The Church as Machine

29 10 2009


It has been two and a half years since I posted the following essay, but I still think it makes some good points. While I have expanded quite a bit on what I think the answer is, I think I conceive of the problem in similar terms: a mechanistic and technocratic drive in man that infiltrates even religious thinking itself.

Originally posted here

Recently, I finished reading Pierre Hadot’s newest book, The Veil of Isis, which is a thought-provoking reflection on the concept of Nature from Heraclitus to the present. More specifically, Hadot uses the fragment of Heraclitus, “nature likes to hide itself”, to trace how man has approached the world around him from ancient Greece to the present day. As a paradigm, he uses the two mythological figures of Prometheus and Orpheus to analyze how poets, philosophers, and scientists have either viewed nature as a mystery to be revered or a specimen to be dissected. The book thus centers on the dichotomy that emerges between veiling and unveiling, personified in pagan iconography of the veil of the goddess Isis/Artemis/Diana.

As is the case with other books by Hadot that I have mentioned on this blog, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Rather than go into a more intensive synopsis than I have given above, I will rather apply what I read to what I have been reflecting on recently, particularly to the mystery of the Church and our ideas about it.

It is my feeling that a Promethean attitude reigns in the minds of Christian thinkers as regards to the nature of the Christian mystery. In the book, Hadot summarizes the Promethean approach to nature as one in which man demands total control over his surroundings. Francis Bacon articulated this attitude best when he said that nature must be forced to reveal its secrets, “under the torture of experiments”. For Promethean man, nature must be dominated and put under subjection. Interestingly enough, Hadot develops a parallel between the Promethean approach and the command of God in Genesis to go forth and subjugate the earth. In a way, modern scientists are fulfilling the command of the God of the Torah to reign over nature, as opposed to the pagans who venerated nature as a goddess.

So far, a good Christian sees no problems with this perspective. After all, you are reading this on a glowing screen invented by the voracious Promethean drive of the last two centuries. What happens, however, when this drive is applied to the very mysteries revealed to us by God? What happens when we address the Christian mystery as something that must be mastered, defined, and quantified? What happens when we begin to regard to our liturgical, spiritual, and theological lives as products of cold analysis, institutionalization, and the collection of data? Why is it that people on the Internet in particular are so eager to argue about things that should rather cause in us a “sacred shudder” before our own smallness within God’s creation?

For many, from the most reactionary traditionalist to the most flagrant modernist, the Church is a problem waiting to be solved rather than a mystery that must be venerated in fearful humility. There is an insatiable drive in modern man to fix things, and to fix everything. If something is broken, enough knowledge, drive, and elbow-grease can fix it. I would contend that here we have hit the brick wall of nature, fallen nature, and our approach to it.

In contrast to the ancient thief of fire, Hadot poses the character of Orpheus to represent the other view in which nature is regarded with, “respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness.” If the Promethean approach is primarily scientific, the Orphic approach is based not on “violence but [on] melody, rhythm, and harmony”. The world in this view is a song intoned on a lyre rather than an enemy that must be interrogated, tortured, and tried as a criminal.

One fascinating aspect of this book is Hadot’s treatment of cosmogonic poems in antiquity and their parallels within Christian liturgy. Plato’s Timeaus, in particular, is viewed as an attempt of finite humans to imitate the secret fashioning of the universe through poetry. Plato writes in the Timeaus that the World is a god, “who once was truly born one day, and who has just been born in our discourse.” When I read this, I could not help but think on the anaphora in the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great that begins with a bird’s eye view of time and eternity. In liturgy, those things which happened and will happen are not just remembered, but rather also re-presented and mystically made to happen again. It is not just a transmission of information, a pedagogic exercise, or a mere social get-together. All existence is given meaning and born again in the celebration of the mysteries of our salvation. (Shades of Odo Casel, I know…)

The error of the modern Roman Catholic Church is anti-liturgical par excellence. The question of the day is one that asks, “What are the people getting out of it and how does it make them feel?” It is no longer about denying one doctrine or another, or even about the scary arch-heresy called modernism (the favorite whipping boy of traditionalists everywhere). These are fearsome things, but there is something far worse at work. Catherine Chevalley summarizes Martin Heidegger’s analysis in this way:

The contemporary period is one in which man perceives everything in the form of a device and an exploitable supply, including himself, and simultaneously loses his own being. (Hadot 150)

The Church is thus deemed as a computer that informs rather than the transfigured creation that inspires awe and silence. Man is to be filled with data rather than emptied of his knowledge through the foolishness of the Cross. At the heart of this error is the theology of the “People of God”, based more on technocratic models of modern democracy than Scriptural or Patristic thought. The Church (liberal, conservative or traditional) becomes a device of personal empowerment.

Our approach to nature very much affects our approach to transfigured Nature. It can be argued from Hadot’s insinuation that the crisis that currently plagues Christianity has its cause in the very heart of the Christian message itself. Our Faith is in a transcendent God who created all things from nothing, and thus we regard nature as a creature just like us over which we are the master. Our Faith on the surface does not depend on nature and could be deemed hostile to it. As I have argued in the past, however, such controversies as to whether or not we should ordain women, whether or not we should permit artificial contraception, and the nature of the relationship between the hierarchy and the laity have their causes in our anti-natural, utilitarian society. Our liturgy is parallel (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) with the life and death of the Earth in the cycle of the seasons. The Gospel may be sovereign over all human traditions, but it nevertheless is swimming in the ocean of nature and humanity. The Promethean will to power threatens to make any concept of submission to an all-powerful God incomprehensible to modern man. A wrong approach to nature can thus threaten the Christian message itself.

In this way we must come to the conclusion that being a Christian might entail more than just reading the Gospels and assenting to various doctrines. There is a foundation on which these things must be built and a natural order which is the only context in which these things make sense. Being in communion necessitates more than just a political bond between Christians; it also signifies a relationship with the cosmos and the realization that we are a part of the tapestry of creation. This requires an attitude of submission, awe, and thankfulness in the face of our own beautifully small role in the cosmic dance.

Hadot cites Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo in order to best articulate the Orphic point of view:

If one studies the Japanese painters, then one sees a man indisputably wise, philosophical, and intelligent, who spends his time doing what? Studying the distance between the earth and the moon? No. Studying Bismarck’s politics? No, he studies a single blade of grass. Yet this blade of grass leads him to draw all plants, then the seasons, the great aspects of landscapes, finally animals, then the human figure…. Let us see: is it almost a real religion that we are taught by the oh-so-simple Japanese, who live within nature as if they themselves were flowers?

In all the theological impasses that I have come to, I have concluded in parallel with van Gogh that to describe real Christianity, one must start at that blade of grass in order to ascend to the heights of the Trinity itself. But to do this we must begin to see the world anew, to see it as if we were seeing it again for the first time. To paraphrase Maurice Merleau-Ponty, true theology, like true philosophy, is relearning to see the world through the eyes of a child and through the eyes of Christ.



2 responses

30 10 2009
Jonathan Prejean

As a patent attorney, I’m an arch-technocrat anyway, so it’s probably no surprise that I resemble this remark. But what you’re describing is why I always considered development of doctrine like bleach: it gets the dirt out at the cost of the color. On the other hand, I’m not sure how that could be avoided. Aren’t we supposed to want to get past all this? The Church is perfect, but ultimately, She is the perfect stopgap measure. All of the losses you describe seem to be a perpetual reminder that we aren’t meant for this world.

Maybe I’m just not the happy-clappy Vatican II type, but that whole “realized eschatology” never much resonated with me. Seriously, I always thought the point of actually having to learn dogma in this limited and rather painful manner was to reinforce that Heaven would be so much better. As my wife is fond of saying, “the world was never built to last.” We can only do so much, and in the end, it ends.

That goes for a lot of what we do in the Church as well. The point is to look past it. Or maybe I’ve just internalized too much of St. Augustine, and I’ve got too instrumental a view of creation, and my attitude is just a symptom of the whole Promethean problem. Presumably, that’s what those who describe the Divine Liturgy as Heaven on earth would say. In any case, I agree with your assessment of the trend, but I don’t think there’s anything that can reverse it.

29 10 2009

Thank you for reposting this essay.

This and “The Myth of Interiority” strike me as especially profound. They are very stirring. (They are exceptionally well crafted essays too.)

God bless.

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