The European Woods
“Warrior! thou, whose dauntless heartThe most striking thing to me about the liberal Protestant, the fundamentalist Protestant, the Novus Ordo Catholic, the traditionalist Catholic, and the white neo-pagan groups is the one common faith they all share. This belief transcends their differences and keeps them from ever really diverging too far from modernity. Their commonly held faith is a belief in experts.
Gives us from our ward to part.
Be as strong in future trial,
Where resistance is denial.”
What has disappeared from all three camps, Protestant, Catholic, and neo-pagan, is a very European way of facing the numinous. It is true Europeans of old had their scholarly experts, their theologians, men who lived apart and studied the sacred books, but those experts did not determine what belief should be, nor did they mistake their own expert commentary (at least the non-heretical ones did not) on the Deposit of the Faith to be the Faith itself. The scholars of yore were kept in place by a religious peasantry, from whose ranks the scholars themselves often came, that placed a greater priority on the journey itself than on travelogues about the journey.
With the demise of the European peasantry, the reign of the experts began. The Christian Faith became a second-hand thing. It now only exists to the extent and in the way the experts say it does. And the modern European, lacking a blood faith, is at the mercy of the experts without any means of escape.
When I speak of the faith of a peasant I do not mean to suggest that only those who till the soil can possess such a faith. I am referring to all Europeans who experience the Faith firsthand. They have never come to believe, as Quentin’s father in The Sound and the Fury believes, that all tragedy is secondhand. The peasant journeys into the dark woods of existence with the intuitive knowledge that he will most certainly meet with witches, goblins, and other fiendish creatures. But he also knows, in his blood, that if he perseveres, he will see a light in the forest that will lead him to The Light; therefore, journey through the dark woods he must.
The modern European is a reed for every speculative philosophic wind that blows past the window of his brain. Because he no longer journeys through the dark woods, he is dependent on the experts. If he wants to receive knowledge of the light he must find an expert on the subject of “The Dark Woods.” But the experts have never gone through the woods themselves; they have second-hand knowledge of the woods based on their speculative theories about the nature of the woods. The modern Christian everyman takes the findings of his special, denominational expert and declares his tentative faith, pending further research by his experts, in the light that shineth in the dark woods.
And what killed the peasant faith (the only type of faith worth having) of Western man? It was the serpent of philosophical speculation:
“The vain pride of attempting to improve Christianity in the external exhibition of it in the churches, that it might vie in splendor with the pompous exhibition of the Jewish and pagan religions, and the presumptuous folly of explaining its mysteries according to the notions of the heathen philosophy, and, finally, of reducing the whole subject of Divine revelation into the form of a rational, systematic science, an attempt this, which rendered it as unfit for its primary purpose, the salvation of mankind, as the chemical process of distillation does our vegetable productions for the sustentation of animal life. The sublime productions of Aquinas, Maestrich, and Turrentine, are exquisite monuments of this egregious folly. As well might we attempt to imbibe vital heat by embracing a corpse, as to derive spiritual life, light, or comfort, from the perusal of those voluminous works.The pagan peasant climbed the cosmic tree that connected heaven to earth. But his connection was only to something cosmic and impersonal, to some Star Wars-type of ‘force.’ It was Christ who personalized the pagan cosmic tree by submitting to a crucifixion upon that tree. After Christ, faith is always personal; it is never cosmic or derivative. It is always down the ‘mean streets’ or through the dark woods that a man must go. He must imitate in some fashion the example of his Lord.
– from “Christianity is Neither a Theory Nor a Philosophy” by Father Campbell
As I mentioned in a previous article, "The Poetic Core of Western Civilization," the shift from a fairy-tale appreciation of the Faith as a concrete, personal, earth-shattering experience, to a derivative, philosophical system is subtle and slow but devastating in its effects when it takes hold. Only a small remnant of the ancient Jews recognized Christ as the Savior because only a small remnant had a blood connection with their own Jewish faith which He could develop into a burning flame. The Pharisees were not atheists. In fact, they were ‘experts’ on God. Should not that give us pause when we hand ourselves over so willingly to the “religious” experts of today? (1)
I come back to my original assertion that all the neo-pagan, and Christian organizations, liberal, conservative, and traditionalist, have abandoned the integral European response to existence. “Since truth is a given,” they say, “we do not have to look for it. The journey through the dark woods is unnecessary.” Literature is no longer a shared journey with a fellow traveler through the dark woods; it is simply a poetic rendering of truths already known. And psychology, moral theology, and scholastic philosophy have removed the necessity of a more affective study of the human heart.” This is a complete reversal! There has never been anything like it before in the history of Western culture.
In healthy Christian times, the peasant hero often consults with a wise magician before entering the woods, but he knows that ultimately it is he and not the magician who must face the witch, the ogre, or the dragon. All the wisdom of the wise magician cannot equal the wisdom gained by the Young Drummers and Amadans of the Dough, who venture into the dark woods and down the ‘mean streets.’ The truths of revelation must be put to the test. Are they true or mere abstractions? We will never know for sure if we don’t break free of the experts and start the journey through the woods. Yes, they are often dark and foreboding, but the peasant senses that the darkness leads to a light that provides a warmth never felt or even hinted at by the experts.
Flannery O’Connor once made a statement that speaks to this ‘peasant vs. expert’ issue. She said that it was professors of literature who most often failed to understand her stories. I have noticed this phenomenon myself. It is professors of literature, for instance, who most consistently misunderstand Shakespeare. Even some of those who appreciate him, like Allan Bloom, Harold Bloom, Bernard Levin and Goddard, generally do not understand his works.
And I would add a corollary (which Flannery O’Connor should have taken note of, because it might have kept her from a misplaced admiration for Teilhard de Chardin). The corollary is that professors of theology (the experts), both clerical and lay, are generally the people who least understand religion. Why is this? Because religion, like literature, is a complete worldview. It cannot be studied in a compartmentalized way. One cannot approach the religious experience with only the analytical burner turned on in one’s brain. One must approach it with one’s whole heart, mind, and soul. (Who once said something about loving with one’s whole heart and mind and soul?) But the religious experts, like the literary ones, do not approach their subject with the integrality necessary to give an accurate depiction of the religious experience. We receive from them a distorted view of religious faith. And we desperately need to see the Faith whole and unperverted.
Norman Cantor, in his book Medieval History, points out that the modern world begins in the medieval age. He thinks that fact is a credit to the much-maligned medieval age. I think it is a damning indictment. But Cantor is right; the modern world does begin in the medieval ages for it is in the medieval ages that the reign of the expert begins.
Three radical changes were necessary to prepare the way for the expert. First, reason had to be freed from original sin so that a reasoning class of men could rule. Theoretically all were still infected with original sin, but in practice the thinkers, the reasoners, were free of it because they used their minds – in contrast to the peasants, who were full of all sorts of emotions and passions that rendered them incapable of knowing God without the aid of the reasoning men.
Once freed from original sin, the reasoning men needed something to analyze, which brings us to the second part of the modernist revolution – the separation of reason from revelation. No longer is revelation something that is seen in its entirety, inspiring love and awe. It now must be filtered through the analytical lens of the reasoning men, who will point out the rational, practical, and necessary parts of it to the peasants.
And what then occurs, when the reasoning men take over, is a Christianity that rejects Christ. Dostoyevsky depicts this type of Christianity in the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ chapter in The Brothers Karamazov. The Inquisitor’s essential complaint against Christ is that His religion of freely given love is too impractical, too irrational. He, the Grand Inquisitor, has improved Christianity – he has made it rational and practical. But the rational, practical quid pro quo religion of the Grand Inquisitor is not His religion and it is not ultimately satisfying to men and women with souls. The Inquisitor’s religion is a good solid religion for the practical everyday necessities of life, but it leaves the soul without the white moments that it needs for survival.
Now, I know the response of the Javerts in the various Christian churches: “Our Lord set up a hierarchical structure of reasoning men to hand revelation down to the faithful.” A hierarchical structure, yes, but was it meant to be a hierarchical structure of Pharisees and technocrats? I don’t think so. Our Lord founded His Church on third dumb brothers. He knew the Pharisees were too “educated” and too practical to accept Him. St. Paul, the greatest of the apostles and a highly educated one as well, was a great persecutor of Christians until Christ’s revelation turned him into a third dumb brother. There has been a satanic reversal in the Church. Pure intellect alone will always focus on Satan and turn men’s eyes away from the Redeemer.
The third change that completed the medieval revolt (it would be more accurate to say the Thomistic revolt) was the separation of grace and nature. When men were seen as having separate spiritual and physical natures, the door was opened to study men as mere biological specimens only. Man’s physical nature could now be studied as if it had no animating spiritual principle. True, the Thomists didn’t deny God, but by denying a divine link between God and man’s human nature, they sowed the seeds of modern man’s isolation from God. The existentialist revolt of the 20th century was a necessary revolt against the disembodied, computerized God of the scholastics. Where the existentialists erred was in rejecting the Christ, who alone can save us from the inhumanity of the computer god.
There can be no faith in men without faith in God. And there can be no faith in God unless one views existence as a fairy tale journey through the mysterious dark woods rather than as a classroom filled with experts on God dispensing information about His nature. One can find the devil as well as God in the woods, but that is the chance one takes if he wants to see the living God. In the expert-dominated classroom, there is never a genuine encounter with God. And in the 21st century, the great mass of people exists without any contact with God. In earlier centuries it was only some isolated intellectuals who lived, like Malvolio, in prisons of their own minds, but now the great mass of people have become intellectualized (which is entirely different from becoming wise) and live enslaved by “mind-forged manacles.”
Of what does the glory of the West consist? Is it really the rationalist heritage of Greece and St. Thomas? No, that heritage seems too similar to the ‘you shall be as gods’ heritage of the old Adam. The Old Testament prophets, the apostles, and the European poets all point to a different heritage, the heritage of the third dumb brothers, the fools for God.
I once had a professor in college, a lapsed Jew, who was always lamenting the fact that he, and all of us, had lost our sense of the sacred. “But what can we do about it,” he would always add; “We are all Hegelian rationalists now.” But are we? I certainly acknowledge that we live in a world that is imprisoned by Thomistic-Hegelian rationalism. But there is the poetic revolt. Existence contradicts the religious rationalists such as St. Thomas and the secularized rationalists such as Hegel. If the trip through the dark woods reveals that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their rational systems, are we not then entitled to assume that the rational schemes are mere fictions and the fairy tales are the reality?
At least my Jewish professor lamented the loss of the sacred. The current breed of post-Christian, modern pagan, and Christian rationalists, who have replaced Christ with a rational system (even if He figures somewhere in the system) are worse than my former professor. And they have taken on all of the secularized Jews’ instinctive hatred for the culture of the European who still has a fairy tale connection to Christ. This is why you see creatures such as Thomas Fleming reserving his venom for Kinist-type Christians. His faith is in a rational system, so he hates all those who view God in poetic rather than in rational terms. To an antique European, Christ is Hero, Liege Lord, Blood Brother, and King. He is not an emaciated accountant who merely rubber-stamps his approval on a series of documents drawn up by the experts.
The “problem” of the modern European is one of vision. He needs to see that the fairy tale mode of existence is true. Then he will start to behave like the heroes of old Europe behaved, before the Europeans became too intelligent to believe in fairy stories about enchanted cottages in the woods and a God-Man who sanctified the woods with His blood.
1) Heresies always come from the academy. It is a delusion of the various religious bodies that they can create their own academies that are devoid of heresy. Whether they be Protestant or Catholic, they always end in heresy, because they start out with the false assumption that wisdom can indeed be put in a silver rod.