The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Saturday, June 03, 2006

God Owes Us Nothing

A book by Lesek Kolakowski

"[Racine] asked what was wrong with innocent amusements, poetry, and theatre. But to [the Jansenists] everything was wrong with these things; there is simply no such thing as an innocent divertissement, for to amuse oneself is no less than to abandon God, even for a short time. Should we weep all the time and never laugh? asked Racine. Yes, exactly- was the [Jansenists] reply." [p.96]

I have had a very odd fascination with the Jansenists, if only as a phenomenon that I seek to understand. So when I saw this book, I had to buy it. I started reading it with the intention of sympathizing in some way with their cause. They lived in an epoch where they felt that Christianity was getting lukewarm and the sacred was coming under attack. They wanted to restore the Church to her ancient splendor and rigor, and turn back the tide of the modern world. Unknowingly, the system that they created was just as much a symptom of the modern crisis as the attitudes that they were fighting against, and Kolakowski does a fine job in exposing this.

I will start by saying that I am a "semi-Pelagian". I cannot help it, but I side more with St. John Cassian in the debate on the cooperation between the human will and divine grace than I do with St. Augustine. I don't think that our election as justified in the eyes of God takes place on a plain that is separate from our daily lives and struggles, at least from our point of view. Man does choose to be saved in a very real and not just in an indirect sense. Grace is primary, but not "sufficient" in a manner of speaking. Man, with the cooperation of God, without which we can do nothing, does save himself. While I realize that this creates a series of problems concerning the sovereignty of God and other issues, the position of St. Augustine and the Jansenists concerning irresitible grace creates a whole set of other nastier problems, the worst of which can be seen in Calvin's position on double predestination.

So much then, for the first part of this book, that deals with these issues. For me, though, the most interesting part of the Jansenist heresy are the intellectual and cultural aspects. The Jansenists wanted to return to the Church of the Fathers, or rather to the Church of The Father (St. Augustine). From this comes their infamous position on infrequent communion for the faithful and their continuous cry of "sancta sanctis" (holy things for the holy) that excluded most people from any real life in the Church. Becoming a small elite flock did not bother them at all; indeed, that is what they saw the early Church as.

Here again, we see the Don Quixote syndrome: they read books about the early Church and tried to apply it to their own time not realizing that what they were doing was creating their own distortion of what the Church should be like. Books cannot transmit the realities of the situation in which people lived. Just because certain things were written somewhere does not mean that they were applied strictly and rigidly. Such readings of history also tend to exclude other aspects of antiquity that do not necessarily agree with the vision that is trying to be put forward. It is true that the early Church had very strict canonical penances, but it also knew when to be lenient and merciful. It did not pass down a moral code but rather a cure for the selfish and sinful heart. Thus, these strict regulations were not things to be valued in themselves, but rather were a means to a higher end. The Jansenists did not quite understand this due to a very modern concept of law and morality.

What was most enlightening about this book was the time spent analyzing the most famous Jansenist of all: Blaise Pascal. Pascal seemed to have his feet in two realms at once: on the one hand, he was trying to defend the "ancient Church" from Jesuit modernism; on the other, he was very much a child of the post-Cartesian age. Pascal's philosophical point of view was post-metaphysical, i.e. he did not buy into the proofs of the divine order from creation that can be found in Aquinas or even Descartes. Pascal's universe was a gloomy one indeed, where the birds and the leaves no longer sang the praises of God; where nature was no longer God's temple, but something to be dissected and analyzed. His famous Pensees were in this sense an attempt to do apologetics in this climate of a dead and meaningless universe. It was an apologetics of fear and despair.

What do we say then after considering these things? The spiritual life, following St. John Cassian, is a matter of discernment. At some points, we have to apply rigor and strictness, at others we have to loosen the reins a bit. The trick is to know when to do what, and this is very difficult indeed. The Jansenists did not believe this, they thought they were doing best by steering very strictly toward one extreme. In this sense, they were creating a very modern totalitarian system under the guise of restoring the ancient Church.

As for our poor Pascal, I reply that it is the exaltation of wonder and awe that is the true method of convincing modern man of his errors. True, the marvels of temporal creation are fleeting and passing away, but they can serve as a ladder to ascend to that which does not pass away. It is our disconnection from true interaction with the physical universe that leads to atheism, not our attachment to it.

And even St. Anthony the Great, founder of Christian monasticism, played board games once in a while. So lighten up already!


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