Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Who will liberate me from myself?

Yesterday in recommending N.T. Wright's book Simply Jesus, I mentioned that Wright was correct to point out that it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for most people living in technologically advanced Western societies today "to imagine what it's like to live within a long story" in the way the Jews of Jesus' day did. Wright also noted that perhaps the only thing analogous in our day is the widespread and dubious belief in "progress." Artur, writing on Cosmos the in Lost over the weekend, in his response to Rachel Held Evans' piece "Why millennials are leaving the church," noted another factor, which is really just an effect of the cause, namely that "recent studies suggest millennials remember much less than senior citizens."

As I make very slow progress re-reading the first volume of Von Balthasar's theological aesthetics (a mix between savoring and being plain lazy), in a section on "The Spirit and the Senses," which comprises part of the larger section on the subjective experience of faith, he draws attention to Romano's Guardini's The Senses and Religious Knowledge, published in 1950. The point of Guardini's that Balthasar seeks to get across is the former's insistence "that the capacity of spiritual knowledge has 'largely been lost' to man in the course of cultural history." This has happened, according Balthasar's reading of Guardini, because we no longer truly see. He offers as evidence for this the poetry of Rilke, described by Guardini as an "activity without image."

Guardini's point, at least as grasped by Balthasar, is that human life is no longer shaped "in accordance with nature's great images" which are rendered "alien and insubstantial" to us "because of technology." Quoting Guardini, Balthasar notes- "We no longer exist in images. Concepts have taken the place of images that can be contemplated." Lest someone is tempted to argue that the "virtual world," which happens in "cyber space," is image-driven, consider this, which is also part of Guardini's more than sixty year-old insight: "Machines have taken the place of embodied images, and segments of time the place of living rhythms" (Seeing the Form 389-390), which does more than an adequate job of explaining the displacement of the natural world from the center of human consciousness aided and abetted by virtual reality.

As for progress, Von Balthasar observes, "There is talk of progress" and, turning again to Guardini, notes, "but whoever looks beneath the surface knows what nonsense that is. Truly, if he follows this road man can only become sick because his interior being can...[ellipsis in original] live only on images," real images of what is substantial, what exists in the actual world, what is created by God. Guardini also noted, "This dislocation into abstract conceptuality and sensualistic corporeality must be overcome so that the living human reality can again emerge" (390). Here, I believe, Guardini is pointing us to our need to recover the analogia entis (i.e., "the analogy of being"), which constitutes the heart of traditional Catholic epistemology, arising as it does from our worship, which itself has been grossly denuded, thus contributing to our spiritual stupidity (the good news about stupidity, as one of my better professors once informed a class of his I was in, is that it is remediable) and blindness.

Anna Karina as Marianne in Godard's Pierrot le fou

Thirty-three years after the publication of The Senses and Religious Knowledge, Walker Percy's book Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book was published. It can accurately be noted that Percy re-verified Guardini's insight. Writing about that strange modern discovery: the atomic "self," specifically about its tendency to become bored (a concept on which Heidegger notably expounded), Percy, commenting on his observation as to "Why the Self is the only Object in the Cosmos which Gets Bored," asks,
Is it because there is a special sense in which for the past two or three hundred years the self has perceived itself as a leftover which cannot be accounted for by its own objective view of the world and that in spite of an ever heightened self-consciousness, increased leisure, ever more access to cultural and recreational facilities, ever more instruction on self-help, self-growth, self-enrichment, the self feels ever more imprisoned in itself - no, worse than imprisoned because a prisoner at least knows he is imprisoned and sets store by the freedom awaiting him and the world to be open, when in fact the self is not and it is not - a state of affairs which has to be called something besides imprisonment - e.g., boredom. Boredom is the self being stuffed with itself
I read Percy's chapter on boredom Sunday night and this morning read this passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah in Wright's book, which, in turn, takes it from the fourth chapter of St. Luke's Gospel, which is Jesus revealing His Messiahship:

"The spirit of the Lord is upon me
Because he has appointed me
To tell the poor the good news
He has sent me to announce release to the prisoners
And sight to the blind
To set the wounded victims free
To announce the year of God's special favor... Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your own hearing."

In pointing you to what you can read about Jesus that is useful because it is credible, I would be remiss if I didn't also recommend Benedict XVI's Jesus trilogy, to which Wright's book can serve as prolegomena: Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives; Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration; Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection. Since we are in Year C of the three-year Sunday lectionary cycle, which focuses on the Gospel According to St. Luke, I also recommend reading this Gospel. If you're looking for a good companion volume to St. Luke's Gospel, I recommend the late Fr. Gene LaVerdiere's Dining in the Kingdom of God: The Origins of Eucharist according to Luke.

Read Walker Percy, whose work, apart from The Moviegoer, which I read years ago, I have only discovered this year, at any time. He is good for what ails the so-called post-modern, that is, the bored, alienated, spiritually stupid self. Our point of reflection is, How much does being spiritually stupid contribute to boredom and alienation?

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