In praise of religious mediocrity

11 03 2010

Just a couple of things:

The first is from the American Catholic blog. The basic “o tempora, o mores” stuff. One quote cited in the essay was from a Catholic Worker priest from 1947:

It is customary for some to take a rosy view [of American Catholic life]….basing their optimism on tables of statistics concerning the growth of the Catholic population, the income and resources of the Church, the number of communions, etc. But such a method of computation is very unreliable where spiritual realities are concerned. Were it of any value, we could compute the degree of religious fervor from the quantities of grease burnt in votive stands, and our optimism would soar to the very skies…[But] even in the case of those who are wholly faithful to the external obligations of religion, there is often little evidence, aside from their devotions, that they are living Christian lives. Large areas of their lives are wholly unilluminated by their faith. Their ideas, their attitudes, their views, on current affairs, their pleasure and recreations, their tastes in reading and entertainment, their love of luxury, comfort and bodily ease, their devotion to success, their desire of money, their social snobbishness, racial consciousness, nationalistic narrowness and prejudice, their bourgeois complacency and contempt of the poor: In all these things they are indistinguishable from the huge sickly mass of paganism which surrounds them.

One guy who I didn’t totally agree with wrote the following:

The 1940s priest you cite probably could have made a similar complaint in 1240. The great majority of common people are never going to completely look and act the part. They’re going to continue to hold vulgar opinions. Nothing can be done about this.

But when they actually do their devotions, when they actually do attend Mass, they continue to support and legitimize the Church as a social institution. When they don’t do the devotions and when they don’t go to Mass, the Church loses legitimacy, at least in the eyes of the rest of society. And that’s the difference between 1940 and today – the difference between a society in which the Church was strong, in which her influence was felt, in which her opinion was a thing to be reckoned with.

These are all ironic things to say, considering what has been in the news lately concerning scandal in the Vatican, etc. Taking into account that this is just typical “anti-clerical” slander, priests complaining that the laity isn’t fervent enough smacks of tremendous hypocrisy. Sometimes I think it would be best if the higher-ups just come out and say: “Look, we can’t live this stuff either. But it is still right, so give it the old college try!” Maybe that would at least make us look consistent.

The second thing comes via the Conservative Blog for Peace, and is an essay by Luke Timothy Johnson. Here is a little sample:

By so creatively fusing exoteric practice and esoteric passion, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam asserted that the deepest meaning of public practice was the transformation of the individual soul and the quest for the living God. Yet recent centuries have witnessed the steady diminution of the esoteric in these traditions. Bit by bit Christianity has succumbed to the worldview of modernity, which rejects and even ridicules the notion that a life of renunciation can be a pilgrimage toward God. With the collapse of a miracle-saturated world comes the loss of a robust sense of future life counterbalancing our present “Vale of Tears.” In the eyes of modernity, the very concept of self-renunciation appears as a form of psychopathology. The late “turn to the world” of a Thomas Merton, for instance, is celebrated precisely because it privileges the active over the contemplative, the political engagement over the monastic retreat.

Contemplative houses barely maintain their existence; religious orders must have an “apostolate” conceived in expressly social terms. The marginalization of the mystical within Christianity reaches its epitome in movements like the social gospel or liberation theology, for which the esoteric life of the mystic is at best a form of self-indulgence and at worst counterrevolutionary.

It’s funny, because this reminds me of things that Archbishop Lefebvre said about how the only way that the Church would revive again in the West is if the contemplative religious orders were revived. The other tone expressed by the essay was a bit questionable. On the one hand, the author criticizes the “Sufism popularized by Idries Shah (1924–96) and Inayat Khan (1882–1927) [as] a form of mind-mastery divorced from the Qur’an and Hadith”, yet on the other hand expresses things like:

A system of law unconnected to inner piety is simply an instrument of social control, a form of politics pure and simple. Whether it be an Islamic court issuing a Fatwah to punish someone who has insulted the Prophet, or the Vatican removing a theologian from a university faculty on suspicion of an inadequate Christology, the point is the same: control exercised through coercive force rather than through instruction, exhortation, and example.

This is why I distrust any concept of “mysticism” in the modern context. There always arises a separation between “mysticism” and law, mysticism and “exoteric” practice, that it makes it hard to believe that any thirst for “mysticism” in the modern world isn’t just some lightly spiritualized attempt at bourgeois self-improvement. Someone who can’t see the difference between a Shia mullah issuing a fatwah and a chic theologian being silenced while being allowed to keep his cushy teaching chair at a university needs to have his head examined.

On the other hand, the whole “religion isn’t interiorized enough” line has been used so much that it has become cliché. If only we were more fervent, if only we “assented” more, if only we had a better (sex? professional? personal?, oh wait…) spiritual life, religion would be in a lot better shape… There is only a hair’s-breadth distance between this sentiment and the “I’m spiritual, but not religious” crowd.

Personally, I have only found “mysticism” fruitful when it manifests itself in popular cultural forms. St. John of the Cross only makes sense in a procession of the Crucified Christ through the streets. The teachings of a Sufi master only really come to life when a chorus of cross-dressing male prostitutes dances in front of his tomb on a hot night in Pakistan. The metaphysical vertigo of Hindu metaphysics is only tamed in the bhajan or kirtan that can seem more like “entertainment” than prayer. Otherwise, all of these things are just the playthings of a self-absorbed literati. And, pardon my French, who gives a shit what they think?



2 responses

13 03 2010

We’ve always had great scandals but dealt with them effectively when they occured: trials and executions.

In a way, the Renaissance was part of the problem. The Jesuits harnessed the humanism to the philosophia perennis and driven by the increasingly commercial atmosphere of early modern Europe, drove ships upon the waves for distant India where they could be refreshingly single-minded about winning converts from among the Barbarous Hindus, because God’s providence forsaw that the unworthy multidudes needed to be saved.

It really doesn’t matter how bad things get, because things were pretty bad in the 8th Century too, and you’re being watched and evaluated right now. Will you despair like so many do?

If it were up to me, I’d say that I’d like the Hindu Artemis up there to pursue the priest from 1947 through the circles of Hell, so he can enjoy all of the torments Hell has to offer.

11 03 2010
Joe Hargrave

I am “that guy” you didn’t totally agree with.

I am curious; what is it I said that you don’t agree with? The scandals in the Vatican today play a big role in the loss of legitimacy for the Church, to be sure; but there is a sort of feedback loop. There is a scandal, then, people turn away from the Church. They stop doing their devotions and going to Mass, and this in turn says to the rest of society that Catholicism is dying. Then there is another scandal and it all begins again.

This isn’t unprecedented – how did we get the Deformation? Er, I mean, of course, Reformation? Partially because great scandals weakened the Church even then. The problem then, as now, is that people think the theology is to blame when it is really just the institution. Perhaps new rules and new methods of accountability are in order.

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