Monthly Archives: May 2018

The Disenchantment of the World, Part 4: The Enlightenment

voltaire

On this rather elliptical path towards looking at religion as role-playing, we’ve looked at the religious milieu of the ancient Greco-Roman world, the origins of monotheism, and why it replaced paganism.  Many aspects of pagan belief remained, of course, under a (sometimes extremely thin) Christian veneer, and sometimes more or less openly as various types of folk practice and superstition.  Still, Christianity was on the whole dominant for nearly a millennium and a half after it conquered pagan Rome.  What struck a blow from which Christianity has never completely recovered, and which began the disenchantment of the world in earnest, was the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment is the period beginning at about the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th Century in which a new focus on reason and secularism began to be manifested in Western and Central European society, and to a lesser extent in Eastern Europe.  It’s always hard to give a concise definition of a complex phenomenon such as the Enlightenment, but the following points can serve as a beginning.  The Enlightenment was characterized by

  1. An emphasis on human reason, as opposed to Divine revelation.
  2. A focus on science and the scientific method.
  3. A call for political and social equality:  that is, democracy over monarchy, the intrinsic equality of all classes and nationalities, and even the beginnings of equality between the genders.
  4. A call for political and religious liberty:  Established religions were to be opposed, freedom of religion and association were promoted, and people were to be free to change their governments if need be.
  5. A desire to put human reason and science to work in improving human society, especially by rationalistic and technocratic means.
  6. An emphasis on the individual over the collective.
  7. A suspicion of organized religion and a tendency towards Deism and anti-clericalism.
  8. Optimism and (to some extent) utopianism as to the prospects of improving society; and a tendency to view the past as primitive, superstitious, and obscurantist, and the future as the realm of glorious possibility.

I think those points are a fair outline of the Enlightenment worldview.  It’s very clear from points 1 ,2, 5, and 8 why the Enlightenment resulted in so much disenchanting of the world; but before I go on with that, I think we need to look at the context of the Enlightenment, lest we misunderstand what followed.

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Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia of Alexandria was one of the last pagan philosophers of antiquity.  Daughter of the mathematician Theon, she was active in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late 4th and early 5th Centuries AD  Her father, though not a major mathematician in his own right, edited and corrected the mathematical works of Euclid, and his edition was so accurate that it supplanted all other editions for centuries.  His daughter was talented in mathematics as well, and also was renowned as an astronomer.  Her main claim to fame, though was as a teacher of Neoplatonism.

A fair amount of background is necessary.  Alexandria, Egypt–founded, shockingly, by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC–had become one of the Mediterranean world’s great metropolises, second in size only to Rome itself, and second to none in its cultural influence.  Alexander, conqueror though he was, was also an idealist.  He had a dream of spreading Greek culture worldwide, taking the best of the cultures it encountered and blending it with Greek learning and culture.  Though he died young and his empire dissolved into several states led by his generals, Alexander’s dream lived on.  The various successor states to Alexander’s empire indeed spread Greek–that is, Hellenistic–culture throughout the ancient world.

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My 2500th Post: The Gospel of Thomas

“Lost” or “forbidden” scriptures are a big thing these days, and have been for some time.  They have certainly played their role in pop culture, in works ranging from The Da Vinci Code and its sequels to horror/suspense movies like Stigmata, to name just a couple.  The Gospel of Judas caused a worldwide sensation when it was translated and published in 2005.  Walk into any large bookstore and you’ll see Elaine Pagels’s classic, The Gnostic Gospels (which arguably started the craze), various publications of the Nag Hammadi scriptures, both individually and as a group, collections such as The Gnostic Bible, and so on.  Of all the various “lost”, “forbidden”, and “Gnostic” scriptures, probably the most famous is The Gospel of Thomas.

The Gospel of Thomas, though short, is a mysterious and intriguing document.  Unlike the canonical gospels of the New Testament, and even some of the other heterodox gospels, The Gospel of Thomas has no narrative.  Instead, it consists of one hundred fourteen logia–sayings–of Christ, addressed mainly to the disciples.  Like the Gospels of Mark and John, Thomas lacks birth stories of Jesus.  Unlike all four canonical gospels, Thomas also lacks any account of the crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as well as the apocalyptic themes associated with Jesus in the canonical gospels.  About half the logia are parallel to or at least similar to sayings of Jesus in the canonical gospels.  The rest are of unclear origin.

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A Novena to Simone Weil

A little bit of a preface.  A novena is a Catholic devotion in which a certain set of prayers–typically directed to a saint, but sometimes to one of the persons of the Trinity–is repeated for nine consecutive days.  Generally, the novena is said for a particular intention, though some are more general.  There are many novenas addressed to many saints.  Go to a Catholic bookstore, or poke around online, and you can find them by the droves, as well as books containing compendiums of novenas.  Regular readers will know that I occasionally post novenas here.

Recently as part of my series “Your Own Personal Altar“, I wrote on Simone Weil, the French philosopher.  I won’t reiterate what I said there.  Rather, I want to fill a gap here.  Weil, though probably baptized before her death, was never officially received into the Church, though she was Catholic by conviction for the last six years or so of her life.  As I said in my post on her, she’ll never be canonized as an “official” saint.  Then again, the Church also allows prayers in a personal and private context to any given departed (e.g. a parent or other kin) with whom one has a connection and who might be an exemplar of faith.  In her own eccentric and unusual way, Simone Weil, I think, was indeed an exemplar of faith.  Thus, I think a novena to her is not inappropriate.

I searched the web, wondering if anyone had composed such a novena, and came up with no results. Thus, I have taken in upon myself to compose just such a novena.  I hope you will find it of spiritual benefit.  Sancta Simone, ora pro nobis!

A Novena to Simone Weil

 Daily Prayer:  O God, you always raise up for us holy men and women in all ages to witness to us in ways appropriate to the age.  The 20th Century was a time of war and confusion, secularism and loss of faith, oppression and totalitarianism; and also a time of progress, change, and hope.  Your servant Simone Weil fought for peace and justice for all people, for solidarity with workers, and against totalitarian regimes.  She saw the importance of fighting for justice; but more importantly, she sought the truth and kept searching until she found You.  Despite all the difficulties she encountered and the ways in which she was misunderstood, she held fast to her experience of Your love, and waited for You throughout her life.  Hear us now, we pray, and through the intercession of St. Simone, we beseech you to grant this favor (mention intention).  Through her intercession, grant us also the patience and courage to wait for You through all the struggles and challenges of life.  Amen.

Day 1:  St. Simone, you always lived in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the victims of war, and those in need, denying yourself for their sake.  Help us to see Christ in the least of our brothers and sisters, and to live our lives in solidarity with them.  Through your intercession, give us the strength to sacrifice and to practice asceticism for the sake of others.  Amen.

 Day 2:  St. Simone, you “hungered and thirsted after righteousness”.  Help us to open our eyes to see the ways in which injustice is perpetuated.  Give us the zeal for righteousness and justice that you had, and the strength not to weary or lose heart in pursuing them.  Through your intercession, give us discernment so that we can best act in accordance with God’s will.  Amen.

 Day 3:  St. Simone, you saw God active everywhere, in the lives of all, and in the traditions and faiths of all people of good will throughout the world.  Help us to see God in places we would least expect.  Through your intercession, give us the discernment to see the good in all cultures and belief systems, and help us to work together with our brothers and sisters of all faiths to make the world a better place.  Amen.

 Day 4:  St. Simone, you were born of the Jewish people.  Help us to see the Jewish people as our elder brothers and forebears in the faith of the One God.  Through your intercession, help us to bring peace and reconciliation between Jews and Christians, and an increase in knowledge of God for us all.  Amen.

 Day 5:  St. Simone, you spent much time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  You said that the Eucharist is the only perfect purity in this world, and that through it we may be cleansed.  Help us to have a stronger faith in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  Through your intercession, stir up in us a strong devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in Adoration, and a firm resolve to receive the Eucharist worthily as often as possible.  Amen.

 Day 6:  St. Simone, help us to see the presence of Christ in our brothers and sisters who are autistic, mentally ill, or non-neurotypical.  Help them and strengthen them in all their trials and needs, and give us the patience and understanding to be of service to them.  Through your intercession, may we all come together as God’s children, praising and serving Him in diverse ways and loving each other in all our differences.  Amen.

 Day 7:  St. Simone, you rejected all totalitarian systems and you knew well how human sinfulness can corrupt even the best of institutions.  You abhorred the kind of false zeal that turns the love and mildness of Christ into oppression and coercion.  Help us to do the same.  Through your intercession, may we be more effective witnesses for Christ, and may we lovingly work to make the Church on earth a more effective sign of the Kingdom of God.  Amen.

 Day 8:  St. Simone, you lived through a time of economic depression, war, and genocide, and yet you did not lose hope.  Help us to keep a firm grasp on the virtues of faith and hope, no matter what personal or societal difficulties we may encounter in our lives.  Through your intercession, give us the strength and courage to face whatever challenges God sends us, and final perseverance in the faith.  Amen.

 Day 9:  St. Simone, you said that we do not have to search for God, but only change the direction we are looking, and that is for Him to search for us.  You patiently waited all your life for God, living in openness to His will and seeking His inspirations when and how He chose to send them.  Give us the same openness and patience.  Through your intercession, give us the fortitude to wait for God, no matter how difficult we may find it; the patience to endure; the openness and discernment to receive everything that God wishes to communicate to us; and the obedience to carry it out.  Amen.

 Concluding prayer:  Good and gracious God, you have given us your servant Simone as an example and an inspiration for us all.  Through her intercession, help us to imitate her virtues, especially her openness to Your will and her patience in difficult times.  Guide us through life as you did your servant Simone, and bring us at last to full fellowship with your saints in the world to come.  Amen.

Nulla Scriptura Revisited

One of the keystones of traditional Protestant theology is the concept of sola scriptura.  This means literally “by Scripture alone”.  That is, all doctrines and practices of Christianity must be derived from Scripture.  Tradition, commentary, and development are not necessarily bad, but they may never be normative for belief and practice.  My post from some time back, “Nulla Scriptura” was a deliberate pun on this, as it means, “by nothing [of] Scripture.”

Back here, I said the following:

Of course, I’d say that open theism, as well as many other flavors of Protestantism, has too high a view of Scripture, anyway. I don’t mean that in the sense of saying that Scripture isn’t inspired, or of encouraging a “low” view of it. Rather, I mean the tendency to take it more or less as is without looking at context or the philosophical implications. I’ve read essays by open theologians in which they’ve gone so far as to say that if the theology or philosophy says one thing, and Scripture says another, then Scripture must be preferred, even if it seems to paint God in peculiar ways (e.g. limited knowledge, changing His mind, etc.). By that logic we’d have to jettison the value of pi!

What I want to do here is to elaborate on that concept, both in a general, theoretical way, as it pertains to Christianity and Christian thought in general; and also in a concrete, specific way, as it pertains to my own church, the Catholic Church, particularly in 21st Century America.

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The Breastplate of St. Patrick for Trinity Sunday

I bind unto myself today
The strong name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever,
By power of faith, Christ’s Incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan River;
His death on cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of the Cherubim;
The sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour;
The service of the Seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, his shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours
Against their fierce hostility,
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death-wound and the burning
The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the name,
The strong name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Translation: Cecil Frances Alexander; courtesy of here.

Quote for the Week

An outstanding memory is often associated with weak judgment. … If, thanks to memory, other people’s discoveries and opinions had been kept ever before me, I would readily have reached a settled mind and judgment by following other men’s footsteps, failing as most people do to exercise my own powers.

—Montaigne, Essays, as translated by M. A. Screech, pp. 32-33.

Joshu

With the possible exception of Bodhidharma himself, the greatest of all Zen masters is usually considered to have been 趙州從諗, or, as it is pronounced in Modern Mandarin, Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn.  In Japan, he is known as Jōshū Jūshin.  Most commonly, he is known merely as Zhaozhou or Joshu (henceforth I drop the diacritics).  The tendency in writing about the Chinese Zen masters these days is to use the original Chinese forms of their names.  Since Zen came to the English-speaking world mostly via Japan, older books typically use the Japanese forms of the name.  Thus, for example the noted Zen scholar and popularizer D. T. Suzuki, in his seminal works on Zen, always refers to the worthy we are considering here as “Joshu”.  For the rest of this post, I’ll follow his lead.  Yes, it’s less accurate; but then again, the Chinese of the Tang dynasty, during which Joshu lived, was pronounced significantly differently from modern Mandarin; and Joshu probably didn’t pronounce his own name as “Zhaozhou”.  Certainly, with Western religious figures, it doesn’t bother us that we don’t use the original forms of names–that we call the carpenter of Nazareth “Jesus” instead of Yēšūă‘ and his disciple “Peter” instead of Kêphā.  I certainly first encountered and developed an admiration for Joshu under his Japanese name; so Joshu it will be for the rest of this post.

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A Prog Rock Sampler for the Weekend

Simone Weil

This entry in my series “Your Own Personal Altar” is about Simone Weil.

Simone Weil was a French philosopher and writer of the mid-20th Century. A child prodigy, she learned classical Greek by the age of twelve, and Sanskrit later on.  She obtained a certificate in general philosophy and logic from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, and worked intermittently as a teacher.  From early in her life, she was drawn to left-wing politics (she even had an argument with Leon Trotsky to his face when he visited her parents in 1933, when she was twenty-four years old).  She wrote political pamphlets and was involved in activism and strikes on behalf of workers’ rights.  In her personal life, she was extremely–some might say quixotically–dedicated to solidarity with the oppressed.  Even as a child, during World War I, she refused to use sugar in her food because it was not available to the troops at the front. Later, she worked briefly in a Renault auto factory to experience what the workers experienced, donating her salary to various causes.  Though originally a pacifist, she tried to participate in the Spanish Civil War.  Being naturally clumsy and having very poor vision, though, she displayed no military competency at all, and no commander would actually assign her to an combat position.  Her brief stint in Spain ended ignominiously when she accidentally scalded herself after tripping over a pot of boiling liquid, and was burned so severely that she had to return to her parents’ home for recuperation.  Ironically, this was a blessing in disguise for Weil–not long after she left Spain, her unit was attacked and suffered massive casualties.  Every single woman in the unit died.

During World War II, she fled with her family to New York.  She wished to be active for the French cause, though, so she left America for England in 1943.  There she hoped to be able to train so that she could return to France as an allied agent.  She had contracted tuberculosis by this time, though.  In line with her idiosyncratic notions of solidarity, she not only refused special treatment, but she refused to eat more food than was available to her compatriots in the war zone.  Thus, while she didn’t cease eating altogether, her food intake was not nearly adequate for her fragile condition.  Despite the best attempts of  her frustrated doctors, she died that year at the age of 34.

Relatively unknown outside of left-wing political circles during her life, her writings have been posthumously collected and printed in the years since then.  Gradually, Weil has come to be considered a significant thinker, and there is increasing study of her thought.  Recently a biographical documentary about her has been made.  Given all this new prominence, it is interesting that much of the renewed interest in Simone Weil is not an interest in her politics–the thing for which she was most known during her life–but her religious views.  It is for these, in fact, that I am including her on my personal altar.

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