Rowan and Marx

I’m getting a teensy weensy bit fed up with the number of conservatives (christian and political) criticising Rowan Williams for his usage of Marx in critiquing modern capitalism and especially the events of the last few weeks or so. Here’s the actual paragraph that many have taken exception to.

Fundamentalism is a religious word, not inappropriate to the nature of the problem. Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves; he was right about that, if about little else. And ascribing independent reality to what you have in fact made yourself is a perfect definition of what the Jewish and Christian Scriptures call idolatry. What the present anxieties and disasters should be teaching us is to ‘keep ourselves from idols’, in the biblical phrase. The mythologies and abstractions, the pseudo-objects of much modern financial culture, are in urgent need of their own Dawkins or Hitchens. We need to be reacquainted with our own capacity to choose — which means acquiring some skills in discerning true faith from false, and re-learning some of the inescapable face-to-face dimensions of human trust.

Do you see what Rowan has done? He’s taken the best bit of Das Kapital (and, dear readers, your author has read all of Marx’s epic volumes on Capital, including the hefty text that Engels probably scrawled, which is more than I think 99% of those who are criticising Williams today have done, or the mad lefties in the street who promise to create a glorious socialist fatherland if we just gave everybody unlimited free rice pudding) which is Volume One, taken the most incisive bits of that, and simply said, "Yes, Marx is right when he says that the worst part of capitalism is that it idolises wealth". He then goes onto dismiss pretty much everything else Marx wrote (which, for those of us who have trawled through volume 3 of Das Kapital, is not hard to see why), but has anybody praised him for that?

So might I suggest that before we start having another go at Rowan (and by golly are there things to have a go at him for this week), we take some time to actually read what he said, instead of relying on hearsay? And let’s not bad mouth Marx (or praise him for that matter) unless we’ve had the decency to read him. Even if that is a marathon task.

There – got it out of my system.

24 Comments on “Rowan and Marx

  1. Fair enough about Marx, Peter–I’ve read substantial chunks of Volumes 1 and 3, for what that’s worth–but then you go after Rowan for preaching at Lourdes … and how much have you read by Catholics about devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary?

    Speaking as a former Baptist, I can understand your wariness. I remember wondering if warnings against “lying signs and wonders” were meant to apply to some of the miracles that were reported within certain churches. And Christians are right to acknowledge the risk of deception, of course, for any involvement with evil spirits is perilous indeed. But I’ve come to appreciate, not without some initial struggle and unease, the value of recognized shrines such as Lourdes.

    By their fruits shall you know them, right? So if it’s worth slogging through Das Kapital, notwithstanding some of the horrors visited upon the world by Marxists, don’t you think it might be worth finding out a bit more about Marian devotions as practised by, say, Mother Teresa of Calcutta?

  2. In traditional Christian teaching, Jesus is truly God.  Mary was Jesus’ mother.  Therefore why not call Mary the “Mother of God”?

    I’m rather disappointed, Peter, that a thoughtful Protestant like yourself should dismiss the Marian doctrines so abruptly and with so little discussion.  I am sure you are aware of the long history of these doctrines in the “faith once delivered to the saints”.

  3. WC,

    It is debatable whether the visitation to Bernadette occurred. On top of that, the visitation affirms the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a completely unbiblical doctrine.

    You take your pick.

  4. “Unbiblical” is a somewhat meaningless catch-all.  There is a crucial distinction between doctrines that are anti-Biblical – that is, actually contrary to Biblical principles – and those that are merely extra-Biblical i.e. those doctrines that are not explicit in the Bible but are ultimately compatible with Biblical principles and have a long heritage in the tradition of the Church.

    Thus it is anti-Biblical to deny that Jesus is God, as it conflicts directly with John chapter one. It is anti-Biblical to deny the Virgin Birth or the Crucifixion or the bodily resurrection, as these events are recorded in the Gospels. Doctrines like those of the Immaculate Conception, Purgatory or the Assumption, on the other hand, are extra-Biblical; they do not appear in the Bible, but there is nothing in the Bible that rules out the possibility of any of them, and not one is in direct conflict with any Biblical principle (although it might – perhaps – be argued that the Immaculate Conception undermines the uniqueness of Jesus). Properly understood, not one single Catholic doctrine can be described as anti-Biblical, even though many are extra-Biblical.

  5. Romans 3 says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The doctrine of the immaculate conception says that there was a woman who didn’t sin. Would you call that extra-biblical or anti-biblical?

  6. Dead right, Peter.

    This is a key issue that divides me from the Church of Rome.

    I have disagreements with Rome regarding the doctrine of Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven. I cannot see how that should be a condition of belief and therefore of salvation. However, there are plenty of “bible-believing” protestants who believe in a “rapture” so I’m not convinced that the rapture-like assumption is anti-biblical.

    The doctrine of the immaculate conception, however, is in direct conflict with scripture.  I think Hebrews 4 also points to Jesus being the only one without sin. If Saint Paul had meant to say in Romans “except for our Lord’s mother” then it wouldn’t have been too difficult to do so.

  7. At worst, Peter, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception might be considered extra-biblical.

    A quick search on the Catholic Answers site for Romans 3:23 explains why. The first matching page argues that the passage is referring to personal sin, not Original Sin. The statement that all have sinned already has millions upon millions of exceptions: children who die before reaching the age of reason, perhaps even in the womb, never having committed personal sin. So the passage fails to prove that the Virgin Mary shared the stain of Original Sin.

    Now, I don’t expect you to roll over and play dead the moment you read this explanation. “Well, that settles it: the Immaculate Conception makes perfect scriptural sense. Sign me up for RCIA tomorrow!” Hardly. But I’d ask you to approach the Catholic Church’s teachings with an open mind. If the Marxian canon deserves to be read before we give it the thumbs-up or thumbs-down, so much more so does the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    Blessings in Christ!

  8. Sheepcat,

    I respectfully suggest that Psalm 51:5 makes a nonsense of the idea that there are specific exceptions that you raise – “children who die before reaching the age of reason, perhaps even in the womb”. These children are sinners and are fallen. To argue that you can somehow separate out types of sin is an exercise in justifying the Roman position, not in supporting it from Scripture.

    In which case the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is simply wrong.

  9. I respectfully submit, Peter, that Psalm 51:5 is irrelevant to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. If Catholics taught the Immaculate Conception of King David, then you’d have a watertight scriptural case against us, but we don’t.

    As for Romans 3:23, we do not deny that children in the womb are fallen, nor that children in the womb are sinners as a condition of being. But–setting aside the question of what this passage has to say about Mary–it is hardly unreasonable to make a distinction between personal sin and Original Sin, and it is presumptuous for you to state, without much better evidence than you’ve so far provided, what motives Rome has for interpreting the passage as it does.

  10. So you don’t deny that Romans 3:23 teaches that *all* have sinned, yet at the same time you insist that some *haven’t* sinned?

    Seems perfectly logical to me….

  11. Does everyone know the catholic joke about this?  Jesus is dealing with the case of a woman who has been brought to him for committing adultery.  He does the usual thing and says “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”.  A stone whizzes past him and strikes the woman. Jesus rolls his eyes: “Mother, haven’t we talked about this?”

  12. Slightly more seriously: Since St Paul was presumably making a silent exception in the case of Jesus, perhaps he could have been making one more exception silently too. This is not quite so outrageous as it might seem at first, at least not to catholics, because they have always held that the special holiness of the Virgin Mary is a result of (even if anterior in time to) the holiness of her son and cannot be considered apart from it. I am not an expert on the ins and outs of this particular doctrine, though, so I probably won’t be able to field any question about it, except as far as texts are concerned to point out that catholics (and orthodox) have always taken a fairly literal view of the “full” in the angel’s salutation of her as “full of grace”, inferring from it that she already enjoyed the fullness of salvation which the rest of us have to wait for. Almost, if one could put it so flippantly, like a kind of “free sample” to encourage us to strive towards holiness.
    But this is really only to give some sort of context to the catholic viewpoint: I would not personally care to teach the doctrine myself … and I would have, if I remember correctly, no less a person than Aquinas in the same heretical boat as me.

  13. Robert,

    You have hit the nail on the head – the Scripture is absolutely silent about the sinlessness of Mary, and yet at the same time explicit about the sinlessness of Jesus. One would think God could have done a better job of revealing this “truth”….

  14. Peter, scripture is absolutely silent on the sinlessness of Mary only if you rule out of court the scriptures that Catholics have traditionally understood to support the doctrine, most notably Luke 1:28 and 1:42 but also the foreshadowing of Mary by the Ark of the Covenant, as Patrid Madrid explains.

    God has done a flawless job of revealing this dogma, as of course he must for all truth. Regrettably, though, some Christians have decided not to accept one of his chosen means of revelation, sacred tradition.

    Robert, good joke. I don’t think I’ve heard it before.

  15. What is most disturbing to me about the Immaculate Conception is not the doctrine itself – I’ll leave it to others to argue about that – but that Pius IX defined it as a dogma of the faith, anathematizing all who did not accept it. The same can be said of the Assumption, defined by Pius XII in 1950.

    As Hans Küng wrote back in 1970, “it must be regarded as an aberration when a Church, without being compelled to do so, produces dogmas, whether for reasons of Church or theological policy (the two Vatican dogmas about the Pope) or for reasons of piety and propaganda (the two Vatican dogmas about Mary). The aberration is the greater when it deepens the divisions of Christendom.”

    With regard to the apparitions at Lourdes, there is a great deal of evidence for veridical apparitions of the departed, i.e. apparitions which convey true information previously unknown to the percipient(s) and which cannot therefore be mere subjective hallucinations, and therefore I see nothing in principle against the possibility of an apparition of Mary to Bernadette. One difficulty, however, which has been pointed out many times, and to which I have never heard or read a convincing solution, is the words alleged to have been spoken by Mary to Bernadette: “I am the Immaculate Conception”. “I am the resurrection and the life” – fine. But “I am the Immaculate Conception”? Dr George Salmon (late Provost of Trinity College, Dublin) was right when he said that “the speech ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’ does put a severe strain on one’s faith.” However, no Roman Catholic is obliged, even on the most authoritarian interpretation of Church teaching, to believe in the apparitions at Lourdes, Fatima, La Salette, Knock etc. On the contrary, any Roman Catholic is fully entitled to disbelieve in them.

  16. William,
    I heard Hans Küng give a lecture a few years ago, well before I became Catholic, and I have to say I was impressed with him. He spoke gently and with affection–not at all the rebel I had thought he might be–though many in his audience appeared bitter and angry.

    Anyway, his remarks from 1970 strike me as rather ironic, in that the divisions of Christendom appear to me to have come a long way towards healing in the decades since the dogma of the Assumption, and before it the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, were declared. This ecumenical transformation is very complex, of course, but the fact of its progress suggests that the dogmas were not as unnecessary as Küng then imagined.

    As for the anathemas, I am not sure I understand your objection. Would both of us not say of the Nicene Creed, expressing as it does the central mystery of the Christian faith, that anyone who turns away from it has, in the words of Pius IX, “suffered shipwreck in the faith” and “separated from the unity of the Church”? (This despite the fact that it took the Church three centuries to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in such explicit form?) In other words, the soundness of the anathemas would seem to stand or fall with the soundness of the doctrines to which they correspond.

  17. Sheepcat,

    If the ecumenical climate has changed for the better – and I would be the first to agree that it has – this is surely in spite of, not because of, the dogmas defined by the Vatican. It certainly doesn’t indicate that the dogmas of the Immmaculate Conception and the Assumption were “not as unnecessary as Küng then imagined”. Küng’s contention was that these dogmas were completely unnecessary in the first place – that the Church had produced them “without being compelled to do so” – and I have to say that I agree with him.

    Until these doctrines were defined, Roman Catholics were at liberty either to hold them as “pious opinions” (is that expression still in use nowadays?) or to reject them. Extra-biblical doctrines may be true, but the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are pure speculations. What was the need to impose them on all Catholics? Can we really say that those who do not believe them have “suffered shipwreck in the faith”? I cannot take such a proposition seriously. If at some time in the future a reunion takes place between some or all of the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church, such a reunion will not, I think, take place on the basis that all must accept these dogmas.

    With regard to Luke 1:28 and 1:42, to quote these as a basis for the Immaculate Conception is unreasonably stretching the meaning of language, even when the former passage is translated as “Hail, full of grace”, which I am assured by those who know NT Greek is not an accurate translation anyway. I notice that the RC Jerusalem Bible does not translate the angel’s salutation in this way.

    The Litany of the Blessed Virgin does indeed refer to Mary as “Ark of the covenant” (as well “Mystical Rose”, “Tower of David”, “Tower of ivory”, “House of gold” etc.) but this is mere poetry (and not poetry to everyone’s taste either, even when sung to Mozart’s two splendid settings). To resort to it as a basis for a dogma is, it seems to me, really scraping the barrel.

  18. Whether you accept the validity of typological interpretations of things in the Old Testament (in general or in these particular cases) or not, it is worth noting that the things quoted above from the Litany of Our Lady were not meant by the compiler(s) to be “mere poetry”, but theological statements.  The ark of the covenant was seen for many centuries as a foreshadowing (and not an accidental one) of the incarnation of Christ (and specifically of the way that he dwelt in Mary’s womb), and this kind of thinking is by no means entirely dead nowadays, at least in the minds of those who compile lectionaries.

  19. Fair enough. It’s certainly true that some of the early Fathers in particular were expert at finding hidden meanings in passages of both the Old and the New Testaments. Some professed to find significance in the word “Hail” addressed by the angel to Mary, since the Latin equivalent Ave is a “reversal” of Eve’s Latin name, Eva. You’ll find this idea expressed in the well-known hymn Ave maris stella. The author of the Epistle of Barnabas even thought he had found a secret significance in the number of Abraham’s servants, 318, in that when this number is transliterated into Greek numerals we get τιή. Obviously, he thought, τ represents the cross of Jesus, and the letters ι and η refer to the first two letters of Jesus’s name. Dr George Salmon of Dublin commented, “I need not say that modern critics are not able to believe in a Messianic prophecy committed to the Old Testament, but intended to remain an impenetrable secret until its Hebrew came to be translated into Greek.”
    As you say, those who compile lectionaries take these “traditional” interpretations into account, and it’s presumably on the basis of such far-fetched anagogical interpretations that the Vigil Mass for the Assumption uses passages from I Chronicles which refer to the Ark of the Covenant as the first reading, and part of Psalm 132 as the responsorial psalm. The Mass for the day itself has part of Psalm 45 for the responsorial psalm, with part of verse 9 as the response: “On your right hand stands the queen, in gold from Ophir.” I really don’t see how a modern Catholic of reasonable education can take these references seriously except as poetry; to attempt to use them to establish doctrine is preposterous. In the same way, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son….” sounds fine, especially as one of Handel’s beautiful recitatives in Messiah, but does any educated Christian nowadays think that it really is a literal prophecy of the birth of Christ?

  20. I think it all depends on how you think the Bible “works”, or how we are “meant” to understand and use it (to put it another way).  Something I don’t really want to get into here!!!  Suffice it to to say I agree with Dr Salmon’s view about Abraham’s servants, but I don’t like to rule out the use of typology per se, given that it is already in use by NT authors (particularly, although not only, the author of Hebrews). Obviously in any given case one may debate how far such an interpretation is valid, and on what level it can be held to operate.  But I am not at all sure that the retention in the liturgy of passages prompted by a theological method one does not accept can count as “poetry”.  The passages may or not be poetic in form, but that’s irrelevant; as far as their appropriateness is concerned are they not just detritus of past ages, retained for nostalgia (or inertia), if you believe we can no longer accept the thinking behind their inclusion as valid? Or a pis aller for festivals for which no other passages seem any more relevant? Moreover, if you rule out things like the Isaiah passage about the young woman of marriageable age (formerly known as a virgin) as referring to Christ, can you say that the OT contains any prophecies of the messiah at all? Perhaps there are things that I am too much in a hurry to think about now.

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