Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The beginning of Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the season of preparation for Easter on Sunday, 5 April 2015.

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou
hast made and dost forgive the sins of all them who are
penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts,
that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our
wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ thy son our
Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(The Ash Wednesday Collect from the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham)

Monday, 9 February 2015

The cat is on the mat. God is in heaven.

This is going to be one of those 'not quite sure where I'm going on this' ones...

I was flipping through Mark Atherton's Teach Yourself Old English yesterday (don't ask!) when I came across the catchily title Old English poem, Maxims II. (Modern English translation here.) The bit that attracted my attention was this:

A king must be in the hall, bestowing rings
A bear belongs on the heath, old and awe-inspiring. 
A river from the hills must flow flood-gray.
An army must be united, a troop of triumph-tough men. 
Honor must be in an earl; morals, in a man. 
In this world, the woods must bloom with blossoms. 
An embankment must stand green on earth. 
God must be in heaven, judger of deeds. 
A door is necessary for a hall, the wide mouth of the building.

And so on...

Now the point that struck me was that God and his place (heaven) is simply dropped into a long list of things in their own appropriate place: God is just (unselfconsciously) part of a list of things

This is (we are told) rank heresy. Perhaps more importantly, it is the sort of thing that a lot of post-modernist theology needs to save us from: that supreme Devil, the modernist heresy. To quote Phillip Blond:

..a world where an account of nature can be given independently of an account of God is for theology a wholly idolatrous domain. Furthermore, this situation appears thoroughly analogous to that of Duns Scotus, who first initiated the thinking that held that an account of God's presence in nature required a prior account of an ontology without God. 

(from the introduction to Post-Secular Philosophy, p.40).

Now, I don't think it will be a surprise to regular readers of this blog that I am rather unsympathetic to Blond's position. (At least to the extent that I can understand it.) The mention of Scotus allows me to link to The Smithy's Radical Orthodoxy and the Underpants Gnomes which is always worth a recommendation. But the general point that Blond is making here is that bad Scotus started the bad modernist habit of setting up a science of Being that then found God within it, rather than doing the proper thing of putting God first and then analysing Being as dependent on him. In case this all sounds a little abstract, the cash value of such a critique appears to be that Christians shouldn't be ashamed of using a thoroughly theological language in the critique of the world, rather than trying to use a secularized language in which God is bracketed out and then (if at all) slotted in as an afterthought.

Which -bad secularized modernist trait- is precisely what seems to be happening in Maxims II. (Eleventh century.) 

Now, of course, this is hardly a knock out blow to Radical Orthodoxy et al. For a start, it's clear that, seeing God as just one more thing in the world is an error: God ain't just a nicer Thor. (See this post for more.) So there is something more that needs to be said to the reader of Maxims II to clear up any misunderstandings that might have resulted. And of course it's perfectly possible that this or that document -although produced in a Christian society- may prove idolatrous or just mistaken. Moreover, even if this 'idolatrous' aspect were found in a poem preceding Scotus, that wouldn't prove that as a matter of philosophy or theology (call it 'abstract university thinking' if you will) it wasn't Scotus (or perhaps Suarez or Wolff or whoever) who started the whole business of secularization there, even if a tendency can be noted elsewhere even earlier.

But. But. When I read in the excellent Artur Rosman's blog (and let me give him a permanent recommendation: he's well worth reading regularly for his engagement with the deeper regions of modern Catholic thought) that the post modern slides into the pre-modern, I can't help think back to the Saxon with his bears and his shield and his rings -and his God. I understand the Saxon's world view. I understand Plato's worldview when he slots God into the Timaeus as one of the three things which make the universe. Is it adequate? No, of course, not: neither on simply philosophical grounds (does anyone think -atheist or theist- that Plato said the last word?) let alone Christian, theological ones.

But when I turn to much post modern theology, I find I have little idea what's happening. (I remember picking up Post-Secular Philosophy back in 1998, flipping through it and putting it back in disgust at the verbiage. I have read much of it since then, but re-reading parts of the introduction just now frankly revived that nausea.) I recognize the rhythms and vocabulary of Lacan or Derrida or Butler, and worry that (quite a lot of the time) there is an existential secularization implicit in the methodology: that rather than referring one's judgments to the Church, one refers the Church to (almost invariably) non-Catholic thinkers. And, in the concrete, that results in an endorsement of same sex partnerships by Blond and his non-Catholicism, whilst (in the case of Tina Beattie) it results in, well, all sorts of (let's say) feminist dissent.

I started by saying I wasn't sure where I was going with this. Well, let's conclude with where I think I've wound up. I don't know what a pre-modern or a modern view is, let alone a post modern view, certainly when it comes to ontology. The idea that there is some great rupture between how (eg) Plato thinks and how we should think is, I suspect, nonsense. The idea that some hapless theologian like Scotus or Occam or Suarez, by a mere slip of the concept, made the modern world is also nonsense. The (pre-modern) Weltanschauung of the Maxims II is more recognizable to me than Phillip Blond's.

And so to finish, let's have that oh-so-famous account from Bede of Edwin's conversion. It is, of course, pre-modern, and therefore completely incomprehensible to the modern understanding of rationality and a Lebenswelt where the Christian God is bracketed out:

This present life of men on earth, in comparison to the time that is unknown to us, is as if you sit with your ealdormen and theigns in the wintertime, and the fire is kindled and the hall warmed, and it should rain and snow and storm outside. There should come a sparrow and it swiftly through-flies that house, comes in through one door and out the other departs. But watch.  In the time that he is inside he is not touched by the storms of winter; but that is the blink of an eye, and the least interval, and he immediately from the winter, into the winter returns. Thus then men’s lives appear as a brief interval; what should there precede, or what should follow after, we do not know. Therefore if this new lore should bring us anything more certain and more suitable, it is worthy that we should follow it.

(Translated by A. L. Reynolds here. With amendments.)

I am so modern, I'm pre-modern.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Walker Percy, Biederkeit and phonies.

I've just emerged from a Walker Percy binge. (I've also just emerged from a William Shatner TekWars binge but the less said about that the better, perhaps.)

I hadn't read any Percy since my early twenties or perhaps even late teens, certainly before I became a Catholic. As one of the key Catholic novelists of the twentieth century, certainly in English, I thought it was probably about time to return to him and read the complete corpus. Doing that brought back, viscerally, the memory of dislocation: of reading a novel which to some extent embodies the alienated scratchiness of adolescent life. Which I suspect is not an uncommon experience for bookish youth: feeling alienated and somewhat out of joint with life, one reads a book which both describes and also provokes further feelings of alienation. I'm left with the feeling that Percy lacks in katharsis: one does not see a way out of the scratchiness, unlike (eg) Dostoyevsky who offers -at least as a vision in the distance- a promise of finding oneself at home with a wife, the Church and Russia.

Much of the sixties counterculture, and indeed, much of the specifically Catholic sixties counterculture which lives on in The Tablet and among 'the progressives', seems to be a reaction to dumb conventionality: the world of 1950s sitcoms or soccer moms. This is very much Percy's shtick: how, in an America which ticks all the boxes of material comfort and respectable advice, you can still feel like an animal caught in a trap and gnawing off your own leg. The crass end of this line of thought is Holden Caulfield's ranting against 'phonies' in The Catcher in the Rye: the sense that adults around you are living a hollowed out life of quiet desperation which they try to fill by a compensatory desire to control and punish others.

All good and true in its way. It is an important lesson. When my older children came back from university at Christmas, I found myself entering into those conversations about love and work that took me back to that adolescence. And I found myself uttering my standard line which is that a rich and fulfilling life depends on getting three things right: marriage and children, work and God. Good advice: I wish someone had said the same to me so explicitly. But in saying it, one catches the echo of Polonius in one's tone: the platitudinous, the old being out of touch with the young, the 'phony'. Part of the problem is the concrete: it's all very well saying that a good marriage is central to the good life (and it is unless you have a specific vocation to celibacy), but how does that help out the concrete detail? The unavoidable awfulness of trying to find a girlfriend or a boyfriend; the negotiation of a modern economy which breaks open families and crushes female fertility; the absence of any public language where this can be discussed, certainly, when you are twenty and most eligible partners (and indeed yourself) are heavily secularised. (But Polonius waves his hands: he has no idea what to say, but goes on saying anyway.)

The worst thing is that, for me anyway, it all worked out pretty well. I married someone whom I still adore and who, for some inexplicable reason, seems reasonably happy with me. We have delightful children whom I love. Work is purposeful and stimulating. Not much the result of my actions: blind, dumb luck or grace for the most part. But then we get back to Percy and alienation: however good the surface, however good even the substance, there is something wrong. 'Aber etwas fehlt...' Something is lacking...

The lesson from this...? Well, one of the lessons not to be taken is that the external doesn't matter. The 'progressive' wing of the Church and of society in general while noticing the slough of despond that exists in the human soul blames the structures and tries to recreate in the external the internal feeling of freedom they imagine as a solution. And so we dump the rigid form of the man-woman-children household in favour of the ad libitum flux. And we reject a traditional liturgy in favour of finger painting and expressive swaying. And we dump the 9-5 in favour of work as play and play as being on the end of a Blackberry 24/7. Form matters: a human being is in part a thing not a Dasein. It needs certain other things, certain patterns to inhabit. There is nothing wrong with Thanksgiving dinners, the Rotary Club and Soccer Moms. We need our chaff to lie down in....

But tick all those things off. There still exists that alienation from things that Percy identifies. No marriage, however perfect, will fill the emptiness. (We argue. We grow old. One of us is left when the other dies.) No liturgy, however, perfect can survive without a measure of boredom or distraction week after week after week. Work is always laborious. For Catholicism, life is a vale of tears: only God, now and in the life hereafter provides our true long home.

And of course for a secularist, that is so much baloney, the fantasy of the imaginary friend who makes it all right. Well, that's for another day. But for the progressives, secular or otherwise, there is a need to acknowledge the limitations of the external, the objective conditions of society that we inhabit as objects. They matter (and so (eg) economics and 'social justice' issues matter). But their necessary rigidity cannot reproduce the freedom of thought and the internal. And so Percy-ian alienation will always remain. And for Percy's 'knotheads', the conservative traditionalists, there needs to be a recognition that external rigidity can choke the internal, that while the charge of being a phony doesn't always hit home, it does sometimes. Secularists will have to live with these failures in some way without resolution. Catholics will find the promise of a resolution in God. But both need to be clear about what life is like in this broken middle of a life.