Monday, November 28, 2011

Descartes, Calvin, and Closing Eyes During Prayer

“If any external mediation is unnecessary [within Calvin’s theology] and the Spirit only works within, there is a threat to traditional understandings for what the church had known as sacraments (or sacramentals). To put it another way, the sacraments now can only picture this inward work. Although in his understanding of signs Calvin sought to counter the minimalism of Zwingly, in the end nothing external can be essential to this process. We are not encouraged, as with Bonaventure, to move from mediation on the beauty of creation to the reflection of that beauty within and above us. (Incidentally, as near as I can tell, it was around this time that people began to close their eyes during corporate prayer to better focus their minds.) As a result, though Calvin probably did not intend this, over time it became the case that people, especially in the Pietist stream of this tradition, had no way of finding any substantial theological meaning in any external object or act. There was no longer anything for their eyes or their feelings to hold and indwell.

"Descartes was key here. I believe that one can argue that he was working in the shadow of this Calvinist heritage when he said in 1642, ‘I am certain that I cannot have any knowledge of what is outside of me, except by what is in me.’ The view that we should have more confidence in what is in our minds than what is before our eyes led to what Charles Taylor calls a ‘mediational epistemology’ (the notion that knowledge is mediated through ideas in our minds), and to the split between public and private religion, seen perhaps in its earliest form in Descartes. This distrust of the unity of sense and spiritual knowledge was surely one of the conditions, if not the cause, of his splitting inner and outer knowledge. Such a view tends to privilege the ear over the eye, and, as a result, language over other symbolic forms.” William A. Dyrness, Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life, pp. 195–196.

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