Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Great Restlessnes

Along the highways and byways of the spiritual life, one finds the company of many a fellow traveler and wayfaring strangers.

In my own life, I've found this to be the case. Whatever particular path of the journey you are embarking upon, you're always in the company of fellow novices walking along a well worn road with many travelers ahead, some better disposed to the effort than others.

Over the past few years, I have met many other people coming out the Western Tradition into the Orthodox Church, a number of whom were, like myself, once Roman Catholic, of whom there were those who sought Holy Orders.

One such instance struck me as most peculiar. He was man who had studied for the Roman priesthood, migrated to the Byzantine churches, and eventually entered the Orthodox Church where he received ordination and maintained the vow of celibacy.

Having not heard from this gentleman for a considerable time, the surprise to learn he had become an associate minister in a local Protestant denomination.

The Catholics and Orthodox who once knew are, by and large, not surprised. Seminary fellows from both churches made the determination that he is equal parts "church hopper" and "a careerist" who couldn't quite keep up with the politics in either church. The truth behind either of these claims is unverifiable, and its objectivity is certainly questionable.

When one considers the numbers of Catholics who leave the Roman Church in favor of another Tradition, be it Orthodox Christianity or another tradition, one ought to recall the perennialist figures such as Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schuon, Both figures hungered for what we today define as "the supernatural" and found reason to disembark from the Roman Church. Guenon identified the West as in the midst of a metaphysical crisis and, at one point, believed a return to Catholicism was the only remedy. The time, however, had come and gone. Guenon found a Roman Church that, among its theologians and professional religious, had reached the tipping point towards the modernity that had already devoured much of Western thought and metaphysics.

Schuon, for his part, retained more of a connection with Christianity, although he would not explicitly identify with it. Schuon lived through Vatican II and its aftermath. He was highly critical of the Vatican II and its reforms, and although he maintained that "Traditional" Catholicism as he knew it (as a former Catholic) was closer to the concept of perennial metaphysics, he came to the conclusion that it had been subject to a type metaphysical degeneration, roughly during the counter-Reformation (if memory serves me correctly). As such, in his system of thought, Orthodox Christianity was more of a direct derivative of the perennial metaphysics than Catholicism solely on account of the counter-Reformation's influence on Catholicism's self understanding.

Of the two, Schuon has had more impact, largely due to the immediacy of his activity and its overlap with Catholicism's adoption of modernity and the secularization of the West. Both men, however, left a philosophical (and some say mystical) documentary of the profound change in metaphysics and mystery undergone by Western society and its dominant religious expression (Roman Catholicism). Both men present a daunting proposition that neither reform and restorationism, as has been seen in recent decades, possesses the dynamism to uncover the depth of the problem.

If one agrees with Guenon or Schuon that there is a crisis of metaphysics and mystery that has taken root in the West and its religion, and that "Traditionalism" as it is so marketed is a rather shallow response (or parody) to a deeper problem, a facile solution to something inherently more complex, if one agrees with all of this, then one suffers a certain restlessness.

Is there some truth to Guenon or more particularly Schuon? Oddly enough, I have thought more about Schuon's theories since becoming Orthodox than when I was Catholic. Schuon, as mentioned, had the distinction of living through Vatican II and its reforms. He is, to be sure, absolutely dismissive of everything post-Vatican II, do the point of conveying the since that everything in the Catholic religion has become ineffective. Having spent most of my life in the Roman Church, whatever my criticisms on certain ecclesiological and dogmatic matters, it seems an extraordinary claim demanding evidence of equal magnitude. Guenon, meanwhile, is somewhat easier to swallow. The West's migration into modernity is total and complete, not one facet of western man has been left unimpacted.

Yet, a restlessness exists in the Western context. Enough data is collected demonstrating a notable percentage in the West migrates away from the religious tradition of origin. Christianity is becoming more fluid as cultural and ethnic boundaries increasingly give way to confessional choices based upon religious conviction and or religious experience. Alternatively, there is the continued persistence of various new age spiritualities (some offer esoteric initiation, some offering the formation of the transcendent self) which continue to make roads into the mainstream of religion acceptance. Still more, in the United States there is a general "consumer spirituality", an interest in acquiring books and other articles of various spiritualities and religious traditions without committing to anything in particular, other than equal opportunity consumption.

The question, of course, would be what gave rise to these conditions.

Advanced literacy rates and general education in the West would be one likely factor. It is no longer possible for clerical classes to control the access to religious literature or other such documentation, nor claim exclusive right to interpret such material. Most persons in a Western context are able to encounter such material make their own interpretive decisions. To this is compounded the critical study of religion and comparative religion, the result of which has challenged the capacity of any religion to propose exclusivist claims towards either salvation or religious organization.

Influencing factors aside, the final result seems evident: the West's religious matrix has fallen apart. The conventional religious associations no longer appear to hold and the dominant religious traditions are in a process of critical self-examination. All of this leads to environment in which religion cannot provide one of its most basic promises: security and stability in exchange for adherence. The temptation is to provide facile answers, to pretend as though the last century never happened, or claim it is all some grand global conspiracy. To follow through with either tendency requires the suspension of our critical faculties, even where the bulk of the data comes to a conclusion opposed to pious ideas. The simple fact is, one cannot pretend the developments that took hold in the West during the last century didn't happen or have not permanently conditioned the Western mind and shaken many institutions from their own sense of security. To illustrate the point, take a look at many a Roman Catholic prayer book, lay missal, or religious manual from before Vatican II. You will find that much of Catholicism's mainstream understanding of itself revolved around the alleged apparitions at Fatima and purported secret revelations. Flash forward some 50 or 60 years and cultic devotion to Fatima is by and large reserved to less educated segments of the Roman Church or reactionary conservatives, having little role in the larger corporate body, other than a calendar observance that will, more than likely, not be observed by most adherents. For the most part, the corporate body has left behind Fatima and its content, viewing it as some of the last manifestations of a type of Catholicism that found itself increasingly foreign to the modern western world and is now under the proprietary ownership of those who wish they could return to what they perceive to have been a more simple time for the religion.

Certain religious bodies in the West (Roman Catholicism, the Anglican Church, the Lutherans, to name a few) attempted (in one way or another) to address the massive cultural shift head on. Although the exact application has varied in each group, there seems to have been a common principle that guided all three bodies: shed whatever pre-modern baggage that was present in the religion for the sake of being able to adapt to the modern context. In large part, this is why ecumenism became such a concern, even within the once highly resistant Roman Church. The historical study of religion made denominational exclusivism highly untenable as more extravagant claims became increasingly difficult to substantiate. Polemics in general became more difficult to sustain, particularly after World War II and the question over the role of Christian antisemitism in the Holocaust.

On a more practical level, the simple experience of living in a open society that forces the the development of "working relationships" with persons outside of once common cultural boundaries has the impact of humanizing people that would once have been subject to polemics. As a consequence, it proves much harder to enforce traditional religious boundaries, particularly among branches of the same family tree. In turn, a flux between religions is thereby encouraged with no effective mechanism to prevent such movement among the more literate members of society.

Is there a genuine metaphysical or spiritual gap in Western Christianity? Guenon and Schuon certainly argued so...but is it true? Western Christianity sought to shed itself of much of its baggage. To a certain degree, this was impossible to avoid; as the average Christian in the West became more literate and better educated, the pressure began to build to find a model of Christianity that could keep pace with the changes in its congregants. Much was eliminated that was deemed excess. This being so, there was no real agreement as to what should be implemented to take the place of those things that were discarded. The liturgical movement, for instance, sought to disestablish much of the piety that had situated itself as the dominant religious exercise of the laity. This aim was well and good and, frankly, highly agreeable. The mainline liturgical reform, however, failed to seriously proposes a praxis of liturgical prayer to fill in he gaps left by the dismantling of piety. The Roman Liturgy of the Hours, for example, was afflicted with so many structural problems so as to make it difficult to adopt for both public recitation of the hours in the Latin Church, and as meditative recitation of the psalter for individuals or monastics. With no liturgical praxis clearly developed to be put in place of the various pious devotions or para-liturgical practices in vogue, there was a notable gap in prayer which could easily be seen as the tell tale sign of a metaphysical or spiritual gap in so far as it appears as a flattening of Latin Christianity's reference to the supernatural.

...But is it true?

It seems hard to argue against the notion that the mainline liturgical praxis of the Roman and Anglican churches seems relatively pedestrian. This said, aficionados of contemporary monastic observance would argue that all of the tools are present for an optimal representation of the Latin tradition that is capable of engaging the contemporary Western mind so critical as it is of religious presumption. From this perspective, the resurgence of the egregiously ill informed (perhaps ill formed) piety of the pre-modern is a distressing sign, one that potentially presages the institutional foothold of a reactionary and unreasonable conservatism as the new normal.

I am therefore not willing to necessarily adopt Guenon or Schuon's perception of things in toto, yet it does seem fair to agree that there is a deep crisis in the Western tradition, the end product of which is restlessness within the Western context. Conflicting currents have ruptured from the common source and there is little indication that a convergence is happening any time soon. Traditionalist and conservative parodies of the Latin tradition fail to offer any sound (or intellectually credible) path forward. This said, more progressive or liberal polarities are often unable to ground themselves enough to reconstitute some sense of stability with which to work off of. All of which leads to a particular moment in which the wayfaring stranger seems like constant company, even if he isn't so sure if he is singing home to God.

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