With its transcendental orientation, however, the Phaedrus does not serve as the best starting point for examining the soul's links with the material world, or, collaterally, with the immanental aspects of the Godhead. The polarities of transcendence and immanence both exerted their fascination on Ficino, while, simultaneously, he refused to be polarized. Even when transcendental material comes to the fore, he picks up passing phrases to offset it, to restore the balance. The chariot's flight is not only a mystical ascent from darkness into light but a cosmic ride through the hierarchy of being, inpsired by love for the whole. The soul wishes not merely to flee to the One but to reach the One by way of a graduated ascent that takes her from one end of creation to the other and thus into all things.
- from Michael J.B. Allen's The Platonism of Marsilio Ficino
The main idea that has triumphed in modern thought is the absolute independence and subjectivity of every thinking subject. Knowledge, perception, and truth are deemed to be activities that we do and achieve on our own. No matter if you are a neo-scholastic, an existentialist, or a post-structuralist, all things must be proved from "the bottom up": from the lone subject, cut off from the world in some primordial epistemic cataclysm, to the illuminating reality outside of him. Following Cicero, the paradigm of man that determines our everyday lives is the "homo desertus": the man abandoned. This is the basis of our modern order: political, economic, philosophical, and theological.
Thus, the State never guides us on how to act, on what constitutes virtue and what vice, but rather lets us know what is permitted and what is not. The main protest of any citizen is always: "You can't tell me what to do". In the end, however, no one can. All decisions are, in the end, my decisions, without reference to cultural, political, or cosmic contexts. The subject is thus defined as being by himself, without external influences, and thus somehow inviolate.
In religion, this often manifests itself in the moment of the leap of Faith. One has to recapitulate the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac in every single individual circumstance. In the Kierkegaardean moment, man confronts the abyss, the cold and uncaring universe, and affirms the existence of a personal god at all costs, come what may. The ultimate absurdity of this always remains, just as uncertainty continues in the Cartesian "de omnibus dubitandum" even after one has re-constructed the rational universe in one's head. The religious man thus tries to nurse himself with certain aspects of religiosity to dull this ennui, whether it be historical legitimacy, liturgical aestheticism, or merely a sense of greater belonging. This has ceased to be religiosity properly speaking. It is a life-style choice among life-style choices. And God is not at the beginning of this process, but rather at the end, or rather an adornment, the "icing on the cake" that is never quite achieved.
In case you haven't noticed, there is a methodology to all that I write and post here. Two years after I have begun, the same questions have consumed me in all of my avatars. Whether or not I have written as a Catholic, an Anglican, an aficionado of the Orthodox Church, or anything else, I have always had one concern at heart: is God real anymore? Can absolute truth survive in a pluralistic society? And is there a "natural" basis necessary for belief?
At this stage in the game, I am beginning to conclude that in Christianity itself lies the seed of its own destruction. This is not surprising, since it is a faith of human beings and fallen human beings are often repulsed by the truth. At the dawn of the Church, Christians had to contend with paganism and a world where gods and demons were omnipresent. After we had destroyed all of the idols, many posit that we began to make new ones, and thus we had the flowering of sanctoral cults and cathedrals, legends and hymns that began to fill the void that the death of the old gods left in the human psyche.
With the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, however, we woke up and realized that such practices were contrary to "the Gospel", that we had slipped far from the monotheistic perspectives of ancient Judaism. So once again, in many places, we crushed the idols or at least regulated them, we expunged the legends from our collective consciousness, and we began to subjugate our "man-made" traditions to a higher scrutiny. For me, the ultimate triumph of this point of view came with the Document of the Second Vatican Council on Liturgy, where it reads:
To whatever extent may seem desirable, the hymns are to be restored to their original form, and whatever smacks of mythology or ill accords with Christian piety is to be removed or changed.
In this way, man becomes the supreme arbiter over all things divine. It is also very symptomatic of the idea that the visible ecclesiastical hierarchy is the only conduit of divine intervention in the world, the only thing that can be trusted. In the Roman Catholic Church at least, religion must be guaranteed by a legal authority in a universe devoid of the sacred.
Thus, in this age, the idea most corrosive to Christianity is not the old paganism (though it is still amusing to see Protestants accuse Catholics of idolatry), but rather a soft atheism, or even worse, an indifferent agnosticism. Man today likes a cold, insignificant universe since it will always allow him to behave according to his own devices. At the bottom of it all, such a world kills the imagination and ultimately the human spirit. Life becomes increasingly dis-integrated to the point that even the most sublime ideas and facets of our lives are compartmentalized and marginalized into the realm of fancy, hobby, and personal choice.
If we have forgotten one truth, then, it is that we are not alone in this universe, that the supernatural is very much all around us, and the sacred lies not at the end of knowledge, but rather at the beginning.
We can make an analogy to medicine, we can say that it would be akin to the effect antibiotics can have on the body. Many times, they can kill the dangerous viruses that harm us. But in the process of killing these dangerous organisms, it can also kill many of the organisms beneficial to us. Thus while having been saved from one particular form of illness, we are then afflicted with worse illnesses and our immune system is too weak to fight them. For our purposes here, what has been killed off is the imagination, religiosity and spirit of pagan polytheism and popular Roman Catholicism, and the anti-biotic was scientific and theological rationalism.
A similar phenomenon to the medical one conceived above is one which hits particularly close to home having grown up in rural California. When we would cut apricots as children, we noticed that the fruit would be covered with lady bugs. Normally, farmers don't want any critters crawling around their fruit. Lady bugs, however, ate aphids, and aphids ate apricots. It was better to have the fruit crawling with a benevolent parasite rather than a noxious one.
Renaissance Neoplatonists are often accused of being revivers of paganism in the West. The man who brought the works of Plato to the West was a Greek scholar by the name of Georgios Gemistos Plethon, a man who probably was a closet pagan in spite of being part of the emissaries sent by the Byzantine emperor for the Council of Florence. The indirect disciples of this mysterious Greek figure, such as Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandolla, often refer to Greek gods as if they were real. In truth, however, these gods were seen as paradigms that revealed the recesses of the human soul. They also revealed the interconnectedness of humanity with the cosmos, how we both influence and are influenced by the stars, earth, and spirits that we cannot see. The process by which we begin to know is thus the greatest ars memoriae, the remembering of Ideas and Forms that are present in all creation and yet transcends it.
Recently, I have written about some mischaracterizations that popular writers make about Platonic thought. Many think that Platonism is anti-corporeal and despises physical beauty as transitory. Nothing can be further from the truth. As Plato scholar Paul Friendlander puts it, in Plato, everyone taking the right path must first love one beautiful body and generate in it "beautiful words"; then recognize the one beauty in all beautiful bodies, becoming a lover of all. No one may omit these preliminary stages, beyond which leads the soul's path to beauty and upward. In the Platonists of the Renaissance, this concern for climbing the chain of being, from the smallest blade of grass to the apex of the divinity was both created and then left behind by a world seeking another form of control over the universe.
I am not recommending here a return to the astrology or use of amulets that the priest Ficino advocated during the Renaissance. As in all human endeavors, we have the gift of hindsight and we know now that even these things did not do much to fix the problem but rather made them worse. Nor am I advocating outright idolatry or an abandonment of orthodox theological practices. Perhaps what I am most advocating here is a particular attention to those parts of Catholicism that are being lost with the passing of the years. As we become more educated, as we become more theologically informed about the universe and history, we must never forget that we know very little in the great scheme of things, and perhaps our ancestors knew things that we have since forgotten. In my own mind, I am thinking that such things as posadas, bloody statues, strange family devotions and other aspects of Mexican folk Catholicism contain a wisdom that most theologians overlook. Catholicism may have an official "party line" theology on the surface, but at its roots and in its soil are beliefs and practices that seem almost "pagan" but in the end are necessary for the health of the Faith in the face of postmodernity.
But most of all, like the late Neoplatonists, I am perhaps asking all of us to consider that the perhaps the truth is not so much something that must be "understood" but rather re-enacted. In other words, our liturgy and doctrines are not so much catechetical tools in the modern sense, but rather re-capitulations of the Church as the transfigured cosmos. Our life in God resembles more a dance and less a lecture; our theology must be more like a hymn and less like an instruction manual. As in the philosophy of the pagan Iamblichus, these hymns and these dances are what call the graces of the Divine down to us, not our own cleverness or eloquent arguments.
I realize that these arguments must be very strange to most of the people reading this. I am, however, at a loss on how to break the solipsistic obsessions that plague the fields of knowledge in our society. It is no wonder that the human being, so mortal, weak, material, and alone, cannot obtain real certainty about anything; only a god, to quote Heidegger, can save him. The Word became flesh, and we are saved only through sanctified matter which allows us to climb back to the Heaven from which our minds have figuratively fallen. Religious ritual and piety are not the result of a clear philosophy of reality. They are, rather, at its origin. Only then will man be rescued from his modern malaise: through beauty, ritual, culture, and Faith.