What was esoteric and intuitive can now be exoteric and explicit. What had been a traditional ritual may now become an experimentally verified science.

Gerald Heard

“For the first time in history, and I give you only one of the Beatitudes as an example, one will be able to give scientific proof that ‘blessed are the poor’ who voluntarily set community limits to what shall be enough and therefore good enough for our society.” He implies in offering ‘only one’ that other Beatitudes had become equally susceptible of scientific proof, that the hour has also struck for the peacemakers, the merciful, the pure in heart, and so forth.

Ivan Illich (And David Cayley)

In two previous articles (here and here) I attempted to make the case that various developments and goings-on in our time seem to be proving that what we think of as “religion” is no longer (if it ever really was!) the most apt container for the liberating message of the Gospel. I referenced the work of theologian Fr. John Romanides, Gerald Heard, and Doestoevsky, as well as others, to demonstrate that the current religious show, with its emphasis on theology over anthropology (the “Question of Man”), ritual over psychology, and bland culture war-based and elite interest-driven pronouncements over acute social analysis, seems to have left the Church in our time looking like the awkward kid at the dance, dressed in ill-fitting clothes from decades past and part of a world She still doesn’t completely comprehend. The Church (which, for our purposes, we might define it in all of its branches–Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic– as that living spiritual social body that takes inspiration from the freedom of the Gospel and its nourishment from the Eucharist), however, and much to the chagrin of “comparative religion” scholars, is not to be identified with “religion.” How did She ever get into such a bad marriage? Look at how the words gospel, church and religion, for example, are used in this passage David Cayley wrote about Ivan Illich, and we start to can see, and feel, how the pieces might fall together again once we have set them free from their ossified forms so as to be deployed again, by us, in the future.

He [Illich] recognized that the walls to the airtight compartments to which Bruno Latour’s “modern constitution” had assigned religion were collapsing and that a radical “secularization” was overtaking the Church. He anticipated the birth of a “post-religious” church prepared to return to the mountainsides, marketplaces, and dining rooms in which the Gospel was first proclaimed–its truth shared simply as truth and not as some set-apart religious truth.

Religion,” as David Cayley points out in another piece drawing on Wilfred Cantwell Smith, “as a discrete category of human activity separable from culture, politics and other areas of life is an invention of the modern West.” And notice, too, that the word Christianity (the “religion” of Christ), is not even mentioned in the above quote, and, in fact, is not even in the atmosphere that Illich wants to evoke for the future save as the corrupt and corrupting miasma from which we need to be delivered in our time, for Jesus’ sake. “Christianity”, as a “religion,” writes Cayley,

names the corruption that was inherent in the Christian revelation from the outset—the world being what it is. . . . Jacques Ellul got around this difficulty by using the word Christianity for the institutional religion, and an algebraic ‘x’ for the revelation itself. If you’ll allow me I’ll just speak of the Gospel as a way of pointing at this ‘x.’

Here is a deeper breakdown of some of this at Cayley’s website, and I encourage you to read it. Like Cayley, though, I’ll just speak of “the Gospel,” in that same sense, as I hope to point out that a “religionless Church” (different from the appellation associated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “religionless Christianity”), captures a lot of where we need to be headed.

If this language makes you feel a little uneasy on your feet, just remember the status-quo ante which is the fact that, of the relatively few people left in the pews, an increasing number of them are there, as I mentioned in my previous articles, carrying some form of fear and anxiety-related need for certainty, if not diagnosable Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and scrupulosity (read: “REALLY religious”). This is sadly true of so many of our young priests, too! And this is a wake-up call. Faithful Catholic as I am, I’m just not sure that the US Bishop’s, three-year, “Eucharistic Revival” with its focus on the “Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist,” true as that is (though having yet, personally, come across a “presence” that isn’t “real”), will do much of anything, as it seems to keep those terms gospel, church, and religion, as well as “Christianity” in their current fixed forms. The whole enterprise feels sadly like pumping air into a tire without fixing the leak: good for a few more miles and to prolong the period of not having to look at the real problems, but little net return.

Now if, in my last two articles on this theme, I’ve used the label, borrowed from Gerald Heard, “Psychiatric,” (a word that points to the early Church and something distinct from the political realm and the economic realm, yet still not a “religion”) as perhaps a more apt container for the message of the Gospel, I’d like, in this contribution, to let that word fall into the background for a bit as it’s a word that gets at some of what we need, and maybe even a lot of what we need, yet I don’t want to make it into another idol. We’re just finding our way at this time, after all, and nobody has all the answers. For the purposes of this contribution, I’d like to steal a phrase from John Cowper Powys and envision the next iteration of the Church, a social body that, as Chesterton pointed out, has already died and been resurrected 5 times, as being something mysteriously “deeper than religion.” It’s a coinage I’ve taken from a chapter title in Powys’ book, Mortal Strife (1942). In that work, and like Bonhoeffer at around the same time, he was observing the structure that Hitler was attempting to build in Europe, and which he saw as modeled, variously and together, on a plan that was, essentially, a science and technology-fueled giant “machine” or “ant-heap.” He wrote:

We have reached in fact a moment in the history of humanity when an attempt is being made to take evolution out of the hands of our slowly evolved human conscience and give it an ‘expert twist’ in another direction, a direction selected to suit a regimented society; monstrously and formally logical, and with a terrifying weight of science to back it up. In fact this whole war is a tragic attempt on the part of Slave States to dam up Nature’s twenty-thousand-year-old struggle to free the individual from the tribe, the state, the race, the nation. Germany is attempting to destroy what evolution has done to make the individual the purpose of life, and is trying with scientific ruthlessness to side-track us into the ghastly uniformity and automatic slavery of ants and bees.

Is it possible, I wonder, that in labeling everything that doesn’t serve the elites as “Fascist,” and erecting our understanding of most of modern history on the defeat of Hitler and his Reich, that we have fallen pretty deeply into the error of “becoming a lot like what we hate?” This is my contention, as Powys’ diagnosis of Hitler’s Germany ominously lines up very well with what other perceptive critics (such as Paul Kingsnorth, Czeslaw Milosz, Ivan Illich, and Guido Preparata) expose regarding our own Western hyper-modernity. Along this line, another reason to drop the word “religion” as being helpful to the Church during this time is the fact that these anti-Christian constructions in our midst are definitely religions of their own, replete with their own priesthoods. They’re not going to be unmasked and deflated and tamed by another “religion.” as that is the failed approach of the “culture wars,” another name for our hyper-modern “Wars of Religion” which, as theologian William Cavanaugh and others have noted, were really power-grabbing wars of the burgeoning Nation State: same as it ever was, which is also to say that that is the divide et impera game that plays right into the hands of the “Machine,” “Bee-Hive,” or “Techno-Structure.”

A few things interest me about this whole bleak set up, which actually give me hope. One is that, with the lay of the land seen in this more accurate configuration, the role and gifts of the younger generation, suffering so much from mental health issues and hopelessness in our time (which was the theme of the first of my reflections in this vein, linked above) finally come into their own. It has often been said that the younger generation can be characterized by their yearning for authenticity and their intolerance for hypocrisy. Well, let them have at it, I say! Sniff it out and expose it and laugh at it, as there is plenty of it. Bring that humorous and leveling meme culture and that raised eyebrow of suspicion to all of our hypocritical and inauthentic institutions. What, after all, is that raised eyebrow, and that “I’m just not buying it” posture other than the evolved fruit of the 2000 year ferment of the Gospel called the human conscience. The two quotes from Ivan Illich and Gerarld Heard at the top of this piece point to a hopeful apocalypse/unveiling in our time where we can, with the raised eyebrow of our developed conscience, look behind the enthralling curtains of all of our institutions and their respective priesthoods and see many naked emperors and little wizards of oz behind institutions such as for-profit medicine, Science Inc., higher-ed, politics, nearly all of our economics and cultural structure, and, of course, “religion.”

What lies behind all of these hierarchies and priesthoods, after all, and as seen in the seminal analysis of geniuses such as Thorstein Veblen, Tolstoy, Illich, Preparata and others, is simply that seductive feeling of being on top of another, to have it over others; this goes by the name of prepotence and is close to our ancient nemesis pride. And what, contrariwise, is the basis of all the genial and genius leveling humor (which is the prepotence antidote) in the decidedly exoteric stream of the supreme wisdom of the race, as found in the likes of Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rabelais, Montaigne, Dickens, certain Chinese philosophers, and even Walt Whitman and Charlie Chaplin as well as in native wisdom around the world? It’s the complete opposite!

John Copwer Powys, perhaps the most perceptive critic in this strand of earthborn and bottom-up humor, saw clearly that this humor was based on the seminal insight that the “non-recognition of the equality of all souls is the most comical thing there is!” As my neighbors in the foothills of Appalachia are wont to say when some “professional” or “expert,” who can’t put air in his own tires, talks down to them, echoing the common, earth-born wisdom of all the these literary giants better than most actual professors of literature: “That guy thinks he’s better than us.”

The Church, many faults though She has, carries within her ribcage the ticking time bomb of the Gospel down through the ages. And we should all be grateful for that. After the Edict of Milan, and as the masses poured into the Church and down through the following centuries, She expertly used the tools of cultus and religion (paradoxically both numbing and liberating at the same time) to great effect. Altar rails, iconostases, screens, and proscenium arches (as Freud saw, and as I wrote about here) aid immensely in the process of formation and crowd control, but also (“the worst being the corruption of the best”) in stupefying. We can see the limitations of this approach in the fact that, in the two World Wars–which were really one, and are continuing–Christians still find it pretty easy to fall into mass slaughter and also in examples such as Covid, where the desire of those “on top” to create two-tiered societies and slave states was manifest.

But, as with John Henry Newman, we can see and begin to appreciate the diamond forged through this religious period in the formation of the miracle of the human conscience. The “religion” that helped get us here, however, and grateful as we are, now needs to cede its role at this time and in this age described by Illich and Heard above, where the esoteric is now exoteric and the exoteric, it seems to me, has become esoteric. Illich, for example, suggested that prophecy has been succeeded by friendship in our time, and I can riff on that subtle insight a bit by letting people know that there are so many young, religious, Catholic men who spend a goodly portion of their life online and know every little liturgical nuance in Latin or Greek, the names of all seven stages in the alchemical process and lots of esoteric this and arcane that, but who are also lonely as the sky is blue and find it nearly impossible to make friends, especially friends of the girl variety.

Instead of opposing one religion to another, we need the conscience and that humorous raised eyebrow, which Powys described, with feminine overtones, as “that withdrawn, quizzical look which conscience, that tough customer, regards as an invasion of its preserves,” to rend the veil in all of our religious temples: cultural/educational, economic and political. A hieros gamos must needs be consummated between Holy Scripture and the earthborn wisdom of the race. And If the divine earthborn wisdom stream I am drawing on (Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Rabelais, Montaigne, Dickens, Goethe, etc.) is, in its explicit face, mostly male up until now, we must acknowledge that the wisdom itself has been the common inheritance that women take for granted and have taken for granted forever. It’s like they’ve already read these books before they were written! Or, in this vein, we might invoke Chesterton again and say, gnomically, that “Men are men but Man is a Woman.”

This hieros gamos will also join the piety, solemnity, and reverence due the Holy Trinity with the earthborn trinity of kindness, humorous cheerfulness, and humility, (etymologically connected to “humus”) found in the earthborn wisdom tradition exemplified by Whitman and by William James’ “Multiverse.” In a little known tributary of this wisdom stream, anarchist of the “peace and love” variety, Gustav Landauer, who was the education minister in the Bavarian short-lived “Council Republic” set up in interwar Germany when wonderful social experiments like perishable currency were being attempted, made the proclamation, “Every Bavarian child at the age of 10 is going to know Walt Whitman by heart.” Needless to say, he was sadistically ferreted out and stomped to death by the Freikorps of the nascent Machine in short order.

The offspring of this marriage, in my imagination, is the Divine Wisdom child in the shape of a little girl, a “friend of God and prophets,” and, in the image of Proverbs 8, “rejoicing in the whole world, delighting together in the sons of men.” I picture her a bit like Dororthy from The Wizard of Oz, of that same age, with the same personality and made of the same stuff. She’ll probably laugh at grown men and their excesses of pageantry and costumery, which Chesterton referred to as “mummeries and flummeries,” and she’ll have a nose for religious cosplay and LARPing. But she’ll still make central our ceremonial meal of bread and wine with blessings among friends. And, no, it won’t be a puritanism or anti-clericalism, but she’ll find the tertium quid between the two extremes, as she’s not a killjoy. In fact, she’s the opposite. Again, Chesterton:

We all know how natural it is at certain moments to feel a profound thirst to kick clergymen simply because they are clergymen. But if we seriously ask ourselves whether in the long run humanity is not happier with gold in its religion rather than mere drab, then we come to the conclusion that the gold on cross or cope does give more pleasure to most men than it gives pain, for a moment, to us. If we really ask ourselves if religions do not work better with a definite priesthood to do the drudgery of religion, we come to the conclusion that they do work better.

This Divine Wisdom child will also laugh at the infantilizing, because overplayed, emphasis on moral codes as opposed to moral vision, or virtue, which will be developed by poetry, mixing it up with friends, and practices based on raising perception leading to a vision of the equality of all souls. This will upset the control types for sure, but what I think we’ll find most shocking is when she actually puts the ‘Word against The Word’ (here I am indebted to Powys) and points out that it’s funny to her that we tend to worship “the God of the thunderbolts and not victims of thunderbolts” and that, to be Christian grown-ups, and follow the “Secret of Jesus” that goes beyond Jesus, we should give cups of cold water not “‘for Jesus’ sake’ but because some poor devil’s thirsty.” She’ll probably point out to us, too, like Illich intimated, that we find the story of the Good Samaritan so central because it seems to be the only story among the parables that does not “depend on the existence of a Prospero-like ‘All-Father’ who likes to sting and prick those who reject his love.” And she’ll even look at the Beatitudes, which Illich said are becoming scientifically demonstrable in our time, and wonder about the “rewards” clause in each one and find them peculiar in the light of the joy and meaning found in “doing right because it’s right.”

Through all of this and more, this Divine Wisdom child will accomplish—like the feat that Dorothy (a name that means “God’s gift”) with her long braided hair, and described by L. Frank Baum as a “sweet, innocent young lady with a streak of boldness, outspoken and headstrong, who dearly loves her family, friends and dog,” accomplished in the Wizard of Oz through the force of her personality—what women are saying is just not happening in our culture: which is to help grown men grow up! Like a younger, baptized “Marianne” of the French Revolution (the best being the baptism of the worst), and evoking Chesterton’s conclusion to What’s Wrong with the World, “She [will be] the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.” And, as Charles Williams wrote in perhaps his greatest line of poetry, “the raising of her eyelash is my Lord.”

Image Credit: Claude Monet, “The Church at Varengeville, Grey Weather” (1882).

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  1. The emphasis on friendship here is I think especially important. It’s precisely where people, young people, feel most acutely the longing that has the most potential, if pursued, to upset the status quo. Friendship is in many ways simply not compatible with our dominant ideas and institutions. If that can be recognized, it can force choices.

    I have a bit of a hard time with the term “psychology,” because to me psychology itself is one of (maybe the most important one) those professional control mechanisms. But I think you mean something different by it?

  2. Hey Adam– Yes, Friendship! In Illich’s lecture “Philosophy…Artifacts…Friendship” https://www.aislingmagazine.com/aislingmagazine/articles/TAM28/Artifacts.htmlhe postulates that, as the 60’s generation thirsted for justice, the young adults of today are thirsting for friendship. I find that so revealing. It was written more than 20 years ago and corresponds to my time in campus ministry and I can assure you it’s only gotten worse–the loneliness– and the thirst deeper. It breaks my heart when he tells the story of the students reading tracts on friendship from Aelred of Rievaulx and others and thirsting for something that they can’t even necessarily comprehend. It’s come to that. You say it better than I: “It’s not compatible with our dominant ideas and institutions.” It’s anarchic and is more revolutionary than the thirst for justice.

    As far as “psychology”, sure, and you’re correct as I see the same problems you do with the word but we might say then “that thing explored by Dostoevsky” vs. “Psychology Incorporated”. Or something like that. Maybe that’s closer to “psycho-analysis.” We need to coin our own term maybe? Thanks for your comments.

  3. For some reason the discussion of friendship called to mind Dave Barry’s quip: “A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.”

    Also just yesterday as it happens, I received in the mail a copy of Rene Girard’s little book on Dostoevsky, which might be an interesting read in light of this discussion.

  4. Michael, a very subtle concept that I have contemplated more as I grow older. If your finger is pointing at the moon, I can see some kind of light behind the clouds.

    Perhaps the closest approximation to your musings that I have found in a non-western religion is an apocryphal story that appears in a kind of pre-preface to Man-jan Cheng’s book commenting on the Tao Teh Ching, “My words are very easy to understand” (translated by Tam Gibbs). Noting that Lao-tzu was in charge of the imperial library in the capital of Chou, Cheng recounts:

    The first time Confucius traveled to the capital of Chou, he went to ask Lao-Tzu about Tao. When Confucius’ words touched on humanism and justice, Lao-tzu said, “What you, sir, have spoken of today is like a footprint. That which made the footprint has gone, and how, alas, can the print be taken for the foot?”

  5. Rob– Agreed. We have to plumb the new sources of healing as well as the old, in depth. Powys, in his completely unwieldy corpus, and for example, has put forth what is, to my mind, the best phenomenology of gender we yet have. And Martin: Indeed this “deeper than religion” vein has a lot of East-meets-West, Male-Female and all of those characteristics that Barfield put into his term “Final Participation.”

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