Calvin's Ghost

So, this was supposed to be one of those sophisticated, thoughtful posts in which I explore the depths of my current historiographical angst, but I seem to have come down with who-knows-what (cold? flu? they all blend anymore), so we'll see what I'm able to come up with. Okay, here's the problem: I am afraid to write anything substantive anymore about the practice and experience of medieval devotion because I am worried that everything I--and, indeed, the majority of my medievalist colleagues--would say would simply be a latter-day refutation of Protestant critiques of which I am only imperfectly aware but which have governed Anglo-American (particularly American, thanks to all those New England Calvinists) scholarship pretty much since the year dot. For example, the current obsession with the senses.

Calvin, or so I learned recently, was particularly wary about claims that it was possible to gain knowledge about God from our sensory experience of the world. Not that the world was evil; it is, after all, God's creation. But we, in our sinful state, perhaps indeed simply in our created state, have no guarantee that what we perceive with our senses is at all an accurate representation of the world, so it would be folly to depend upon them for anything as vital as our understanding or experience of God. God comes to us through His Word and so it is His Word on which we should depend, not our eyes or ears or noses or tongues or skin. Enter recent historiographical claims about how medieval Christians understood the senses.

Shock! Amazement! Medieval Christians seem to have believed the exact opposite from Calvin. They had the idea that the senses could be used to stimulate experience and perhaps even understanding of God: the sound of music, the sight of the created world and its creatures as well as of art, the taste of sweetness, the smell of incense and other "heavenly odors," the touch of relics and of the consecrated Host on one's tongue. Um. Why, exactly do we find these claims so tantalizing today? Perhaps, after all, Calvin and his followers did us a favor spending all those centuries downplaying the role of the sensory world in religious experience because now we can have the pleasure of rediscovering it when, if we had been Catholics (like, say, Tolkien), it would, of course, have been there all along.

I feel cheated, betrayed, but I'm not entirely sure by whom or what. I grew up Calvinist, Presbyterian to be exact. Not that I've read more than a few pages of the Institutes (I'm a medievalist, after all), but somehow I seem to have imbibed enough of the great man's thinking not to be entirely surprised when I learn things like I recently did about his attitude towards the senses. And yet, such discoveries do not make me feel comforted but hoodwinked. Is nothing that I believe actually my own? Well, of course not, we all learn from our culture. But so much of what we (Americans, secular-humanist scholars, historians of Christianity trained in an academic mode, what have you) believe and, therefore, on which we found our arguments is, yes, contingent, only a problem in the particular context from which we are arguing. "So," you might rightly say, "read the Institutes, become aware of your context." Fine, but then I wouldn't have anything to say. I would simply be arguing with straw men--or ghosts.

Is it or isn't it a problem whether we believe we can perceive God through our senses? Or, if not God as such, God's workings in the world? Is it or isn't it a problem whether we use our senses to stimulate ecstatic experiences that we then identify with the presence of the divine? In the European Christian tradition, the argument has gone both ways, to little resolution. We are, it would seem, in a fairly Catholic mood at the moment, perhaps, indeed, thanks largely to Tolkien. Have you seen any of the current CGI sci-fi fantasy blockbusters recently? You know, the ones in which the animators manage to create the illusion of a virtual world in which animals talk or trees move or the planet itself comes alive (as if ours weren't alive already, but never mind). What do we expect to get out of these sensory extravaganzas if not some intimation of the supernatural, if not in fact the divine?

Altered states, shamanic ecstasies, yogic trances: we're there, man, drinking the magic grape juice. And yet, Calvinists all, do we not still deeply distrust these sensorial tricks, knowing as we do that nothing in or of the body as such can lead us to the divine? I worry about my colleagues, not to mention myself, writing all these learned essays of late on the power of the senses for the apprehension of the divine. Whom, exactly, are we trying to convince? And of what? I know some of my colleagues in my field write from very much (or so they profess) outside of it, with no intention whatsoever of adopting the beliefs they so eloquently explore themselves. Others, like myself, if somewhat less confidently, write very much from within the problem. We want (to use C.S. Lewis' brilliant metaphor) not just to look at the light but along it. But can we? Is there even a beam of light to look along? And even if we found it, would our senses not still be deceiving us into thinking that it showed us anything other than this creaturely world?

I wish I knew. But barring resolution of a question that has vexed humanity since, well, just possibly creation, just for the moment, I wish that I knew how to write about it without feeling like a dupe or a fraud.


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