Hell on Earth? The Descensus, the Disenchanted Modern World, and the Materiality of Hell (Part 2 of 2)

Part 1 of 2 is here.

A sketch of some conclusions from my month at the Center:

1. The prevailing narrative for explaining the transition from pre- to post-Enlightenment thought and culture is a story of maturing from ignorance to knowledge and, even more condescendingly, myth to science. Particularly when it comes to shifting perspectives on the reality of hell, this is outrageously inaccurate and not only because it oversimplifies the basic facts of the scientific and philosophical revolution.

In fact, objections to the possibility or reality of hell were religious and theological, even within the sciences. And this is because they always are and must be. Indeed, the obstacles that moderns believe stands in the way of their submission to the thought-world of the Bible, with heaven, hell, angels, demons, and the like - the enormous gulf they are sure exists between them and buying into that - are in fact greater and runner much deeper than they imagine. The whole picture involves a radically new and different way of seeing all of reality, a revolution of posture toward what it means to be. And the economic image of buying into is deliberate: we moderns trade on the ideas we think have currency in the marketplace of relationships and the myriad of desirables that propel our activities.

But again the gulf is greater still. The Christian Faith, buying "all in" into the world of the Bible, leaves no remnant of the former world intact. No object, aspiration, expectation, or interpretation is untouched. Yet the obstacles to embracing that full-orbed world, purportedly scientific yet in fact quite unscientific, do not typically include the more sophisticated error of, say, Ivan Karimazov, that most compelling of skeptical hesitations. To the figure of Ivan, I suggest we must add Stephen. If Ivan Karimazov’s posture is the most noble and worthwhile among what some have called the faithful disbelieving, Stephen Dedalus’s is easily the more common. Here we face the posture of the petulant. Allow me a word of explanation.

James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man contains some of the most compelling imagery on hell to be found in the modern world. The darkness, the stench, the devils: they are all there. These images are, for the hero of the story, the singularly memorable moments in the sermons he heard in his youth from a Jesuit priest, Father Arnall, whom the reader overhears preaching early on to a group of Catholic schoolboys. In the group is the adolescent protagonist of the story, Stephen Dedalus. Struggling with shame over his impurities, Stephen trembles at the pounding images as the priest - in what was in fact the classically baroque Jesuit way - provokes the boys into imagining, as darkly and horrifically as possible, the sufferings of Christ and of eternal hell.

Joyce introduces nothing new. All of his grotesque and horrifying images for hell are familiar ones pulled from the long tradition of Christian reflection on the infernal torments. And it is clearly important for Joyce that they be recognized for all their traditional, churchly pedigree. Joyce expects his reader to be at once disgusted and amused: disgusted at the oppressive propensities of the human imagination (here are boys in the raging, confusing, hormonal passions of their adolescence being tutored in the scalding punishments awaiting them for their “self-polluting” acts) and amused, perhaps with the tender but real condescension of a teacher discovering childish drawings of the family dog.

The distinct, intended impression left not only by the inclusion of this material in the novel but especially in its location in the story is impossible to miss. It is in large measure the message of the novel, and it resonates with the experience of many who doubt the biblical world today. Stephen Dedalus is a child, an adolescent on the cusp of maturity, a human being torn in many directions and pulled to a point of decision. And "religion," specifically in this case belief in the reality of a hell, is something to be outgrown, a tangling net from which to flee and from which to be freed:

“When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”

And this is in fact the acerbic point of Joyce's story: "religion," and the world it commends, is adolescent. It is fantastical, delusive, peculiar. A chimeric blip on the screen of human development. Perhaps belief in heaven and hell served a useful role in ancient cultures, curbing morals and awakening human altruism, but that we have not yet evolved beyond belief in such things is incredulous. It is absurd, it is naïve, and it is adolescent. And surely we are well past that.

Most students of literature identify Stephen Dedalus as Joyce’s alter ego and it seems a safe if not unassailable reading. Just about every significant juncture in Stephen’s journey of maturation parallels a point in Joyce’s biography, and the notion of having not merely left but "outgrown" his Christianity is an enormously important point in both narratives. Upon the author’s death, Joyce’s sister put it in these very terms. She explained that Joyce “felt it was imperative that he should save his real spiritual life from being overlaid and crushed by a false one that he had outgrown” (Joyce Stanislaus, My Brother's Keeper, p. 120).

2. That said, let's turn to features of the discussion that are more historical in nature. In my work, I've become nothing less than astonished by the relevance to the hell question of the parallel and intersecting histories of religion and magic. (The landmark work by Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) remains, I think, the most reliable point of departure.) What follows are some scattered observations on the 16th to 17th centuries and the Enlightenment turn in relation to spirituality and notions of hell/suffering.

a. It is critically important to recognize that there were parallel functions for religion, astrology, and magic in this period. These parallel functions included, principally, how to avoid misfortune and how to deal with it when it struck. Yet here their difference becomes most visible, too: in the face of misfortune, religion refers to the fundamental issues of human existence whereas magic turns primarily on the management of specific, concrete, and detailed problems. The contrast is between a collection of various recipes (magic) and a body of doctrine (religion). Magic, then, had a rather circumscribed set of social and psychological functions whereas religion commended a comprehensive view of the world.

b. Why was there a rivalry? (1) Magic represented a competing “pastoral agency” with respect to dealing with misfortune; and (2) the incompatibility of magical explanations of misfortune with theological ones. In religious discourse, the causes of misfortune are not the stars, magic, fortune, bad luck, etc. but sin and God’s providence, said the preachers.

c. The Reformation took a lot of the magic out of medieval religion, leaving the astrologers to fill the vacuum. The sectarians then brought the magic back out during the Interregnum (at least this was the nature of the orthodox critique of the sensationalists/enthusiasts). Furthermore, the break with Rome led to an expansion of popular magic as the “wise woman” took the place of the healing shrines of the magical saints. Perhaps surprisingly, astrology saw a boom after the Reformation: there was an explosion of almanacs and astrological guides in the 17th century but not necessarily of all magical agencies. The 17th century was very much a period of transition, many common people using religion for magical purposes. This was a form of syncretism.

d. Wizards and astrology eventually lost their prestige in the 17th century, but not because of rationalism and naturalism per se but because of a developing doctrine of divine providence in which God works through “natural” laws, thus rendering less compelling those approaches which pushed an either/or relationship to the natural world. Importantly, this shift also meant an increased place was given to the idea and possibility of unmerited suffering, and the more frequent use of the Book of Job against claims of witches causing misfortune. Indeed, the achievement of this highly attenuated kind of “natural” theology in the 17th century was that it effected a final break in the presumed necessary association of guilt and misfortune which had driven magical beliefs for centuries.

e. The scientific and philosophical revolution of the 17th century was, in essence, the triumph of the mechanical philosophy over part of (not all of) the traditional Aristotelian and neoplatonic cosmology. And with the collapse of microcosm theory went the whole intellectual basis of astrology, chiromancy, alchemy, physiognomy, astral magic, etc., and natural law apparently killed miracles, answered prayers, and divine inspiration. Except that it didn't:  Newton’s secret alchemy experiments are a great example, but most relevant to my interests, we find that preachers and theologians, with their more robust grasp of the how and what of divine providence in the world and in life, are not leaving behind the premodern cosmology so much as adapting it to new language, thought forms, and questions. Hell, especially, is either still physically located somewhere (for Tobias Swindon, it has to be on the sun since we now know it can’t be the center of the earth) or is still spiritually located at the extremities of the worst of human experiences of horror, evil, and suffering. (Just as those Jesuit preachers did.)

f. An interesting episode in this transition of close relevance to the hellfire question and the ways to combat misfortune is the history of the development of firefighting! From the introduction of the “hand-squirt” in England in the last decade of the 16th century, to fire engines in the 1630s, to the Dutch leather hosepipe in the 1670s, the symbolism of this increasing awareness of how to “manage” the threat of fire is hot with irony when brought alongside the changing ways of managing hellfire culturally and theologically.

g. In England, at least, it was the abandonment of magic (because of growing skepticism) which made possible the upsurge of technology, not the other way around, and this suggests that the re-enchantment of the world on the other side of the Enlightenment (when the nature of the Enlightenment turn is properly understood) might look more like addressing the cynicism wrought by unsatisfying scientism (the new magic) than by becoming somehow less scientific and rational. Indeed, it is along these lines that the Church may want to apply greater zeal to the problem of recognizably magic-type thinking that floods nominal, lay "Christian" thinking about God, evil, and providence today.

Two final and much briefer notes on literature:

3. With respect to understanding Calvin on hell, we’re not reading widely enough, and we’re also missing the obvious: in the literature, there is a surprising paucity of work carefully relating his teaching on the "descent into hell" to his exposition of passages traditionally understood to describe or refer to hell itself.

4. Again briefly, the work of Charles Drelincourt merits attention. Drelincourt, a highly regarded French minister in the 17th century, was trained at Saumur but not closely connected with the controversies in which that school was tied up (he stayed quiet). He was very well known for his skill in pastoral visitation, and his The Christian’s Consolations Against the Fear of Death (1651) - basically an example of the ars moriendi tradition - is his main legacy on this front. Notably, his French treatises written in defense of Calvin (1677), including specifically on the descent, provides an example of thinking and acting theologically upon the relationship between Christ’s sufferings and the prospect of death, with occasional but largely undeveloped moments in the text when it is hell, and not mere suffering or death, that is in view.