05 January 2017

‘Winged visions’ – an occasion for metanoia

Having gone through an intensely heated discussion on the subject, I have found myself needing to take stock, to a certain extent, of my own weaknesses and stumblings, the places where I engage in idolatry and self-delusion. This blog, thankfully, provides an excellent opportunity to do that, since my journey from liberalism into some kind of postliberalism (call it Slavophilia, Tory socialism, Christian reactionary thought, realist-leftism, what have you) has been fairly meticulously documented.

Saint Maria Skobtsova spoke in her writings – specifically her essays on the ‘Crucible of Doubts’ – on the need for (and the dangers of) ‘winged visions’, and she was referring to Plato and Saint Sir Thomas More when she spoke thus, as well as to the various utopian projects of communism, nationalism and fascism that were quickly taking hold all around her, and against all three of which she witnessed – even unto her death in Ravensbrück. It is an account of the ‘winged visions’ I’ve put forth here that I want to bring forward for critique and reflection; not because I necessarily think they are wrong (else I would not have put them forward), but because I can see them as being potentially dangerous and a stumbling-block to the spiritual edification both of myself and of my readers, whom I do very much value.

I think I can say with some honesty that my philosophical ‘first love’ (I use the term quite deliberately) was China – her classical philosophy and her long-lived material culture as well as her people. It was in China that I awakened to some of the problems in my own life and my own way of thinking. It was in China that I first began to consciously doubt the creed of ‘progress’. And my exposure to the philosophy of Confucius in particular jarred me out of my dogmatic slumber, if I may shamelessly borrow the Kantianism. Here, after all, was a man of noble birth who gave up everything, and was exiled from his home country, because of his own thirst for a more humane, just, truthful and beautiful order in the world. And yet he did so not by appealing to some hypothetical state of future perfection, in the way things ought to be, but by digging in the examples of China’s past to find what was valuable and true and worth keeping. He lived – not only preached but lived, through the rites – reverence for the elderly, care for the young, and solidarity for the powerless. He inspired numerous generations of scholars who criticised the powerful and the wealthy. The Analects, and later the Rites, made a deep impression on me – that past eras and people in past times could care so deeply about the same things we moderns care about, and indeed agitate for social arrangements which, even if hierarchical and vertically-ordered, could still be fair and distinguished by equity, and which in their own way were to be valued in themselves. It still pains me deeply to see him misrepresented in his teachings as defending, or conciliating himself with, unjust powers.

But that much is pretty much ancient history predating this blog. I began the current blog (which underwent several name changes and drifts in purpose) as a preparation for a volunteer term of service in Peace Corps which never materialised. That preparation threw into my path the philosophical, combative, patriotic-yet-Russophile poetry of the Qazaq bard Abay Qunanbayuli, and the fragmentary philosophy of Nikolai Berdyaev, both of which lodged deep in my heart and mind and refused to come loose. In Berdyaev in particular, I found the expression of a synthesis I had been searching for, for a very long time: a way of reconciling, through a religious, apophatic and experiential method of seeking truth, the shortcomings of the German idealist philosophers to whom I had devoted so much of my undergraduate career. Berdyaev, with his unsparing eye and his unique, colourful read on history (particularly Russian history), has been an active and constant informant of my ‘winged vision’. Berdyaev’s influence was in no small part responsible for my decision to be chrismated into the Orthodox Church.

And then there is the Tory streak, the Scott-and-Homer ‘violent Tory of the old school’ streak, that has been with me in an unfinished form at least since my contrarian middle school days. The streak that ultimately led me to read a (by now familiar to many readers of this blog) litany of (anti-)modern High Church Anglican and British Catholic – that is to say, High Tory – authors of homily and poetry, theory and fiction: Shakespeare, Hooker, Laud, Astell, Johnson, Swift, Austen, Oastler, Porteus, Strachan, Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ruskin, Morris, Gore, Chesterton, Grant, Tolkien, Sayers, Lewis, Pargeter, Dart, Milbank, Hitchens. Through them all ran a subtle thread, a humane yet quietly-religious thread, that pointed to a way of living that was devoted, familial, agrarian, organic, localist, colloquial, never-quite-egalitarian but scaled in gentle slopes. A way of living which would lift its eyes to God with the aid of monasteries and hermitages (Benedictine monasticism in England being a distinctly Saxon heritage of the seventh and eighth centuries), uphold nobility (albeit with a certain degree of deprecation), tolerate grudgingly the petit-bourgeois and their quirks. But a way of life which was organised on behalf of the great majority of the common people. A vision which can best be summed up in Oastler’s formula: ‘Altar, Throne and Cottage’, wherein the common ‘cottage’ is by no means the least important element. Or, alternatively, in Milbank’s ‘old, spiritual, Platonic England’.

This Tory streak itself eventually found an answer from deep within the Orthodox world – that of the Slavophils, who themselves were concerned most about the fate of the common people, and indeed felt the common Russian peasant had much more to offer to the Slavic world than did the artificially-Frenchified and -Germanised nobility, and the weak, transplanted bourgeoisie – whose Westernising influence was far out of proportion to its relatively narrow importance. Alexis Khomyakov himself displayed facets of both that backward-looking ‘winged vision’ (as Herzen mocked him and John Kireevsky for seeking the living Rus’ in the Primary Chronicle), and that radicalism that Herzen himself exemplified. Yet in spite of all his great influence on the Russian (and broader Eastern European) populists, he was never numbered among them, and this was largely because he still saw value in the elder traditions – both those that predated the Mongol invasion, and those the Muscovite state plucked from it. On a path consciously akin to the Tories of England, Khomyakov and Kireevsky saw, in that body of lived traditions and mutual care that was the agrarian-communist life of the obshchina, the best and most durable form of resistance against both the bestial predations of capitalism and the all-consuming fires of the modern revolution.

From Khomyakov and his Patristic upbringing, too, I get a love and admiration for the philosophical and religious traditions of classical Iran – as mediated by Persianate Christian saints such as Holy Father Isaac of Nineveh, who were of a manifestly different ‘type’ than either the Greek or the Latin Fathers. The relentless, kenotic, martyrific pursuit of truth at all costs, the expression of spiritual freedom with nothing reserved for the sake of necessity – this Khomyakov identified as a peculiarly Persian genius. The all-consuming detestation the Zoroastrians of classical Iran inculcated in the Iranian people for druj, for the lie, and the corresponding love for truth, is something that found its full expression also in the Jewish prophetic tradition. But Khomyakov was convinced that the Russians had imbibed of this spirit in a way which bypassed the more necessitarian pagan-Roman civilisational impress (a historical view of which I’m sceptical, but which nonetheless has something of a ring of truth to it).

Insofar as I have a ‘winged vision’, then, it does take bits and pieces from many places, many incomplete utopias and false starts, many glimpses of Atlantis, many suggestions in history at a better way to live. It borrows from China’s Han Dynasty (and creative reinterpretations thereof); from the classical Silk Road generally, stretching from Byzantium to Luoyang by way of Iran and the Turkic lands; from Christian England of the eighth century; from newly-Christian Rus’ of the eleventh; from the Stuart monarchy; from the Family Compact of Upper Canada; from the Green Rising. It refuses chronological snobbery. It does have a classical Chinese veneration for the human dimension of ritual, albeit one leavened and lightened by a ‘barbarian’, Persian-Slavic infusion of inspiration, spontaneity and extemporisation. It does have a radicalised, late-antique Cappadocian take on œconomic ethics, tempered with a realistic (Platonic?) view that different people and different classes have different duties. Yet the High Tory (or, indeed, Slavophil) conviction on the duties of class – that more material demands will be made on the materially wealthy, because that is not only socially stabilising, but also just and right – can be and has been informed by both.

I hold all this up in love. And yet this may all turn out to be the empty dream of a fool, the sorry idolatry of someone mired in romanticism and myth, clad only in the ashes of a past long and deservedly dead. Without Christ, indeed, that is exactly what it would be.

But in Christ all things are possible, and all things are included. Christ and His Church embrace these things, and constantly – weekly, hourly – breathe into them new life, where they are found healthy and filled with love, or burn them away if they are not. Christ came among us as a lowly woodworker on the far southeastern border of the Empire, heralded not with royal pomp and fanfare but by a lone voice in the wilderness. His kingship was not one of power or wealth or cunning or libido dominandi, but one of healing, teaching and self-emptying. Yet, let us remember still, He is the personal, incarnate, flesh-and-blood recapitulation of all three of the elder, prophetic Israel; the highest aspirations of philosophical Greece; and the universal reach of imperial Rome. The dove that descended on this day, near two millennia ago: that is the true winged vision.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, the sinner. May I be bold to ask You, not to turn away Your face from me.

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