Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Art and Scholasticism

In the powerfully social structure of mediaeval civilization, the artist had only the rank of artisan, and every kind of anarchical development was forbidden his individualism, because a natural social discipline imposed on him from the outside certain limiting conditions. He did not work for the rich and fashionable and for the merchants, but for the faithful; it was his mission to house their prayers, to instruct their intelligences, to delight their souls and their eyes. Matchless epoch, in which an ingenuous people was formed in beauty without even realizing it, just as the perfect religious ought to pray without knowing that he is praying; in which Doctors and image-makers lovingly taught the poor, and the poor delighted in their teaching, because they were all of the same royal race, born of water and the Spirit!

Man created more beautiful things in those days, and he adored himself less. The blessed humility in which the artist was placed exalted his strength and his freedom. The Renaissance was to drive the artist mad, and to make of him the most miserable of men -- at the very moment when the world was to become less habitable for him -- by revealing to him his own peculiar grandeur, and by letting loose on him the wild beast Beauty which Faith had kept enchanted and led after it, docile.

Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism

Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Old Road

The poet should be rooted in a tradition. "Man has always lived in myth, and we think we are able to be born today and to live without myth: that is a disease, that is absolutely abnormal, because man is not born every day, he is once born in a specific historical setting, with specific historical qualities and therefore he is only complete when he has a relationship to these things. It's just as if you are born without eyes and ears when you are growing up with no connection to the past. From the standpoint of natural science we have no connection with the past, we can wipe it out, and that is a mutilation of the human being." 
C G Jung

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Tolkien and Tradition

Edit Jan 25th: This was rather hastily written before I had read the whole of Tomberg's letter IV: The Emperor, in which he clearly is saying the same thing as Tolkien, and not hoping for a political solution. Anyway, the post still works as an exploration of Tolkien's thought.

My previous post was an attempt to bring together several spheres of my life: my interest in the coherence of theism, my professional role as a teacher of religion in a secondary school, my love of the work of Tolkien, my interests in thomistic thought and the conflict between the political and the spiritual in the modern world.

I want in this post merely to explore the connections I have been making between the thought of J R R Tolkien and some of the ideas of the 'Perennial Philosophy'. In some senses it is a continuation of my 'Father Christmas' post.

 Part of my job is to be aware of philosophical and theological issues and the way they are approached by different thinkers, so that post may have come across to some as mental masturbation, sophistry for the sake of it, but I don't really care about that. I find that writing something knowing that it is going to have some kind of audience, even negative, motivates me, and I find that the process of writing helps me to order my thoughts, so I will keep doing it.

Over on another forum there is some talk of a comment by Valentin Tomberg on the Tarot card 'The Emperor' in his book Meditations on the Tarot. He said something to the effect that Europe is haunted by the shadow of the Emperor, and that without the Emperor hierarchy collapses and leads to the tyrannies that he saw around him in the sixties of communism and socialism, aiming at a levelling of all, in which the heights and the depths are lost - the vertical axis he calls it - the axis of spirit/form, and this is something that Tradition naturally abhors and obviously so did Tomberg. Clearly, communism is no longer the presence in Europe as it was in Tomberg's day, but Europe is still facing a crisis.

 Many Traditionalists trace this to the rise of Enlightenment rationalism and materialism, the dominance of liberalism in economies and a prevailing relativism which has the same flattening effect on the vertical axis as before.

However, the problem for many is that it seems that any attempt to actually restore hierarchy will lead to medieval style feudalism and as the writer puts it: "would you have wanted to be a peasant or a serf in the Middle Ages?". He says that Tomberg seems to want us "to follow some fossilized notion of political order drawn from the Middle Ages". I don't have any answer to this. I wanted to delve into this very issue in the work and thought of Tolkien though. Who knows, it may throw some fresh light on the issue.

I mentioned previously a thread in Tolkien's work - what he called in a letter 'God and His sole right to divine honour.' It takes the form of the usurpation of true Kingship and is obvious in many forms in LotR for instance. Aragorn is the heir of Isildur the true King of Gondor but is unable to assume the throne. Sauron demands obedience, and while Sauron lives, the people are forced to worship a power that has usurped the throne. Saruman operates a policy of appeasement and use of the power that Sauron represents, and brings technology to support him. Aragorn's healing ability is a sign of his true kingship - he represents hierarchy. This is meant to be a good thing. Hierarchy is the realisation that there are greater things than ones self, even simply the realisation that there are things other than ones self. Aragorn as a kind of suffering servant, messianic figure is meant to show that true authority is rooted in the spiritual realm. Tolkien says:

“in The Lord of the Rings the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved. It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour. The Eldar and the Numenoreans believed in The One, the true God … Sauron desired to be a God-King … if he had been victorious, he would have demanded divine honor”

This is Tolkien's view on this. He also said of democracy:

"I am not a 'democrat' only because 'humility' and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the effort to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power -- and then we get and are getting slavery "

So he seems profoundly Traditionalist in outlook. He also seemed to believe in a long slow decline from a Golden Age, as reflected in his four World-Ages in his legendarium which echo closely the Four Ages of Hindu philosophy. I am not saying Tolkien was some kind of esoteric occultist however - it is clear that a person who was as profoundly Catholic and thoughtful as he was would arrive at this conclusion without need of studying some kind of perennial philosophy separately. In a letter he says:

"Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat' - though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory."

There is an interesting post on this here .

Anyone who has read Guenon's Reign of Quantity will find all this familiar. Tolkien lived through and experienced at firsthand one of the most horrific wars of the twentieth century. He could not help but be sceptical about ideas of progress and technological advancement.

However he would not have hoped for some kind of political messiah. His Catholic faith meant that he could only hope for what he called the eucatastrophe outside of history - “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

It seems that Tomberg may have hoped for something more historical and concrete.

Friday, 18 January 2013

The Hanged Man

I stood shivering under the stars
under the trees and looked
there was frost around the bowl of the earth
when i first looked up from the ground i saw only the night sky hung with gemstones
the earth was a hard cold
and my fingers gripped it
as if knowing i might be thrown off and slip upwards at any time into that great cacophony

why did the stars sing?
high and chill their sound, I couldn't let them go
they had me
absolutely struck,
stricken for their sake
they caught me up
I ascended the tree and shook

waiting for their voices to end

nine days I hung
they took my entrails and replaced them with a belt of blood
my hands were pierced
Acubens took my left
Scorpius my right

I sung with terror
they placed a crown upon my head
a pathway for the sun

five wounds I received for their sake

know this they said:
you shall not go forward in the place of another
neither shall you retreat
you shall not take from another
neither shall you give

you shall not place yourself above another but
you will be lowest of all things

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Father Christmas and the theology of the gift

Recently I watched a debate between Richard Dawkins and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks televised on the BBC. You can find it here

 There is an interesting discussion from 19.30 minutes about the story of Abraham and Isaac in the book of Genesis. Dawkins puts his usual case that the God of the Biblical scriptures is an abhorrent tyrant, arbitrarily demanding that Abraham sacrifice his only son to him as a burnt offering. This particular story is obviously a useful one for those such as Dawkins who want to argue against the rationality of believing in the Biblical God, and it has been controversial among philosophers and theologians for centuries. Kant for instance said of the divine command:
"It is quite impossible for a human being to apprehend the infinite by his senses, but in some cases the human being can be sure the voice he hears is not God's; for if the voice commands him to do something that is contrary to moral law, then no matter how majestic the apparition may be, he must consider it an illusion."

In the debate about reason and obedience in morality Kant argues that we can never be certain that an experience of God is genuine, and where it appears to contravene a moral law, it will always be better to go with reason and disobey the command. He believes Abraham fails morally in not questioning it.

Theists usually claim that this is a test, a demand of obedience by God, and is thus a good thing. Indeed, in the God Delusion Dawkins says that a teacher told him that too. In the debate Dawkins says that to test someone in this way is morally abhorrent. I believe Dawkins has a point! I know many teachers of religion explain it this way, and I think they could do better. I have seen firsthand how unsatisfactory a group of thirteen year old students find this explanation of the story. Who wants to say that a perfect, wholly good God would put such a clearly faithful man who has devoted everything to God through such a horrific test, let alone the trauma the innocent child underwent on his way to the death sentence.

 One explanation is that it was a record, a folk memory hidden in a story, of the early Jewish people's rejection of child sacrifice, which was a commonplace amongst the cultures of the middle east at that time. Ultimately, God commands Abraham to replace the child with a ram, sending a clear signal to the people of the covenant that the burnt offering must not be human. This would place Judaism within the context of a developing religion amongst others, and coheres with the Jewish people's awareness of their unique relationship with the one God.

Rabbi Sacks' answer to Dawkins challenge on this point in the debate is also essentially the one given above, that it is a rejection of child sacrifice, but he develops it. He mentions as well as the widespread practice of child sacrifice in the ancient world, the prevalence even into Roman times of a similar worldview expressed in the principle of patria potestas in Roman law, which makes a child the property of the parents to dispose of as they will.

Sacks believes the story is fundamental to Judaism, with its emphasis on the importance of children,
and explains that in this story Abraham has to disown the child he has spent so long waiting for, the most precious thing in his life, to give him up. In doing this, God gives the child back to him, but now Abraham is aware that the child is a gift, on loan, and is not his to own. This emphasis on the nature of the child as a gift from God, which can never be hoarded, takes the child-sacrifice model and turns it on its head, forever marking them as a people that realise their radical dependence on God.

Clearly this realisation is an essential part of Christian theology as well, in particular the thomistic emphasis on  God as Being, and creation as a free act of love in which the overflowing generosity of God's goodness results in creatures who have being themselves, but in a limited, contingent way. God as sustainer in Aquinas upholds the world of creation in each moment. Creation is a gift.

To me the story now made more sense, but things really fell into place when I read Alison Milbank's book Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians. In particular the discussion of gift-giving and Father Christmas.
For Milbank Father Christmas is a mediatory figure. Necessarily as he inhabits the world between the parent and the child, and in his way of entering into the house, down the chimney, being an opening to the realm of the sky, he embodies that which comes from beyond. As this third person in the parent-child relationship he can prevent the appropriating tendency of the adult from making the child into an image of itself. Father Christmas gives back the child to the parent as a gift because he reminds them that they and the child are themselves dependent on something beyond themselves for their existence. In Numbers 18:15-18 is found the origin of the Jewish custom of offering the firstborn son to God. Echoing this in modern culture the Father Christmas ritual seeks to express the sacredness of the gift-response relation in ways inimical to capitalist cultures, Milbank says. Father Christmas disallows the pre-modern absolute right of the father over the child that treats it as a form of property.
In the discussion I found many of the ideas that I had been thinking about in relation to Abraham and children taking on a new significance. In particular light was thrown on much of Tolkien's work as it related to what he called 'God and his sole right to divine honour'. This led me to reflect on obedience in the Abraham story and why many in the modern world have such an abhorrence of obedience to any authority other than the self.

The theft and hoarding of what belongs to the divine is a thread running through much of Tolkien. In The Hobbit Smaug the dragon coiled around his treasure hoard represents this monstrous appropriation. Gold in fairy tales is only valuable when freely passed on - as soon as it is hoarded it becomes cursed. In some sense Tolkien's diagnosis of our fallen condition is that we are tempted to do this epistemologically, to make the world we know ours and thus forget about it as it is in itself (Tolkien was aware of Kantian scepticism about the possibility of this and presents a novel answer to it), as a wondrous gift. This is explored in numerous ways in Tolkien's work, perhaps more obviously in his creation story the 'Ainulindale' and other stories in his Silmarillion.  The cure he offers for this tendency of habitual familiarisation and disenchantment is fantasy or fairy tale. Chesterton explains:

"That strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness; or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. In this the great contemplative is the complete contrast of the false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind. According to St. Thomas, the mind acts freely of itself, but its freedom exactly consists in finding a way out to liberty and the light of day; to reality and the land of the living. In the subjectivist, the pressure of the world forces the imagination inwards. In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind. The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will, it is a vision because it is not a dream."

For now it will be good to finish with this:
"Tolkien is actually saying something quite radical: that fiction in the form of fantastic recreation of the world can give us access to the real by freeing the world of objects from our appropriation of them" - Alison Milbank.

Reflections on the Feast of John the Baptist - Sunday 24th June 2012

In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
John 1:4-5

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
John 4:13-14

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 
John 7:37-8

The feast of the birth of John the Baptist can be one of those windows into the interior mystery of the Christian faith - this year as I sat in church and listened to the readings I became aware of the close link between the births of Christ and John the Baptist at opposite times of the year - one at the winter solstice and one at the summer solstice, as well as the words of John himself: "He must increase as I decrease" (John 3:30). So if the sun at the summer solstice will only decrease from that point on then we surely must associate John the Baptist with the withdrawal and interiorisation of that principle, whereas at midwinter the sun begins its long process of increase, so Christ is associated with that moving out and exteriorisation of the solar principle.
But what does this mean? What truth is this intended to convey? The link between light and dark is evident here - when the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not receive it. And Jesus and John are placed in the position of the Tanit lord of darkness and lord of light that would do battle with each other in the old pagan year. But who decided to put them in that relationship to each other? Was it really so there would be an easier transition for the pagan converts?