04 October 2011

The problem of Jansenism

You may have noticed (of course you did!) that I renamed the link to my parish in the bazillions of links down below. Previously we didn't have a name at all, aside from "Old Catholic Parish of Hannover-Lower Saxony". Now that we finally have our very own church, it was high time to pick a proper name.

The parish has been at it for literally years, with no sign of progress and a couple reverses. But this time there was enough determination to finally just pick one that it went through. The new name is "Marie Angélique", named for Maria Angélique Arnauld. Who's she, you ask? Go ahead and read her entry on Wikipedia.

I have to say, I ain't happy.

She seems to be a wonderful person. She was the major force behind reforming the Order of Port-Royal, a nunnery that had pretty much gone all to pieces and where standards were virtually non-existent -- indeed from the sound of things, it had more to do with a home for juvenile delinquents than a nunnery, and in some descriptions it even sounds like it was practically a bordello when she took over. Thanks to her, the nunnery was thoroughly cleaned up and revitalized. Truly a remarkable feat, and one that deserves to be remembered.

But there is something about her connections that seriously bothers me. While I've talked to our priest many times about it, and have accepted that that is the new name and that's that, I still am uncomfortable with the choice because of her connections to Jansenism. You can read up about it on Wikipedia, but I'll sum up my complaints here.

Take Blaise Pascal, a close associate of hers and another leading Jansenist. He wrote (emphasis mine):

And yet it pleases God to choose, elect, and discern from this equally corrupt mass, in which he sees only demerit, a number of men of each sex, age, condition, complexion, from every country and time, in short, of all sorts. God has distinguished His Elect from the others, for reasons unknown to men and to Angels, by pure mercy, without any merit involved. [...] God, through an absolute and irrevocable will, willed to save His Elect with a purely gratuitous goodness; He abandoned the others to their evil desires, to which He could with perfect justice abandon all men. In order to save His Elect, God sent Jesus Christ to satisfy His justice and merit from His mercy the grace of Redemption...

In other words, there is pretty much no such thing as free will, at least not according to Cornelius Jansen or his adherents. Jansenism was roundly condemned by Rome as heresy, mainly because of that denial of the free will of humanity to choose to turn to God. Certainly the opposite extreme, Pelagianism, is also full of problems. But Rome and the Orthodox Church are quite clear on what they see as problematic. Take this article from +Kallistos Ware, a former Anglican who is now an Orthodox bishop and metropolitan in England, where he states:

Grace and Free Will. As we have seen, the fact that man is in God’s image means among other things that he possesses free will. God wanted a son, not a slave. The Orthodox Church rejects any doctrine of grace which might seem to infringe upon man’s freedom. To describe the relation between the grace of God and free will of man, Orthodoxy uses the term cooperation or synergy (synergeia); in Paul’s words: "We are fellow-workers (synergoi) with God" (1 Cor. 3:9). If man is to achieve full fellowship with God, he cannot do so without God’s help, yet he must also play his own part..."
The west, since the time of Augustine and the Pelagian controversy, has discussed this question of grace and free will in somewhat different terms; and many brought up in the Augustinian tradition — particularly Calvinists — have viewed the Orthodox idea of ‘synergy’ with some suspicion. Does it not ascribe too much to man’s free will, and too little to God? Yet in reality the Orthodox teaching is very straightforward. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in"(Revelation 3:20). God knocks, but waits for man to open the door — He does not break it down. The grace of God invites all but compels none.
Orthodoxy, holding as it does a less exalted idea of man’s state before he fell, is also less severe than the west in its view of the consequences of the fall. Adam fell, not from a great height of knowledge and perfection, but from a state of undeveloped simplicity; hence he is not to be judged too harshly for his error. Certainly, as a result of the fall man’s mind became so darkened, and his will-power was so impaired, that he could no longer hope to attain to the likeness of God. Orthodox, however, do not hold that the fall deprived man entirely of God’s grace, though they would say that after the fall grace acts on man from the outside, not from within. Orthodox do not say, as Calvin said, that man after the fall was utterly depraved and incapable of good desires. They cannot agree with Augustine, when he writes that man is under ‘a harsh necessity’ of committing sin, and that ‘man’s nature was overcome by the fault into which it fell, and so came to lack freedom’. The image of God is distorted by sin, but never destroyed; in the words of a hymn sung by Orthodox at the Funeral Service for the laity: ‘I am the image of Thine inexpressible glory, even though I bear the wounds of sin.’ And because he still retains the image of God, man still retains free will, although sin restricts its scope. Even after the fall, God ‘takes not away from man the power to will — to will to obey or not to obey Him’ (Dositheus, Confession, Decree 3. Compare Decree 14). Faithful to the idea of synergy, Orthodoxy repudiates any interpretation of the fall which allows no room for human freedom.
Most orthodox theologians reject the idea of ‘original guilt,’ put forward by Augustine and still accepted (albeit in a mitigated form) by the Roman Catholic Church. Men (Orthodox usually teach) automatically inherit Adam’s corruption and mortality, but not his guilt: they are only guilty in so far as by their own free choice they imitate Adam."

This quote is from his book entitled The Orthodox Way, which I highly recommend -- very interesting and insightful as an introduction to the Orthodox Church. This kind of understanding of God seems both far more satisfying and more loving than the cruel God who damns people from the get-go, while also being more rational. What would be the point of condemning people in advance? It simply makes no sense and can't be reconciled with a truly loving, caring God interested in His Creation.

Here is another quote, this time from the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), about the sin of Adam and the redemption through Christ:
The sufferings and death of Christ in obedience to the Father reveals the super-abundant divine love of God for his creation. For when all was sinful, cursed, and dead, Christ became sin, a curse, and dead for us -- though he himself never ceased to be the righteousness and blessedness and life of God Himself. It is to this depth, of which lower and more base cannot be discovered or imagined, that Christ has humiliated himself "for us men and for our salvation." For being God, he became man; and being man, he became a slave; and being a slave, he became dead and not only dead, but dead on a cross. From this deepest degradation of God flows the eternal exaltation of man. This is the pivotal doctrine of the Orthodox Christian faith, expressed over and again in many ways throughout the history of the Orthodox Church. It is the doctrine of the atonement -- for we are made to be "at one" with God. It is the doctrine of redemption -- for we are redeemed, i.e., "bought with a price," the great price of the blood of God (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor 6:20).
In Orthodox theology generally it can be said that the language of "payment" and "ransom" is rather understood as a metaphorical and symbolical way of saying that Christ has done all things necessary to save and redeem mankind enslaved to the devil, sin and death, and under the wrath of God. He "paid the price," not in some legalistic or juridical or economic meaning. He "paid the price" not to the devil whose rights over man were won by deceit and tyranny. He "paid the price" not to God the Father in the sense that God delights in His sufferings and received "satisfaction" from His creatures in Him. He "paid the price" rather, we might say, to Reality Itself. He "paid the price" to create the conditions in and through which man might receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life by dying and rising again in Him to newness of life (See Rom 5-8; Gal 2-4).

I don't know about you, but that sounds far more coherent and loving than a God that just decides to create billions of people who will burn in the fires of Hell with no chance whatsoever to change that.

Fair enough: Marie Angélique herself may or may not have had much to do with Jansen and may or may not have shared his views. She does seem to have been a remarkable and formidable woman. I've also been told that modern theologians, including Roman Catholic ones, have reappraised Jansenism and think Rome's criticism at the time was wildly overblown. The "five points" of Jansenism that she was forced to condemn were at least technically not really what Jansen himself proposed, and she was badly mistreated and unjustly abused, when there should be tolerance for other viewpoints. And guilt by association is really playing dirty pool, no matter who does it.

But given her close association with leading Jansenists, and the close association of Port-Royal with Jansenism, it still makes me very uncomfortable to say the least, especially when I read what Jansenists themselves wrote. Go to the source and read Jansen's original paper for yourself. Read Pascal's writings as well, as linked and quoted above. I think you'd have to agree than the views expressed are difficult to digest at best, and I'd much rather stay distant from such viewpoints. To make it absolutely clear, I don't condemn her, Jansen, or anyone else, and it is not my place to do so. It is simply a matter of who I want to be associated with, whose views I can support and agree with. By choosing her name, there is an implied endorsement of her views or the views of her order, and that is why I'm uncomfortable.

I would have much rather have taken a simple name associated with Christ Himself, as was the tradition in the early church. The Good Shepherd is a good example, being one of the earliest representations of Christ in iconography, or just plain "Christ Church" (which unfortunately is already taken in Hannover). One of the suggested names was "Taufe Jesu", or "Baptism of Christ", which I thought was ideal given that our church is the first Old Catholic church to be built with a full baptismal pool. And it would avoid the kind of associations that any individual saint would inevitably conjure up.

But alas, it was not to be. I missed my opportunity to raise the issue, and by the time I did so, it was simply too late to stop the momentum. The proverbial bus was long gone by the time I got there. So in a lot of ways I only have myself to blame.

Being a "good Catholic" as I try to be, I have to accept the will of the church as expressed through our parish assembly meeting, and live with it. It's not something that would make me jump leagues or whatever. But it's still disappointing. Here's hoping that she can do us some good with the Big Guy upstairs and pray for us, and forgive my doubts about her.

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