For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Monday, 27 January 2014

Icons and Statues

It is rather odd that the Orthodox of the East have a strongly developed theology of icons, their imagery, their uses and the veneration owed to them; on the other hand, they rarely have statues in their churches. On the very rare occasion that they venerate a statue - as for example the Sokolac Virgin in a monastery in Kosovo - the statue is set in a niche or near a wall so that it presents only one face to the onlooker. It is not meant to be walked around: one isn't supposed to see the human form of the statue from behind.

I say it is odd, because one might suppose that there is little difference between an image in two dimensions being used in devotion, and an image in three dimensions. Put in this way, as the bald numeric addition of an extra dimension, it does indeed seem arbitrary. But if one pays attention to effect on one's mind and heart and nervous system of an icon and a statue in a church, perhaps there is quite a profound difference between the two.

The Orthodox, while not banning the use of statues outright, have reservations about their use: St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain says that icons are more pious and decent. There are at least four or five reasons commonly given for the reservation:

  1. A statue can be walked around and therefore treated as an object in its own right; it is inviting us to artistic appreciation rather than a face-to-face relation with a person. There seems to be two distinct notions here (1) that a holy image if venerated should not be objectified, for it is in some sense assimilated to the one whom it presents and (2) the related point that meditation upon an icon is a vehicle of spiritual communion with the person presented.
  2. Because a statue is three dimensional it becomes a part of the space it inhabits; it is bounded and limited by the walls, floor and ceiling. On the other hand, a two dimensional holy image gains something by its loss of spatial depth: it becomes a window into heavenly space. When one removes the dimension of space one is also removing its limits; for the loss of the physical, there is an augmentation of the spiritual.
  3. One doesn't know how or where to venerate them - does one kiss the foot, the knee? (Icons are venerated by kissing the hands or the feet of the person, or the bottom corner.) I suppose that there is actually a customary veneration that has attached itself to certain statues, for example the kissing of the foot of St. Peter in Rome's greatest basilica - but no general rule.
  4. Statues are too much like replications of their originals, which is not what a holy image is for: an icon should not even be portraiture. The flatness of the icon witnesses to its unlikeness to its original as much as its likeness, adding this "distance" from pictorial art to the traditions of non-literal depiction such as simplification of bodily form, elongated figures, and large eyes.
  5. Where a statue can be used for veneration - according to variations in local custom - for all of the above reasons it had better be placed against a wall or in a niche and be a fixed part of the Church and liturgical drama rather than a detachable art piece. Further, it should be in some way a stylised representation that aims to encourage mental vision - sculptures of the Anglo-Saxon, Carolingian or Romanesque periods are therefore preferred over the late-Gothic or Renaissance virtuoso performances.
There is a laconic remark in the then Cardinal Ratzinger's Spirit of the Liturgy when he comments that he doesn't know exactly when, or for what reason three dimensional sculpture was introduced widely into the Roman and Western Church. I don't think he was making pleasant overtures to Orthodox Christians; and Benedict XVI is not someone to make desultory remarks, however terse, without meaning what he says, and I suspect that he doesn't see a good theological justification for it. And that also implies that he wouldn't see a justification for a non-iconic use of art in churches.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Charles Williams on Dante and Malory

On a recent re-reading of Charles Williams' The Descent of the Dove: a short history of the Holy Spirit in the Church, a highly unconventional treatment of Church history, what most caught my attention was Williams' comments about two authors, Dante Alighieri and Sir Thomas Malory. In case you haven't heard of Charles Williams, check up on his supernatural thrillers, The Place of the Lion, All Hallows' Eve etc. There is nothing else to compare to these books in the sense that they occupy their own genre, and they are well worth reading despite Williams' occasional obscurity.

(1) On Dante

I was struck by something that on my first reading, more than ten years ago, I had barely noticed. His passage on Dante is among the beauties of the book, and his interpretation of Beatrice gets right to the heart of the Comedy. The last time I read the book, I think I hadn't read Dante, so I probably skimmed this bit: but now I see what he is getting at.

Only after I had read La Vita Nuova and the Comedy did I become aware that some critics viewed - and perhaps most critics viewed - Beatrice, in the Comedy at least, as a mere allegorical or abstract vehicle for the theology that Dante wanted to get across. Now, this came as a surprise to me, and at the age of twenty-one I instinctively found it mistaken. How could anyone with a certain kind of human experience that answers to Dante's beatitude in La Vita Nuova imagine that he would then turn this into a metaphysical abstraction for La Divina Commedia? Moreover, what about Dante's metaphysic of love which hangs so much on Beatrice herself in La Vita Nuova? Williams, I find, is on my side, and expresses his ideas superbly.

He points out that Dante's fusion of the image of Beatrice and the Gryphon (sola una persona in due nature) in the Earthly Paradise atop Mount Purgatory is uniting the highest dogmas about the nature of Christ's person with the "common human experience of sex". The Gryphon, possessing two natures in one person is Christ, the Deivirilis or God-Man; but it is also Beatrice. Williams comments: "Christ was anthropos and theos; so, after its kind, is human and romantic love". It is the whole point of Dante's beatitude in Beatrice that he is taking the profane and anti- (in the sense of "in place of") religious notions of courtly love and making them part of Christian dogma. But if so, then the figure of Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise cannot be an abstraction: she must be the soul of the real flesh and blood Beatrice of Florence, otherwise Dante's theology - God united to human flesh - loses its edge. The united image is (1) of a real Man being God of Very God, and (2) Dante's love for Beatrice uniting his attraction for her very human flesh to his desire for the divine. Unless it is love for the real Beatrice that Dante is expressing here, this isn't really a poetic image of the Incarnation. This might seem like a daring and dangerous doctrine, and so it is. But then so is the Nicene Creed.

At their meeting in the Commedia Beatrice denounces Dante for not being faithful to mia carne sepulta: but Williams points out that Beatrice isn't angry because he had a leer at the "Lady at the Window". The Church has never taught the need for faithfulness of that kind after death of even a spouse for one thing; and further, a Beatrice getting jealous about a lustful glance would be simply ridiculous in the context at this point in the poem. Dante, says Williams, has abandoned something greater. He has gone per via non vera, he has lost the vision of faith, love and power that Beatrice's beauty originally gave to him in La Vita Nuova, and which the death of Beatrice (with the withdrawal of sight) had given him the opportunity to do in a deeper way, a way more full of faith. He has apostatized from his purpose, and in the last resort he has ceased to live to know God.

Williams reinforces his interpretation by pointing out that it is the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, who prompts Lucy, who prompts Beatrice, who passes through Hell to prompt Virgil to come to Dante's aid in the Dark Wood. (The New Life is about Dante's love for Beatrice; the Comedy is about Beatrice's love for Dante.) The Virgin Mary, who sends Beatrice on her mission of love, is a type of Beatrice also: "individual, but also the universal image of a universal fact". We are thus brought to face, by Williams, the extraordinary fertility and daring Christianity of Dante's thought. A person - in this case Beatrice - can be both an individual who "walked and chattered and laughed in Florence" and the "universal image of a universal fact". It is a travesty that the central idea in Dante, if Williams is right, has been so misunderstood as to be completely missed by the critics.

I cannot resist reproducing part of Williams' passage on Dante, "It is the passionate and directed love of Beatrice which begins and sustains the Comedy, she of whom we know nothing except that she could be believed to do so, nothing but that she is the great archetype in poetry of all the shes, and yet they are themselves and not she, nothing but that there was a girl who was that as she walked and chattered and laughed in Florence - the chief of those few girls who out of all the millions have been caught up by holy Luck into the fame of verse and the everlasting glory of spirit. It is so that she laughs and teases and chatters and explains in heaven, only with a greatness about her, the greatness of heavenly fate, and the customs and metaphysics of the redeemed City."

(2) On Malory

I reproduce Williams' piece on the begetting of Galahad by Lancelot upon Elaine. Lancelot is deceived from his adulterous love for Queen Guinevere by the enchantment worked by Elaine's father, King Pelles, who has foreknowledge that the greatest of all knights will arise from their union. King Pelles obtains a ring of power that makes (out of daylight, at least) Elaine appear to be Queen Guinevere, and thus is Galahad conceived in a dark chamber of his castle. The birth of Galahad, like the appearance of the Grail, is the beginning of the exposure of the sinfulness of the court and of Lancelot, in their inability to achieve the Holy Quest, for all their worldly and chivalric prowess. The Kingdom has a different measure. For Williams, this story illuminates mainly the Two Ways of seeking God, the Negative Way associated with Dionysius and the mystics, and the Positive Way of the affirmation of all images as types of their creator.

"By what has been one of the greatest moments of imagination ever permitted to man, [Launcelot] was allowed and compelled, in an enchantment and supposing himself true to the Queen, to beget on the predestined mother the shape of the High Prince. [Galahad, the High Prince] is the child and climax of the greatest of mortal affirmations, of a passionate, devout and tragic double love.... no doubt at that time Galahad presented, as it were, the Way of Rejection of Images as against the mistaken or sinful affirmations in the court of Camelot."

However, Galahad is conceived in "that chamber where, as in the Dark Night of the Soul, "all the windows and holes were stopped that no manner of day might be seen"; and where the princess of the Grail abandoned her virginity and Lancelot was defrauded of his fidelity, so that the two great Ways might exchange themselves for the begetting of Galahad. The High Prince has remained an intense symbol of the Two Ways; he is not on them, but they are in him. He is flesh and blood in the union with the Flesh and the Blood."

Friday, 17 January 2014

From Origen to Barfield via Dr Pusey

I have just stumbled, quite fallen over, such a tremendously important connection in theology and the history of ideas that I feel rather like Mole when he and Rat bang their shins on the boot-scraper outside Badger's house in the deep snow. Even after finding the doormat Mole still doesn't grasp what the exasperated and quick-witted Rat, digging away furiously, gives up trying to make him see: that a doormat implies a Door.

There are strands of ideology and history of thought that I find fascinating:

1) Christian Neoplatonism, and the typological approach to Scripture of the Fathers, with Origen of Alexandria as its greatest exponent. It is more than just an approach to Scripture, but re-interprets Creation through the same lens, as an image of its Creator.

2) Romanticism, and Coleridge in particular, especially its revival of Neoplatonism in its view of the world as a type of the divine; the Inklings, particularly the "peripheral" Inklings if I could so call them (i.e. Owen Barfield and Charles Williams rather than Lewis and Tolkien) as twentieth century expositors of this philosophy.

3) The phenomenal approach to nature of Goethe, and the ideas about Archetypes of the psychologist Jung - not his outworking of the significance of the archetypes, but the idea that something like this theory could be incorporated into the scientific understanding of human beings in order to put together what modern science has put asunder, viz. the physical and the psychological, the body and the mind.

I also happen to be a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, which not unsurprisingly looks back to the Oxford Movement as its precursor and forerunner, the best known names of which Movement were Pusey and Newman. Of course they went back to the Church Fathers and were learned in typology; of course they were influenced by the currents of their time, Romanticism being one of the strongest. But until today I hadn't consciously made four out of two squared.

Then, a serendipitous nosy around prompted by the Ordinariate priest and blogger Fr Hunwicke led me to this doctoral thesis, and the light dawned. Not only was Pusey a learned Church Historian, a Hebraist and Old Testament commentator; not only was he a brilliant Patristic scholar; he also had something to say about typology. Rather a lot, and more besides.

Dr Pusey makes the typological understanding of the Old Testament a theological concern, a matter touching upon Christology. More, he makes the understanding of such images in such a fashion a question of the right kind of epistemology, stemming from a right view of knowledge as participating in God, and as grasping the purpose of created images. More, he views the emerging Higher Criticism - sharing presuppositions in common with scientific rationalism - as suffering epistemologically from a lack of such a basic Christian orientation of mind and heart. And more still, he calls in the Romantics and Coleridge with their understanding of poetic images to witness to his contention of the transforming power of the prophetic images in making us anew in the image of God. And thus does he open the door for a new vision of the natural world, via engagement with the science of Goethe, of Jung and even of Steiner: an authentically Christian reworking of their ideas is required, a baptised science that would start from Christan presuppositions about Man, Images and Meaning.

There I was, just a few feet from Badger's door all the time. It looks like other people have been digging in the snow with more wit than I: but I am an excited Mole nonetheless. Transferring the theological understanding into the scientific inquiry will be very difficult, and will require a complete rewriting of method and reordering of instincts and a lot of imagination along with hard empirical work. And I don't think one person can do it by themselves.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

What Does The Blog's Title Mean?

I've been meaning to write this for ages, to explain the significance of the rather obscure title for this blog, That Which Remaineth.

It is - as it appears in its context in the subtitle - a quotation from St Paul, from his second letter to the Church of Corinth, (see chapter 3) in a purple patch where he uses the rhetorical device of successive and climaxing contrasts. He contrasts the New Testament with the Old, the spirit with the letter, the fleshy "tables of the heart" with Moses's tables of stone, and hits the crescendo with the words "For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. [That is, there is no comparison - the glory that God gave to Moses on Sinai has been eclipsed, is no glory at all, compared to Christ's glory.] For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious".

What St Paul is getting across is that the New Testament, the law that Christ has come to write into our hearts through the transforming Spirit, has set aside a prior state of things, where we looked to a set of written commandments and were blinded by the light of Moses face, the darkness of our own sins not enduring the brightness of God's holy Law. Paul is now a servant of the new order, and the people of Corinth are written on his heart, and entrusted to his care: and the new law of Christ will order and direct their loves and wills through the Holy Spirit. The glory of the new order is passed on through gazing on the face of Christ rather than Moses, and instead of being blinded at the foot of Mount Sinai, we feast our gaze without any veil at the foot of the Cross.

He concludes the passage thus: "But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord." Looking at Christ is like looking into a mirror and seeing Him there, and the longer we look, the more we are transformed into the image that we contemplate.

So - what about the title? Well, "that which remaineth" is a pregnant phrase for me, because it can mean a number of things in the context of this passage. I freely admit that some of these meanings are accidental to the English, and aren't there in the Greek.

1) The current state of things - the rule of Christ through the free Spirit - "remains" in the sense that it is "left over" from the old state of affairs. In other words, Christ's rule existed before in the nation of Israel, but now the barriers have been removed to its manifestation and universal sway; the symbols of the Old Testament have been interpreted and given life by the New.

2) We have now entered into the permanent state of things, into the glory that remains and will remain, for Christ has set up His everlasting kingdom, world without end. We have entered into "that which remaineth".

3) In English, the phrase carries a kind of poverty and precariousness when set on its own: "that which remains" sounds a bit like one is holding onto something preserved from the wreck of a city or a civilisation, something hard won and hardly held. Whilst there is the certainty of Christ's victory, nevertheless the glory of the "ministration of the Spirit", as St Paul calls it, feels very precarious indeed, as if it is at our whim to advance or neglect. The glory of Christ's rule is not always apparent, and introspection reveals a great part of us resistant, stubbornly refusing to submit to that gentle yoke; and the part of us given over to Him in danger of slipping back to old paths.

I mean to embrace the ambiguity of all of this in the title, and it brings together nicely (1) the typology of the Old Testament and its antitype in the New, i.e. what I conceive of as a healthy Christian Neoplatonism, (2) in the present state of things the final reality of Christ's rule is established, but this is a truth for our faith as it is not yet apparent to all (this is expressed in the blog in my interest in sacramental theology, another place for Christian Neoplatonism to flourish) and (3) the fact that we are hanging on by our fingernails at times, not primarily against a world in opposition but more our own dogged and inherent sinfulness. One desperately needs to "minister" to one's spirit, even when one is ostensibly writing about this or that piece of theology or book, and one often needs a nudge - or a shove - to remind one to rest in front of God's mirror and look at Jesus. The title is meant to remind me of that need.

I am going to put this in a permanent link on the right hand side column in the "Links to Older Posts" for any potentially bemused readers, so that when it drops off the bottom of the page in a month's time there will still be a visible explanation.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Russell Kirk and Conservatism

I await a book – it’s in the post – by an American conservative essayist (and author of fiction) called Russell Kirk. I’m a bit surprised, on reading what is written about him, that I haven’t heard of him before and that he isn’t better known. He seems to be the right kind of conservative: a conservative who isn’t a neo-conservative or free-market liberal, who understands the significance of Coleridge as well as Burke for the tradition, and who caught on to the notion that conservatism as a preserver of tradition is the friend and brother of Natural Law philosophy. He also seems to have drawn on G.K. Chesterton to some extent; he didn’t back the first Iraq war; and he became a prominent member of Una Voce, an organization that promotes traditional liturgy, in the United States. These are all good reasons to explore his work (for me). A quick resume of his ideas is available on-line in the essay Ten Conservative Principles.

Not enough people realise that (a) Thatcher wasn’t a conservative, she was a liberal, and free market economics is not a conservative idea, (b) not even Churchill was a conservative, and (c) in fact there haven’t been any real conservatives in power since at least the beginning of the last century. A friend thinks that Disraeli might have been the last: I am not even sure about that. The name “conservative” has become so smothered with various ideological non-entities of which Cameroonism is the latest, that I think it has potential power to come back as a coherent political philosophy if it were renamed and presented as something radical. And so it is, in both senses: for it is both a return to the roots of human and civic life in tradition, and also says something quite new and unheard of for most people alive. Surely people are getting fed-up with a diet of liberalism, the oligarchy of bureaucracy and big business, and are ready for a political philosophy that is not mere callow teenage anarchism, but which speaks of an authority that rules over the state and trade and limits and curbs their power?

Warren’s Sarum Missal in English