Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Are We Living in the Past?

[In the modern world] belief no longer appears as the bold but challenging leap out of the ‘apparent all’ of our visible world and into the apparent void of the invisible and intangible; it looks much more like a demand to bind oneself to yesterday and accept it as eternally valid. And who wants to do that?

Introduction to Christianity, 26

Reflection – The chronological snobbery of modernity is a well known and well commented on phenomenon. The blithe assumption that we are smarter, better, more educated, than people of past ages goes without saying in many quarters. “Medieval” is a synonym for backwards, superstitious, intolerant, violent, misogynist, racist—and so forth. All bad things happened in that vague period known as the Middle Ages or Dark Ages—although most who hold that would be hard pressed to define exactly what centuries specifically they mean by those phrases, what they were in the middle of, and what the darkness consisted of.
People who hold that view would also be hard pressed to describe the origin of the university system, the theory of universal human rights, the distinction between Platonism, neo-Platonism, and Artistotelianism, who Avicenna, Averroes, and Aquinas were and what difference they made, the varied contributions of the Vincentians, the Franciscans, and the monastic schools of the 12th century, and the significance to philosophy of such names as Boethius, Augustine, and pseudo-Dionysius.
In other words, people who sneer at the ignorance of the Middle Ages tend to be pretty ignorant; people who despise the prejudices of their ancestors tend to be prejudiced; those who scoff at the illiteracy and poor education of the benighted souls of the 13th century show themselves to be fundamentally illiterate and badly educated.
That being said, Ratzinger touches upon a fairly common attitude here in this short passage, and not one that can only be dismissed as the usual modern prejudice against pre-modernism. Why should the past have veto power over the present? Why are we bound to dogmatic formulations of the 4th, 5th, or 13th century? The substance of the bread and wine change to the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, while the accidents (i.e. appearances, sensible qualities) remain the same. This is the dogma defined at the 4th Lateran Council of the 13th century. But to a people who no longer think of reality in terms of substance and accident, matter and form, how can this be maintained? Are we living in the past?
This, and similar concerns, are serious questions, perhaps somewhat beyond what can be addressed in a blog post. The essential point, though, in this question of belief and the seeming tyranny of the past over the present in Christianity is that we insist that there has been a definitive action of God in the course of human history. Belief, this leap from the ‘apparent all’ of the visible into the ‘apparent nothing’ of the invisible, is also belief that this apparent nothing made its own leap in our direction, that it became a visible, tangible reality, walked among us, acted in ways that were utterly human, though the action was divine.
If we do not have something like this, something like what Christians claim to be the case, then ‘belief’ becomes rather amorphous. “I believe in an invisible world”… but what is this world. “Oh, I don’t know…” And it all tends to become something I have constructed, projected into the void of the world. Something that suits me, that reflects what I want it all to be about. In other words, it becomes one more extension of my ego into the world.
Unless God has done something, unless there has been an objective and concrete imposition of the divine into the mundane, belief fails, becomes yet one more ego project. And so we stand (or kneel, perhaps) before this concrete, tangible God who did this Thing 2000 years ago, this Thing which is a living concrete tangible reality in the tabernacle and on the altar today. Only this kind of belief carries us truly from the visible and the immediate into the truly invisible and eternal, which remains so present to us that it can bear our weight and bear us into the realm of the divine, the realm of faith, the kingdom of God.

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