A common and often valid critique of many families in the homeschooling movement is that, because of a lingering obsession on, and invisible competition with, the thing they are leaving behind, (in this case, institutional schooling), a family can create a worse, more institutional-feeling, tyranny in the home than that which they are are fleeing in the schools. In these unfortunate households where good intentions get derailed, education is still thought about in terms of the lie that it, education, is somehow a scarce commodity and delivered in measurable increments. One demon leaves, seven return, and mom even recasts herself in the role of a tyrannical school marm exactly according to script. The ‘final condition is worse than the first.’ Like dry drunks, our minds are often still occupied territories even after we are physically moved away from the thing that held us in bondage.
Scaling up from schooling to a much larger frame of reference, the work of such scholars as William Cavanaugh (The Migration of the Holy), Charles Taylor (A Secular Age) and Patrick Deneen (Why Liberalism Failed), puts forth what to me is an unassailable diagnosis and description of an impasse in cultural and political economy which have all been discussed in this forum: we have intractable problems we have to move beyond. Getting into that “beyond,” however, like fleeing the schools for a better place, can a bit tricky. This can be seen, for example, in the significant amounts of applause, commentary, and debate surrounding Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, (and parts of the book itself, in my opinion), which show elements of that same type of unhealthy obsession with the diseased status quo, and the limits this obsession places on innovative and truly imaginative discussions of what comes next.
Beyond this breach dances “biodynamic farmer, philosopher, theologian, poet, and musician” Michael Martin and his audaciously titled Transfiguration: Notes Towards a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. In relatively short, (hence the term “Notes”), but jam-packed chapters on science, education, art, economics, and technology, Martin really does what his title suggests: radically reimagine just about everything in a truly Catholic way. From the roots, he’s birthing the old into the new. And it’s good. What’s funny, however, is that the truly new—along with peace, love, and understanding—generally struggles to find an audience and, so, Martin, to his credit, has few illusions regarding the near-future of his short (146 pages) tome. His one-paragraph introduction states this clearly:
THIS book arose out of a sense of vocation. It is not a book I wanted to write, but one I felt a responsibility to write. Furthermore, I do not expect that the ideas in this book will be taken up by my contemporaries. That may seem a maudlin confession, but the sense of vocation out of which this book was written did not come with a promise of reward. My only hope is to leave an artifact, a broken shard of pottery from a vessel that once held wine. It no longer belongs to me.
I hope that author can take heart, however, as, in a way, he’s in good company. Stendhal’s work of genius On Love sold only 17 copies in the year of its publication and was dedicated, if I remember correctly, “To the Happy Few.” Martin dedicates this book to his 9 children who presumably hope that more than a ‘Happy Few’ will buy this book in the near term as I’m guessing they enjoying doing things like eating, but it might not find its audience until his grandchildren’s time, which is a damn shame, as we’ll continue to dig deeper and deeper environmental, economic, artistic, and educational holes for ourselves until we can develop the ears to hear and the eyes to see what he’s saying and pointing out.
To give you a sense for the newness of the vision presented here; just the other day I saw a video interview with Catholic Bishop and force for good, Robert Barron (count me a fan!), along with Rabbi David Wolpe, on the Rubin Report. In an otherwise intelligent discussion of science and scientism, Bishop Barron did what Catholics often do these days and, instead of offering a detailed ontological critique of the regnant Enlightenment paradigm of science, (a la Owen Barfield, Rudolf Steiner, David Bohm, Goethe and others), he hustled for Catholic street-cred and a place of respect in this same “methodically fruitful but ontologically fictitious” paradigm of science, (to quote Barfield), by highlighting the work of Catholic scientists Gregor Mendel and Georges Lemaitre. A swing and a miss. This type of approach does not fly with Martin. As if anticipating this very recent exchange (and the exact scientists mentioned, which shows this line of apologetic’s formulaic nature), Martin writes
A hodgepodge of Catholic popular historians of science are fond of pointing to the ways in which Catholic scientists—Gregor Mendel or Georges Lemaitre, for example—have contributed to the success of the Enlightenment paradigm of the hard sciences, as if their contributions constitute some kind of cultural legitimacy. Let me say this clearly: such apologetic moves are the machinations of the desperate. Indeed, these unconvincing apologetic gestures more accurately point to a species of cultural schizophrenia as they reify the secular/religious binary. Some of these same Catholic scholars in their desperate zeal for legitimacy even point to René Descartes and Marin Mersenne as exemplary Catholic scientists. Pourquoi? The mere fact that a scientist was a practicing Catholic—usually simultaneously conforming to the norms of his discipline on the one hand and the dogmas of his Church on the other—says nothing about a Catholic science. Nothing.
Martin, on the further side of this chasm created by a reified “secular/religious binary” and answering John Henry Newman’s call for “a new science,” deftly lays out the ground rules of a truly Catholic science by highlighting Goethe’s “delicate empiricism” and the necessary cultivation of the “reverence” it takes in order to see the living world as it really is, and not as it looks through the ‘altering eye’ of our rapacious desire, technological gizmos and sick curiosity. He uses a number of pages to highlight the crucial distinction between Zoe (The LIFE found in Jesus’ statement, “I am the Way, The Truth and the LIFE”) and Bios (the ‘life’ that is the nebulous substance commodified, managed, and manipulated by scientists from ‘sperm to worm’). Wordsworth is invoked here, who reminded us that, in the Enlightenment paradigm, (and opposed to a “delicate empiricism”), we must needs “murder to dissect” and end up only with what Hans Jonas called a “‘knowability’ of death.” I’m reminded here of Owen Barfield’s observation of how it’s a characteristic of a weak mind that it has to “divide in order to distinguish.” To this, I would add that it’s a characteristic and hallmark of the adolescent mind! Far from Paul Ricoeur’s “second naivete” which constitutes human maturity, and sees things whole, alive, and in their context, and with a sense of reverence, the adolescent mind is characterized by a an often unhealthy curiosity-for-curiosity’s-sake that specializes in seeing things outside of context, only in terms of ourselves, and for profit, and kills a heck of a lot more than one cat in its research laboratories. Left unconstrained, the adolescent mind threatens our very civilization. “Our race survived ignorance,” novelist Stephen Vizinczey once wrote, but “it’s our scientific genius that will do us in.” Martin would agree.
There are multiples mentions of “egregores” in this book, (the “egregore of the status quo” and the “egregore of institutional schooling,” for example), which is an occult concept and gets at the almost autonomous nature of certain thoughtforms shared by agglomerations of people which become group psychic entities of a sort. It’s a way of understanding the staying power of what Ivan Illich termed “misplaced concretes” in this society, and upon which so much of the worldview of the West is based at this point in time. Martin’s work, however, is not just another footnote to Plato. Instead, and like Wendell Berry, it is presumably Martin’s connection to the land and the arts, and his deftness with alternative thought forms, such as Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, which allow him to perceive these egregores, name them, and begin to dispatch them: In being connected to the land, we’re connected to a much larger wisdom than the thought fads of the day. He writes, however:
Overcoming the egregores of the academy and laboratory and what has been described as a culture of “intellectual phase locking” will not be easy. Yet, if science is to be reclaimed as a human endeavor—and not simply as the R&D wing of the corporatocracy—this is what must happen. And such a science will and can only be a truly Catholic science.
I have highlighted the chapter on the Enlightenment paradigm of science a bit as my own sense is that it, as almost an alternative religion, harbors some of the biggest egregores in the room. Since the time that it ceased being a mental construct, (one among many, and a very useful one at that), and became a supposed ‘oracle of reality,’ as Northrop Frye suggests, we’ve lost the ability to see anything clearly since virtually everything else has become recast in its image and through its ‘wheelhouse,’ which is seeking and finding mechanical patterns everywhere, ushering in what can be characterized by Hans Urs Von Balthsar, in a lengthy quote that Martin uses as almost a soundtrack for the book, as “a world without women.” Here’s part of that quote:
Wherever the relationship between nature and grace is torn asunder in the sense of the . . . dialectical opposition between “knowledge” and “faith,” worldly being will necessarily fall under the sign of the constant dominion of “knowledge” and thus science, technology, and cybernetics will overpower and suffocate the forces of love within the world. The result will be a world without women, without children, without reverence for the form of love in poverty and humility, a world in which everything is viewed solely in terms of power or profit-margin, in which everything that is disinterested and gratuitous and useless is despised, persecuted, and wiped out, and even art is forced to wear the mask and features of technique.
I have friend who’s a St. Bernard of Clairvaux scholar and he tells me that at all academic conferences on medieval studies for the past half a decade, the majority of the younger academics can be divided into two camps; that of the tattooed hipsters and that of the Lewis-Tolkien wannabees. In a brilliant and courageous chapter on the arts, and further backing himself into the company of Stendhal’s “Happy Few,” Martin also perceives this lonely yearning among Catholic artists to be either accepted into “the modes and vocabularies of master culture” (Scylla), or escape to the past, along with “the requisite uniforms of beards, pipes, tweeds, if not crutches and peacocks” (Charybdis). He proposes, instead, the radical need for Catholic artists to embrace art as theurgy, and to boldly call forth, from the future, “spiritual presences into the materials of their making,” spiritual presences that do not seem as eager, or are not the baleful type willing, to descend upon the committee-generated and focus group-tested works of Disney, for example: the blow-up dolls of the art world. This is a risky enterprise, to be sure, and his description of art as theurgy is reminiscent of Orthodox theologian John Zizioulis’ description of the Eucharist as “the memory of the future.” This type of art calls for a spiritual discernment to be sure, but failure, as they say, is not an option; the stakes are too high. As a testament to the author’s personal dedication to this task, he’s recently started a journal Jesus the Imagination (Angelico Press) which is well worth a read and demonstrative of the constructive approach Martin takes.
Throughout the book, and echoing a rather famous battle between a dragon and a woman, Martin casts the vision of where are are headed if we don’t use our imagination as a world under the influence of Ahriman, (described by Rudolf Steiner as “the power that makes people dry, prosaic, philistine—that ossifies them and brings them in the superstition of materialism.”) and the opposed force/personality of Sophia, “the true Creation or creation in the Truth,” according to Pavel Florensky, and “a preliminary hint at the transfigured, spiritualized world as the manifestation, imperceptible for others, of the heavenly in the earthly.” The Porch, I suggest, would do well to have an extended, chapter-by-chapter discussion of this clarion call for “radical reimagination.” This tradition of Sophiology as it exists in Orthodoxy and, to a lesser and “submerged” extent, in the Catholic Church, has a Front Porch-esque personality as a ‘place’ of overlap between the heavenly and the earthly, the public and private, the inner and the outer, the visible and the invisible. Martin himself, I’m quite sure, would be happy to engage.
In his chapter on Economics, defined appropriately as “Oikonomia: The Household of Things” and summarized, along with Russian sophiologist Sergius Bulgakov, as “the resurrection of nature,” Martin, to his great credit, invokes the one other author, also neglected, who’s written extensively on ‘what comes next’: Guido Preparata. And his chapter on Education, “Postmodern Sophiological Hedge Schools” begins where I left off discussing education at the very beginning of this review: Namely, free from the hang-ups that prevent us thinking, saying, and doing new things. Martin’s mind is definitely not “occupied territory.”