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Into the Dark Wood

The shattering of the cosmos, the birth of the modern

Louis Dupre, in Passage To Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture:

Only when the early humanist notion of human creativity came to form a combustive mixture with the negative conclusions of nominalist theology did it cause the cultural explosion that we refer to as modernity. Its impact shattered the organic unity of the Western view of the real. The earliest Ionian concept of physis had combined a physical (in the modern sense!) with an anthropic and a divine component. The classical Greek notion of kosmos (used by Plato and Aristotle), as well as the Roman natura, had preserved the idea of the real as an harmonious, all-inclusive whole. Its organic unity had been threatened by the Hebrew-Christian conception of a Creator who remained outside the cosmos. Yet, through his wisdom, support, and grace, he continued to be present in this world. At the end of the Middle Ages, however, nominalist theology effectively removed God from creation. Ineffable in being and inscrutable in his designs, God withdrew from the original synthesis altogether. The divine became relegated to a supernatural sphere separate from nature, with which it retained no more than [a] causal, external link. This removal of transcendence fundamentally affected the conveyance of meaning. Whereas previously meaning had been established in the very act of creation by a wise God, it now fell upon the human mind to interpret a cosmos, the structure of which had ceased to be given as intelligible. Instead of being an integral part of the cosmos, the person became its source of meaning. Mental life separated from cosmic being: as meaning-giving “subject,” the mind became the spiritual substratum of all reality. Only what it objectively constituted would count as real. Thus reality split into two separate spheres: that of the mind, which contained all intellectual determinations, and that of all other being, which received them.

Meaning that in modernity, there is no essential meaning. The world is not an icon, but a screen onto which we project our minds.

UPDATE: Reader Dave comments:

But in the context of what I understand of your religious and cultural archaeology I think the way I’ll go is that the challenge is not to preserve or recover a mode of thought – that genie is out of the bottle – it’s to recover the original impetus of that way of thinking, which I say is the direct experience of the living God.

Not only way of thinking, but way of living. That brought to mind something the Orthodox priest Father Stephen Freeman wrote about nominalism, realism, and Orthodoxy. He concludes:

It is popularly said of Orthodoxy that it is not a set of beliefs, but a way of life. In many respects, this is simply a manner of saying that Orthodoxy is not a nominalist view of the world, but a revelation about the world itself.

Those who stand outside inquiring should ask themselves: did Christ come to assert a set of ideas, or did He come to reveal a way of living? If the latter – then it is not just inside the head.

UPDATE.2: Today, Sunday, it is raining outside, and I am bound to my chair in the living room, suffering from a bad back, but it is an opportunity to read this newly translated Russian novel, Laurus, set in medieval Russia (the New Yorker writes about it favorably here). I have never read a novel like this story of its title character, a mystic peasant and pilgrim. It’s the kind of novel I set down after a few chapters, pick up my prayer rope, and pray. Why is that? Because, I think, the book immerses you in a world of the spirit, in a very Russian way. I can’t know what it would be like to encounter this book if I had not been praying and living as a Russian Orthodox Christian for the past nine years, but I can say that it is like walking into a room that I’ve never entered, but that seems weirdly familiar. Even though the world of the protagonist is very, very different from my own, I keep reading along and thinking, yes, that’s it, that’s the way it is.

I found this snippet from an interview with Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who is a very serious reader of Dostoevsky. It illuminates things:

LC For those of us steeped in Russian culture, the relationship between literature and religious thought always seemed very inspiring, but it’s exotic and strange from a British viewpoint. How would you describe it?

RW The key for me is the concept of “personalism”—a fascination with the unfathomable in each person. Russian personalism comprises a sharp reaction against collectivism, which, as we know, is odd given the dominance of collectivist tendencies in Russian history. But there’s a tension there. There’s a wonderful expression of personalism in Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, when Yuri Zhivago speaks of a time when “There will be no spare people any more. Everyone counts.”

LC There’s also a long-standing tension with western individualism in Russian personalism, isn’t there?

RW Personalism creates a kind of way through to community and freedom at the heart of human life. It doesn’t set individual dignity and integrity against anything. Dostoevsky dismisses western individualism as “wills asserting themselves against reality, as opposed to finding the way through from personal freedom to the freedom of God.”

LC Can we unpack that? It seems important, but the language can be offputting for contemporary readers.

RW Dostoevsky and some of his followers would say ethics is not about good and evil; it’s about truth and falsehood, reality and illusion. The right way to live doesn’t amount to a series of approved actions. It’s about living in recognition of reality. [Emphasis mine — RD]

LC I like this idea of a true reality beaming its message out from Dostoevsky’s great novels, but on the face of it it’s so airy-fairily metaphysical I wonder whether we can persuade many people today to buy it.

RW Reality is an underlying conviction of harmony. The sense that there is a unity to human experience, that somewhere every river runs into the same sea.

This made me understand what Father Stephen Freeman was getting at. I see now that living out Orthodoxy amounts to be retrained to live as if nominalism were not true. That’s how it feels from the inside.



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