Re-enchantment of the World, Part 1: A Feeling of Claustrophobia
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The typical secularized modern urban dweller, in a city like mine, usually visits a Church for three reasons: weddings, baptisms and funerals. Next to the rites themselves, the most interesting aspect to study are the reactions or mental atmosphere of the above mentioned type of participant.
Let’s take as an example the rite of wedding and attempt to adopt the type of outlook such a person has in those moments. Already being in a church subjects him to an alien environment, far removed from that of daily, modern, secularized life. The architecture, the paintings and icons, the chants, the vestments of the priests, all seem rather comical or absurd, a museum type of experience, an archaic world in the midst of modernity.
The Orthodox marriage rite is very rich in symbolism and quite complex; the type of person in question hears all sorts of prayers with allusions to Biblical characters and events he no longer has any idea about; he sees the newly weds being crowned by the priest and ritually eating a piece of bread dipped in a chalice of wine; he sees the priest(s), godparents, bride and groom holding hands and circling around a table three times while the chanters chant a hymn unintelligible to him, occasionally making a comment about the risky business such a thing entails, because of the bride’s long dress and the possibility of stepping on it accidentally. He then hears the words of the Apostle that the wife must (depending on translation) submit to or fear her husband and usually reacts with amusement (or perhaps with indignation, in some of the more militant types), this usually being the only verse he actually hears from the reading, the preceding ones and the context being lost somewhere in the background noise of wandering thoughts. This moment of amusement is followed by another one, when the bride and groom are asked to kiss the hands of their godparents; a small sermon follows and it’s done. Sure glad that’s over, he looks forward to the party which is about to commence and of which he seeks to make the maximum, since it already performed the magic trick of making a large chunk of his salary disappear. It should here be noted that the ludicrous sum of money charged by restaurants in big cities for such events never seems to bother this type of person, but he is very scrupulous and cynical in regard to every penny charged by the priest who performed the wedding rite.
But back to the main topic, it is clear that for the modernized type of man we are talking about the religious rite itself is nothing but an archaic residue, a convention performed for the sake of the older folks in the families, a boring and especially long preamble to the “real thing”, which is the party.
Everything in life must be understood in its own language and its proper frame. In what regards religion and religious rites, such a language is that of symbolism. But we are not talking here about a single aspect, such as a key, which simply needs to be recovered in order for the type described above to be able to enter. Indeed, perhaps a “backward” villager might be equally ignorant of the symbolism involved, but he retains something which the secularized city dweller has lost for a long time: that is the intuition of the weight of things, the ability to recognize a moment which far transcends the plane of mere social norms and conventions when he sees one, a moment charged with sacradness and also the intuition of its indispensable nature, its necessity to human existence.
So the question is not simply of a particular type of knowledge that has been lost; it is not even one of basic culture, that is of being ignorant of stories which have shaped and nurtured European civilization- and far beyond that- for almost two millennia. We have, first of all, the loss of an entire worldview, indeed one could more correctly say an entire world, beginning especially and primary with the transcendent and metaphysical Center, passing through its temporal and historical manifestations and ending up with the existential outlook and orientation of each individual.
In other words, we have not only a key which has been lost, but even the conscious awareness of the existence of the door which that key opens and even more so of the world into which it grants access. This state of affairs has not been brought about by a single historical event or movement, which could be identified as the starting point from which the whole later development occurred, but it is first of all a movement, a change of direction from the spiritual point of view, which led to corresponding changes, one could better say destruction, at every level and regarding every aspect of what constitutes a world view: the view of the universe, of history, of personal life. As part of a vicious cycle, these changes, having already occurred, further reinforce the initial inner movement, thus deepening the fall, which in turn reinforced its cultural manifestations and so on, in a circle. The mental framework in which the contemporary person functions is a kaleidoscope of influences and disparate pieces having as basis the most diverse presuppositions of which one is not even aware. It has been remarked by some contemporary philosophers that in this fractured environment it is no surprise to hear someone contradicting himself multiple number of times in the same sentence. More than sloppy thinking, it is a symptom of dissolution on all levels of existence.
In what is going to a be a multiple part article, I will make a small attempt at discussing certain essential aspects of what constitutes the traditional, symbolic and sacred view of the world.
The initial premise from which I will attempt this is that true knowledge of any sort presupposes Revelation- some forms being directly in unity with it, others depending more indirectly from it. This is opposed to a perspective which takes the starting point from the individual, his various faculties of perception and reason. In this way, we could say that all bona fide knowledge, even very partial and relative one, at the very least presupposes revelation, that is God revealing Himself or something of His workings to the created being, as neither our faculties of knowledge, nor the contents which we assimilate, nor the very possibility of knowledge to occur are of the finite, created being’s doing. Every true knowledge is thus a gift from above. The modern notion of the world and its contents generating itself according to a set of laws set in motion by a random, a-causal event and the self-contradictory consequences generated by such a stance have been analyzed in a different article and will not be repeated here. For what concerns the present series of articles, I will use both a negative and a positive method. The negative means pointing out and analyzing some of the un-examined assumptions and outlooks on life which all of us retain- some more rarely than others, but still we all at least once in a while lose sight and approach things from such a false perspective, sometimes without even realizing.
As for the positive part of the task at hand, I will attempt a partial exposition of the principles involved within a truly traditional and symbolic worldview, from the points of view of the cosmos, of history and of personal life. This exposition will not and cannot be exhaustive as that would be a self-defeating attempt, i.e. a reduction of Revelation to a philosophical or religious system, where system is per necessity a closed, individual construction and thus the very negation of the possibility of receiving a true, spiritual understanding. The acquiring of a true, symbolic understanding and especially of incorporating this understanding at the level of the heart, that is of truly participating in it and not just understanding it abstractly, from the mental point of view, is not something which can be accomplished through discursive explanations. In the final analysis, when talking about metaphysics we cannot come up with exhaustive verbal explanations but only illustrate the points discussed through examples meant not to exhaust them, but to point towards them and leave the way open for the reader or hearer to contemplate them himself and arrive at a personal understanding at a higher level than that of mere discurssive thought. I pray only that this will be successful at least in a small part.
The state of alienation and its metaphysical meaning
We could describe the state of the modern man sketched above as one of alienation, but not in a psychological sense (even though it often has psychological manifestations) but in a spiritual, metaphysical sense.
When we observe the changes and state of the world and of human life brought about by modernity, we cannot help but notice a glaring contradiction. On the one hand modernity claims it has enlarged the mental horizon of man, bringing him out of the box of a primitive cosmology and view of the world and universe and into the infinite spaces of a universe not only of an unimaginable vastness, but one which can also be explored (and perhaps even populated) through the technological advances of our era. In relation to history, modernity prides itself with the supposed accomplishment of having liberated the individual from the limiting and degrading frame of traditional societies and their taboos and empowered him to be an active participant in history. As part of this empowerment he also is presented with virtually unlimited choices to “realize” himself in his own personal life, to travel in a matter of hours across the globe and become acquainted with every country and culture imaginable in a matter of months. He has access to every possible information in a matter of seconds. The horizon seems not only to have been enlarged, but its boundaries have completely disappeared from sight.
But on the other hand, for all that supposed enlargement and expansion, the life of a modern person seems to be traversed- from one side to the other- by a seemingly strange type of claustrophobia. Actually the world seems to have become so small that its walls are caving in on one and to such an extent that one constantly needs to escape into the fantasy world of mass-media and entertainment.
Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, has recently launched two astronauts into orbit– another proof (if another was ever needed) of the capabilities of the human mind, no doubt. Yet, space exploration, as well as the apparent infinity of the cosmic space discovered throughout the last centuries and also the whole world of technological progress cannot move man one inch closer to a knowledge which truly transforms his being, by which he transcends his individual limitations and through which he can be united with the Purpose of his existence. Perhaps the most gross and un-examined misunderstanding of modern man is that the altering of the material conditions of life somehow fundamentally changes the essence of his existence as well as the fundamental questions of life and the problems he has to face. Such is a very deplorable illusion. To take the example of space exploration technology, the achievements in this field, beyond certain military and perhaps some other limited material advantages, are certainly of no existential use for anyone, not even those directly involved in these projects. Indeed, as we can see in the case of Elon Musk himself, technological achievements co-exist with a complete ignorance of even the most basic understanding of human nature, as his transhumanist ideas and ideals testify.
It is correct to object that no one ever though that such a project was meant to have any existential effects to begin with, which is perhaps correct; yet, people view such achievements as the highest limit of what human beings are capable of, so my remarks are meant to put things into perspective and place everything on its rightful place. One can and should recognize merits in a particular field, on condition one does magnify its importance out of its rightful proportion.
From the point of view of existence as a historical being, today’s person is completely cut-off from his historical roots, falsely believing he can be free of them and self-determine, thus becoming a sure victim of the most tyrannical determination of all: the spirit of the times.
While the plethora of en-gross information to which he has access serves only to confuse him, to drench him into a state of inertia and stupor, at the same time in which for all talk of “individual empowerment” he is more powerless than ever, both inwardly (in regard to his instincts) and outwardly (from the social and political point of view).
The reality is that the so-called vast vision of the world presented by modernity only obfuscates the fact that it was always accompanied by a corresponding reduction, a reduction that is to man and the world to a single mode of being- which is that of corporeal existence. We could aptly describe the life experience of modern man as being filled with “more of the same”. The myriad stars and galaxies, nebulae and black holes in the vast spaces out there all fall in one and the same order of existence- the corporeal. The never-ending stream of information never reveals anything essential; the increased knowledge and documentation in regard to past historical epochs are always tainted with dull, modernistic interpretations, while obsession with tourism and worldwide travel is of the most superficial kind, only revealing more of the same, namely some unintelligible curiosities belonging to past civilizations or sometimes still living ones, but who are no longer understood in their own language, and simply regarded as being colorful artifacts against the same gray and monotonous background.
For all its claim to constant novelty, modern existence is a closed box of unbearable monotony and boredom. The central role of entertainment is an understandable facet of this reality, as it is in the world of imagination alone that something new can present itself to the mind and senses, but this never transcends the state of momentary intoxication which only stresses the ugly monotony of everyday life, the one which remains after the smoke of slogans and discourses dissipates.
It is this state which we call alienation, which is a spiritual condition characterized precisely by dissipation and exile.
Finite as order and meaning, indefiniteness as chaos and dissipation
The state of spiritual exile which I alluded to above is that which manifests itself on the mental and psychological planes as a lack of motivation and focus, an inability to settle, a constant seeking of novelty and originality, an endless passing from one object of interest to the next in the hope of finding something which grants peace and rest, in the form of a fulfillment of an unidentified inner craving, whose exact essence cannot be pin-pointed, but which unquestionably exists in the depths beneath the surface of one’s consciousness. Yet, no matter how much one tries to quench this thirst through some temporal, outside object of interest, it quickly re-asserts itself, once more provoking the ceaseless movement. Its most common illustration today: in a moment of inactivity, a person takes out his phone and opens a plethora of applications all at once, randomly browses the internet, checks his messages and newsfeed, going back and forth from one news article to another, all in less than a few minutes; in the end, nothing satisfies him, nothing retains his attention for more than a few fleeting seconds.
As a general state of life, it presents itself with an almost permanent state of discontent, complete lack of purpose, all this leading to anger, frustration, cynicism and resignation.
It is precisely a state of being outside of oneself, a mode of existence reduced to its corporeal possibilities, a view of the world from the periphery of one’s bodily mode of being considered as the only existing one and hence viewed in isolation from the rest.
It is a state of being on the periphery, where the movement is accelerated and the center lost from sight.
The apparent surpassing of limitations has, in reality, led to a most enclosed existence than ever which gradually and increasingly reduces the very possibility of transcending it. The world which we currently inhabit and the possibilities it presents to us are not infinite, but indefinite.
For something to be indefinite means the apparent paradox of being unlimited within a strictly confined space. It is the absence of boundaries, order and structure within a certain particular state, while the state itself is increasingly more narrowly enclosed, its outer boundaries becoming increasingly more opaque in the same proportion in which the former are absent.
Contrary to what modernistic slogans propagate, it is the very existence of limit and definition, of canon and structure, that manifest purpose, direction and, ultimately, grants freedom to any particular being and to existence in general.
The preceding paragraph may seem incredibly abstract, but in reality its meaning is so obvious that it is very hard to express in words, sending me into the typical Augustinian dilemma. It is always the case that the things which are most fundamental to existence are almost un-explainable in discursive language. This is why it is best to exemplify it with a few simple illustrations from everyday life, part of anyone’s experience.
When you want to cook a specific food, that particular type of food becomes a relative ordering principle which sets boundaries and lines of direction. You need to only use specific ingredients, which are to be cooked only in a single manner and which can only be eaten in combination with a some other dishes, but not anything. The limits it presupposes make it such a delicious dish, distinguishable from the others.
Or when you want to buy somebody a gift, the gift itself represents an immediate and relative purpose, while the idea of bringing happiness to the other person is the ultimate purpose (we’ll just suppose it is not one of those obligations). Since the gift you are going to buy depends on what you know about the other person, and because the more intimate and personal a gift is the less generic it becomes you will not be looking for that kind of “universal” one-size-fits-all sort of gift which is so wide in scope that it could be given to just about anyone, including a person you barely know, but for something more particularized, which more adequately expresses or exemplifies a certain trait of the person in question or the essence of that person as a whole, which means that the gift itself must be more limited, more strictly defined so as to fit the person for whom it is intended.
Or another example: If you want to write a short story, you first of all need to have a certain idea to express. This idea becomes the center and purpose of the whole story. But this idea, being the center and purpose means that it is also the principle which organizes everything related to the story, both inside and outside. And to organize means to impose limits. Inside, related to the story itself, everything from the narrative to the type of characters and the relations between them, to the overall atmosphere, all these need to play a role in the service of the central idea. A scene in the story which has absolutely no connection to this idea is purely and simple without reason of being and hence completely absurd in that particular context. Outside the story, the idea you want to convey immediately determines the type of reader who will be interested in it and for whom it must be intended. Hence the way it is presented, the language used, the shape it must have, all must be organized according to a certain canon of writing, it needs to conform to a certain pattern in order for it to be intelligible and readable and for the idea to be understood and for the reader to relate to it personally.
Other examples may be given, some better than others, but the idea should have become clearer by now: anything which is meaningful, which has an essence must have a certain clearly defined structure, a certain shape which not only conforms to its essence, but it also makes that essence recognizable. A geometrical shape is recognized for what it is (a square, a triangle etc) by its very boundaries. But this very shape which is visible becomes the vehicle through which an invisible, transcendental idea (in classical philosophy known as the form) is conveyed. A cube is a symbol of stability, of rest, of finalized movement. This idea is incorporated, incarnated one might say in the very shape of the geometrical element we all know as cube. And here we have reached the borders of symbolism and the principles which make it what it is. We will expand a little later, though.
For now, we can draw this partial conclusion, namely that structure (which implies limits, definitions and discipline) has two main uses:
- It makes the idea transparent, it orients the one participating in that particular structure towards the idea which animates it and for which it exists
- It makes possible to convey this idea not just abstractly as an interesting thought to entertain, but concretely (in Christian terms at the level of the heart), allowing one to participate in it and incorporate it in one’s own existence, to be able to be transformed by it. This is why we say that some books, pieces of music, perhaps even very good movies, are potentially life-changing.
I will further make this remark regarding the granting of freedom which I alluded to above. I have talked, so far, about how boundaries and structures convey meaning, manifest superior principles. But what about the granting of freedom? How can a limitation, something which defines and thus gives someone or something a particular identity, different from any other, be a vehicle of freedom, rather than bondage?
This question stems from the fact that we have become accustomed to view the notion of freedom as a synonym for arbitrariness. A person is free (according to such a definition) if he does not conform to any sort of standard- moral or otherwise- but acts according to any fleeting fancy which passes through the mind. A story or a piece of music is more “pure”, more honest, more interesting if it does not conform to any pattern, any canon. Even the religious act has come to be viewed as more sincere and “spiritual” the more spontaneous and arbitrary it is, devoid of any ritual and canonical order.
But this is not freedom, this is simply dissipation of energy in no particular direction, hence it cannot manifest purpose, nor can it ever serve as a means to the transcending of limitations.
A pattern, a structure is that which not only points unceasingly towards the purpose, the ultimate goal, but it also imposes discipline and tension, necessary for the energy to be channeled and directed towards the said purpose. The absence of structure represents not only a dissipation of energy, without any meaning, but also a lack of focus as there is nothing anymore to help identify and point towards the desired end, not to any end for that matter. Everything then becomes movement without meaning, without goal.
True freedom means knowing yourself, which implies knowing your reason for being and having the possibility to attain it. In other words, to be free means to realize that which is proper to you. Transcending one’s individual limitations does not break one’s true identity, but confirms it in its uniqueness (indeed, making it more unique) at the same time in which it more clearly underlines one’s unity with the whole.
To come full circle to what I said at the beginning: the state of spiritual exile is precisely the end result of living in an indefinite world. No longer an ordered cosmos, reflecting higher orders of being, but a cluster of galaxies floating in empty space. No longer an essential thread to follow throughout history, but an indefinite line of one event after another. No longer meaningful knowledge, but an endless stream of information that conveys nothing which is truly life-changing, nothing of any particular importance. Existence within the premises of the modern mentality has no meaning and is completely worthless. Everything is destined to be pulverized in the end. No material advantage or benefit, no technological progress can redeem this fact.
The loss of the symbolic universe and the sacred meaning of life, the dissolution of the Christian understanding of the world in today’s society has closed the world into the meaningless state of spiritual exile. While this exile is a predicament of mankind since the beginning of what we know as history, as described in Genesis, chapter 3, the Christian Revelation provides not only the ultimate and most complete truth of both origin and purpose of existence, as well as its very nature, but also the structure necessary to direct one towards this purpose, providing the means to transcend the state of exile.
The shattering of this Christian vision of the world, of its symbolic structure (as well as that of any other religious tradition, still better than nihilism, no matter how incomplete) led indeed to the indefinite expansion of the boundaries of the visible world and the possibilities attainable within the corporeal mode of being, but it has destroyed the elements that connected this to and made us aware of higher modes of being and the very purpose of our existence and the way to attain it and has enclosed all existence in this one, single, limited modality.
Hence, when one has arrived in such a state (has, that is, internalized the essence of modernity), nothing belonging to the structure exhibited by the Christian revelation makes any more sense to one. So it is necessary to recover a certain intuition, a sensitiveness towards the symbol.
The next part of this series of articles will be a brief outline of what a symbol is and how it should be understood, followed by two articles on space and time and after that more reflections on how we are accustomed to view the world in terms of “objective and subjective”, exact science and a plethora of other key terms and concepts, plus a little something on Revelation vs the phenomenological approach. This plan is not final, I may make revisions or drop a few things, but the next two or three articles are pretty much set in stone.
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