Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Chance or the Dance?

That’s the title of a book by Thomas Howard that I recently read (OK, so I’m a little behind; it was written 37 years ago, though it was popular enough to reprinted twice since then). It’s a book whose message is sorely needed today by those who have uncritically swallowed all the distortions and errors of our present superficial and self-centered society—and wonder why they’re still so unhappy. Peter Kreeft (no less!) said of this book: “If I could have everyone in our culture read just ten books, this would be one of them.”

The title says in a poetic way what the subtitle says in a bland way: a critique of modern secularism. But don’t let that put you off. Its tone is not angry, polemical, or quarrelsome. In fact is it often humorous and occasionally whimsical, but always dead-on in its penetrating insights into the disasters wrought by secular society’s abandonment of a Christian world-view. That secular world-view (“chance”) says there’s no natural law or divine design (“the Dance”). But the author is at pains to help us see the benefits of aligning ourselves with “the way things really are”—in God’s great plan for our fulfillment and perfection—rather than living the ultimately disappointing illusion of trying to make things the way our selfish desires would have them to be.

This conflict of world-views is something that Fr Schmemann mentioned in yesterday’s post. It’s not that modern “scientific” atheism or agnosticism (or materialism or hedonism or nihilism, for that matter) has been able to satisfactorily refute the claims and the intellectual, moral, and spiritual bases of Christianity. They’ve just decided to replace them with something else more to their liking or to their immediate economic, emotional, or other perceived benefit.

The author examines the difference between ancient and medieval (read: Christian) ways of perceiving the world and life, and the modern ways, in areas such as art, poetry, freedom, sex, daily life, etc. He shows quite convincingly how the “new myth” is bankrupt in almost all ways. Since his arguments are built up carefully and at some length (though the book itself is rather short) it’s difficult to give a characteristic sample that will manifest the depth and breadth of his vision. But I won’t let that stop me from sharing a (necessarily lengthy) passage from his chapter on freedom:

“The cry ‘freedom!’—which is an ancient human cry—has one set of images associated with it to the mind that sees everything under somebody’s aegis [i.e., God’s], and another set that sees man to be autonomous. There has always, of course, been the cry of the human imagination against the outrages of power, and this would be common to all men, under whatever myth… We would all rather not be forced into fealty. [But] under the new myth, fealty itself is a grating idea that drags up specters either of sycophantic courtiers bobbing about the throne, or of humpbacked clouts flogged into animal servitude by draconian overseers. It is natural that, with the disappearance of divine sanctions for authority, the notion of authority itself should come under surveillance, since the question for an origin of authority is thrown open…

“In the moral as in the political realm, freedom suggests to this mind the right of the individual to make his own choices on the basis of private criteria. The individual is placed at the center of the moral question: he himself is the measure of what he will do, and he himself is the judge. His fealty is to his own inclinations. A popular slogan of this mind is ‘doing your own thing’—the idea being that the only judge of your action is your own decision to do it. This places the Salvation Army girl, the sodomite, the American Legion conventioneer, the dope pusher, Castro, and Duvalier on an exact par: each of them is doing his own thing…

“It is perhaps above all astonishing to note that the great emancipation of the human spirit from the dread placed on it by superstition and priestcraft released not a blithe and merry spirit capering out over the fields of a new world unhaunted by the goblins and angels, but a dread more ravaging than all of them, the dread described by modern prophets as angst. It was angst that leaped upon man’s back when the incubi had been exorcised. When the exorcism had driven the last of the horrors away, and when the iconography of hell, and of souls in torment, was no longer felt to be relevant, there came an iconography of ennui and disgust and anguish. The burden, when it fell from the shoulders of Atlas onto our own, was found to be too heavy…

“The kind of freedom looked for by the autonomous mind is one that is one thing in the anticipation and another in the having. In anticipation, it looks like the breaking free of all the trammels and weights that have borne us down to the ground since the beginning of history, and the gate to a new and unexampled liberty… But when it is won, what?... To our chagrin, we discover that the declaration of autonomy has issued not in a race of free, masterly men, but rather in a race that can be described by its poets and dramatists only as bored, vexed, frantic, embittered, and sniveling… The autonomous man…looks like Arthur Miller’s salesman Willy Loman. He looks like Hemingway’s emasculated Jake Barnes. Or he looks jaded, perplexed, blasé, damned…

“It may be that if [Andy] Warhol’s name is placed among the great artists of history, it will be as the one who succeeded, as no one else ever did, in finding images of tyrannic ennui. For the inhabitants of the Warhol world have lost the options of renunciation and joy and sweat and pain and tears and fulfillment. The shackles that they have broken are shackles like highway signs and yellow lines and gravity and fatigue and conscience—all the things that drastically limit the choices for the rest of us, and that crowd us along and force us to do this and not that time after time.

“For it is in these limitations that the old myth found the definition of freedom. Whatever freedom was, it was to be found, ironically, via the strait gate. It was thought of not as a matter of self-determination, but rather as a matter of the capacity to experience one’s own perfection as joy. The question for Adam and Eve was not that they enjoy a realm in which no strictures existed: it was, rather, that they learn to will what was, in fact, the case… they had two possible types of freedom open to them: either to assert their autonomy, live in illusion, and find out in the end that it was no autonomy; or to assent to the way things, alas, were, and see if the matter of freedom weren’t something vastly different from what they might have supposed it to be… Man exists as creature; the most noble creature, to be sure, but still creature; the lord of creation, yes, but holding that creation in vassalage to the great Lord of it all…

“There was a scale of values in which freedom itself was not the summum bonum; it was ancillary to the greater matter of perfection. That is, mere self-determination would have been seen as tragically limiting, in that it cut one off from the Dance. Your freedom in the Dance is to be able to execute your steps with power and grace, not to decide what you feel like doing… What is the freedom of the athlete? His excellence is a matter of power—the power to do the thing beautifully. The perfection of the jump stands at the far end of a program of renunciation, in which his inclinations were subordinated to the demands of that very perfection… And the sonnet: here words dance in their highest dignity and beauty; here is language at its most excellent—but it is language dragooned and hedged and crowded and thwarted by rules. But, ironically, at the far end of those awful rules there emerges perfection… [He also gives examples from music and the movements of stars and planets]

“The old myth would have seen all these phenomena as images—images of some paradox that lay at the heart of things: that freedom for a thing is that state in which it appears at its highest performance (its perfection, in other words), and that this is a state that lies on the farther side of rigor and austerity. And it would have seen all these images as suggesting not a moral servility for that unique creature man, but rather the brilliant display, under a thousand forms, of the Dance, which goes on aeon after aeon, and which waits all breathless with hope for the Man to recognize the pattern, see his place, assent to it, and join. He may or may not; that is his option. But his freedom is the ecstatic experience of the joyous measure whose music rings from galaxy to galaxy.”

Well, there’s a little meditation for you! Read the book. Our society desperately needs to recover the vision of the “old myth,” for therein lies the understanding of our creation and destiny, our happiness here and hereafter.