I happened to have been reading Frank van Dun’s novel In the Shadow of the Prodigy (2015) during the week of the United States Supreme Court’s latest trespass into the constitutional domain of law-making, formerly reserved to the legislative branch. The same week saw several new instances of Islamic savagery – in France and Algeria – and the collapse of the Greek economy. It is difficult to say whether these events colored my assessment of van Dun’s prose or the other way around. I have been carrying a knot in my stomach for days; my brow has been creased. One way or another, In the Shadow of the Prodigy is a book for our time, breaking up the white dazzle of overlapping crises that constitutes the contemporary scene into the refracted strands of its elementary colors. Van Dun’s story is a mystery, so I will be calling attention to it in such a way as not to divulge too many of its plot-points.
At my own blog, I’ve been arguing that the Catholic Church (and, I would expect, many others) suffers grievously from a lack among the baptized of basic “tribal” identification with the Church and with Catholics throughout the ages. They fail to identify attacks on the Church and on prior generations of Christians as attacks on themselves and upon their people, and they fail to apply to their attackers the category of enemy. In this, they are encouraged by theologians, apologists, and prelates who dismiss “tribalism”–including the whole moral consideration of loyalty, or any application of the friend-enemy distinction–as an intellectual or moral failing.
I think this issue is ready for wider discussion. Of course, the fate of the Roman Catholic Church is a matter of interest to most readers here, but I don’t think this weakness is unique to my Church. Since the point is particularist loyalty, I can be clearer if I continue to write below about this one ecclesial body, with the applications to Orthodox and Protestant bodies being direct and obvious analogies. My key points are
- It is licit to love the people and culture of Christian civilization, not only Christ Himself and the doctrines of the Church. There is nothing admirable in apologizing for or berating one’s ancestors in an attempt to win credibility with a hostile world.
- This is the main reason we’re loosing most of our young people. America and the mystical body of Christ are at war. If our children are given a strong visceral identification with the former but not the latter, we can expect them to apostatize. Teaching children rigorous arguments for all the doctrines of the faith is impossible (they leave home before they’re ready for it). Teaching them to identify as Catholic and see religious disputes through a friend-enemy lens is much easier.
- Grace builds upon nature. We should not scorn natural attachment to the Christian people out of a misguided preference for a purely supernatural attachment to the Triune God. Natural loyalty is a help, not a hinderance to the growth of charity. One who looks on past generations of Christians with affection is better prepared to love the Faith than one who looks on them with politically correct scorn.
- Following Carl Schmitt, we should recognize the distinctness of the friend-enemy categorization. Groups outside the true Church are to some extent in error and morally deficient, but the ascription of enemy status to a group is not directly a statement of its heterodoxy or of the personal sinfulness of its members. The enemy is the group that is a threat to our corporate existence, the group that is attacking us. Conversely, we can recognize other conservative Christian groups as allies without minimizing our theological differences.
[Some time ago, I asked readers for recommended reading on their branches of Christianity. Below is my understanding of Mormon theology, as gathered from Sterling McMurrin’s “The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion”, one of the books recommended to me. This is the third in a series, and probably the last for a little while as I gear up for the fall semester. Mormon commenters should be considered to have more authority than me on this topic, and I will gratefully take their correction. The goal of this post and the subsequent discussion will be to accurately describe the Mormon faith. Commenters may respectfully question or register disagreement with this or that LDS tenet, but I will not tolerate the gratuitous insults of Mormonism that are unfortunately common in orthodox Christian circles.]
Despite being highly visible allies in the culture wars, Mormons are by-and-large poorly understood by more mainstream Christians. Joseph Smith was a genius but not a formally trained theologian, so he ended up using philosophical terms idiosyncratically to express his insights, and this can create misunderstanding among those trained to follow Aristotle’s prior idiosyncrasies. In this book, Professor McMurrin performs a valuable service translating between Mormon and Trinitarian theological statements. Usually, misunderstandings lead groups to exaggerate their differences, but McMurrin argues that Mormonism’s innovations are even more drastic and fundamental than either side realizes.
Rusty Reno at First Things, complaining that Pope Francis’s attitude to modernity reminds him of Pius IX’s, almost makes me a Francis fan.
In this encyclical, Francis expresses strikingly anti-scientific, anti-technological, and anti-progressive sentiments. In fact, this is perhaps the most anti-modern encyclical since the Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX’s haughty 1864 dismissal of the conceits of the modern era…
If Francis continues in this trajectory, Catholicism will circle back to its older, more adversarial relationship with modernity. In the nineteenth century, the Church regarded modernity’s failure to acknowledge God as damning. It led to usurpations of authority, disrespect for hierarchy, and other signs of anthropocentric self-regard. Francis’s concerns are different. He’s worried about the poor, environmental disasters, and the complacent rich indifferent to both. But his analysis is the same, and he shares a similar dire, global view of modernity as the epitome of godless sin.
He’s right. Modernity is the epitome of godless sin.
I’m not opposed to the idea of an encyclical on the environment or even one on the ethical issues raised by climate change, but I fear the encyclical we’ve got will be a lost opportunity. This is a shame, because it does make some important points mixed amid the tedious committee-speak.
Certainly, the Orthosphere fits within the larger category of Right-wing blogs, and within the subcategory of “reactionary” (extreme, i.e. Enlightenment-rejecting, Right) blogs. Even this subcategory has distinct clusters: the Orthosphere, Integralists, Identitarians, and Neoreactionaries, to name just the most impressive. Are these different ideological movements, or different focuses within a single movement? To rephrase, here are the two possibilities. 1) The Orthosphere’s fundamental principles (our ultimate premises) are the same as its defining principles (the positions that distinguish us from other groups), in which case we are ultimately our own movement and those other groups are at best allies. 2) Our defining principles are applications to our particular area of interest of more fundamental principles shared by the larger community of reactionaries. Which is it?
With a movement that has different areas of focus, you are bound to get drift. The different wheels of Spandrell’s Trike like to roll off on their own for extended periods and not participate in the congregation of a collective might. Social Matter, a product of the Hestia Society for Social Studies, is a more-than-worthy rallying point for the radical right...Through promotion, Social Matter should get pushed to the fore.
Long before the late Eduard Said invented “Orientalism” to exalt Arab culture and Islamic society at the expense of the West, bien-pensants like Voltaire inclined to express their rebellion against the dwindling vestiges of Christendom by representing Europeans as bigots or clowns and raising up exotic foreigners – Voltaire himself wrote about Turks and Persians of the Muslim fold – to be the fonts of wisdom and models of refined life in their tracts and stories. The sultan and dervish look with amused tolerance on the gaucheries of the European rubes. The rubes swing their elbows and knock over the pottery. It was the Eighteenth-Century philosophes and illuminati who coined the pejorative term “Dark Ages” to refer to the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman imperial administration in the West under pressure of the Gothic tribal self-assertion in the Fifth Century. Liberal discourse often casually extends the same term to apply it to all of medieval European civilization up to the Renaissance. Specialist historians have, however, long since demonstrated that no such absolute discontinuity as the term “Dark Ages” insinuates ever existed, which means that the Enlightenment version of history is at least partly wrong. Yet the usual story retains its currency, as an item in a kind of liberal folklore.
Part of that story is the motif of the Islamic middleman role in the transmission of classical knowledge to Christendom. According to this motif, the West in the Eleventh Century possessed no first-hand knowledge of the Greek and precious little of the Roman classics. Fortunately (so the story goes) the Muslims had translated Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, knew all about them, and bestowed the gift of their lore on the benighted monks of Italy and France. The benefactors under this notion behave suavely and generously, while the beneficiaries are – to paraphrase a line from a David Lean film – ignorant, barbarous, and cruel.
In the spasm of western Islamophilia that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001, the myth of medieval Muslim learnedness and medieval European illiteracy gained strong new power for the Left whose acolytes have disseminated it with vigor from their ensconcement in the colleges and universities. Facts might have dispelled the myth had anyone cared to notice them. For one thing, Europeans never lost contact with the Byzantine Greeks, who blithely went on being scholarly classicists until Mehmet II bloodily vanquished Constantinople in 1453, slaughtering the literate elites and forcing the peasantry to submit to Allah. The Eighth-Century English church-chronicler Bede reports in his Ecclesiastical History that one of the first bishops of Canterbury, Theodore, was an educated Greek. The Twelfth-Century Icelandic mythographer Snorri Sturlusson suggests in his Edda that the Norse gods were actually Trojan heroes escaping, like Aeneas, from Agamemnon’s destruction of their city – an interpretation that implies his knowledge of the theory called Euhemerism. Eighth-Century England and twelfth-Century Iceland were remote places, but, in Bede and Snorri, one can attest links to the classical tradition.
Facts like these could easily be multiplied – and a man who multiplies them with muscularity and clear-sightedness is the French historian Sylvain Gouguenheim, who documents them in his remarkable book Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les raciness grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne (Seuil, 2008). [Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: the Greek Roots of Christian Europe.] The book is not as yet translated, but it deserves to be known to Anglophone audiences because it brings important truths to many a contemporary conversation.
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?
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?
The priest of dwindling parish that is perpetually cash-strapped can no longer overlook the shabby appearance of the church, whose interior walls badly need a new coat of color. He scrapes up a bit of money and purchases what he hopes will be gallons enough to do the job. Halfway through the exercise, he sees that he has miscalculated, but he recalls from a few days ago that he had seen several tins of paint thinner in the basement, which he retrieves. He extends the primary material and at last covers the final wall. It does no good. As the new layer dries the crummy-looking old layer shows through with a vengeance, even uglier than before.
At this moment a voice comes booming out of heaven: “Repaint, repaint,” it says, “and thin no more!”
This is the third in a sequence of three essays examining aspects of reality from a Traditionalist perspective. The two previous essays took as their topics education and its relation to faith; and, the other, revelation and its relation to reality. The present essay, “The Order of Being is the Order of Memory,” assumes the conclusions of the two preceding essays, which it rehearses briefly in the first paragraph.
In the Philosophical Fragments (1843) Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) explores the existential paradox that while men must live their lives forwards they can only understand their lives backwards. Kierkegaard’s observation is far from being an item of attention-grabbing rhetorical cleverness: It explains both the precariousness of cultural transmission across time and the difficulty of philosophical maturation in the individual; it also throws into brilliant clarity the absolute dependence of the individual on the line of cultural transmission. In his study of Order and History (1956 – 1986), Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985) carefully traces out and analyzes the historical process, which he calls “symbolization,” by which Western Civilization gradually and arduously constructed its adaptation to the absoluteness of reality, reaching an acme in Christian revelation only thereafter to embark on a long decline. In respect of Kierkegaard in the essay that I devoted to the Philosophical Fragments, I focused on education, arguing that modern education, which likes to teach to the test, is not truly education because education requires faith and modern educators have banished faith from the curricular horizon. (I referred not to any particular faith – but, as I wrote, to “the very structure of faith.”) In respect of Voegelin in the essay that I devoted to him, I focused on the modern rejection of revelation, arguing that phenomena are indistinguishable from apocalypse and that a rejection of revelation entails a rejection of reality. I characterized the modern rejection of reality, moreover, as a recrudescence of archaic cult-activity, complete with the scapegoat ceremony.
Voegelin’s “symbolization” is an activity, spiritual and intellectual, carried out “forwards,” but its beneficiaries only understand it “backwards.” In understanding the history of the symbols, indeed, the inheritor places himself thematically with respect to the endeavor; he acquires a relation to the past that transforms his notions both of himself and his social-temporal situation, enriching them and making them more real. In this way, readers may understand Kierkegaard and Voegelin as conducting complementary analyses. The former elucidates the way in which the individual subject, in opening himself to inherited experience, redefines himself; the latter elucidates the way in which the collective subject, opening itself to reality, creates cultural order and bequeaths it to posterity, so that later individuals might orient themselves with respect to that order. Both the individual and the collective forms of self-understanding concern memory, that function or organ of consciousness that permits the formation of identity and insures its continuity beyond a fleeting moment. The philosophical investigation of memory suggests furthermore that the Order of Being is the Order of Memory.
Ancient peoples regarded memory as divine or supernatural. Memory is thoroughly bound up in Antiquity with the Cult of the Dead, whose constituency cries out for commemoration. In ten-thousand-year-old Çatal Hüyük in Central Anatolia the dwellers lived in apartments built over the sepulchers of their ancestors. The past – in the form of the dead – was physically ever-present to those living people. At mealtimes, the dead ate around the hearth with the living, receiving blandishments of food and drink, as the documented custom elsewhere permits one to infer. For the archaic Greek poet Hesiod (Eighth Century BC), memory was not personal, but self-evidently transcendent and godlike. The Muses, who taught Hesiod about the generations and order of the gods, were the daughters of a personified Mnemosyne (“Memory”), their mother, and the chief Olympian deity Zeus, their father. In the Invocation of the Theogony, Hesiod, whose name translates as “the poet,” writes, “From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet.”