For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead. ~Romans 1:20
In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, those inside the cave sit in darkness facing the cave wall. They can see only the shadows of things cast by a fire behind them and, after a long time, come to take these shadows for the things themselves. One among them—the Philosopher—emerges from the cave, sees the reality of things in the light of day, and comes back to tell the others, most of whom choose to remain in the cave.
In my revolutionary reading of the allegory, those cave dwellers personify other people, obstinate in their perverse refusal to join me in seeing things as they really are, and I myself play the role of the Philosopher.
Of course, that was not Plato’s point, and the Platonic tradition insists that exiting the cave is a salutary exercise which might be widely applied. It further insists that no one is immune from the influence of the cave, of the dominant mentality, and that we all participate in it to some greater or lesser extent. And so I will start by drawing a contrast in philosophical terms between the dominant modern way of thinking about things, and things as they have been conceived by people living inside one or another traditional culture, that is, by pretty much all people living outside modernity. Then I will bring the traditional vision to bear on things, items, in ‘old St. John’s,’ a church near my home in Maryland.
A small prolepsis on a useful word, episteme. The term refers to the body of basic ideas and presuppositions that determines what a given culture will accept as true knowledge of reality. Despite the vast differences between the cultures of ancient Israel, the Christian Church, classical antiquity, the ancient Near East, and the religious and mythical traditions of nearly every region of the globe, their epistemic unity is clear when contrasted with modern culture. All of them share some notion that things participate in various degrees of material and spiritual reality, of the essential unity of these degrees within an ordered cosmos, and that the cosmos in some way expresses the divine. Whatever their differences, for example in the terms, structures, and relationships they propose, or whether express their epistemic ideas in religious, philosophical, or mythical forms, the underlying unity of the traditions of humanity in these notions is clear—as is that of the modern episteme in denying these notions.
The difference between things as they emerge within the traditional and modern epistemes is akin to that between gazing at a painting by Rubens and reading the text label below it.
I shall enumerate some of the principal contrasts between the traditional and modern epistemes.
1. Traditional: A thing, that is any thing, participates in various levels of being. At one level there is the thing as an item, this particular item, article, or object with its particular size, shape, weight, location, etc. At another, there is the idea of the thing, or its form; the thing as an item can be thought of as an instantiation, a realized copy or edition of its idea. At yet another level, there is the meaning of the thing, which is to say that it bears meaning as intrinsic to it; the idea and the item are realizations of meaning. Finally, the thing has some relation with the divine—of course the traditions have vastly different ways of thinking about this—creation, emanation, declination, and so forth, but there is always some relation between the thing and the divine. Always in a traditional episteme these levels can be distinguished but not separated or set against each other.
Modern: A thing is reducible to its extension in space and its quantifiable physical properties. It is a copy of nothing and any ideas, forms, or meanings either aren’t real or are extrinsic to it. God need not be considered at all.
2. Traditional: The concrete existence of a thing is always a true symbol, in that it does not merely stand for but presentifies—renders present—its idea, its meaning, and even in some way the divinity. The form or idea of the item is made truly present in the item, as is the world of meaning that it instantiates, as well as God in some way, aspect, or effect. Of course, all these are present under their own mode—yet really present.
Modern: A thing presentifies nothing but itself. Thus, there can be no true symbols. As moderns, we consider this point crucial and will insist on it.
3. Traditional: Any individual thing is itself a whole and at the same time part of or related to other things, including the cosmos. Similarly, a thing exists in a dynamic relationship with its perceiver; it truly exists also in the one who perceives it, though of course in a non-physical mode.
Modern: There is no cosmos, no ordered whole. Any thing is essentially individual and disparate, a kind of monad. Relations between things are mental constructs and are not themselves real. In perception, we perceive only our own percepts; things in themselves are unknowable.
4. Traditional: There are many kinds of things, which have diverse natures, varied relations between them, and are ordered in hierarchies.
Modern: Physical and social science has eliminated or at least reduced distinctions between different kinds, types, and levels of things. Now we know that the real is ontologically homogeneous. This is called progress. “The world is flat.” The idea of hierarchies in being is offensive.
On one point the moderns essentially spoke first. Tradition’s response was always implicit in the traditional episteme.
5. Modern: The relation between an individual thing and the world of concepts, meanings, and symbols is an association made by us, more or less arbitrarily. Thus, it is purely cultural and not at all natural. We are not interested in the natures of things but in their functions so far as they can be manipulated. In any case, nature is an authoritarian concept linked to orders of repression and domination. We seek to banish this concept.
Traditional: It is a modern error to treat culture and nature as mutually exclusive categories. Culture is the perfection of nature; to show that something is shaped by culture does nothing to take it out of the realm of nature. Tradition is precisely the process of testing and sifting culture. Nor does the drive to eclipse nature from human consciousness change the structure of reality. Things continue to have natures, which we ignore at our peril.
A list like this provides a shortcut into the heart of the Christian tradition, in which things participate in transcendence—and in which we don’t limit ourselves to the surface logic of words but reflectively search our spiritual experience. Two aspects of this experience are clear to me.
First, I recall that my awareness has shifted over time. I cannot recall whether as a child my awareness was aligned in some natural way with the traditional view, but I can recall that it was mostly modern by the time I entered my teens and through my forties—that is, I conceived and perceived of things as disparate, reduced to their mere physicality, and therefore somewhat alienated. Yet never completely modern, perhaps because I had bits and pieces of ideas and convictions that were inconsistent with the modern episteme. I was aware of the philosophical problem of universals. I was anti-nominalist. I was Catholic. I did believe in miracles, in transubstantiation, and had a general sense that theoretical physics had re-opened many questions about the nature of matter that modernity had treated as closed. And yet my best recollection is that the episteme I operated out of was more modern than traditional. Again: no one can be unaffected by the mentality of the cave. Yet again, today my awareness is much more traditional than modern. Epistemes, dominant mentalities, climates of opinion—none of these are all-powerful. The Philosopher can exit the cave.
Second, I see that my awareness can shift, often during the course of a single day. It shifts toward the traditional when I am engaged with natural realities—animals, plants, the great outdoors, also with traditional artistic imagery, and when interacting with other people. And toward the modern when I deal with technological items, the world of screens and bytes, and almost all manufactured items.
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On a weekday morning I walk up the steps of a small church, open the door and step from dim morning light into a dark antechamber, then through another set of doors into the nave. There some light comes through the stained-glass windows; behind the altar, sun rises into an old rose window with an image of St. John. The church is on the site of one of the first Catholic churches in the Chesapeake colony though this building dates from the 1890s. I love this church, with its stone walls and timbered roof, set atop a hill, surrounded by its cemetery and giant maples, today on a quiet suburban street. Like most people, I enter a church differently than any other building—we cannot but be aware that everything here conveys an image of something beyond itself, including the liturgy that will take place in a few minutes. Entering a church, we enter a place that symbolizes—that means to us—something outside of everyday space and time. A Catholic will have a sense, more or less inchoate, that the church building figures many things: Heaven, the Temple, Jerusalem, the body of Christ, the church as assembly; that the nave is a figure of a ship, of Noah’s ark, of the boat from which Christ calmed the storm. This is all there for me though I don’t consciously think about it. I don’t enter the church with a pious outward attitude, but I note these aspects of my awareness.
I dip my fingers in the holy water as I enter and direct my attention to the water.
There is this water in the font—four or five ounces at room temperature, made up of these water molecules, etc. The idea or form of water is also present here, that is, as it is instantiated in this water; it is in a sense larger than this water as it could also have been and is instantiated in other water. Presentified also is the meaning of water—including a capacity to take any shape and retain none, to give life, to regenerate, enter other substances, to cleanse, etc.—its meaning is richer than its manifold verbal formulations. Present also is God—that is by analogy of being; the meanings, idea, and the material being of water are all words spoken by God and in their turn say something about His nature—about a watery aspect of God. (Here we are, of course, in deep water...)
The priest in the vestibule rings the sacristy bell.
This bell, small, brass, suspended from that door frame—a realized copy of the idea of a bell—its meaning including being a thing that can be struck to make noise, to call to attention, including also the meanings the Church gives to bells, figures of the voices of angels, of the small bells on the garments of the Jewish high priests—all of these creations of God which palely refract something bell-like in the being of God.
I look at the large vases full of cut flowers in front of the altar table, and the painted vault of the apse.
Ascending from these flowers, I recall that the idea of the flowers is itself manifold—there is the idea of a flower, of white gladiolus, and the idea of these flowers, which of course could be arranged many ways, that the meanings they carry, for example, beauty, life, fruitfulness, transitoriness in a cycle of life, delicacy, actuated by light, attraction, and sexual purity—but aren’t these cultural? Yes, and natural too, for culture is the perfection of nature, and the flower and the culture are not monads but parts of the same created cosmos.
Descending from God, there is the vast meaning-world that refracts something of Him, including growth, abundance, verdancy—these meanings are carried also by the ideas of many things, including plant life—which can be instantiated not only as plants but by paintings of plants, these paintings in this apse, rather abstracted, that is, not only plants presentify the idea of a plant, but an image of a plant presentifies the idea of a plant, of course in a different way, at the same time it presentifies here the idea of a painting.
Now I let my eyes wander and my mind follow. The gold in the gold-plated chalice, ciborium, candlesticks—presentifying meanings that we refract into words like value, rarity, solidity, preciousness. The white altar cloths—whiteness, against which any stain shows, not emblemizing but really presentifying after its mode the meaning of purity, which, again, refracts the divine nature. The walls of the church are of stone, and we can ascend through ideas and meanings to the stoniness in God. We can see this just as unawares, naturally, and habitually as we enter a church differently from a bank or bus station. The liturgy both teaches and assumes this episteme. After all, similar words could be said of items present in an archaic Hittite, Homeric Greek, or pagan Slavic religious ritual. Another thought—the traditional episteme unites material and spiritual realities along the vertical axis at the same time it helps to distinguish them on a horizontal axis.
One thought leads to another—as the liturgy moves me through time, something similar is happening. The liturgical prayers distinguish and unite stages of human history, recalling the great works of God in the life of Israel, the revelation and incarnation of their spiritual meaning in Christ, their continuation in space and time in the sacramental life of the Church, “until You come again.” Experienced within the traditional episteme, the liturgy reveals an inexhaustible richness, a multiple of the richness of all being. In this awareness, every thing carries meanings that exceed it, and reveals further aspects of every other thing. This is utterly different from the poverty of the modern episteme, in which meaning is reduced to a set of one-to-one arbitrary associations, a bare emblemism. The difference between things as they emerge within the traditional and modern epistemes is akin to that between gazing at a painting by Rubens and reading the text label below it.
The priest pulls me out of my thoughts by raising the Host—“For this is my body”—and then—“For this is the chalice of my blood...”
This bread and this wine are no more. In the sacrament, their matter, form, meaning and being have become one.
The Eucharist realizes a promise inherent in the structure of things and exceeds it in ways no one could have anticipated before the Last Supper. Whereas things presentify spiritual forms and meanings in a physical mode, buried within that structure is a yearning for a fuller presentification. The depth of that yearning is only revealed by its fulfillment when in the Eucharist a thing becomes Thing, as the divine origin of the thing makes Itself present substantially and no longer symbolically. The Eucharist is a mystery not only because God is so far above us that we cannot grasp him; but also because a material thing is also mysterious to us, its material substance is so far below us that we cannot penetrate it. In the Eucharist both ends of the great “ladder of being” are united in a way never anticipated before the Last Supper, transforming everything on the scala naturae, and nothing so much as man—man the mikrokosmos, the little cosmos, who unites in himself the spiritual and the physical, even the animal, vegetable and purely material. “Christ... fully reveals man to man himself” (Gaudium et Spes). In the Eucharistic bread and wine, He reveals things to man himself—man, the level of being at which the cosmos attains self-awareness—and thus the promise implicit in things as bearers of meaning, as words spoken by God.
After Mass I rise out of my kneel and step out of the antechamber into sunlight, leaves, their trees, and this morning, a bright blue sky. Naturally perception has shifted—truly so. The world appears different. It does so after every Mass but more deeply so today. Awareness is itself an incipit prayer. And so, it seems to me that things appear with greater vividness, distinction, unity, and depth, and in a way marked by listening—for the speech of the thing.