Know Thyself


A philosophy is only as good as the art it spawns, and that is why postmodernism is a failure. Of the real, enduring art of the last century — and I include literature in this — there isn’t much that was produced in its second half. And what was produced only really served the purpose of generating long, rambling discussions of what defines art in a postmodern culture.

Postmodernism fails because it affirms the denials of modernism — there are no mysteries — but acts as if what is being produced can have a deeper meaning (“because I so affirm”). This is schizophrenic and necessarily kills any real creative impulse, and so the bastard child ends up rehashing its mother’s work, badly. The type set by Holden Caulfield — a character from the badly-named contemporary period but truly the illegitimate spawn of a modernist protagonist —  ends up being the voice of three generations, and the book ends the same way every time: isolated and agnostic.

When we talk about 20th century art, the discussion inevitably falls to the men and women who lived through the First World War and what they produced. The problem with modernism is that — while it did us the service of killing the false neo-classicalism of the romantic period — its end result is soullessness, a relentless search for truth and meaning while denying the mysteries of life, and especially religion. No wonder so many of them died before their time, either directly at their own hands or indirectly through substance abuse.

Which is why, I think, I find myself identifying more and more with the Baroque (gaudiness and all). Even though they painted a false picture of the middle ages and their views of the Greeks were reconstructed and cleaned up at best, it was a thoroughly Catholic period that — while affirming the truth of Christianity — was not afraid to embrace its Western past or acknowledge its Greek roots; the longer you look at philosophy, the more you realize how deeply entangled it is with theology, and thus with art.

Later, the Enlightenment, would usher in with it what has been labeled the Classical period in art, which eventually trashed both Christian philosophy and the Greeks; but the art that intellectual moment de novo spawned was devastated by the emo-kids of the 1800s, the Romantics.

And the Romantics, who were so full of emotion but divorced from religion and philosophy, were the logical precursors to the moderns, who realized that emotion without meaning was exactly that — meaningless self-flagellation. They felt nothing but isolation and could produce nothing more than terse verse, some of it quite good but not laying enough stonework for a foundation for the next step in artistic-philosophical evolution.

And thus, Holden Caulfield is truly the defining figure of the 20th century.

Of course, I realize most of this is just meaningless babble, not good enough for my predecessors, nowhere comparable to those I admire and as banal and short-sighted as my contemporaries, because — like them — I lack any real schooling in philosophy.

Such are the times.

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From DavidD (seen in its original context here): 

Playing is learning, for adults as well as children. This is why I never worry when prayer becomes dry in Church. It is still good for me to “play” Church until my heart returns. After all we baptize our children long before they can know what it is we are doing. The learning comes AFTER the doing. And what a wonderful thing to watch them do!

I recently had a friend tell me it was obvious that I respect religious traditions, and that’s true. I love tradition, in both practice and as a matter of purely anthropological interest.

But lately I’ve come to realize that part of what makes tradition so appealing to me is its inherent link to ritual, and the link of ritual to repetition.

I’m a person who has had a lot of doubts through the years, but I have found in the last couple of years that a lot of ritual repetition can be quite faith affirming. The former Evangelical in me wants to think that doing the same thing over and over is just rote, vain repetitions done to feel religious, but I cannot deny that after 150 Jesus prayers in times of doubt, my doubts dissolve. I learn, and affirm, by doing.

There is a danger of thinking that the devotions of the Church are magical (just like many Evangelicals are guilty of thinking that Bible reading will fix their problems instantaneously), and those practices should never be separated from the teachings of the Savior and the Apostles by way of the scriptures and apostolic teachings of the Church (after all, they aren’t mantras), but they are useful in beating back both doubts and demons. When I find myself unable to pray, I can always begin with “Our Father, Who art in Heaven…,” and follow with “Oh Heavenly King, Oh Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who is in all places and fillest all things, treasury of good things and giver of life, come and abide with us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, oh gracious Lord.”

And if I am still unable to pray (and I admit, there are still days when this is true), I end with, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” 

(That has probably been the single most repeated prayer in my entire Christian life, even when I eschewed things like liturgy, repetition and planned devotions. This is the closest thing I prayed to a sinner’s prayer in my own Damascus Road experience.)

When in the context of religious practice, I don’t want to stray too far into the thinking that practice makes perfect lest I fall into rote practice, but practice is part of perseverance. And that is why — even when things get dry, to borrow from David — I keep at it.

No matter how iconoclastic one is, we all collect religious relics – for some it may be actual relics, and for others just paraphernalia from the journey. I have a few items that are special to me, among them my grandfather’s leather-bound Christian Worker’s Edition of the Authorized Version, which has his hand-written notes in the margin, and a prayer card of St. Theresa the Little Flower of Jesus from the funeral of a friend who died unexpectedly. I keep these, not for any spiritual purpose (though I have used the prayer on the prayer card before), but because they remind me of loved ones who I believe are now interceding for me and for the world among the saints.

But I have another personal relic, one I have only recently reacquired. It’s a ratty copy of a special-edition of the New Testament that was printed for a Promise Keeper’s rally in the late 90s. I didn’t attend the event, but my father brought the Bible back to me, and it mostly sat on a shelf until one night in my mid-teens.

At the time, I didn’t believe in much. I was still claiming the Christianity I was raised with in public and even to my close friends for fear that any word of apostasy would make way to my family, but privately I was drowning in pseudo-mysticism that was akin to a blend of self-made Buddhism and Deism. I knew there was suffering in the world, and I did not like it, but I did not believe God would fix it.

One night, on an impulse, I picked up that Promise Keepers Bible, and started reading. At first, I did not like what I was reading Jesus saying and doing, and I picked up a highlighter and began to highlight passages I found offensive. Somewhere in the middle of Matthew, however, things began to change. There were things about Jesus that disturbed me, but in a way that I had to keep reading. That night, I read through Matthew, Mark and Luke. As I went, the things I highlighted changed from things I didn’t like to things that convicted me, or at least left me wanting more.

I did not turn from my sin that night. It would take another year, a couple of tragedies – the death of friends of friends – in my periphery and a lot of prompting from the Holy Spirit for me to really wake up. But I look to that night as a turning point, the point when I started to want to know more about Jesus and when I was increasingly attracted to people who really seemed to know him. And then one night, alone in the chapel at Dry Creek, I wept and told Jesus that – if he would have me – I belonged to him.

Anyone who knew me at the time knows I went out-of-my-mind  religious after that. In the years since then, how that has manifested itself has changed dramatically, but it also remains the same.  In my heart, I am still a boy who wants to know Jesus as well as he can.

And that is why I am happy to have that ugly, abused copy of the Promise Keepers Bible.

I’m kind of at a juncture in my life right now, and it’s got me evaluating a few things.

  • During my formative years, I was a member of an evangelical church. Not everything was perfect, but on the whole it was good to me and for me, and I was baptized there. No matter where I go, I do not think I will be able to shake some of the conditioning that comes with being raised in a certain church or tradition.
  • At one time, I thought the Reformed worldview answered all of life’s questions, but now I feel like it reduces salvation down to a matter of math. I have a hard time not viewing it through some of the caricatures from which I used to adamantly defend it. I realize that Calvinism is logical, structured, systematic and proof-texted — I just don’t believe it anymore. 
  • But I still love the churches I attended when I was at that juncture in my life, and they, too, were not only good for me but in a couple of instances probably saved my life. I will also likely carry the zeal for hard truth I picked up while a Calvinist.
  • I can’t believe I ever took theonomy as seriously as I did.
  • I don’t believe embracing mystery and legitimate mysticism are excuses to stop pursuing knowledge, and neither is submitting to a hierarchical ecclesiology.
  • Every day for the last six months I have prayed God will preserve me from error, no matter where I go.

This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Looking for something else tonight, I came across this poem I wrote my senior year in high school, dated 12/27/02. I think it speaks well of where I was mentally at that time.

“Untitled”

Single-minded,
disheartened,
the hunted animal
stops for a breath
knowing full well that
this is its last.

single-minded,
empowered,
the hunter
pauses for a smoke
knowing full well that
time adds to the excitement.