On religion and power

5 08 2009


As many know, I have a great affinity for the scholarship of the French philosopher, Pierre Hadot. The focus of his academic career is to return philosophy to its ancient function of being a “way of life” and not merely a series of convoluted doctrines that express what a particular person thinks about reality. I have not yet obtained Hadot’s latest book, The Present Alone is Our Happiness, but some digging on-line resulted in my finding a quote from this book:

I do not think that the fundamental desires of humans can change. The ruling or rich class seeks wealth, power, and honors, in antiquity just as in our day. All the misfortune of our actual civilization is in effect the exasperation of the desire for profit, in all the classes of society, for that matter, but especially the ruling class. Common morals can have simpler desires: work, happiness at home, health. The invocations of the gods in antiquity were the same ones that are now made to the Virgin Mary. One asked the same things to soothsayers as we ask of our horoscopes. It is not a question of the epoch. But when Epicurus distinguished natural and necessary desires, natural desires that are not necessary, and desires that are neither natural nor necessary, he did not want to enumerate all legitimate desires and explain how they could be satisfied; he wanted to define a style of life, taking conclusions from his intuition, according to which the pleasure corresponds to the suppression of a suffering caused by the desire. There is an analogy with Buddhism, very much in fashion these days. To be happy one must thus maximally diminish the causes of suffering, that is, the desires. In this manner he wanted to heal the suffering of humans. He thus recommended renouncing desires that are very difficult to satisfy in order to attempt to be content with desires that can more easily be satisfied – that is, finally and simply, the desire to eat, to drink, and to clothe oneself. Under an apparently down-to-earth aspect, there is something extraordinary in Epicureanism: the recognition of the fact that there is only one true pleasure, the pleasure of existing, and that to experience it one merely has to satisfy the desires that are natural and necessary for the existence of the body. The Epicurean experience is extremely instructive; it invites us, like Stoicism, to a total reversal of values.

I thought this quote to be an interesting contrast to a post on Agostino Taumaturgo’s new blog, part of which I produce here:

Catholicism lived and breathed in a day-to-day context, with a full awareness of the spiritual implications of everything the believer is doing, is a truly empowering experience indeed, and brings God, tangible and palpably, into the daily life of the faithful; no matter what criticisms may be levelled from those in the developed world, this spirituality is the nigh-inevitable effect of many of the folk practices found in Catholicism as it is practiced everywhere else in the world except England, Ireland, Germany, and the United States.

Yet in Northern European Catholicism, with its influences from Jansenism and from having to co-exist with (or hide from) Protestantism, this living, breathing spirituality was lost and in some cases (Ireland and the United States, as in the Devotional Revolution of 1850-1875) such practices were intentionally eradicated, and a regimen of “Pay, Pray, and Obey” forced onto the laity at large. In the wake of such eradication, religion again became a means of power, in exactly the context that the young lady had intended it.

Now, in the face of a Church which currently values absolute obedience over vibrant spirituality, it’s a small wonder that so many people are turning to the Charismaticism, Pentecostalism, and Neo-paganism in droves. They’re searching for a sense of spiritual connection that they’re not getting at home, and as a result they find it necessary to turn elsewhere, regardless of whether that elsewhere is right or wrong.

When modern people read hagiography, for example, their ideas of sanctity end up clouded in a strange obsession with the “dark night” of faith and obedience. They seem to think that situations are holier if the miraculous doesn’t happen, if people are left in the dark and believe in things in spite of how absurd they viscerally think they are. Prayer in these circumstances becomes akin to Buddhist meditation or Epicurean reflection; the key to religion is to change what you desire in order to desire as little as possible. The earth is dead to us, and we are dead to it; God the Father, if He exists, does best when He gives us nothing. In this way, we learn maturity.

No doubt, there are passages in the Gospel that tell us to do just this. “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.” The entire Sermon on the Mount can be read through such a lens, and indeed, it probably should. But the logic of any real religious system is far from systematic; in the same Gospels, it says, “ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find, etc.” It also says that those who serve God faithfully will be able to handle serpents and drink poison and nothing will happen to them. As in all things, discernment is needed, but the answer lies not in one aspect or the other, but in a balance between the two.

As I am accustomed to saying, the problem may not be theological but rather metaphysical. The key to the “empowering aspects” of the Faith may not lie solely in supernatural faith, or in demonic manipulation, but in the sovereignty and power inherent in the human soul. If man is made in the image and likeness of God, and if the human soul is, as Aristotle said, in a sense all things, then it is no surprise that the combination of faith and the remembrance of that primordial dignity can bring about the miraculous as a normal condition. True, this is never enough to provide a “fail safe” scientific methodology when it comes to such phenomena. But when the miraculous needs to happen, if often does. God does the work, but we cooperate, not as miserly beggars totally rejected by a cold universe, but as regal inhabitants of the cosmic palace that God has built for Himself, and that one day He will restore to its full glory.



4 responses

7 08 2009
Agostino Taumaturgo

Without attempting to enter into a debate, perhaps I should clarify: I never intended to imply that Protestantism was anti-miraculous. If one were to step into the average suburban mega-church on a given Sunday, one would find that quite the opposite is true.

When I refer to the “Protestant attitude towards miracles,” I should perhaps clarify that I mean the Protestant attitude (which I think of as something of a double-standard) about Catholic miracles. For example: if a Protestant sees Jesus in a dream or claims he hears God telling him something (regardless of whether it’s only a figment of his imagination), then it’s a miracle. But if a Catholic sees a Host bleed or Mary drops in to have a little chat (even if it’s scientifically proven that the Host has real blood coming out of it, etc.), then it’s considered idolatrous and superstitious.

But yes, my attitude towards the Protestant — at least the low-church Protestant — approach to miracles is rather patronizing (as is my take on most ecstatic movements). The tendency to personify every human vice as its own demon, then to claim the demons possess people with those vices, then to claim the Holy Ghost is moving them into a fit of convulsions (which could just be a fit of convulsions for all we know), it all seems to me as an attempt to find God everywhere without the desire to discern whether a given even is really God or just their own imaginations.

Again, not trying to start up a debate, but only attempting to clarify my position. Sorry for the long ramble.

7 08 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I think the key word here is “simply”. And the other key word is “cooperation” or synergy. As you know, my metaphysics is decidedly post-Plotinian, and it is the work of Iamblichus that I am mainly alluding to when citing the miraculous as a mimesis of the divine. But Iamblichus also formulated something quite close to the Christian idea of grace: because the soul is totally fallen into matter, only God can save her.

Such an act of synergy is often not noble at all; often it only amounts to an act of faith. Indeed, this is a common thing mentioned in Catholic folk magic, from the Gospels on down. For Our Lord Himself could not perform many miracles where faith was absent. This is often heard among curanderas as well: “no se curó porque no tenía fe”. More interestingly, however, there are the other rather intricate matters of folk healing, which, if we take a totally rationalistic approach, we would dismiss as arbitrary cultural accretions (to cite the puerile classification of a mutual acquaintance). But dig deeper (and I speak here primarily of Mexican folk practice), then certain themes begin to pop up over and over again: the number three, the number twelve, the egg, the stone, the motion of sweeping, and so forth. One can become almost Jungian about it and try to discern the patterns reflected in these things that seem to betray deeper meanings on the level of the sub-consciousness. Is there nothing to this in the end? Is a cigar just a cigar? Or is the symbolism that spontaneously emerges in place after place a vestige of something more profound?

And as for your point about Protestantism, of course I agree, and have written about such things recently. Oddly enough, even in Protestant-inspired folk systems such as Appalachian folk healing and Hoodoo conjuring, the same symbolism described above also emerges.

6 08 2009
Peter Escalante

Interesting. A couple of thoughts: first, your conclusion is curious, in that it makes miracles a predictable effect of natural excellence, what one might call a preternatural power of the developed soul; presupposed is something like an Idealist cosmology, or a sort of panpsychism. Albert the Greatdoes teach something like this with regard to love and the power of the soul to cause effect in distans. Also similar is the yoga theory of the siddhis. There have been Catholic writers in the early 20th c especially who posited that many miracles at least are simply parapsychological, and thus natural/preternatural. But, if miracles are simply effects of highly developed human spirit, then folk piety is mistaken in seeing in them as effects of extrahuman spirits; the folk Catholic is as mistaken then as the ancient Mediterranean pagan peasant, and the truth would rather be with Plotinus, who said, I don’t go to the gods; they go to me, and who also said that the perfected Man is coextensive with the universe and its captain. But with all due respect to that exalted Plotinian anthropology, I’ll hold for my part with the folk sensibility, and say that miracles are best seen as coming, one way or another, from spirits other than Man’s.

Also curious is Taumaturgo’s apparent notion that Protestantism was anti-miraculous. It certainly held that the age of foundational miracles, religion-proving miracles, was over; but it did not hold that miracles in the sense of divine wonders granted as intimate gifts from God to his children walking with Him had ceased. In fact, as Jane Shaw shows in her recent work “Miracles in Enlightenment England”, Protestants had more of those than Roman Catholics; see also the Mathers of America, who were always going on about signs and wonders. The Reformers’ critique was of sham miracles, and of miracles which supposedly served to settle religious questions, or to induce submission to some supposed authority (pseudo-perpetuations of foundational miracle). But Protestants were open to wonders; the 18th c evangelical revival was not averse to them, and the old Protestant clergy, when it criticized revival, was concerned about “enthusiasm”- that is, private revelation as such, and especiallyas religiously basic- not miracles (oddly, the evangelical revival had contemporary parallels in the miraculous-minded hesychast revival of Russia, and also in the Hasidic Jewish movement with its wonderworking rabbis). And this readiness for miracle continued among evangelicals; witness the great George Muller or Reese Howell; it continues to this day, and is by no means limited to Pentecostals. The great evangelical legal scholar Harold Berman was, I believe, converted by a miracle; and one hears evangelicals discussing wonderful providences from God all the time.

5 08 2009
Michael Liccione

This is excellent, Arturo. Thank you.

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