Hemlock, NY. Sitting regularly in pretty empty churches, I’ve been thinking about the latest iteration of Chesterton’s Five Deaths of the Faith. Should we call this The Sixth? I just bet there’s been another since Chesterton wrote, so I will call this one The Seventh, as that number is bigly symbolic, as far as cycles go, and makes me feel important and pretty smart just by dealing with it, and it might also capture the severity (or finality?) of this particular death as I see it. It captures, too, the symbolic import of the fact that this death seems tightly linked, or coterminous, to what Oswald Spengler wrote about in The Decline of the West, specifically what he called our “Faustian Age” which began in the 10th century and now seems to be singing its swan song, ceding its cultural themes most likely, he thought, to the vast plains and fold of Russia.
Our condition is terminal, friends, but not all that serious as the designation final might imply. Final, paradoxically, is only a relative term, as I’ve no doubt that Christ and His Church lives and will live. We can do ourselves a favor in this instance by thinking of the idea of final through something like the image of what happens to a caterpillar when it actually decomposes and dissolves inside the chrysalis before emerging, almost miraculously, in its mature form. I’ve learned in entomology that the blueprints for butterflies’ mature form are present in the cells of the caterpillar all along and that these calls are called “imaginal discs.” I think that’s pretty cool as the term “imagination” (as in William Blake’s “Jesus The Imagination” or “Vision,” which meant the same thing for him) is going to be crucial as to how we navigate this transformation. We’re now 2000+ years into this Incarnation dealio, and more of the juice for this transformation resides in us than we might, heretofore, have been willing to admit. We’re going to have to look deep into our “imaginal discs.”
I somewhat recently made the case that, as part of this transformation, we need to revisit the whole notion of “religion” as being the go-to container for the liberating message of the Gospel and the workings of the sacraments. William Blake, for one, thought that religion was a defense against having a religious experience, which he called Vision, as this is apprehended predominantly through suffering. And theologian John Romanides, who I foreground in that piece, thought that “religion,” in fact, was the disease that Jesus came to cure, and he uses the Church Fathers to make a case that this is how they saw the world too! For both Romanides and spiritual explorer Gerald Heard, it was the “Psychiatric” that could well serve now as the most apt container of the healing and liberating message of the Gospel, and I too think that makes a lot of sense, at least for a start.
A complementary line of thinking, that I very much like, challenges the concept of some religion called “Christianity” as a “misplaced concrete” by raising up the language of “Church.” Peter Leithart makes a great case for this. In furthering his case a bit, in helping to open up our imaginations, I’d like to follow Oswald Spengler (along with many others) who had an intuition that the “coming Christianity” has something to do with Dostoevsky. This could be book-length if explored in-depth, but what does the “Christianity of Dostoevsky” mean? I’d like to suggest, for starters, that it means at least four things in particular.
First, a move, as discussed in my previous article, from the “religious” to the psychological/psychiatric (which is not the same as Philip Rieff’s “therapeutic”). Second, a recovery of theosis or “Godmanhood:” to counter the trends towards the transhumanist/cybernetic, power-thirsty “Man-God,” we need a better theological anthropology. We can get so busy defending God when we might be better off defending the Human Being. Third, a clarification and distinction between the “soul” and “the spirit” and the restoration of a tripartite anthropology. Fourth and finally, a rejection of the tired war between so-called Liberals and Conservatives. There is something new in Doestoevsky’s insights into the psychology of “the Human Being,” beyond the Church Fathers, or at least that’s the case made. If this is true, especially in
the light of the complete mental breakdown happening all around us, shouldn’t we be redirecting our time and energy toward incorporating this and making it central to our thought and lives?
We often describe some Christian who is seeking the Spirit as “God haunted,” when it might be more accurate to refer to them as “Man haunted.” This “God” (Blake’s “Nobodaddy”) is for the “religious.” The real game in town, however, at least for those interested in the possibilities of theosis, begins with anthropology, not theology. Jacques Maritain wrote that “The only way of regeneration for the human community is a rediscovery of the true image of man.” David Cayley does an excellent job, in an important but excised chapter of his landmark book on Ivan Illich, called “What Ever Happened to Man?”, exploring how a focus on “the question of man” was left in something of a germinal state in culture, at least partially because of the problem with grammatical gender. Nonetheless, we have to find a way to re-engage with it and make it central, (probably as “the Human Being,” suggests Cayley) as the question “What ye think of Christ?” is completely wrapped up in it. Is the stunning thing that Jesus is God or that God is Jesus? (Answer: the latter.) Dostoevsky, says Russian Philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev, “expresses nothing in his work but the impassioned and tumultuous dynamism of human nature” –
Dostoevsky devoted the whole of his creative energy to one single theme, man and man’s destiny. He was anthropological and anthropocentric to an almost inexpressible degree: the problem of man was his absorbing passion. For he did not see him as just a natural phenomenon, like any other though rather superior, but a microcosm, the centre of being, the sun around which all else moves: the riddle of the universe is within man, and to solve the question of man is to solve the question of God.
On the question of “the Human Being,” defending Church teaching on issues such as gender and abortion, true as they are, is not enough and, absent the type of anthropology Maritain was calling for and that Dostoevsky explored, it comes across as a rearguard action. We’re all flattened-out, left-brained automatons (or, in Lewis’s phrase, “men without chests”), and even Christians, for the most part, practice this mode of being human, adding merely a bit of dogma to the mix. Cayley writes that “The world went over the cliff that prophets of ‘the crisis of man’ saw looming ahead, and we now live with the consequences… People may still talk of ethics and values, but neither have the slightest foundation.” It wasn’t always this way.
For the first three centuries of the Christian Era, there was a divine and heroic working-out of a Christian anthropology. Taking its cue from 1 Thessalonians 5:23, in which St. Paul talks of soma, psyche, and pneuma, as well as other New Testament texts (which built on the model in the Old Testament), this anthropology took for granted a tripartite view of human being as including body, soul and spirit, with the Spirit being, in a sense, the key part. The Spirit “danced” with God as did those tongues of fire at Pentecost. However, various tendencies chipped away at this robust, Christian anthropology until the three parts got whittled down to two: body and soul. St. Augustine’s over-the-top attack on Pelagius (the work of Japanese Patristics scholar Dr. Nozomu Yamada is seminal here) along with the weakness of the Latin language’s ability to get at the distinction between soul and spirit – it was easier in Greek – as well as the general growth of rational intellectualism over spiritual insight during these centuries all played a role. And so did the enigmatic Canon XI of the 8th Ecumenical Conference in Constantinople in 869 which made anathema the teaching of the “doctrine of two souls” (again, Latin did not have good words to handle the distinction between soul and spirit), which was something of a sad coup de gras of the Spirit. Canon XI declared that, “with the intention of consigning all the chaff to inextinguishable fire, and making clean the threshing floor of Christ, in ringing tones it declares anathema the inventors and perpetrators of such impiety and all those holding similar views.” At this Council, and after, descendants of Lombard tribal leaders who were developing into early medieval aristocracy sniffed the authoritarian power associated with the snuffing out of the Spirit. The rest, as they say, is history.
The minutia is not all that important as even the most cursory study of the history of the period of time we call the Middle Ages reveals a transmogrification from the wild and exploratory, bottom-up musings and spiritual experiments of the early Greek hermits and saints to a “religious,” top-down Latin cult of devotion to Family, Duty, Moral Codes, (especially as pertaining to sex) and Power, often under the cloak of Authority. Corruptio optimi pessima, as Illich would say. Inhibited, if not totally blocked, was the divine life-sap for the majority of Christians. For the most part the tripartite anthropology became a small, underground stream, persisting in the west through the likes of Pseudo-Dionysius, Nicholas of Cusa, Bruno, Boehme, Blake, and others. And, yes, the Church still produced saints during this time, but it also countenanced the feudal system, “ever ancient/ever new,” which is descending upon the populace again in its “Techno-Feudal” form (Are those descendants of the Lombard tribal leaders still with us maybe?) with hardly a word of truly insightful protest from the Church. Hello, “Council for Inclusive Capitalism!” It’s as if Dostoevsky was right all along when he predicted some forthcoming, apocalyptic mash-up of Catholicism and State socialism that was dedicated to making people “happy,” a set-up underscored and justified by the romantic notion of rescuing those in its care from the suffering incumbent upon any person’s quest for individual liberty or the life of the Spirit.
Spirit is the opening into the depth – the Real. Absent the spirit and the quest for the same, faith for many becomes some religious deals cut with God to keep our bellies full, protect our source of livelihood, our pensions and our 401Ks, keep out the drafts, and maybe add a log on the fire to boot. As Berdyaev wrote about this phenomenon as it existed prior to the Revolution in his own country, “Man had been left with only his bodily envelope and the lesser faculties of his soul; he could no longer see the dimension of depth. The Church began this deprivation when She relegated spiritual life to another and transcendent world and created a religion for the soul that was home-sick for the spiritual life it had lost.”
Again, my interest in the “psychiatric” is in spiritual sickness and death. The soul, I postulate, can handle an anthropology that is one thing (persons-in-communion) in the “religious” realm and quite another (competitive individualism) in the economic and political realms; whatever keeps one calm and keeps the belly full. The human spirit, on the other hand, cannot handle this duplicity. Eventually, it withers and dies. Young people, suffering so much in this time, are hungry for bread (spiritual bread, that is), and we give them the stones of religion. And yet the Church has danced with the “religious” temptations of “miracle, mystery and authority” to pretend that the stones we gave them were, in fact, bread. This is the essence of Dostoevsky’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.” We should probably take heed to his insights.
A related perception comes from John Cowper Powys, whom I think of as the Dostoevsky of the West, who also wrote an excellent book on the great Russian author, which, connects the issues of the State, Tyranny, hand the descending Techno-Feudalism with the Spirit and Suffering-which-leads-to-Vision:
The singular fact that the whole problem of the nature, character, authority, and privilege of the State takes on a different look to a person who is not afraid of suffering, either physical or mental, from the look it takes on to a person who wants above everything to be happy, and whose particular kind of happiness depends on order, health, decency, security, harmlessness, obedience, duty, patience, and the domestic life.
Young people are suffering, and I mean suffering, and so I don’t think they’re as afraid of mental suffering as previous generations. But is there a balm in Gilead? Are we offering them a path to Vision that validates this suffering while it also offers healing? The wild contention in all this is not just that we have to foreground explorers and explorations into the Spirit; it’s that the works of Dostoevsky and other authors have seen in the human spirit depths and complexes that had not yet been articulated by the Fathers. Berdyaev makes the claim that Dostoevsky, who lived at the time of St. Theophan The Recluse, the most significant living authority on the Fathers of the Church at that time, could see more. Here is his claim:
So we find that the profoundly Christian anthropology of Dostoevsky differs from patristic anthropology. The science of man known to many of the Fathers of the Church, the understanding of the ways Man that can be discerned in the writings and lives of the saints, is no longer sufficient to answer all man’s questions or to understand all the doubts and temptations that beset his new stage of spiritual growth. Man has not become better, he is not nearer to God, but his soul has become much more complicated and his spirit has grown bitter. Certainly the Christian soul of the past knew sin and let itself fall under the dominion of Satan, but it did not know that rift in the personality that troubles the people that Dostoievsky studied. In times past evil was more obvious and more simple, and it would be difficult to heal a contemporary soul of its disease by yesterday’s remedies alone. Dostoievsky understood that. He knew all that Nietzsche was to know, but with something added; whereas his contemporary, the hermit Theophanes, a high authority among Russian Orthodox ascetics and spiritual writers, did not know what Dostoievsky and Nietzsche knew and therefore could not deal with the misery engendered by mankind’s fresh experiences.
It seems to me, since we’re at a generational crisis very analogous to that one explored in depth by Dostoevsky in his best novel, The Devils (or, The Possessed), that it’s high time the Church start incorporating these insights and engage with the depths and the Real, instead of offering scattershot and shallow political interpretations of everything. People can mock the interest so many young men have in Jordan Peterson, (including his mental struggles) and see it only through a political/culture war lens, but they’re missing the phenomena as evidence of a deep hunger for spiritual bread. Peterson, being a clinical psychologist himself, describes their mental struggles and puts the names Dostoevsky, Jung, and Nietzsche on their maps. In banging on this drum of the Psychological/Psychiatric, readers of this site might justly wonder if I’m a card-carrying member of those trying to enshrine Philip Rieff’s “Triumph of the Therapeutic.” I’ll leave that for Porchers like Jeremy Beer, Aaron Weinacht, and Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn to diagnose. My sense, however, is that this spiritual “psychiatric” is the “best,” of which the “worst” – the “therapeutic” – which Rieff dissects so brilliantly, is the corruption. Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, in a recent article (and in her book!), certainly opens the door for this distinction:
While it is true that self-concern is already everywhere in this era of constant social media sharing, ultimately the question is not so much whether to focus on the self but how to do so. Those ways most dominant now avert our attention from the parts of the self in dire need of cultivation and toward externals. Think Facebook. Meanwhile, crucial forms of self-cultivation receive little sustenance and support or even outside validation as something real… The problem is not the turn inward, but the question of how and why we look within. If the turn inward ultimately aims to serve both the human person and collective purposes, that end differs drastically from the goal of serving individual success and self-promotion.
The culture war struggle between the archconservatives and progressives is a rearranging of deck chairs to avoid the crisis that manifests in rising suicide rates, addiction, despondency, anger, and anxiety. What merits more attention is this “question of how and why we look within.” If we learn to see the divine image there, broken though it is, we might find the sources required to transform spiritual suffering into Vision.
These are the questions that my friend Michael Martin and I consider on our podcast and Youtube channel with, for example, fellow Porcher Tara Thieke. I’ll take them up further in my next essay, Part 3 in this Case for the Psychiatric.
Image Credit: Peter De Wint, “Riverside Scene (Old Mill)” (ca. 1805)
A superb ramble, with some truly brilliant highlights. The Blake quote, familiar to many by now, has another facet that was revealed by Max Weber in his phrase “routinization of charisma” which emerged from his reflections on how dynamism becomes stasis in political and entrepreneurial settings as well as spiritual ones.
Permit me to zoom in on specific parts of your essay, Michael.
“We can get so busy defending God when we might be better off defending the Human Being.”
An excellent wake-up call to counter the presumptuous “singularity” beloved by techies (especially the super-rich ones). Here I would recommend George Gilder’s critique of the “eschaton”, the believe that humanity has now achieved final knowledge (in regard to technology), such as his long interview with Peter Robinson to promote his book Life After Google:
“body, soul and spirit, with the Spirit being, in a sense, the key part”
I’m not sure it’s the key part because all three are essential. But, OK, it’s the part that needs the most attention at present. Here we might recall Ezekiel who connected the “dry bones” (components of a moribund religion) and then waited for the Lord to breathe life into them so they might walk around as a unity.
In this sense, yes, the breath is recognized in the Greek word pneuma, all the more relevant in light of Covid deaths allegedly supplanting the seasonal *pneumonia* deaths that happen annually from “ordinary” flu. This was/is also recognized in other western religions (ruh in Arabic, ruach in Hebrew) as well as eastern notions of vitality (ki in Japanese, qi or ch’i in Chinese).
Your quote of Berdyaev:
relegated spiritual life to another and transcendent world and created a religion for the soul that was home-sick for the spiritual life it had lost
Yes, “pie in the sky” (even more cynically described by Marx as “opiate of the masses”) often does replace experiencing the divine spirit in this life, in this body. The problem is ancient and universal — again recall Weber’s term. One might attribute this postponement (which Berdyaev accurately sees as displacement) to a number of causes: lack of education in how to develop one’s own spirit, social or political inhibitions that oppress insight and dissent, or perhaps the unsurprising recognition that many adherents of a religion were only half-hearted to begin with.
In your third (“final”) essay, I hope you will recall your namesake Michelangelo who gave us the superb depiction of God touching Adam to breathe life/spirit into human beings. The other side of the tripartite aspect of human being human (that’s not a typo) would include concepts like Providence, beloved by the founders of our country as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
I’d also like to see you address “imago” more clearly in regard to the butterfly analogy. My dictionary refers to it as the “final, fully developed adult stage” but also as the psychoanalytic term for “an idealized mental image of a parent”. Perhaps that is a key part of the current spiritual malaise: disappointment (paired with lack of gratitude) for having been brought into the world by parents who do not match one’s notion(s) of perfection, as dictated by social media.
As a last comment, I appreciated your phrase “rearranging of deck chairs” to refer to superficial change, but then it occurred to me that “musical chairs” might be more accurate, particularly in light of scarcity bringing out some of the worst aspects of humanity.
Dostoevsky’s “new” psychology may have its root in an ancient fact: Eastern Christianity’s anthropology is non-Augustinian and as a result has a different understanding of human freedom than the West. Berdyaev touches on this, but I’ve not found anything yet that goes into it in depth, while Del Noce mentions it in passing and relates it to Rosmini, who seems to a Catholic counterpart to Dostoevsky, at least in terms of his views of modern man’s plight.
One place where I recall that the subject is mentioned is in Rebecca Harden Weaver’s book on the Semi-Pelagian controversy, Divine Grace and Human Agency. It’s been many years since I read it, but I do remember a discussion of the idea that the so-called “Semi-Pelagians” rejected the idea that fallen man was simply a “massa damnata” and insisted instead on the freedom of God’s grace to work in every human individually and to meet them where they are, so to speak. This would seem to imply that fallen man’s freedom related to any “bondage of the will” was not some universal and equally condemnable “state,” but instead the gift of freedom was itself universal and the will was only “bound” to the extent that the individual sinner exercised his freedom in a sinful way.
Is it possible that we find Dostoevsky’s psychology difficult because there’s a sense that “we’re all Augustinians now,” even the Orthodox?
You’re absolutely right about the differences between East and West in the understanding of “freedom.” I might recommend the writings of Fr John Romanides, particularly his “Empirical Dogmatics.” The basics of Orthodox anthropology are also discussed by Vladimir Lossky. I don’t want to call the Orthodox semi-Pelagians, but they are closer to that than the idea of complete damnation/utter depravity.
Well, even the actual “Semi-Pelagians” weren’t called that until long after they had departed the scene, so the term is not particularly helpful. I remember one writer, Jaroslav Pelikan perhaps, who said it would be just as accurate to call them Semi-Augustinians.
I’ve read Romanides but I’m not a particular fan, as I think he takes the anti-Western thing too far — he overcorrects, in my opinion.
Great essay. Are you familiar with the works of Fr John Romanides? And/or the book “Orthodox Psychiatry,” which is based on Romanides’ reading of the Fathers?
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