Christian Materiality/2

Some of you will have known me long enough to remember the dissertation chapters in which I was eager to show how the the Reformation was largely a product of new temporal horizons generated by the coordination of productive human activity and abstract time. While everyone now concedes that the signal event was the instructions the abbot of St-Pierre gave the fullers to install a clock in the workhouse in the parish of St John (in 1324), clocks and clock time began to slowly change the late medieval landscape immediately upon their arrival two centuries earlier. Initially, of course, they simply replaced the sundials, water clocks, candles, and ropes cloistered brothers and sisters had for centuries used to measure the intervals between times of prayer. Eventually, however, Europeans adopted a dual time regime: one that reflected that actual movements of tides, seasons, migrations, and ecclesiastical rhythms and another that measured abstract, scientific, celestial time.

My dissertation, finished in 1998, went on to argue that Max Weber had turned the actual world on its head; that it was the changed practices, experience, and sensibilities of common, mostly illiterate, peasants, tradespeople, and merchants who came to feel their world divided into innert, dead, bodies on the one hand, and lively, living, spirits on the other; or, to use language more familiar to Marxian historians, abstract immaterial value, on the one hand, and its material forms of appearance, on the other. What this meant, I argued, was that Weber and the discipline that he came to dominate, including the Marxian social theory that (partially) embraced his theory, had taken Protestant Theology and Protestant piety as a trigger to capitalism rather than, as I argued, among capitalism’s most illustrious products.

As I have pointed out elsewhere — although I did not yet fully grasp it in 1998 — there is good reason to believe that Marx, too, at least by 1867, recognized the adequacy of Protestant spirituality and experience and the capitalist social formation:

For a society of commodity producers, whose general social relation of production consists in the fact that they treat their products as commodities, hence as values, and in this material form bring their individual, private labours into re lation with each other as homogeneous human labour, Christianity with its religious cult of man in the abstract, more particularly in its bourgeois development, i.e. in Protestantism, Deism, etc., is the most fitting form of religion.

Marx, Capital, Volume One, Commodities and Money.

Part of my delight with Carline Walker Bynum’s Christian Materiality is obviously that it helps validate a thesis I have long entertained. But this suggests merely intellectual sparring, which is part, but not all of it. I give nothing away to say that Professor Bynum, in her conclusion, relates the materiality of late Medieval Christianity not simply to the incarnation, which is where I have long seated it, but to creation. There is, Bynum says, not simply a tension, but a paradox in the absolute, immaterial, all-powerful, in whom there is no shadow of turning, being expressed in, revealing God’s self in, Creation, material, less than all-powerful, from which shadow of turning acquires its very meaning. It is convenient to fall back upon a via negativa, and to argue that God is revealed in Creation by what Creation is not. However anyone who would read Genesis 1-6 in this light or the preamble to John’s gospel would surely find themselves tongue-tied to defend this position.

Professor Bynum finishes her work with both her and her reader’s tongues tied. She does not resolve, does not attempt to resolve, perhaps does not wish to resolve, the paradox.

If not exactly a solution, there is a path that leads to one suggested in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which, it seems clear, Paul places the Stoic assumptions of Romans 1-3 under the rubric of the Cross. What if Cross is prior? Or, in Professor Bynum’s language, what if materiality enjoys priority?

What if the problem is not fitting time into eternity, but eternity into time? And what if the solution to this problem is that time, temporality, limitation has always been the divine imperative that has been seeking to redeem the human quest for eternity? Or, in a more positive light, what if eternity is grasped as a temporality?

I would really like it if others who have read this book — and not only Christians — would chime in. It is a terribly interesting study. And with huge implications for faith and political practice.

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