Death by Abstraction

“A theology without practice is the theology of demons.”  So said St. Maximos the Confessor.  Abstractions have never held any weight within Christianity.  The devil believes, and it makes no difference.  The Incarnation explodes the possibility of the efficacy of “abstraction.”  God became a particular man at a particular time in a particular place.*

We see this theological truth spill out into other areas.  Beware, for example, of vague descriptions of “Human Rights.”  Without application in a particular context, such “rights” have no meaning.  Hence France’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man” declared in 1789 gave absolutely no protection to anyone during the Reign of Terror in 1793.  The Committee of Pubic Safety interpreted such rights as they pleased to do what they wished.  Beware the man with grand visions of glory who cares nothing for the actual human cost.  On such foundations were the great tyrannies of the 20th century built.

A great deal of debate exists as to the question, “What is America?”  Different answers have been given to this question, but we don’t often stop to question why we have so much debate about our identity.  I think the root of this problem lies in the commonly accepted idea (whether it is true or false) that America has its origin in certain ideas about liberty, freedom, and so on, not in any particular experience in history.  In a few other posts on this blog I muse on this question (see here and here if you have not wearied of me quite yet:).

Some historians argue that America took a decided turn with the victory of the North in the Civil War.  Proponents of this do not necessarily assert that the South was “good” and the North “bad,” though some may argue this.  Some in this school of thought, like Clark Carlton from Tennessee Tech, don’t even put the focus on the good of one side vs. the other, or on state’s rights and federal power, but rather on culture and the idea of what America actually is or should be.

Carlton argues that the two sides in the Civil War represented two different ideas about America.  The North, dominated by a New England ethos, believed that America had its roots in certain ideas that should have application everywhere for all men.  The South, rooted in a very different migratory pattern (discussed brilliantly by David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed, by far the best book I’ve read on colonial America), saw America as a place to transplant a certain kind of Anglo-Celtic way of life.

I lack the wherewithal to discuss the merits of this theory, except to say that it has enough plausibility to deserve consideration.  For the moment let’s assume its core proposition and explore its possible merits.  For the theory to hold water, we would need to trace the development of abstract ideas throughout the history of New England and see its pernicious effects.**  Of course this means that we find that they did in believe such abstractions.

Recently I read the The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase, written in 1821.  The book tells of the shocking attack and sinking of their ship by a sperm whale, the inspiration for 51-cWJypx5L._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_Melville’s Moby Dick.  Most American whaling crews hailed from the New England area, as did the Essex.  The account held my interest all the way through.  For our purposes here, I couldn’t help notice, however, how the author spoke about God.  I don’t believe he ever used the word “God,” referring instead to “Providence,” or “the benefits of the Creator,” or something like that.  Certainly they never made any reference to Jesus Himself.  Such language left me cold.  Whether or not the author and his crew believed in Christ I cannot say, but this impersonal and ultimately abstract language is certainly not a Christian way to speak about God.  It seems to exactly mirror the Transcendentalists like Emerson, who of course hailed from New England.^

As their journey in the lifeboats continued, their supplies of food obviously dwindled.  At first when crewmen died they buried them at sea decently.  But after several weeks they grew more desperate, and fell to eating parts of the deceased crew’s body before burial.  They did so even though they still had small amounts of bread left, so they had other options.  One of the lifeboats even eventually drew lots to see who would be shot, so his flesh could be consumed.  A man named Owen Coffin drew the short straw and apparently submitted to his fate willingly.

So all in all eight crewmen survived, but at what cost?  I do not judge them too harshly.  They endured severe trials and privations.  After several weeks I’m sure they had nothing left physically, mentally, and emotionally.  I have never endured anything remotely akin to their ordeal.  Yet in the writing of the account itself I expected some remorse, some second-guessing of their practices, especially given the time proximity of their rescue to their cannibalism.  In hindsight, such horrors probably were not even necessary for their strict survival.  But Mr. Chase has no such reflections.

I can’t help but wonder if their cold and distant manner of speaking about God might contribute to their cold, impersonal view of each others lives and bodies.  This surprised me because earlier in the book he wrote touching passages about the attachment of the crew to each other.  After the ship sunk the crew found themselves in three separate lifeboats.  Chase talks movingly of losing sight of their fellow ships at night and their frantic efforts to find each other lest they be separated.  But in the end, I suppose, their abstract notions of life won out.

But this crew did not invent such a way of speaking.  These abstractions must have had their roots somewhere.  We might start with the New England Puritans.  Initially, it seems that the Puritans were anything but abstract in their views.  They practiced a very particular way of life and belief.  But a second look tells otherwise.  I have no wish to “pile on” the Puritans, who get a lot of bad press, much of it undeserved.  I admire certain things about them.  But their strong Calvinism does lead one to a kind of abstraction regarding God.  God’s abstract “will” often asserts itself to the fore in Puritan theology, pushing more personal characteristics such as love, mercy, etc. to the periphery.  Their conception of the “will” of God swallowed up all individual personality.  So I think we can say that abstraction had its roots in the foundation of New England society.^^

The American Revolution had many of its roots in New England, and there again we can say that they had an attachment to abstractions.  They began by charging the British with violating their rights as British citizens in 1765, but ended by conceiving of Lady Liberty (a goddess?), and human rights that should apply to all men everywhere.

This abstract seed has grown many branches, some good and some bad.  The root issue seems to be the idea that once a certain group of people latch onto a particular incarnated meaning of “liberty,” they seek to apply to all everywhere.  So we have the New England abolitionists on the one hand, and LGBT rights on the other.  Both have very different seeming applications, but both might have the same root.+

In the end I’m not sure “abstraction” was a distinctly New England problem.  Carlton sees the Civil War as a turning point for American ideals of abstract liberty, and here I disagree.  Perhaps New England held to such “abstractions” more than others, but by 1800 at least these ideals had spread most everywhere.  Where I agree with him fully, however, is that latching onto abstract propositions to guide us has resulted in many theological and civil problems.

As we end the Christmas season, may the truth of the Incarnation lead us in a different direction.



*Hence the importance of the prologue of St. Luke’s gospel, the historical books of the Old Testament, and various other portions of Scripture.

**I don’t mean to leave aside the possible pernicious effects of Anglo-Celtic culture.  For his part I don’t believe Carlton means to glorify this culture.  Rather, he seems to assert that the culture was uniquely their culture, and thus they (and not anyone else) had ownership of its strengths and sins, slavery obviously among them.  Their moral life remains their responsibility and not those of other states/countries, or the Federal government.  Perhaps he might continue to argue that taking it out of their hands in a way absolved them of ownership and responsibility — creating a pernicious distance between themselves and their political and cultural lives.  Did this then lead to actually more mistreatment of blacks?  It seems hard to argue this, as slavery ended because of the Civil War.  But . . . perhaps this “distance” gave them more subconscious permission to continue subjugating blacks as an act of defiance?  This would be a pretty radical idea, one that we could not test and can therefore only speculate.  But it does seem a bit of a stretch to me.  Still, I am only speculating as to his argument.

^Such manner of speaking about God is not only confined to New England, however.  Washington, Jefferson, and other southerners spoke in a similar  way.  This may cast doubt on Carlton’s thesis.

^^We can find other examples, I think.  The Puritans did not really grow a local culture, but rather “imported” and imposed a large measure of it from the Old Testament — or at least their interpretation of it.  We might argue that Puritan culture was the byproduct of abstract theological ideas.

+On the issue of slavery Carlton argues that the New England abolitionists accomplished nothing in part because of their abstractions.  They had no roots in the culture they critiqued.  They merely espoused vague notions of liberty.  He wanted southern abolitionists (such societies did exist, at least in the upper South) to solve the issue — alas, they did not.  But neither, I suppose, did northern abolitionists.  They both failed alike to avert Civil War. As to why America could not solve this issue legislatively, as England did, I’m not sure.