Saturday, July 12, 2014

Why Saints? and a Reflection on the Inner and Outer American Landscape


    I was trying to explain the Communion of Saints to an Evangelical Christian I know, and not doing a very good job, and he asked me why we can't just pray to God directly, without any intermediaries.  At the moment I did not have a good answer, and I have been thinking about that question for a while, and although I have learned more things about Saints since I started trying to answer it, I don't think I can adequately counter his objection to his satisfaction, because in his terms, praying to God seems much more efficient and direct than going through intermediaries like Saints. Of course, Christ is the really Big Intermediary in both our religions, and I did not bring that up. It isn't that I think there is not a good answer, but rather there are so many great answers on so many different levels--the psychological, theological, spiritual--it is difficult to know where to begin.

     First of all, I like the Saints. I like historical characters in general, and also the heroes and heroines of epic poetry and great novels. I have a great admiration for Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. But the Saints are part of my family, which thankfully keeps growing, and I can talk to them any time I want to, and I know they can hear. They have human features and they had human faults and committed human sins, and they made it anyway. Their lives are a kind of sign to us that you can make it--heaven is a place, or state, that real people can actually attain, and we know this because we have been told it by someone we trust and believe implicitly more than any other human authority. So you can read the horrible, comical, absurd situations they got themselves into, and see how God got them out, and turned them from very fallible mortals into "immortal diamonds" for all of us to see. Still human.

     The Catholic religion is actually chock full of intermediaries: people, architecture, sacraments, sacramentals, teachers, priests,books...but the Protestant mind is a mind alone before God, the only intermediary being the Bible.  Although he was born after Luther and Calvin, Descartes anchored their rebellion in a philosophy based on two and only two realities--his mind, and God. The fights over church architecture and images and music between Catholics and Protestants reflect the austere nature of this direct encounter between man and God--Gothic Cathedrals being chock full of images and ornamentation even in corners and cervices no human would ever see, compared with bare Protestant chapels, are very good examples of the psychological manifestations of religion based on the authority of the unassisted human mind. There are two directions this mind can go in--the Calvinist one, where humans are pretty much lowly and despicable, without freedom--that ends in a Darwinian nightmare. Or you can decide that this kind of punishing religion offers no immediate rewards and become a humanist or a pagan, and make man your religion, or your own self.

     America is a Protestant, post-Reformation culture. Catholicism here, even if it is the largest Christian denomination, is an alien presence. They used to toss around the phrase "immigrant church"--and they were right. It is not a faith native to this place, although it has taken root in many of the native cultures throughout North and South America. We have all of the cultural defects of Protestantism--social Darwinism is still thriving, witness the stigmatization of "sinners" like drug addicts and the racism which still permeates our interactions with strangers--the poor ones who don't speak English, that is. The difference is also reflected in our attitude towards our physical landscape, which is majestic rather than inviting. Our culture celebrates the loner, the cowboy, the heroic individual against a backdrop of mountains and desert. This is also a reflection of our religion. Our religious consciousness does not have much to do with a culture, or a civilization, as much as it is based on a worship of nature and natural beauty. You can see a reflection of this if you look at any of the paintings by the Hudson River School of painters.  There is a painting, a landscape, in which one of the people standing against a majestic primeval backdrop is William Jennings Bryant, who has just doffed his hat, as if he were at church. Which is what the painting is attempting to convey. The outdoors has replaced the church in a new and primitive religion.  You do not have to be a believing or practicing Protestant to have absorbed this mentality. It permeates our art and our literature, and it has produced profound works of beauty and great novels. It is not an inherently barren or destructive outlook. But it is incomplete.

     As dignified and wonderful as man is, in his existential state, alone before God, he is also the most vulnerable of creatures. To this fragile creature God has given a world of colors, light, wind, earth, forests, food, and animals. It is through particulars that humans know anything at all. You can't "know" a generality--you can't "know"  a species. But you can know a specific dog, and another human being. You can love another person. You cannot love "humanity". Everything in the world was created to keep us company, and to teach us. Even after the fall that is still true. And it is imbued with the presence of God because he is the Reality that gave it being. The Psalms echo with the truth that you cannot escape God, anywhere, at any time, no matter what you do, what you think, or how hard you try. Not even suicide can accomplish that.

     Think, then, of a these two landscapes--the inner isolation of Rationalist, post-reformation man, imprisoned once and for all by the interminable machinations of Immanuel Kant, who can only reach another human being by means of something akin to signals--and the outer landscape, the American landscape where even the modern cities reflect nothing but the alien majesty of geometrical forms.

     Sounds kind of like a recipe for insanity. As for me, I learned about these people--the Saints, from other people--teachers I trusted, who obviously loved me. My church is a crowded one, even when it is empty, because it contains the spirits of the living and the dead, who are still alive and with us, whom we can talk to, and who pray for us. The Saints are a gift from God to us--more than our biological family, which is composed of fallible humans like ourselves, and even the living representatives of our church, they carry a certain guarantee that we can count on. Over and over. Both that people can change in dramatic and miraculous ways, and that the transformation is brought about by Love, and bears fruit in heroism beyond our imagining.

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