Archive for June, 2012

Patterns of the Glory

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

You ask about art, specifically Christian art—more specifically yet, about the differences between traditional and modern forms of such art.

Are you familiar with The Saint John’s Bible? Commissioned in 1999 by the Benedictines of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and completed last year, it’s purported to be the first fully handwritten, fully illuminated Bible to be produced since the invention of the printing press.

Last fall I was invited by Colorado College to give a lecture on this Bible at the opening of a campus exhibition of prints from its pages. I posted the lecture, “Patterns of the Glory“, on my website, and I’ve also uploaded the extensive PowerPoint presentation I used, complete with audio. I think listening to this lecture and taking note of the various images I focus on, both traditional and modern, will be the best answer I can give to your question.

As you’ll discover, I devoted much of the lecture to the mystagogical significance and power of traditional Orthodox iconography, contrasting this power with the predictably demotic assumptions and subjectivism of modern and contemporary art—the form of art which, unfortunately, predominates in this Bible.

I tried to pull my punches. After all, I was lecturing to an audience of faculty and students at a college that had chosen to sponsor this exhibit, and of nuns from a nearby Benedictine convent. I saw no point in speaking too offensively! But having done my best to highlight some positive things about a few of the images, I have to say in all honesty that The Saint John’s Bible strikes me as a perfect example of everything Coomaraswamy, Guénon, and Schuon warn about in their writings on the art of modernity.

Just a note: The PowerPoint will work (and look) best if you click on “full screen” in the bottom right corner of the video and if you also click at the bottom on “change quality” and raise the resolution from 360p to 720p.

Losing Nothing, Gaining Everything

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

I agree wholeheartedly with what you say about the dangers of ecumenism. Though I’m on record as an “esoteric ecumenist”, I always try to make it quite clear in my writings that I remain opposed to most forms of contemporary interfaith dialogue, not only because of the “reductionism” you mention but also because of the participants’ soporific sentimentalism.

You don’t deny, you say, that God’s grace is bestowed universally, but you wish to contend that it acts “inwardly” only among Christians and “merely outwardly” when it comes to the adherents of other religions. I would be interested to know what criteria you propose to apply in testing this hypothesis. How would you go about assessing the difference between, say, the Muslim shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi (see Martin Lings’s Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century) and the Christian geronda Joseph the Hesychast? Your position reminds me of a chapter called “Is There a Natural Mysticism?” in Schuon’s book Gnosis: Divine Wisdom, where he calls attention to the “optical illusion” inescapably involved when we endeavor to measure the “degrees” of grace in another religion from the vantage point of our own. To use a memorable C. S. Lewis image: the telegraph pole we’re standing next to always appears larger than the other poles on down the line.

As for your claim that “perennialism as such is not found in the Fathers”, I completely agree. I would go even further and add that there are very few, if any, “classical” Christian writers of any period—Patristic, Medieval, or Modern—who provide explicit support for believing that “the Holy Spirit is salvifically operative in the sacraments of non-Christian religions” (to quote you again). Does this mean the “giants” of our tradition were themselves subject to this illusion of perspective? Perhaps. But if so, given the amount of information most of them had concerning other religions, they’re certainly not to be criticized for this limitation. And besides, as has been pointed out more than once by perennialist writers, religions are in the business of saving as many people as possible. Since the “many” tend to be deaf to metaphysical subtleties, I don’t see how one could, or should, expect anything else of a religion’s leading theological spokesmen.

In his Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition, Philip Sherrard—a fellow Orthodox perennialist, as you know—points out that “from the beginning there appear to be two different attitudes to the non-Christian world”: an “entirely negative attitude”, inherited from Judaism, and a “more positive attitude”, represented (as Sherrard sees it) by Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, Augustine, and others (see pp. 56-57). But even then, if one studies the passages from these latter authorities cited by Sherrard, it’s clear they were speaking only of pre-Christian traditions, and only of the breadth of God’s mercy in general.

I can therefore well appreciate your feelings of conflict on this matter, your sense of the danger involved in going against, or at least seeming to go against, the teachings of Orthodox Tradition. How can the perennialist be a “true believer”, you ask? I answer that question for myself in this way: I can be a true believer only by believing the Truth, wherever it might be manifest, whether in my religion or in another. There are simply too many Shaykh al-Alawis (Muslim and otherwise) for me to think that Christianity alone bears the fruit of great saints. My advice to you, however, given the obvious depth of your concerns, is to set the perennialist perspective aside and immerse yourself in the treasures of Orthodoxy. Genuine perennialists—as distinct from the pluralists who populate the interfaith symposia—would be the first to tell you that you’d be losing nothing, but standing to gain Everything.

In Praise of Refraction

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Religious authority comes in a wide variety of forms. There’s certainly something to be said for a propositional authority, if one might call it that: in short, a Magisterium. I realize that, as a Roman Catholic, this is your personal preference, and that the admitted messiness of Orthodoxy, with its various “jurisdictional” distinctions and overlaps—to say nothing of the multiple schools of law in Islam—leaves you unsatisfied, if not aghast!

It’s worth asking, however, whether God is quite so tidy in this respect as you may think. Propositions, beginning with those in the Bible itself and moving through creeds and papal bulls, can give the illusion of a security that’s not really there, because of course it finally can’t be there, in the face of an apophatically “incomprehensible God”.

I’m reminded—as is so often the case!—of a passage from C. S. Lewis. It appears in a chapter called “Scripture” in his book Reflections on the Psalms. He’s talking about the merely “human material” (including outright error) that’s undeniably to be found in the Bible, and of the ways in which God is nonetheless able to form it, messy though it is, in the working out of His revelation:

“To a human mind this sublimation (incomplete) of human material, seems, no doubt, an untidy and leaky vehicle. We might have expected, we may think we should have preferred, an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form—something we could have tabulated and memorized and relied on like the multiplication table. One can respect, and at moments envy, both the Fundamentalist’s view of the Bible and the Roman Catholic’s view of the Church. But there is one argument which we should beware of using for either position: God must have done what is best, this is best, therefore God has done this. For we are mortals and do not know what is best for us, and it is dangerous to prescribe what God must have done—especially when we cannot, for the life of us, see that He has after all done it.”

I’m reminded too of the Koranic verse: “Had God willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works. Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ” (5:48), and of this hadith of the Prophet Muhammad: “The divergence of opinion among my companions is a mercy.”