The Essential Disagreement of Religions

Cassiodorus asked me to take a look at an essay by Perennialist scholar James Cutsinger and provide my reactions. The essay – The Mystery of the Two Natures – argues that Perennialist archon Frithjof Schuon was entirely orthodox, from a Patristic (and ergo Nicene) point of view, in his insistence that the divine pole of the Incarnation, entailing as it does the ubiquity of Christ’s saving power, means that there is a transcendent unity of all religions.

I have long admired both Cutsinger and Schuon. They are both formidable scholars, both write (so think) like angels, and both have penetrated deeply and sympathetically into many of the great religions. Both are sane, irenic, and wise, and seem holy (sanctity being a dissemblance difficult to carry off). Like all thoroughgoing exponents of the Perennialist proposal, they reject modernity root and branch. I agree with them, I have always found, in almost everything.  

I enjoyed the article a great deal, learned much from it, and recommend it as a wonderfully clear discussion of the Incarnation, and for its original and penetrating analyses of some of the major Christological heresies. But I disagree with it in two respects, one minor, one crucial.
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Truth is a King

Truth demands our adherence, our conformity. There is no just, no correct argument against Truth, or therefore any just or correct way to act in contravention to Truth – indeed, no possible way, for there can be no way to enact a false or incoherent proposition. It might seem prima facie that it is possible to enact a falsehood. But not so. The only way we can possibly act is in a way that is in agreement with reality, and thus with Truth. We can certainly believe that we are enacting a proposition that is in fact false, and so shape our acts wrongly, as appropriate to circumstances that do not in fact obtain. Acts may err in their aims. But they must conform to reality, or they could not happen.

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Plotinus and Augustine on Gnosticism

Gnosis 02The trend of politics in the Western nations since Eric Voegelin’s death in 1986 has made his work increasingly relevant to any philosophically rigorous Conservatism or Traditionalism. In particular, Voegelin’s argument that liberalism and its Leftwing metastases constitute an evangelical religious movement, mimicking and distorting Christianity, has gained currency. The pronounced irrational character of the “Global Warming” cult and the obvious messianism of Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency have together sharpened the perception that contemporary Leftwing politics shares with history’s specimen-type doctrinally intransigent sects an absolute intolerance for dissent, even for discussion, along with a conviction of perfect certainty in all things. The sudden experience of Leftwing triumph attests that, indeed, utopian radicalism draws its strength from a deep well of resentment that puts it in conflict, not merely with those whom it regards as heterodox, but also with the unalterable structure of reality. Voegelin argued – in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and throughout Order and History (1957-65) – that the rebellion against reality was a recurrent affliction of civilized life; he pointed to the acute anticosmic sects of Late Antiquity as offering a paradigm of the phenomenon and expanded the scholarly designation of them as “Gnosticism” to cover insurgent ideological doctrines of the modern period, particularly Marxism and National Socialism.

Thus Lawrence Auster, the late creator and supervisor of the (now inactive) View from the Right website, explicitly links his understanding of the Left and his idea of Traditionalism to Voegelin’s argument that modernity is essentially Gnostic. A somewhat less focused acknowledgment that the Left is cultic in its behavior has surfaced now and then at The American Thinker and the name Voegelin has occurred in that venue. Again, nationally syndicated “conservative” columnist and radio-host Dennis Prager, while not citing Voegelin, has nevertheless in a recent essay declared explicitly that Left-Liberalism is a religion and can be understand in no other way. In my own contributions to The Brussels Journal and in various print articles (for example, in a Modern Age essay on V. S. Naipaul) I have frequently invoked Voegelin, often quoting his pithy sentences, as a rich and clairvoyant explicator of our straitened times. Are we certain, however, that Voegelin’s disapprobation of Gnosticism is valid? And might Voegelin’s insistent parallelisms of the ancient and the modern be a result of an idiosyncratic view?

The topical literature is fortunately large. It reaches back to the Late Antique primary texts of Gnosticism – such as the Valentinian Gospel of Truth (ca. 150) – and the accompanying critical and anti-heretical discourses of the philosophers and the Christian Patres; and it embraces a rich scholarly investigation beginning in the early Nineteenth Century, continuing to the present. What do the ancient sources tell us about Gnosticism? And what does the scholarship of Voegelin’s Nineteenth-Century precursors, his contemporaries, and his successors tell us about it? Continue reading

Plato’s Symposium and the Poetry of Dialectic

INTRODUCTION: Plato’s Symposium is one of the author’s middle-period dialogues composed, according to scholarship, sometime between 385 and 370 BC, some thirty years at least after the event that it commemorates, taking advantage of its temporal remoteness to capture a moment of the past as objectively as possible. Some commentators – F. M. Cornford, for example – have yoked the Symposium with the Republic. Like the Republic, the Symposium takes as one of its themes the proclivity or proclivities of the soul. With the Phaedrus, the Symposium, both by itself and through the medium of Neo-Platonist commentary, exerted enormous influence on Christian philosophy, especially its theory of the soul. Thus in Athanasius’ Life of Saint Anthony (356), readers find the desert monk describing the desire of the awakened soul for union with God in metaphors that would not disturb the text of the Symposium were they to be inserted there. When the religious contemplative focuses on “the source and origin of happiness,” it happens that, “our mind… becomes gentle and calm, illuminated by the angels’ light,” whereupon, “the soul, aflame with the desire for heavenly reward, breaks… from its dwelling in the human body” and “hastens towards heaven.”

Certain hazards attend the study of Plato’s dialogues. Often the declared topic yields in the dialectical exchange to a new topic, attained by subtle processes of association that are not obvious on a first reading. The previous topic never disappears, but finds its sublimation in the new topic, which now contains it even as it supersedes it. The reader must keep the parallel strands in mente while making progress through the text, or the meaning will vanish. Such is the case in the Symposium, where the announced topic is Eros or Love, but where the necessary topic turns out to be beauty, and finally the Absolute Beauty, the celestial magnet that draws Love from the earthly towards the heavenly realm, just as it does in Athanasius’ biography of the saintly Anthony. Indeed, Love and Beauty barely exhaust the range of themes and topics of the dialogue. Structurally, memory is a theme, just as, again in an unspoken way, the hubris and nemesis of Athens in trying to impose its hegemony over Greece are themes.

In considering the Symposium, sensitive readers should keep some historical dates, relevant to the dialogue’s composition, in mind: The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC); Agathon’s First Prize in the Tragic Competition (416 BC); the Athenian genocide against the Melians (415 BC); the failure of Athenian campaign against Sicily, led by Alcibiades (413 BC); Alcibiades’ defection to Sparta (413 BC); the end of the Peloponnesian War – the Athenian surrender and the Spartan occupation (404 BC); the trial and execution of Socrates (399 BC); and finally the composition of the Symposium (between 385 – 370 BC). The war, which is in progress, midway through its course, provides the haunting background of the dialogue, all the more so because no one on the occasion refers to it. The coincidence that the discussion of Love occurs in the same twelvemonth as Melian massacre demands to be considered. The silence becomes almost deafening.

Sensitive readers should also keep in mind that the participants in the dialogue belong to the opinion-setting elite of Athenian society, who, in assembly, voted to sustain the war, one of whom, Alcibiades, directly urged the genocidal punishment of the Melians when they refused to be incorporated in the Athenian League. In Plato’s authorship, the individual dialogues rarely yield their full meaning when taken in isolation. The dialogues collectively tell the story, not only of Socrates, but of Athens, in the second half of the Fifth Century BC. Plato traces out a pattern of large-scale spiritual and political causality in which the moral character of opinion-makers and trend-setters determines the fate of their nation. Plato criticized the myth-poets, but in his epic of Athens he might well be illustrating what Zeus tells Athene in Homer’s Odyssey, Book I: “See now, how men lay blame upon us gods for what is after all nothing but their own folly.” The discussion will return to these opening observations in the “Remarks” after the exploration of the dialogue. The discussion assumes no detailed familiarity with Plato’s text, but only an educated person’s general awareness of it. Summary and commentary accompany one another. The quotations come from Benjamin Jowett’s translation, which is widely available.

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A Better Way to Counter the Charismatics

Since we have a duty to teach our children the important truths, I’m rewriting some of my Orthosphere essays to make them more accessible to young readers. The rewrites will fill in more details, details that the typical Orthosphere reader already understands but which a young person might not know. The latest rewrite is of my essay on Pentecostalism, Strange Fire, and What’s Wrong—and What’s Right—With Pentecostalism.

In the rewrite, I add basic information about Pentecostalism’s beginnings, the distinction (increasingly irrelevant) between Pentecostalism and the newer Charismatic movement, on the basic claims of Pentecostalism, and the heterodoxy and heresy to which Pentecostalism is so susceptible.

To summarize my main point: Pentecostalism’s unique emphasis is on the alleged gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially speaking in tongues, miraculous power, and receiving new revelations from God. But although opponents of Pentecostalism generally focus on cessationism—the doctrine that the miraculous sign gifts ceased with the passing of the Apostles—the real error of Pentecostalism is something much more basic: taking its eyes off the Savior in a mad rush to partake of the thrill of alleged Holy Ghost power.

Hatred Enslaves

When you hate something, you are enslaved by your hatred; and your hatred is a form of idolatry, because it assumes inordinate power in your psychic economy (idolatry is generally manifest in practice as undue attention to something or other – to unjust or disproportionate intentions). Hatred can warp and tweak a man every bit as much as a vicious addiction. What is worse, it can lead him to injure others, directly and intentionally; whereas addictions generally redound first to the addict, and only then to his fellows.

What are the warning signs? If it seems to you that all, or almost all, of the problems in your life go back to the same thing – your mother, your spouse, that lover who spurned or betrayed you, the government, the war, liberals, banks, whatever – then there is a good chance you are idolatrously enslaved. If you often find yourself fulminating about some injury done to you long ago, and unable to let go of it, then you are almost certainly stuck, snared in the toils of hatred: and in rehearsing your wound you irritate and enflame it all the more. Then are you like a man who turns again repeatedly to stumble over a scandal, rather than picking himself up, shaking the dust off, and moving on.

One of the reasons Jesus tells us to love and forgive our enemies is so that we can get free of such obsessions.

Liberalism and Islam

I have been thinking about the coziness between Liberalism and Islam, which became evident about twenty seconds after the jihad attack on the World Trade Center, and now drives policy in the USA, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Scandinavia.  A pair of complementary questions put themselves that I propose for a general discussion.

Does Liberalism embrace Islam, knowing that Islam is a religion and despite its active hostile attitude towards religion, as conceived by it categorically, solely because Liberalism has more animus against Christianity than it does towards Islam and therefore sees Islam as an ally in its campaign against Christianity?

Or…

Does Liberalism ally itself with Islam because it senses that Islam is not a religion, but is rather a secular ideology, utterly hostile to anything transcendent,  just like itself, and is therefore its perfect ally in the campaign against Christianity?

Why Modern Authorities are (Generally) Dishonest Manipulators

[This will not be news to most Orthosphere readers, but we need clear statements of basic principles to educate the young.]

Not all authorities are dishonest manipulators, of course, but the higher their rank, the more dishonest and manipulative they tend to be. And this is not just an unfortunate fluke. In the modern world authorities have to be manipulators. They have no real authority but they must somehow establish and maintain order, so manipulation is usually their only recourse.

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A bit of history: Until modern times (roughly, before the end of World War I), most people made most of their important decisions based largely on tradition and authority. “Tradition” means the ways of thinking and living they inherited from their ancestors, and “authority” means the teachings and the commands of people such as lords, kings, pastors and teachers. Tradition and the authorities were recognized as having the right to answer the important questions of life and to tell us, in broad terms, how we ought to live.

But now, thanks to the successful liberal takeover of the West, tradition and authority are greatly diminished.  The liberal jihad fights, in large part, under the banner of personal freedom, and in the modern world we are all supposed to be autonomous, self-actualizing freedmen who accept no authority not freely chosen and who are liberated from the tyranny of tradition. Continue reading

Immanuel Sabaoth

Christmas Tree; Burning Bush; Tree of Life; Yggdrasil; Menorah, Tree of Lights; Pillar of Cloud & Fire; Chariot Throne (wheels in wheels); Sun of Righteousness; Heavenly Host; Cosmos (host in order of battle); Sabaoth; Jacob’s Ladder; Rainbow Bridge: Milky Way; Gate of Heaven; Vine; Flowering Rod of Aaron; Root of Jesse (“Yah Is”); Tropaeum; Faithful Cross; one and only Noble Tree. All are types of the manner of our Lord’s descent and manifestation to us, of his creation, preservation, and blessing of all this our life; of his Incarnation and Passion, his Redemption of his world, of his Resurrection, and his Ascent.

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Essay on Rene Girard at The Brussels Journal

My latest at The Brussels Journal is an essay entitled “René Girard on the ‘Ontological Sickness.’” I taught Girard’s I See Satan Fall like Lightning to the students in my “Introduction to Literary Criticism” this semester and found myself re-reading him with a good deal of renewed interest. Girard’s notion of “ontological sickness” explains a good deal about modernity, especially about what is sometimes called “entitlement mentality.” In the essay, I try to show how this is so. The essay includes an interpretation of what I regard as one of the major modern parables about the “ontological sickness,” the HAL subplot of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The link is http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5178

I offer a sample below.

In Things Hidden, Girard writes: “Modern people still fondly imagine that their discomfort and unease is a product of the strait-jacket that religious taboos, cultural prohibitions and, in our day, even the legal forms of protection guaranteed by the judiciary place upon desire. They think that once this confinement is over, desire will be able to blossom forth [and that] its wonderful innocence will finally be able to bear fruit.” The modern subject, wanting liberté, inveterately seeks liberation and just as inveterately experiences the belaboring frustration of its every liberating triumph. The “Declaration of Sentiments” (1848) of the Seneca Falls Convention of early feminists employs the essential “liberationist” vocabulary: “Disenfranchisement,” “social and religious degradation,” a mass of the “oppressed,” whose constituents “feel… aggrieved” and who want “rights and privileges” wickedly withheld by malefactors. The male oppressor, as the document asserts, “Has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for [the generic woman] a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.” In her much-celebrated speech on the same occasion, Elizabeth Cady Stanton invoked the image of the sovereign self in its absoluteness: “There is a solitude… more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea,” which neither “eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced.”

The themes of the usurpation of being and of the radical autonomy of the individual, Girard’s self-inflating quasi-divine ego, come into their necessary conjunction at the inception of what would later take the name of women’s liberation.

The feminist “Declaration” and its adjunct texts were already hackneyed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had set the tone brilliantly nearly a century before, in his Discourse upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind (1754). The second part of Rousseau’s essay begins with the speculative scenario that must have inspired Karl Marx to write The Communist Manifesto (1848 – the same year as the Seneca Falls Convention): “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” Not merely property, but society itself, for Rousseau, is theft or usurpation. Under tutelage of Girard, one might reduce the formula even further: Usurpation is the Other, by the mere fact of his existence. In the sequel, Rousseau, speaking on behalf of the usurped, rouses the mob against the usurper: “How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that, the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!”