Bypassing humanity

Sarah Beckwith ( Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness ), further exploring the disruption of language in the aftermath of the Reformation, notes that two paths forward opened up. The first was magic, which the Reformers detected in the hocus pocus of the mass. This evaded the problem by bypassing human action and intention. Say the words and bread becomes body.

Protestant theology, though, “had its own way of bypassing human expression: this emerged in the disdain and suspicion of all forms of human mediation. Some Reformation theology . . . insisted that it was only by eradicating all human mediations that we could be sure of the God-sidedness of grace: all human interventions stain and contaminate and infringe the sovereignty of God.” She claims that Calvin’s doctrine of predestination created “epistemological anxieties notoriously focused on this unknown but quite fundamental aspect of an unmediated relation with God.”

Beckwith is not fair to Calvin here, who has a strong view of mediation in his ecclesiology and sacramental theology. But she is right enough to put her finger on a sore spot: After the Reformation, theological debates often polarized around competing methods of bypassing humanity: Catholic magic and Protestant anti-sacramentalism (where it existed) were two sides of the same unfortunately minted coin. Too often, they still are.

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