Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Substance and Symbol, and Why Life Depends on Such Abstract Ideas

What do you see here?

I’m guessing most of you thought something like this: a clear stream with a rocky bottom and grassy banks, with ripples on the surface revealed by shimmering reflections of the sunlight. Perhaps some of you might have said, “It is a painting of a clear stream...etc.” (The painting, incidentally, is a watercolor by John Singer Sargent.)
How many of you, I wonder, had a first thought like this: I am looking H₂O molecules, silica compounds and carbon compounds?
The scientific analysis of this scene would describe in this way. Science has its place. In fact, scientific analysis, which in its broadest sense means the study of discrete parts of the whole body of Truth, is natural for man; without it, there would be very little knowledge of anything. But the analysis is only useful if we subsequently synthesize, that is, understand it in relation to everything else that we know. We are as inclined to synthesize as we are to analyse, but faculties can be either developed or stifled. I’m guessing that even the most scientifically inclined would, unless specifically asked to give a scientific analysis, look at this scene and describe rocks and stream and grass. 
Put one thing in relation to another, and something new, a relationship, is created out of nothing. Put many things in relation to each other, and we have a network of relationships, which, together with its constituent elements become a community of beings. In this case “a rock.” Philosophically, we call the created entity a “substance” and, for the Christian at least, it is a real thing. Mountains, skies, plants, animals and people are more than simply atoms obeying the laws of physics and chemistry. 
If we see a rock in this picture, this indicates that, whether we are aware of it or not, we recognize the whole to be more than the aggregate of its individual parts. When you put all the silica compounds in that rock in relation to each other, the result is a new entity, something that exists in its own right, something that previously did not exist and is brought into being by virtue of the reality of the relationships between its parts. 
This applies to society as well by the way. It is often said (particularly by Catholic critics) that the American Constitution is flawed because it views man as an individual, and hence wrongly envisions society as the sum of individual actions. I would say that it is not wrong to see society as the sum of its individual parts, rather, that it is an incomplete description. Whether that incompleteness is crucial to the validity of the American Constitution is a discussion for another time and probably another place (I can hear my editor sighing with relief at this point), but my point here is that all beings are simultaneously both individual entities and beings in relation. 
Does it matter what we think we are looking at in such a situation? Not always, but in one crucial way, I would say yes. For without substance, there is no symbolism. And without relation, we have no sense of the symbolic, and our capacity to be in relation to God is eroded, at the very least, and in some cases eradicated.
Here’s why. Take a look at this traditional font:
It is eight-sided to symbolise the Eighth Day of Creation, the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The number 8, communicated through the shape of the font, connects the font to Christ. In so doing, through the symbol of the font, and the baptisms that take place in it, our minds solidify and deepen something that is already true but more dimly perceived, that we are in relation to Christ Himself. 
None of this would be possible if we did not think the number 8, the font, baptism and were real things, and not simply a collection of ideas or random groupings of molecules fluctuating in time, and which are interconnected only in my imagination. If we perceive the font as something real, then we are more like to think the same of what it points to, namely, Christ and all the spiritual realities connected to the font.
Similarly, all of creation, and all the works of man in the culture (depending on how well he makes them) point to God, through their natural relation to Him as Creator and author of inspiration. Without a sense of symbolism, we cannot read the book of Nature. All created things, through their beauty, draw us into and then beyond themselves to the source of all beauty, God. It is natural to us to see this, but this instinct can be both stimulated or dulled by our formation as people.
So what makes us read the world symbolically? I would say that it is not the study of philosophy per se. It is important to understand the philosophical principles that make this so, especially if you want to be a good artist who must know how to make an image that points to a reality. (That is why there are mandatory philosophy classes in the Master’s of Sacred Arts program at Pontifex University.) But I suggest that only rarely will the study of it in a classroom convince the student to take it as a truth to live by. Faith comes first, and philosophy imparts understanding to what is already believed.
It is interesting, for example, how modern physics - natural philosophy - now seems to support the ideas of a traditional philosophy of nature. Fr Norris Clarke, in his wonderful little book The One and the Many, explains how developments in astrophysics (he was writing in the 1980s) seem to support the idea that the universe is not a huge empty space occupied by atoms. First of all, in fact, it looks as though there even less than nothing in a vacuum! Secondly, the universe consists of bodies - substances - interacting at long or short range via relationships between them, and in accordance with the pattern of physical laws. This was fascinating for me because it harmonized even more with my beliefs about physical and spiritual realities. If I had not been a believer, however, I don’t think I would have changed my mind. Instead, I would very likely have done what most non-believing scientists do when faced with anomalies, namely, come up with an alternative hypothesis that is consistent with my atheistic worldview.
I would say instead that is the example of our lives to others, and most powerfully, the worship of God that forms us, so that we are open to believing the truth of this. This is certainly my experience. Long before I had even heard the word “transubstantiation”, I knew there was something special about that wafer of bread because of one trip to Mass. It was the actions of the people at the Brompton Oratory which communicated to me the reverence with which they held it. Later, when I started to participate myself, the same actions reinforced in me the belief with which they are consistent.
The truth of the interrelatedness of all things to each other and God was articulated centuries before Fr Clarke was alive, in Scripture. For example, the Canticle of the Three Children describes how all aspects of Creation give praise to the Lord: “O Let the Earth bless the Lord, praise him and magnify him forever.” At first, this might seem strange. The earth is an inanimate being and cannot praise Him. But it can direct our praise, provided we see it as glorious, and connect that glory to God. The language of the canticle arises from an assumed acceptance of the ideas of symbol and substance on the part of the writer.
By singing this canticle, therefore, in harmony with the three companions of Daniel in the furnace, that we are so formed so as to accept the truths it articulates. In fact, we can go further: we are not only formed, but transformed, purified by the Spirit like precious metal in a crucible. We partake of the divine nature, and through our personal relationship with Christ, enter into the mystery of the Trinity, in relation to the Father in the Spirit.

The theological symbol of the principle that establishes the relatedness of all things to each other, and ultimately to God, is light. Light flows across the divide between beings and communicates to each what it is.
To know something fully, we need more than sunlight can give us, however bright. But the uncreated light, the divine light of heaven, can impart to those who are supernaturally transformed and purified things which are otherwise not knowable. It is by this that we can know God, and see what the world around us reveals of Him.
The Doxology which is sung at Orthros in the Byzantine Rite opens with the phrase “Glory to You, O Giver of Light”, and as part of its conclusion says, “For with You is the Fountain of life, and in Your Light, we shall see light.”
The faithful are seers of light. For them, everything speaks of God, emanating from Him and directing us back to Him. And they participate in this radiance of God themselves shining with the Light of Christ which in turn draws others to Him.
This is why, in my opinion, the core aim of the process of initiation into the Catholic Church must be to make us such “seers.” This requires, therefore, first of all a liturgical catechesis that brings the symbolism and the realities they point to alive. It presupposes, of course, a form of ritual, art, music,  and architecture that speaks symbolically and sacramentally too (a big assumption, I know.)
Once we have this, then it seems to me that all other things come easily for people thus formed. Their faith will deepen every time they go to Mass and their openness to and ability to grasp all other teachings of the Church will be greater. This would involve less work than nearly all Catholic formations that do not operate on this principle, whether RCIA or Catholic high school or college, and it would be more effective.
What I describe would be the stuff of futuristic fantasy...

were it not for the fact that not only is it true,
but it offers us something greater, right here, right now! We can be the seers, ourselves shining with the Light.

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