The Word of Old: Tradition, Revelation and the Impossibility of Revolution (pt. 1)
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Out of all attacks on Christianity throughout history, probably the most popular – and consequently, the most base – is the one according to which Christianity is naturally poised against human nature.
While it owes much of its modern popularity mainly to the appeal it holds for adolescents and their craving for promiscuity, there’s a less popular and, consequently, more profound aspect to it after all.
Indeed, being natural or un-natural means something rather different then the ability or inability to live out one’s imagination in the form of sexual fantasies – this being the bottom line of the ideal promiscuous life because only fantasy can provide the variety of sensation the promiscuity seeks.
Being natural or un-natural actually only tells us whether the principle in question does or does not impose violence on the nature of the particular being it acts upon.
Formulated in this way, the accusation that Christianity is unnatural is in fact quite old.
Also, in its primary form, it has less to do with frowning at people having intercourse out of wedlock or, as Nietzsche would see it, with the suppression of authentic urge unto creative power with its uncreative negative; rather it has to do with fear that the birth of Christianity is an attempt at absolute new beginning and, consequently, an absolute denial of the past.
One only has to throw a cursory glance at Plotinus’ Against the Gnostics or accusations of Celsus to catch more than a glimpse of this fact.
The trust of the argument against the Christian principle is that it is being novel or, at best, an eclectic appropriation of palaios logos of ancients – Tradition of metaphysics understood as common to both civilized Mediterranean/Middle Eastern peoples and some among barbarians – embodied in what we now call Greek metaphysics.
One criterion for demonstrating the sacredness and naturalness of this Tradition was its ancient origin.
For a Platonist of the eras of Hellenism and late Antiquity innovation was rather a sign of ineptness than of perfection – the doctrines he cherished were originally given to the sages who were above the common run of men, because their knowledge was acquired through divine, or at least in some way superhuman, inspiration; they were understood as a revelation of sorts.
Therefore, the originality was not to be found in the act of individual creative novelty but in the ability to draw oneself close to the origin.
The truth was essentially handed down; therefore its origin was necessarily in the past.
This mentality has precious little to do with modern conservatism, an intellectual and political attitude unthinkable in its proper form outside of modernity and its unrelenting thrust towards the future, although it is often being named as such by modern and contemporary scholars.
On the contrary, it originates in the ability of civilized ancients to recognize causes in their effects and understand the eternal position the origin holds towards anything coming after it.
In human – therefore, temporal – terms this position can only be symbolized by the perennial before, the eternal past.
For them, hearing that somehow all of this has been turned upside down as God took, not merely an appearance, but both body, nature and ancestry of the Jewish man of quite well defined descent and then died from the punishment reserved for runaway slaves, must have resembled the tremor of cataclysmic earthquake.
One is tempted to suppose that they saw Christians as revolutionaries and there is a grain of truth in this, anachronism notwithstanding.
Yet they were essentially wrong.
The Christian principle, upon whose act the nature of something is changed, is this:
God acts upon particular nature only insofar as this nature remains what it is while being perfected by the reforming divine energy.
Every created nature is good and any mode of acting contrary to its goodness – acting violently, that is – is actually contrary to the act of its Creator.
This, in essence, is the core of the polemical answer of the ancient Christian apologist, no matter was it put in the form of calling Plato “Attic Moses” or Moses “Hebrew Plato”. The original principle behind it was not a negation, but an affirmation, which both Christians and their opponents shared:
And, being what He is, He also always was.
However, if this is true, then the idea that before the resurrection of Christ, nobody had knowledge about the existence of God is not only wrong, but scandalous.
If the world is created, than its Creator must be in some way present in it, as the cause is in some way always present in its effect; moreover, as we are talking about the eternal Creator, whose act is also eternal, then all the effects of his operations are united to His eternity by something more than the mere stamp, to speak figuratively; in the Christian Tradition, as well as the pre-Christian one, this was understood as something that can be, to a various extent, apprehended by the light of methodical and/or inspired understanding, i.e. by the highest human faculty of intellect.
Denying the lumen naturalis– and sure enough there was never a lack of those who denied it among Christians, both in Antiquity and today – would therefore be tantamount to denying the origin of man, even more so than for the pagan metaphysicians. Whereas an average Platonist could consider the man as being provided with this power somewhat accidentally, as he understood creation in terms of spontaneous emanation of God’s abundance (His “un-envy” as Plotinus would put it), where beauty of the eternal living being of kosmos far transcends anything man can muster, the Christian Tradition squarely elevates the human being in a very specific sense.
After all, the birth of cosmic evil came to pass out of envy held towards man by a being incommensurably superior to him in power and intelligence.
One of the reasons of the original non serviam of Lucifer was his refusal to acknowledge the dignity of the embodied creature endowed with intelligence.
So what is then human nature and, consequently, what is natural to man?
It is something that pre-Christian understanding, even at its pinnacle, could not fully accept, namely that man is an image of the Logos Himself and, indeed, that this Word of God is someone being spoken and not something being created.
To see how two Traditions, or, to be more precise, two ages meet, we’ll invoke one quite insightful passage from St. Thomas Aquinas:
“In Scripture, secular wisdom is often represented by water, but divine wisdom by wine. Now, according to Is., chap. 1, the innkeepers are upbraided for mixing water with wine; therefore the doctors are blameworthy for their mingling of philosophical doctrine with sacred Scripture.
It may be said: No conclusive argument can be drawn from figurative speech (…) Nevertheless it can be said that when one of two things passes into the nature of another, the product is not considered a mixture except when the nature of both is altered.
Wherefore those who use philosophical doctrines in sacred Scripture in such a way as to subject them to the service of faith, do not mix water with wine, but change water into wine.” St. Thomas Aquinas, In Boethius De Trinitate, article 3.
Faith is essentially a state of readiness for being acted upon by one’s Origin.
On the other hand, philosophy – and I would posit that in this sense it is nothing else but palaios logos of pre-Christian civilization – is the expression of the natural readiness of the human mind for acquiring the insight that God exists.
It is important to stress this habitual nature of both knowledge and faith, because modern propensity to divide the two stems from inability to recognize what they share and what at the same time distinguishes them, thus confusing something being distinct with something being divided.
Aristotle is quite clear about the nature of the “science sought after” (episteme zetoumene):
“That it is not a science of production is clear even from the earliest lovers of wisdom. For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious peculiarities, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the changes of the moon and those of the sun and the constellations of the stars, and about the genesis of all. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant (whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of Wisdom, for the myth is composed of wonders); therefore since they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing understanding in order to know, and not for any useful end. And this is confirmed by the facts; for it was when almost all the necessities of life and the things that make for comfort and recreation had been secured, that such knowledge began to be sought. Evidently then we do not seek it for the sake of any other advantage; but as the man is free, we say, who exists for his own sake and not for another’s, so we pursue this as the only free science, for it alone exists for its own sake. (…) nor should any other science be thought more honorable than one of this sort. For the most divine science is also most honorable; and this science alone must be, in two ways, most divine. For the science which it would be most meet for God to have is a divine science, and so is any science that deals with divine things; and this science alone has both these qualities; for God is thought to be among the causes of all things and to be a first principle, and such a science either God alone can have, or God above all others. All the sciences, indeed, are more necessary than this, but none is better.” Aristotle, Metaphysics A, 982 b 10 – 983 a 5.
If what Aristotle called the sense of wonder, or thaumazein, is the readiness of the soul to be in awe before the effect by recognizing its original cause – apprehending the order of cosmos by distinctly realizing where this order comes from – then denying any value to it is quite similar act to the one early enemies of Christianity employed against Christians themselves.
It is simply the denial of the truth that human nature is good.
The so called “fideism” has much in common with its counterpart, the so called “rationalism”, in that both stances are based on the disjunction separating what is originally one, albeit intrinsically distinct.
This in itself comprises the act of violence because what is naturally one has been artificially divided into two.
If I cannot help being in awe over the premonition of the origin of the world, simply by being correctly disposed towards the effects I naturally find in it, then the state of awe is not simply an emotional reaction but the epistemologically natural state of mind; philosophical wonder the ancients talked about is not a more or less refined pleasure of the modern day scientist looking through the microscope at the molecular structure of the asshole of a rat – and the crudeness of the example is quite appropriate because the idea here is that only through stripping the corporeal being of its qualities do we get to origins; on the contrary, thaumazein is a realization of the congeniality of the light in which the things exist and the one through which we understand them.
The idea that Platon and Aristotle were less evolved specimens of the modern day scientist is demonstrably false, because the awe is a form of knowledge and not a manifestation of human taste for intricate patterns. This knowledge is an awareness of what is somehow given to man and it in itself does not disclose what this essentially is, only that it is, for a simple reason that cosmos does not talk to man – only its Creator does.
But this does not mean that it does not disclose Him through truth, goodness, oneness and other knowable metaphysical qualities the Medieval doctors called transcendentalia, without which nothing is really comprehensible. Sense of wonder is an apprehension of those limits to the created world that nevertheless both transcend and imbibe it, and their congeniality with the light that discloses them.
On transcendentals in Medieval Tradition
This is something modern and postmodern natural sciences cannot disclose by their own devices, because it stems from the epistemological primacy of qualities which are neither morally nor aesthetically neutral; the act of the Creator in the creature is not comprehensible in the form of molecular structure – an object unperceivable by natural act of thinking – but in the common principles that transcend both thinking and any particular being, yet are present in every act of thinking and in every conceivable being.
What, then, does it mean to subject this act of knowing to the act of faith, as Aquinas supposes?
Well, primarily it means denouncing the illusory discrepancy in the human nature – a division that does not exist, but can convince us that it exist and thus severely impede the most important insights man is obliged to acquire during his brief life.
The idea that true knowledge is “free from value judgments” and that, consequently, transcendental forms cannot be in any way known is impossible in the mode of classical metaphysics, both in its pagan and Christian form, because it grew out of the natural intention of human nature and this intention is ordered towards its original cause.
If anything, precisely fideism and its unrelenting hatred for “Athens” as, supposedly, perennial enemy of “Jerusalem” brings forth that peculiar detachment of natural habitual readiness of the mind to seek the truth and its habitual readiness for receiving the supernatural act that reveals it in corpore.
Out of all attacks on Christianity this (rather brief) side of history, the most popular – and, consequently, the most base – is the one we name scientism, i.e. the idea that revelation is a man made illusion that somehow blocks the way towards absolute knowledge of nature, both in the general sense of the physical world, “surrounding us”, and of our own nature created by reflecting it.
While it owes much of its modern popularity mainly to the appeal it holds for adolescents and their craving for the unbridled freedom of imagination, there’s a less popular and, consequently, more profound aspect to it after all.
First of all, understanding nature as “the surrounding” presupposes the modern problem of the subject/object split: nature is divided into “external” world and the subject perceiving and comprehending it, while the later in fact possesses nature only in the analogical sense. Although “the surrounding” (periehon) was indeed known to ancients, it was not per se the object of the science of physis; nature is in itself undivided and, as such, it is undividedly intrinsic both to the knower and the known, that are understood as different only in the sense of being distinct but not in the one of being divided.
If we deny any value to this natural habitual readiness of human intellect, what we get in its stead?
Well, we transpose it in the realm of supernatural, obviously.
Transcendentals are either man made mirages or something out of this world.
The world itself is an infinite “other” to us, an open system of “heterogeneous continuum”.
But, on the other hand, yet still on the same grounds, the Scripture is something else.
It is the word of God containing the comprehensibility “outside” world does not have.
And then there comes about the profound attack on Christianity by means of Christianity itself: the Bible is the only proper object of study where knowledge and faith meet, because it contains, not only the whole of revelation, but also the complete intellectual explanation of it.
Moreover, the knowledge gained from the Bible is intellectual in the proper sense because therein are exemplars of all things and human mind is indeed capable to contemplate those exemplars when they are directly given – nay, written! – in the Scripture; one only needs to read and interpret the whole thing properly and nothing else will be needed to put everything in its place, above all the things that are in the future.
In a curious twist, the denial of natural knowledge, based on the a priori intuition of the eternal past, results in the affirmation of quasi-supernatural knowledge that is, curiously enough, directed towards divining the nature of a priori existent future.
In the end it is an attempt to acquire the knowledge providing its subject with the power to prophesize.
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