May 7, 2010

Purity Unrealized

Puritan movements are doomed to fail because people are not pure. Such coteries inevitably turn in upon themselves: having fondly imagined they can set themselves up as a society of the perfect, at the first sign of weakness the mob will turn on the one perceived as guilty and drive the offender out. Ultimately such a gathering is the antithesis of the Gospel, for it is based on judgment rather than forgiveness. It is also the antithesis of history, for it lives in a fantasy of realized eschatology rather than in the hope of a cooperative pilgrimage.

Because they are based on a goal incapable of realization -- a pure society with unrealizable standards, or a perverse double standard that acknowledges but cannot tolerate human imperfection -- they never cease from irascible critique, a toxic attitude by which they close themselves off from the wider world and then turn in upon, and digest, themselves.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


June Butler said...

Tobias, how true. My imagination ran wild as I read your post and leapt to the more violent examples of attempts at purification: witch burnings, torture and killing of heretics, stoning the followers of Christ. In the end, my thoughts landed on Shirley Jackson's story, "The Lottery", and I reread the brief story.

Jackson said of her work:

"Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives."

Lord, preserve us from the inhumanity in our lives which flows from our own strivings for purity!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Mimi. I was inspired to this by the reports from GAFCON and FoCA; the irritability of Sudgen; the close atmosphere in certain blog-comment-threads who shall not be named; and the stultifying homophobia in people like Dr. Reker, whose story is just so very sad and pathetic. I want to say to all the homophobes, "The Gospel can provide you a way out of this tragic lifestyle!"

I also recognize that knee-jerk liberals can create progressive ghettos of their own design, and they are morally and socially no better. The Cultural Revolution in China was just as bad as the burnings at Bebelplatz.

Exclusivism and uniformism are the enemies of God, who loves diversity.

Daniel Weir said...

James Alison has - somewhere - defined sin as that which can be forgiven and asserted that the doctrine of original sin is a post-Easter insight into the way that we humans have lived, including scapegoating of those whom we believe are the cause of all our problems. I am tempted to scapegoat the heterosexists in the Communion, but I am reminded of something else from Alison: if I were to be wrong about same-sex intimacy, I would want to be treated gently but those on the other side and I should be prepared to treat them gently as well.

Brother David said...

Exclusivism and uniformism are the enemies of God, who loves diversity.

How many sermons have we heard about the God who brought order out of chaos. Then we come to find out that the order is still chaos, just slightly better organized sometimes.


When you say puritan, I cannot help but immediately jump to thoughts of the citizens of Viagraville. I occasionally peek in there to see what they are up to doing. As long as the subject matter offers them someone outside of themselves to attach, such as "that heretic woman" the Presiding "Oceanographer", as in the thread about the return of +Herzog, then the chase is on.

But I cannot help feeling the schadenfreude when the topic is internal, such as the thread discussing that Christ Church, Plano will be priesting a woman. They quickly become the worst sort of cannibalistic beasts.

rick allen said...

"Puritan movements are doomed to fail because people are not pure."

I'm not sure exactly how you define failure.

For a hundred and fifty years the puritan movement represented a radical challenge to absolutism. I'm not so crazy about Calvinism as a theology, but, it was the puritans who first cut off a king's head in England and who pioneered non-royal government by representative charter in the New World. Politically, I am far more grateful to the Puritans than to our Anglican and Catholic forebears.

I think, too, theologically, you err by implying that Puritans saw human purity as a practically attainable goal. Their sense of sin was, from my perspective, exaggerated, since their notion of original sin considered the imago dei in man not damaged, but practically obliterated. Their theology had no illusions about human perfectability (and that is why their politics relied so on checks and balances).

But I think you are here identifying "purity" with "chastity." We do talk about "puritan" reactions, periods of repression which often follow periods of extreme license. It's a common phenomenon, certainly not limited to Christian cultures. And, yes, in that sense, extreme and unbalanced emphases lack staying power.

Anyway, I always feel like the poor puritans get a bad and undeserved rap, and like to give credit where credit is due.

I also note that there is a certain allergy is some quarters to the whole concept of "purity." I would only have us keep in mind also that "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." There is some precedent for purity as a virtue.

June Butler said...

But I think you are here identifying "purity" with "chastity."

I didn't think Tobias was talking about chastity, or, at least, not solely about chastity. There's purity of doctrine, purity of practice, the pure literal word of God in the Bible, all manner of purities that religious communities and other communities insist upon.

Anonymous said...

JOHN 2007 writes

For someone with such a scholarly bent, this is a real hatchet job on Puritanism.

I agree that forms of moralism that neglect other realities of the Christian faith can be deadly, oppressive, and more. But I think you use Puritanism as a portmanteau term to sniff at those with whom you disagree. And I think it does not come within a million miles of most of those in the Anglican/Episcopal group you would call conservatives.

James said...

I agree with you, completely, Tobias.

Even the puritan movement that gave us Charles I, Martyr, failed miserable and the country, as a whole, rejected it.

Puritanism, in my opinion, always brings totalitarianism, and totalitarianism always fails, in the end.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

[Reposted to correct many misses on the voice-recognition!]

Rick, No. You once again are reading into what I said things that are very far from my mind.

First of all -- and this goes for John 2007's comment as well -- I should've thought it was clear I was not speaking primarily (or even intentionally) of the specific English Calvinist enterprise called "Puritan" but was speaking much more broadly about separatist and exclusivist movements. I should have thought this shorthand use of the word "Puritan" was well enough established, and my use of the plural "movements" indicative enough of my intention.

However, even given that, I would suggest your reading of Puritanism (in the upper-case sense) as a response to absolutism is absurd. This particular Puritan movement was guilty of an absolutism far more extreme than that of Charles I, approaching the excesses of the worst of his Tudor predecessors. I am far from being a monarchist, but I am also far from romanticizing the Puritans as the Fountainhead of Democratic Thinking, and recognize the influence of the bourgeois and the merchant class in the Puritan cause, offended by some of Charles I's moves in favor of the poor, particularly in the country. Where Puritans held political sway, they instituted theocracy according to their lights. And it eventually collapsed. Thank God.

Nor did I suggest the Puritans (the real ones) saw human purity as a goal, but rather societal purity -- which is a very different thing. A very un-Anglican thing: for Anglicans recognize that no society can be purer than those who make it up, while the Calvinists fell into the trap of thinking that those careful checks and balances might form a utopia. And so too with the modern puritanisms and other separatist and purist cults and sects -- and here I was thinking of the numerous exposed evangelical hypocrites, though perhaps I should also include the legions of pedophile priests just to make it clear that this isn't a purely Protestant (or Reformed) problem.

Finally, Mimi is absolutely correct that I was not talking about chastity -- although it is certainly true that many of the issues upon which the lowercase puritans in every age seem to fixate have to do with matters below the waist.

But as I noted in the other comments, liberals can adopt their own puritanical crusades (political correctness, for example) and these are just as much follies. As you do rightly note at the last, Rick, it is about the extremes I am concerned. One of the reasons I choose the Via Media.

Finally, in this light, true purity is indeed a virtue -- but as the Philosopher noted, all things in moderation: the word in the Greek of the text you cite is what gave us the Cathars!

Mimi, yes -- as I say, there are all sorts of "purity" movements out there -- left and right.

John 2007, again, this was not at all meant to be directed at the Puritans of the 17th century, though I am amazed at how any critique of them at all is often responded to with this sort of, "they weren't all that bad" kind of nonsense. They were horrible. And although I am using the term as a portmanteau, I have gone to pains to indicate that this is not just aimed at religious conservatives but at political and religious liberals as well. As to whether any of this fits Anglican conservatives, YMMV, but this has been my experience. As I occasionally take a look at the fulminations in comments on various blogs, I feel a great wave of pity for such misdirected anger, pettiness and self-righteousness. This is not the way of God.

James, thanks.

rick allen said...

Well, I guess we can probably agree that "puritanism" probably has too many meanings.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Rick, on that we agree. ;-)

The Reverend Horace Choate said...


It is amazing how much influence Puritan theology has had throughout this nation.
It has infected all Christian traditions. It has been so effectively promoted on radio, TV and other venues that many Episcopalians accept this as the core of our faith....thanks for your sharp perception on this issue.


Closed said...

Let us remember, partial though I am to them, those theologians, especially Laud with Charles I were themselves bent to a certain purity and authoritarianism. Puritanism was not only the attitude of the extreme Calvinists.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Horace.

Christopher, certainly true of Laud. Charles, in my opinion, was a man of much more temperate spirit, though clearly set in his views in many things. But if I were in charge, Charles, not Laud, would be on our Calendar!

But I do take your point -- any position, even a "correct" one -- taken to an intolerant extreme, brooking no opposition, is unlikely to prevail for long. God likes diversity -- else why should God create anything at all?

Closed said...

The beauty of our calendar is that there isn't purity of party even in our commemorations. Laud should stay, and Charles join him.