Sunday, September 15, 2013

Rene Guenon, Pope Benedict, and the End of Metaphysics.

Rene Guenon is a name is still relatively obscure in many theological circles. A French author and father of the Perennialist school, Guenon pend many works concerned with religion, esotericism and modernity. His place in the continuum of theological thought has yet to be clearly defined and perhaps for good reason. Guenon's theory of a primordial revelation from which all religious traditions of suitable antiquity ultimately derive and his instance that the only variance is in exoteric expression, the esoteric substance being fairly harmonious, has won him few fans. For conservatives, he is to inclusive; for liberals, he is too pre-modern with his instance on traditional forms.

Guenon's exact stance on the person of Christ is debatable and the issues surrounding this stance would not be done justice here. What can be said with a fair amount of certainty is that, so far as concerns Catholicism, Guenon respected it, although he often felt Catholics, cleric or lay, scarcely understood the repository of metaphysics they had inherited. Guenon believed the fundamental crisis of the modern world was metaphysical in nature. Catholicism was, in his estimation, the appropriate vehicle for launching a metaphysical revival in the West. He was, in my reading of the man, disappointed, if not shocked, that Catholicism scarcely wanted anything to do with its inheritance - and this was in the 1920s and 1930s!

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Catholicism, in Guenon's estimation, was firmly disinterested in the metaphysics of its tradition. We can argue how well Guenon understood Western Metaphysics and the appropriation of the subject in Catholicism's history. Though, it seems to me that Guenon's contention that there has been a flattening of reality in the West, including in Catholicism, is somewhat accurate. It adds yet another dimension to the abrupt end of Benedict's papacy. When re-reading Joseph Ratzinger's masterwork, Introduction to Christianity, one is struck by his early critique of aggiornamento and the temptation to produce a Christianity devoid of a metaphysical component. Modernity had denied metaphysics and it was precisely the inclusion of metaphysics that made Christianity both audacious and credible to the modern mind. There is something, Ratzinger writes early in the book, implicitly suspect about a faith that feels the need to modernize its content; it signals to the modern world a subtle dishonesty. Something that is explicitly ancient tries to deny its antiquity, its anti-modernity, and present itself as the "eternal now;" as a religious or spiritual mode that is spontaneous in its appearance and unencumbered by previous epochs, always in the process of re-inventing itself.

Flash forward to the present day. There is a certain way in which this current papacy represents a militant resurgence and consolidation of power by those parties and interests that see Christianity as having begun anew fifty years ago via some sort of definitive regeneration or new revelation. Previous centuries are only useful insofar as they can be de-contextualized to fit the contemporary context; contrary data or thought has no place and is not to be considered. I say that this is in a certain way because it is not clear if that is truly what this pontiff in mind - although his very muddled redefinition of Pelagianism certainly bolsters such an interpretation.

In retrospect, Benedict's papacy may not only the beginning of the end of the European dominated papacy - an observation made by Fr. Chadwick on his excellent blog - it may well prove to be the last opportunity for a metaphysical revival in the West for the foreseeable future.

I am not going to pretend that Benedict's papacy was not without its problems. Plainly, it had its problems, the main problem being the former pontiff's inability to address the myriad of crises festering under the surface of the Roman Church. This inability was, in large part, what facilitated the election of his successor - although, I think the lifting of Cardinal Mahoney's suspension from ministry following the election of Pope Francis may well prove to be an indicator that, despite a cosmetic lift, the new face of the Vatican belies the same status quo. In any event, Joseph Ratzinger attempted to put metaphysics at the forefront; almost nothing the previous pontiff wrote or did can be understood without a solid grounding in Western metaphysics. Oddly, this was one of the fault lines in his papacy. Pope Benedict's thought is subtle and comprehensive; more so than Gregory the Great, he may well have been the most accomplished theologian to head the Roman Church. Like most subtle and comprehensive intellects, Ratzinger's thought was more often than not bastardized by those persons who often professed to study or support him. Not maliciously, mind you, but inevitably; most of Benedict's supports did not grasp the totality of his vision.

His liturgical theology is one obvious example. Here was a vision of liturgy dependent upon a view of humanity and the cosmos that was produced as a result of some three thousand years of philosophical and theological thought. More often than not, it was presented as mere aesthetics by both his detractors and supporters.

I do not know if Guenon was right to believe that Catholicism had irrevocably turned its back on metaphysics. I feel certain, however, that in the light of Pope Benedict's resignation and his troubled papacy, it is clear that a revival of metaphysics in the West is on hold for the foreseeable future. I feel equally certain that history, ultimately, will be kind to the previous pontiff; Pope Benedict will be known as a pontiff whose thought was misunderstood, regardless of whether or not it inspired admiration or admonition.