Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reinventing Jesus

Striking poses in a church is not Superman's usual schtick, but here he is in his own comic (4 June 2004) startling a priest by turning up for... a sort of confession. He is still wearing the classic costume, which was later redesigned for the "New 52" and the spectacular MAN OF STEEL, recently released. But why is it that Hollywood – and DC itself – keeps going back to the origins of Superman and reinventing him every few years? There is something archetypal here. Superman was the invention of two New York Jews. An answer to Nietzsche, some say; or an answer to the refugee's experience of being an outsider in American society. The new movie makes much of Superman as a "saviour" for mankind, sent by his father to "save them all."

Superman is the most consistently "moral" hero in the DC universe. The contrast with Batman is often made. The Man of Steel never lies, never kills the innocent – nor even the guilty, except super-villains in the defence of Earth. He is not a vigilante, or a soldier; more a policeman. He is always willing to sacrifice himself for others. He is just as heroic when stripped of his superpowers, as happens from time to time. In the comic series he has died and been reborn (it's complicated). In this frame the words in the little yellow boxes read "Superman – save me." Superman is rushing across the universe to answer a plea for help that turns out to come from another DC hero, Green Lantern. The director of the
new film, Zack Snyder, was reluctant to modify this "saviour" aspect of the Man of Steel. "I think as soon as you start to work on him it's going to be muddy and weird. There's a pure thing inside of the Superman character."

In the movie, Henry Cavill does a wonderful job of representing this purity and goodness in the person of Clark Kent/ Kal-El. He even stops by a church seeking the advice of a priest. He hands himself over to General Zod in hope of saving mankind. But there is more. His father has imprinted the genetic "codex" of his entire people into the cells of his body, so in a sense Kal is an Adam figure – a "universal man". By serving as a hero on earth, he is redeeming Krypton. And we learn that Krypton was destroyed through some kind of sin against natural law: its "core was destabilized" after it had turned to artificial reproduction. Kal was the first natural birth for centuries, a symbol of the ancient and natural way of doing things. Instead of being programmed, his father believed that he should be free to make his own destiny.

The salvation Superman offers is, of course, nothing like that offered by Jesus. Superman can only rescue us from physical danger, or from some evil dictator. We are all going to die eventually: the question is what happens then. Jesus died on the Cross so that by joining ourselves to him we could journey through our own deaths to resurrection in him. And that resurrection is not simply a spiritual state but a new body, a body akin to the one he showed the Apostles, capable of appearing anywhere, impervious to harm, no longer subject even to the law of gravity. A body akin, in some ways, to that of Superman himself. Superman's job is to remind us of what we can become.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Teaching the language of faith: 2

So what is mystagogy? (For much more on this see All Things Made New.) In mystagogy we are trying to understand and interpret the meaning of the Bible and Liturgy, the Sacraments and the world itself in the light of Revelation. It therefore affects the way we regard even the “secular” subjects of the school curriculum.

This approach corresponds in the field of biblical exegesis to the doctrine of the “four senses of Scripture” (Catechism 115-118). There it means in order to attain a broader understanding of Scripture, we need to look not only for historical (literal) and doctrinal (allegorical) meanings, but also for moral (tropological) and mystical (anagogical) meanings. According to a medieval rule: “The letter teaches what took place, the allegory what to believe, the moral what to do, the anagogy what goal to strive for.”

That was the understanding of the early monks and desert hermits. St John Cassian (d. 435) writes of the four meanings as follows: “History embraces the knowledge of things which are past and which are perceptible…. What follows is allegorical, because the things which actually happened are said to have prefigured another mystery…. Anagoge climbs up from spiritual
mysteries to the higher and more august secrets of heaven…. Tropology is moral teaching designed for the amendment of life and for instruction in asceticism.” So, for example, “the one Jerusalem can be understood in four different ways, in the historical sense as the city of the Jews, in allegory as the church of Christ, in anagoge as the heavenly city of God ‘which is mother to us all’ (Gal. 4:26), in the tropological sense as the human soul which, under this name, is frequently criticized or blamed by the Lord.”

None of this undermines the rational or familiar approaches we have become used to. It just provides a fuller, more rounded view. We still start with the literal or historical meaning (the plain sense of the words, as they were evidently intended to be understood, taking into account the genre and context in which they were written). We then develop an understanding of biblical “typology” by connecting the words and events in the Old Testament to Christ, who is the fulfillment to which Scripture points, even if the human authors were unaware of it at the time. We then draw moral conclusions that follow from this reading, as they are relevant to our own conversion and behaviour. Finally we raise our eyes above this life to catch a glimpse of the end of all things, the goal of our striving, the very life of God to which we are called.

This tradition of the four senses is found in Jewish mysticism too (peshat, remez, derash, and sod). In fact, if we look as classical Greek philosophy, we find a similar division applies to the quest for understanding in general. There are four main types of explanation that we can give for things, called final, formal, efficient, and material causes. The final cause is what the thing is for or why it exists. The formal cause is the idea or definition that makes it the sort of thing it is. The efficient cause is what brings it about, or makes it do what it does or be what it is. The material cause is simply what it is made of. These four types of explanation correspond to the four senses of Scripture (final–mystical; formal–moral; efficient–allegorical; material–literal).

These four pillars may also be seen as corresponding to the four elements of the Liberal Arts tradition known as the Quadrivium. Arithmetic corresponds to the Literal, Geometry to the Allegorical, Music to the Tropological, and Astronomy to the Anagogical.

The narrowing of reason in the modern world means we no longer look for the underlying idea or purpose of things, but only for the rules that determine how they behave (the laws of nature), and the things into which we can break them down (particles, energy). This affects the way we read the “text” of nature, and something very similar happened as we tried to read the Bible: modern biblical critics have often been more interested in what the text was made of and how it worked than in what it meant.

Thus the recovery of the four senses is needed to achieve a deeper understanding not only of Scripture, but also of liturgy and the sacraments. There too we must look for historical, doctrinal, moral, and mystical meanings. Just as there are four Gospels, which need to be read together to gain a complete picture of Christ, so tradition itself must be approached from these four directions if it is to be seen aright, according to the “analogy of faith”, meaning as an integral whole, coherent and consistent within itself.

Material---Literal---Historical----What events are described, instructions given?
Efficient---Allegorical---Doctrinal---Meaning, according to the analogy of faith?
Formal---Tropological---Moral---How should we change, set our course?
Final---Anagogical---Mystical---What does it tell us about God, our End?

Icon from Sancti Angeli Benedictine Skete.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Teaching the language of faith: 1

When our Catholic schools try to teach religion, and specifically the Catholic faith, they face a problem that is not often recognized. The material based on the Catechism is perfectly fine as far as it goes, and the Compendium of the Catechism and YouCat are of course readily available for use in schools. But there is a serious disconnection between these excellent summaries of doctrine, the teaching and use of Scripture in R.E., the school’s Catholic liturgy, and the curriculum in general.

The secular parts of the curriculum are generally regarded as separate from the more recognizably religious elements. Indeed how could geography or history or mathematics be taught in a way that "connects" with R.E. except by turning these subjects into an excuse for religious propaganda? (The
example of so-called “creation science” comes to mind.) The disconnect between Catechism, Scripture, and Liturgy is of a different sort. These three religious elements clearly have an intrinsic relationship amongst themselves, as the Catechism itself makes plain. But the way they are taught or celebrated, usually for reasons of convenience and efficiency, often does not make this relationship obvious to the pupil, nor is it sufficiently taken into account when teaching and liturgical resources are being prepared.

The separation of these religious elements of the school, taken as a group, from the everyday life of the community is also a problem. In theory, this separation should be overcome by the “ethos” of the school – its values and moral tone. But the definition of ethos is itself in a state of confusion. The ethos of a Catholic school is often reduced to a mere list of Gospel values and pious sentiments, compiled into a mission statement to which no one can be held accountable because no clear meaning can be assigned to it. (The question of ethos has been discussed elsewhere.)

Into this rather confused situation I tentatively suggest an approach that might offer a possibility of integration between these disparate elements. It draws from the Church’s earliest experience of religious education and formation, which was fundamentally mystagogical (by which is meant “leading into the mysteries”). In this approach there is a key to a healing of our schools and a closer relationship between its various elements and dimensions.

Mystagogy is that stage of Catholic catechesis devoted to a deeper understanding of the sacraments and symbols of the Faith. It has always been a necessary part of the instruction offered to neophytes and converts preparing to be received (or shortly after they are received) into the Church. But its potential for encouraging a continuing lively engagement and commitment to faith has not yet been realized. We can use mystagogy to combat the inroads of a secular way of thinking into our schools and parishes. More next time. For more on mystagogy in general, see also here.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Three books to read

To readers who have enjoyed or been intrigued by Beauty for Truth's Sake, I recommend three books in particular – out of all those you'll find in the Bibliography – for detailed study. (1) James S. Taylor, Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (SUNY). See also this review and this interview with Taylor. (2) Louis Dupre, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (Yale). Explains better than almost any other book the deep origins of modernity. (3) Vance G. Morgan, Weaving the World: Simone Weil on Science, Mathematics, and Love (Notre Dame).