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Science and Religion

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.

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A Cainish Cri de Coeur

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.

Acceptance

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 prodigal’s arrival.

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Life in God – Part II

Repentance

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 retained.

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Life in God – Part I

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.

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Authentic Humanism

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.

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Music: Performance or Liturgy?

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 interesting discussion.

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