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

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"The Interior Life"

Rather than attempting to build Christianity upon the natural virtues of Inca religion in the Andes, the Jesuits in Juli had come to see Andean customs and beliefs as a serious hinderance to the faith of Christ. The sixteenth-century emphasis on the interior experience of Christianity, which created much higher standards for native converts than had existed in preceding centuries, meant that the Jesuit's disillusionment with the native potential for Christian evangelization would be experienced throughout the Peruvian church. Eventually, the conviction that they native peoples were not truly "Christian" would lead to episcopal campaigns in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to extirpate idolatry, as well as to modern notions that Andean peoples are "cryptopagans" even when they profess a belief in Christ.

-Sabine Hyland, The Jesuit and the Incas

What does it mean to be converted? Are we really converted now? Are we ever?

Reading this paragraph, I was really fascinated by some of the historical and theological themes briefly touched upon by Dr. Hyland. First of all, there is an implication that what we would consider as "inner assent" may be a very recent and even artificial phenomenon. Even the Spanish themselves at this time were undergoing the assimilation of the last wave of Jewish and Muslim converts, and there were many doubts as to whether they had really converted. How much "conversion" was good enough for the Spanish conquerors? Was it a level of conversion that, say, a Spanish peasant even had? Or was there a racist implication that non-white people could not possibly convert in their hearts?

Thus, we encounter what is perhaps one assumption behind the Reformation and Devotio Moderna: that there is a difference between simple belief and true Faith. There is an implication that the purity of one's Faith needs to tested, and all non-Christian "superstitions" need to be extracted. One of the most "superstitous" people I have ever known was my own grandmother, who probably prayed and believed things that would make most Protestant and reformed Roman Catholics recoil in horror. But she was one of the most Christian people I have ever met.

How was her prayer life? Her understanding of Catholic doctrine? Did she ever say or do anything that would have been against petit-bourgeois decorum? Probably. But when I read the Gospels, I see in my mind women just like my grandmother front in center during the Sermon on the Mount.

Deep belief and deep conversion are necessary. I am not arguing that. I am arguing that perhaps we really don't know what it is. Actions speak louder than words.

During the conquest of the Americas, Christianity as a whole failed a large number of people. Indigenous people were thought to be barbarians whose previous existence only merited being stamped out from memory. African slaves were brought over in the millions and in many places barely catechized, and up to very recently the churches themselves failed to challenge racist behaviors in how they treated most of their faithful.

On the other hand, many of these faithful truly learned the vocation of being a Christian: to be marginalized, derided, and rejected by those with power. In the process by which the "real" Christians had their victory march through history, it was perhaps many of the darker skinned peoples who were stepped on who won the true crown.


At 9:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very profound post.

Something most traditionalists don't disuss.

Too late and tired to discuss too much.

However, I agree that Catholicism (which I believe to be objective truth) did fail the indigenous (Indians) people of the Americas and African slaves for the most part (with some notable exceptions).

What do you think of the efforts of
Roberto DeNobeli
Matteo Ricci
the Jesuits in North America?

good post

At 11:16 PM, Blogger Archistrategos said...

I once read, in an essay, that the reason the Philippines was so easily converted to Catholicism was because the Sto. Nino, the symbolic figurehead of the foreign religion, served as the last-- and highest-- of the old pagan gods. When Magellan brought the image pit senor with him, he had no idea that such an image, probably mass-produced and of little artistic value, was to provide the defining link, the necessary transition, between the pagan and Christian cultures.

When I study the religious devotion of my own countrymen, I am no longer shocked to find that many of these rituals now used to honor the saints were once offered to nameless gods and spirits. The ati-atihan, for example, was originally a rain dance for a strange deity; nowadays, it is one of the most popular devotions to the Christ Child.

It is very easy for many traditionalists to pine for a nostalgic, 'this is how it all was before' mentality, but deep down, do they even realize that such a status quo would not have been possible without the sacrifice of millions of nameless, faceless souls? Christianity is that crowd which speaks in hushed, well-bred tones and knows what page of the missal to turn to; the 'indios' are described as superstitious, shallow, and possessed of 'una devocion horrorosa', as one observe once put it. This says alot about what we consider to be Christian: is it merely doctrine and faith and morals? What of those souls who waited to see and touch Christ in vain? What of the multitudes who thronged to see Him perform wonders?

I would much rather stick to the marginalized and oft-derided faith of the poor; it is at least a lot more interesting, and probably closer to the apocalypse that pervaded the Early Church. To, it always spoke of a faith far more profound than what theology can offer.

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