Coming out of the desert

31 08 2008

The classical model of religion, the evolutionary model, states that man started out worshipping nothing. Then, he started fearing the lightening strikes and strange sounds in the forest at night, and began to dream up the world of spirits, ghosts, and other malevolent or benevolent unseen forces that affected his life. These forces later were attributed to particular places: groves, caves, and meadows. Then man began to promote these spirits to the rank of what we now know as gods, and eventually, after a sort of survival of the fittest amongst these gods, one god emerged in certain societies to become the only god. That, of course, is as far as religion goes. The process goes further towards Spinoza’s deus sive natura, then just natura, then nothing at all. Man has run the religious gauntlet and come out on the other end free of his religious neurosis.

I am not saying that this is the model that Cardinal Ratzinger, now Successor of St. Peter, followed in his book, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, but it is certainly one that haunts his reflections on religion in general. There are passages in his book where one concludes that the most progressive force in the history of religion is iconoclasm and de-mythologizing. From the Abraham’s desert journey, to the Temple, to the Prophets, to Our Lord’s prediction that men will worship God anywhere “in spirit and in truth”, I at least could not really be comfortable with the dialectic of religion that the present Pope presented. Here, I hope not to present answers but questions, not condemnations but clarifications, and not a definitive alternative model but rather a working outline of some principles that I can neither affirm or deny as of yet.

Ratzinger contrasts the old pagan religions with the new message of the Gospel saying that the former were really political ideologies that believed in the complete hiddeness of truth while the latter believed in its own exclusivity and fullness as the vessel of truth. The author cites famous figures from the ancient world who spoke of the usefulness of the cult of the gods for the state, and that “truth” in the sense that we know it was never really at play in the pagan mind. This is best illustrated by the idea that any particular pagan cult never claimed exclusivity over any other. Only the message of Christ, coming out of the radical monotheism of the religion of Abraham, claimed to be the truth above all others. In this way, it agreed very much with the skepticism at the heart of the philosophical forms at the time that sought truth above all else. In this sense, Christianity was an iconoclastic movement when it came to the worship of false gods.

The pillars on which Christianity stands are reason and truth, run through and reassesed by the constantly vigilant eye of the radical skepticism of monotheism. As with most scholars who studied late Neoplatonic paganism, Ratzinger considers this form of thought a decadent last ditch effort by classical paganism to save itself. The argument goes that after Plotinus, Plato’s revolutionary thought congealed and declined into a quasi-religious fundamentalism where Plato and Socrates were made saints and philosophy became little more than an exercise in obfuscating byzantine exegesis. The complex muck that is Proclus was to be forgotten as an obscure attempt at synthesizing that failed spectacularly. Again, Ratzinger condemns attempts to exalt theurgic ritual above philosophy as a system by which the pagans created a two-tiered religion: one for the simple person and another for the enlightened philosopher.

As I have written before, this model is a bit too simplistic, and it also assumes the absolute “democratization” of knowledge in the Christian sphere. It also assumes that Christianity is a “straight forward” religion when it comes to what it believes, that no initiation is necessary, and that everything has to be published to the four winds; we have to “get the word out”. Such phenomena as the long catechumenate in the early Church and the up until very recent restrictions on translating the Scriptures into the vernacular in the West make this supposition to seem a bit of a novelty. Perhaps this type of thinking is also behind the liturgical and ascetical minimalism that has besieged the Church in the last fifty years. As I have said before, and I will keep saying it, Catholic liturgy, asceticism, and culture do not “help” the message of the Gospel: they are the message. True, there are many particular avatars of this message, but the message essentially is the same.

Also, could we not also attribute the “elitism” of pagan Neoplatonism to the elitism of ancient society in general? The average Christian in the early Church did not read, and perhaps only passively listened to sermons (if there were someone around talented enough to preach them). He probably only had an acquaintance with the Christian message through through the “mysteria Christi”: the sacraments, or what we would know now as the sacraments and rituals of the Church. Perhaps we would be surprised by how “superstitious” such early Christians could be, how perfectly logical it would be that any faith system will reify itself into a system of amulets, prayers, and incantations to ward off storms, plagues, illnesses and the like. Our own idea of the “perfect Christian” may be framed by archeological dreams of the primitive Gospel of the Quakers in New England, the gutted cathedrals filled with Calvinist preachers in the Low Countries, or the austerities and elitism of the religious of Port Royal. As in all “revolutionary” movements and philosophies, it is inevitable that a figure who seeks to overturn the previous order will become the foundation of a new one. If we suppose that Christ founded a Church and not a “message”, then we will be perfectly comfortable with such an idea. If, on the contrary, we exult the idea of an “ecclesia semper reformanda”, we will be creating an idea as unsustainable and absurd as Trotsky’s permanent revolution.

Thus, I can acknowledge that Christianity, in asserting its exclusivity to truth, is indeed true and unique since it asserts its claim to be the only path to eternal hapiness for man. However, I would reject any attempt to draw out of these principles how Christianity should thus look like. Calvinists dutifully reading their Bibles do not “look” more Christian than peasants who cross a child with an egg to get rid of the evil eye. That is because, as Steven Farmer wrote in his introduction to the writings of Pico della Mirandola, highly developed religious systems always contain various atavistic elements within themselves that are remnants of the previous stages of the religious consciousness of man. There is no such thing, then, as religious or cultural maturity after which we put away various unsavory elements of cultic practice. To use another Trotskyist phrase, religion develops in spurts of combined and uneven development in which the unfolding of history is never uniform or in a straight line but always determined by very particular circumstances. The child turning the prayer wheel in Katmandu or the teenager lighting a candle in front of the Virgin in the Holy Trinity Lavra in Russia may not have the ideas of complete obliteration of self in nirvana or consubstantiality of the Persons in the Triune God in mind when they do their actions, but nevertheless, they are the foundations of what they do. Or, perhaps it might be said in a very postmodern fashion that, in some way, it is the other way around.

Indeed, this false idea of what a “Christian should look like” is at the heart of the error of modern Catholicism. It is the idea that what has developed is what should not have developed. It is the idea that what has been passed down is flawed. While there is always a necessary moment of doubt within the life of every Christian, one which we would simply call the conviction of conversion, we must be very careful that this idea does not end up obliterating the religious ethos in general. Indeed, this is what modernity is: modernity is merely the consistent and cancerous development of the radical conversion of a particular nomad in a desert of Mesopotamia. The challenge, as Pierre Hadot puts it, is that man must learn to accept himself, particularly as a religious being. If there was one element of genius of the late Neoplatonists, it was that they hinted at the balance between high theory and popular piety, between the way of the philosopher and the way of the “superstitious” worshipper. This was passed on to the Church of Christ through cultural cross fertilization, and it is a balance to which we must return again.



5 responses

19 10 2008
Deus deorum « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] In the past, I have criticized the “grand march of monotheism” view of history. In this view, people agonizingly climbed their way out of a mental cave that is haunted by spirits, ghosts, gods, and all of the other usual suspects in the polytheistic cosmos. Little by little, one small group of people, the Hebrews, grew out of this worldview to realize that their was only one God, and all of the other religions were either superstition or the manipulation of devils. Even from the founding of the Church, we are becoming more monothesitic, more Biblical, and more knowledgeable about the Christian religion as time passes. People feel, for example, that St. Anselm’s idea of the vicarious satisfaction of Christ on the Cross was a remnant of the pagan ethos: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would never demand blood from His own Son in payment for the sins of the world. We know the Gospel better since we are farther away from the pagan past. We have cleaned the outside of our vessels. We have whitened our sepulchers. We have a better idea of God than our ancestors. […]

7 09 2008
Mary on a chain, around my neck « Triune Pieces

[…] The remains of the gnostic within me immediately died. And so did the non-catholic parts of my inner Anabaptist. I hope they are dead, or more dead than they were. The inner anthropologist knew that his colleagues in the humanities and hard sciences would call this thing superstition. But I had been given enough grace not to care why my inner anthropologist said anymore. This reminds me of something that Arturo wrote: […]

2 09 2008
Alice C. Linsley

The balance between high theory and popular piety is a good one. The popular side needs the rational to check in on Reality and the theoretical needs the piety of commoners to stay grounded. Both need humility, the mother of all virtues.

1 09 2008
Michael Liccione


Your last paragraph pretty well describes where I’m at with liturgy and devotion. I hope that doesn’t surprise you.


31 08 2008

In Islam it states that Allah gave all men a knowledge of Himself and and this was before they were created in a primordial state.
Thus that is why they worship something because of this forgotten knowledge.

Both the OT and NT speak of the law written on man’s hearts.

We are hardwired to worship something and long for G-d.

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