Modernity and Christianity

THREE things today ring the alarm bells in my mind as I try to understand a civilisation from which I am about as distant as a monk! I always receive Dr William Tighe’s e-mails with frequently interesting links. The two that attracted my attention most were Italian Philosopher: What if Francis Were the Last Pope of the Roman Catholic Tradition, & a Different Christianity Were Being Born? and the specifically liturgical article on NLM, Is Modern Man “Incapable of the Liturgical Act”?

A third thought was put into my mind by an interview about “wokeness”:

The most important thing is to avoid getting emotionally involved with many of these obsessions. A year ago, I found myself writing intemperately about Brexit and finding that I was becoming emotionally engaged. Just a couple of days ago, I had to force myself to disengage from discussions about Covid, lockdowns and various scientific questions presently being debated. This is how Woke works. It encourages us to switch off our rational faculties and to become emotionally obsessed about a particular issue, be it the role of women in society, the legitimate combat against racism and other “buzz” issues that call for simplistic and dualistic emotional reactions.

First of all, only a small minority is engaged with all this stuff and its ideologies. Is it generation-based? I don’t have enough information, but I do know that I personally have been brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition and the heritage of the Enlightenment. I am very committed to the values and ideas of Romanticism, but I always return to the Thomist principle of the primacy of reason and the imagination as a rational faculty at a deeper level. There has to be a fine balance in the human spirit, soul and mind.

Is the Church able to give a credible response to this dissipation of humanity and humanism of the Age of Reason and the Renaissance? In my previous article, I mentioned the criticism made by Alan Watts of Christianity in 1947, Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion.

The present low ebb of Church religion consists in the fact that rarely, even for Church people, does it give the soul any knowledge of union with the reality that underlies the universe. To put it in another way, modern Church religion is little concerned with giving any consciousness of union with God. It is not mystical religion, and for that reason it is not fully and essentially religion.

One might be tempted to dismiss Watts as a sort of “proto-hippie” or an apostate Anglican priest. Reading through the book, I am discovering his belief in a profoundly mystical kind of Christianity along similar lines as the Baron von Hügel (Mystical Element of Religion, London 1927) or George Tyrrell. Decidedly, the Roman Catholic Church in the 1900’s failed to make a distinction between such mystical aspirations and the secularising trends of many of the “modernist” thinkers. Watts surprises me by his depth, and his thought reminds me of my discoveries at the traditionalist seminary as I read Russian philosophers like Berdyaev, Soloviev and Dostoievsky and the “modernists”. His work confirms my intuition about two reactions from the stuffy establishment, namely secularism and mysticism.

This distinction will enable us to understand many of the things being said by the present Pope. We are confronted by a notion of a “different Christianity”. Which one? I find Pope Francis very difficult to follow, especially because I have had so little motivation and interest since his election in 2013. It would seem that Francis’ vision in Fratelli Tutti is quite secular, the Church’s mission being essentially social and political. This is not something I can affirm, not having read the encyclical but going only by the article whose link is at the head of this posting.

I remember a slogan “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man” which is taught by Freemasonry. However, before we get carried away by conspiracy theories, I will attempt a remark. I have never been a Freemason, but my grandfather was at the head of his local Grand Lodge. I have several friends who are Freemasons. As far as I can understand, it is not a war against God or the spiritual, but an extremely ritualised and symbolic fashion of teaching certain principles of belief and morality. There are various obediences. The Grand Orient represents the most atheistic and anti-clerical stream, but the Scottish Rite and the Grand Lodge are much more respectful of Christianity whilst diverging in specifics. Is the Pope a Mason? I would very much doubt it. This is something I needed to clarify. This slogan is associated with Christian Modernism that is seen more in its German liberal Protestant dimension rather than the mysticism of Tyrrell and Von Hügel. It is important to study Modernism in its historical context, that of Positivism in science and philosophy at the end of the nineteenth century. It is abusive to call anyone a Modernist today, because the context has changed. Is it really the intention of Pope Francis to “give birth to a different Christianity” in which “Jesus were nothing but a man?” I need to prepare myself for some very boring reading to make up my own mind!

This capital distinction is therefore not between Church orthodoxy and heresy in the form of secularism and the denial or neglect of the spiritual, but between this secularism and the spiritual life. Jesus is clear in the Gospel that acts and gestures of humanity and love for others is a vital condition for spiritual life, but also a consequence of the spiritual. Science itself has changed from the era of Positivism to the primacy of consciousness over energy and matter. The goalposts are no longer the same, and I see secularism as obsolete and passé, not something of the future. However, the vast majority of our contemporaries are outwardly materialists, and fast asleep in terms of living at a level different from this world.

From the article:

Transcendence is not denied, but is increasingly ignored. There is no need for explicit denial if the matter becomes irrelevant.

Like Watts, I partially blame the institutional Church for this shelving of the spiritual. I don’t think there needs to be an opposition between transcendence and immanence. If we take non-dualism as a base, the immanent God within us is just as transcendent as the image of יהוה in the Burning Bush. Transcendentalism as a form of dualism has been a problem in both Catholicism and Protestantism. There is room for a healthy pan-en-theism. Watts wrote this in 1947, eleven years before Pius XII died:

What do our more wide-awake churchmen propose to do about the state of Christianity? Some would have the Church launch out boldly into the field of “progressive” politics, and sacrifice every doctrinal difference for the sake of Christian unity in a purely ethical bond; others would adapt the Church’s teaching rigorously to modern thought, or provide for a more effective vocational training of the clergy, equipping them with the tools of modern psychological science; yet others would have the Church increase in numbers by any means possible and then dominate governments by pressure groups and political chicanery; these are among the more superficial and tiresome proposals. Wiser heads confine themselves to a few less flighty and more difficult demands. They ask for a ministry of higher intellectual power, familiar with modern thought and skilled in apologetics; for a vigorous campaign of instruction, explaining Christian belief in terms understandable to the modern mind; for an improved worship as to the nature of which both Catholic and Protestant liturgical reformers are in considerable agreement; and, more important than all, for saints, for Christians of deep faith and moral heroism who will do more for God, for man, and for the Church than any number of thinkers, teachers and liturgists.

Is this the Pope’s “different Christianity”? Was Christ the first teacher of Wokeness? The thought is revolting, because it drags the most sublime to the level of street ideologies. We are in 2020, and Watts saw it in 1947 and certainly much earlier.

Francis is proficient at talking about poverty, war, weapons, the environment, solidarity, immigration, unemployment, and so on, but when is he going to get around to talking about the salvation of souls? 

I think we are all concerned about these social issues. But, frankly, they are not the job of the Pope but rather of secular governments, philosophers and people who work in this world with so much more professionalism. This was the essential message of Benedict XVI’s teachings as Pope, as a Cardinal and as a simple priest and teacher. Decidedly, there could not be any greater contrast between Benedict XVI and Francis!

Similarly, in the domain of the liturgy, lucid people saw it coming as far back as the 1930’s. Is modern man “no longer capable of a liturgical act” as Romano Guardini asked? Indeed, should we all become Quakers or atheists – stop outward religion altogether and busy ourselves with secular concerns or silent individual prayer? The real question is whether the Church’s spiritual work (Opus Dei) has to be adapted to secularism or whether man should learn and be progressively initiated into the mysteries through liturgical symbolism. What is the purpose of the Church? I understand why many people have left it to seek a spiritual life elsewhere.

The NLM article insists on the notion of education, not merely in the meaning of the liturgy, but a complete mystagogy. Going further, I know that it is “fashionable” to fustigate against modern schools, but we do find that young people are no longer articulate in their speech, writing and logical reasoning. We live in a post-rational era and need to return to the trivium in schools: grammar, logic and rhetoric. In classical education, there was then the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. There is little hope of that in our post-humanist era. The liturgy has more of a chance of meaning something to a properly functioning human being. On that intellectual and cultural basis, perhaps a person can have the idea of entering into a sacred space, another world, where chatter yields to silence and wonder. Catechesis needs to be added to this solid base of Bildung as the Germans call a particular notion of education from the Romantic era.

Liturgy is hard work. I lived through six months of the full Monastic Office, every Hour being sung in full or monotoned. I easily become saturated, and suffering from the liturgy is truly suffering. It is important to learn and study all we can about the liturgy.

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1 Response to Modernity and Christianity

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for the links (though I haven’t watched Anderson and Murray, yet) and these reflections!

    As I read along, your speaking of “acts and gestures of humanity and love for others” as being “a vital condition for spiritual life, but also a consequence of the spiritual” struck me immediately as being well applicable to liturgy, too, when read in a certain way.

    Your attention to Quakers somehow sparked me to thinking about hermits in comparison and contrast, and wondering if there was any kind of grateful overview of hermits and liturgy I could read – especially re. hermits who were not first priest-monks, but also priest-hermits. I have a sense – I think mostly from bits and bobs of Russian Orthodox reading – of hermits celebrating liturgies in full awareness that in doing so they were not simply alone but also participating with multitudinous others on earth and in heaven. But there is also the example of St. Gerlach, who walked from his hermitage daily in one direction to services at the St. Servatius Church in Maastricht, and on Sundays in the other to the Mass at the Dom in Aachen. Civic and ecclesiastical responses to ‘recent events’ have in one sense thrown any and all, to varying (extensive) degrees unprepared, into a sort of de facto eremiticism, yet one with opportunities to participate (again, to varying degrees – though often in simultaneously ‘real time’) in all sorts of liturgy (Sarum happily included).

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