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

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

On the Church and Language


Or: On Pizza, Beer, Machine Guns, Transliterated Greek Words, Argentine Sedevacantism, Taxi Cabs and Other Attractions of My Theological Freak Show

Sometimes I think that there is no such thing as Roman Catholicism. Rather, there are Roman Catholicisms. My religious experiences with Mexicans and Argentines seem so far removed from any conversations about religion that I have in this country among "non-Latins". There is an antiseptic, dry quality to everything that is said in the United States about the Roman Catholic Church. This quality even penetrates to the fringes and extremes of any Catholic phenomenon in this country.

When we were occasionally let out of seminary in Argentina, I would sometimes be able to go into the actual city of Buenos Aires to see the sights and take a break from the usual diet of gruel and water. A few times, I went out with my best friend Nico, another bohemian who had no business being an SSPX seminarian, to spread clerical terror in the land of the porteños. One of my favorite things to do was to go to San Telmo, the old part of the city, and have some beer and pizza. Now, Argentine pizza is different from the pizza we have here: it is much less greasy, the crust is thicker, and it has less of a sense of being a type of fast food. And it goes wonderfully with a nice Argentine beer.

During many of these conversations, Nico would fill me in on all of the ins and outs of Argentine Roman Catholic traditionalism. One thing you have to understand is that Argentines become traditionalists for an entirely different set of reasons than Americans do. For them, it is more an issue of political ideology than anything else. Nico would tell me about how his family had a friend who though always a civilian, still found a way to participate in all of the coup d'etats from Peron's first fall in 1955 onward. (I think he said that this man had a jeep with a mounted machine gun on the back in his private garage.) These were the type of people who became traditionalist: people who thought the Patria was going to hell in a handbasket and that the Masons and those hijos de p%#a leftist bishops were spreading Marxism in the pews.

Like all Catholic traditionalism, there were factions, and among those factions, there were many sedevacantists. (Indeed, the seminary at La Reja divided in two during the early 1990's, with the old rector and many seminarians who held the sedevacantist position leaving in order to form their own seminary. They are still kicking around somewhere at the foot of the Andes.) Nico told me once that there was a type of sedevacantists who often never went to Mass at all, sort of like the Old Believers in Russia:

"Son disandristas", he said.

Disandrists, he explained, are followers of the great Argentine classical philologist Carlos Alberto Disandro (pictured above), and unlike the vast majority of sedevacantists, his objections to the legitimacy of the Roman Church coming out of Vatican II centered not just on Thomistic arguments, but on his readings of the Greek Fathers of the Church. Admittedly, this was all just a cover-up for his pseudo-fascism and anti-Semitism, but some of the reasons he gave were rather fascinating. And, hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. And while I was there, I read the polemics of the SSPX against Disandro saying that his ideas bordered on Gnosticism and crypto-paganism.

Being a nosy inquirer into all things strange, recently Disandro has been on my mind. To my surprise, the library here in Berkeley has a few of his works, mostly on classical Greek poetry. But there is one book that I found in storage of Disandro, a compendium of three works he put together under the title, The Judeo-Christian Heresy. I have recently read through much of it, and I will comment here mostly on the second essay, "Saint Stephen, Protomartyr: A Reply to Cardinal Danielou".

The book begins with a bold statement in the introduction:

Firstly, the founding base of the Church is the Mysteric Cult, the Sacred Act, not the Bible. The Bible is the least significant level of the Mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos, and therefore cannot govern the life of the Church.

Thus, a Biblical philology that is of Jewish inspiration, or Judeo-Christian, such as the one that the Sacred Councils neutralized and unseated up until the eight century and beyond, as well as the Holy Fathers in the same vein, is a powerful poison against the life of the Church.


The central essay on St. Stephen was a response to a visit of Jean Cardinal Danielou, S.J. to Argentina. For Disandro, Danielou was one of the major representatives of a new Judaizing tendency that had taken over the Church. The compelling argument in the essay was that, unlike the ecumenical talk of the validity of the Old Convenant coming out of Vatican II, the recounting in the Book of Acts of the first martyrdom of St. Stephen represented a much more radical break from the Synagogue than many contemporary theologians care to admit:

...in the interpretation of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine the martyrdom of the Hellenic deacon Stephen posits itself as a theological paradigm and announces the profound mystery of the metanoia of all men, especially of the obsolete fate of Israel, whatever it might be. That announcement prefigures the attribute of katholike for the Ecclesia that has no need of an Israel, nor of a Zarathustra, a Socrates or a Gandhi, since it has another principle of historical growth that is not corrupted by a decadent priesthood, a ridiculous and abject eroticism, nor the cultic fornication with all the demons of the vast and awe-inspiring air.

In the convoluted prose of the Argentine scholar, an indictment shines forth of modern approaches to looking at the world. If one can only cut through his reactionary posturing, one sees a man who has profoundly thought about what it means to think, act, and believe. Although there are all sorts of problems with his arguments (he's a sedevacantist for crying out loud!) there are many passages that challenge our views of things in his rather pithy and polemical book. One such long passage I will translate here for the sake of my American readers:

Such as there exists the absolute Incarnation of the Logos or the Son of Man that cannot be substituted, nor completed, nor perfected, and even though it occurs in human history, it overflows, fulfills, and transfigures anothen(as St. John says), thus there exists a holy semantic model that cannot be substituted, or completed, or perfected, and even if it occurs in the heart of linguistic history, it assumes that meaning of the highest level of concrete sacredness. This Greek semantic model is congruent with the trinitarian mystery and is manifested in the cult... and since the New Testament is the light of the Old, Greek sacredness is superior to that of the Hebrew, insofar as the latter corresponds to the ministry of the angels and the former corresponds to the reality of the abyss of celestial Theantropia... No language can be of greater sigificative profundity than Greek and none can express better the trinitarian depth of Revelation.

So much for that, Origen! But our Argentine sedevacantist has a profoudly Neoplatonic view of what it means to know. Doctrine is not just a series of lessons to be learned, but an initiation into a series of transfigurative truths. So it is not just about what is said, but how it is said. And in that sense, some means of communication are much more privileged than others. You will have to excuse me, but I must include as well one final long quote:

...the Church as Sacramentum Trinitatis is not founded on the letter, nor does it need the Letter; but insofar as the Logos is the vicarial assumed event that incorporates the semantic breath of man, it assumes all of its concrete structural instances. The letter of the Gospel is thus a sacramental sign of the theandric breath, a sacred respiration from its divine bridge, a holy semantics from an inviolate Greek that reassumes according to the capacity of the letter the mysterious movements and shadows of the Trinitarian life. Before this text we fall in worship not to adore nor to Judaize the letter as the fount of Life, but rather to listen to the breath, to journey in its ways, live in its dwellings, and to recognize the celestial sound of the humanized Logos.

No wonder he's a traditionalist: he has just undermined the entire epistemological base for the Vatican liturgical reforms of the 1960's. The Word is not Letter. It is not something to be "read" and "understood", but rather it is something that must be heard and worshiped. Thus, why not chant the Word in Latin or Greek rather than try to understand "what it says"? The idea of a "Liturgy of the Word" as opposed to a "Liturgy of the Eucharist" is a reversion to the letter, to the simulacrum and to the shadow. For the letter:

...is also to be transfigured, and for this reason the inviolate Church receives the inviolate letter, in expectation of that mysterious creature that contains in a perfect manner the abyss of divine-humanity.

(Of course, what I don't understand about his argument is why he would defend the Mass in Latin. While he praises the Hellenic mind, the "cult" he advocates is not in "theandric" Greek. Maybe, in another context, he would have become Orthodox, but that would have opened up another can of worms.)

What I find interesting is how these arguments could be applied to some of the Catholic blogs that I read. Most of them are involved in the rather Sisyphean exercise of trying to convince Protestants that Protestantism is not Scriptural. But, if we consider the premises of our sedevacantist philologist, the Christian Faith does not have its primary basis in Scripture: it resides rather in the "Mysteric Cult", the Eucharist, and the power of God. Indeed, it has been refered to me several times that primitive Christianity may have spread not primarily through the persuasive preaching of the first followers of Christ, but rather through all of the miracles of the early Church. Early Christianity may have been more shamanistic than we would like to concede. Indeed, as Disandro points out, the primary presence of God in Israel during its Golden Age was not the presence of God in the Torah or the word, but rather in the Shekinah of the Temple, the Light of Glory:

Quam dilecta sunt tabernacula tua, Domine virtutum...

Thus, trying to persuade people that Catholicism is the true "religion of the Book" is a bit like trying to make an atomic bomb out of gum wrappers and rubber bands. The real foundation of our religion is elsewhere. (And not, as I would say, in ecclesiastical authority either, as some would wish to believe, but that is the subject of another post entirely, and it is past my bedtime.)

It's funny to read a sedevacantist who sounds more like a porteño Alexander Schmemann than Cardinal Cajetan's mentally handicapped cousin. But those are just the people you meet. What do you expect from a country whose middle class intelligentsia has few ambitions to use their book learning for anything useful? As my friend Nico once told me when he left seminary at the same time I did:

I can either study something I like and end up driving a taxi, or I can study something useful and still end up driving a taxi.

Last time I heard, he was going to law school just to have something to do. I wonder if he's a good driver...

16 Comments:

At 6:39 AM, Anonymous GI said...

You seem dangerously close to heresy. This is gnosticism and a complete rejection of the Old Testament as we know it.

 
At 7:13 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

...quod latet in vetere, patet in novo.

I don't think that there is any rejection of the Old Testament here, only a restatement of the Apostolic truth that the Old Covenant was always inefficacious in terms of salvation, and that Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation, as restated in such documents as "Dominus Iesus". Just because such truths are no longer politically correct doesn't mean that we can fudge them. This doesn't mean that we have to start triumphalistic drives to convert the Jewish people tommorrow. But it does mean that we cannot say that the Old Covenant is still in force. (And even if it were, it doesn't promise what the New Covenant does. It doesn't promise salvation from death or union with God, does it?)

Granted, Disandro was probably a bit anti-Semitic, though I do not know that for sure. He did see Freemasons hiding around every corner though, and that tends to go hand in hand with all the Protocols of Zion rubbish.

I must also say that I was unfair in my representation of food in La Reja. Lunch was always quite tasty, and we only had gruel once a day. We always did drink water with meals though, except on special occasions when we drank wine (more like vinegar with alcohol in it, not very good stuff). We always used to eat and drink out of plastic plates and cups though. Kind of like prison.

 
At 10:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Early Christianity is Shamanism?

Have you been doing that peyote at UC Berkley?

 
At 2:45 PM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

"Early Christianity is Shamanism?"

Okay, maybe I'm being a bit incendiary, but something just occured to me this morning while reflecting on these things.

In my few actual studies of Patristic thought, one of the things that has always baffled me is how precisely the cult of the saints and the Virgin developed to the point it is now. Granted, the cult of the martyrs is well documented, but how did it take the form, the "superstitious" form, that it has now that repels Protestants and not a few Catholics?

Well, here's a theory: people began and continued to pray for the intercession of the saints because the PRAYERS WORKED. Otherwise, I just don't see the "development of doctrine" angle on this. In other words, we should look at this particular aspect of doctrine not through the lens of "evolution", but more through the lens of "punctuated equilibrium": at some point, people started doing it because the prayers were efficacious.

We have a rather warped and hypocritical approach to this question since we would like to think that we have a "purer Faith" and are less superstitious than our ancestors. In this way, we think we are more self-less and mature than they were. They were dependent children, and we are self-sufficent adults. Thus, we think that banging on the door late at night for some bread is beneath us, or that if we ask for something the wrong way God will give us a serpent instead of a fish. Only people who have full stomachs and the latest PC's have the luxury of such "dignity". Maybe God deemed it more efficacious in prayer for people to pray to God through the saints, that's why people started doing it.

Again, I am not for the whole "name it, claim it" approach. But if Christianity has been viable, it has been because Christianity has worked. As a person recently told me, God answers all prayers in time, maybe not the way we think He should, but He does. On the one hand, we must take into account that the reason there are not more miracles is because of a lack of Faith. That has been the case since Gospel times. On the other hand, our entire religion is not based on a particular set of arguments, but rather on the greatest "magic trick" anyone has ever performed: raising yourself from the dead and thus conquering death.

It is in that sense that I can say, somewhat tongue in cheek, that early Christianity was "shamanistic".

 
At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am confused

 
At 4:34 PM, Anonymous Jack said...

Doesn't this feed into all the Protestant polemics against Catholicism that indeed Catholicism is paganism and that the cult of saints and Mary is Medittereanean and Near Eastern mystical initiation religion and not true Bible Christianity?

 
At 4:55 PM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

Is Christianity "Biblical" per se?

I think that is the most important question. Not whether Catholicism "contradicts" the Bible (it doesn't), but whether we conceive of Christianity as a "religion of the Book". I would contend that it is on one level, but it is not on a more important level. Christianity is a religion of a face. It is the religion of the person of Jesus Christ, in His Head and His members.

 
At 5:47 PM, Anonymous jacobus said...

It is posts like these that make me keep coming back to this blog. Who else could provide a succinct commentary on an SSPX seminary, Argentinian Pizza, and obscure (to gringos at least) philologists/sedevacantists.

Anyway, whatever Disandro's less than kosher views, he certainly provides a needed antidote to this so common idea that religion is math: that there are formal rules and the the solutions just need to be worked out and as long as the logic follows, it's true (what the Young Fogey has called 'head religion'.

 
At 9:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Torah is the Word.

In Islam the Quran pre-existed and is the word.

In Christianity JESUS is the WORD and not or not just the Gospels.
Jesus is the Good News and not or not just the Gospels which describe the good news.
Protestants are into bibliolotary.

I am not sure what the Hindu Vedas teach--Arturo can you help us?

So Arturo is correct and not gnostic or a shaman (at least not in his day job) or against Jews or the Bible BUT essentially correct that JESUS is a PERSON and that is where our faith is
and our religion is experiantial and certainly borrowed (not in a bad way) from mystical religions and Greek esoteric thought

bet

 
At 8:49 PM, Anonymous Carlos said...

If you would like to become a Shaman I know some Yaqui Indians in Mexico who could train you.
Your totem is the turtle.
Castaneda proved you can be a Shaman and a Catholic.

 
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