Saturday, July 19, 2008

Whatever happened to the European?

If you are familiar with the movie Duck Soup, you will remember that Groucho Marx portrays Rufus T. Firefly, the ruler of Freedonia. Chico is Chicolini, a spy for another country and one of Firefly’s cabinet ministers. There is a scene in which Chicolini answers the phone for Firefly.
Chicolini: Hello! No. No. No, he’s not in. All right, I’ll tell him. Goodbye… That was for you.
Firefly: I’m sorry I’m not in. I wanted to have a long talk with you. Now, listen here. You give up that silly peanut stand and I’ll get you a soft government job. Now, let’s see, what have I got in my Cabinet besides mice? How would you like a job in the mint?
Chicolini: Mint? No, no, I no like-a mint. Uh—what other flavor you got? [Phone rings again.]
Chicolini: Hello, hello. No, not yet. All right, I tell him. Goodbye, thank you. That was
for you again.
Firefly: I wonder what became of me? I should have been back here a long time ago.
The Marx brothers have captured in this scene modern man’s alienation from himself better than Beckett, Ionesco, and all the modern Theatre of the Absurd playwrights. Reason detached from the heart and from revelation can only be a commentator on existence; it cannot be a participant. If the heart is not engaged, a man will remain isolated. And it makes no difference whether the disengaged man is an atheist or a Roman Catholic. His atheism will be only secondhand if he is an atheist, and his Roman Catholicism will be only secondhand if he is a Roman Catholic. His real faith will be in detached, analytical reason. The doctrinal Thomist and the strict atheist are both, in their essential view of existence, compact.

I once watched, astonished, while a conservative Catholic announced to a panel of conservative Catholics meeting to discuss some recent study that stated fathers should spend time with their children, that he intended to spend more time with his children. He needed research to tell him that! What happens if another study comes out and tells him that fathers don’t need to spend time with their children? Has the man no affections, no feelings that might give him a clue as to how to behave as a father? No, because the man has been carefully trained to have no feelings. His life depends on the latest research. Albeit since he is a Catholic, he only trusts Catholic researchers, but still, his life is a secondhand one.

I don’t mean to single out the conservative Catholic as the only disengaged man. The liberal Protestants have also disengaged themselves from existence. Along with the Catholics, they think that having an expertise in religion or following one who is an expert in religion is a substitute for religious faith. This is not so. In order for a genuine faith to develop, those well-springs of feelings and emotions that engender love must be brought into play, because without love there can be no faith. When faith is solely a mathematical proposition that engages only the mind, it is not a real faith. It can disappear completely with one adjustment of the calculator.

Dostoyevsky was aware of the dangers of detached, analytical reason: Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazov are intensely and maniacally logical. And they are men without faith. Does anything really separate them from the intensely logical, modern, Christian intellectual who can find no place for a sentimental God-man in his documents?

It is not, of course, that reason and faith are incompatible. It is the Humpty Dumpty question: “Who shall be master?” Reason cannot be detached from the rest of man’s being; it cannot be the final arbiter. Vladimir Solovyov, in his book The Crisis of Western Philosophy and in his lectures On God-Manhood, brought this forcefully to the fore.

Western man is like a woman trying to become a man. One looks at her and says, “Doesn’t she realize that it is her heart that makes her distinct? Her pathetic attempts to argue philosophy with men makes her a witch.” And Western man’s pathetic attempts to explain the ways of God to men has left him asking, “Whatever became of me?”

Our Lord is not a theologian or a philosopher; He is a poet. And the Faith must be passed on from one generation to the next with all the subtlety and care one takes (or should take) in reading a poem. One should not dissect it, one should respond to it with one’s whole heart, mind, and soul.

We cannot go back to the pagans to get that much needed sense of the sacred in our lives. And who wants to? There is no personal God within the pagans’ cosmos. But we can go back to the European woods. Why did we ever listen to those who called our attachment to those woods sentimental? The woods are sacred and will bring us in contact with heart, home, and Him, which is a consummation devoutly to be wished, because theories about the faith are a very poor substitute for Him.

Let us give George MacDonald the last word:
To arouse the hope that there may be a God with heart like our own is more for the humanity in us than to produce the absolute conviction that there is a being who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and the fountains of waters. Jesus is the express image of God’s substance, and in Him we know the heart of God.

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