Physics in Images

5 10 2008

These concepts were traditional in Platonism.  It was considered that the mysteries of Eleusis and, more generally, the ceremonies of the cult and the form of the statues, as well as the decorations and symbols on these statues, had been chosen by sages, in the most distant antiquity, with regard to the cosmos.  This Platonic idea first appears in Varro, who affirms that the ancient sages chose the form of the statues of the gods and their attributes so that, when they are contemplated with the eyes of the body, we can see the World Soul and its parts, which are the genuine gods.  Then at a later stage, for instance in Plotinus, we find the idea that the sages of yesteryear, wishing to enjoy the presence of the gods, saw, when they contemplated the nature of the All, that the Soul could be present everywhere, and that it was easy for all things to receive it, as long as they fashioned some object which, by means of sympathy, was capable for receiving a part thereof.  Here again, the paticular gods appear as emanations of the Soul of the All, and statues of the gods ensure the gods’ presence, insofar as something in these statues is in sympathy with the Soul of the All.  In the text by Porphyry, where mention is made of the occultation of nature according to Heraclitus, the gods and the World Soul are just as closely linked, and traditional religion is physics in images. 

-Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature

The Hindu idol of the deity Shiva as nataraja is laden with symbolism as to the cycles of birth and destruction of the universe. As one website describes the imagery of the idol:

The symbolism of Siva Nataraja is religion, art and science merged as one. In God’s endless dance of creation, preservation, destruction and paired graces is hidden a deep understanding of our universe. Aum Namah Sivaya. Bhashya Nataraja, the King of Dance, has four arms. The upper right hand holds the drum from which creation issues forth. The lower right hand is raised in blessing, betokening preservation. The upper left hand holds a flame, which is destruction, the dissolution of form. The right leg, representing obscuring grace, stands upon Apasmarapurusha, a soul temporarily earth-bound by its own sloth, confusion and forgetfulness. The uplifted left leg is revealing grace, which releases the mature soul from bondage. The lower left hand gestures toward that holy foot in assurance that Siva’s grace is the refuge for everyone, the way to liberation. The circle of fire represents the cosmos and especially consciousness. The all-devouring form looming above is Mahakala, “Great Time.” The cobra around Nataraja’s waist is kundalini shakti, the soul-impelling cosmic power resident within all. Nataraja’s dance is not just a symbol. It is taking place within each of us, at the atomic level, this very moment. The Agamas proclaim, “The birth of the world, its maintenance, its destruction, the soul’s obscuration and liberation are the five acts of His dance.” Aum Namah Sivaya.

In the modern West, our sense of interacting with the cosmos is purely quantitaive. As I have been saying as of late, much of this is due to a particular reading of monotheistic religion that has always been in strife with the ethos of other traditional cultures. In order to distinguish between the creature and the Creator, the creature had to be stripped of any innate power in it. To worship the Maker of the sun rather than the sun, it was best to demote the sun to the status of any other physical object. The spirits of the air were definitively stripped of their power by Christ’s ascension according to St. Paul. St. Gregory Nanzianzen wrote that the pious astrological studies of the Magi in the New Testament signified the death knell of any abiltity to discern God’s will from the stars. The world then is contaminated, the realm of the devil, and easily used as a tool of deception by dark forces. One can then see how this strain of thought as well can give birth to a Descartes, sitting in his warm study, wondering about the reality of his own hand as he turns the page of some old volume of learned philosophy…

There is of course the other side to this, the side in which traditional religion survived the cosmic hurricane of Judeo-Christian radical monotheism. The number symbolism that dominates our religion, the dominance of three, four, five, seven, nine, forty, etc., is the legacy of Pythagoreanism and other “questionable” late Jewish sources that were part of a world where Divinity created the world out of Number and Letter. (In Greek and Hebrew, they are the same.) Going back to Pseudo-Dionyisus and St. Maximus Confessor, the image of the Church is the image of the cosmos (nave, narthex, sanctuary), which in turn is the image of man, and also the image of the faculties of the soul, etc. Even the very substance of our religion, the bread and wine used in our most sacred of rites, centers on the idea of many individual things (wheat and grapes) being destoryed and made into one, symbolic of the death and re-birth portrayed in many ancient belief systems. In these Christian mysteries, we have the same principals as in all “pagan” magic: like draws like. In order to receive the power of something higher, you must represent it by something that is “sympathetic” to it. This intuitive sense of “qualitative” interaction with the Divine is an endangered species in a world enslaved to quanitative data and results.

Many say that the Church and its doctrine are developing and coming to a more mature understanding of the Gospel of Christ. I would contend, however, that the loss of these “magical” principals described above entails the opposite: our religion is in the state of decadence and decline. One only need look at a Gothic cathedral to see that those who went before us saw the Church as a reflection and fufillment of the decorum of the cosmos. We however see it mere as an instrument of legal salvation and the propagation of moral uprightness. Our churches look like nice shopping malls or parking garages, our cermonies like daytime talk shows, and our sacred songs sound like second rate pop hits on the radio. Religion has nothing to do with how we organize society, our daily life, or personal enlightenment. In other words, it has nothing to do with reality. That’s what “science” is for.

That is why I easily tire of dogmatic and philosophical discussion among modern peoples. All the terms and ideas used in them are loaded with ideological baggage that I am no longer willing to carry. Or rather, they are emptied of any real significant content. Recover first the mythos, the sacred geometry, the ritual, and the vision that created these ideas, and then get back to me with an argument. Without abandoning the religion of the one True God revealed in Jesus Christ, we must learn again the primeval sense of a physics in images.



14 responses

9 10 2008
Christopher Orr

Liturgy is supposed to be the action of the people.

But, wasn’t the Eucharist the liturgy long before the conversion of a minority of the Roman Empire? Liturgy must needs be the work only of the people of God, not of the nation or a culture.

I also don’t think there is really any danger of going hyper-liturgical – or at least not for very long. The hyper-liturgical types tend to burn out in way way or another. But, the liturgy is supposed to be a culture not our own – because it is heaven’s, and we are not yet heavenly. It’s supposed to be foreign, just not for its own sake.

As long as there is prayer with understanding and obedience, then the Liturgy will never be ‘other’ or ‘exotica’. An American stepping into the universalized particulars of the Liturgy – in the East this has a lot of Byzantine court regalia, in the West a great deal of other cultural accretions – will always be an American no matter how hard he/she tries to mimic the ‘old ways’ or another culture’s ways of doing liturgy; they can’t help it, they are Americans in America and good and not so good aspects of their weltanshauung and the practicalities of American geography and life will unconsciously begin to ‘move’ aspects of even the most traditional of religious lives.

9 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez

It’s hard to say who influenced who. If one believes in the “prisca theologia”, influence has little to do with it; such premonitions are deep in the soul of man. Pythagoras taught the transmigration of souls. Numbers are just as important in Indian theology as they were to the Greeks (and to the Maya for that matter). Plotinus was said to have studied with Indian divines in Alexandria. And so on.

9 10 2008

It’s rumored that Benedict has a button labeled “Engage Cosmovision” within a hidden panel of the Pope-mobile.

Also, forgive my ignorance, but is there any documented archaeological cross-over between Platonic philosophy and Vedantic thought? If so the Vedas seem immense in their influence!

7 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Simply put, I am very skeptical that one can have liturgy in an anti-liturgical society. As I have outlined on other posts, there is more to liturgy than the texts and the accourtrements that you use for the performance of the text. There has to be an entire cosmovision in place that is both the foundation of the liturgy and that which it seeks to enforce. That is woefully missing. I guess what I will say that the solution does not lie in church, nor even less in “churchiness”. One has to build the inner citadel within oneself, and care not if the world goes to hell in a handbasket since, let’s face it, unless you are the Pope or the President of the United States, there is not a whole lot that you can do about it.

Liturgy is supposed to be the action of the people. In the West at least, this has not been the case for hundreds and hundreds of years, and perhaps it is too late to start now. Any attempt to go “hyper-liturgical” would just result in a bunch of people doing weird things as a postmodern expression of self. In the end, one has to foster traditional piety on the ground level and in oneself before the Church and society will change.

7 10 2008

dear arturo. thank you for your blog, which i have been following for a few months.
can i ask you for a little clarification (if you simply want to point me to previous posts where i can read up on how you think about these matters feel free)?
in this post you mourn the loss of a “physics in image” and point out that this was present in gothic cathedrals etc. but still you say that liturgy is not the answer. can you help me connect these two ideas? if we need to – somehow, God help us – reenchant the world, will this not necessarily take liturgical form?
once again, thank you for you writing.

7 10 2008
Christopher Orr

I can appreciate the critiques made regarding mere liturgical formalism and the boutique draw of ‘foreign’ Christianity. While dangers, they do not exhaust the reality of the thing and easily into speciousness.

I would just note, however, that my recommendations were not about mysticism, Liturgy, ancientness, legalism, etc. They were about doctrines and perspectives that are central to an Orthodox understanding of what Christianity is, and about saints and authors that may get at perspectives within Eastern Christianity (whether Orthodox or Catholic) that may be an appropriate balm for what the issues David is struggling with. Pastoral needs such as these are no less real for being based on what might be faulty understanding (e.g., legal vs. mystical, traditionalism vs. liberalism) or simply knowing that the problem is Catholicism ‘here’ and not a ‘better’ Catholicism or Christianity ‘elsewhere’ – whether that is local, village piety or traditionalism or exoticism, etc.

7 10 2008

There is a really good children’s seires called “Dinotopia,” about a peaceful society where humans live in harmony with dinosaurs. There is a section that explains the difference in how dinosaurs and people view the world. One picture shows a landscape as it is. The other show the same scene, only it’s dancing with color and light. This is how I see the split between the modern conception of the universe and the medevial view. To us, the universe is dead, except for sundry atoms, proton, quarks, dark matter and the like. To the pre-Englightenment mind, the world is full of angel, demons, and a host of mythical creatures. Man was in a literal war between the forces of God and the forces of the Devil and you had to decide which side you were on. In comparison, most modern religious expression, Christian or otherwise, focuses on a “happy face” spirituality where the point of live is to be a “good person” (whatever that means) and the only sin is to be mean (another vague term). It would be interesting to see what kind of Catholic communities exist in places like Nigeria or China, where becoming Catholic can be a life or death decision and traditional Christian cosmology still seems to be taken rather seriously.

7 10 2008
random Orthodox chick

“I think the other side of the problem at this point is liturgical/ecclesiastical escapism, by which we end up building Potempkin villages around ourselves in order to fight off the “big, bad world”. Sadly, this doesn’t work, and all you end up doing is constructing a more personalistic, bizarre modernity. Liturgy isn’t the answer, simply put.

It’s also the fact that we *don’t* “save the world” with our Liturgy, in Orthodoxy, at least. The worship does not seem to be penetrating our lives. We like things traditional, but apparently we keep it at church.

I don’t know if anyone’s checked out our statistics at lately, but they are abysmal. We don’t do much better; in some instances we have worse statistics than the Catholics with their “Post-Vatican II attitudes”.

So no, Liturgy is not enough. Besides all those pro-choice Orthodox out there, apparently the same enthusiastic converts that love our traditions are more likely to leave the Orthodox Church, so the Divine Liturgy doesn’t keep people in the pews (yes, the pews) either. Though I wouldn’t trade the Divine Liturgy for anything, maybe we also need some cold water splashed in our face so we can wake up to this reality, and put our tired criticisms of the western churches aside.

7 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Okay, I’m sorry for that last snarky comment. I will explain.

First, “legalistic” is a severe misnomer. Law is the beginning of freedom, not its limitation. Just as their must be harmony in nature, so their must be harmony in society, in families, and in ourselves. Real law is not a “legal” issue; it is an aesthetic issue. Or rather, it is the beauty that founds and maintains all things.

Secondly, the “white bread”, “strip mall” nature of Catholicism has nothing to do with the essence of Catholicism; or rather, it has to do with the essence of Catholicism in THIS COUNTRY. The fact that bearded clergy, phelonions, and kathismas are so strange, mystical, and exotic to us is because they are foreign. People think that they can see ancient Christianity better through them, but I would argue that this is a delusion and nothing more. Modern people dressing up to do “ancient” things does not make you any more ancient. And if that is the goal, I recommend that one should join the Hare Krishnas; at least they are tied to a religion that is far more ancient.

One genius of Orthodoxy is its lack of organization, and in this sense, the “folk” elements could penetrate Orthodoxy better than they could official Catholicism. Just think how long it has historically taken to canonize a saint. In places like some parts of Latin America and the Philipines, however, Catholicism would have these folk elements in the forefront. In this sense, the average American would see this religion as equally exotic. That is why I am most proud of the posts on folk Catholicism since many people in this country seem to think they know what the Church is about, but oftentimes they have no idea.

I think Orthodoxy is traditional in some parts of Orthodox countries; here, I think it is either the ethnic remnant of immigrant groups on their way to assimilation or a boutique religion of very well-read, cultured people who want to go against the grain. Catholicism, I would say, in this country is for the most part a cultural remnant of an ethnic past. People feel they have a right to be Catholic because their ancestors were Catholic, but they empty it of all the practices and attitudes that shaped the world-view of the past. We too have our erudite, enthusiastic converts, but proportionally, they are insignificant compared to the “pop Catholic” masses and those who leave the fold without ever looking back. You can encounter Christ in both if you are sincere. I would just like people to call things as they are.

6 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez

“Orthodoxy/Byzantine Catholicism does have its draw for me, mainly because it has less of a tendency towards legalism and a more mystical character.”

I find this statement to be an inaccurate cliche at this point, but whatever…

I think the other side of the problem at this point is liturgical/ecclesiastical escapism, by which we end up building Potempkin villages around ourselves in order to fight off the “big, bad world”. Sadly, this doesn’t work, and all you end up doing is constructing a more personalistic, bizarre modernity. Liturgy isn’t the answer, simply put.

6 10 2008
random Orthodox chick

I don’t think that the average Orthodox parish in America is immune to worshiping a “God of the gaps” just because of our reverent liturgy. Not out of laziness–it’s just for reasons pointed out here, it’s a battle to go “against the grain”. It reminds me of another of Arturo’s writings: in order to truly practice the faith, we must “go native”.

I knew few growing up as openly “spiritually sensitive” as I was, and most remain neo-pagans (please pray for them).

6 10 2008

Thank you for the pointers for further study. Orthodoxy/Byzantine Catholicism does have its draw for me, mainly because it has less of a tendency towards legalism and a more mystical character. And you never have to worry about insipid music and watered down liturgy. Still, I wonder if the same kind of compartmentalization of religion isn’t just as rampant in Eastern Christianity as well.

Arturo writes, regarding the current state of affairs in the Catholic Church: “Religion has nothing to do with how we organize society, our daily life, or personal enlightenment. In other words, it has nothing to do with reality. That’s what “science” is for.” I used to attend the Tridentine mass almost exclusively, but a recent move and newborn baby have made attending that mass pretty much impossible. Now we go to the local Catholic church where everything about the liturgy seems to say “Nothing important going on here; let’s get through this so we can get on with our day.” It’s the kind of thing that drove me away from the Church when I was a kid, and sadly, except for the rare church where a truly reverent Novus Ordo or the Tridentine mass is celebrated, this is what you find in nearly all Catholic churches today. I don’t think you can simply blame this on Vatican II. Our culture has changed on a deep level, and what we see in church is simply a reflection of that. The scientific, humanistic worldview has taken over. In earlier times, religion and folk tales explained everything about the universe. Now we are left with an ever shrinking “God of the gaps.” Religion is now a private matter, and unless you are a politician, you don’t bring it up in in mixed company.

Who knows what the future holds, however. If peak oil and other societal collapse theories come to pass, this whole modern/scientific world will pass as an anomaly in the grand scheme of human history by the end of this century. Maybe then we can have a true recovery of the sacred in every dimension of our lives.

6 10 2008
Christopher Orr

David, the Orthodox Christian (and Eastern Catholic, to be inclusive) doctrine of the divine energies of God together with the understanding that the Holy Spirit (God Himself) “is everywhere present and fillest all things” may get at some of what you are missing. Fr. Stephen Freeman of the Glory to God for All Things blog has also been posting about Pascha (Easter, the Resurrection of the God-man) being the center of the universe; The Ochlophobist mentioned that the human heart is the center of the universe; St. Silouan the Athonite and Archimandrites Sophrony and Zacharias of Essex also bring rather universal dimensions to their discussion of Orthodox Christianity; man as microcosm and/or macrocosm in Maximus Confessor and Gregory Palamas, respectively, is also in the world you seem to be yearning for. There are perspectives within the Orthodox Church that are perhaps less quantitative, but with the added bonus that the universe is not seen to be merely ‘illusion’ or in a state of ‘fallen-ness’ from the One.

Another thing to remember is that Baptism and Chrismation/Confirmation make us all ‘christs’, and the Eastern understanding of deification/divinization/theosis as the purpose of the Incarnation (actually, of all creation) may also be an important POV.

“For He was made man that we might be made God.” – St. Athanasius the Great (+373), ‘On the Incarnation of the Word’, 54:3.

6 10 2008

“In order to distinguish between the creature and the Creator, the creature had to be stripped of any innate power in it. To worship the Maker of the sun rather than the sun, it was best to demote the sun to the status of any other physical object.”

This post hits home for me right now. Having returned to the Church after 15 years of intensive Zen Buddhist practice, including time living in a monastery in Japan, I have found myself struggling in the faith over precisely this issue: a dead universe with the sacred far removed, and a God with almost impossible standards watching over it in judgement.

In the Mahayana Buddhist universe, every speck of dust contains infinite Buddha universes, each reflecting and containing all others. There are infinite numbers of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, deities and spirits who need only be invoked to shower down blessings for all beings without exception. Most western Buddhists tend to downplay the magical and devotional aspects of Buddhism, sticking to meditation and the quest for enlightenment, but I always drank that stuff up. I especially saw it in Japan, where one can still find that kind of worldview in the smaller towns and countryside.

It was an enchanted universe, but now I am painfully feeling the loss of that sacred worldview, and wondering what to do about it in the context of Catholic practice. I suppose in many places the saints took over for what the Gods did, so perhaps this is one possibility. Still, moving from a universe that is sacred for its own sake to one whose goodness is only because God made it is very difficult.

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