Saturday, August 12, 2017

"To the Pure, All Things are Pure": Belief and Unbelief in the Shadow of the Cross

Discourses on humility are a source of pride in the vain and of humility in the
humble. So those on scepticism cause believers to affirm. Few men speak humbly of humility,
chastely of chastity, few doubtingly of scepticism. We are only falsehood, duplicity, contradiction;
we both conceal and disguise ourselves from ourselves.

The above quote is from Blaise Pascal in reference to philosophy. For Pascal, the ultimate utility of philosophy is that it reveals the confusions and contradictions of man. All schools of philosophy are valid, because each tells a certain point. To quote another brilliant insight: "If he exalt himself, I humble him; if he humble himself, I exalt him; and I always contradict him, till he understands that he is an incomprehensible monster." Philosophy at its best reveals the Gordian knot with desperation; it has no answer besides chopping at it with a sword, mutilating mankind in the process.

However, more to the point, Pascal as a Jansenist believed that fundamentally Scripture reveals two categories of man: belief and unbelief. We might say that all of mankind is revealed when Jesus is on the cross between the two thieves. There is one who repents and throws himself upon the mercy of Christ, the other scoffs and mocks. In the moment of crucifixion, both die, but both see radically different worlds. To the one, there is translucence, Light that is shining through all, even the horror; to the other the world is opaque, fully enthralled to the devil and oriented only towards suffering, confusion, and death.

Pascal's Jansenist vision is stark, but helps make sense of St. Paul's sense that "to the pure, all things are pure", and that while all things are not beneficial, all things are lawful, according to the law of Christ. Libertines like to quote these without appreciating the Apostle's qualifiers. This is not merely according to some utilitarian purpose, but how all of created life exists through proper sight. Per the example above, in unbelief, a story of humility involves the two-sides of pride, arrogance and despair. One reads these and is stirred towards competition, sneering, or complacency, the other turns to tears, fear of judgement, and horror. Both reject a life of faith. Thus, one can hold together both the life of Antony, the first desert monk, and Luther's Reformational breakthrough, a total rejection of monastic life. While Antony can reveal a life turned against lust for wealth and prestige, Luther does the opposite, showing how a monastic life based in pride (in his case the despair side) becomes a tool of Satan.

Protestantism has a tendency to downplay many "monkish" practices. Fasting is mostly disdained, celibacy as anything but a precursor to marriage is seen as freakish, among other practices. Yet these are firmly advocated within the New Testament canon. I understand the whiplash of the Reformers, even if this pendulum swing has become institutionalized into both worldly asceticism (the Bourgeois practices of restraint documented by Weber) and a conscientious rejection of restraint. Fasting in unbelief is arrogant and vile, and so is feasting. All things not of faith are sin. The Jansenists understood the radical dichotomy in the wake of the Messiah. This is key to unlocking both a Christian sense of anti-thesis, and also a Christian sense of being, and remaining, firmly within the World.

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