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Theological Notebook: "Religion" Reducing to Morality in the Latin West

Ijust read an interesting note from Dan Lloyd on our recent work on this article Professor Barnes has been working on for years, one part of which deals with the fact that it is very common for people to make the mistake of reducing "religion" merely to "morality." That is, many people seem to think that the only content of religion is a moral content, and that there is nothing more to it, or that that is its only "use," whereas the fact of the matter is that – to put it in more classical philosophical terms – morality is always the result of a metaphysics. That is to say, morality is only seen in light of a description of the way things are. That is the part of "religion" that has always interested me much more than morality: what is the truth about things; what system of thought or knowledge gives the most accurate and complete description of humanity and reality? That is the real motive that lead me eventually through the sciences and humanities to Christian theology.

So, Dan's note addresses our earlier meetings on this subject, by drawing attention to an observation made in a classic historical text about early Christianity in the Latin West, of such formative writers as Tertullian, Hilary of Potiers, Marius Victorinus, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, among others:
Thought this was interesting in light of all the thoughts/conversations concerning said topic.
From the postscript of Danielou's Origins of Latin Christianity (1977) by the editor, John Austin Baker:

"Finally, we must draw attention to a notable feature of this period which is far less likely to attract the modern Christian, and that is its moralism. It would be unfair to apply the term without qualification to the writers of our period since their faith is very far from reduced to morality and nothing more. Nevertheless it is perhaps the nearest single label to mark their overmastering tendency to see the substance of Christian living as expressed almost exclusively in moral conduct. Mysticism or meditation on Scripture to attain divine truth for its own sake--both elements of great importance in the East--are largely ignored. Everything--sacraments, prayer, grace--gets drawn into the one frame of reference of right behaviour; and one of the main duties of the bishop as pastor is to define this in considerable detail and to impose penance on those who transgress. There is no need to spell out how this has been a salient feature of Western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, ever since. It undoubtedly owes a great deal to both the Roman and the Stoic mental pictures of human life.

"At present Western society is going through a phase of revolt against this ethos and is striving to shake free of it; and many in the Christian churches are, as always, being drawn by the spirit of the age to modify, sometimes drastically, their traditional rules and mores. Whether this phase is temporary and there will be a swing back to a more disciplined and less self-regarding set of standards in all departments of life, or whether the present trend will continue and infect larger and larger proportions of the population, it is impossible to say as yet. But unpalatable, and in some senses undesirable though this may be to a Church which has learned a good deal in this century about making morals more humane and less unthinkingly rigoristic, the time way well be drawing near when the Christian Church will have to say once again, 'If you are a Christian, there are certain things you do not do, whatever the world may say.' This was found indispensable in the early centuries of the Church, and has proved recurrently so ever since; and here too the Latin Fathers of the first three centuries have guidance for us that we neglect at our peril" (476).
Tags: barnes, books, ethical, historical, mysticism/spirituality, patristics, theological notebook
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