Notes on a conversation

12 03 2008


 1. Does the lack of hegemony of the Church in most fields of human knowledge mean that our religiosity is now more superficial than it used to be centuries ago?

2. Does this superficiality in the Church lead to our emphasis on the Magisterium as a legal body that ties together a set of propositions and practices that otherwise would be completely arbitrary in themselves?

I should mention the background to these questions. I am currently reading Marsilio Ficino’s Commentary on Plato’s Symposium, and of course Ficino delved in ancient astrology. Reading the Renaissance Neoplatonic ideas about the cosmos and the planets can make one blush today: the idea that the planets are spheres of existence from which energies that govern human behavior and events is something that we for good reason would find lacking in credibility. Yet such absurd ideas of the nature of the universe have some very profound philosophical bases behind them.

In ancient systems of thought, things in lower spheres of existence are governed by things in higher spheres of existence. Things are moved by things that are ontologically superior to them, by things that are higher up the chain of being. That is why people looked to the heavens to discover the profound mysteries of existence; that is why the Magi looked to the stars to witness the Incarnation of the Word of God. The idea that truth, good, and beauty descend to us through the mediation of higher beings goes back into the ancient recesses of human thought, and came most directly into the Christian consciousness through the Neoplatonic theology of St. Dionysius the Areopagite. Mediation is a very Christian concept.

That is a bit of a tangent, but the elaboration of the first question is as follows: to put it bluntly, does it hurt our idea of Faith that we no longer go to church to learn about the world or the nature of reality, but rather to get something else very personal and sentimental. That is, for the Christian man of not so long ago, the Church was the primary conduit by which we know reality, whereas now, we have to deal with a system that directly ignores or contradicts the Christian vision of the universe; hierarchical, enchanted, and governed by a personal God. In other words, for 95% of our lives, we have to live in a field of knowledge and action that does not depend on the Church or its message at all. Does that mean that it is inevitable that the remaining 5% of the time, we will only pay insincere lipservice to the idea that the Christian message is the truth?

How many people walk into a church nowadays and feel that they are being presented in the building, the religious images, the chant, and the congregation united in prayer, with an image of the transfigured cosmos, with the key to the ultimate nature of reality? Or are we going to church because it gives us warm and fuzzy feelings, it gives us a moral bulwark for our lives, it keeps us “informed” about Jesus, it gives us good advice on how to be a decent citizens, or because it saves our souls in a dry, legalistic, and atomized manner? The fact that we expect nothing more than these things does not bode well for our future.

 Related to this is the second question: has the idea of what we expect from religion now changed? That is, is what we believe no longer a symphony, a living body of practices and attitudes that govern how we see the world, but rather a series of propositions, actions and structures that have no relation amongst themselves other than the fact that they are approved by the appropriate authorities? In my book, that is why things seem so arbitrary and “reformable”: these things have lost their meaning. If there is no way for these practices and doctrines to enlighten for the modern man the order of things as they stand now, then these things have no relation to anything else other than themselves. We have a closed system, and closed systems ultimately choke themselves to death. An argument from authority is always the weakest argument.

We cannot reject the ideas of natural selection, atoms, superstrings, the Big Bang, and all the other theories that the modern liberal world view has produced. If accepting them uncritically doesn’t help, the outright rejection of them doesn’t help either; it makes us look like a bunch of kooks, and not in a good way. However, the profound disconnect on how we see things as citizens in the postmodern polis and how we are supposed to see things in church cannot last indefinitely; something has to give. We must see how we believe and how we practice that belief as inherently tied to how things really are. Otherwise, we are just playacting.



9 responses

18 03 2008
Mike L


What you’re lamenting is the challenge posed to the Church by “the disenchantment of the world,” which Judaism and Christianity arguably inaugurated. Chinese and Arabic civilization were far more advanced than Western Europe during the so-called “Dark Ages,” but they produced neither modern science nor democracy, the two main factors driving the disenchantment. (Talk about capitalism all you want; it would never have become the consuming force it did without technologies arising from modern science, ones that both aided and were fueled by Western-European imperialism.) Add to all that her own periods of deep corruption, and it becomes evident that the Church’s problem today is essentially, if remotely, self-created.

What is to be done? I agree with Jonathan and Fr. Greg about the “remnant,” but I suspect that has always been true and always will be. The more pressing need is attitude adjustment on the part of the leadership. The Church has only slowly come to realize that she no longer has the advantage, anywhere, of being the cultural default option. None of her vast treasures can be taken for granted; all must be brought out and cultivated, steering a middle course between hyper-relevance and antiquarianism. I’ve seen it done, and done well. The problem is that the leadership is lacking to do it everywhere and consistently. I think the Pope has all this about right, but there aren’t enough of his ilk. Yet.


14 03 2008
Jonathan Prejean

And that remnant, I think, will be composed primarily of the last and the least, “the used, abused, and utterly screwed up,” the victims of sin, whether their own or the sins of others.

Amen. I stop at saying that faith requires adversity to develop, but the historical lesson certainly seems to be that the faith of victims has always been stronger.

14 03 2008

Perhaps the situation can be made a little clearer if we distinguish between “external” and “internal” reality.

That science can explain the external reality we all share should be no problem.

That it cannot explain the internal reality that we all have in unique fashion and yet pretends to should be.

The Church, whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, hasn’t done a good job of late in explaining that internal reality. There’s a lot of resistance to such activities as contemplative prayer movements and the like being made available to lay people.

14 03 2008

This is an overly negative critique. God is a God of hope and we can find hope anywhere in anytime. This post is kind of riduclous.

13 03 2008

And that remnant, I think, will be composed primarily of the last and the least, “the used, abused, and utterly screwed up,” the victims of sin, whether their own or the sins of others.

12 03 2008
Jonathan Prejean

Wow, you didn’t delay long in crafting a post for the ages at the new blog!

You are exactly right. This was the reason that the change from medieval cosmology was so traumatic. When you consider the perennial authorities in the East, particularly Pseudo-Dionysius, the angelic hierarchy is an essential key to understanding. And that dates back to Second Temple Judaism as well; one sees it in the early Christian thinkers (particularly St. Justin Martyr and St. Clement of Alexandria) and maybe even the New Testament.

It is no coincidence that people view the founding of modern science to coincide with the development of a drastically different cosmology. But here’s what is interesting (or should be). It was a Western thinker steeped in Neoplatonism and the Franciscan tradition who inaugurated this re-vision of both the world and the kosmos: Nicholas of Cusa. So I think it is very possible to see things as they are, yet in the same spiritual light of what came before. We just have to struggle to walk on our own legs in this regard; there aren’t the crutches of cosmology or physical science to help us. We cannot take Neoplatonism for granted.

Personally, this is why I think St. Augustine is the great Western Father and St. Cyril is the Seal of the Eastern Fathers. Those two men, more than any before or since, confronted the real decay of idealism through action grounded in the Scriptures. More than any other Christians in history, they were able to understand that where all the conceptual crutches and easy answers were broken, the hope in God’s grace in action was all that we had left. Certainly, I think there is a valuable role in both Eastern Fathers and Western Christians who remind us the brokenness of our historical moment does not mean that we need to surrender the hopeful vision of the Neoplatonists; I am reminded particularly of St. Maximus the Confessor, St. John Damascene, St. Severinus Boethius, Gregory Palamas, and Nicholas of Cusa. In all of these men that I have mentioned, the essential feature is that one retains the Christian hope that might be driven to despair in one’s historical moment, not by diluting it but by reaffirming all the more strongly its necessity.

The problem is that the time is not ripe for any of these people. We’re more or less fat and happy at this time in history, and there haven’t been the sort of catastrophic failures that might drive the need for Christian hope. People don’t listen to Jeremiads when things are going well; they never have. Heck, there are theonomists who basically think that the political system isn’t rotten to the core and that we just need to put the right laws in place to “keep America Christian.” Give a listen to Jay Sekulow sometime.

You can’t expect people to give up the pretty picture when the pretty picture is working, apart from those few rare and humble souls who are just out to know the truth for the truth’s own sake. You mention natural selection, superstrings, and the Big Bang, but the average American knows jack squat about those either. Biologists and philosophers have the same problem with Ben Stein putting out a slick marketing campaign that makes a mockery of their fields. They put out their own jeremiads about how stupid and uncritical people have become (though ironically blaming religion for it, when you have rightly pointed out that it is lack of religion than produces this cognitive stupor).

It’s just a remnant time; that’s all. This is Israel with its lands and kings. This is Rome with its bathhouses. This is Constantinople where the Christians have their political appointments and imperial stipends. And democracy is singularly successful at insulating people from human misery like invasion and famine, so there is no reason to think that it will change in the near future. For all the grousing about existential crises and terrorism and whatnot, things just aren’t that bad, and when things aren’t that bad, people don’t think much about the next life. You’d expect people to be complacent and doped by sensual pleasures and, wonder of wonders!, they are. A Church populated with Christians “gentle as doves and crafty as serpents” does not do more than to repeat its message and expect it to go unheard, thanking God that we live in a time with the luxury of being able to practice the Christian faith without threat of violence or harm to our families.

12 03 2008

Good questions. I think that we all want to feel at home in the world. By “world” I don’t mean that “world” of human folly and sin that we are told to be “in but not of”, I simply mean the world in its entirety, the cosmos and all that is good and true and beautiful in human life. I think that when the vision of the Church defined the vision of the world it provided that sense of belonging and gave mankind a means to feel at home in the world. But for all the reasons you’ve pointed out, the life and reach of the Church is now so restricted that it cannot provide that sense, that home. Instead, to the degree to which we give ourselves to the life of the Church we feel that we are aliens in the world. At least that’s how I feel when at my most melancholic. It is depressing, and I understand the appeal of “Christian Agnosticism” (a label I’ve played with for a while now). But what can I do? I am a Christian, even if a poor one.

12 03 2008

I think you are right. Sadly, when I go to Mass I often experience nothing is just completely dead, for me. Probably a personal problem, but I feel more and more like an agnostic christian…if that is even possible. It is quite a depressing experience for me actually.

12 03 2008
Notes on a conversation

[…] jrobertlancaster wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt1. Does the lack of hegemony of the Church in most fields of human knowledge mean that our religiosity is now more superficial than it used to be centuries ago? 2. Does this superficiality in the Church lead to our emphasis on the … […]

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