Divine Economy: Where to Begin

Joseph W.H. Lough

Call it divine intervention, call it whatever you like, but when a student asks when you plan to begin a blog that you promised ages ago, I take that as a sign that it is time to begin.

The question is where? The obvious answer – perhaps too obvious – is “the Bible.” This answer is obvious because even when we or others assiduously avoid this answer, we reference it in our silence; it encompasses the territory around which we have fixed clear warning signs, razor wire, mines, and deep pits; so that our evacuation has proven so thorough and absolute that the Bible has become the territory to which all attention is drawn, upon which all eyes are focused, even though it lies just out of sight. And, so, if only to avoid this spectacle, I answer “the Bible.”

But, in other ways, this answer is too obvious. And it is too obvious because this answer necessarily all on its own bleeds over into what is just on its periphery, just beyond its border, not only in the myriad communities that the biblical narrative abuts but does not directly engage, but also, and more provocatively and fruitfully, the myriad communities, from the ancient Babylonians to Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and their clans, that have taken on this narrative, whether for good or ill, to reenact, interpret, reinterpret, appropriate and/or dis(re)card.

And then there are the worlds of those who do take on this narrative or, rather, these narratives, worlds that inevitably mask, distort, and elide as much as they illuminate, clarify, and expose the “original,” “historical” meaning these texts “were intended” to convey “to us.” Does Martin Luther’s Bible tell us more about late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Germany than it does about the text on which the good doctor thought that he was commenting or preaching? Or does Saint Augustine’s Bible tell us more about the late Roman Empire than about the narrative we share with him? And could not therefore the same be said of Origen and Karl Barth, Tertullian and Paul Tillich, Saint Ambrose, Saint Teresa, or even Saints Paul or Peter? When we read the words of these saints, who are reading the words of our shared texts, we do not so much enter their worlds so much as we invite them to enter ours.

Perhaps it is for this reason that it really does not matter where we dip down into the conversation so long as we are sufficiently attentive, no matter where we land, to the shape of the world we are entering.

For my purposes, I join this conversation in western Europe just as it is entering the modern era, in roughly the fourteenth century. I join the conversation here for a number of reasons. First, it was in the fourteenth century that western Europe began to break free not only from the rest of the world, but also from its own traditional moorings. For once church bells began to govern the rhythms of daily life, taking the place of the rising and setting of the Sun, seasonal changes, the movements of the heavens, and tidal cycles, they unintentionally created a new and powerful instrument for tying human bodies and human action to the equal units of abstract time announced in their chiming. This coordination of human action to abstract time, in turn, created a completely new universe of value far more capable than any local civil ordinance, church precept, or guild standard of regulating the relationships among members of the community. And when this new universe of value came to mediate all social relations it also set western Europeans apart not only from non-Europeans, but also from their forbears whose actions had been governed and whose relations had been mediated by understandings and institutional frameworks that now no longer made sense.

But this also suggests a second reason for beginning in the fourteenth century. For it was during this century that, because of their transformed experience of time and value, religious practitioners also began to enjoy a different experience of God. Perhaps nowhere was this different experience of God more visible than in questions revolving around the Incarnation – the act through which God is said to have taken on flesh in Jesus Christ. Incarnation, of course, was a huge problem for early Christians. It was, as the Apostle Paul put it in his first letter to the Church at Corinth, probably written in the mid-60s, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (I Co. 1:23). Yet, as the Roman Empire retreated from western Europe and as hybrid institutional forms filled the vacancy, Christians and non-Christians became completely inured to experiencing God and the physical world not as opposites, but rather as instances of and evidence for pagan or neo-Platonic plenitude; God as the Spirit that occupies, animates, and communicates through all flesh. After the retreat of Rome – and in all likelihood well before the full retreat – Incarnation ceased to be a problem for western Europeans since, as everyone could see and experience for themselves, God clearly occupied and communicated through a seemingly infinite variety of “natural” processes: seasons, migrations, constellations, flows, weather, flora and fauna. Indeed, so prolific was God’s incarnational presence, God’s Real Presence, felt by western European Christians to be, that thirteenth century theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas was hard put in his Summa Theologica to explain why or even how God had limited the Divine Sacraments to seven and only seven when it was quite clear to everyone that God was present throughout the material world.

Under the influence of western Europe’s new experience of value and time in the fourteenth century, all of this began to change. As Christians became ever more accustomed to experiencing value not in the substances out of which things were composed but, rather, in measurements marked off in equal units of abstract time, they also came to doubt whether God could be contained in or communicate through anything so common, limited, perishable, and mutable as Bread, Wine, or Water.

The debate over God’s Real Presence in the Holy Sacraments was thus part of a larger debate over the nature of value (and the value of nature) in general. Thus, while theologians debated over whether God was truly in the Bread and Wine, philosophers debated over whether precious metals were precious because of substances out of which they were composed or whether their value was merely nominal, conventional, credited to them by custom, habit, and convenience. Simultaneously, in paintings all across western Europe Jesus’ wounds were disappearing from the Risen and Glorified Christ because, or so it would be argued, imperfection can have no rightful place at God’s Right Hand. But, lastly, even the Mother of God was undergoing a profound transformation, on the one hand into an object of graphic titillation, and, on the other hand into an object of near extra-terrestrial angelic and androgynous devotion. Just as the Community of Faith was losing its Body and Blood, so Mary, God’s Mother, was simultaneously losing her body, both literally and figuratively through its translation into mere pornography.

What we begin to see in the fourteenth century is an evacuation more dramatic and more comprehensive than any in history: God’s evacuation of the material world, or more commonly, the world’s “disenchantment.” Yet, in many ways, it was the path that God cut in this divine retreat that set the stage for all that was to follow right down to the present. For God did not simply evacuate the world. Rather did God migrate: out from the cracks, crevices and flows out of which the material world in all of its richness was composed and into the immaterial, abstract, wholly transcendental spaces, dimensions, or levels of human experience that cannot be contained by space and time, but is Itself the Creator of both.

Looking backwards from the present, the God Who begins to emerge in the fourteenth century – disembodied, completely free of all materiality, the God of “the heart,” “the soul,” “the mind,” a God easily conveyed in propositional form, in sentences about God, but also therefore “beyond language,” the “Ground of Being,” the “Totaliter Aliter,” inscrutable, paradoxical, a mystery – is for the first time a God we can recognize as our own; which means that God is no longer contained in and surely no longer is conveyed through material items such as the hair, bones, clothing, or fingernails housed in reliquaries all across Europe. Which means that the God who had occupied western Europe for almost a millennium, a God Who could be and was contained in all of these ways, became the stuff of ridicule, mockery, disgust and parody.

From the vantage-point of the fourteenth century itself, however, the God then emerging seemed for the first time to knit all of reality together into a comprehensive whole, giving ample place to the immaterial, transcendental world of human experience while at the same time validating the material world of the emerging physical sciences. In the hearts of men and women, the realm of freedom, God reigned supreme; in the physical world, the world of necessity, reigned the laws of physics God had established and to which individuals’ bodies, though not their hearts and wills, were absolutely subject.

In the new religion, there was ample space for both law and grace, necessity and freedom, room for science and for affection. But it is only in retrospect that we can begin to appreciate the kind of transformation that was taking place. This transformation was, first, practical insofar as men’s and women’s bodies were asked to calibrate themselves to the equal, abstract units rung out by the mechanical clocks that began to populate towns and cities throughout western Europe. This practical transformation, in and of itself, directed individuals’ attention away from the expanding and contracting time experienced in the lengthening and shortening of the day across the seasons. True time – time such as could be measured precisely, which “changeth not, nor in which is their any variation” across seasons and years – did not measure up to the variable time by which individuals had previously regulated their days.

But this transformation also displayed itself in the ways that individuals were coming to experience value. Value had been subject to a wide variety of highly differentiated conditions, so that, for example, the value of an individual’s work would have been a matter not simply of time multiplied by wage, but would have included such imponderables as the size of the worker’s family, under whom the worker had apprenticed, and what a worker needed in order to live. In the end, value was calibrated through a number of intersecting relationships of church officials with political leaders and guild masters, and of all three with the all important nobility or monarch. Value, in other words, was weighed and negotiated with an eye on both need and justice, but always in a way that made its flexible character clear to all parties concerned.

What the equal units of abstract time achieved was that, by transforming value into a quasi-objective, scientifically determined quantity tied to a given amount of human action, it removed human relationships and negotiations entirely from the equation. Hereafter a wage was neither just nor unjust, but was simply the measurement of a length of time tied to productive human action. There was thus on the one side the human activity itself, the body and the movement of the laborer over time; and on the other side there was the product of that action, a particular article or service whose surface and contours bore no evidence whatever of the abstract value it contained. Whether therefore we are speaking of the laborer, a specific commodity, or a service performed by one person for another, the specificity of the work, the commodity, or the service was quite literally without value. What had value and therefore what drew all human action together into a comprehensive whole was that all could be reduced to or expressed in terms of abstract units of equal time and therefore in terms of abstract value.

Indeed, it was this abstract value – and not the idiosyncratic qualities of this or that item, this or that action, or this or that service – that knit the entire world of things and people together into a singular, rational, comprehensible and comprehensive whole. And it was abstract value that drew all things forward in an ever mounting crescendo of ever more goods, services, labor, wealth, and time, so that – again, for the first time in history – human beings came to feel that they were quite literally being born forward in a directionally dynamic movement propelled forwards not by the actions of any great individual or leader, but by “history” itself.

It is important that we emphasize that this movement is not to be confused with mere “change” or “ambition,” both of which are amply represented in history prior to the fourteenth century. Prior to the fourteenth century, we can actually point to the human occasions for change. That is to say, prior to the fourteenth century change arises from identifiable human decisions and actions. Increasingly, however, after the fourteenth century, change comes to be identified as the envelop in which human actions and decisions take place. And this is because value, once freed from the specific bodies and actions to which it was formerly attached, comes to reproduce itself only by continuously reengaging human bodies in its endless reproduction and by tying all of these bodies together in a highly differentiated, but nevertheless coordinated directionally dynamic movement forward.

To be sure, what we are describing here is surely the birth of capitalism; but that is not in my view what is most interesting about fourteenth century western Europe. What is most interesting about fourteenth century western Europe is that the abstract value that is taking shape in its womb is the God of the religion that will eventually occupy the hearts and minds and souls of all human actors and not only those who will continue to describe themselves as Christians or Jews or Muslims. The disembodied character of value, the experience of being born along by history in an ever mounting crescendo, the identification of knowledge with a material world forcibly compelled to conform to abstract spatial and temporal units and limits over time, and the disqualification of bodies that may still bear the stigmata of enchantment – which is to say, bodies still governed by deliberate, willful, human relationships and negotiations, by magic; all become prototypical qualities not only of the dominant Protestant form of religion which, but a century and a half later, will begin to sweep across Europe, but, increasingly of all religious and non-religious experience of value wherever the capitalist social formation becomes dominant.

Here in the fourteenth century we can observe this shift taking place, the emergence not only of a new religious form, but of a completely unprecedented way of being in the world; a way of being that is too complex, too highly differentiated, and too pervasive, universal, and comprehensive to limit it to one sect, creed or confession. This is not, in other words, a mere economic system; it is a comprehensive, all-encompassing social formation.

It is also the Divine Economy of the present age.


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