Archive for January, 2008

Exciting the Germinal Power

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

“Bulverism”, as C. S. Lewis called it—that is, reductionism, of whatever kind—is indeed the bane of education these days, and at every level: from elementary school through graduate school.

I recently had occasion to interview a number of doctoral students for a couple of new faculty positions in my department, and with only two or three exceptions they seemed incapable of thinking about ideas as such. Had I needed yet another sad proof of what you say—that it’s “futile to try to reason with those who’ve been lulled into a hypnotic trance by the white noise of the post-modern era”—I would have found it in abundance.

“I used to think,” you write, “that we teachers were responsible for causing the atrophy of our students’ minds, but the more I learn, the more I see that the system itself is helping us kill our children’s souls.” As for what to do, and whether I think there’s any hope for the schools, my only response is to say that you’re the hope, and teachers like you.

No, I don’t believe there is any way of “remediating” or improving public education, or not at least by means of increased funding or some new “outcomes-based” policy, à la the recent “Spellings Report”. But this doesn’t mean you can’t continue to stand out from your colleagues. You’ve been doing this for seventeen years already: how many students must you have touched in that length of time, and how many more can you touch in the future? And how many of them might go on to become true teachers themselves, whether or not they work within the “professional” teaching establishment?

You know as well as I that the impact of real teaching can’t be measured or quantified—despite the efforts of university administrations, including mine, to pretend they can do so in order to protect their accreditation and secure federal monies. One day, one soul, one insight, one moment of illumination at a time. I’m reminded of Coleridge’s words about the aim of a genuinely e-ductive education and commend them to your prayerful reflection:

“Not to assist in storing the passive mind with the various sorts of knowledge most in request, as if the soul were a mere repository or banqueting-room, but to place it in such relations of circumstance as should gradually excite the germinal power that craves no knowledge but what it can take up into itself, what it can appropriate, and re-produce in fruits of its own” (The Friend, I. 473).

Responding to the Inquisition

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

You’re interested in what my response might be to the recent censure by the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of Peter Phan’s 2004 book Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue.

I confess I’ve not read the book; it surprises people sometimes when I say this, but I’m just not much interested in pluralism or interfaith dialogue, or not at least of the historicist sort one associates with Phan’s publisher, Orbis Books. I agree with Schuon (as usual) that such ventures too often end up as contests in which the participants vie with each other to see who is willing to give up the most in the way of traditional dogma, all for the sake of “getting along with each other”.

At any rate, in answering your question I suppose I could be somewhat flippant and say that my response is that I’m glad I’m not Catholic! I realize full well, of course, that most Orthodox authorities would be of the same mind as Catholics on the question of whether the Church is the “unique and universal instrument of salvation” (as the CDF document states)—though obviously they wouldn’t identify this saving Church with Rome. Nonetheless it’s also true, as you know, that the East is less insistent than the West on dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”, and this means, at least in my experience, that the perennialist position is more easily tolerated among Orthodox as a possible theologoumenon.

Let me emphasize, however, that a Christian perennialist like myself differs from this Father Phan in one extremely important way—or differs in any case from how the Congregation reportedly construed his position. If Phan does indeed claim that the terms “unique”, “absolute”, and “universal” in relation to the role of Christ as savior “have outlived their usefulness and should be jettisoned and replaced by other, theologically more adequate equivalents”, then my response is to say this is nonsense. Citing the declaration Dominus Jesus (2000), the Congregation insists that it’s inconsistent with a fully Christian faith to believe that Jesus is merely “one of many historical figures who manifest the infinite, the absolute, the ultimate mystery of God”, and I agree. For as the early Councils make clear, Jesus Christ is not in fact a merely “historical figure”; He is the uncreated and eternal Word, who though He was “in” the body was not “circumscribed” by that body (Saint Athanasius).

The real question is this: is one justified in claiming that the salvific presence and deifying operations of this Word are limited to those Gospel events that define Christianity as a specific religion? The perennialist thinks not, believing instead that we should assume Christ was telling us the truth when He said that He has “other sheep who are not of this fold” (John 10:16). As I point out near the end of my article on “Perennial Philosophy and Christianity“, it seems to me obvious that such a theologoumenon, far from narrowing or limiting the range of Christ’s saving work, broadens it immeasurably. As for what then happens to our understanding of Christian missions, you might take a look back at my weblog entry on that subject for 22 April 2007.

Words of a Fool

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

Your comments concerning the recent Martin Luther King, Jr Annual Service Day reminded me of an after-dinner talk I gave a few years ago for a chapter of the National Honor Society at a nearby Catholic school.

I agree that it’s almost impossible not to be thought a curmudgeon, or even misanthrope, for raising critical questions these days about the increasing emphasis schools and colleges are placing on a “service component”. Some are even making it a graduation requirement, and anyone expressing reservations on this score is typically greeted with self-righteous disbelief: “Don’t you care about people’s needs? Don’t you think our students should be encouraged to put others first?”

Obviously it’s not a question of caring. It’s a question of emphasis, of quantity, of priority. Too many of our students, especially the over-achievers, have been conned into thinking that they’re not really making the most of their college days unless they’re “involved”—a word than which few others are repeated more often by admissions and career services people—in at least a dozen different organizations.

I don’t know about your place, but at my university the top honors at the annual Awards Day always go to the young people who’ve been the most active—which of course sends a signal to the rest of them that there’s something second-rate about the contemplative life and that they too must pad their resumes with “activities” if they’re to have any hope of success.

In any case the little talk I mentioned above—I call it “Words of a Fool“—will speak to your question, and complaint, much better than I could hope to do here. Let me know what you think.

Ecclesiastical Egoism

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

How should you go about determining whether this group you’ve been looking into, the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America, has valid sacraments? Is it, you ask, primarily a matter of lineage?

There are doubtless other factors to consider, but this is certainly a good place to start. As you know from your doctoral work on Guénon, the sine qua non of any authentic tradition is the regularity of its sacramental transmission, whether this takes the form of the silsila of a Sufi shaykh, the apostolic succession of the Church, or—within the Church—the “golden chain” (as Saint Symeon the New Theologian calls it) that exists between Hesychast masters and their disciples.

In the case of this Orthodox-Catholic Church of America, however, what we have—according to their own information—is a group tracing its history to one Joseph Vilatte, a Presbyterian minister turned Roman Catholic layman, who was ordained an Old Catholic priest at the urging of an Episcopalian bishop in Wisconsin, and who was then consecrated in Sri Lanka as a bishop for the North American western rite diocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church (in 1892). Maybe I’m too suspicious, but this sounds pretty fishy to me! But it gets even worse….

In 1910, because the Syrian Patriarchate had “lost interest in the western rite”, Bishop Vilatte and Co. decided to go it alone, declaring themselves autocephalous, that is, self-governing—which fact, as they admit, was not recognized by the canonically Orthodox churches, and not surprisingly! A church can be granted autocephaly by a parent church, as happened when the Moscow Patriarchate gave self-governance to the Orthodox Church of America (not to be confused with this OCCA) in 1970; but no church can stake a claim to such status by some sort of unilateral decision.

He who chooses himself for a master has chosen a fool, it is said. Why? Whitall Perry provides an excellent answer:

“Freedom from self requires a method, and a method in turn means recourse to cosmic principles that transcend the limitations of the human individuality, which otherwise must find itself fighting fire with fire. For the self or ego exists by definition as a result of ignorance, and ignorance cannot overcome ignorance: ‘How can Satan cast out Satan?’ (Mark 3:23). It is true that ‘if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law’ (Gal. 5:18), but this reservation is for those who have already transcended the law; and if blind pride alone can make those under the law consider themselves above it, so will true humility have those rare ones who may in reality be above the law comport themselves in a manner exemplary to those still under it. ‘All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient’ (1 Cor. 10:23)” (A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom, 271).

We think of egoism, naturally, in connection with individuals, but there is also such a thing as collective egoism—or perhaps in this case we should call it ecclesiastical egoism—and its fruits are evident in this group, whose current practices, including the admission of women to holy orders and the consecration of “same-sex” marriages, are in flagrant violation of the canons of both the Orthodox and the Catholic churches, the pretentious claim implicit in their hyphenated nomenclature notwithstanding! It’s a puzzle to me why they don’t just become Episcopalians.

Orthodoxy after all is more than a name.

Consistency of Form

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

No, I wouldn’t change, and here’s why:

1. Every sacred formula, Christian or Muslim or otherwise, can begin to seem hollow or empty of meaning in the spiritual work; times of dryness are to be expected.

2. The Name ALLAH is of course, as you say, a perfectly acceptable Christian Name for God, used by Arabic speaking Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere.

3. Perseverance with a particular form is essential, however; frequent change is like shifting the position of two sticks that one is rubbing together to produce a flame.

4. “Feelings” are notoriously misleading; you should take to heart Schuon’s admonition, “Instead of being governed by phenomena or seeking inspirations we should submit to principles and accomplish actions; Heaven will not ask us what we have experienced but what we have done.”

5. Of course, if a given state of consciousness persists for some time, it may well be significant, but it would be quite illogical to draw any definitive conclusions from the fleeting hal you report.

6. My advice—given these brief observations—is therefore to continue using the Name you started with; it is enough to know that it conveys integral Truth, whether or not you may sense it so.

Tolkien the Traditionalist and Mystic

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

Tolkien was certainly a “traditionalist”, if by that term we mean a defender of things primordial, and therefore timeless, and hence a critic of the modern world—its philosophy, art, and politics. This is implicit in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, of course, but it’s also explicit in his hugely important article “On Fairy-Stories” (see Essays Presented to Charles Williams, edited by C. S. Lewis), where he argues that fantasy, of all forms of art, serves best to satisfy certain of man’s “primordial desires”, among them “to survey the depths of space and time” and “to hold communion with other living things” (44). Consider, as just one example, the following autobiographical passage from this excellent essay:

“Not long ago I heard a clerk of Oxenford declare that he ‘welcomed’ the proximity of mass-production robot factories and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought the university into ‘contact with real life’. He may have meant that the way men were living and working in the twentieth century was increasing in barbarity at an alarming rate, and that the loud demonstration of this in the streets of Oxford might serve as a warning that it is not possible to preserve for long an oasis of sanity in a desert of unreason by mere fences… I fear he did not. In any case the expression ‘real life’ in this context seems to fall short of academic standards. The notion that motor-cars are more ‘alive’ than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more ‘real’ than, say, horses is pathetically absurd. How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm-tree: poor obsolete thing, insubstantial dream of an escapist! (77).

It’s perfectly obvious that an author who looks at the world in this way would have sympathized with much in Guénon’s Reign of Quantity and would have read with understanding and delight the chapter “Fall and Forfeiture” in Schuon’s Light on the Ancient Worlds. But whether Tolkien actually did read these or other Traditionalist authorities I frankly doubt.

You are right, of course, that C. S. Lewis was introduced to Guénon by his student Martin Lings, but according to Lings Lewis was very much put off by what he found—especially by Guénon’s apparent disparagement of the ancient Greeks (excepting Plato), whom Lewis dearly loved—and his response to the books was severely negative, though I do admit (and have sometimes argued) that That Hideous Strength reflects an appreciative reading of The Reign of Quantity. Nonetheless I think it highly improbable that Lewis would have mentioned, or certainly recommended, Guénon to Tolkien, and I can’t imagine how otherwise Tolkien would have become aware of the Traditionalist School. I suspect the parallels you rightly note are owing simply to his being steeped in medieval language and literature.

Was Tolkien a mystic? I’m certainly intrigued by the evidence you offer from one of his students, Simonne D’Ardenne, whose question, “You broke through the veil, didn’t you?”, elicited the answer, “Yes, I did”—though I would wish to know more about the context of this exchange so as look more closely at the “veil” of which they were speaking. Be that as it may, I see no reason not to think that the “sub-creator” of Middle-Earth was simply being candid when he claimed that much of his writing was the result of “inspiration” and not “invention”, an inspiration that may well have led to his passing through a “door on Other Time” and thus to his being permitted at least a glimpse of something “outside Time itself” (to quote once more from “On Fairy-Stories” [57]).

Let us do remember, however, that a mystic is not, or not necessarily, a gnostic or jnanin, and a traditionalist, at least as I’ve used that word here, is not, or not necessarily, a perennialist. I’ve no doubt at all that Tolkien the traditional Catholic, who was more than a little scandalized by Charles Williams’s ideas, would have been even more horrified by the notion that there is more than one saving Path to the Summit.

Solvitur Ambulando

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

Not having read his Hermeneutics of the Subject, I was unaware of the way in which Foucault uses the terms metanoia and epistroph?. I assume he must be piggy-backing on Pierre Hadot’s excellent work (see my posts for 12 September and 15 September 2007). Foucault, you write, sees the two words as keys to two very different modes—or “technologies” (your term)—of transformation, with metanoia involving a sudden and violent change whereas epistroph? corresponds to a smoother and more natural process.

As you know, I don’t pretend to be a historian of philosophy or religious thought, and I therefore happily leave the arguments as to how various ideas about conversion may have “evolved” in ancient times, or regarding the senses in which a Plato, Paul, or Epictetus may have employed the Greek terminology, to those with such interests.

I do think it’s worth pointing out, however, that the Bible occasionally uses the words in tandem, suggesting that we should see the psychological and spiritual processes they denote as complementary and not opposed. In Acts 26:20, for example, we find the admonition: metanoein kai epistrephein epi ton theon, that is, “repent and turn to God”; or again, in Luke 17:4, Christ says, “If [your brother] sins against you seven times in a day, and turns [epistroph?] to you seven times and says, I repent [metano?], you must forgive him.” It seems to me Foucault is therefore going too far when he claims that the words represent a “permanent polarity within Western thought”.

Leaving something so large and unwieldy as “Western thought” to the specialists (!), I would simply observe as a matter of spiritual principle that any true transformation will necessarily include both a turning away from and a turning toward—a turning from the world to God, or from illusion to Truth, or from the self to the Self. If we can extrapolate from these two passages of Scripture, then perhaps it makes sense to assign metanoia to the first stage of the process and epistroph? to the second. If there is something more “violent” or negative about metanoia, it’s because it stands for a rejection of something; if on the other hand there is something more “natural” and positive about epistroph?, it’s because it stands for an affirmation of something.

The negative moment is necessary because God is transcendent, and the positive moment is possible because God is immanent … and let’s not forget that the two are One God. What Foucault places poles apart, and what I myself have distinguished as stages or phases, are finally—in the very midst of real transformation—advaitic dimensions of a single non-acting act. As the ancients said of Zeno’s paradox, Solvitur ambulando—”It is resolved by walking!”

A Defective Dante?

Friday, January 4th, 2008

I have a few inchoate ideas, but rather than attempting any sort of peremptory answer I’m going to put your query to the other readers of Anamn?sis. Perhaps an interesting observation or two will emerge, and then we can all compare notes. To be sure, it’s a provocative question you raise.

You wish to know whether—and if so how—A. K. Coomaraswamy escapes the charge of self-contradiction. On the one hand he writes that “Dante’s theory of art … is … essentially Scholastic”, but on the other hand he also says that “from the Scholastic and Indian point of view, any … reflection of the person of the artist in his work must be regarded as a defect” (The Transformation of Nature in Art [Dover, 1956], pp. 177, 178).

Dante’s person, even personality, seems central to his great Commedia. Are we to conclude that his poem is to that extent defective?

Provocations in Place of Answers

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

Warmest wishes for the New Year to you as well. Yes, I’m finally back, and grateful for your patience. December was a whirlwind of activity, and I’m afraid I ended up unconscionably behind on my email correspondence, and hence with nothing new to post here on Anamn?sis—even if I’d had the time to consider doing so!

My usual end-of-term schedule was complicated in large part by a trip to Zurich early in the month, where I participated in a series of panel discussions on “The Search for Religious Identity in a Postmodern Culture”, “Beauty and the Sacred in Music and Art”, and “The Divine Feminine in the Esoteric Teachings of Different Religions”. As you may remember from my post of 24 October 2007, these discussions were in conjunction with a week-long festival sponsored by Religio Musica Nova—”eine biennale fr spirituelle neue musik”, in the words of their website.

The festival concluded on December 8 with the premier of a new “universalist” setting of the traditional Latin Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, written by the British composer Sir John Tavener. Tavener and I were able to speak at some length one afternoon, mostly about Orthodoxy, perennialism, things Schuonian, and his years as a disciple of the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. The day after our conversation, however, the poor man was suddenly taken ill and missed hearing the premier of his own composition. But his Sollemnitas will also be performed in this country at Saint Thomas Church in New York on March 7, and God willing he will be able to attend.

In case you’re interested, I’ve posted the short article I was invited to write for the program book, “Provocations in Place of Answers”, here. Given the range of ideas I was obliged to address and the very small space I had to address them in, the result is considerably more elliptical than I prefer, with nearly every sentence crying out to be amplified. Even so I was happy as always to have the occasion to say a few words about the Blessed Virgin, however inadequate they might be. I pray this little piece will prove of some spiritual benefit.