Thursday, June 04, 2009

A Crisis of Metaphysics

A Neo-Platonist and an Existentialist are castaway on a desert island – what do they talk about? They don’t, because they haven’t got a common language.

I had a conversation with a priest recently who identified the problem with evangelisation today as being the simple fact that people no longer use or accept or trust or even believe in the metaphysical: what you see, is what you get.
There are no realities beyond what are perceived or measured.

I think this a pretty fair analysis of where we are at the moment, I suspect it was also where St Paul was with the dispute on the Areopagus, where the death and resurrection of Christ is seen by the Greeks as sheer folly. The same attitude was most probably present in the post-mythological Roman society, when the tales of gods and heroes were regarded as legends which merely spoke about the human condition.

I am convinced at the heart of Western Society, indeed the great divide between religious and secular minds, the west and Islam for example is a crisis of metaphysics, it manifests itself in so many ways in lesser crises. In the Church we see it in the polarisation of Liberals and Traditionalists, or a conflict between Left and Right, it manifests itself in problems such as:

Crisis of Grace: Are the sacraments life changing events where God intervenes, or ceremonies that produce a psychological response?
Crisis of Relativism: Are there any objective realities, such as things which are ultimately good or evil?
Crisis of Authority: Does the authority of the Church or Scripture or Tradition trump personal preference or experience?
Crisis of Commitment: Does a solemn promise or vow once made commit me to a particular action forever?
Crisis of Liturgy: Is the liturgy directed towards God or man?

Without the use of metaphysical language, we simply cannot talk about God, Salvation or indeed any aspiration of mankind, truth beauty, justice etc.

Another priest, friend of mine, not entirely reconciled to modern ways once claimed, “the Tridentine Rites are superior tools for evangelisation than those we use today”. I am not entirely sure what he means but I presume he was saying that using a sacral language, with prayer directed to God and a merely a passing nod to the world of men immediately communicates that our concern is for something totally “other”.

In the past the language, orientation, art, architecture, music, vows, habits etc. etc. etc., all pointed to another reality, a metaphysical reality.


universal doctor said...

I never realised just how profound was the mystery of the universe, the mystery of man, the immensity of the mystery of God and His love and the sacrifice of His Son. I never will know fully, although I now know that I can know truly, and this is thanks to discovering metaphysics at Maryvale. Luckily after many years of dismissing it as trivial, modern philosophy is rediscovering the riches which an authentic metaphysical understading of reality can reveal.

Anonymous said...

This is very helpful, Father. I have saved it and may ask your permission to use it later.

Unknown said...

Father, you have hit the nail firmly on the head over the purpose of liturgy. In my young days it was there to worship God and we were taught that our purpose in life was the worship of God. We were led towards God by worship and adoration and it didn't matter whether we personally understood exactly what was being done or said. Nowadays worship is impoverished because it is consumer orientated. Never mind God, the worship has to be centred on the the congregation who seem to demand to understand and actively take part in doing everything as well as sometimes actually trying to dicate what is to be done. We are here to worship God, not to provide consumer entertainment which, by and large,can be done better in the secular world. We make this mistake at our peril.

I once heard a talk by a leading world expert on hymns. He had a mixed pedigree; eductated at Lancing (long before another well-known blogger taught there) and worshipped/ministered at what is now Brighthelm URC but he knew a lot about all denominations. He said of older, traditional language liturgies that they were beautiful and, it didn't matter if people didn't understand everything because "by and large they were not misled".

Gregory the Eremite said...

The rot started with nominalism...

berenike said...

Yes yes and yes! Oh, and - yes! But the metaphysical problems began before the middle ages were out:

“The comparison I am about to make is perhaps bold, but it is easily verifiable. With Ockham we witness the first atomic explosion of the modern era. The atom he split was obviously not physical but psychic. It was the nadir of the human soul, with its faculties, which was broken apart by a new concept of freedom. This produced successive aftershocks, which destroyed the unity of theology and Western thought. With Ockham, freedom by means of the claim to radical autonomy that defined it, was separated from all that was foreign to it: reason, sensibility, natural inclinations, and all external factors. Further separations followed: freedom was separated from nature, law, and grace; moral doctrine from mysticism; reason from faith; the individual from society.”

Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, (Edinburgh 1995) 242

At the beginning of a treatise on the interior life, it is important to get a high idea of sanctifying grace; Protestantism, following several nominalists of the fourteenth century, has lost the conception of it. In Luther's opinion, man is justified not by a new infused life, but by the exterior imputation of the merits of Christ, in such a way that he is not interiorly changed and that it is not necessary for his salvation that he observe the precept of the love of God above all else. Such an opinion is a radical misconception of the interior life spoken of in the Gospel. This lamentable doctrine was prepared by that of the nominalists, who said that grace is a gift which is not essentially supernatural, but which morally gives a right to eternal life, like paper money which, though only paper, gives a right, by reason of a legal institution, to receive money. This doctrine constituted the negation of the essentially supernatural life; it was a failure to recognize the very essence of grace and of the theological virtues.

(Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, trans. Doyle, The Three Ages of the Interior Life (various eds), part 1 ch1 note 2

Elizabeth said...

Crisis of Grace: Are the sacraments life changing events where God intervenes, or ceremonies that produce a psychological response?

Try asking a catholic school child what grace is and how to achieve it? Many would look at you as if you were speaking a foreign language. I guess you could apply this to many adults too.

Crisis of Relativism: Are there any objective realities, such as things which are ultimately good or evil?

Fr Amorth in reply to the question What is Satan's greatest success?
“To succeed in making people believe that he doesn't exist. And in this he has almost succeeded. Even within the Church. We have a clergy and an episcopate who no longer believe in the devil, in exorcisms, in the extraordinary evil that the devil can cause, nor in the power that Jesus has given us to drive out demons”.
Evil is an unpleasant word, meant only for films and books. Let’s not scare the children!!!

Crisis of Authority: Does the authority of the Church or Scripture or Tradition trump personal preference or experience?

Paul VI spoke of God’s enemy supreme, satan. “The smoke of Satan”, warned Paul VI, “has found its way into the Church through the fissures”. It doesn’t help the Church or its members if nothing but criticism is heard from within the church. Headlines such as
Vatican expert George Weigel, in a recent essay in First Things, an American religion journal, criticized the Vatican for its “chaos, confusion and incompetence.” All this adds to more doubt and disbelief among those who have no or very weak spiritual formation, as a result of bad education and family negligence or their own lack of formation.

Crisis of Commitment: Does a solemn promise or vow once made commit me to a particular action forever?

With divorce among Catholics being around 50%, priests and nuns marrying, or just giving up their vowels. We had a nun in our Catholic school who told the children she was leaving the convent for personal reasons. Some kind of disagreement. Promises are not for ever just until times get tough. No staying power, a lack of trust in God’s plan.

Crisis of Liturgy: Is the liturgy directed towards God or man?

You only have to look at Cardinal Mahoney to realize there is a crisis in liturgy.
When you can’t see the Priest for the number of laity on the altar.
When the Priest is playing the organ and one of the laity are reading the Gospel.
When the Mass turns into a happy clappy feel good factor, as we wave to each other, jump over the pews, kiss and hug and pretty much do everything other than adore God.

Thank God for the Latin Mass and Sacred Music.

Bring back the Prayer to St Michael.

I.P. said...

How many have read Peter Berger "A Rumour of Angels", in which a leading sociologist mounts a vigorous defence of the supernatural?

It would seem to me that many people are what Marx called "gross materialists" and do not realise that existence as such is not self explanatory.

Unknown said...

I have been saying what Fr Ray is saying regularly about liturgy (albeit as an increasingly disenchanted member of the Anglo Catholic wing of the Anglican church) for the past 35 years. Very few people have agreed with me and most have labelled me reactionary, backward looking, not living in the real world, mad, eccentric &c., It is wonderful to discover after all this time that I am not alone in my opinions!

Recently I have detected a number of signs that the worm is beginning to turn, although as a 61year old, I suspect that the turn will not be fully completed in my own lifetime. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is at work in all sorts of ways..........

Kate said...

Crisis of Grace: Are the sacraments life changing events where God intervenes, or ceremonies that produce a psychological response?

In a recent conversation, fellow Catholics opined ' when we sin, we depart from the Body of Christ, the community.We have to apologise to the community, then we rejoin it.The 'rejoining' is where and when the Sacrament (of Penance)takes place.

pelerin said...

Having just started reading 'The belief of Catholics' by Mgr Ronald Knox , I have reached this passage which I think is relevant to Fr Ray's comment on 'something totally other.'

'But there is something else underlying the pomp of our ceremonial which makes, I think, a more powerful impression, though one far more difficult to analyse. I mean the sense of
mystery. The effect of long distances, of tapers flickering in the heart of an altar far away, of slow silences interupted by sudden bursts of sound ...of figures moving to and fro over a business unintelligible to the spectator, of long chants in a language which he does not hear, or does not understand, of tingling bells, and incense-smoke caught in the shifting lights of a high-windowed building - the effect, I say, of all this upon the visitor who has no opportunity and no wish to follow the service is to breed an atmosphere of solemn mystery which works, not upon his senses, but upon his imagination.'

Remembering that this was published in 1927 Mgr Knox adds that 'the intrusion of English, or any other intelligible tongue, breaks that spell of mystery with its too familiar cadences.'

With the disappearance over the years in so many parishes of the use of incense, bells, beautiful vestments, sacred chant etc all once used to the glory of God, people's senses have been deprived for too long and the sense of mystery has all but vanished.

During a recent visit to an exhibition in London I watched a video showing a Tridentine Mass in the section devoted to Baroque ecclesiastical items. Several people were watching with interest and one turned to me and said 'My father stopped going to Mass when the changes came in. He never returned to the Church.' For him the sense of mystery had gone for ever.

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