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What are Devotional Societies For?

King Charles the Martyr and the Philosophy of History
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Thursday, May 19, 2011 at 1:10 pm
Throughout history, devotional societies have been rooted in the apprehension and experience of miracles at the local level and the subsequent transmission of such events, ‘whether by word or by writing’ (2 Thss. 2:15), to successive generations.
Tags: saints, king charles the martyr, tradition, memory, history, walter benjamin, devotional societies

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‘Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost.’
- John 6:12

The most bracing twentieth-century portrait of history arguably came from the pen of the Jewish philosopher and theologian Walter Benjamin. While fleeing from the Nazis in 1940, Benjamin composed a provocative series of short reflections entitled ‘On the Concept of History’. They are of interest not just for their dystopian vision of human ‘progress’, but because they show Benjamin attempting to reconcile two facets of his identity: his deep interest in Jewish mysticism, which dominated his early career, and his equally deep interest in Marxism, which animated his later writings. Benjamin’s theses do not reveal a happy synthesis of these divergent modes of thought. Rather, each grapples with the other as he strives to make sense of the total implosion, before his eyes, of all assumptions concerning European civility and progress. As Benjamin wrote in his memorable ninth thesis:

There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm. 1

In the paper that follows, I consider how Benjamin’s rejection of historical progress illuminates the mission of devotional societies such as the Society of King Charles the Martyr and. Stated briefly, a devotional society is first and foremost a community of memory – and in our case, a memory that is no longer retained by the majority of Anglicans. We are therefore living witnesses to the fact that history does not develop smoothly or continuously. The present does not preserve the past; things that should not be forgotten have been. But because of this, we have both an evangelical task and an evangelical hope. On the one hand, we must gather the fragments of the Anglican past. On the other hand, perhaps more than many others we have an ardent longing for ‘the redemption of our bodies’ (Rom. 8:23) – a longing which is inseparable from the redemption of our corporate memory. This redemptive passion may prove a great gift to the Church.

I. History

In his theses, Benjamin’s principle target was historicism, the philosophical belief in historical progress. In German intellectual history, its greatest exponent was the nineteenth century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who claimed that history always progresses into a greater and more scientific knowledge of the world. Such a philosophy implies a further belief in laws of history; otherwise, we can neither discern which direction history moves in nor claim that it progresses rather than regresses. Hegel’s theory was quite popular with a number of people, including Karl Marx and his heirs. But the twentieth century saw historicism come under considerable fire, particularly in the wake of two world wars. Belief in continuous progress seemed both impossible and irrational. As the philosopher Karl Popper wrote in his book The Poverty of Historicism, ‘Every version of historicism expresses the feeling of being swept into the future by irresistible forces.’2 Fatalism is undoubtedly the opiate of every generation, and it is hard to escape the notion that historicism is at bottom a utopian flight from the present. It is notable that Popper dedicated his volume to ‘The memory of the countless men, women and children of all creeds or nations or races who fell victims to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny.’3 If Popper is correct, historicism raises acutely important philosophical and moral questions whose answers impinge upon human wellbeing.

Historicism was not unique to German philosophy, but had an ideological forerunner in nineteenth-century British intellectual history. Usually described today as a ‘Whig’ interpretive framework, this theory was most famously critiqued during the interwar period by Herbert Butterfield in his seminal volume The Whig Interpretation of History. Butterfield’s thesis was that ‘when we organize our general history by reference to the present we are producing what is really a giant optical illusion’.4 In place of this delusion, Butterfield argued that the historian ‘is concerned to elucidate the unlikenesses between past and present’.5 If we only focus on what seems familiar, we will miss the real dynamic of historical motion and change by collapsing one era into another. Former ages will begin to look curiously like less pristine versions of our own; ironically, this means that searching for signs of historical progress actually causes us to lose the past which we are studying. Like historicism, Whig assumptions can only lead to the total moral effacement of human subjects.

Butterfield solved this problem by driving a wedge between moral and historical claims. This mirrored his argument that each epoch is fundamentally different from every other epoch. For both historicism and the Whig interpretation of history, the worth of any particular event or period can and should be judged according to its relation to progress (however conceived). But as both Popper and Benjamin argued, such an ideology can make tremendous suffering and evil appear justifiable, necessary, or inconsequential. Although Butterfield was more concerned with historical method than with a moral imperative, his final understanding of historical method was not far removed from the concerns of his German near-contemporaries. In the closing paragraph of his work, Butterfield rendered historical writing an interminable task. He writes, ‘we must beware of saying, ‘History says…’ or ‘History proves…,’ as though she herself were the oracle…Rather we must say to ourselves: ‘She will lie to us till the very end of the last cross-examination.’’6 One should therefore separate the study of the past from the concerns of the present. Searching for unchanging laws of historical development or progress will yield error and self-deception. What is worse, it can lead to incomprehensible violence, whether against the past or those living in the present.

II. Eschaton

If we translate Butterfield’s conclusion into theological terms, we find that our ability to understand the full truth of history can only be an eschatological event. In other words, it is the product of redemption. For the Christian, redemption is a twofold process. Even as it is given in Christ, who has already come, it remains to be consummated. Baptism and the remission of sins are available to all in this world, but the final face to face vision with God, like the creation of a new heaven and a new earth, are consigned to a future horizon. In the mean time, and borrowing from St. Augustine, Christians are at best a pilgrim people, liable to all of the sins and errors of human existence. Part of what this means is that Christians are liable to fall into various spiritual errors – heresies – such as the Whig interpretation of history. Benjamin is helpful here, particularly when he contrasts historicism with the final messianic coup de grâce. In his third thesis, he prophetically remarks that ‘only a redeemed mankind is granted the fullness of its past – which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.’7 Redeemed humanity stands thematically opposite of progressive humanity, which exists in ‘a homogeneous, empty time’ in which the past is subsumed to the present.8 If a church believes itself to be, in Popper’s words, ‘swept into the future by irresistible forces’, it can only consign its past to the utter oblivion of emptied time, homogeneous because it has abandoned any and all memory. Such a church is unknown to itself and therefore wholly incapable of understanding what true progress in godliness actually entails.

Standing against all of this is genuine Christian witness. In this regard, it is worth noting that the word martyr simply means witness. Devotional societies such as the Society of King Charles the Martyr are unique witnesses to redemption precisely because the witness is partial; we testify to one historical facet of God’s activity in the life of the Church while recognizing and participating in many others. David’s hymn is wholly our own even though we cannot lay exclusive claim to it: ‘When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues were songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them’’ (Ps. 126:1 & 2). We can neither preserve nor maintain all memory, and until our memory is redeemed it will remain incomplete. Final redemption will be given on judgment day, when the Father makes the whole of history present to each and every one of us. We must not miss this point. Redemption is not and cannot be a flight to utopia, the happy place that is no place. Redemption is the return of historical time itself, but shorn of the fragmentary character that defines our witness as Christians on pilgrimage.

Throughout history, devotional societies have been rooted in the apprehension and experience of miracles at the local level and the subsequent transmission of such events, ‘whether by word or by writing’ (2 Thss. 2:15), to successive generations. Such a memory is an instance of what Benjamin calls ‘messianic time’.9 It witnesses not only to what God has already done, but to the completion that God will bring about when this particular miracle is joined in symphonic witness with every other miracle. The evangelical cry, ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (Rev. 22:20), can only be understood within the context of genuine revelation: it is the earnest desire that grace should again make us known to ourselves. The devotional society offers part of that here and now. It is a means of pilgrimage rather than the final destination. As such, it is also a means of grace, not in and of itself, but because it submits to that which has been entrusted to it.

Reprinted with permission from SKCM News, June, 2011 (ISSN 1540-045X), 44 - 46. For more information on the North American branch of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, please see the chapter's website.
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  1. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938 – 1940, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 392
  2. Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (Routledge, 1957), 148
  3. Popper, Poverty, v
  4. Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (Norton, 1965), 29
  5. Butterfield, Whig Interpretation, 66
  6. Butterfield, Whig Interpretation, 131 - 2
  7. Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’, 390
  8. Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’, 395
  9. Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’, 397 (Theses A & B)