The God of Battles


Karen, I hear you. Here is where I would press you for further clarity. You’re talking about the capax dei exclusivley with reference to the conscience, then saying that the conscience requires institutions for its formation. I think that’s insufficient, because you make the conscience an intermediary between the capax dei and institutions. Without relating the capax dei to institutions directly, you’re unable to provide an answer for how to resolve conflicts between individuals and institutions when they arise.

For every Thomas More, there’s a Martin Luther. “Conscience requires institutions for its formation” has become quite a slogan in some quarters. Whenever I hear it, I ask people what they would have told Luther to do. Suppose he submits to institutions at Worms instead of taking a stand for conscience. When he stands before the eternal judgment seat, what’s he supposed to say? “Well, you see, Lord, the human self is situated in a dense web of relationships and institutions that constitute its personhood…”

I think we can’t establish the need for freedom of religion alongside freedom of conscience without confronting this problem. Although Luther and the 16th century Reformation did not represent a revolt against institutions, they did put the problem of relating institutions to conscience front and center. Romantic individualism rose to prominence by exploiting this opportunity. As long as every individual has an unlimited-use trump card, we’re not going to solve this problem.

We need to press the point even further – get even more radical – and locate the capax dei in action rather than just in contemplation. Aristotle was right that the contemplative life is insufficient by itself; action and contemplation must be integrated. God is the God of truth and beauty and goodwill and rest and the beatific vision, but he is also the God of justice and abundance and marriage and battles and skyscrapers and little screaming babies that poop their diapers. The biblical narrative begins in a garden and ends in a city; God did not create the universe in its final state but in an initial state. It was always supposed to grow and develop. That was the original plan.

The late church fathers absorbed from their Neoplatonist rivals the pagan idea that the good is eternal and unchanging, so motion and change are bad. (It’s actually a pretty common problem in theology – theologians battling unbelievers on some major point will absorb their thinking on some of the more minor points in order to meet them on their own ground, then those compromises fester and stink within the theological tradition until later theologians root them out.) On this basis they instilled in Christian theology a view of creation and history and ethics that privileges contemplation over action. We are still struggling today to get over this problem. This discussion is only one example.

If we locate the capax dei in action as well as contemplation, institutions themselves become direct expressions of the capax dei alongside individual belief and behavior. Now you’re prepared to wrestle with the question of how individuals and institutions relate. How the conversation goes from there will depend on other factors we don’t have time to get into, but without acknowledging the capax dei in institutions you’re never going to get on the right track.

By the way, what I’m advocating here does not imply a compromise of the Reformation understanding of the sovreignty of the conscience. Far from it – in my view, what I’m saying here is implied in Luther’s claims and actions. If the capax dei is located in institutions, then institutions are accountable to God. This by itself does not get you the whole Reformation doctrine, but it is at least a necessary part of it. On this view, the individual and the institution are equally subordinate to God, so neither one is subordinate to the other. Individuals and institutions must learn to coexist symbiotically rather than one demanding that the other submit. Luther treated Rome as though he thought it ought to be an expression of the capax dei, and was failing in that capacity, and could legitimately be held to account. Whereas it seems to me that the attempt to solve this problem without relating the capax dei directly to institutions (“the conscience requires institutions for its formation”) really arises out of Catholic attempts to answer the challenge of Protestantism by subordinating the individual conscience to institutions.

7 Thoughts.

  1. Hmm, so I think we might agree? Without going too papist on you, there’s also the issue of institutionalizing the protection of conscience. Absolutely, the Reformation took a leap in the direction of the freedom of the conscience over the role of the institution, but there’s also the Summa’s Prima Secundae Q. 19 a.5, in which Thomas says that an erring conscience still binds the individual, such that Luther, even according to Thomas, would have to stand there, for he can do no other.

    A few scatter-shot comments (if I don’t respond now it will be after Christmas):

    1) Obviously, I don’t mean to make this a Protestant-Catholic debate on conscience, unless we have to go there. But when you say that “individuals and institutions must learn to coexist symbiotically rather than one demanding that the other submit,” doesn’t that take us right back to the problem you mentioned at the beginning, that of being “unable to provide an answer for how to resolve conflicts between individuals and institutions when they arise”?

    2) Let’s see. I actually don’t intend to make the capax dei something that only pertains to the individual conscience; I just mean to locate it there. I.e., just as my tv antenna (no seriously, I have one, circa 1992) resides in my apartment, it reaches out to something else – but a real, objective something else – such that you wouldn’t speak of it as wholly subsumed by my apartment or mediated by it (ok, that last one is just silly, but hopefully the point is clear).
    In that case, then, I don’t know if it’s accurate to say that the conscience is an intermediary between capax dei and institutions.

    3) One other thought: institutions form consciences, and consciences bind themselves to institutions. Broadly speaking. The capax dei, however, is an added element that resides in the conscience that also directs the person to God. So when the conscience binds itself to a religious institution – which I understand to mean both intellectually and actively; I actually never meant to imply that the fact that it resides in the conscience would somehow preclude activity – that institution probably has a distinct authority.

    Or something.

    • 1) Well played! I suppose I didn’t organize my thinking well enough there. I guess the point I was trying to make is this: if we connect institutions to the capax dei only through the conscience, we’ll have no intellectual architecture to guide our thinking about how to resolve disputes between the consciences of individuals and the institutions that form those consciences. On the other hand, if we can articulate how institutions are connected to the capax dei without having to run that connection through the conscience, we will have such an architecture. My architecture is “they must coexist symbiotically,” and that may or may not be a sufficient architecture, but it is an architecture. By contrast, in my view “the conscience requires institutions to form it” doesn’t provide such an architecture. Is that any better?

      2) On your illustration, your antenna is indeed an intermediary between your apartment and the TV waves in the air. People in the apartment can’t watch TV except by passing the waves through the intermediary of the antenna. So let’s say the waves are God (work with me here), the antenna is the conscience and the people in the apartment are institutions. (Should I be worried that this is actually making sense to me?) I’m saying that model is insufficient because it assumes institutions are things that connect to God only through the conscience; but God is a God of action and not just of knowledge and contemplation.

      3) Not sure what point you’re making here.

      • Working on answer all of this now, but because I don’t think I’ll get to it, I’ll address #3 here. The point I wanted to make was that institutions can have a special sense of authority because the deus, as it were, to which the capax dei reaches, resides in them. And we know that because the capax dei draws us toward it. Because that deals with knowledge, I’m still stuck with locating the capax dei in the conscience.

        Does that clarify the point? So that’s why the institution – while, crucially, still subordinate to God, would still have some sort of authority over the individual. I still think this leaves the individual and institution existing symbiotically in some way, because again, the erring conscience still binds, no matter how much the institution disagrees with it.

  2. To clarify: I locate the capax dei in the conscience, but the thing to which that capax dei reaches in both the individual and institution. Wouldn’t it be accurate to say that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church, and humans have a capacity that naturally reaches out to know Him? I guess I have trouble seeing how the capacity itself would reside in an institution.

    • Maybe this is too subtle a point, but I was trying to say that you’re locating the capax dei only in contemplation/knowledge, but it should be located in contemplation and action, and thus institutions can and should express the capax dei in a way they can’t if the capax dei is solely a matter of contemplation.

      • I’m still not quite sure why it seems that I’m saying that the capax dei is only a matter of contemplation…help?

      • Which is to say, I do maintain that it would have to exist in the conscience, but the conscience compels (or perhaps impels; won’t get into that) to action, so I would never say that it is solely a matter of contemplation.

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