9 04 2008

In one important respect Descartes was breaking new ground. By comparing the workings of the brain with that of complex hyrdraulic machines, he was regarding the most technologically advanced artefacts of his day as templates for understanding the brain. This is a tradition that persists today; when we refer to computers and computational operations as models of how the brain acquires, processes, and stores information, for example. So while Descartes was hopelessly wrong in detail, he was adopting a modern style of reasoning.

-Michael O’Shea, The Brain: A Very Short Introduction

From this quote, we can plainly see the birth of modern consciousness: man sees himself as machine. And once he sees himself as machine, he is a problem to be fixed, and all things in the end can be fixed by his genius. All the mysteries of reality are stripped down and seen for what they are. The tool of Ockham’s razor cuts all of the excess off of the surface of things to the point that man as a spiritual animal is flayed and bleeding for all to see. Without all of the skins of superstitions, self-deceptions, and religious atavism, man can see himself as he truly is: naked. We return once again to the Garden of Eden, and modernity has thus been proven to be a great service to the Judeo-Christian mind. Instead of decrying its triumph in the West, we should rejoice that the child that we ourselves have begotten has triumphed so resoundingly. We are no longer covered by the dead skins of our bad faith. Nietzsche and Sartre are thus true heirs of Augustine, Basil, Aquinas, and Thomas A Kempis.

This is the way I read the lapse of my old acquaintance into apostasy. Though I know that this is not really accurate, in the end I think that there is something to it. And this malaise is not one that is absent from Christian discourse in our present time. The one thing that we all wish to do is to shed light on everything. I don’t think that I need to elaborate on how modern scientific agnosticism is characterized by this tendency. But even in Christianity this is the case. Protestants want to encompass all of their experience with the Divine into the confines of a book that can fit in your backpack. Most Roman Catholics want to level everthing down to the party line of the Vatican, the Catechism, and whatever the Pope happens to be saying at the present moment. The Orthodox wish to innoculate themselves from modernity by apotheosizing a certain set of liturgical texts and fasting disciplines that are creations of a very specific time and place, etc. In the end, all of these wish to make the Church into a predictable, well-run machine by which Divine grace is dispensed according to man-made rules. The problem is akin to wanting to protect a fragile flower by hiding it in a deep dark cave. You may shield it from some elements, but in the end you will kill it by cutting it off from the light.

We are confronted here by a humility that leads to death. In the Society of St. Pius X, I found it interesting that they thought that the problem with the Church coming out of Vatican II was that it exalted man too much; that it replaced the cult of God with the cult of Man. I think that the opposite is true: I think that if anything, the problem with the Church after the Second Vatican Council is that even the Catholic Church surrendered to an ideology that turned man into another moving lump of carbon in the midst of other random lumps of matter. Not that it did this directly; it was only a matter of time before this would happen in any event, and it had been occuring for some time on many levels. By seeking to reform everything by removing the excess, emphasizing what was important, and making everything more transparent, the ethos coming out of the Second Vatican Council on one level seeks to make our experience with God much more “user friendly” (akin to the instructions for a microwave, for example).

Another prejudice of the SSPX is that the thinking of the Second Vatican Council has its main inspiration in Protestantism. That may be true, but it is not particularily specific. I think that one could better trace it to certain tendencies in Jansenism. Jansenism sought to re-write the liturgy, as the infamous Council of Pistoia more than illustrates: a Sacrosanctum Concilium avant la lettre. Dr. Geoffrey Hull here cites one anti- Jansenist describing the attiudes of his adversries :

They do everything to diminish the cult of the Blessed Virgin, to weaken the respect due to the Pope. They pride themselves on using only Scripture in their liturgies, and in declaring themselves followers of Christian Antiquity, they frequently quote the canons of that age, boldly criticize everything, attack the legends, visions and miracles of the saints, affect elegance of literary style, valuing only their own productions and despising the works of others, and generally set themselves up as reformers… In the liturgical books being produced today they do not attack Catholic dogma, but subtly undermine it, uprooting the tree little by little…

 The Jansenists also changed the words of the Ave Maris Stella in order to make it more Christological, among other things. In our case, I would argue that the master stroke came when the authorities themselves instituted these ideas. But the parallel that I find most compelling lies in the Jansenist figure of Blaise Pascal, who I have described as the first theologian of the dead universe.

My main contention, then, is that the way out lies in ceasing to make machines in our minds and instead make new gods. Man necessarily has idols. As St. Gregory of Nyssa points out, our advancement in spiritual life lies in stripping ourselves of our idols. While this is key to spiritual perfection, it is no way to run a religion in everyday situations. A religion that attempts to make everyone into a St. John of the Cross instead of superstitious saint-worshippers ends up making neither. It only makes atheists.

God is above any representation we can make of Him. The ancient Pythagoreans came up with a false etymology for the name of the god Apollo: he was the One, “A-pollon”, “not many”. The things that we craft with our hands and our minds to represent the Divine both represent and distort God. In the Corpus Hermeticum, the idol was an earthly god, the divine mixed with the lowly material that man made. For the carnal, it was a reflection of their base desires and fantasies. For the spiritual, it served as a stepping stone to ascend towards the One. The image, nevertheless, can never be omitted. To try to make a more perfect way to ascend to the One without recourse to “supersition” only serves to put God at such a distance that He is unattainable.

In the end, we make the Divine just as much as it has made us, at least in our own perceptions of it. The desire of my atheist acquaintance is to see ourselves as we really are. That would only be looking at the abyss, since we are what we make ourselves to be. In our own creative processes, in our own “idol-making” we make the universe as it should be and thus touch the Divine. As Iamblichus points out, our experience of the Divine is not a passive experience; it is a participation in the way the Demiurge orders the world. One can accuse in this of bad faith, of making fables that are not true. But I see it as God covering our nakedness with garments of skin. 

Who then will not look with wonder upon man who, not without reason, in the sacred Mosaic and Christian writings, is designated by the term “all flesh” and sometimes by the term “every creature,” because he molds, fashions and transforms himself into the likeness of all flesh and assumes the characteristic power of every form of life? This is why Evantes the Persian in his exposition of Chaldean theology, writes that man has no inborn and proper semblance, but many which are extraneous and adventitious: whence the Chaldean saying: “Enosh hu shinnujim vejammah tabhaoth haj”- “man is a living creature of varied, multiform, and ever-changing nature.”

Giovanni Pico della Mirandolla, Oration on the Dignity of Man



5 responses

9 04 2008

This is not an excuse for any nude photos of Arturo. The bald head is enough.

9 04 2008
Jonathan Prejean

Modernity as a return to innocence?

More like an attempt to eradicate shame, I think. That’s why covering nakedness after the Fall was a blessing rather than a curse.

9 04 2008
Nakedness « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity « The Black Cordelias

[…] Nakedness « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity Nakedness « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity […]

9 04 2008
The Shepherd

Hmmm, don’t know if this analogy holds. Modernity as a return to innocence? I don’t know if anyone could agree to that. And your last part… I’m pretty sure if we were able to see ourselves as we really are we would see an image of God, not an abyss. If you keep that line of thought pretty soon you’ll be saying we create our own reality. Interesting though.

And Jay, speak for yourself and don’t hate the player, hate the game.

9 04 2008

It’s odd (and apologies for being rude) but when I read or hear things like “to see ourselves as we really are. That would only be looking at the abyss” and “I see it as God covering our nakedness with garments of skin” –I realize they are metaphors to help illustrate a point –but they are utterly incomprehensible to me, and sometimes indistinguishable from the unintelligible mutterings of a hippie spiritualist or even Zen master. What is the sound of one hand clapping? It’s an interesting thought experiment that forces us to confront the limitations and strangeness of thought, but it is not necessarily insightful, important, or worthy of worship.

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