Saturday, May 26, 2012

800 Words: Why Religion Always Wins - Part III

(Orson on Chartres…go to 1:09)

“…Our religion is not yet a horrible restless doubt, still less a far horrible composed Cant; but a great heaven-high Unquestionability, encompassing, inter-penetrating the whole of Life. Imperfect as we may be, we are here, with our litanies, shaven crowns, vows of poverty to testify incessantly and indisputably to every heart, That this Earthly Life and its riches and possessions, and good and evil hap, are not intrinsically a reality at all, but are a shadow of realities eternal, infinite; that this Time-world, as an air-image, fearfully emblematic, plays and flickers in the grand still mirror of Eternity; and man’s little Life has Deities that are great, that are alone great, and go up to Heaven and down to Hell….”

Thomas Carlyle - Past and Present, writing about the 12th century.

Everyone with the opportunity should go to the great churches of the Middle Ages. Don’t just go to those Renaissance Italian Duomos which glitter like affirmations of gorgeousness against Lutheran austerity. Go to the French eglises, go to Notre Dame, go to Chartres, go to Saint-Michel da Aiguilhe, buildings from the era when eternal affirmation seemed like the ultimate progress – from an era when there no doubt was entertained that human progress was on the side of God Himself. Imagine yourself a Parisian peasant of the 13th century, preserved by the Cloth in deliberate squalor and shit, told that your miserable existence is but a brief trial before the glories that await you in exchange for your complete submission to their will. Your life is toil and grime, yet from the moment you first gaze upon Notre Dame, a cathedral your grandfather or his brothers died building, you know that your life has none but the greatest purpose and meaning. If God can grant something so beautiful, so heavenly as Notre Dame to our world, then how grand and glorious must Heaven itself be?

The great Italian Cathedrals are conservative statements. They preserve a particular Christian tradition against the encroachment of a new dogma. But the great French churches are progressive statements of eternity itself. In this era when Western Man lay perpetually in darkness, when the light of truth was sequestered in monasteries – preserved for the few who could intercede to a deity who seldom shows mercy on behalf of a wretched laity.

For the essence of belief is not belief, the essence of belief is doubt. The fervor of a person’s belief is directly proportional to his insecurity – finding in God that which he can’t provide for himself. Religious fervor was the acme of progress in the Late Middle Ages because out of the chaos that was Europe after Rome and Byzantium, no institution but the Church could provide unity of purpose. Thanks to the Church, scholars all throughout the European world spoke the same language and could therefore exchange ideas more freely than ever before. The literature and art of the age was rife with symbolism, and since all men shared the same belief, the symbols were universally recognized for what they represented. Wars of this era were no longer merely blood feuds, they were matters of honor, determiners of dynastic succession, and fulfillment of religious obligation – holy missions of nobility ordained to reinstate the world’s proper order. And no matter how bloody the war, or how hypocritical the blessing, the clergy could bless both sides in their cause, and because they spoke with the word of God, they could not be contradicted – even if they contradicted themselves. Make no mistake, there was an era when suborning one’s personal will to a mass movement was truly progress for mankind, but it is 800 years in the past.

But that has not stopped the endless yearning of mankind to be eternal. We have been trying to recapture the tantalizing simplicity of this vision ever since. From the moment the world first encountered Dante’s horrible vision of a world with only three choices, our artists tried to find ways of recapturing the utter simplicity of Dante’s vision. Milton seeks to justify the ways of God to Man, Goethe sells Faust’s soul to the devil in exchange for a moment of perfect simplicity, Dostoevsky demonstrates that only Alyosha Karamazov’s submission to the Will of God and his Perfect Church will provide a life of purpose and meaning. Even in our own centuries, we can see the striving for this transcendental simplicity, from Bob Dylan’s yearning to find the answer blowing in the wind, to Don Draper’s wish to create a perfect American family, to Charles Foster Kane’s Rosebud – they may not be religion, but in each case they are the same longing for the pure, undivided self.

It should strike us as ironic that these great anonymous Cathedrals of the Middle Ages - which were created purely as temples to the Glory of God, with no thought as to the glory of man - were mankind’s greatest shelter, and we have not found a more welcoming shelter since. The agony of doubt which disturbs us did not disturb Medieval Man. However unlikely, we at least have to allow for the miniscule possibility that mankind has never been happier than it was during a period of abject squalor, with no doubts as to what life held in store. The boundaries of good and evil were clearly demarcated, and those with particularly evil intentions could generally find a clergy, somewhere, to sanctify their malevolence. The isolation and loneliness of every man’s private moments was not felt in an era of such unity.  There was a deity who saw your problems as they were happening and would reward you for your travails. Man had no divided self, and life, with all its messy emotions and entanglements, was a mere rehearsal. For the true life has no division, no complexity, no confusion. In the true life, there is merely Paradise, Purgatory, and Perdition - and reading Dante is the closest we will get to understanding their worldview.

But even the vision of Dante is presumptuous to the medieval mind. To the average 13th century Christian, it would be very near the ultimate heresy for a mere man to claim foreknowledge of the afterlife's contents and assign people to their stations - that is the job of Christ Himself. To understand the purity of his vision, all we have is those churches - those massive upward bridges to the divine, in which no light is can be let in except by reflected sunlight and fire.

I'm looking forward to France this summer...

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