Archive for April, 2008

Guenonian Complicity in Christian Confusion

Monday, April 21st, 2008

I’m happy to hear you’ve worked out a modus vivendi for yourself. I hoped you would not have to break with this community since it was evident from your earlier messages how valuable the friendship of the monks has become to you. In any case, you seem to have learned a crucial lesson about the importance of circumspection when dealing with the exoteric mentality. In conversations with serious, traditional Christians, it’s often best not to mention the “transcendent unity of religions” until and unless your interlocutor takes the initiative!

I’m struck, however, by what you say concerning the source of the abbot’s ambivalent attitude toward the perennialist school—an attitude that can be traced, you say, to Father Seraphim Rose and thence to the works of René Guénon. I think you would be interested in a letter of Father Seraphim’s to “a young seeker”, a copy of which was given me a number of years ago by Father Damascene Christensen. I don’t recall whether he included this letter in Not of This World, his biography of Father Seraphim, but the following passage is obviously pertinent in light of your comment:

“I look back fondly now on René Guénon as my first real instructor in Truth, and I only pray that you will take what is good from him and not let his limitations chain you.”

Unfortunately, it appears from your description that the abbot, like Father Seraphim before him, has in fact become “chained” and has ended up, ironically, sharing something of Guénon’s shrillness, though directed in this case against the perennialists themselves as “symptoms” of the modern world—quod absit! Reading more Schuon would have certainly brought these men into touch with a much subtler mind, one with which they might have discovered a greater affinity and one which in turn might have resulted in their having a more comprehensive Orthodox outlook.

Schuon himself speaks to this issue:

“Guénon was like the personification, not of spirituality as such, but solely of metaphysical certainty; or of metaphysical self-evidence in mathematical mode, which explains the abstract and mathematical nature of his doctrine, and also—indirectly and having in mind the absence of compensatory factors—certain traits of character. No doubt he had the right to be ‘one-sided’, but this constitution did not go well with the wide scope of his mission; he was neither a psychologist nor an aesthetician—in the best sense of these terms; in other words he underestimated aesthetic and moral values, especially in relation to their spiritual functions” (René Guénon: Some Observations [Sophia Perennis, 2004], pp. 7-8).

It would of course be a mistake to suppose that Orthodox readers of Guénon are alone in having been misled by his “limitations”. No less a figure than C. S. Lewis was in precisely this category, though Lewis himself was anything but “one-sided” and never displayed anything like Father Seraphim’s later hostility to perennialism Nonetheless he was certainly put off by Guénon’s sometimes overly schematic simplifications, as evidenced by the following remarks Martin Lings was once kind enough to share with me. Describing his friendship with Lewis, who had been his teacher at Oxford, Lings recalls:

“I knew [Lewis] well … between 1930 and 1936. It was in the middle thirties that I began to read Guénon, who, as it were, came between me and Lewis. I had already acquired from Lewis a respect for the Middle Ages, and in particular he had impressed on me the traditional distinction between intellectus and ratio, which, since Boethius, had dominated the pre-Renaissance European outlook. But Guénon’s writings on Hinduism and, by extension, on Sufism, Taoism, and Christian mysticism were like a revelation to me. Quite overwhelmed but relatively young and ingenuous, I expected others to be overwhelmed…. But Lewis was not. He appreciated some things here and there; but whereas I had extracted the essential and was prepared to overlook the short-comings, insofar as I noticed them, Lewis came into head-on collision with these. For example, Guénon’s failure to do justice to the Greeks was a great stumbling-block for C.S.L.”

Lings concluded his letter to me by underscoring my comment above: “As to Schuon’s books, they would certainly have appealed to Lewis more than Guénon’s.”

On Spiritual Styles

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

I agree there are different spiritual “styles”—though I’m not terribly keen on that word—ranging along a spectrum between the combative and the contented, if one might put it this way. But they are by no means exclusive; everyone needs to make use of both, sometimes successively and sometimes simultaneously. I’ve quoted Philippians 2:12-13 before, but it’s worth quoting again: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” writes Saint Paul, thus giving support to the spiritual warriors; “for God is at work within you, to will and to do His good pleasure”, thus giving support to those who are looking for consolation and peace.

So do we have to fight or do we simply repose in a victory that’s already won? Yes—both! It’s not an either/or situation. We should firmly believe everything depends on God while vigorously acting as though everything depends on us—a case, I suppose, of “not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3). For it’s only by acting, struggling, as if our spiritual life depended on it that we may finally come to the place where we realize “all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well” (Dame Julian of Norwich).

Or consider what Schuon says on this score:

“All great spiritual experiences agree in this: there is no common measure between the means put into operation and the result. ‘With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,’ says the Gospel. In fact, what separates man from divine Reality is but a thin partition: God is infinitely close to man, but man is infinitely far from God. This partition, for man, is a mountain; man stands in front of a mountain, which he must remove with his own hands. He digs away the earth, but in vain, the mountain remains; man however goes on digging, in the name of God. And the mountain vanishes. It was never there” (Stations of Wisdom).

One final observation. For those like you with an especially anxious sort of disposition—who can’t seem to sit still but must always be doing, doing, doing, lest the world fall apart without them—the real “fight” may be to stop fighting. Which is what I had in mind above in speaking of simultaneity and which, let it be said, is considerably easier said than done!

Garments of Skin

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

You inquired about the Patristic idea that the “garments of skins” (Gen. 3:21) God made for Adam and Eve were not merely the furry hides of some animals, but in fact physical bodies, their supralapsarian forms having been of a spiritual, or at least more rarified, order. One of the best studies of this question I know of can be found in Deification in Christ by Panayiotis Nellas (St Vladimir’s, 1987), notably in a section entitled “The ‘Garments of Skin'”.

A number of Fathers interpreted the text along these lines, among them Saints Gregory of Nyssa and Maximos the Confessor. Saint Gregory, for example, has this to say:

“When I hear the word ‘skin’ it conveys to me the form of irrational nature, with which, having become familiar with passion, we have been clothed. It is those things which man took in addition from irrational skin: sexual union, conception, birth, pollution, the nipple, food, excretion, gradual growth to full stature, adult life, old age, sickness, death” (On the Soul and Resurrection).

Understood thus, the “garments of skin” are obviously our own present bodies, subject as they are to disease, degeneration, and death. As for those who may object that this interpretation conflicts with the doctrine of the Resurrection, they need to consult the following passage in the writings of Saint Paul: “As we have borne the image of the earthly, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption” (1 Cor. 15:49-50).

Keep in mind, Christ being our model, that a “spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44) can walk through locked doors (John 20:19).

Independent Sages

Saturday, April 5th, 2008

You ask about “independent sages”. The only person I can think of whom the perennialist authorities would regard as a genuine master, but who seems to have been unaffiliated with any revealed tradition, is Plotinus. One recalls his response to Porphyry’s suggestion that he attend a Christian liturgy, since there would be angels there: “It is not for me to go to those beings, but for those beings to come to me!” He, and perhaps a very few others, are exceptions that prove the rule.

Though one must of course grant that such a possibility exists in principle, it is nonetheless obvious that a man is a fool if he refuses to take advantage of the sacramental protection of an orthodox tradition on the grounds that he might himself be among so selective a group. Those who suppose themselves the equals of a Plotinus, with angels running up and down the ladder of their being, would be well advised to ponder Schuon’s admonition: “Metaphysical intuition alone does not prevent titantic falls.”

It is one thing to have glimpsed certain truths, and even to be able to convey them to others; it is something altogether different to be wholly transformed by these truths—to know That Which is by virtue of having become That which knows. Don’t make the mistake of equating a planimetric understanding with a truly global realization.