In From Dawn to
Decadence (2000), Jacques Barzun discusses the scientific revolution that
occurred between the seventeenth century and the present. In his description,
this is not just a matter of learning to observe natural phenomena. Our
medieval forebears were meticulous observers of their world—it takes only a
look at their exquisite engravings of plants to convince oneself of this. But
until a certain intellectual shift they could not derive general laws from what
they saw. We moderns do this every day, rising from raw observation to
abstraction. Then we treat the abstractions as things in their own right. Note
the word rise.
Scientific language is equipped to treat of geometry, physics,
chemistry, biology, and more. Finding meaning in the world is another matter. That
belongs to poetry, morality, belief, and faith. Its operant language is not
merely descriptive, but constitutive of reality. The two things do not operate
wholly independently, which is why we have a postmodern debate about how much
of science, especially the studies of human being, is comprised of social
constructs. However that may be, when western culture developed a scientific
world view, we found ourselves in a world divorced from many of its previous meanings.
Continue reading “Science and Religion”
In what follows I ask the reader to accept rather much of the vertical pronoun; please forgive.
I am not a pious man, but a crooked man to whom ours is a very wily god (Psalm
18:26–27); a sinner in a relationship with God that reflects the fact: thick,
and loaded with ironies.
When I joined my Episcopal parish, I hoped the other
members’ acceptance implied communality in some large matters. There is little
reason to think so, because we seldom actually discuss ideas—especially not
theological ones; as with politics, it’s bad manners to do so. However that may
be, I suspect this is more than the predictable letdown the morning after the
Continue reading “A Cainish Cri de Coeur”
In part one we described the human proclivity for
constructing personal identities for ourselves that are more comfortable and
secure than it is to live free in God as protean beings before an indeterminate
future. The following is an attempt to chart the way out of that temptation.
God is not taken in by our attempts to make ourselves good.
He looks beneath our identities to the vulnerable self. He accepts us not as we
might like, but as he made us, naked. If we are not willing to be seen as such,
he waits, but he does not embrace a sham. Shams are sins to be forgiven, not
Continue reading “Life in God – Part II”
The following arises from experiences in Rehabilitation counseling. The perennial problem is, how to address compassion to people who are so possessed by the pieties of mass culture that they scarcely have selves at all to which we could address any message. A Christian knows such people are not different from himself, but some are more transparent than others as we address the question: What is the meaning of being God’s people, and nothing unless his?
Putting on faces
We live and move and have our being in God. We don’t know
God as a datum, God is not what we think, not a thing to have opinions about.
Rather, God is where we are and whose we are. Whatever we know and whatever we
do, we do in him.
Something there is about us which dislikes this truth. We go
to absurd lengths to deny it, or disguise ourselves in a distracting exterior.
There is an aquatic insect which covers its sticky body with streambed debris,
a low-rent version of the hermit crab. This, not the charming chimpanzee, is
our spiritual ancestor.
Continue reading “Life in God – Part I”
Renaissance altarpieces were not created only to be
monuments to the donors’ taste—although they were that—, nor to glorify the
human spirit, nor to celebrate capital-A Art as something transcendent. They
are used to bring the subjects, saints and sacred events, into the worshipers’
presence. Or, to put it the other way around, to put the worshiper in the saints’
space. The depict that space by devices of perspective, by the fondo d’oro, or by the monumental poise
of the figures. This space is not an optical illusion of some kind, but a sober
reality, in its way it is more real than the space occupied by the worshiper in
front. From their space the saints bless the whole company of faithful people,
even beyond the church, to the town and surrounding fields. There is a radical
difference between a generous, godly faith, and the counterreformation
histrionics that are meant to elicit the militant sentimentality of that later
time—and too often in ours as well.
Continue reading “Authentic Humanism”
Most of what we
mean when we say “Art” is religious art. This is true from the most ancient
Egyptian and Greek carvings to the present day. One of our cultural
superstitions is that any art is religious because it is presumed to express
something of the spirit of the artist. It is a short step from “creative
artist” to then artist as creator: symphonic conductors as demigods; poets,
painters, playwrights, and sculptors as transcendent geniuses, and so forth. It
takes only one more step to arrive the artist as an avatar of the Creator. Even
modern art that appears to call religion into question, or to make a travesty
of it (“Piss Christ” too) finds itself addressing faith in a backhanded way.
When it’s trying to say something positive, not merely insulting, capital-A Art
takes the human spirit as a quasi-religious object. The 1789 Declaration of the
Rights of Man and the Citizen, set forth by the French National Constituent
Assembly, was painted by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier as a pair of tablets,
like the law from Sinai.
Lately the Owl has written about works of art that have
clear liturgical functions. It is just as interesting to look for authentic
spiritual and theological content in unexpected places. In some cases, the matter
is clear; in others it is ambiguous, or solipsistic, but still makes for
Continue reading “Music: Performance or Liturgy?”