Acts of Martyrs, 2015

This morning's broadcast from Sandro Magister lists the names of our twenty-one new Coptic saints. The essay “Saint Milad Saber and His Twenty Companions” can be read in full here. But let me list their names for you. They died whispering prayers, some calling upon the name of Jesus at the moment of decapitation. By knife. We honor them by name:

Milad Saber Mounir Adly Saad, bachelor
Sameh Salah Farouq, married, one child
Ezzat Boshra Nassif, married, with one son of four years
Kyrillos Boschra Fawzy, bachelor
Tawadraus Youssef Tawadraus, married, three children
Magued Soliman Shehata, married, three children
Mina Fayez Aziz, bachelor
Samouil Alham Wilson, married, three children
Bishoi Stephanos Kamel, bachelor
Samouil Stephanos Kamel, brother of the latter, bachelor
Malek Abram Sanyut, married, three children
Milad Makin Zaky, married, one daughter
Abanub Ayyad Ateyya Shehata, bachelor
Guerges Samir Megally Zakher, bachelor
Youssef Shukry Younan, bachelor
Malek Farag Ibrahim, married, baby daughter
Mina Shehata Awad
Louqa Nagati Anis Abdou, 27 years, married with infant
Essam Baddar Samir Ishaq, bachelor
Hany Abdal-Massih Salib, married, four children
Guerges Milad Sanyut, bachelor

Leonardo Boff & Backdoor Polytheism

What made Christianity so dangerous [to imperial Rome] was its uncompromising, radical de-divinization of the world.
                                                    —Eric Voegelin,
The New Science of Politics

Early Christian thinking, like the biblical thinking of the Jewish culture which informed it, was a sedition against the entire pagan world of the sacred. It abolished nature gods: the moon goddess, the gods of thunder, of the hunt, of fertility, the harvest, the waters, all the deities of pagan cosmology. It denied Flora and Faunus sacred status. It cut down the sacred oak, climbed sacred mountains, and built atop the sacred moss.

William Blake. Ancient of Days (1794). Pierpont Morgan Library, NYC.

The radical desacralizing process of nascent Christianity held to the biblical polemic. Jacques Ellul  summarized that vision with brisk economy:

God speaks his word and things are. This is all. What this means is that God is truly outside the world, that he is totally transcendent. He is not enclosed in any part of this creation. He is beyond it. He has established a Creator-creature relation, but this is a relation of love, not a sacral relation. . . . The Christian God makes himself known in Jesus Christ and not elsewhere.

Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff’s evolutionary euphoria, in full feather in his Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, undoes all that. Jesus’ roots, like ours, are in the Milky Way. “His homeland is the solar system, and his house is planet Earth.” Jesus is no longer the totality of the Word but, more modestly, its “peak.” The incarnation extends to all humanity who will “also be verbified” by the Word. From this perspective, the biblical intuition of a hidden God—inaccessible apart from Jesus Christ—is obsolete. It is an androcentric archaism blind to the grand drama of cosmic progress to which ecology is key.

Boff’s dream would re-sanctify planet Earth, reconstitute a pre-modern and non-Christian sense of the sacred. Reported adviser to Pope Francis on the coming climate encyclical, the ex-Franciscan brings to his task the cosmic orphism of Teilhard de Chardin and giddy embrace of the noosphere—that notional final stage of evolution from which is thought to emerge, in Boff’s words, “a common consciousness around the Earth, and which would function as the Earth’s brain.”

Artist Unnamed. God the Father Measuring the Universe (13th Century). Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

The Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation issues from the same linear, patriarchal mind as modern scientific cosmology—that ”rationalist and dualist” system at the root of modern man’s assault on “God’s extended Body.” It has wreaked “massive destruction of the many-colored universe of polytheism and its anthropological significance.” To counter the devastation, Boff exalts the myths of deep ecology:

All the living and nonliving elements are interconnected and make up an organic whole in dynamic equilibrium: the great living being, Earth. It is indeed, as the indigenous peoples and the mystics have always called it, the great and good Mother, Nurse, and Pacha Mama.

Boff would relax emphasis on monotheism. However valid it might be philosophically and theologically, emphatic monotheism is damaging psychologically and politically. Christianity’s struggle against polytheism failed “to safeguard the element of truth” in it:

That truth is that the universe with its variegated beings, mountains, fountains, forests, rivers, firmament, and so forth, is permeated with powerful energies and hence is the bearer of mystery and sacredness.

Entranced by hybrid eco-spiritualities buttressed by Jungian psychology and scavengings from modern physics, Boff argues for “recovery of the aspect of truth in paganism, with its rich pantheon of divinities inhabiting all the spaces in nature”:

Indeed, human beings are inhabited by many powerful energy centers overflowing them on all sides and with the universal Energy shaping the cosmos for billions of years, centers that impart a profound meaning to existence. Throughout history, these transcendent forces have been hypostatized in the form of male and female deities. . . . The deities functioned as powerful archetypes of the depths of the human being. The radicalization of monotheism, as it battled polytheism, closed many doors of the human soul.

. . . To cure humankind of its polytheism, early Christianity subjected the faithful to a violent and harsh medication. . . . A rigid monotheism is not salutary for the soul—as if all spiritual riches could be reduced to a single principle. 

Venus of Willendorf (Upper Paleolithic). Natural History Museum, Wien.

By their very bodies, women are superior to men in overcoming “the dualisms introduced by patriarchal and androcentric culture.” They are natural bearers of a redemptive cosmology that yields ecological wisdom and “cosmic fellowship.” The insights of eco-feminism are crucial to Boff’s insistence on a new covenant with nature. Women are instinctive beings who refuse rule by reason alone. Hence, they are closer to the “archetypal universe of the personal, group, and cosmic consciousness.”

Boff leans on that rickety epistemology popularized as women’s way of knowing. By the “wholeness of female experience,” women are attuned to “planetary and cosmic sacredness.” Christianity’s assault on female deities disrupted the world’s “gender balance” and created “a break in social and religious ecology.”

Boff is fond of referring to women as generators of life. But strictly speaking, it is men who generate life. Women incubate it. Given the agenda Boff’s rhetoric serves, the distinction matters. So does his revival tent scaremongering. He preceded Al Gore with threats of environmental catastrophe and extermination:

If Gaia has had to rid itself of myriad species over its life history, who can assure us that it will not be forced to rid itself of our own? Our species is a threat to all other species; it is terribly aggressive and is proving to be a geocide, an ecocide, and a true Satan of the Earth.

Our theologian does not like “the species Homo.” Certainly not the Western male variety. He exempts only indigenous peoples and the Eternal Feminine from the dock.

The “imperial and feudal” Church, with its popes and bishops, has been corrupted by the same “linear logic” that has brought humanity to the point of immanent ecological collapse. While there is still time, a new paradigm must be forged. The Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (1972) points the way. Christian conscience must acknowledge the Gaia hypothesis: humanity is not entitled to hierarchical dominance in the sentient super-organism called Earth. It is “the great cosmic community,” not merely man and woman, that is made in the image and likeness of God.

For anyone seeking exercises for initiation into eco-spirituality, Boff suggests K. Keyes, Jr., Handbook to Higher Consciousness; A. LaChance, Greenspirit: The Twelve Steps of Green Spirituality; and some others.

Celestial Globe Drawn on a Flat Sheet  (1729). Reiner Ottens, mapmaker. Amsterdam.

First published in 1995, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor remains a vivid witness to the ecotopian vision at the heart of Boff’s advisory role on environmental matters. His recent Francis of Rome & Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church (2014) repeats the twenty-year old mantra. His exultant doctrine of Woman-inflected “cosmic fellowship” still stands:

There are many people who say that the twenty-first century will be the woman’s century. Life is threatened, and they who generate life will know how to take care of all life forms and of our sister Mother Earth herself, as Saint Francis called her. She is alive, she is Pacha Mama, she is Gaia, she is the Great Mother who gives us everything we need to live. Pope Francis will need to strengthen this mission entrusted to women and to all of us.

Boff’s refrain—“everything is spiritual”—echoes Teilhard’s “everything is sacred.” It is a doctrine that Dietrich von Hildebrand had repudiated decades earlier in his essay “Teilhard de Chardin: A False Prophet.” However sublime the principle sounds, von Hildebrand argued, it bristles with “nihilistic denial of low and high, of good and evil.” Like Gaian dogma, it denies hierarchy to the structures of reality. In seeming to exalt everything, it “results in denying everything.”

St. Hildegard of Bingen. Man as Center of the Universe (12th C.). Biblioteca Statele, Lucca.

The line between the crackpot and the mystical is not at all narrow. It is broad and deep. But the chasm can be obscured with rational-sounding phrases (e.g. “crisis of the social paradigm”) and magpie assemblages of scientific and scholarly references woven together with christological language. Doubtless, it is camouflaged most significantly—and insidiously—by incontestable concern for the poor.

You will decide for yourself whether to welcome Boff’s environmental counsel to Francis of Rome. Or dread it.

Where Did Ash Wednesday Go?

What has happened to Ash Wednesday? Is the wearing of ashes in decline everywhere? Or only in New York City, a sanctuary city for people of every faith or unfaith? Or was I just in the wrong part of town at the wrong hour?

Francisco de Goya. Lent (c.1794). Academia Fernando, Madrid.

I took an early commuter train into the city this morning, and was on the subway to Columbus Circle between 8:30 and 9:00 am. Coming up out of the station, I passed a young woman with ashes—the first I had seen since I left the house. Walking west one block to St. Paul the Apostle, I saw only a single man marked with ashes. A trickle of people were going into the church for ashes. I followed in for mine, turned around, and doubled back to Broadway. On the way, no one else passed me with their foreheads marked. 

I was headed for the Museum of Biblical Art for a press briefing by Monsignor Timothy Verdon, director of the Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage in Florence. He had no ashes either; and neither did anyone else attending.

Three people took note of the black smudge on my forehead. Over coffee, a public relations woman greeted me with “Oh, I love your . . .” I thought she was about to say “haircut” but, after a pause, she came up with, “mark.”  

A second woman tapped me to say—in the hushed tone women use when they tell another that her slip is hanging or her dress label is sticking up—”You have something on your forehead.” She thought she was being helpful. So I smiled and said, “Yes, it’s Ash Wednesday.” She gave me a quizzical look that suggested she had no idea what Ash Wednesday was. Such is the level of ritual  comprehension in the press. 

Pieter Breughal the Elder. Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559). Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

It was heartening to have a third woman tell me that she had not yet had a chance to get her ashes. But relief did not last long. In the next breath she confided that she was up from Virginia where she lives in an ashram and is used to all kinds of ashes. In all kinds of colors. For all kinds of reasons.

Press business done, I headed back down into the subway, back to the shuttle, and over to Grand Central. Along the way, I scanned the morning crush, looking very hard for ashes. I counted only three more people in the crowd. (Believe me, I was really, really looking.) A total of five in one of the most heavily trafficked—foot traffic—parts of the city.

Maybe it was just too early in the day. Maybe Catholics will stop in a church at lunchtime or their way home. Still, on this Ash Wednesday, more than any other day in a very long time, I felt bereft.

Beauty Bits & Pieces

A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental; they necessarily are reflected in his theology.
                                                                       Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Of all the modern substitutes for religion, it is the aesthetic sense which is the most esteemed.
                                                        Edward Norman, Entering the Darkness

That quote above by then-Cardinal Ratzinger leaves me fidgety. I would rather hear about the potential effect on theology of his pilot’s license—he does have one—than appeals to art, music, nature, the expected perfumes. The guidance system of the papal helicopter, in its ordering of objective elements, bears closer resemblance to religious truth than the emotional promptings of the aesthetic sense.

Marcel Gromaire. The Pilot (1928). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.

And where does love of nature take the theologian except into the eco-mysticism that installs a shrine to Gaia in the cathedral of St. John the Divine? Contemporary nature piety is the springboard for re-sacralizing the natural world, reversing  Christianity’s historic de-divinization of it. 

Nature is to be respected. But loved? Nature kills. We can love nature only to the degree of our control of it, our protection from it. (Look in your medicine cabinet for simple cues to your fidelity to nature.) Yes, a sunset is beautiful; but only because the sun is far enough away not to incinerate us.

Tacitus stated it for the ages: “Viewed from a distance, everything is beautiful.”

Tornado over Oklahoma City area.

Three centuries into the ongoing displacement of religion by aesthetics, talk of beauty is much in the air these days. It ranks among the finer pastimes of polite climbers. On a more significant level, it has thickened into an arena in which Christians struggle to align beauty with salvation history. We speak of beauty now in tones reserved for salvific virtue. Accent on it leaves me wondering if we have strayed off our own turf. We seem to be playing an away game, no longer on home court.

Does Christianity subvert itself by embracing the revelations of an Enlightenment discipline? Are we adapting ourselves to a secular, and secularizing, frame of mind? Is the imperative of beauty a new bondage, this time to the strategies and structures of the world’s source of transcendent meaning? Is emphasis on beauty a surrender—disguised by religious language—to forces that distance us from the plenitude of our own wellspring: the Galilean Jew we greet in the Creed?

Georges Barbier. Incantation (1923). Illustration for an Almanach.

We can doxologize beauty—its value, its boundless variety of forms—until the clocks stop. But, in the end, we are still left with that bothersome business of how to recognize it, how to achieve it. When talk is done and the table cleared, are we any further along than Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity? He admitted it was impossible to define but “I know it when I see it.”

Aestheticism as Ariadne Waving Goodbye to Oscar Wilde (1882). Punch.

When it comes to visible beauty, I definitely know it when I see it. No doubt about it. Not sure, though, I see it where you do. Besides, do you really know when you see it? Or do you just think you do? Is there a gene for telling the difference? Might taste be shaped by natural selection? Is bad taste an acquired characteristic or a hereditary predisposition? And while we are at it, why are you wearing that ugly tie?

Anonymous. Beautiful Longhorn, Prize Cow (19th C.). Oxford Agricultural College, UK.

It all gets sticky very fast. No conscientious writer on art can offer absolutes, though the temptation to try is great. Authority attaches to schema; honor accrues to pronunciamentos that nail it all down. Art presents a bewildering array of choices. How to pick the right one, the one that speaks well of us? Freedom of choice is risky. Wary of taking our chances, we want beauty clinched in an unequivocal canon. We look for a fixed set of properties applicable from now to kingdom come. It is the lure of the infallible.

Only it does not work that way. Tastes change with the times. Think of the doyens of eighteenth-century taste who despised the Gothic that we so prize today. Besides, it is not a critic’s job to mimic the labor of philosophers and psychologists of perception. The best a critic can do is offer an eye—which is to say a sensibility, that j’ne sais quoi of things rooted in a life and a conscience.

Mark Tansey. The Innocent Eye Test (1981).

It is impossible to look at fetal photography without astonishment. One of the most exhilarating things about it is its testimony to the sovereignty of our eyes. They are not separate members that grow on their own. The eye is a very organ of the brain! Emerging out of it, an eye is the brain’s emissary to the light. It comes into the world with its own way of knowing, wordless and immediate.

The eye, like friendship, seeks its own society. It functions according to its own principles, likes, and demands, each molded by temperament and circumstances. And it loses its innocence as we all do.

Paulus Potter. The Young Bull (1647). The Mauritshuis, NL.

Mark Tansey’s wonderfully witty The Innocent Eye Test takes aim at the notion of a critic as one who views art through a clear crystalline lens, unclouded by a priori biases or wayward concepts. But in the real world, no such innocent eye exists except—just maybe—in a cow. Tansey’s earnest research team brings a placid milker to gaze at Paulus Potter’s The Young Bull. Does she recognize her Dutch predecessor as the real thing? Did Potter get it right?

Golden Age livestock leaves no mess. Not so the barnyard participant in this investigation. (Note the man ready with a mop on the left.) Viewed from the detached distance of art, Potter’s idyllic livestock is lovely. Less so, its modern avatar.

Tacitus, again.

Note: Bloggers are their own worst copy editors. I had reversed Justice Stewart’s first and last names. All fixed noe.

Sistine & Porsche

Your friends are not religious; they are only pew-renters. They are not moral; they are only conventional.
                                                        Don Juan to the Devil in Shaw’s Man and Superman

A sense of the holy brings with it a sense of taboo. We tread cautiously in the tenting place of the ineffable. A Presence abides. We dare not profane.

The Vatican’s recently announced Art for Charity initiative directed toward high profile corporations raises a question: Is the Sistine Chapel still the sacred space it was built to be? Or has it slackened into a world class exhibition hall, a Renaissance monument FOR RENT?

The elasticity of the line between sacred and profane can last only so long. At some point pliancy gives out, things stiffen, and choice falls at one end or the other. The initiative’s inaugural event, this past October, suggests that the elastic has dried and begun to crack.

Organized by the Vatican Museums, Art for Charity is a fund raising scheme that invites proposals for swank events sponsored by corporate donors. October saw the first of these commercial transactions. Porsche Travel Club arranged a four-day, €5,000-per-head [ArtNet’s figure] tour of Rome, featuring a private concert in the Sistine Chapel. The concert was performed by the venerable Accademia di Santa Cecilia, founded by Sixtus V in 1585. This was followed by a gala dinner “in the midst of the Vatican Museums,” leaving it unclear whether dinner took place in the chapel or elsewhere in the complex. Proceedings included a visit to Castel Gandolfo and a drive to Lake Garda in the latest Porsche models.

Msgr. Paolo Nicolini, managing director of the Vatican Museums, rejected the word rent: “The Sistine Chapel can never be rented because it is not a commercial space.” Making the chapel “visible” is the preferred term. He told the press:

It is an initiative which will support the Pope’s charity projects. It is aimed at big companies which, through the payment of a fee, can contribute to charity activities.

In other words, the Vatican is poised to solicit cash in exchange for permitting private access to the Sistine Chapel for exclusive corporate patrons. The vulgar word rent need never apply. Good manners demand phrasing appropriate to a premier cultural institution. The Vatican could have no better tutor in this than New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its downloadable pdf. on the delicate matter of “unique entertaining opportunities and special access” is an exquisite sample of elevated locution:

Entertaining at the Metropolitan Museum is a privilege reserved for its Corporate Patrons and eligible non-profit organizations. For its Corporate Patrons, membership benefits and entertaining opportunities reflect the level of a company’s gift to the Museum.

Privilege. Eligible. Gift. It is in word dances like this that distinguished brands—cultural and commercial—curtsy to each other.

The Vatican is simply adopting fund-raising techniques used by museums around the world for several decades. Its arrangement with Porsche indicates public embrace of the entrepreneurial culture already at play in museums around the world. Museums are desirable, high-status venues for corporate entertaining. Large or small, they compete to attract corporate sponsors, offering sponsorship opportunities contracted for a fee. And that is fine. Less congenial, however, is the inclusion of the Sistine Chapel in such transactions. Did the Sistine, intimately bound to the life of the Church, debase its sacral status while enhancing the identity of Porsche in the marketplace of brands?

Reading between the lines of official comments, it is not difficult to discern anxiety to deflect the question. According to CNNMoney, the Vatican hopes other companies will follow suit with similar events. The single proviso is they be art related.

Vatican Museums director Antonio Paolucci dips into the warm bath of contemporary art pieties. Vatican Radio quotes his explanation of the impetus behind the initiative: “Art, too, is charity and love.”

No, it is not. Art bears no relation to caritas; it is incapable of agape. The only aspect of love—if that is the word—that might feasibly be associated with art is eros. If we must, there is no shame in admitting that something erotic lives in the drive to make it, the pleasure of looking at it, the ache to linger in its company. But that is hardly the spiritually redemptive love that Vatican Radio intends.

Rendering a pragmatic decision in terms of a mystical or virtue-producing superstructure falsifies the enterprise and art as well. It is also dangerous. Ours is an age in which museums make claims for themselves that mimic religion and art is seen as a signal of transcendence. In contemporary culture art is the preferred Real Presence, free of all obligation and no cross in sight. By clothing art in the mantle of religion—a gathering current that predates the present papacy—the Vatican sanctifies its own secular replacement.

Leave the last word to Louis Bouyer:

We see many Christians attempting to make an alliance between Christianity’s ways and those of the world; and we see Christians who are even tempted to believe that the salvation offered by this world is the true one, and that Christianity needs only to encourage it, to bless it with a cheerful acknowledgment of its worth.

Note: The image above is some wag’s Photoshop comment. Worth 1,000 words.