Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Augustinian Tradition

When the wave of religious assertion which we call Puritanism is considered in the broad perspective of Christian history, it appears no longer as a unique phenomenon, peculiar to England of the seventeenth century, but as one more instance of a recurrent spiritual answer to interrogations eternally posed by human existence.
Thus writes Perry Miller in The New England Mind: the Seventeenth Century, as he embarks on a fascinating explanation of the Puritans’ extended heritage.  Considering Puritanism in context of the Christian tradition—and, even more, in light of the great human questions—lends greater significance to my own study.  I hesitate to claim understanding of a movement until I know its place in history, major forebears, and how it speaks to these questions:  What is man?  How should he live?  Thus, considered in relation to the major currents of Church history, the Puritans can be both better understood and more ably appreciated.  Because I am just beginning to grasp the broad historical issues, my formulation will err on the side of simplicity, but here’s a try…

Early in Church history, Christianity separated (and tried to synthesize) two influential currents: the Augustinian tradition and the Scholastic tradition.  These two movements were defined by their answers to these questions: Which is pre-eminent: faith or reason?  If you choose one, what place does the other have in Christian practice? Can there be a synthesis?

In devotional practices, the Puritans follow in the tradition of St. Augustine, who placed faith foremost.  In The New England Mind, Miller identifies the Puritans’ location within this centuries-old tradition of piety.  Miller reminds us that “Augustine is the arch-exemplar of a religious frame of mind” continued over fifteen hundred years of religious history, of which “Puritanism is only one instance” (4).  He emphasizes that Puritan thought was not entirely new.  The Puritans’ fervent repudiation of Catholicism did not mean that they rejected all aspects of it; rather, they drew heavily on Augustine’s doctrine, medieval devotional works, and even contemporary Catholic authors.

As Augustinians, Puritans favored revelation over reason.  Reason is corrupted, they thought; we cannot trust it.  This debate dates back to the medieval Scholastic movement and, especially, Thomas Aquinas, who revived interest in Aristotle and emphasized the role of reason in Christian understanding.  The Puritans conceived dangers with Catholic attitudes toward reason: Through reason, they thought, we can only conceive God through balancing his attributes, e.g. justice and mercy. These attributes are modes of human understanding—they are not God’s essence (13).  Because we tend to exalt one attribute above another according to our tastes, we can easily arrive at a skewed view of the Almighty.  We must keep these attributes in balance and never forget the essential mystery of God.  Thomistic theologians had erred by making God too rational” and exaggerating certain of His characteristics (13).  Puritans accused scholastics of trying to “confine the unconfinable within artificial distinctions.

Rather than depend solely on reason, the Puritans depended primarily on the revealed Word of God, i.e. the Bible.  Miller notes a reservation, though, consistent with the Puritan concept of God’s incomprehensibility: the Bible does not reveal God’s fullness (10).  Behind the Bible is God’s secret will, His mystery.
St. Augustine's contrition
Puritan descent from Augustine is clearest in the matter of sin.  Man is living at odds with the all-perfect God.  Miller summarizes Augustinian piety in relation to sin: “The maimed soul, even while persisting in evil, longs for deliverance from the body of this death, for reinstatement in the created harmony” (22). The core problem is man’s separation from God and man’s own imperfection: “The Augustinian strain of piety flows from man’s desire to transcend his imperfect self,” to connect with the divine (8).  It “cries out for forgiveness of the sins by which he has cut himself off from full and joyous participation” and “draws sustenance from the moments of exaltation in which glimpses of the original happiness are attained” (8).  Knowledge of God and of one’s soul are the means to attain truth and happiness.  To seek this knowledge, Augustine and the Puritans turned to an “analysis of soul.”  These ideas reappear in Puritan works: Augustine is quoted frequently, echoed in their rhetoric, and read often by Puritans.

Charles Hambrick-Stowe, in The Practice of Piety, illustrates the likeness of many Puritan personal writings to Augustine’s Confessions  and identifies the Puritan relationship to other Augustinians (26).  Hambrick-Stowe, who acknowledges his debt to Perry Miller, probably drew the Augustinian connection from The New England Mind.  He adds that the Puritans are not Augustine’s only heirs.  He traces Augustine’s influence through the medieval mystics and even to seventeenth-century Anglican meditative poet George Herbert.  The American Puritans evidently used Catholic devotional texts, including the works of medievals Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas à Kempis, and they read George Herbert, their contemporary.  Independently of this study, I had developed interests in Western mysticism and in Herbert, so it’s exciting to see a common thread!

The Puritans do have clear, significant answers to questions about humankind, and they did not formulate these answers in a vacuum.  I’m interested in exploring further how these influences affected their thought, their devotional life, and even their word choice.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Selfish Piety

So faithful were the Puritans to “grace alone” that pious practices—if performed from self-exertion and to earn salvation—could be considered sinful acts of pride.  David Brainerd (later a Puritan missionary to the Indians) poured his life into prayer, fasting, and other exercises for years, but he gained no assurance of salvation.  He realized later that these were all selfish acts; the more he tried, the further he became mired in sin.  
Before this, the more I did in duty the more hard I thought it would be for God to cast me off….But now the more I did in prayer or any other duty, the more I saw I was indebted to God for allowing me to ask for mercy; for I saw it was self-interest had led me to pray, and that I had never once prayed from any respect to the glory of God….I saw that I had been heaping up my devotions before God, fasting, praying, pretending, and indeed really thinking sometimes that I was aiming at the glory of God; whereas I never once truly intended it, but only my own happiness. (Life and Diary Part I)
In the above passage, Brainerd shows the Puritan attitude toward examining their behaviors: the underlying motivation is what matters.  Perry Miller observes, “Guilt or innocence consisted not in what was done but in what was intended” (The New England Mind 52).  Since intentions cannot be judged from outside, and judging one’s own motives is a tricky business, Puritans navigated this soul-searching by using Bible- and prayer-based methods of self-examination.  Their purposefulness and faithfulness in these exercises astounds me!  Yet the impetus is real: to be secure in salvation, you must be sure that you depend on grace, not on your own devotional practices.  And even after salvation, you must remember that your piety fully depends on Christ’s work.
David Brainerd at last came to the conviction that Christ alone was able to save, but he continued to be aware of this issue, recording years later,
Had some intense and passionate breathings of soul after holiness, and very clear manifestations of my utter inability to procure, or work it in myself; it is wholly owing to the power of God.  Oh, with what tenderness the love and desire of holiness fills the soul!  I wanted to wing out of myself to God, or rather to get a conformity to Him. (Life and Diary Part V)
Compared to the first quotation, in this quote Brainerd has moved from selfish to selfless piety.  Enthralled with holiness, he longs to be wholly freed from hollow, prideful righteousness.

Puritan Self-Fashioning: An Oxymoron

In the last post, to balance out the view that Puritans focused only on sin, I highlighted the godly delight that follows Puritan self-examination.  I came across an article that concurs with this correction but makes another error; though the article focuses on an English (not American) Puritan, I’d like to address the critic’s viewpoint here.  In “Puritan Self-Fashioning: The Diary of Samuel Ward,” Margo Todd recognizes the faulty view of those who negatively emphasize Puritan cataloguing of sins, but the alternative interpretation she offers is still unfaithful to Puritan thought.

Todd argues that Samuel Ward’s diary is misrepresented by current editors: undue attention is given to the guilt-ridden sections of his writing, in which he lists his sins.  This negative selectiveness on the part of scholars furthers a common misconception—that Puritans are all constantly, morbidly focused on their sins.  This is an unbalanced approach to Ward’s character.

She asserts, instead, that Ward was “defining himself, designing for himself an identity,” an activity inspired by Renaissance notions of the self.  This alternative reading is a modern misreading.  Certainly, the Protestant practice of self-examination is closely related to the self; Protestant reformers were heavily influenced by Renaissance humanism.  However, self-examination does not involve remaking oneself.  Rather, it is about being transformed. 

Note the active and passive voices: “Remake oneself” vs. “Be transformed.”  What are the implications of this slight difference in terms?  The former assumes that God is not real, while the latter assumes God’s existence.  “Remake oneself” implies only one actor, the self-examining subject, whereas “be transformed” requires two actors: God transforms the believer. 

To be historically honest, readers of Puritan religious texts must take full account of the authors’ strong faith in God.  Self-examination in the Christian tradition is a process of being transformed, of allowing God to illumine the soul.  Romans 12:2 reads, “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  This transformation moves a person from desiring his own will to “proving” God’s will.  Meditation on God, while revealing dark sins in the soul, fills the believer with God’s Spirit, so that he becomes more like Christ.

Todd interprets this God-performed inner transformation as self-performed self-creation.  By taking this approach, Todd discounts Ward’s faith.  In “self-fashioning,” there is no room for God. 

In the Puritan view, the sinful self is not capable of change; justification and sanctification are the works of God alone.  Perry Miller, in The New England Mind (1939), writes of Puritan theology: “The one bedrock certainty about the matter is that grace is a supernatural power and that no man can enact regeneration by his own exertions.” (27).  Man, who brought on himself horrible anguish of sin, “could hardly expect to find within himself the power to master it.  The force of this conclusion gave the Puritan cry for deliverance through the grace of God its urgency and its poignance” (25).  Deliverance from the anguish of sinfulness could only come through God.  Humbly, the believer approaches God to seek cleansing from sin, purification of heart, and a nearer likeness to Christ.  The believer brings only himself to God, and God does the work through grace.

What did this look like in private devotions?  It means that self-examination depended completely on God: Human ability played no role in devotional practices.  God’s words provided the subject of meditation (the Bible), and He supplied the will to seek His ways (Hambrick-Stowe 45).  In self-examination, people were to “be unbottomed of Self, to dye to Self-advancement, to Self-glorification, and to all Selfish joyes” (Corbet Self-Imployment in Secret, qtd Hambrick-Stowe 173).  Quite the opposite of self-fashioning!

Goal of Self-examination

To lay a foundation for talking about Puritan devotional practices, let’s clear up a misconception: the practice of self-examination was not just a morose focus on the minutest sins.  While many engaged in listing their sins, they had a goal beyond self-examination: a clearer view of Christ.  Realization of one’s own sinfulness was followed by a realization of God’s grace, delight in His presence, and spontaneous prayers of thanksgiving.  In my readings, I have observed both facets of Puritan meditation: confession of sin and confession of God’s blessings.

Puritan meditation on sin was followed by meditation on “the joy of union with Christ,” Charles Hambrick-Stowe points out in The Practice of Piety (p.165).  The process of devotion was to know the evil of your heart and then come to Christ.  John Downame, in his widely-read period devotional manual, wrote:
“Wee are not to bend all out thoughts to meditate and call to mind all our sins…The huge cloud of our sinnes being neere our eyes, will hide from our sight the shining beames of Gods mercy and Christs merit….As soone as wee cast one eye upon our sins for our humiliation, let us cast the other presently upon Christ Jesus, who hath payd the price for our redemption, and suffered all the punishment which we by our sins have deserved.” (167) 
 Once properly humbled by knowing himself, the believer could see the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice.  Then, in “the highest form of self-examination,” a saint could return thanksgiving, meditating on blessings bestowed by God (175).

This sequence—humiliation of self to praise of God—was lived out in public and private Puritan practice.  A town’s covenant-making day was commonly a “Day of Humiliation,” and covenant-renewal was always performed in conjunction with a fast day.  These serious occasions, though, were each followed within a few days by an appointed Day of Thanksgiving.  In individual devotions, the same pattern manifests, notably in Cotton Mather’s Diary.  At about age 18, he one day awakened to his sin of pride, so he set apart a day of humiliation.  On this day, he examined himself and found himself “most wofully guilty before the Lord” (16).  He recorded reasons, prayers and his hope in God’s assurances.  Three days later, he scheduled a day of thanksgiving.  In systematic plain style, he recollected and recorded Mercies, praised God on his knees for specific things, and considered how he would show gratitude in future actions.  Overwhelmed by God's goodness and grace toward him, Mather concluded earnestly, " “Shall I not every Day, in every Capacity, Relation, Company, bee contriving, What can I now and here do for God? And lay myself out accordingly.  Oh! that, oh! that, Oh! that, God would help mee, thus to do!”

Self-examination, then, is not an end in itself: it moves toward communion with God.  By prayerfully focusing on one’s own soul, one prepares to move to a deeper focus on God.  The result of this meditation is joy, gratitude, praise, and resolution. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Remind me again...Why am I studying the Puritans?

[The great American Puritan works are] quite good enough to be read through, in their entirety, by all who imagine themselves capable of taking pleasure in the way human tones reveal themselves in a language once vividly expressive but available to us now merely as writing; and in the way writers invent or arrange their own structures of thought in order to encompass other structures of thought, equally human in origin, whether Scriptural or merely systematic, and so to express and transmit the results of their private meditation and social conversation on the most serious of human subjects.  To be read…by any critic who has ever wondered…whether there is more to literary life than ‘Poems and Stories.’ (xvii)
-Michael Colacurcio  
Godly Letters   

For in that first century, primitive conditions of life and the Puritan culture conspired to produce a literature distinguished by closeness to fact, energy and vividness of expression, and at times a soaring imagination.  Rarely has the mind worked with greater vigor and penetration than in the early New England community; rarely has the written word been used more effectively; rarely has the human spirit burned with an intenser, brighter flame.
-Randall Stewart
"Puritan Literature and the Flowering of New England"

Now I'm ready to keep reading!

Leaving New England

 “As many as one in four settlers abandoned New England,” asserts Susan Hardmoon Moore in her interesting study, Pilgrims: New World Settlers and the Call of Home (p.14).  Really?!  I knew that the Puritan emigration from England slowed mid-century when persecution diminished—after all, Puritans even gained control of the British government for a while.  The period of 1630-39 contained the great Puritan exodus from Britain.  However, I didn’t know that “in the decades after 1640, far more people left New England each year than went there” (p.1).  This significant emigration from New England provokes the question: why did so many leave?  Moore tackles the question…and there I leave all of us in tantalizing suspense. 

I wanted to introduce this book (suggested by a blog reader) for your exploration and my future reference, when I’m ready to research these questions.  I’m interested in transatlantic studies, so a movement of people who brought New England experiences back to England is intriguing.  How much of the New England perspective was then incorporated by English Puritans?  Did the return of so many settlers demean the colonies, or did the exodus spread New England’s influence in an unexpected way?

Puritans vs. Their Writings

If I am asking questions about American Puritan culture in general, and I'm answering them using Puritan writings, I have to resolve a difficulty: those who wrote such memoirs were the best educated, socially privileged Puritans.  How can their experiences and attitudes be taken as representative?  

In his preface to The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England, Charles Hambrick-Stowe sees only a narrow gap between the Puritan "social elite" and popular society.  Puritanism was a devotional movement, and, though extraordinary education was peculiar to clergy, the Puritan populace was remarkably similar to their leaders in piety and religious practice.  One evidence is the extremely wide use of certain devotional manuals (guides to prayer, meditation, and Scriptural study) in households throughout the colonies.  

However, Michael Mages, in Magnalia Christi Americana: America’s Literary Old Testament, points out the fallacy of assuming that all Puritans are like their preachers.  In the context of the Magnalia's third book, "Lives of the Divines," which lauds exceptional New Englands pastors, Mages observes that preachers do not give a picture of everyday Puritan men and women.  Pastors were specially educated at a high level and with theological depth; moreover, many were morbidly focused on death and sin.   

Mages is right that the pastors underwent a tremendous preperatory education and were extraordinary individuals.  Those who left a literary legacy certainly were from a distinct social standing, especially the preachers. And he may be right that Mather's "Lives" does not portray the everyday Puritan.  As I saw last semester in "Life of John Winthrop," Mather emphasizes his subject's saintly attributes and leadership qualities.  

We need to remember that we are talking about Puritans.  There may have been a sort of "social elite," but there was no spiritual elite among church members--they were all equally dependent on grace!  What is significant is the commonalities of the Puritan mind: a commitment to family and society, a pressing toward God for signs of grace, a fear of God, a delight in His presence.  In other words, whether well-read or not, they are all Puritans.  They were people who held family devotions; flocked for miles to hear preachers, sometimes multiple times a week; and read the Bible in all circumstances, like Mary Rowlandson during her captivity, or like this imprisoned Puritan woman.

Actually, in raising the education level and spiritual rigor of their pastors, didn't the Puritans strive to inculcate in each lay person a fuller knowledge and deeper experience of faith?  The result was not a pastorate that rose higher and higher above a static society, but a pastorate that poured its gifts into ministry--and in so doing, elevated the people along with them. (I have to add a caveat: the failure of this ideal, i.e. the inability to spiritually motivate the people, resulted in the second-generation dilemma.)

Since I'm currently reading spiritual autobiographies, diaries, and poems, this debate about socially superior writers is quite pertinent.  Based on the Puritans' emphasis on piety, education, and participation among all people, I am inclined to think that, as Hambrick-Stowe asserts, the average Puritan was not that far separated from those who wrote what I'm reading.