Friday 31 August 2018

Dawson, Part IIIb.

Christianity and the Rise of Western Civilisation, Part 2.
The Western, world through the lens of the Gospel, found its source not in cosmic principle, nor in mythological figure, but in the historical person of Jesus Christ.
Out of the encounter with him, the order of the Universe wasn’t an unchanging cycle, nor a fatal law of necessity, but a divine drama whose successive acts were the Creation and the Fall, and the Redemption – the glorious restoration.
The Church’s first fight was with Gnosticism, which sought to combine belief in spiritual redemption with the illusory nature of earthly change. No, says the Church, there is historical development!
The expansion of the Church in the 3rd and 4th centuries was not the natural culmination of the religious evolution of the ancient world, but a violent interruption of that process.
In doing so a real humanism arose within the culture – man is the centre and crown of the created universe. He is not subject to a cyclical process, but is the channel through which the whole of creation is united with God.
Created nature passes through some process of evolution and, as long as it acts in accordance with nature, this process will be progressive. But if it acts against nature, this process will be degenerative. In fact, the latter case is what has historically taken place – in the Fall man acted against his nature and the process of growth towards human fullness was abruptly terminated and set on a ‘fallen’ course. In response to this the Divine Nature united itself with mankind in a second creation, which restored and further developed humanity’s potential.
There was a sharp divide between what took place in the East and in the West. In the East, the nostalgia for the infinite turned people away from the world of experience towards seeking an eternal vision of transcendent Being.
In the West, Christianity became a dynamic and social force. A new civilisation arose in Europe based upon an ecclesiastical unity, not upon a political one. The Church was the universal society and the State was the weaker partner.
In the East, the State was the universal society within which was the Church.
In the West there was no common material culture; the formative element of civilization was the spiritual. The centre of Europe was a spiritual citizenship. Hence, medieval Europe we see the contrast between cruelty and charity, between beauty and squalor. But what arose from this this spiritual focus was a democratic spirit, in which voluntary associations and Guilds arose. This movement of communal activity transformed social life in the Middle Ages.
What didn’t arise in Europe was a theocratic Church-State, and what prevented this from arising was the spiritual revival in the 12th century which focused on the humanity of Christ. The Incarnation spoke of the ennoblement of the person and his or her dignity. Instead of the Byzantine majesty of the Christ Pantocrator, the West placed the crucified Christ at the centre. Christ in his human weakness spoke of the personal relationship which he seeks with each of us, rather than a more theological piety. Medieval westerners sought to relive the life of Christ in daily life; faith and life became united.
In so doing the mission of that era of evangelization reached its zenith – faith and life together. It was Paul VI, who in 1975, first announced the new evangelization, recognizing the signs today that speak of faith and life having come apart. There is very much a real nostalgia in the Church in the West for that form of Christianity that is passing – faith and life united. But although the new evangelization began because these two have come apart, I think that a new and different form of Christianity will arise because of the new evangelization. I think that precisely because new ‘Christian subjects’ are going to be formed from ‘modern’ people, people whose personality and culture have the Enlightenment written all over them. Perhaps a greater conversion will come in the era of the new evangelization, a conversion which comes out of the depths of despair.

Monday 27 August 2018

This past weekend ...

… I was in Walsingham for the Youth 2000 Festival. It was wonderful. If you missed it - plan now for next year! So I didn't get to post about my sermon for Sunday.
Well, St John's sixth chapter ends with the whole group of disciples being thrown by what Jesus has said to them, and only a few continue with him. The Word of God, when it enters into us, generally does not leave us unmoved, but unsettles us and can make us deeply perturbed about what God's plan for us is. But we are in good company - the Blessed Mother was deeply perturbed by what the archangel said to her, but she admitted her fears and received the grace.
How can we too come to terms with the unsettling call that Jesus makes to us as the Eucharist?
Eucharistic adoration, which is an extension of the Mass, and certainly the elevation, enables us to prolong our contact with him, and to be ennobled by him!
Sometimes the Church needs to step outside the Liturgy in order to appreciate anew the most real and most governing reality in the created Universe - the relationship that Jesus has with the Church, and which is fully expressed in the Eucharist. This is what a Eucharistic Congress is. And what will flow out of the National Eucharistic Congress, if we really seek to engage with the Lord, is the ennoblement of the Church.
Neither society nor our culture is going to ennoble the Church today; we are not going to regain a privileged place in society, nor are we going to gain a new position for imposing Christian values on our prevailing culture - these things are not going to happen. But the Lord wants to ennoble his Church. Returning to him will bring about the reform of the Church. Eucharistic adoration is the great call today.

Monday 20 August 2018

Dawson, Part IIIa.

Christianity and the Rise of Western Civilisation.
What took place in the world around the first millennium Bc was that man turned his gaze from human experience to contemplate absolute being. This was true all over the world except for the Hebrews. They made no attempt towards metaphysical speculation, they made no attempt to transcend the temporal and social order, they made no denial of the temporal and historical process (even when they were crushed by it.)
The Hebrew religion and culture had no link with the historic cultures around them,even those that were more developed; their culture had practically no material foundation. And their ethics came from looking away from developed culture towards the desert. The foundation of Hebrew culture was its ritual, whose form came not from the cosmos, but from a personal God. Israel's God, unlike that of all other cultures, was a single God. Yet this single God was not merely God of Israel, but of the whole earth.
Even when Israel was conquered by Assyria, it did not come to share in the fortunes of that nation - as others did, but saw in the material ruin of its own nation, not the powerlessness of God, but his universal and mysterious power - Assyria was merely and instrument in God's hands! Indeed, history was moving towards a consummation and the eternal reign of the Kingdom of God.
The eternal law was not, as the Greeks thought, an ordered cycle, but rather was something that was manifested in the vicissitudes of history. The foundation of things was not that which took place in nature, but rather that which took place in the relationship between God and Israel.
We are witnessing today our culture newly wrestling with this. The modern secular-sceintifc mind is aghast that the laws within the natural world are not the bottom line, and that instead, the truly ruling phenomenon is the relationship between nature and grace. It will be an unthinkable and utter shock to the culture of our day, when the light dawns upon it, that the most real 'law' in the Universe is the relationship that exists between Jesus Christ and the Church.

Saturday 18 August 2018

Preaching on the Holy Eucharist.

The first National Eucharistic Congress will soon take place in this country. Not only will the Echo Arena on the historic docks at Liverpool need to be specially prepared, but since the focus of this Congress is the whole Church in this country, we have in providence, the reading of St John's sixth chapter during these Sundays leading up to the Congress, to prepare us for this event.
This reading of St John's sixth chapter began on 17th Sunday of the Year, and is split up over six Sundays. I had decided, earlier this summer, to preach about the Holy Eucharist during these six Sundays.
On The 17th Sunday I spoke about Sundays as the Day of the Lord, leaning heavily on John Paul II's wonderful Letter of 1998, "Dies Domini". I spoke about the Sunday obligation and how we are called to make the whole of Sunday a day which informs the rest of our week, and whose culture should spring from the movement of grace in our hearts because of Christ's presence and action in the Mass.
On the 18th Sunday I rehearsed the discipline of the Church about who can receive the Holy Eucharist, and how we should receive the Holy Eucharist.
Last Sunday, the 19th of the Year, I spoke about what it means to take part in the Mass. That the Mass is a supernatural work - there is nothing in the culture to support it, but much to keep us away! But that the greatness of the Mass is that it is a place of sacrifice - Christ Jesus laying down his life for us, and of self-gift - that because of Christ we can make a gift of ourselves to God. I spoke about the inner dynamic of the various parts of the Mass:
That at the start of the Mass we, as a group of people, and unique in doing so, recognise the evil which is in us, and as a consequence acknowledge our need of grace.
That during the Liturgy of the Word we allow God to reveal himself to us - and what this means to our humanity.
That during the Offertory of the Mass we can make an interior act of self-gift to God.
That is the Eucharistic Prayer we step back and let God act powerfully in our midst - and He does; he changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of His Son. And what it means to us as human beings to let God act.
And finally, that we are sent on mission - precisely because in the Mass grace has moved powerfully on the altar and in our humanity.
Tomorrow, the 20th Sunday of the Year, I want to speak about what supports our participation in the Mass. I will speak here about the Word of God and the Church - that these two realities, which are themselves graces given to us, nurture in us an intimate sharing in the Holy Eucharist, celebrated and adored. That intimacy with Jesus Christ is our truth.
I hope to post regularly about how, in this era of the new evangelisation, I prepare a sermon for the approaching Sunday. I now have thirty years preaching experience as a priest, thirty years experience of the Lectionary. My approach and method has certainly changed over those years, and I will endeavour to share with you some of the ways in which I try to make to Gospel resonate in peoples lives today.
(I still have more posts to make on Christopher Dawson.)

Wednesday 15 August 2018

Dawson, Part II.

Christopher Dawson, the great Catholic historian of the twentieth century, pinned history to a genuine anthropology, which includes its religious roots, and so nurtured a rich awareness of human development. This is so unlike that of contemporary culture that is possessed by neo-Marxist ideology and expresses a profoundly diminished and deformed view of human development. Christopher Dawson’s book “Progress and Religion” (especially Part II) is essential reading for today.
The rise of world religions.
The kind of culture that was bound up with fixed ritual culture became un-progressive. We see this in the civilisations of the Near East and of Egypt.
However, in the first millennium BC a huge cultural change took place. It was a change of thought rather than of material culture. It was a consequence of the movement of peoples and invasions which had been taking place; an old culture meeting a ‘new’ culture created a spirit of critique and reflection, which had been absent up until then.
The old order, which was a manifestation of divine power encountered another order of evil and wrongdoing. And so there arose a sense of moral dualism – that which is and that which ought to be. Men began to compare the world they knew with an ideal social and moral order, and judged it accordingly – the belief in a sacred order that governs all things was re-formed. What had once been a vital force became a moralising and spiritual force.
Ritual was the starting point for the new development, but now this ritual had ethical content. This is best seen in Confucianism in China, and also in India and in Persia – the Rites are like rules. So too in Greece, the performance of sacred rites continued to have great importance, even after the emergence of the mythology of the Olympian deities.
This new, 1st millennium BC, movement gave rise to the concept of a universal order, which is both spiritual and material, and which is immanent in nature and in the moral life of man. Now began the search for a higher principle, one which transcends all forms of existence – the search for the Absolute. In Greece, this search found its fullest expression in philosophy.
The concept of an Absolute reality became the foundation of a new moral ideal; rights and duties gave way to an ethic of renunciation and detachment. This ascetic ideal found its highest expression in Buddhism – the desire not to know the true nature of being, but the desire to be delivered from it. For Buddha, salvation is not in metaphysical knowledge, but is in strenuous moral endeavour that destroys desire. It is a reaction to intellectualism, and a denial of the world of phenomena.
The cultures which are based upon these religions tended not to advance in power and knowledge, but to become static and retrograde, becoming absorbed by the previous culture.
The Hellenic view of the world, accepting the unity of the cosmic order and allowing intellectual freedom, led to the recognition of a higher reality which transcends change and limitation. This found classical expression in Plato: the mind turns away from the changing world of experience to the world of the eternal Forms.
Now, whereas in the East an ethic of renunciation came into being, in the West illumination was sought not by detachment from reality, but by scientific knowledge. The form of science that developed in the West was not a utilitarian one, but was for the contemplation of Being.
The change which took place in the world at the start of the first millennium was linked to astronomy; that there is an eternal cycle, which is reflected in the order of nature. Now the concept of an eternal cycle is something that is irreconcilable with the idea of progress. Aristotle did try to leave room for contingency and free will, but the notion of an eternal cycle dominated the ancient mind.
The astronomical outlook of the ancients – that the movement of the starts determines/is reflected in the course of worldly events – is nearer to modern scientific determinism, than it is to popular superstition or astrology.
Why was the idea of progress absent from the ancient mind? It is because the Greek mind sought to know the cosmic process as a whole. It did not look to partial understanding, nor did it enquire into the particular case, as does modern science. The Greeks sought to know the foundation of Being itself; change is mere illusion – the Law of the Universe must be supreme. Even so, the world of phenomena needed to be reconciled with the unchanging unity of true Being.

Monday 13 August 2018

Christopher Dawson revisited.

A book which has fascinated me since I first read it many years ago is Christopher Dawson's "Progress and Religion", (Sheed and Ward, 1929) especially the second part in which he documents the development of human civilisation upon the basis of religion. This is such a valuable book and I shall upload here, in a series of posts, my own notes on the book, which are a resume of the important points that Dawson makes.
Using the Enlightenment as his springboard, he goes right back to learn from primitive culture, 5000BC.
Religions and the origins of civilisation.
The rational and spiritual elements of a culture determine its nature.
The Enlightenment disregarded religion, and social progress became seen as a direct response of man to his material environment, together with growth of positive knowledge about it.
However, the movement which took place during the Enlightenment is the anomaly. For up to that time religion was always bound to man’s understanding of life. So, the Enlightenment is actually a transitional, unstable phase in human history, which has dislocated the inner and outer worlds of human experience and has proposed today’s dualism, that matter and spirit are two separate dimensions.
There was no dualism in primitive culture; the most important person then was not the “strongest”, but the “holy man”.
Religion is the root of all culture. And the great change which took place in primitive culture was not moving from magic to religion, but the move from magic to priesthood or ritual (ordered priesthood).
The ceremonies of primitive culture gave knowledge of, and control over, nature. This amounted to a form of science that led to agriculture and the domestication of animals. In other words, man began to imitate the processes of nature.
The pivotal development here was the development of priesthood that took place before agriculture or the domestication of animals; priesthood led directly to the development of civilisation. An example of this is the Mayan Calendar. This was not a dating device, but a religious program for each day of the year. Ancient civilisation was characterised by the ritual co-ordination of the social order with the cosmic order.
Ancient ritual culture is the foundation of all civilisation: writing, the calendar, the use of metals, engineering, architecture, and arts and crafts. By the beginning of the third millennium BC, human development was fixed to, and limited by, ritual culture.