Thursday, 28 April 2011

More on the Resurrection Body

Why did the wounds on Christ’s body still appear after the Resurrection? A wound, if you think about it, is an occasion when what is within us is exposed, where the life-blood has been poured out. In Christ’s case, what is within him is love, is the Holy Spirit. The places where human sins inflicted pain on him are the very places where, because that pain was accepted on our behalf and for our sake, Christ’s love was most fully expressed. The wounds are the ways he reaches out to us, invites us into his body; they are ways he shares his blood with us. So those wounds were not just forensic evidence that he was the same person who had suffered, nor mere trophies reminding us of his victory over death, but – according to a widespread mystical tradition – a place for sinners to take refuge. That is, the signs of vulnerability in his physical body remain places of vulnerability in a spiritual sense, places where he may be approached and entered into.

Something similar applies to psychological wounds, which of course cut much deeper than physical ones, and many of which are inflicted in childhood. But Christ had a happy childhood – one might almost say a sheltered one (after the escape from Herod). He was held in the arms of Mary and Joseph, nourished, affirmed, educated. How could he know the psychological suffering that stems from being abused or neglected at an early age by those who ought to love you but don’t?

We know that he accepted the punishment for sins he did not commit – which means the pain that comes from having sinned even though he never did. It must be that he experienced in his Passion at least a taste of every sin, of every punishment, when he was tortured, abused, and scorned, when he carried his cross, or felt abandoned by his Father, or knew himself to be deserted and betrayed by his friends. In order to heal the consequences of every sin throughout history, he had to “assume” them or take them into himself, as he took human nature into himself.

We make the mistake of thinking that because he was just one man, he was a fragment of the whole, of mankind, in the same way that each of us are. The mystics say something different. They say that though he was one man, he was also the whole in which all the parts participate, so that we can each find ourselves in him. When he rises from the dead, he brings us with him, though we follow later. The wounds in our nature do not separate us from him, because they are in him too.

Illustration (Wikimedia Commons): The Incredulity of Thomas, 1268, from the Romkla Gospels.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Sherrard's critique of Rene Guénon

The late Philip Sherrard, a Perennialist and member of the Greek Orthodox Church, devotes a long chapter in his last book, Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition, to the “Logic of Metaphysics in René Guénon” – although the points he makes are just as applicable to Schuon, as we shall see. Guénon did more than anyone else to reawaken metaphysical perception in our century, Sherrard says. But he made two important assumptions that predisposed him against Christianity and towards Vedanta (and which help to explain his own conversion from Catholicism to Islam). The first of these assumptions was that a strict correlation must be preserved between the metaphysical and the logical order – thus ruling out in advance the more paradoxical Christian relationship between Unity and Trinity in the Godhead. The second assumption was that every “determination” of the Absolute must be some form of limitation, and is therefore incompatible with the divine nature. These two assumptions led Guénon into an apophaticism so radical that he could affirm nothing at all of the Absolute, except by way of negation – including, obviously, a negation of the Christian Trinity.

Before his death, then, Sherrard had come to the conclusion that a Christian thinker who accepts Revelation must start from an entirely different point of view – must begin, in fact, from the knowledge that the supreme Principle is the Trinity, and furthermore that “personality” (indeed, triple Personality) in God is not necessarily a limitation. Without it, in fact, the Absolute has no actual freedom to determine itself or create a world: the freedom of God becomes merely the absence of external constraint. Although Sherrard assumes Schuon’s “transcendental unity” approach throughout his book, this insight calls into question one of Schuon’s core teachings: that a personal (or Tri-Personal) deity derives from an impersonal Godhead and will be “dissolved” in the gnosis which transcends Being. (As Sherrard writes, “This view thus involves a total denial of the ultimate value and reality of the personal. It demands as a condition of metaphysical knowledge a total impersonalism – the annulment and alienation of the person.”)

Sherrard’s insight leaves the other religions intact. It even leaves open the possibility that the perennialists have correctly understood them. But it separates Christianity, and perhaps even raises Christianity above them, in a way that seems to me incompatible (more so than he himself realized) with the theory of “transcendental unity” as stated by Schuon. Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, for one, believes that what Christians have to say is not something less than, say, Vedanta or Sufism, but more. In fact “the Christian is called to be the guardian of metaphysics for our time”. Of one exemplary Christian mystic he writes: “Looking into his own ground, Jan van Ruysbroeck sees beyond it into the eternal I, which for man is both the source of his own I as well as his eternal Thou, and in the final analysis this is because the eternal I is already in itself I and Thou in the unity of the Holy Spirit” [Glory of the Lord, V, p. 70]. The encounter with God in this “ground” is a nuptial encounter, a spiritual marriage. Thus “The pantheistic tat tvam asi, which identifies subject and object in their depths, can be resolved only by virtue of the unity between God and man in the Son, who is both the ars divina mundi and the quintessence of actual creation (see Book III of Nicolas of Cusa’s [DeDoctor Ignorantia), and by virtue of the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from this incarnate Son in his unity with the Father” [GL, I, 195].

Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Resurrection Body

He is risen! Death, entropy, time no longer have any dominion over him. But what does that mean?

He appeared to Mary and the other disciples, but at first they did not recognize him. He could come and go through closed doors, cook and eat fish, ascend into heaven. His body was marked by the wounds of the Cross. The powers we attribute to Superman and the other comic book heroes, the powers we would love to have – flight, X-ray vision, invulnerability, and the rest – are merely shadows of what we will experience in the resurrection, when we are joined to Christ and live in his world.

There is something dreamlike about the accounts of the resurrection, and yet also a kind of crisp realism, a dewy morning freshness. Resurrection is a bit like waking up, but it is also like having a vision or veridical dream. The world of the resurrection body, the resurrection earth, is closely related to the world of the Angels among whom we will then live, called in medieval writings the aevum or aeviternity, the “world without end”. It is in dreams that we come closest to it, especially in the dreams we call “visions” because they seem more real, looking back on them, than waking life.

St Paul tells us that our bodies will be changed, and indeed the matter of which we have been composed in this life can never be reassembled, since it changes from moment to moment and year to year. It will be converted into something new. The principle of continuity that makes us the same person is the soul which gives form to whatever matter lies at its disposal. The body that dies is like a seed – “a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat of some other grain”; “But God gives it a body as he has chosen,” “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body,” for “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15: 37, 38, 44, 50).

That is why we venerate the relics of the saints – not out of some morbid fascination with skulls, or a belief in the magical properties of holy bones. The dead bodies of the saints are the seeds of the new heavens and the new earth. It is their bones that will be transformed first: this is the place where the resurrection will happen. Read Ezekiel 37: 1-6. “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”

Saturday, 23 April 2011

The souls in prison

Holy Saturday. Our old bodies still lie in the tomb with Christ. The world goes on, the world from which we have tried to exile God. The Bible tells us something very strange in the First Letter of Peter (3:18-20). It says that Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey” at the time of the Ark. In other words, he descended into hell to preach to sinners so evil that on their account the world was all but destroyed. But did he then give them a second chance of salvation after death, which would be against the teaching of the Church? The mystery of who will be lost and who saved is tangled up with the mystery of death and time, for the “limbo” in which these souls exist lies between the “time” of creatures and the “eternity” of God. One might as well say that Christ was travelling back in time into the moment of their deaths, and showing them the truth of his love, as he will show it to us all. That is his “preaching”, and only if they reject it will they enter the sate of damnation. How many will do so? The Church has never said, and we are obliged to hope and to pray for the salvation of all, even the “workers of the eleventh hour”, even Judas who could not forgive himself. This is where my favourite theologian Balthasar got himself into hot water in the eyes of some people, by drawing partly from the mystic Adrienne von Speyr the hypothesis that all indeed might be saved. The last volume of his Theo-Drama (even more than his book Dare We Hope?) is important to read if one is not to misrepresent him. And no one who has read of Adrienne’s experiences of Holy Saturday will think that she denies the reality of hell. (By the way, there are earlier discussions of this topic in our online Forum here and here.) 

Illustration: Descent into Hell, from Chora Church, Istanbul.

Friday, 22 April 2011

King of the Jews

The traditional devotions of Good Friday, with their concentration on the sufferings of Christ, and our own implied or stated responsibility for them, are too much for many people. But in fact they are a great school of Christian mysticism. Christ’s suffering and death was not just an unfortunate consequence of the fact that people did not “get” his message. He was actually taking on and living through the consequences of sin – absorbing it, so to speak, into himself. And that means we can find ourselves in him.

None of us can judge himself. We may secretly think we are not so bad, but none of us really knows how many sins he has committed, or how serious they are, and what their consequences were. In a sense we are complicit also in the sins of others, or else in prayer we can offer ourselves for those who committed them. And then there are sins of omission: things we have failed to do, graces we have resisted. For all these reasons it makes sense to accept responsibility for the numerous small slights and wounds that were inflicted upon Christ, and even for his death. If we absolve ourselves we are usurping the role of the eternal Judge who sees all things aright.

Plunged into the experience of the Passion, we can see the results of what we collectively and individually have done to God, in the world and in ourselves: in the world, where we have silenced him, or despised him, or misinterpreted him, or used him for our own purposes; in ourselves, where we have taken him for granted, or denied him, or ignored him. The sufferings in our own life, which are due if not to our own sins then to those of others, can be located somewhere on the map of Christ’s Passion, or in the mirror of the Cross. In this way we live in him, and he lives in us, through death into resurrection.


Last night was Holy Thursday, when the Church celebrates the gift of the Eucharist and of the Priesthood.

Modern science assumes that the “substance” of something is simply what it is made of – the atoms and energies that are its various elements. However, something deeper is implied by the Catholic Christian belief in what is termed the “real presence” of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. For no one suggests that the host would look any different under an electron microscope before and after its consecration, and yet the Church still teaches that its “substance” has been transformed. To be more precise, she says that during the Mass, as a result of the priest’s words of consecration, the substances of the bread and wine are changed into the substances of Christ’s Body and Blood. This implies that the “substance” of a thing is something deeper than the elements into which we can chop it up. What lies deeper? I think we can say that it is the intention of God – the substance of a thing is the reality of what God is giving in that thing.

Thus when God states “This is my body”, he changes the reality, the substance of what it is that we see and taste. But he need not, and does not, change the way it looks and feels. For the appearances of a thing reflect the gift that is being given, and the appearances of bread and wine are the perfect language in which to express the way in which God wishes to give himself to us – a language that has always been built into creation, waiting for its fulfillment. The ingredients of bread have always existed in order to become the Eucharist. Christ intends to give himself completely, in order to unite himself as closely as possible with those who will receive him, just as intimately as food and drink are united with us when we eat and drink. “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so one who feeds on me will live because of me.” (John 6:55-7)

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Critique of Perennialism

Earlier I wrote about the “Perennialist” school or movement. Its manifesto could be said to be Frithjof Schuon’s The Transcendental Unity of Religions, which was praised in glowing terms by T.S. Eliot, among others. According to Schuon, if I may paraphrase, each world religion is like a path up the same mountain. Follow any one path to the end, and you will arrive at the identical summit – but woe betide anyone who tries to scramble sideways off one path to join another, or gets the paths mixed up. Such eclecticism may well end in disaster, as the climber tumbles into the abyss. 

What does this do to the Christian claim that “there is no other name by which we may be saved”? And what do we make of the clear contradictions between the religious teachings of different religions? How can they all be true at the same time? Schuon accounts for this by distinguishing “absolute” from “relatively absolute” truth, and by relegating certain teachings to the “human margin” of religion. It is the esoteric, metaphysical core that is ever the same, but there is room for great variation within theological systems and devotional practices. Furthermore, he says, each great tradition has a perfectly valid claim to be unique and central, superior to all others. Indeed, for the human collectivity to which it is addressed, it is central and indispensable. Just as each man in a crowd may legitimately call himself “I”, and cannot but view himself in some way as situated at the centre of the world, so in each religion the Absolute says “I” and demands unqualified adherence. That adherence keeps us on the path to the summit. 

In The Lord of History Jean Daniélou wrote of Schuon’s predecessor Guénon that he “compels attention by concerning himself with things that are really interesting in themselves, and by his bold denunciation of fallacies that seem to us, as they seemed to him, to be ultimately responsible for the decadence of the modern world. But his constructive system proves, upon examination, to be fundamentally incompatible with Christianity; for he has eliminated the very substance of our religion, in denying the privileged status, the absolute factual unicity of the event of Christ’s resurrection.” The “fundamental flaw” in Guénon’s work, Daniélou says, is “the inversion of the relationship between metaphysics and revelation”. For Schuon similarly, while theology (based on revelation) transcends mere philosophy, metaphysics (based on intellectual intuition) must transcend theology. He says in The Transcendent Unity of Religions: “intellectual intuition is a direct and active participation in divine knowledge and not an indirect and passive participation, as is faith. In other words, in the case of intellectual intuition [gnosis], knowledge is not possessed by the individual insofar as he is an individual, but insofar as in his innermost essence he is not distinct from his Divine Principle”. 

Perennialist metaphysics rests on the self-evidence of the One as its first principle. And thus, for the orthodox Christian, one of Schuon’s least impressive books is Logic and Transcendence, where he struggles to make out that the Christian Trinity is merely an upaya – a provisional or skillful means in the Buddhist sense, more or less effective as an aid to devotion but not absolutely “true”. He treats the Persons as aspects of the divine Unity. “Whatever may be the necessity or the expediency of the Trinitarian theology, from the standpoint of pure metaphysic it appears to confer the quality of absoluteness on relativities.” “Only Unity as such can be a definition of the Absolute.” So “to assert, as one has heard it done, that the Trinitarian relationships belong, not to this relative absoluteness, but to the pure and intrinsic Absolute, or to the absoluteness of the Essence, amounts to asking us to accept that two and two make five or that an effect has no cause, which no religious message can do and the Christian message has certainly never done.” 

On the contrary, a Christian who is faithful to tradition may wish to argue, this “absoluteness of relativity” is precisely what we are asked to accept. Its other name is love. In future posts I intend to argue for this position against Schuon and the Perennialists, but in the meantime you may be interested in a discussion of the question of whether Guénon and Schuon were biased against love at the Sophia Perennis site? I also recommend the writings of Jean Borella, a Perennialist turned orthodox Catholic, especially (in this context) his book on Guénonian Esoterism and Christian Mystery, which is also relevant to Schuon. My own thoughts on all this, on which the present post is partly based, are developed in an article called "The Deep Horizon" which is available on the Second Spring site but also here.

Friday, 15 April 2011

The Name of God

“[W]e have to be clear about what a name actually is,” writes Pope Benedict XVI. “We could put it very simply by saying that the name creates the possibility of address or invocation. It establishes relationship." The most archetypal act of naming is God’s naming of himself. 

In the encounter with Moses at the burning bush, God names himself “I am”. He tells the reluctant prophet, “Say this to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:15). God’s name is himself. It is so sacred that the Jews only allowed the High Priest to pronounce it once a year in the Holy of Holies. When God says "I" it is the act of Being, the primordial act of language, the principial Word. Thus it is not we who name him, but God who names himself, or rather who gives us sacramental tokens to use as names – tokens of his presence. In particular he names himself "Jesus". The many other names by which human beings try to identify an object for worship, such as “the Just” or “the Merciful”, and even “the Creator”, describe aspects of him only, paths of approach, angles of sight; like colours in a rainbow compared to the white light of the sun.

The Name creates the possibility of invocation, and the invocation of God under a variety of names is one of the fundamental methods of prayer. We associate the "Jesus Prayer" - the constant repetition of the phrase Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner - with the Orthodox East, but repetitive invocation is important in the West too (and use of the Jesus Prayer itself is increasingly common among Catholics). Even the Rosary, though a more elaborate formula, is based around the repetition of the divine Name "Jesus" at the heart of each Hail Mary: "...Blessed art thou, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus...". The other words around these are just a setting, like a monstrance, to lead us to Christ at the centre. Many saints recommend the use of short prayers that can easily be coordinated with breathing in and out.

Prayers may be endlessly repeated not in order to be "mechanical", but to fulfil the teaching of Scripture that we should endeavour to "pray constantly" (Luke 18:1 and 1 Thess. 5:17). The aim is to lead our constantly changing thoughts and feelings into a single conduit. Normally our minds are in a state of distraction, and this often takes the form of an interior monologue, a stream of consciousness like that portrayed in Joyce's novel Ulysses. The repeated prayer, especially if it contains the Holy Name, absorbs and quietens this babbling stream, smoothing the water as it it flows straight to God.
Illustration: Names of God by Athanasius Kircher

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Who or what is God?

Terry Pratchett is one of Britain’s favourite authors. His “Diskworld” and other fantasy novels have sold more than 60 million copies. He once said he was "rather angry with God for not existing". But later in life he qualified this statement slightly: "It is just possible that once you have got past all the gods that we have created with big beards and many human traits, just beyond all that, on the other side of physics, they [the gods] just may be the ordered structure from which everything flows. That is both a kind of philosophy and totally useless - it doesn't take you anywhere. But it fills a hole."

The "other side of physics"? Exactly. But it does take us somewhere, and the desire not to go in that direction is partly what lies behind the opposition of the New Atheists to Christianity. There is an emotional, perhaps a spiritual component, in the denial of God. But whatever the motivation, it involves a complete misunderstanding of what we mean by God, which is fundamentally a metaphysical idea. Without understanding that concept of God, and why it is necessary, you won’t be able to recognize the possibility of a revelation. Although a revelation can bring with it at the same time a sense, previously missing, of the metaphysical.

So what do we (believers) mean by “God”? I have tried to answer that question step by step in a “Conversation with a Skeptic”, the skeptic in this case being a scientific atheist. (This piece can be accessed along with a further article called "God on a T-Shirt" in the Christianity section of the main web-site.) As I say in the “Conversation”, if he exists, God is the infinite source of being, of existence, of everything that is good in the world. That means he is nothing less than the Holy Grail, the object of everyone’s ultimate desire, the secret of happiness and immortality, the very meaning of life and love. How can you not regard this as the most important question there is? No wonder that, all through history, people have built their civilizations around the search for this God, or the attempt to connect with him.

I hope these articles are helpful to someone. I have no evidence that any atheists have read them yet. Perhaps that is the real problem – actually getting a conversation going.

Illustration: Bust of Zeus in the British Museum.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Metaphysics of Titus Burckhardt

One of the most lucid introductions to the Perennialist metaphysics mentioned in the previous post can be found in An Introduction to Sufi Doctrine, by the late Titus Burckhardt. Here we find a doctrine of the degrees of reality very akin to that of the Neoplatonists, for whom the world of the Many exists in dependent relation to the One or the Good. The eide or logoi which are the archetypal forms of everything in the world have no reality apart from God, and the world has no reality apart from the eide in which they participate. As mental forms they are mere abstractions. But as “possibilities” inherent in the Intellect and (principially) in the divine nature, they constitute the meaning and content of reality, which without them would fall back into nothingness.

Inseparable from the ontology outlined in Burckhardt’s book is an epistemology and an anthropology – that is, a doctrine of knowledge (of how we know things and what we can know) and of man (what we are and what we can become). The doctrine of the degrees of reality, in both macrocosm and microcosm, leads Perennialists to reject any “dualistic” anthropology that might deprive the human subject of access to archetypal reality. The human subject, they insist, is tripartite not dual; not just body and soul, it consists of body, soul, and spirit, corresponding to the three main levels of reality. The faculty by which we know the divine Ideas, variously called Nous, Intellectus, or Buddhi, constitutes a ray of the divine Sun in the heart of man. It knows the logoi by “connaturality”; that is, by intuition. At the level of the soul, these intuitions are clothed in symbols by the imagination, which mediates between the intellect (supplier of the “form”) and the bodily senses (which provide the “matter”) for human cognition.

Though these ideas are today more closely associated with writers on Islamic than on Christian philosophy, it would not be hard to relate them (as Perennialists often do) to Scholastic thought in the West, which has survived in fragmentary fashion right up to the present time within the Catholic Church. The Christian Scholastics were well aware of the great Neoplatonic and Islamic philosophers, to whom in many cases they owed their knowledge of the texts of Classical philosophy, and they spent a great deal of time refuting or reworking their ideas in the light of the Christian revelation. Nevertheless, though the Christian, “Pagan”, Islamic, and Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages were in many respects opposed, they were very much closer to each other than they were to the Nominalists of the fourteenth or the Rationalists of the seventeenth centuries. Modernity marks a definite break from the thought-world of the Middle Ages. More on that another time.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Perennial Philosophy?

The term is used by Catholics to refer to the thought of St Thomas Aquinas, but in 1945 Aldous Huxley published an influential book of this title, where it functioned as a translation of the Hindu term Sanatana Dharma (eternal religion); that is, an “immemorial and universal” metaphysical and ethical teaching, found in all the great religions and particularly in their mystical traditions. It is in this sense that the term has been adopted by a group influential scholars and writers known as “Perennialists”. Hindu scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy, who worked as Research Fellow at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the 1930s and 40s, was one of the three founders, along with the Frenchman René Guénon and the Swiss-born Frithjof Schuon (both converts to Islamic Sufism, the one from a Catholic the other a Lutheran background).

Perennialism crosses religious boundaries but (or so it claims) without undermining them. It insists that truth can only be attained through the sincere practice of one or other living religious tradition. Such mediating forms can be transcended only from within: each revealed religion remains unique and precious in all its details, and must be accepted and practiced as the condition for any authentic spiritual realization. This teaching has played an important part in persuading many people (including myself) to take seriously the need for conversion, and to search for an authentic spiritual home. They have also awakened an interest in metaphysics and symbolism. Future posts will discuss these positive aspects, and also voice some criticisms. Sophia Perennis is one of the main publishers of this literature.