Wednesday 20 November 2013

A new way of reading

The Radiance of Being draws upon an eclectic range of sources, not just authorities respected by Catholics and Orthodox. I tried to demonstrate in the book a new way of reading. Most orthodox writers try to defend Catholic truth by exposing the limitations and contradictions in heretical or marginal writers. I feel we should look for whatever may be true in those marginal writers and locate a place for it within the bigger system. Quite often the obstacle to understanding and appreciating them is our assumption that they are writing rationally, when they are writing imaginatively.

The Inklings did a great job vindicating mythopoesis. They believed that truth can be expressed imaginatively, poetically, mythologically. Can we apply this insight to these marginal theological writers and mystics? To do so we must be able to appreciate the voice of the imagination.

This does not mean accepting it as authoritative. Quite often the imagination addresses us with a magisterial tone, as if to say, "I have seen this for myself: therefore it is true." The Gnostics provide a handy example of what I mean, and
of the pitfalls into which we can very easily fall.

I am not saying that we should read Boehme or Steiner, Blake or Tomberg as authorities. They may well have seen things, but the truth they have seen is clothed in images derived from a particular culture or tradition. In pursuing truth, we must not be distracted by every form it takes on. The imagination uses images drawn from the memory, and therefore from the surrounding cultural and natural world.

Understandably viewing the imagination with suspicion, most Christian mystics, including the hesychasts of Mount Athos and Carmelite mystics such as John of the Cross (though they employ images in their own writings), teach that we should go beyond anything we can conceive or imagine if we want to approach God. This is true, because God lies beyond both imagination and intellect.

It is therefore a delicate and dangerous path – a knife-edge – that we walk when we make use of these imaginative mystical writers. It can only be recommended to those who have a strong anchor already established in the teaching of the Church. We must have a primary commitment not to the enjoyment of images but the search for absolute and transcendent truth. This commitment will enable us to pick our way through the visionary landscapes of the mythopoetic writers.

Imagination is important. The Bible appeals to the imagination more than it does to the intellect. The historical, poetic, and prophetic books of the Bible reveal truth to those who have the eyes for it. We must learn to read these accounts, this poetry, in the right way, if we are not to fall into a kind of literalism or fundamentalism that is becoming all too common. But once we have developed this ability, we can apply it also to the mystics, provided we do so with care.

There are three worlds: spiritual, imaginal, and corporeal, perceived by the intellect, the imagination, and the senses respectively. We take too little account of the imaginal, which is the world of the soul and of visions. We may also make too much of it, as Henry Corbin did, falling into a docetic Christology. Our best protection against these extremes is the serene acceptance of the Church's authority and guidance.

Illustration: Jan Provost, Christian Allegory (1510-15).


  1. Mr. Caldecott,

    We've met before at University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX. I'm the student in the wheelchair who took you with others out to a nearby faux-pub (I'm still unsure why we thought you'd like to eat at an English themed restaurant when visiting Houston, haha, I do hope you got to experience our barbecue).

    I was a theology student at UST and then gained a Masters at the local seminary. I'm thinking about pursuing doctoral work. You're own writings along with other similar trajectories (I've been highly influenced by Soloviev and Bulgakov) have led me to many of the same thoughts you illuminate here.

    To that end, I've been wondering if pursuing Doctoral work in a broader milieu, say that of a Religious Studies department of a secular university, may be more up my alley. Do you think this is viable terrain for a Catholic theologian (what I hope to ultimately be able to call myself)? Could exposure to other traditions allow one to broaden the, shall we say, senses of one's mind while still allowing one to sharpen the pursuit of truth? Your idea of anchoring here also seems to add another wrinkle. If one is safely anchored (a rather questionable claim at any time, but...) should one feel confident in plumbing the wilds of the religious landscape for Egyptian Treasures?

    This has been mixing around in my head for the past few weeks. Catholic traditionalism, in the best form I hope, is my home in many ways and I have a natural leeriness of those looking for any sort of wisdom "off the reservation," but I have to wonder if one needs to go off the reservation to properly understand how to expand and enrich the reservation. Perhaps not "needs," but it still seems helpful.

    Just curious about your ideas. I have yet to read Radiance of Being but it'll be read very, very soon. You have a chapter on Sophia! How could I not?

  2. Good to hear from you - that was a fun trip! An RS department might be suitable, but far be it from me to recommend it or judge your situation. Allow yourself to be guided by prayer. Potentially, yes, I think there is a lot of good work to be done 'off the reservation', but RS departments have their own limitations. Do write back when you have read Radiance and we can talk again.

  3. That's a breath-taking painting. It's something I'd hang up on a wall somewhere at home. What is it exactly?

    What is the symbolism of the hands reaching up from the floor and the floor eyeball?

  4. Here is one comment I found. "The eye of God stares out at us from above Christ who wields the double-edged sword of the Word. On the right Christ's bride holds the Lily of Mercy and frees the dove of the Holy Spirit. The soul, with its thumbs forms a vesica pisces while gazing upwards." Provost was a contemporary of Durer, also a very allegorical painter. This is what Sister Wendy writes in '1000 Masterpieces': 'In pictorial terms, an allegory is an image in which every element has an intellectual meaning. For us, the pleasure lies in attempting to decipher what those meanings are. This is a Christian allegory, and the broad outlines are clear enough: at the top is the all-seeing eye of God, on one side the Lamb of Redemption, and on the other the Bible. A great hand, surely the hand of God, holds the terrestrial globe, which is surmounted by a cross. But readings of this kind, though not untruthful, deny the glorious ambiguity that characterizes allegory at its finest. For those to whom Christian iconography is a closed book, such an image can seem surreal, conrived, unable to convey a sacred meaning except in the most theoretical sense. Yet despite all this, who can be indifferent to this strange and haunting picture, to those hands that press up, to that peculiar and sinister eye below them, or to the expressions--Christ's, questioning and uncertain, Mary's sunlit and hopeful?'