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

Monday, April 16, 2007

Three Theological Fragments

An Apology

I have to apologize to you, my readers. Truth be told, there has been very little overtly theological content on this site of late. I have just been very, very busy. People should keep in mind when they read this blog that I am working my way through school, and many of you also know that there has been very important change in my life for which I thank God every single day. From now until about mid-May, therefore, there will be very few hardened theological reflections done on this blog because the time and energy necessary for such an analysis are simply not there. And I cannot guarantee that they will be there anytime in the near future.

Many of the links given on this blog can take you to sites where such discourse takes place, so I direct you, the reader, there. All that I can offer now are sporadic notes, random poems, and some links and brief reflections on things I have found while briefly reading other blogs (though I seldom even do that anymore). So if you want to stay on this ride, you are more than welcome. Just be aware of these limitations, and thank you once again for your readership.

God bless,

Arturo Vásquez

A Random Comment in Lecture

A few of you may know what I study here in Berkeley: Latin American Studies. This is a major that was more picked for me by my circumstances than chosen. True enough, I have lived in Latin America, and regular readers of this blog know about my devotion to Latin American poetry and literature. This is not a subject, however, that I am passionate about, and it is basically just a degree for me among others that I could have possibly gotten.

Nevertheless, I do encounter some rather interesting comments about Latin America and Roman Catholicism at times. My professor in the history of Brazil class that I am taking has done a great amount of field work in the Brazilian Northeast, and she has lived there for extended periods of time since the 1970’s. She has befriended all sorts of people there from all walks of life, including the clergy.

Many of you are aware of the inroads Pentecostalism is making in Latin America. In a discussion of this phenomenon, my professor contributed something that many members of the Roman Catholic clergy in the Northeast told her. These priests said that much of the pull of this new Protestant phenomenon came from the vacuum caused by the rationalization of Roman Catholicism since the 1960’s. That is to say, the fact that Vatican II wanted to make Catholicism into a religion of “grown-ups” (getting rid of certain devotions, “questionable” saints, etc.) has made people leave the Catholic Church, and it is many of the members of the clergy on the ground who are saying this, not just crazy traditionalists.

It’s odd that in Latin America, perhaps it was getting rid of the Mass in Latin, which few understood, that contributed to people flocking to churches where people shout gibberish that no one understands (the so-called "speaking in tongues). And as I have said before, when we assume ourselves to be the most mature and grown-up, perhaps only then are we being the most childish (and not child-like)….

Vox Clamantis in Deserto

Begin, my friend

for you cannot,

you may be sure,

take your song,

which drives all things out of mind,

with you to the other world.

(from Theocritus: Idyl I- A version from the Greek by William Carlos Williams)

All names and places on this blog are changed in order to protect the guilty (except for me, I’m never off the hook). But I have to write about a conversation I had recently, and here I will be especially fragmented so as not to offend the person I had the conversation with. Let us just say that he has had a spiritual journey that makes mine seem quite run-of-the-mill by comparison, and he ended up being a very educated and sincere magisterial Protestant.

One of the things that drew him away from the traditional apostolic Churches with which he had been involved was the idea of the whole Judeo-Christian experience being a religion of the tent. I found this idea to be very fascinating on so many levels. The People of God in the Old Testament were not allowed to represent God, to define God as being in one place, or to cling to anything that was not His promise. My friend thus defined the heart of the Gospel as radically Semitic, radically nomadic, and fundamentally based on covenant.

Also, (and I may get a lot of heat for this, but I’ll say it anyway), we both mutually agreed that Newman’s quip of “to truly know history is to cease to be Protestant” is based on very specious reasoning if taken at face value. Over and over again on this blog, in more than one religious avatar, I have said that history will do whatever you want it to do because, in the end, you weren’t there to see what the real intentions were of the people of the past. There were many Catholic moments in the early Church (St. Ignatius of Antioch, the Marian texts in St. Ireneus, etc.) but there were also many “Protestant” moments, not to mention “Orthodox” moments. I think Origen was in many places a very “Protestant” thinker (what of that place in the Contra Celsum where he says that Christians have no altar other than their hearts to offer up sacrifices to God? Calvin could not have said it better.). Good luck trying to propagandize about history. Just hope your opponent doesn’t have a source you don’t happen to know about.

Sacramentally, I am also an odd duck. I told my friend that I personally no longer see Holy Communion as a physical entrance of God into my body and soul (though it is that, and I am a firm believer in sacramental realism). Rather, I see it as a grafting of a person onto the Body of Christ. The Church is the Real Presence of Christ, the Real Presence in the Eucharist is subordinate to it as a means is subordinate to its end. Thus, when I receive Communion, I look to my fellow believers as the presence of Christ, not to myself. For the essence of God, as St. Basil says, is communion.

So am I just a Protestant who says “Hail Marys” or a peculiar Orthodox Christian who likes birettas. No. I am a firm believer that the Roman Catholic Church is the Church of Christ. I don’t think that this means I have any business telling the Holy Ghost where He can and cannot breathe. I just know that in my case, I know where I can receive God’s life, and I will remain there until my dying breath.

I also don’t like to get into arguments, especially with people who are as smart as or smarter than I am. So maybe I let my interlocutor slide too many times during this conversation out of fear that he had “heard it all before”. I have to respect the argument that the Gospel is a stark, Semitic, and stripped-down phenomenon. If an appreciation of various liturgies of the universal Church has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t really consider one liturgy more “apostolic” than others. The “exteriors” that we may become so attached to often have very arbitrary origins that were inflated with meaning over time. One can wonder then, what it would mean to worship God “in spirit and in truth”.

On the other hand, we can turn the Protestant argument on its head and ask whether the Semitic injunctions of the Law apply anymore. For the Law was truly nailed to the Tree in Christ, and if we still are zealous for the Law, we must remember that anyone who breaks even one law is guilty of breaking all of them. So perhaps all of our Roman Catholic “superstitions”, when treated in the right spirit, represent the fundamental freedom of the Gospel. While the religion of the desert had to strip man of his human inclinations vis-à-vis religion, it is only the Gospel that restores them purified in Christ.

The greatest argument is an argument from weakness. And the weakness as I have been pointing out recently is that of our own fallen human nature. The Roman Catholic Church as well as the churches in the East can claim institutional continuity with the church of the Apostles. So the only real objection I have now to magisterial Protestants, neo-Orthodox westerners, and reformers in my own church is the following: how do you know better than your ancestors what the Church of Christ is supposed to be like? I suppose if your ancestors were Calvinists, you would have to nuance this question a bit. Indeed, I think we Roman Catholics also have to nuance it in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The point, however, is to go back to the point in our history where we began to question the organic life of the Church, abandoning it for some theory of how history should have been. Perhaps I think many old devotions are tacky and almost superstitious. But can I really call them idolatry? Since when did I have more to teach than to learn?

Who knows? Perhaps all of these questions are unsolvable. Just for this, however, I am not going to throw everything overboard for my own theory of history. Neither will I deify the status quo of the Church by saying that its cowardice, confusion, and flaws are divinely instituted. What I will say is that we have the Gospel, we have Faith, and we have the Scriptures, just like the Protestants, but we also have much more. Ours is not a religion of the desert, for we are both in the Promised Land and on pilgrimage, both in the tent and at the foot of Mount Zion. That is the illogic, the irrationality, and the glorious humanity that is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.


At 10:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"That is the illogic, the irrationality, and the glorious humanity that is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church."

Paradox. The word is paradox.

At 3:26 PM, Blogger Levi said...


I've been reading your blog for some time now, and I enjoy it a lot. I'm young and consequently my understanding is limited. I guess I just wanted to know if you could elaborate on latter part of this entry. I don't exactly understand it; which is probably my fault.


At 3:45 PM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

Gosh, calling me sir! I feel so old. Well, I am pushing thirty, I suppose.

I guess I will just say that I am very pessimistic as to how much the intellect can possibly know about the most sublime mysteries of God and being. We are given that which is sufficient, but anything else is highly ambiguous at best.

I suppose I do not know why our past is not given the benefit of the doubt regardless of how much we think we might know. That is the fundamental intellectual problem that I have right now, not that I think about it much though.

And don't worry. More often than not I confuse myself.

I hope that answers some concerns. Thank you for your readership.

God bless,


At 5:01 PM, Blogger D. Benedict Andersen OSB said...

There were many Catholic moments in the early Church (St. Ignatius of Antioch, the Marian texts in St. Ireneus, etc.) but there were also many “Protestant” moments, not to mention “Orthodox” moments.

Is it possible that the difference between a sectarian mindset and a catholic mindset is that the catholic mindset is broad and generous enough to reconcile these seemingly contradictory "moments" within a common dogmatic/sacramental/spiritual framework?

For instance, I can't imagine that Origen's quoted "Protestant moment" is really that inimical to authentic Catholicism or Orthodoxy. I don't find anything alarming about Origen's idea, as long as it's understood within its proper context (e.g. the early Christians avoiding certain sacerdotal terms for fear of pagan connotations), and as long as it's not isolated from the whole of the tradition.

It is far easier to integrate Origen's understanding into Catholic or Orthodox spirituality than it is for Protestants to deal with Ignatius of Antioch on episcopacy or the Eucharist.

At 5:07 PM, Blogger D. Benedict Andersen OSB said...

PS – I do agree with you to a great extent about there being both "Orthodox" and "Catholic" moments in the early Church and the Fathers. As I commented before, I've come to the conclusion that the whole RC-EO controversy about primacy and conciliarity cannot really be settled by an appeal to the Fathers. There's a lot of support in the early centuries for both positions, and I'm not sure that any later polemical take can account for all of the data in a completely satisfactory way. I'm not trying to relativize the claims of either Church; but I am saying that things are not nearly as clear cut as apologists and polemicists on both sides are willing to admit.

At 8:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Lord speaks to Peter and to Peter's successors:

"Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren." (Luke 22:31-32 RSV)

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