Monday, March 15, 2010

Jesus in the Balance: Interpretation in the Twenty-First Century II

For the first millennium of their history, western Christian institutions blew hot and cold both on the tradition of silence and the guardians of that tradition; for the kenotic work of silence is inherently subversive to hierarchies and claims. When Christianity became a tool of the state, many followers of the silence tradition fled to the desert. Imperial Christianity could not ignore them. It coped in part by spinning the desert fathers and mothers as white martyrs. The silence tradition continued to be preserved in the West by way of monasticism, while in the East, writers such as Isaac of Nineveh (7th c.) combined beauty of prose with an almost clinical description of its processes.

The eleventh century saw a dramatic and fatal shift away from the silence tradition toward imitation. Gregory VII's reforms sought to centralize Christianity in Rome and to extend the political power of the papacy. The renewed conflict is symbolized by the ironic coincidence of the dates 1084-1085, which mark the foundation of the Carthusians and the translation of Aristotle, respectively.

Over the next three centuries, tensions rose to the breaking point between a political camp that used words as weapons under the guise of dialectic and sought to freeze doctrine into formulas, and a "spiritual" camp that insisted that familiarity with the silence from which words spring and to which they refer must not be lost, that dialectic is to be used in service of silence. Aquinas and Bonaventure mark the end of scholastic theology that sought a balance between silence and speech. [5]

The efflorescence of contemplatives at the end of the thirteenth- and throughout the fourteenth centuries was in part a protest against institutional pursuit of analysis and definitions, and increasingly narrow interpretations in service of the institution's power. The hierarchy became threatened by any speech about silence that did not fit accepted formulas; the Inquisition appeared in 1233.

Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake in 1310 because she refused to conform her accurate psychological description of the work of silence to pious cliché. She refused to defend herself—how could someone who has never done the work of silence possibly know what she is talking about?—and in silence went to the flames.

At the beginning of the fifteenth century there is more irony: the author of the luminous, fecund, and arguably the greatest theological text to come out of the Middle Ages, Julian of Norwich, may still have been alive while the Council of Constance (1414-1418), was condemning the church to sterility.

The last great exponent of silence within the institution is Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) . It took only one generation—between Cusa's death in 1464 and Luther's birth in 1483—for silence finally to disappear from the institutional interpretive repertoire. It is significant that it is during this generation that Thomas à Kempis writes his Imitation of Christ, which abandons the primary Christian goal of union with God for ". . . an appeal made for a practical asceticism in the hope of a more submissive alignment of the initiate's own will with that of the Creator." [6] The destructive ramifications of this silencing of silence affect our lives to this day. Silence has become alien, even something to be feared.

[5] Chartres cathedral is an architectural example of this balance. See the excellent discussion in Philip Ball's Universe of Stone (New York: Harper, 2008).
[6] E.E.S. Lotz Secret Rooms: Private Spaces for Private Prayer in Late Medieval Burgundy and the Netherlands unpublished Oxford DPhil thesis 2005, p. 117. Lotz points out that at this time, even Carthusians were abandoning the goal of pure prayer, succumbing to devotional sentimentality, which is exactly what Carthusian life supposedly seeks to discourage, p. 201.


Blogger Josh said...

Maggie, I'd like to send you a check. May I have your address - or would you prefer I use one of the churches you listed under the "God and Mammon" blog?

Thank you.
W. "Joshua" Opdyke

7:42 pm, March 15, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Josh,

You are IMMENSELY kind. The Cincinnati church is the best one (St Timothy's). Thank you so very much.


9:24 pm, March 15, 2010  

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