Theology and Faerie – The Modern Tragedy

balderdeadHow do we think of a world without faerie? And how would such a world relate to God?

In many ways, the answer to this question is an explanation of classical Protestant thought and the religious belief of contemporary Christians. For as Christianity began the journey away from its classical roots and into the world as imagined by modernity, what was required was a version of Christian theology that itself was disenchanted and devoid of mystery. The allegory of creation was replaced by a literalist view of the world, and all solutions were pressed into a psychological mode. Metaphysics became metapsychology – nothing more than our thoughts about the world and God’s thoughts about the world. Ideas and sentiment became the new faerie.

If the world is itself is just matter, but with a God (maybe some angels if you like), what we have is a sort of dualism: matter and thought. Most contemporary Christians, when they think of spiritual things, consider it to be a matter of thinking. God, for them, is something like Pure Thought (with a will and lots of power). What matters about human beings is what they think and how they feel. Objects do not think or feel so they are simply things to be used by those who do think and feel. Contemporaries are not sure about animals, since some of them certainly seem to feel.

In our modern notion of the world what matters is ideas, thoughts and feelings. Ideas, thoughts and feelings are the stuff that makes up what we call relationships. Thus, to have a relationship with God is to have ideas, thoughts and feelings about God. You cannot have a relationship with an object, other than having some special affection for it. The sentiment is the thing.

In classical thought, our modern construct of reality is known as Nominalism. Things are just things. What matters about them is what we think. John Locke expressed it: “There is nothing in general, except for names.” In this worldview, sacraments can only be “outward signs” of ideas. I make a choice, a decision for Christ. This is what is considered important. The Baptism that may follow is only a token of the idea or choice. The sentiment is the thing – not the water. The same understanding is applied to Holy Communion. We think of the bread and wine as Body and Blood (or less). But it is only bread and wine and can only be bread and wine. The sentiment is the thing.

This has become problematic in contemporary discussions of marriage. If the idea of marriage is what matters, then why can’t any two people of any gender not be allowed to entertain the idea? The union of a man and a woman is simply a “name,” an idea, or sentiment. Everything you think is possible, because you can think it.

The disenchanted world of contemporary thought (including contemporary Christianity) has managed to chase the faeries, goblins, and ghosts out of the world. They have taken with them every spiritual reality other than our thoughts. We therefore comfort our children by saying, “Don’t be afraid. There’s no such thing as_______.” The contemporary atheist cannot be blamed for applying the same lesson to his own fearful or unsatisfactory thoughts about God. “There’s no such thing” is modernity’s answer to many things.

But the tremendous success of modern thought has a downside. When God is chased out of the world with His sacraments and all the other things that belong to the world of faerie, He does not always answer when our thoughts call out to Him. The very doubts and skepticism we used for defeating the water sprites and the Old Man under the Bridge, are the same habits of mind that drive out God as well.

The existence of God in no way predicates elves, faeries and such sorts of things. But the heart and mind that dismiss such things from the world will often wake up surprised that God has left the world with them. The habit of heart that is modernity (for it is nothing more) is prejudiced against God. Its notions of spirituality are sad, psychological simulacra of the real thing.

Tragically, the modern heart cannot simply turn back to its earlier naiveté. Having banished superstition, it never really believes it again. The cure can only be found through the torturous work of prayer and repentance – all of the easier routes have been closed.

When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:8)

 

 

 

 

 

35 comments:

  1. The cure can only be found through the torturous work of prayer and repentance – all of the easier routes have been closed.

    I cannot express how difficult this can be; “torturous” is an apt word for the necessity of prayer and repentance. However, it flows naturally when I stop trying to make it “work”. When I let go of me, I find prayers for my own repentance (if that makes sense).

    Many thanks, Father! This has been a joyful series.

  2. Father, how true your comments ring. Having been educated as a Nominalist it has been a struggle to have real faith and to trust in Mysteries. As I grow in the faith I find it easier to accept them as reality but it is, as you say, a journey of repentance and prayer. Thank you for this concise statement of the problem.

  3. The problem with your sentiments is that it does not allow for change or transformation, and quite precisely I don’t think you understand how the world works, or even in truth how God or the sacred is manifest in the world.

    Christianity must evolve if it wishes to remain relevant in society. The church – in all forms – seeks to keep God closed within a temple sanctuary. God is not stuck in a ‘box’ and your empty philosophies are pretty much in vain. What does Nominalism have to do with the truth or revelation(s) of the Divine?

    If people are no longer superstitious anymore, it’s because they’re no longer operating on a Middle Age sort of fear of the natural world – that all the things which do not make sense or are incomprehensible (currently) to the natural mind must be controlled by demons and little devil children and tiny pixie people floating around snatching babies from mangers or impregnating women as they sleep.

  4. If a person perceives the Holy Spirit with their nous – is this a form of psychologizing? Surely this is not mere sentiment or thinking (?)

    If I cease all thought and feeling about the Holy Spirit – and find my relationship with the Comforter within my nous – this relationship may still be psychologized.

    However, synergistically, further revelation on the part of the Holy Spirit and deeper repentance of moral failings on our part (we have to begin somewhere!) may lead to an understanding that true repentance is a repentance in which we recognize that along with all of our brothers and sisters in all of time, we have chosen separation from His Presence.

    The Comforter, in that dark place – doesn’t leave us in despair.

    Is this an ontological repentance – an ontological comfort provided by the Holy Spirit?

    Every one of the preceding sentences I just wrote should end with a question mark. 🙂

    Thank you for your grace as I try to understand (without my head and without my feelings!)

  5. Christianity must evolve if it wishes to remain relevant in society.

    Christianity is not chasing society, Samara. And human society, however you wish to define it, is certainly not the measure of Truth.

    You seem to be completely misunderstanding Father’s terminology and intent, given your use of the words “sentiment”, “superstitious”, and “evolve”, among others. I’m sure Father will reply to your statements and help with your (apparent) confusion concerning his writing(s).

    I do recommend going back through the blog and reading previous entries (prior to this series). Your questions concerning Nominalism and “how the world works” may be answered more fully by doing so.

  6. This brought back a childhood memory. I was about five, riding in my parents’ car, when I saw a very tall bank of cumulus clouds. I had the thought, That’s where the castles [in the fairy tales] are. I often go home from work at that time of day when the sun’s rays stream down from behind clouds. It’s a glorious time of day, which doesn’t last for very long. That’s partly why it’s special, I think. This brings to mind something that Carl Jung said. His own private belief, and he admitted it was not scientific, was that the purpose of man’s existence might well be to contemplate the beauty of the universe, that the universe wanted there to be something so that it could be conscious of itself.

  7. Fr: I guess I’m perverse enough to wonder something a bit differently – if you’ll forgive me if this anticipates where you’re headed…. but for me, all the noise about “modernity” ends up another faerie tale, and there’s scarcely anything modern about it. I think this is in effect what you offer here…. though perhaps you didn’t put it quite that way. I find so many who embrace modernity… practice little science…. and exercise faith unawares. For the most part, the trappings of technology give an otherwise superstitious people – not the old superstitions we laugh at as quaint, but the one’s we adhere to if we look closely and ask ourselves whether we’re simply obedient to what we read, what some equivalent of a modern “wizard” tells us… or whether we really do examine, test, and statistically determine the truth. Of course we can’t possibly and simply have too much to do to behave this way. So we adopt and adapt. Transfat is good, now it’s bad; vitamins are good, now they’re bad. Huh? We discard so much that comes our way… no wonder we laugh at the discarded common sense wisdom and rules from another time… it’s easy to see ourselves in this too, but typically we don’t.

    But to turn this back on its head, the wonder of modernity is that its failure to live up to its own creed releases us to reconsider. Careful to not escape but embrace those around us, there’s clearly a rising danger of running off to live our lives as though the rest didn’t matter. They do. The christianity of the saints is one that never chose escape… as though to a modern elyssium or utopia (think five star beach hotel in some remote island – we’ve all seen the alluring photos!), but stayed where they were, lived into the life and times they were given with the people they were given as well, and they embraced one and all to such a point that though now asleep… they are still very much with us, alive and at work… though I think for the most part, the truth is that we find ourselves uncomfortable with this …until we need and want it to be true… which is more and more.

    But perhaps the escape hatch is still there… the saints will lift our problems, our griefs, and sufferings…. fill our hearts and we can go on our way once more… and it’s a handy idea until perhaps the fog lifts and we see it might rather be in imitation of Christ that the other world breaks into our own.

  8. When I was young I knew of a world populated with fabulous, fantastic birds full of joy and play. I used to draw them. My mother and I even made a Halloween costume of one once. Alas, I stopped drawing them when I could begin to see a glint of evil in their eyes.

    If I had not stopped, that fantastic joyous world would have irrevocably changed. I hope to this day that I stopped in time but I still miss that world.

    One of the last good ones I drew, I fashioned in pressed out copper and I still have it. It is no longer an icon however just a piece of art.

    May God forgive.

  9. Samara, I must agree with you that God is not stuck in a “box.” What I believe Fr. Steven is saying is that looking at God with only the intellect IS putting Him in a box – a box of abstract thoughts and speculations. God becomes limited to what can be comprehended or can cause feelings. The world becomes limited to what can be comprehended. Everything else is not real. “There’s no such thing.”

    Actually, there are lots of things that are not known or comprehended that are real. A simple example is that it did not take the discovery of the atom to make atoms real. To expand that a little, we can speculate that there may be things outside the physical, scientific world that may be real as well. If we believe “there’s no such things” then we cannot allow ourselves to discover or experience them. The real world is much bigger than we think.

    Speaking of change, relevancy and the Church, we must first speak of Truth. Christ said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The truth is that Truth never changes. That is what truth means. The Church needs to speak the truth, as much as possible, in language that can be heard, but it cannot change the Truth. To change the Truth is to lie. Next, to speak the truth means people who do not want to hear it will not be able to. It may not fit into the currently popular societal conventions. That does not mean it is not relevant.

    Finally, the sacred manifests itself in the ways that surpass our intellectual comprehension. We may understand in part, but we can’t get all of it. We must be open to this “more real” reality or we will miss God as He is and be left with the abstractions of Him that we created in our minds. It takes much “torturous work of prayer and repentance” to be transformed and to get there, but it is possible.

  10. “Tragically, the modern heart cannot simply turn back to its earlier naivetĂ©. Having banished superstition, it never really believes it again.”

    I often struggle with the accounts of miracles in the Bible -the virgin birth, resurrections, exorcisms, walking on water, healings, all seem too fantastic to be true. I mean where in this desolate world have any of us witnessed such things? Our hearts have become too acclamated to death and all that comes in its wake. We’ve accepted the lie as the truth and pass our days twiddling our thumbs in the shallow graves we’ve already dug for ourselves. Reason can ascend no higher than the finitude of man

  11. Samara,
    Forgive me, but you have a very distorted picture of what I’m saying, and of the Church (not the one’s you know but the Orthodox Church of which I am a member).

    What you seem to want is the God that you yourself invent – which means He’s (she’s?) no longer in somebody else’s box – just yours. Your caricature of people’s beliefs in pixies, demons, etc., being a mere product of ignorance of which we now know better is just historical ignorance on your part.

    The same is true of your dismissal of Nominalism. If you don’t actually know anything about this stuff (“empty philosophies”), you would do better to read and listen than to post ill-informed opinions that only reveal what you don’t know rather than shedding any light on the topic.

  12. Sharon,
    What you are describing (noetic experience) is beyond psychology. But very few (mostly just saints) dwell there in a significant way. Mostly, certainly in my case, we live a fairly psychological existence with occasional forays into the noetic – enough to keep us fighting to get back there and to know that the struggle is worth it.

    On ontological repentance – what I’m saying is psychological in your description is, more or less, the phenomenon of “recognizing” “understanding” etc. These are repentant ideas. Fr. Sophrony means by ontological that we actually become repentance – a rather wordless state in which we simply are deeply and profoundly broken and in solidarity with those in hell. It is not marked by realization, etc. The realization (psychology) is a necessary precursor and a good thing. The ontological is pretty much a pure gift of God. We cannot make it happen, nor even feel bad that it hasn’t.

  13. Tony, I once thought as you do. I could not accept miracles as actually having had occurred until I saw undeniable first hand experience of two miraculous events. The first was to actually see somebody, in the pitch dark, illumined from within as in the narrative in “On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit” recording Saint Seraphim of Sarov being illumined. The second was to see an icon (very old and decrepit to the point of being almost totally black) restore itself to brilliance over a period of time. When the Icon was given to me I was told it was Saint Nicholas of Myra. I could see only a faint outline of a face. After a Molyben, much incense, many prayers and a month on the altar an image began to appear. We then gave the Icon to a new Mission Parish that was named after him and in no timer the image was much clearer and brighter. It has continued to restore until it was taken to a monastery and placed above the Proskemede table. Overnight it became as new. I cannot explain either event with rational (in the modern sense) thinking but simply accept that they occurred because I witnessed them over time. Several hours in the case of the nun I observed illumined and several years and stages in the case of the Icon. Perhaps we do not see miracles in the Post Modern world because we don’t believe they occur and try to explain them away.

  14. “Tragically, the modern heart cannot simply turn back to its earlier naivetĂ©. Having banished superstition, it never really believes it again. The cure can only be found through the torturous work of prayer and repentance – all of the easier routes have been closed.”

    Did modern thinking eat of the tree? And is the flaming sword blocking the path back to naiveté?

    Somewhere I read about the idea of a second naiveté.

  15. I often struggle what to make of the impression that having been born at this particular time which God has chosen for me, that I’ve arrived in a wasteland where only the bones of formerly glorious things remain.

    If not even the seeds of these former things are preserved….if the door is truly shut…all that would seem to remain is a prolonged sadness.

  16. @Byron
    “Christianity is not chasing society…and human society, however you wish to define it, is certainly not the measure of Truth.”

    What a brilliant turn of phrase: so true and to the point!

  17. One of the great losses we suffer in the modern world is the loss of empathy–the ability to actually connect with another. Saints have reclaimed the empathetic ability. With them the connection is ontological.

    It is empathy and openness to the pneumonous reality and by the pure grace of God that allows us to be human.

    The world of the individual, the nominalist is empty and even in modern understanding borderline psychotic.

    I will never be able to fully return to the bird world I once knew, but this series of posts has given me back a heart memory of it.

    Thank you Father and Glory to God.

  18. @Jamesthethickheaded: this is wonderfully stated! May I quote it?

    But to turn this back on its head, the wonder of modernity is that its failure to live up to its own creed releases us to reconsider. Careful to not escape but embrace those around us, there’s clearly a rising danger of running off to live our lives as though the rest didn’t matter. They do. The christianity of the saints is one that never chose escape… as though to a modern elyssium or utopia (think five star beach hotel in some remote island – we’ve all seen the alluring photos!), but stayed where they were, lived into the life and times they were given with the people they were given as well, and they embraced one and all to such a point that though now asleep… they are still very much with us, alive and at work… though I think for the most part, the truth is that we find ourselves uncomfortable with this …until we need and want it to be true… which is more and more.

  19. Samara, if you wish, here are four articles from Father’s blog that may help with your questions. I post them because I realize just how large this blog has grown and it may be difficult to simply go back and read through it all.

    I highly recommend you read through the comments sections as well, as they include further questions and explanations of the focus of the writings. Blessings to you!

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/03/30/saving-a-democratic-man/

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/06/12/the-secular-challenge/

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/09/01/a-purpose-filled-life/

    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/09/03/you-dont-mean-a-thing/

  20. “Help us, save us and have mercy on us, Oh Lord!”

    Is this not the hope of Narnia? I can’t look it up, but I think Lewis said something like, “If you do not feel at home in this world, perhaps it is because you were made for another world.” But instead of a wardrobe or a vivid picture, we have a more sure entrance.

    How much of counsel, how much of psychology is aimed at helping us to feel at home “in this world”.

    Fr. Stephen, you are making some of us uncomfortable with being here….and that is a good thing!

  21. Holy Disenchantment, Batman!

    In Lewis’ ‘The Silver Chair’, we are introduced to a dark world under the spell of an enchantress whose enchantment has begin to hold captive even those who know that there is a bright world above. What begins to break the spell is not so much an idea, but the bad smell of burning Marsh Wiggle!

    I wonder if we sometimes find ourselves praying against the very things God allows to enter our lives in order to dis-enchant us with this world. I am aging (alas!), in a sense dying physically to this world. But there is something in me that wants to stay when I should be like someone in an airport waiting for my departing flight to be announced. It is perhaps a shallow example, but there are others more deeply embedded and worthy of repentance.

    How many of the things that chafe, how many of the things that bring sorrow and pain, even vicariously, are really opportunities to become dis-enchanted?

    Disenchantment, disillusionment isn’t necessarily a bad thing especially if there is something better to take its place. “Glory to God for ALL things!”

  22. Fr. Freeman thank you for your response.

    I believe many Christians (I’ll speak for my own tribe, Protestants) are disenchanted because our telos is Luciferian perfectionism; our god is no bigger than our own objectively measurable health, wealth and happiness.

    We are disenchanted moralistic therapeutic meists.

  23. Oh goodness does this blog to to the heart of the matter. Stop writing now Father, there is nowhere else to go… Most important of all is the notion that the world has been descralized if you will. Phillip Sherrards The Rape of Man and Nature must be considered here, as he too wonders aloud about what we’ve become in light of what we’ve done to reality.

  24. Joe,

    When I read your comment I couldn’t help but empathize. It reminded me so of the prophets – seemingly miserable souls doomed to see what those around them could not, mourning over the loss of what was, and vividly seeing the horror of what was to come. And yet…sprinkled throughout the misery and gloom they saw glimpses of unimaginable hope.

    “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” It is comforting to know that the latch is on our side while our God and our Hope stands on the other.

  25. Joe:

    I often struggle what to make of the impression that having been born at this particular time which God has chosen for me, that I’ve arrived in a wasteland where only the bones of formerly glorious things remain.

    For what it’s worth, this made me immediately think of Ezekiel (though granted I had to double check to make sure which prophet it was – and of course now that I refresh the page I see someone else refer to the prophets too!).

    Byron: needs one more link 🙂
    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/08/24/god-and-the-box/

  26. Spot on again. This idea of modernity reminds me of the stubborn dwarves at the end of C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Last Battle’, surrounded by wonders but refusing to be ‘taken in’. ‘Taken in’, of course, has more than one meaning.

    Thank you again Father.

  27. David Jennings, you explained it so well in your November 4 reply to Samara. Good job! (Hope she sees it.)

  28. “I often struggle what to make of the impression that having been born at this particular time which God has chosen for me, that I’ve arrived in a wasteland where only the bones of formerly glorious things remain. If not even the seeds of these former things are preserved….if the door is truly shut…all that would seem to remain is a prolonged sadness.”

    Well stated, and a possibility that one has to seriously consider given the “facts” of our existence in this “wasteland”. One response I sometimes hear (not around here very much) is that we are to “focus” (by an act of will) on love, beauty, and the infinite. That’s just self delusion.

    The important thing (one I continually “forget” in my struggles, so it is return return return) is the presence of Love, hiding just around the corner – under every piece of waste and holding up the very land itself. This love is “undefinable” (and thus is NOT part of the wasteland yet is somehow it’s foundation), and is like “…some incredible penance, of which no impotent language is aware” (Jessica Powers)

  29. The Fae have left the building. They are no longer needed to govern and direct the unruly elements. They are waiting to be replaced.

    “Through the torturous work of prayer and repentance” we become the Fae.

  30. “Tragically, the modern heart cannot simply turn back to its earlier naiveté. Having banished superstition, it never really believes it again.”

    Along with Joe and others my heart hopes this is not true. When I reflect upon it I think that, as Nicholas said, we ARE the seeds. We cannot go back to what was, but perhaps the blade that was broken can be reforged and a light can spring from the shadows.

    Going further, the very fact that we have breath in our body and are using some of it to mourn the loss of faerie and superstition is the very evidence that some of it still indeed exists in the world. It is in veiled form and sparse in number, like faintly glowing embers in the morning fire pit from last night’s celebration, covered with a layer of ash to protect it from the surrounding cold, but it is still very much alive.

    It is my personal belief that this is basically the answer to the riddle of when God will return. Openness to things we don’t know about or can’t comprehend is the proverbial ten good men left in the city, the absence of which will signal the end. We need enough coals to rekindled the fire, enough salt to flavor the food, enough hope to get up and live one more day. When we know longer have these things, the world will fall into total darkness and the Lord will not continue on in futility.

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