Saturday, 19 December 2015

Of Hell and Hell Fire, a Mystic Reflection

Fathers and teachers, I ponder, "what is hell?" I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. Once in infinite existence, immeasurable in time and space, a spiritual creature was given on his coming to earth the power of saying, "I am and I am love." Once, only once, there was given him a moment of active living love, and for that was earthly life given him, and with it times and seasons. And that happy creature rejected the priceless gift, prized it and loved it not, scorned it and remained callous. Such a one having left the earth, sees Abraham's bosom and talks with Abraham as we are told in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and beholds heaven and can go up to the Lord. But that is just his torment, to rise up to the Lord without ever having loved, to be brought close to those who have loved when he has despised their love. For he sees clearly and says to himself, "Now I have understanding, and though I now thirst to love, there will be nothing great, no sacrifice in my love, for my earthly life is over, and Abraham will not come even with a drop of living water (that is the gift of earthly active life) to cool the fiery thirst of spiritual love which burns in me now, though I despised it on earth: there is no more life for me and will be no more time! Even though I would gladly give my life for others, it can never be, for that life is passed which can be sacrificed for love, and now there is a gulf fixed between that life and this existence."
From 'The Russian Monk'; Book VI of the Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A friend of mine recently told me of the deep sense of gratitude he experienced in relation to the actions of doctors and nurses who cared for his daughter when she had an illness. When he reflected on this he realised that it was possible to experience greater depths of thankfulness than he had previously imagined, or perhaps it was something in the nature of the gratitude he felt which seemed an almost numinous response to a gift he was powerless to give himself. After all the word gratitude stems from gratis, free.

In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien mentions that one of the purposes of fantasy is refreshment, to remake the world anew, so that it can offer itself back to you as the gift that it is, freed from the shackles of your own weariness of perception.

And thus fantasy, in essence myth, has a great moral element - it can enable us to see the world as gift and thus put us in right relation to the giver. And if we are also of the giver then we must be gift also, for others. A great sense of gratitude can pervade us when we really understand this, and also a great zeal to pour ourselves out for others, to be like the giver ourselves. If, like the rich man, we go through life not understanding this, how great a sadness that will be.

Of Maps Old and New Part Two

Charles Salvo posts that it is not possible for moderns to be naively and unconsciously 'Traditional', comparing the retro tastes of the modern hipster who opts for vinyl, pipe and formalwear to our own predicament:

"The millenial is acting ironically. He makes a conscious decision to reject the contemporary option; it is not a habit, but rather an acquired taste.

We are in an analogous position. The world of our fathers no longer exists, so we can't absorb that worldview automatically without thinking about it much. Quite the contrary, we are faced with a choice since the worldview of the modern world totally surrounds us. Hence, we can no longer be naive, but rather we need to know exactly why we adopt one worldview while rejecting its alternatives.

For the innocent man, the will follows the intellect which was formed by family, society and church. The man of experience needs to consciously create."

In my last post, I tried to articulate some of the issues surrounding the choice of worldviews, or maps, but only hinted at why someone might reject the modern map (or maps), and adopt an alternative 'traditional' one. Of course the classic study on this is A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, in which he brings out the character of some of the different versions of these worldviews.

I mentioned the book The Gentle Traditionalist by Roger Buck, which articulates the argument for the orthodox Catholic worldview beautifully. But one major stumbling block that some may have with this is just that problem discussed above - that people like myself and Roger Buck are really just 'spiritual hipsters', choosing an outdated and retrogressive worldview just because it goes against the mainstream - we're just trying to be cool!

The 'turn inwards' is the problem here. In declaring the world dangerous and pagan, and advocating a return to a monasticism and asceticism in Catholic communities which homeschool etc., the Benedict Option could tend towards a world-denying gnosticism, which would be to ignore the fact that, as the article above says, being Catholic is always a 'being-for-the-world'. 

So the spectre of the gnostic heresy still haunts the Christian - it is the subtlest error to fall into. The only way to guard against it is to remember Christ's injunction to take up your cross and follow Him. And He will always lead you out of yourself and towards the other. That's when you realise your cross is also the cross of others.

Edit: Roger Buck has pointed out that whilst the Christian life should be oriented towards the other, some are called to live apart from the world, and even those who work in the world need solitude in order to pray. The exemplar here is Christ who went away into the lonely places in order to pray, but the monastic element of Christianity has been fundamental to it. Valentin Tomberg said "Just as a fish needs water to breathe, so the monk needs the solitude of the cell".

Equally, the image on my post perhaps shows the absurdity of thinking you can change a culture from within; being in the world but not of it is the phrase that is usually used to describe the attitude I would want to emulate.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Old and New Maps

The map is not the terrain.

But, the map is essential to negotiate the terrain. Given that no map can include everything, or it wouldn't be a map, some judgement would have to be made about what should go on it and what should be left off.

That judgement can often be to a large extent determined by the largely unconscious attitudes of the culture within which it is made.

F E Schumacher, in A Guide for the Perplexed, recounts the experience when in Leningrad, of looking for churches which he could see in front of him, but were not on his map. The authorities did not include 'living churches' on the map, only ones which had become museums. He likens this to the maps of life and knowledge given him at school and university which had virtually nothing on them of the things that seemed to him of the greatest importance to the conduct of his life. He began to suspect the soundness of the maps. 

The claim (is it even that? More an assumption) that all the maps made post-1968, or 1917, or 1789 are better by virtue of being more complete, or more faithful representations of reality, or having fewer errors than the old maps, is so widespread and accepted as to be a truism. But this could only be true if it were possible for maps to completely correspond to reality at some future point. But this is never possible; we have already seen that every map relies on a judgement of what should and should not be included. 

So no map just is the terrain, all maps are a symbolic way of describing the terrain, which will vary depending on what you want to achieve in that terrain. If you just want to get across it in as quick a time as possible, then your map is going to look very different from someone who wanted to spend time walking and enjoying scenic spots in it.

It is possible here to say: Yes, these maps do rely on judgements, but our judgements are more rational, they have greater warrant than the judgements that created the old maps. At this point we have come to a metaphysical claim, because such judgements can never be based solely on empirical observation. They are obviously prior to such observation.

If this point can be admitted by the modern 'secular' mind (which I have found it very rarely able to do), then usually the move is made to point to the peculiarly effective predictive power and usefulness of the modern map. And there is little doubt that many of the advances in material conditions of life for millions around the world, in medicine and in fairer conditions of living can fairly be said to be based on the effectiveness of the modern map.

But actually this tells us nothing about whether the judgement, the frame of reference within which the facts are embedded, is coherent or superior to the older frame of reference. All it tells us is that we have devised a map which, by narrowing its focus, and excluding many things which once were thought necessary to be included, and by a general process of flattening, has brought a kind of intense ability to predict and alter material conditions.

Indeed, the key feature of such a map is that its very effectiveness in this material direction creates a kind of inability on the part of the map-reader to perceive that they are actually using a map, and a belief that they are just negotiating reality 'as it is', neutrally, with no need for anything else.  

Actually, that 'neutral' map-that-is-no-map is aimed at getting us to some fairly specific places quickly. As such, it can say with Laplace: "God? We have no need of that hypothesis." 

Which brings me to the story told in Roger Buck's book, The Gentle Traditionalist. The book is a dialogue between two people with different maps, and as such is an excellent imaginative exposition of what I have been trying to say here, as well as so much more. 

In the book, we are shown the poverty and incoherence of much of the 'Enlightenment' map, and given a tour of the richness of the traditional map. We are treated to some great moments, one of my favourites being a visit from Rigid Dorkins, and his encounter with the Gentle Traditionalist, who ends up reciting 'St. Patrick's Breastplate' (a prayer for spiritual protection) to heal a 'breach' resulting from the visit!

It really is through stories like this that justice can be done to the truth of the old maps. Tolkien, Belloc and Chesterton knew this, so does Roger Buck!

I'll finish with a quick story of my own - I am teaching the topic Myth and Symbol to my A Level class and I was trying to explain that whilst myth did not necessarily convey facts, it still conveyed 'truths' at some level. I explained that poetry and prose did something similar, and that great truths could be learnt about human nature through the study of literature. I had thought this uncontroversial, but some students thought I was wrong, and that no 'truth' could be conveyed in this way. They were not to be persuaded through much argument. This alone should be evidence enough of the power of the modern map-that-is-no-map.

Edit: I perhaps should say that the student thought that stories, myths and poetry could be meaningful, but unless they contained facts they could not convey truths! I could say many things to this but I think this image is eloquent:

Monday, 7 December 2015

Stepping out of the Night

What is Advent? Many answers can be given. We can grumble and say that it is nothing but a pretext for hectic activity and commercialism, prettified with sentimental cliches in which people stopped believing ages ago. In many cases this may be true, but it is not the whole picture. 
We can say the reverse, that Advent is a time when, in the midst of an unbelieving world, something of the luminous quality of this lost faith is still perceptible, like a visual echo. Just as stars are visible long after they have become extinct, since their erstwhile light is still on its way to us, so this mystery frequently offers some warmth and hope even to those who are no longer able to believe in it.
We can say that Advent is a time when old customs live again, for instance, in the singing of carols that takes place all over the country. In the melodies and words of these carols, something of the simplicity, imagination and glad strength of the faith of our forefathers makes itself heard in our age, bringing consolation and encouraging us to have another go at that faith which could make people so glad in such hard times.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Seek That Which Is Above

One evening last week I went to the local supermarket with my family. As we walked in we could hear the sound of carol singers, the local Rotary Club, who do it every year. My daughter pulled me over to them, intrigued by the singing. We sat down at a table to listen, and I was handed a pamphlet by one of the singers and invited to join in as they sang Hark The Herald Angels Sing.

As we sang I became aware of the song as something wonderfully, unapologetically subversive and incongruous in those surroundings. The lyrics lay it on thick:

Christ, by highest heav'n adored:
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the favoured one.
Veil'd in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail, th'incarnate Deity

and later

Hail! the heav'n born Prince of peace!
Hail! the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

The 'glad strength of the faith of our forefathers' came through to me as I sang, and I allowed the full cognitive dissonance of the situation to hit home - the scandal of God made flesh, the unveiled theophany of the Godhead, on a Tuesday evening in a Waitrose in Surrey.

When another, deeper reality breaks through into the transience and paleness of this world, it brings consolation and awakens the memory of the heart which looks to the star of hope. This advent, it is good to clear away extraneous things, so that you may listen more clearly with the ears of the heart.