea of ‘religion’ as a category, that has to be ‘done’ in a particular way, etc, you might find Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion interesting. I wonder whether post-Reformation, and particularly post-Enlightenment, Catholics have come to accept (or have had to accept?) the secular notion that ‘religion’ is something particular, distinctive, and easily isolated from what’s not-religion on the basis of identifiable criteria. It’s surely not how the medieval church saw it.
Thanks! I’ll look it up. I wonder the same thing.
As with all things, “it depends.” For example, the chaplain at my university is a Jesuit. For him, (and for most Catholic clergy; consecrated religious are such, only more so), I don’t think you can designate the things he does as being not-religious or religious.
I think that might be one of the central problems in the Anglosphere’s culture wars, at least for Catholicism. For example, with the HHS mandate – is, say, the operation of a Catholic university like Loyola Maymount part of religion, or not part of religion? How about Catholic Social Services? Or the Jesuit Volunteer Corps? What about a Catholic in civic positions? Now it seems to me – correct me if I’m dead wrong – that it would be easier for the ideal Protestant mindset to figure out a distinction than that of the ideal Catholic.
To take another tack, sometimes the enthusiast, it seems, channels that desire to live a more holy life and does things like form a new religious community within the Church, like, say, the Franciscans or the Jebbies. It’s when not constrained by the proper bounds of doctrine that they become heretics. Both Luther and Francis of Assisi believed there were deep problems in the Church, yet one is a heretic (to Catholics), the other, raised to the altars.