Sunday, 8 October 2017

Form, Reverence, Myth... Wherein I Speak of Things Divine

"The world is charged with the grandeur of God..."

Form and esse, those principles in things by which they are actual, are also the principles in things by which they have some share, some participation, in the divine. Inasmuch as the divine is present in them - by way of a contracted similitude - they command an attitude of reverence in the soul who encounters them. Creatures are symbols of God, in each their own fashion, to the degree that they participate in God's likeness - which is to the degree that they have form and being. Form is the intrinsic grandeur of things. This is one place where metaphysics leads to a kind of sublime and reverential contemplation: when the philosopher simply basques in the mystery of being, when he gazes with the eye of his soul upon the resplendence of form in things, he is fulfilling, if only in a partial way, the destiny of his human nature. And note, here I do not mean merely the consideration of the abstract species, but the apprehension of the relation of participation which this species has towards the more universal form of the angelic natures, and especially God. 

The whole trajectory of philosophy is towards vision. To know the inner reality and essences of things is, in a way, to anticipate the pure vision that occurs at the very height of philosophy, where reasoning ceases, and the soul simply rests in the contemplating the most universal principle, the One. This vision is, of course, not fully attainable by philosophical endeavor, but only by the life of holiness and the grace of God, according to traditional Christian doctrine. But it is helpful to recognize, in a qualified sense, the homogeneity or continuity of knowledge that begins in the natural consideration of being and form in things, and terminates in a supernatural beatific vision that could not be attained without grace. I say "in a qualified" sense, because there is a certain heterogeneity between nature and grace; it is important to maintain their distinction in kind, not in mere degree, while still recognizing that grace transforms and elevates nature "from the inside," as it were, not by being merely tacked on like a cherry on top. (I am, of course, referring to the De Lubac affair.)

This is, I think, one of those important connections which metaphysics bears upon the living out of the philosophic life in practice - at least in terms of the fundamental attitude of life: the attitude of reverence. Philosophy, in this sense, is not merely an isolated academic study, though it certainly involves that to a very large degree. Rather, philosophy as a way of life is characterized by a basic way of approaching reality in one's very experience of it, day to day. In the light of such a conception of philosophy, the world becomes suddenly alive with a divine mystery, and the philosopher acquires an awareness that is very much like that of the poet: he senses that he is part of a grand myth (which does not mean a mere fable, by the way), in which the main players are not only men but also gods and angels... This may be a rather quaint way of thinking, but something very analogous is true of the Christian life itself, which one may describe as "lived theology": as Christians, with a kind of theological awareness, we become characters in a mythical plot that is much grander and more beautiful than our own individual roles. We are participators in an action that is performed by God, a God-man, angels, heroes, kings, and sages. Reverence and awe, of the sort due to epic tales and legends, are the characteristic emotions of a life lived this way. (And again, I do not mean tales, legends, or myths, in the sense of a make-believe fable. All the ancient cultures were animated by the belief that their myth was in fact, in some sense, their own ancient past. Mythology was their revelation, a record of a time when gods walked the earth and interacted with men, when miracles of a grand scale shaped the world and the course of its history. Christianity does not lack this element - on the contrary, the historical reality of the Incarnation is crucial to our faith.)

It may seem a very wide jump from the metaphysical notions of form and being, as conceived by very rational men like Aristotle and Thomas, to this more poetic and literary way of conceiving the philosophic life. We moderns are not accustomed to associating these things. Even the modern Aristotelian will often treat the notion of form less as an occasion for mythical awe than as an opportunity for study and investigation. But the world of the ancients had not thus been demythologized and disenchanted. Even for Aristotle and Thomas, form was something divine in things, a powerful symbol and residue of divine activity. The relation of cause and effect was not the mere physical and mechanical notion that it is today, but a tale of divine art. Aristotle may have been much more moderate than Plato in his expression of these ideas, when he wrote his Physics, but the spirit of the Timaeus is in important ways more characteristic of the ancient view of the divine cosmogony. The cosmogony is still taking place, indeed: the gods are still active in the world. God has even become a man in these latter days, and the meaning of things has been renewed and transformed in the context of Christ's revelation. We need only have eyes to see - or the faith to believe - the form that is bestowed on things by the Incarnation.

For this kind of life, worship pervades the whole, being concentrated at a certain topmost level of contemplative activity - which, I would argue, occurs first and foremost in a kind of religious ritual. This is described as theurgy - the work of God - by the Neoplatonists. Theurgy is the context within which the divine meaning of things is fully actualized by the mediation of man as priest-theurgist, and returned back to the gods in the act of sacrifice. In theurgy, the myth of the gods is relived and experienced in a special way. I do not believe Aristotle had a notion of theurgy, at least explicitly, but I think it coincides quite nicely with his account of contemplation, which occurs at the height of metaphysics. In Christian theology, this is, of course, the sacred liturgy, where the attitude of reverence is especially concentrated and focused on the sacramental presence of God, especially in the Eucharist. Indeed, in the liturgy, by way of symbolic forms and meanings, the divine cosmogonic myth of redemption, performed by Christ, is energetically relived upon Christian altars in Christian sanctuaries. We the faithful become participators of a divine story.

An example of Christian Theurgy.

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