Doctrine of Visible Saints

In the Puritan sects of 17th century Britain, visible saints were those select few whom God had ordained righteous and who observably enjoyed the fruits of God’s grace. The visible saints did good works. They were honest and compassionate. They possessed strength of reason and could defend God’s word with eloquence and courage. Visible saints were good because God made them to be good. He furnished them with intelligence, charisma, and an aptitude for moral discipline. Their saintliness was made visible through qualities of behavior, their zeal for the Word, their station in society, and, most often and most obviously, through their acquisition of material wealth. I think the wealth component might have been the basis for the doctrine. There was a bourgeoning middle class in England during the 17th century. Common people—not just lords and noblemen—began owning surpluses of property and assets. To justify their right to wealth, these new members of the middle class began asserting that God desired them to be successful and that anyone questioned their worthiness would be challenging God’s will.

We often mistakenly attribute the protestant schism from the Catholic Church as being caused by frustrations with papal corruption and an unwillingness of sovereign rulers to submit to the church’s power. While these concerns certainly encouraged the spread of Protestantism, it cannot be said that Martin Luther risked life, limb, and his eternal soul because he was upset that the Vatican was taking bribes. Matters of power and administration could be resolved internally—they always had been. Luther’s contention with the church was doctrinal. He was calling into question old, foundational beliefs which to correct would have required an undoing of orthodoxy dating back to the first council of Nicaea. Specifically, Luther challenged the church on the matter of predestination. If we are to presume that God is all-powerful and all-knowing then we must also acknowledge that God has absolute control over the universe and is the facilitating factor behind all causes and effects. This would also mean that human beings, as creations of God, must, at all times, adhere to His will, whether acting morally or immorally. Therefore, the Catholic Church’s stance on free will and its view that salvation was a thing that people achieved through good deeds and obedience had to be invalid. Luther maintained that people were already saved. As an act of grace, God had sacrificed his only son to save mankind. The only moral decision one had to make was either accepting this grace through faith in God or rejecting it. John Calvin went further, discarding the moral decision altogether. He posited in his clear, forceful way that God makes some men fit for salvation and destined for it, while for others he makes it an impossibility: “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1564)

And so it is from belief in strict predestination that the Doctrine of Visible Saints arises. As a moral system, this can be highly problematic. It erases ethical responsibility and the role of human will in individuals’ own lives. It justifies one’s success even if it comes at the expense of others and removes the obligation of charity as a means of redistribution. Perhaps most troublesome, it equates positive fortune with moral purity and misfortune with wickedness. The believer is made to accept that when bad things happen to good people, somehow the sufferer deserves it. It does not matter if the individual is good, their poor fate was predetermined and is independent of their worldly deeds.

I myself am areligious and do not have a position on the subject that could result in belief—though it is tempting to make one. I approach this debate more as a philosophical paradox. Still, I think it’s interesting to see how these shifts in doxa influence society and shape ethical values. The Doctrine of Visible Saints never totally disappeared. The rise of Methodism and subsequent spiritual revivals re-emphasizing good works and generosity have since offered some counterweight, but the tradition is still woven into the fabric of most protestant Christianity. We see it resurrected by the evangelical churches and the Church of the Latter-day Saints in the form of prosperity theology. It’s become a cornerstone of the evangelizing mission—and one can see why. They are offering an excellent value proposition: God wants you to be rich and happy, but you have to accept His grace so that He can get into your life and make it happen. More than any other message, the prosperity promise seems to resonate with people the most. It’s built mega churches and has made millionaires out of glad-handing salespriests. It’s ushered Christianity into the era of mass culture. To think, it was a doctrine derived from predetermines that did it. Of course, the part about how some people are pre-ordained to fail is usually left out of the sermons. In the prosperity gospel, everyone has a place the table. Whether it makes sense theologically is beside the point. It’s an optimistic message that everyone can get behind.

The Cursed City of Bhangarh

There is a famous ruin in Rajasthan, India that is said to be haunted by Mughal princes who once kept a palace there. A sign has been hung by the local authorities forbidding visitors from entering the ruin after sunset. It threatens that legal action will be taken against anyone who disobeys the command. This is the city of Bhangarh. It contains a magnificent palace, several impressive temples, and a walled fort. Despite the size and glory of its buildings, the city lasted little more than a few generations. According to legend it was brought low by a curse.

Bhangarh was founded in 1573 by the Mughal nobility that resided in the area. Bhagwant Das, ruler of Amber and close ally to Emperor Akbar, gave the valley where Bhangarh is situated to one of his sons for his personal residence. The precinct was uninhabited except for a few sheepherders and a guru who lived and meditated in a hovel hidden away in the forest. As the only permanent tenant of the valley, the guru gave his blessing to the city’s construction, but only under the condition that its spires and pagodas not shade him in his meditations. “Should the shadows of your palaces at any point touch me,” the guru said, “your city will be no more. I shall have it committed to the dust and wind.”

As a provincial capital, Bhangarh grew. rapidly Emboldened by his mounting wealth, the son of the city’s first ruler embarked on an ambitious project to expand and improve his royal palace. Its turrets grew to such a height that they did eventually obscure the guru’s hut from the sun. The guru was angered that his wishes were ignored and placed a curse over the city of Bhangarh. And sure enough, with the ascension of Jaipur just a few miles to the southwest and the gradual diminution of the Mughal throne, Bhangarh’s position in the region began to decline. In 1720, Jai Singh II conquered the city and incorporated it into his kingdom. Seeing it as the old Muslim capital he let it fall to ruin. The city underwent steady depopulation until finally, in 1783, a famine caused it to be completely abandonment.

There is another story and another curse. A famous and beautiful princess once lived in Bhangarh. She was courted by all the noblemen in Rajasthan. A tantrik magician loved her from afar but could not pursue her on account of his caste. To make her come to him, the tantrik enchanted a vial of oil which the princess’s handmaid had bought from the market to anoint her mistress. If the oil were to have touched the princess’s skin she would fallen hopelessly in love with the magician. But the princess herself had some command of magic and was able to discover the spell. She threw the vial out of the window of her bedchamber. When it struck the ground, the oil transformed into a boulder, which grew as it rolled down the palace hill. The boulder sought the sorcerer through the streets of the city and finally crushed him in a gruesome spectacle. But before it did, the magician managed to utter a curse against the palace and all who dwelled there. That following year Bhangarh went to war with a neighboring city. In a terrible battle, the ruling family of Bhangarh was butchered by their rivals and their palace ransacked.

According to the Rajputana gazetteers, the remnants of that ruling family of Bhangarh still resided in the area as late as 1879. They are called the Rajawats. After the fall of their kingdom, they were dispossessed of all their lands and riches and made to grow food as simple farmers. The chronicle says of them, “Though they are now only cultivators in many villages, they retain much of their noble bearing, and to some extent their social position. The Rajawat cultivators always hold their land at favorable rates.” In recognition of who they were, landlords let them rent them land at lower rates than the other farmers.

Country Lanes of Urban Detroit

Much has been written about the death and decay of Detroit, Michigan. Especially in the last five years, major news outlets have been covering the story as if it were news; like it was something that had just happened and not the long, slow, inexorable dissolution that it is and has always been. Our understanding of the ruination of Detroit has been shaped a great deal, I think, by these images captured by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. They have appeared in Time, Huffington Post, and all over the internet. The Marchand/Meffre exhibition is mainly concerned mucking around in wreckage and making a spectacle out of the scale of the desolation. They show big iconic buildings like Michigan Central Station and old assembly plants all abandoned and empty. The images are eerie and apocalyptic-looking because many of the places still retain some of their character as places—they just no longer have people in them. It’s the lack of activity that is disconcerting. They are spaces that ought to have people in them and do not. What’s sad about Detroit is that despite its decline, it still has to go about its business being a large, swarming city.

I prefer these pictures I copied from Google maps on one of my daydream roadtrips. Rather than making Detroit look abandoned, they make it seems as though it was never all that inhabited to begin with.

Detroit was a city built to hold 2 million people. Today, only about 700,000 people live within the city limits. During the 90s and the early aughts, the city embarked on an aggressive effort to condemn and demolish tracts and tracts of abandoned structures throughout the city. In the years that followed, trees and prairie grasses native to southeastern Michigan reclaimed entire city blocks. Many of the central neighborhoods in Detroit look like this now. These pictures were taken in East Poletown and Core City.

Detroit grew big from industrialization. From 1900 to 1950, with the rise of the auto industry and mechanized manufacturing, it probably grew faster than any city in the world. It was one of the first cities to be blessed by large-scale global trade. Anybody who bought a car was sending his money to Detroit. Compare the picture below with those above. It was taken in Black Bottom in the 1920s—more or less the same place, just 90 years earlier.

Modernity tore down Detroit as precipitously as it built it up. It is a stark example of how development always its end in destruction and how one can often necessitate the other: Progress dismantling the past.

Without Classes

I recently read a book of essays by an Italian philosopher named Giorgio Agamben. The work is titled “The Coming Community”. It was published in Italian in 1990 and appeared in English in 93. As best I can tell, the book advances a view of ontology in which being is defined by potentiality and a contingent everything-and-nothing relationship to phenomena rather than the traditional dichotomy between ideals and tautology that has always dominated the western discussion about metaphysics. He characterizes this new ontology as “whatever singularity”. Use of the term “whatever” (qualunque in Italian) is intended to denote a synthesis of the particular and the general, or a continual vacillation between the two. Because this system of meaning is predicated on allowance rather than differentiation, it creates unities as opposed to divisions. This coalescing of factors results in singularity, which is the basis fo the coming community that Agamben envisions.

In one of the book’s more lively chapters, Agamben explores the social implications of whatever singularity in contemporary class relations. His conclusions are surprising and not altogether plausible in my opinion. But I do think he’s correct. Here’s what he says about class in contemporary society:

“If we had once again to conceive of the fortunes of humanity in terms of class, then today we would have to say that there are no longer social classes, but just a single planetary petty bourgeoisie, in which all the old social classes are dissolved.”

He goes on to describe the qualities of this universal class…

“The planetary petty bourgeoisie… has taken over the aptitude of the proletariat to refuse any recognizable social identity…. They know only the improper and the inauthentic and even refuse the idea of a discourse that could be proper to them. That which constituted the truth and falsity of the peoples and generations that have followed one another on the earth—differences in language, of dialect, of ways of life, of character, of custom, and even the physical particularities of each person—has lost any meaning for them and any capacity for expression and communication.”

I don’t disagree with his premise, that the dissolution of determinate meanings is causing a collapse of social divisions. And there are plenty of reasons to think that a homogenization of social relations is taking place and that the modern profusion of shared dependencies has lashed together all the peoples of the world to a common destiny. But there are other ways in which our differences are becoming more entrenched and more seemingly insurmountable. To say that we are all merging into a universal middle class seems naïve. There are entire regions of the globe where people still rely on subsistence farming, while in other sectors the rich and privileged classes reign supreme like feudal lords. Perhaps it could be said that the nations of the world are moving toward an industrialized, consumer-driven social model, but it’s premature to say that they are all likely to make it there.

Agamben goes on to point out that although the exponents of this new social order of the planetary petty bourgeoisie have willingly consigned themselves to anonymity and rootlessness, they still grasp in vain for meaningful identity; perhaps as a habit of ideological thinking or out of fear of the unknown and the unknowable. He predicts that the continued execution of this futile enterprise might culminate in mankind’s destruction. If not, we may progress to a new era of possibility and unity:

“If instead of continuing to search for a proper identity in the already improper and senseless form of individuality, humans were to succeed in belonging to this impropriety as such, in making of the proper being-thus not an identity and an individual property but a singularity without identity, a common and absolutely exposed singularity—if humans could, that is, not be-thus in this or that particular biography, but be only the thus, their singular exteriority and their face, then they would for the first time enter into a community without presuppositions and without subjects, into a communication without the incommunicable.”

Here Agamben sounds distinctly utopian—or dystopian, if you like. A world whose inhabitants embrace the whatever singularity is a world with neither identity nor stable classifications. It is a world of only surfaces, no depth. Depth is fallacy; only the surface is to be trusted, and in this world where the surface is revered and taken at face value, the surface constitutes the extent of the known. There are no other concerns. That deeper sequence of causalities that we accept as phenomenon goes utterly unacknowledged. Supplementary information becomes useless.

What changes most, I think, is how we think of human beings. A person is neither esteemed an individual nor a member of a group. Man looses agency and he loses sense of belonging. I don’t see how free will could have a place in this world. It seems that everything would be pre-determined. Everything just is. There is no play.