Monday, March 21, 2016

Conversion from Modernity to the Beauty of Christ

All of us have “conversion stories,” whether they take the form of dramatic life-changing upheavals, a simple progression into something we already possessed but did not understand or make use of, or a subtle transformation that altered our course by just a slight degree and yet brought us to a completely different port than we thought we were sailing for.

In my own life, there have been many ups and downs, straight paths and circuitous detours, and those times of getting lost in the dense woods and then coming out into a clearing to see the bright sky again and gather my bearings. And while it is true that the passage of time can bring with it the temptation to make a more orderly narrative out of what was, in fact, rather chaotic and inconsistent, it is also true that time gives one greater perspective, an awareness of larger patterns. When a friend shared with me his conversion story and asked me subsequently how I ended up a traditional Catholic, it got me thinking about my own progressive conversion to Christ and to the fullness of Faith, in which I still feel like a child treading and flailing as he learns to swim in the unimaginable expanse and unfathomable depths.

What I saw, as I thought about each stage in my life, is that there have been particular experiences of beauty — certainly at different levels objectively (as I can see now) but all of them powerful to me at the time — that decisively marked me and pulled me in certain directions. The beauty of great music, sacred and secular, such as when I first heard chant in high school; the beauty of great ideas encountered in books, even when I barely understood them; the beauty of some churches and some liturgies, even if I couldn’t have put my finger on what was special or right about them; the beauty of the morally upright life of people I met and came to admire. I recall reading G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and Everlasting Man, and realizing for the first time (at some level — we will need all eternity to absorb the truth of it) that the Incarnation is the only possible pattern, explanation, and hermeneutic of the whole of reality. It is the only key that fits the lock, or better, the only mystery that could and can and does hold everything together. Without it, and without the superabundant Redemption it made possible and actual, the world really wouldn’t make any sense, nor man within it, man’s fall, or man’s eternal destiny.

One question I had to wrestle with continually was what to make of this project called modernity. It is such a huge question, wrapped all around us and invading our bones, that one does not exactly see it all at once, or recognize the battery of questions it poses; one is like a frog being slowly boiled in the pot of modernity, and feeling rather uncomfortable about it but not knowing how to get out of the pot. Needless to say, there’s an obvious sense in which anyone who is alive at any given time is “modern” or “contemporary,” but this extrinsic and incidental meaning is hardly what I have in mind, nor is it what most philosophers mean when they refer to “modernity.” Rather, we are referring to a certain intellectual project that has unfolded over the course of several centuries, since at least the Enlightenment, a project that views itself as decisively parting ways with the philosophical paths of antiquity and the medieval Catholic inheritance. We are referring to a system or set of systems, an ideology or set of ideologies; in short, what one might call modernism, an exaltation of our own specialness, differentness, newness, and autonomy.[1]

Not surprisingly, it is hard to define a movement that is inherently a movement away from something whose influence one wishes to negate and a movement towards a perpetually undefinable future about which everyone disagrees. Modernism is in one sense defined negatively rather than positively, and in another sense defined so much by wishful or progressive thinking that it can have no fixed content for all parties to agree upon. It will generate for you both capitalism and communism, both democracy and totalitarianism, both antiquarianism and futurism; it can generate anything except adherence to tradition.
The same friend mentioned above, fully sympathetic to traditionalism, asked me how I felt about “dismissing modern thinkers like Wojtyla and Ratzinger. One can, after all, find many beautiful insights in their writings, too.”

My response was that they are far too thoughtful and wise to be dismissed — particularly Ratzinger as a theologian! — and even in a worst-case scenario, we are exhorted by St. Augustine to steal all the gold we can from the Egyptians. But the longer one studies the question, the more one “smells” in the origins of modernity a fundamentally anti-incarnational, anti-sacramental, anti-Christic spirit or temper or mood, one that comes out in a thousand obvious and subtle ways. The devil has achieved new successes by mingling the true with the false on an altogether unprecedented scale,[2] in such a way as to make modernity most attractive and seemingly irrefutable precisely where it is, in fact, most contradictory, harmful, and acidic of the deepest bonds of nature, life, sexuality, and redemption. That is, even great minds have been mesmerized and lured to buy into the subtle half-truths on which modernity, as a system and worldview opposed to Christianity and Christendom, is based. We see, for example, people who ought to know better concurring in the dethronement of Christ the King from His authoritative place in every area and aspect of human life, in this way flagrantly contradicting the confidently-taught Magisterium of many great popes; we see people who ought to know better commanding or consenting to the massacre of the holy and innocent liturgy.

It is by no means absurd to call into question even great minds to the extent that they feel they must secretly or openly, fully or partially, comply with modernity’s gratuitous assertions and appetites, which always tend towards the dethronement of Christ from the cosmos, the disestablishment of human and sacred hierarchy, the defilement of the human body in its holistic relation to the soul, the denigration of the human person in the mystery of masculinity and femininity, the dismantling of ecclesiastical tradition, and the demystification or disenchantment of the sacred liturgy. By sound reason and sound faith, a Catholic should never fall in with these tendencies or their rotten fruits, but in recent centuries (certainly since the Enlightenment, as can be seen in the Synod of Pistoia) they too often do embrace principles or concepts that will inevitably produce such fruits, or rather, such mental, moral, and spiritual diseases. The most charitable assumption we can make is that they embrace those principles or concepts with good will, failing to see how their consequences play into the devil’s strategy as he prepares the world for the one destined to be the most successful politician of history, the Antichrist.

Returning to conversion: it was and continues to be the experience of beauty in all its dimensions, visible and invisible, that rescued me from the slough of despond, the existential nihilism that lurks underneath the dazzling promises of modernity. As Dostoevsky said, it is indeed beauty — the beauty of Christ, the Word Incarnate — that will save the world and each one of us who surrenders to His invasion of love.


[1] This, I would submit, is the “modern man” for whom the liturgical reform was designed — that is why the liturgy had to be retooled and revamped in a special, different, novel, autonomous way that looked askance at tradition as something irretrievably past, dead and gone, and harmfully obstructive of progress. But that is matter for another discussion.

[2] See my essay “Error as a Parasite” for further considerations.

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