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

Friday, July 27, 2007

Reading Christianity

Plato used mathematical language as a cloaking device, casting it as it were over the terms, and [veiling] the true nature of things, just as the Theologians used myths, and the Pythagoreans used symbols for the same purpose.

-Proclus, Commentary on the First Book of Euclid's Elements. Cited in Sara Rappe's Reading Neoplatonism

Granted, these are the words of a pagan, but they can give us some insight into how we read and assimiliate what we believe, and whether or not we are doing it correctly. Even in the Gospels, Our Lord spoke in parables so that "in seeing they may not perceive, and hearing they may hear but not understand". In the ancient world, a text was not just venerated for what it revealed, but also for what it hid. What was hidden was deemed to be ineffable, wonderful, and far above anything the un-transformed human mind could conceive.

Of course, the first approach that comes to mind in thinking of these things is the Protestant approach. If we take into consideration how a text was read in the ancient world, we will find that sola scriptura applies the ways of an apple to an orange. Or better yet, it is like reading Shakespeare as one would read a Japanese manual to program your DVD player. If the text is not merely trying to transmit a set of ideas or propostions, but rather at times is a manifestation of verbal symbolism that transmits a new divine life, then one cannot simply sit down and read it as one's whim dictates. Nor is it intended for mass distribution so that anyone, no matter how uninitiated, can pick the Scriptures up and pontificate on them. Need we be reminded that even the epistles of St. Paul were meant to be read out loud in the assembly of the faithful? To read them privately using one's own criterion of interpretation is thus not really normal; again, it is like reading the lyrics of a song to oneself instead of listening to the song itself.

But I would not simply limit this critique to Protestantism, lest I leave us Catholics off the hook. For we have our own version of distorting the ancient approach to truth, but we use catechisms and acts of the Magisterium to do it instead of just using the Scriptures. Anyone who has perused Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma will know what I am talking about. Here, we acheive a stale transmission of the Gospel in which Christianity is a set of propostions and procedures that must be passed down in technical code. I have decried this phenomenon many times on this blog; a sense that we Catholics have the only true immaculate data set, and all others are defective. Christianity as communion and as a way of life is thus confined to the background, forever a phenomenon that we have lost since we apply the same criteria of knowledge that we use in analyzing a computer program to contemplating the things of God.

Certainly I will concede that Faith comes through hearing, and in hearing we are supposed to understand. But we must understand with humility. The act of reading all things that touch upon our Faith puts us, the reader, in a position of weakness and submission to something much greater and more powerful than our lowly mortal minds. If only we would approach these things with reverence, as direct images of the Divine, then we would better understand what the Gospels are all about.

The soul therefore was never a writing-tablet bare of inscriptions; she is a tablet that has always been inscribed and is always writing itself and being written on by the Nous.

-Proclus, ibid

Let us then let the Gospel, the Eternal Word, read and write us...


At 5:57 PM, Blogger Mack Ramer said...

Are you praising Ludwig Ott, or not? I'm not familiar with him, so I'm confused.

At 6:10 PM, Blogger Mack Ramer said...

Also, I just came across a passage in Pope Benedict's new book Jesus of Nazareth that made me think of your post:

"The saints are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture. Interpretation of Scripture can never be a purely academic affair, and it cannot be relegated to the purely historical. Scripture is full of potential for the future, a potential that can only be opened up when someone 'lives through' and 'suffers through' the sacred text." (p. 78)

You should check this book out, I think you would like it!

At 6:31 PM, Blogger A.B. said...

If one reads Ludwig Ott and considers the Catholic faith a mere "set of propositions" then of course that is a problem. All of these things must be mere guides towards our intimate journey to the Divine Majesty. The problem is not with Ludwig Ott's works but in our often mechanical approach to the Faith which is not some intellectual game we play but must first and foremost must be a life lived integrally as you point out.

On a related topic, I have also lamented how some Catholics will read moral theology manuals in such a legalistic fashion completely missing the point of the Christian life.

Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. whom some might say is too "dry" I believe understood the essence of the interior life: "...the interior life is in a soul that is in the state of grace, especially a life of humility, abnegation, faith, hope, and charity, with the peace given by the progressive subordination of our feelings and wishes to the love of God, who will be the object of our beatitude. Hence, to have an interior life, an exceedingly active exterior apostolate does not suffice, nor does great theological knowledge. Nor is the latter necessary. A generous beginner, who already has a genuine spirit of abnegation and prayer, already possesses a true interior life which ought to continue developing."

We can meditate profoundly on the famous story of St. Thomas Aquinas who after years devoted to a love of truth masterfully laid out in his Summa was forced to say in the end that all of this was as straw compared to the grandeur, beauty and majesty of God.

At 7:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, those cursed Neoplatonists. That was back when pagan philosophy was actually philosophy and not mere mathematics. Your fondness for them increases my fondness for you, PI.

Orthodox Christian and philosopher Eric Perl is coming out with a book on St. Dionysius and the Neoplatonists called "Theophany." There should be quite a bit on Plotinus, Proclus, and the PI in there. Beloved, let us read it with relish.

As to your comments, I wholly agree that reading the Bible with the Church means reading the book of the one ecclesia of the One with, in, through, and from its liturgical expression. Want to understand the book? Go to its church. It has to be tasted and seen to be understood. This is precisely why liturgical, hymnal, artistic, etc. confusion is so deeply troubling.

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Jim said...

No argument at all about receiving Jesus' words with humbleness and submission, nor about the priority of interpretive communities, nor about the need frankly to wrestle with God.

But remember that Jesus quoted the Isaiah 6 passage while explaining his parables in private to his disciples (Mark 4.10-12). So while he spoke orally in parables, the text says that it provides us the key to understand what Jesus was saying.

Mark makes it manifest just a few verses later: "He did not speak to them without a parable; but he was explaining everything privately to his own disciples" (Mk 4.34).

Similary in John: "These things I have spoekn to you in proverbs; an hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in proverbs, but will tell you plainly of the Father. . . . His disciples said, 'Lo, now you are speaking plainly and are not saying a proverb" (Jn 16.25, 29).

Of course, the problem isn't entirely one of misunderstanding hidden meanings in texts. Jesus can tell us plainly, but our own sin and uncleanness hide it from us, which seems to point of Jesus' ironic comment in John 16.31, in response to the disciples' confession in vv. 29-30.

At 6:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think "New Liturgical Movement" would see the modern and multicultural reasons, as well as musical talent and aurical beauty of utilizing hip hop music star's AKON's BLAME IT ON ME during the confessional or after the Agnus Dei.

BLAME IT ON ME by AKON is very well done, catchy, and a profound almost Augustinian Confessional element demonstrating confession, and repetance with a catchy and modern theme recognizable by many young people especially.
This will be an incredible tool for apostolate for African Americans and younger people across the globe.

Also maybe some Masses or other liturgical works like in the past done to Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Schubert to Kanye West's Jesus Walks or Diamonds of Sierra Leone.

The late Biggie Small had an excellent Psalm 23 rendition to both melodic music as well as spoken word known as rap, not unlike Gregorian chant.

At 7:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't ask for Tupac's Mama for Mothers Day or a May Day Crowning.

Biggie may have been Catholic and went to Catholic schools.

P-Diddy formerly Puff Daddy went to Catholic schools. JLo formerly Jennifer Lopez went to Catholic schools.

At 11:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

t is generally assumed that there is no room within Christianity for accepting the concept of Sanatana Dharma, or what in the west has been called philosophia perennis or priscorium. This Sophia perennis, to use a phrase preferred by Wolfgang Smith holds that certain metaphysical truths, and hence access to a knowledge of the divine, have always been available throughout history and are to be found within the framework of every valid religious tradition.

First of all it should be clear that such a concept in no way contradicts the principle Extra eclesia nulla salus - that outside the Church there is no salvation. If one understands this principle in the way the Church has always understood it, one accepts the fact that there are individuals who, as Saint Pius X put it, belong to the soul of the Church. Such individuals are "invincibly ignorant" of the manifest Church, and certainly before the coming of Christ, the ark of salvation had to take other forms.

It is also necessary to consider history, not as a progressive advance from primitive times to the present "enlightened" era but more realistically as a continuous degeneration from a former golden age. Adam's fall from paradise is a paradigm for understanding the present situation. God did not abandon His creation and Adam found regeneration, and is indeed considered by the Church to be a saint. In ancient days, saving revelation, in accordance with man’s more "direct" apprehension of truth, was appropriately more "simple. With each succeeding "fall," God provided more stringent requirements for man to follow if he sought to reverse the process of degeneration, until the time of Moses when the rules required encompassed every aspect of life. This is well reflected in the Sacrifice of Abel, followed by that of Abraham, and finally by that established through the medium of Moses. Yet throughout all this we have the Sacrifice of Melchisedech, renewed once again in Christ.

Such an attitude is not a carte blanche for every religion that comes down the pike. If salvation is possible outside of the formal structure of the Church, as must have been the case at least before the coming of Christ, one must remember that one cannot be saved by error. It is Truth alone that saves. And so it follows that salvation comes to us by the Divine Logos which Logos exists and existed from the beginning of time, for "in the beginning was the Word."

The early Church fathers were faced with the plethora of old religious forms which were degenerate in the extreme. They followed one of two courses. They either declared that Christianity had the fullness of the Truth and that therefore there was no need to look elsewhere, or they held that all truth, no matter where it was found, belonged to the integrity of the Faith, and was therefore to be accepted, absorbed, and embraced. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, quoting St. Ambrose, "all truth, no matter where it is found, has the Holy Spirit for its author." In a similar manner, St. Jerome all but adopted the Buddha’s life story and Christianized it as we have in the hagiographical account of.St Josephat.

Catholic Saints have recognized this reality throughout the centuries. St. Justus referred to Heraclitus as "a Christian before Christ," and Eckhart spoke of an ancient sage in the following terms: "One of our most ancient philosophers who found the truth long, long before God’s birth ere ever there was a Christian faith at all as it is now." Thomas of Villenova taught the same doctrine: "Our religion is from the beginning of the world. A great Christian was Abraham; a great Christian was Moses; so also David and all the patriarchs. They adored the same God, believed the same mysteries and expected the same resurrection and judgment. They had the same precepts, manners, affections, desires, thoughts, and modes of life; so that if you saw Abraham, and Moses, and David with Peter and Andrew and Augustine and Jerome, you would observe, in all essential things, a perfect identity." One could multiply such quotations but such serves no purpose as long as the principles are understood.

Against this we seemingly have Augustine’s retraction which he wrote at the end of his life in an attempt to correct any misunderstanding that his works might lead to. This Retraction runs as follows: "The very thing that is now called the Christian religion was not wanting among the ancients from the beginning of the human race, until Christ came in the flesh, after which the true religion, which had already existed, began to be called ‘Christian.’"

A closer examination of this retraction however requires an understanding of its reference. The earlier statement occurs in a passage of De Vera Religione (X.19) wherein Augustine explains that "the soul, crushed by the sins which envelope it, would be unable to rise towards the divine realities unless there was found within the human sphere something which would allow man to rise from the earthly life, and to renew in himself the image of God. For this reason God, in his infinite mercy, has established a temporal means by which men may be recalled to their original perfection, and by which God comes to the help of each particular individual and of the human race." St. Augustine then adds: "That is in our times the Christian religion, to know and to follow which is the most secure and certain salvation."

In passing it should be noted that Augustine speaks of the "human race," and not just of the Jewish religion with which of course Christianity has a very close connections. Again, St Justin stated: "God is the Word of whom the whole human race are partakers, and those who lived according to Reason are Christians even though accounted atheists." He included in these, not only Heraclitus, but also Socrates and Abraham.

It was this last sentence that Augustine wished to clarify, explaining that in his retraction he had made use of the term "Christian religion" but had failed to express the reality which lies behind the name. To quote him again, "It is said according to this name, not in accord with the thing itself, of which is the name." . To make this even clearer Augustine adds: "When, in fact, following the resurrection and ascension into heaven, the Apostles began to preach and many persons came to believe, it was among the people of Antioch - so it is written - that the disciples were first called Christians. This is the reason why I said, ‘That is in our times the Christian religion’; not because in earlier times it did not exist, but because in later times this name was accepted."

And so it is that it is possible for a Catholic to hold to the position usually described as "perennial or universal philosophy." The only requirement is that he hold to it as a Catholic who accepts all the teachings of the Church as encompassed in the traditional Magisterium, and this for the simple reason that if one steps outside the Magisterium and entertains one’s own personal opinion as being "true," one contradicts all that the sanatana dharma holds sacred.

All this has little to do with the false ecumenism that seems to pervade the atmosphere in our days, an ecumenism that would accept not only Protestantism, but every new age deviation imaginable on - as Vatican II puts it - "on an equal footing." This ecumenical outreach often extends itself to Eastern religions where those responsible have little true knowledge and understanding. For example, many will speak of the Trinity in Hinduism as being represented by the exclamation of sat chit ananda - which is perhaps best translated as being, knowledge and bliss - names of God equivalent in Islam to qudrah, hikmah and rahmah.. The Hindu Trinity of Powers consists of the solar Father above, a fiery Son on earth (whence he ascends to heaven), and the Gale of their common spiration. St. Frances of Sales warned against those who speak of other religions without adequate knowledge, and indeed, even for those familiar with their own theological terminology (which is rare among current scholars), would have difficulty in understanding ways of expression foreign to their intellectual world.

And so it is that we as faithful Christians can, and indeed must accept the idea of a sophia perennis. Wisdom has always been there, it is Christ, the Word made flesh who opens the door and the Church which gives us access to it.

At 11:46 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

Matt and A.B.,

I have nothing against Ludwig Ott or Garrigou-Lagrange. Taken in the rigth context, I love Thomism and acts of the Magisterium. But we have to keep in mind that they are signposts and not the end all and be all of the road.


Agreed, but I would ask if we are stuck in an unresolvable bind. On the one hand, if we are so concerned to have an "authentic", "unconfused" ancient liturgy, in the end we become the worst subjectivists imaginable. All we are doing is making a life-style choice in the midst of life-style choices i.e. driving past many, many churches in order to get to that one church with a real liturgy (the Latin Mass, the Divine Liturgy in Old Slavonic, etc.) When you have lost the language of that ancient ethos, no amount of exposure to the old liturgies will make you less postmodern than you already are.

And of course, the regime of innovation that reigns in much of Christendom has obvious pitfalls that I will not go into.


Thank you for calling my bluff. You make good points. I would only say, however, that the method by which the Gospel was passed on in the early Church was one of gradual initiation and not passing out minature King James Bibles on street corners. That was the whole issue of primitive liturgies of dismissing the catechumens for certain parts of the liturgy (from which the word "Mass" comes from: "ita missa est"). Maybe our Faith is meant to be understood by many, but we must still follow the injunction of not casting our pearls before swine.

In this sense, Christianity was born as a mystery religion similar to the ones it was competing with at its birth.

Seond anon.,

I do not condone the use of hip-hop in church services. If you want to blast that sh#@ from your pimped-ut ride, that is another issue entirely.

Ben Rama,

You need to start your own blog. I would totally read it.

At 11:47 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

"pimped-ut" above should read "pimped-out"

My bad.

At 5:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are overdoing the initiation rite, pearls before swine thing.

Christianity may have been competing with and have elements of a mystery religion but is not an esoeteric religion and is universalist especially after the teachings of Paul.

Neither Jew nor Greek Male nor female.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.

Also, swine and pearls are not what we always think.
Blessed are the poor
Blessed are the meek

At 10:40 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

Fr. von Balthasar,

Welcome back from the dead. Loved Cosmic Liturgy, by the way...

Perhaps the reference to mystery religions is a bit specious, but the concept of mediation of the truth is not. That is, Christian truth is not meant to be something that is received privately and then taken to the social level. This paradigm is best seen in the Jack Chick comics, when someone falls to the floor in tears and accepts Jesus Christ as his "personal Lord and Savior" (this phrase has always irritated me to no end).

At least in its newer evangelical manifestations, it would seem that the Church in Protestantism is more a loose confederation of believers rather than the Body of Christ. While Protestants will argue to no end about a real spiritual bond of their churches, the apparent reality of the situation makes this very much a ghostly, superficial bond. That which does not look united is not united, but I digress...

The main point is that without some sort of communal bond in which the believer is subservient to the whole, there is no authentic Christian truth. The Christian must be disposed to listen more than to speak, not only to the present Church but to the Church throughout the ages starting at Adam. That is an epistemological position that is a far cry from how we approach knowledge in our day to day lives in the 21st century.

At 9:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read Jack Chick for humor.

The creation of Islam is hilarious.

Also, the Jesuit stuff.

The Godfather one is very good also.

There is a difference between an authentic Christian community and legitimate initiation (after a fairly universal invitation) and initiation in a mystery religious sense.

If I was not Catholic--probably Pythagorian.

Probably not a ressurrection from the dead but legitimate death to life communication.

At 7:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too much neoplatonism and mystery religion nonsense with pseudo iambichus.

At 12:48 PM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

Last Anon.,

Look, most Christian theology is just plagiarized Neoplatonism. That may be an extreme statement, since Neoplatonism and Patristic thought were emerging and competing each other at around the same time. I used to really love reading Orthodox theology, then I realized that there was nothing unique about it nor is it any more apostolic than Porphyry or Damascius. To say that some roots are clean and others are not is a rather specious proposition.

By the time we get to Dionysius the Areopagite, we are just reading Proclus plagiarized wholesale. This too might be a bit of an exaggeration, but even the name of the treatise, "On the Divine Names" was something found in Neoplatonism, as were the uses of the the names for God as "One", Good", etc.

And let us remember that even in the "safe and orthodox" St. Thomas Aquinas, after Augustine, it is Dionysius who is the most cited Church Father.

So I love me some Iamblichus, Plotinus, etc. not because I think they are "authentically Christian", but rather because I think that it is our fundamental human condition to come forth from God and then return towards Him. That merits our respect, in spite of their paganism.

At 11:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

we should burn pseudo-iamblichus at the syncretic, neopagan, ecclectic, STAKE

At 7:49 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

I'm the only Grand Inquisitor around here, buddy!

At 9:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What if words have two meanings?

What if there is a code, not just in the now fairly debunked Torah or Bible code but the long established tradition in Judaism of Gematria and Kabbalah where there are numeric codes to letter equivalent or word equivalents.
So there is a code based on Hebrew letter and math that is needed to read the Torah. Or the Serifot or other symbols.

or symbols as in the occult that one must meditate upon and get in an alternative state of consciousness to open those symbols

Christianity seems to be filled with symbols and hidden and deeper meanings and secrets--not a la the relatively silly DaVinci Code.
But Pelicans, and fishes, and Phoenixes, and lambs, and Trees, and analogies, and other religions.

You cite Mystery religions--the story of the cat god idol falling to the baby Jesus
What did Jesus learn in the Flight to Egypt--the library at Alexandria would of been standing.
The Coptic Jews would of existed although without the Ark of the Covenant in Axum perhaps.
Jesus would of been exposed to PLATO, PYTHAGORAS in Egypt as well as Mystery religions and the traditions of Egypt.

If Orthodox (Eastern Orthodox or Miaphyte/Monosphyte Oriental Christianity) is merely the older pagan philosophy you say--than why would you preclude esoteric teachings--the initiations you speak of go much deeper and are somewhat but poorly recreated without much understanding by masonic ritual.

Please respond.

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