Lost in translation – II

11 01 2010

Pierre Hadot loses his religion

At this point, it would probably not come as any surprise that my favorite philosopher in the last five hundred years is an apostate Catholic priest. Pierre Hadot was born in 1922 to a Catholic family and entered minor seminary in his early teens. He advanced rapidly in his studies, having been put through the typical regimen of scholastic philosophy and militant Counter-Reformation piety in style at the time. He was ordained in the midst of the Second World War at the age of 22. Unlike others from his generation, he did not leave the priesthood in the wake of Vatican II, but preceded the mass exodus of men from the priesthood by about fifteen years. He abandoned his priestly vows and ultimately the faith in 1950 to run off with a woman who he would divorce twelve years later. His reflections on his Catholic upbringing and formation are predictably mixed, but the few times he speaks of them in his latest book to be translated into English, The Present Alone is Our Happiness, they are very perceptive in reading the mood of the Church in Europe before the Council.

Hadot’s portrayal of the Catholicism of his youth is one of a system of taboos and rituals that contained very little positive content. In this book of interviews, he speaks of visiting relatives at the border with Germany while wearing shorts, and how the “devout” Catholics of the place were scandalized by his inappropriate show of skin. Another cousin was refused Holy Communion at the altar rail just for having her hair short. He also shares how his parents were forbidden conjugal relations by the parish priest since the mother could no longer have children; therefore, the point of sex would have been worthless. Hadot thus describes his first “spiritual” experience as being one of purely “natural” mysticism. He explains:

It was an experience that was entirely foreign to Christianity. This seemed much more essential, much more fundamental than the experience I could have in Christianity, in the liturgy, in the religious offices. Christianity seemed to be tied to everyday banality.

In the tumult after World War II, while working in the parishes, the young Fr. Hadot ultimately succumbed to the spirit of the age, imbibing existentialism, the worker priests’ movements, and the various theological tendencies condemned in the encyclical, Humani Generis. His leaving the Catholic Faith did not seem at all a torturous process for him, and indeed, he seemed to fit right into the atmosphere of secularizing France, even getting notoriety as a scholar of Patristic Latin and Greek, and moving on to be one of the foremost philosophers of the late twentieth century.

There is one text in the book that seems to reflect Hadot’s thinking back on his experience in the Church. He says:

For a time I would sometimes attend religious ceremonies, but they always seemed rather artificial because, following the council of Vatican II, there were recited or sung in French. I was not opposed to the translation in principle, but it always seemed to reveal the immense distance between the world of the twentieth century and the mythical and stereotypical formulas of Christian liturgy – a distance that was sensed less when people did not understand what was being said. I believe that Henri-Charles Puech had the same impression I did when he told me with a big smile, “Jesus, God’s sheep”, alluding to the translation of the Agnus Dei. It was not the Latin that was incomprehensible, but the concepts and the images hidden behind Latin for centuries. (My emphasis)

When I read this, I knew that this is probably one of the most perceptive thoughts that I have encountered concerning the problem of religion in the modern world. For it is not just a problem of “God’s sheep” or “Lamb of God”, but it is the problem of words like “kingdom”, “lord”, “salvation”, “sin”, and “repentance”. The problem with Christian liturgy, and ultimately, Christian discourse, is that it was formed in a world where all of these terms meant something very specific and where the laws of cosmology functioned in radically different ways from our own current perceptions of the world. Religious forms prior to Vatican II had reached a point where they were perceived to have very little positive content, but were merely repeated like mantras. Pace all of the reformers of that time, no amount of catechesis could change this, since no amount of catechesis can change the objective conditions of the world in which we live. We have to deal with them, whether we like it or not.

The question of whether we use Latin in the liturgy is ultimately of little importance since even when translated, liturgy and Scripture on a fundamental level no longer make sense to modern man. Sure, we can try to extract dogma and morals from them like juice from an orange, but in the end, I fear, all we will get is an inverted, crypto-pious image of ourselves staring back at us. Some may call this: “inculturation”. Pardon me if I give it what I feel to be a more accurate name: “narcissism”.

What then will we have? I cannot think that we could have anything else but an individualistic religion based on our own tastes and “consumer decisions”. In places where religion is a hobby and not a necessity, people are going to continue to make religious choices based on personal preference. Whether or not we can reconstruct a culture of faith within this context is not a question that can be easily answered.

(In a post in the near future, I will actually write about the rest of this book from a “purely philosophical” standpoint.)



10 responses

12 01 2010
Dr. S. Petersen

You don’t know what a metaphor is. In a certain sense, all is metaphor because creation is a metaphor of God. The original art. and the comments show people seduced by the liberals’ promise of the pursuit of happiness–what’s in it for me? You say, for a people for whom religion is a hobby–that’s a people not suffering enough. Americans and, to a lesser extent, Westerners (the diaspora of Christendom) have become experts at avoiding suffering. They’re proud of it and want to export it (that expertise). They think the charming parts of the metaphor are its tenor. Which guy does God like better: the one whistling on the wall or the one suffering in darkness?

12 01 2010
Sister Moon

I’ve been really enjoying your blogs recently. I think it’s kind of providential this morning that I stumbled upon these talks by Fr. Groeschel. He reminds us of mystery. Listen to at least just the first one. It’s a little antidote to drinking Hadot “straight up.”


12 01 2010

“What makes us incapable of engaging the world on these enchanted terms?”

It’s mostly what we’ve come to depend on in everyday life. We have a different astronomy (“the heavens”) because we know now how to send a man to the moon. We have a very different idea of healing because we go to doctors. God was in the gaps but the gaps are getting smaller. The world isn’t *really* in our control but we have very different *specific* ideas about things because of what works. Not that our theoretical apparatus is all that much better/different than before. So we either have to blind ourselves to those things or go the metaphorical route.

I don’t know that it’s strength that has allowed us to wall off heaven. Nietzsche calls it “the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two thousand years of training in truthfulness”*. (i.e. the consequence of the ascetic ideal)

12 01 2010
The Shepherd

I wonder what is that makes us so different from people of the past. What makes us incapable of engaging the world on these enchanted terms? Technology, long life spans, high fructose corn syrup? Are we so strong that we can wall off Heaven?

12 01 2010
Arturo Vasquez

The reason we should care about Scripture and liturgy is because they both express the law of belief. While I do not obsess on-line abour the accoutrements and ceremonies of the liturgy, people will know that I have my tastes and vote with my feet concerning those tastes. But that is neither here nor there. In terms of finding out certain things, however, like what should I think of my homosexual or Presbyterian neighbor, Scripture is indeed important, if only viewed through the prism of the Church. So much for that.

This disconnect between the “primitive ontology” (Eliade) of the ancient past and our own time can be seen in many places in the liturgy itself. I think the starkest place that this manifests itself for me is in the ancient prefaces. As in the phrase, “Deum laudant Angeli, adorant Potestates: Coeli, Coelorumque Virtutes, ac beata Seraphim &c. incessabili voce proclamant”, or even in the simple phrase, “caeli ennarant gloriam Dei”, we are asserting that the heavens, all those stars up there, are indeed alive. This goes into a very complex vision of the universe portrayed in Aristotle and other ancient philosophers that things in lower spheres are moved by things in higher spheres. That does not make sense to us anymore, we do not perceive the heavens as a living thing. When we hear, “the heavens declare the glory of God”, we take it to be a metaphor, though it was not written as one. The problem is, if the Scripture can be metaphorical in that sense, what other creative metaphors can we come up with in order to explain things away? I believe the modernists and neo-modernists have already answered that question.

11 01 2010

I think I’ve had expereinces which point to truths like this.

For example, I didn’t know that I didn’t have the faintest idea of what a king was until I saw a solemn pontifical mass. Since then, I at least have some knowledge that kings are something I do not understand. Now I know that I don’t know what I’m saying when I refer to Christ the King.

11 01 2010

I’ve been reading Hadot for a while but have yet to pick up that book. Thanks for the pointer.

I also think we’re bound to the historical moment and attempts to escape it result in dishonesty.

11 01 2010
Andrea Elizabeth

As a former sola Scriptura person, and convert to Orthodoxy, I now look back on some of my close my eyes and point to verses to see how they applied to my individual situation, and see your point about narcissism. I believe, however, it is the Traditional Liturgy that corrects our point of view. I don’t think modern language can be solely blamed for a devolved context entirely, but I have the same problem with a western rite after-the-fact reconstruction of a LIturgy that had already departed from the orthodox one (I’m thinking about the Anglican BCP reconstructions). Not knowing that much about Vatican II changes, I wonder if some of the disconnect was because of those post-reformation alterations, and not just the translation from the Latin to the modern language. And to be even more speculative, perhaps when the Liturgy was in un-understandable Latin, people intuited a more correct communication. Or maybe they just heard what they wanted to hear.

11 01 2010

But you’re not even that compelled by Scripture or liturgy yourself, Arturo. So why are you even concerned?

11 01 2010


Excellent post. I have been thinking for some time of reading some Hadot, but don’t really know where to begin. The issue of the signs, symbols, and language of Christianity no longer making sense to modern minds is an important one. I am curious what you think of the sort of withdrawal from public modern life that someone like Fra Vincent McNabb advocated and whether you think it would have any sort of effect on the ability to comprehend the things strangest to the modern mind. I suppose that another way to phrase the question is to ask whether the mind can be reformed into some premodern cosmology later in life or if it is something that must be in place from youth.

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