The Filioque, Metaphor Edition

Now that we have a theory, let’s take another look at the filioque. Keep in mind that we’re investigating secular consequences of beliefs, not their proper interpretation. If a belief lends itself to a particular misunderstanding, then the spread of that misunderstanding is among the consequences of the belief.

My hypothesis is that the procession of the Holy Spirit acts as a metaphor for hierarchical authority. Our beliefs about the procession would thus influence how we see authority. Let’s list the three alternatives and their implications.

  • The Orthodox emphasize that the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father. This implies that authority is legitimate by default.
  • The Catholics maintain that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, with the father as the ultimate origin. This implies that authority is legitimate but subject to change.
  • The heretical reading of the filioque marks the Father and the Son as fully equal in terms of the procession. This implies equality as the default.

The hypothesis predicts that the Orthodox belief would encourage stable hierarchies, the filioque egalitarianism, with the Catholic doctrine somewhere in between. The magnitude of the effect would depend on the strength and salience of the belief. The cultural impact may be amplified over long timescales due to feedback loops.

Humans seem to have a penchant for upending hierarchies when we can get away with it so a bias toward stability seems like a good idea. It’s worth noting that the original sin involved a reversal of the natural hierarchy: Eve took advice from a snake and Adam listened to his wife over God.

Lay misunderstandings are inevitable given the subtleties of Christian theology so we’d like central teachings to err in the direction of corrigibility when possible. The filioque seems to fail at this: its absence would inspire undue deference, its presence defiance. It’s clear enough which one inclines toward listening to correction.

The filioque would bias the masses toward egalitarianism and the Catholic doctrine may have been too subtle to correct for that. The bias would be amplified as communications improved and the Church lost its monopoly on information. Egalitarian ideas would proliferate and each iteration would pave way for the next. The changes would undermine the perceived legitimacy of authority, further weakening the Church’s already tenuous hold on culture.

Given its centrality to the faith, the influence of the filioque would be pervasive throughout Western Christianity. Popular revolts, the Reformation and individualism all bear the marks of the egalitarian impulse. I don’t have an estimate on the magnitude of the effect so I can’t claim the filioque was decisive, but it would have helped things along.

To summarize, I have a hypothesis about the cultural consequences of the filioque based on an unarticulated intuition and a conjectured mechanism of action, supported by a superficial match with historical patterns. That’s pretty circumstantial but enough to justify further investigation given the potential significance. An obvious followup would be to look in detail at the interplay of theology and culture in various Protestant sects. The hypothesis predicts that egalitarian theological changes would give rise to more extreme egalitarianism in the culture. Further, less egalitarian theology would limit the spread of egalitarian ideas.

My cursory attempts at followup have run into a not unexpected snag: I haven’t found sufficiently detailed summaries of the Trinitarian processions of the relevant sects. It’s almost as if people didn’t consider it important.

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