Is Pluralism Enough?

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Fr John Strickland, reflecting on the Renaissance of Western Europe, wrote,

. . .

For Burckhardt, the Renaissance (for the first time a distinct period in history) became the moment of cultural liberation, the breakthrough into the modern age of humanism, individualism, and secularism.  . . .

At the heart of this breakthrough was the Renaissance’s reflection on the human condition. Traditional Christianity, as I have noted in earlier posts, contained within it an exalted view of the human being, made in God’s image and made for a relationship of immediate and eternal communion with God. In eastern Christendom Orthodox Christianity had maintained this anthropological optimism about man, but in the centuries that followed the Great Schism of 1054 a more pessimistic view of man had been established in the west. By the time Petrarch appeared in fourteenth-century Italy, this pessimism was great indeed. Soon it would be challenged directly by leading Renaissance humanists such as Giannozzo Manetti (d. 1459). His On the Dignity of Man boldly confronted one of the middle ages most widely published and influential anthropological treatises, Pope Innocent III’s The Misery of the Human Condition. Even more famously, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (d. 1494) issued his own On the Dignity of Man as a corrective to the pessimistic anthropology that had come to choke the culture of western Christendom.

Burckhardt himself regarded the “rediscovery” of human dignity to be the central achievement of the Renaissance, which alone was sufficient “to fill us with everlasting thankfulness.” He actually paraphrased Mirandola’s treatise as the conclusion to his study of Renaissance anthropology.

The statement is remarkable. The human being is no longer the plaything of the passions, no longer enslaved to the “evil desire” identified by Augustine as the Achilles Heel (to use a classical allusion) of the human will. Man is no longer subject to the demons. He is completely free to choose the good for himself. He is autonomous.

“I have set thee,” Burckhardt (via Mirandola) has the Creator say to Adam, in the midst of the world that thou mayst the more easily behold and see all that is therein. I created thee a being neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal only, that thou mightest be free to shape and to overcome thyself. Thou mayst sink into a beast, and be born anew to the divine likeness. . . . To thee alone is given a growth and a development depending on thine own free will.

Remarkable! This, readers of my blog will recall, had been the claim of Pelagius, the fourth-century heretic who claimed that human salvation is merely a matter of choosing freely to save oneself by embracing the Christian life. Against Pelagianism Saint Augustine had developed a doctrine of original sin that asserted man’s powerlessness in the face of evil and led to doctrines of predestination and universal human depravity. In the Christian east, by contrast, church fathers never embraced such a pessimistic view and spoke of human free participation in the life of God. But in the west, under the long and brilliant influence of Augustine, a series of pessimistic views about man came to prevail and led, over the centuries, to the desiccation of the human experience of paradise, of man’s participation in the kingdom of heaven.

The humanist breakthrough of the Renaissance, then, was not only a reaction against the anthropological pessimism of the medieval west, it was a kind of parallel to the optimistic anthropology of the Orthodox east. But this parallel was, tragically, blind. So little spiritual communion existed between eastern and western Christendom after nearly five centuries of division that Italian humanists showed little interest in the former. Plenty of western scholars were beginning to take an interest in “Greek learning”–most notably Petrarch himself–but theirs was not a theological interest. For them, the wisdom of the Greeks was the pagan Plato, not the Christian Palamas.

Whether medieval scholasticism’s tendency to “know about God rather than know him” was responsible, or something deeper in the fabric of western culture, the first humanists of the Italian Renaissance broke free of traditional Christian anthropology to join Mirandola in assigning to modern man a secular horizon for his fulfillment. Still driven instinctively (though perhaps unconciously) by traditional Christianity’s transformational imperative, but desiccated of the spiritual experience of paradise, he was now free to build a utopia.

Source:  ‘An Eastern Perspective on the Western Renaissance’, https://johnstrickland.org/2016/05/15/an-eastern-perspective-on-the-western-renaissance/, accessed 11 June 2016

The foundation of the American Empire is built squarely upon Renaissance ideas:  human perfectibility without Grace, rationalism, a cosmos of dead matter that must be given new shape and meaning by man (since he is now God), secularism, individualism.  Such utopias of the Kingdom of Man usually tend toward extreme centralization (the terrors of utopia are easier to impose on the willing and the unwilling under that kind of system), and it is no different in ‘exceptional’ America (or, rather, in the America that has arisen since the end of the War of Northern Aggression, when New England culture gained dominance over all the States).

The Southern Agrarians have tried to mount opposition to these forces that have developed in American culture.  H. Lee Cheek, Jr., wrote of their efforts,

Among the contributions to I’ll Take My Stand, Allen Tate’s “Remarks on the Southern Religion” is usually interpreted as the most acerbic, immoderate, and unusual essay in the collection. All too often the essay is read as an apologia for violence or an eccentric defense of tradition. In fact, Tate–like his fellow Agrarians–was seeking to remind his readers of the religious and political society that was once the South. More importantly, Tate’s essay is a plea for a recovery of what has been lost: a humane social order.

Nourished by daily labors in the fields, it was the properly ordered agrarian community that produced a more stable and wholesome environment for families and workers than industrialism could offer. According to Tate, an agrarian environment encouraged a life more conducive to religious and ethical living as well. In regard to farming, the experience of tilling the soil and harvesting crops embodied a sense of self-sacrifice and an attachment to a shared community. Farming was by its very nature a communal, rather than a solitary act. The primary aesthetic and spiritual needs of humankind were best fulfilled by the structure and corporate nature of an agrarian society. Tate’s close friend and fellow Agrarian, Andrew Lytle, convincingly reaffirmed this sentiment years later: “Agriculture is a limited term. A better one is farming. It is inclusive. Unlike any other occupation, farming is, or should be, a way of life.”

Genuine cultural renewal could not take place without appreciating the agrarian worldview—grounded in a connection to the soil and love for the Creator that was increasingly less palpable to Tate’s generation, and at the end of 20th century even the memory of such an existence is quickly fading.

. . .

The Southern and agrarian tradition in America produced a very different understanding of what was really most important. Against the tendency to endorse a theocratic and unitary form of life, this experience accommodated divergent theological and political understandings of order and sought to nurture an ecumenism grounded in the acceptance of dissent and a diffusion of political power.

Liberty was conceived in terms of its corporateness, a societas, combining the family and larger units of an interconnected citizenry with each other to form associations. Instead of the rigorous moral codes found in New England, the Southern colonies were more dependent upon the English model of ecclesiastic and civil subsidiarity, relying on representatives nearest the situation to provide order and preside over the deliberation of disputes. In essence, the religious and political developments within the South were founded upon a spirit of localism in theory and practice. The movement towards “establishing” state-sponsored churches met, for example, with great success in New England, while in the South a decentralized theory of control and the habit of localism in matters of church and state insured a greater autonomy and forbearance among the associations of the faithful and governing authorities.

. . .

Even though the Agrarians were an assortment of representatives with many theoretical and geographical differences, they were united by an unwillingness to accept consolidationist measures, regardless of the form, and insistent upon protecting a decentralized, group-oriented society, as defined in a variety of ways.

. . .

Source:  ‘Agrarianism and Cultural Renewal’, http://abbevilleinstitute.org/review/agrarianism-and-cultural-renewal/, accessed 10 June 2016

Instead of New England’s centralism and uniformity, the South has taken hold of the other side of the political dialectic:  localism and variety.

Richard Weaver, one of the later Southern Agrarians, wrote in Visions of Order,

. . . The truth is that if the culture is to assume form and to bring the satisfactions for which cultures are created, it is not culturally feasible for everyone to do everything “any way he wants to.”  There is at the heart of every culture a center of authority from which there proceed subtle and pervasive pressures upon us to conform and to repel the unlike as disruptive.  . . .

At this center there lies a “tyrannizing image,” which draws everything toward itself.  This image is the ideal of its excellence.  . . . This is the sacred well of the culture from which inspiring waters like magnetic lines of force flow out and hold the various activities in a subservience of acknowledgment.  Not to feel this magnetic pull toward identification and assimilation is to be outside the culture (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2006, pgs. 11-2).

Now, Mr Weaver’s truth about the ‘tyrannizing image’ in culture poses great difficulties for the South, trying as she is to build a culture out of ecumenism, out of a ‘pluralistic Protestant establishment’ (M. E. Bradford, ‘Where We Were Born and Raised’, The Reactionary Imperative, Peru, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden and Co., 1990, p. 132).  For pluralism/ecumenism deny that ultimate truth can be known by man, which leads, as Solzhenitsyn said, to apathy for truth, and then, if the process is not halted, hatred of truth.  Pluralism is the negation of truth and thus of culture, splintering them and individualizing them; she is the mother of relativism.  The only heresy, the only outrage, in such a stage of social life is to declare something a heresy.

Most would probably say that the Bible is this sort of cultural unifier in the mostly Protestant South, but per Protestant doctrine, each believer, free from the influence of any other, is the final arbiter of what the Holy Scripture says, that is, of dogma.  This leads not to unity but to deeper and deeper divisions – ultimately to chaos.

But the flourishing of the literary, musical, and other arts in Dixie is not a witness to disharmony in the Southern soul, but to her grasp in some measure of an absolute, unifying truth that imparts order within and without.  The trouble for the South has been where to locate that truth.  Because of the effects of the Great Schism and the Reformation on the Church in Western European civilization, not a few Southerners have been put off by the disagreements over doctrine they see in the Western denominations.  William Gilmore Simms put into words this Southern frustration in his oration Poetry and the Practical:

And the churches, and the expounders of the Faith, themselves, have done not a little towards lessening their own authority, in the variety of the doctrines, and the caprices which mark their requisitions.  The simplicity of divine Truth is impaired, if not mutilated, in the complexity of dogmas, and the very draperies of doctrine are calculated to obscure, if not to crush out the vitality in that Faith, which they were only designed to clothe.  When rival churches array their hosts for conflict, the very identity of truth grows questionable, and we know not well what to believe unless we call in the help of other teachers.  It is, therefore, with no lack of reverence for these, that I declare the conviction that God has not confided us to these only.  He has not left himself without other witnesses, thronging earth and air, thronging your common highway, all of whom cooperate for his glory, and as dutiful ministers to the eternal needs of man.  . . . Nature, through which we behold God himself every where about us, is full of her ministries.  . . . These are required to . . . impress, in some degree, and through some medium his moral and spiritual senses.  . . . Earth, ocean, sky, all speak to him in turn, with ceaseless varieties of aspect, compel his admiration, awaken his curiosity, inspire him with wonder, with awe and with affection (Fayetteville, Ark.:  U of Ark. Press, 1996, pgs. 26-7).

So, having little success with the divided Western denominations, Mr Simms and the later Agrarians have tried to transcend them, to supply for the unifying image the order of nature, the farming way of life, complete with its own religious overtones.

There is some wisdom in preaching this sort of naturalism.  For the pre-Christian heathen peoples were made ready to accept the Gospel as they gained virtues by the hard work of body, mind, and soul as farmers, herdsmen, woodsmen, etc., and then as they contemplated the as yet unrevealed Logos in His creation in which they lived and worked.  These blessings of virtue and insight will always be within reach of those living close to the land.  But since this naturalism is only a supplement to the full Christian revelation, it provides little shielding against the furious axe-blows of nominalistic Progress that are savaging the South.

Southern culture has been able to successfully bear witness to some aspects of the truth that it has gleaned from the Western denominations, from the ‘book of nature’, from experiences in the War, etc., but because of the South’s confusion over the real source and content of the full, undistorted, and absolute truth (which are only found within the Holy Orthodox Church), and her resultant tilt toward pluralism, her culture has been waning and not waxing through the years.

Among the other things within the full Christian revelation of the Orthodox Church (the original Christian Church, to which all Europe belonged before the Schism got underway round about the 9th hundredyear, and became official in 1054) that would help in the Southern battle against Modernity and for tradition is the idea of mystery, of paradox (i.e., that contradictory things may be united into one without division or confusion).  This absence is the result of Aristotle’s and St Augustine’s rationalistic, speculative theology and philosophy in the West (and is to be found in both Protestant and Roman Catholic doctrine); such speculations must be rejected if we are to regain some cultural stability.

The Orthodox Church has always held to this teaching about paradox.  It is seen clearly in her teaching about the Holy Trinity (three Persons sharing one nature, one life; not an Augustinian simple essence from whence arises a structure of impersonal entities who are defined merely by function and relation); the Lord Jesus Christ (one Person possessing two natures, divine and human; indeed, He has united Himself with the whole cosmos He created through His union with our flesh.  But this union is not possible in Protestant and Roman Catholic theology; God’s dealings with the creation in their teaching will always be through some created intermediary – the Bible or created grace or etc.); humanity (many persons sharing one nature, one life); and the Church (the union of the Divine and the human that forms Christ’s Body).

But how can this help?  Because every society needs both unity and diversity to be healthy, not just one or the other.  To have one without the other leads to grave problems, to an unending swing of the pendulum between the one and the many:  from calcified, oppressive centralism and uniformity on the one hand, toward revolutionary democracy and chaotic individualism on the other, and back the other way in hopes of finding stability again.

In an Orthodox country, there is both unity and diversity.  At the center, giving unity, life, strength, and direction to all in the society, is the Orthodox Faith, or rather, the God that it proclaims.  He is the ‘tyrannizing image’.  Not the Pope of Rome; not the Bible; not a charismatic preacher.  But the One True God, the All-Holy Trinity:  Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Salvation of all the people in Him through the Second Person of the Trinity, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the goal of an Orthodox country, and both Church and State co-operate toward this end.  They are fellow-workers in this greatest of creative acts (i.e., the making of new creations, of sons of God).  They do not compete with one another for worldly glory and conquest.  The authorities of both seek to turn the gaze of their countrymen, whom they know and understand to be their extended family, to the Kingdom of Heaven.

But diversity is not lost.  While all hold to one faith, there have always been different ways of expressing it.  In Western Europe before the Great Schism, and elsewhere in the Orthodox world, there were and are different forms of the Divine Liturgy used among the different peoples, (Mozarabic in Spain, Gallic in the French lands, Celtic, Byzantine, and so on).  Chanting/Singing styles differ, as do icon styles, church architecture, and so on, amongst countries and regions.  The Orthodox Church does not stifle local cultures but acts as a leaven within them, bringing them to their full stature:  i.e., the full manifestation of an image of Christ seen in the whole life of a people that is unique to them and to them alone, who bring it into being with the help of the Holy Ghost from the unique gifts of soul, body, mind, past, present, land and water features, etc. available to them.

And while bishops and priests have been given a special duty to guard and teach the Faith and administer God’s Grace in the Sacraments, they remain one with the rest of the members of the Church.  There is no clericalism, no artificial division, no caste system.  The Orthodox Church is one Body.  Bishops, priests, deacons, readers, monastics, abbots, laymen, parish councils, and such all have their own particular role in the Church, in defending and spreading the Faith, in helping one another toward salvation.

This oneness and manyness in the Orthodox Church is incarnated politically in that villages, towns, monasteries, and other ‘little platoons’ (to use Burke’s famous phrase) in Orthodox countries are largely autonomous from the interference of national authorities while nevertheless remaining loyal to them, and serving them when the fatherland in some time of need requires it.

In the Roman Catholic Church, this is not so.  Local cultures are subordinated to the Latin language and culture, which is absolutist and centralized.  Church life is subordinated to the Pope and bishops/Magisterium.  In the Protestant churches, reacting against the Roman Catholic hypercentralism, they have given greater freedom to local churches, pastors, laymen, etc. but now have little to no source of unity that can call forth a manly defense against attacks on the social fabric.  Both imbalances are deadly for a healthy culture in the long run.

Orthodoxy, having the fulness of the Faith, is free of these defects and therefore gives a much greater fullness and wholeness to life in this world than what the West has been able to offer since the Schism.  Here is a little of what Archimandrite Vaseleios had to say about life in Orthodox countries in What Is Unique about Orthodox Culture:

The liturgical community accepts everyone.  Each person fits in, finds his place.

Equality does not mean levelling – that is a disaster, a process which is unnatural for all.  Equality within the Church means that each person finds his own rhythm.  That he delights in his life.  That he finds the glory in humility, the wealth in voluntary poverty, the true, total marriage with the grace of God through purity of life. (2nd ed., E. Theokritoff, trans., Montreal, Quebec: Alexander Press, 2001, p. 14)

This is another seeming paradox:  Embrace of absolute Truth by a people leads not to absolutism (hypercentralization) in politics, etc. but to the healthy, easy-going subsidiarity (or conciliarity) for which the South has advocated.  But should they reject it for partial truth (as with ecumenism/pluralism), then various social maladies arise and freedom disappears.

Speaking more broadly about the ends of man and society, culture and politics, he said:

Man, whether he believes or not, or even if he thinks he believes or thinks he does not believe, desires Theosis (deification) by grace, the undescribable theosis which is granted by the Theanthropos [i.e., God-man–W.G.].  Whatever is given to man, which does not have theosis as its ultimate end is unworthy of him; it devalues both those who give it and those who receive it because it does not conquer death.  Man finds comfort, not when he is conscripted into a certain group to march against others, but when he is enjoined with everyone on behalf of everyone.  When one is enlisted with Him who was crucified in order to save His friends, then everyone becomes His friend, even those who crucify Him.

. . .

We are able to receive a little of the grace of God which was the Lord’s “before the existence of the world.”  (John 17:5)  This timeless and uncreated glory is shared impassibly and is partaken of in its entirety.  Therefore, when a person receives a certain grace as an energy of the Holy Spirit, he receives in this manner the whole intelligible pearl of the Holy Spirit.  It is the same with Holy Communion such that by receiving a holy pearl, a very small part of the Lord’s body and blood, yet one receives the entire Christ.  And that which we deeply desire is actualized:  everyone receives not merely a fragment, mechanically divided, but takes the whole, which is given divinely.  We do not become a mere part of the whole, but rather the whole is recapitulated within each of us.  Thus through this same grace, through this same gift, everyone is liberated because he receives the whole; at the same time we are all united because we represent the same fullness.  There is an interpenetration (perichoresis) of true unity and true freedom.  Thus we transcend, not only from the wisdom of ancient Greece to the foolishness of the Gospel, that is, living the experience of salvation, but we surpass the democratic system as well.  The conciliar form of governance is actualized:  human society living the Trinitarian mode of existence by grace (Europe and the Holy Mountain, 2nd ed., C. Kokenes, trans., Montreal, Quebec: Alexander Press, 1999, pgs. 22-3, 26).

By accepting the deformations of life that have arisen from the revolutions of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and the Renaissance-Enlightenment as normative; by accepting pluralism more and more as her plumbline, the South is left with a paltry alternative to an authentic Christian culture:  the ‘humane social order’ with its dim understanding of the good life and how to achieve it, in which means (decentralization, sane farming practices, clean environment, strong economy, etc.) are confused with ends (theosis/salvation), in which Christianity may only manifest itself in a man’s closet or within the walls of a church, but not in public (that would be an unacceptable ‘establishment of religion’), leaving the field of culture wide open for domination by other claimants:  scientism, environmentalism, constitutionalism, etc.

Allen Tate and the Southern Agrarians past and present as a whole were right about many things, but they went terribly wrong in dismissing the ‘Russian or Eastern European mind’ (i.e., the Orthodox Faith) as ‘quite simply supernaturalism or the naïve religion of the entire horse’ (Allen Tate, ‘Remarks on the Southern Religion’, I’ll Take My Stand, Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press, 2006, p. 163).  This Orthodox Church that they so easily belittled, this union of Heaven and earth, this New Eden, this Body of the Crucified, Risen, and Ascended Lord Jesus Christ, is the only hope of cultural renewal the South, and every other country, has got.  Any other house of salvation has mixed the pure gold and silver and the precious stones of Orthodoxy with the straw and chaff of man-made religions, and will be unable to withstand the cataclysmic hellfires Modernity has lit throughout the South.

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