Where is reality?

Denis Desert on the importance of the here and now

Pope Julian II commissioned the Renaissance artist Raphael to paint a fresco in one of the magnificent apartments of the Vatican. The subject was to reflect the contribution of the classical philosophers to Western culture. The result was The School of Athens painted in the years between 1508 and 1511. The painting is set in a large debating chamber in the classical style with a considerable number of philosophers arguing their points of view. The centre of the painting is dominated by the two greats, Plato and his pupil Aristotle. As they step down into the chamber they are in hot debate, each taking a radically different view.

Plato and Aristotle

Plato, no doubt, quotes his famous allegory of the cave declaring that all we see in the present dimension is no more than a shadow of the reality above, while Aristotle, the father of Western science, states that reality is rooted firmly in the here and now, in what we see before our very eyes. The artist makes this clear by depicting Plato pointing firmly up and Aristotle pointing firmly down with the flat of his hand.

While both men shared a common understanding in the primacy of reason, their conclusions took a different slant. Plato held that there was a link between the application of reason and the conclusion that reality is grounded in the eternal forms. But Aristotle held, on the contrary, that reality is grounded in what is observed.

Daily life

Jean-Pierre de Caussade was born in Cahors in 1665 and died in 1751. His classic work is Abandonment to Divine Providence and also The Sacrament of the Present Moment. Reflecting the perspective of Aristotle he wrote in his second work, ‘The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love’. His works underline the importance of the everyday, the here

and now. God is experienced not by switching off from the mundane but by engaging with the routine of daily life with all its ups and downs. In the Abandonment, he wrote, ‘God teaches the soul by pains and obstacles, not by ideas’. For de Caussade everything that happens to us is of consequence, even ‘The Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. At one point he wrote, ‘God speaks through disaster’. Clearly, from de Caussade’s understanding, it is futile complaining ‘why did God allow this to happen to me?’ Everything that happens in the course of life is, under God, an opportunity for growth.

If I might quote a Muslim friend who lived in Jerusalem and had been diagnosed with leukaemia. In a letter he wrote, ‘God has sent me this illness as a gift to teach me the virtue of patience’.

The orbit of faith

I think that de Caussade would have agreed with this. Again in the Present Moment he wrote, ‘There is no moment when God is not manifest in the form of some affliction, obligation or duty’. People of faith cannot separate out their experiences in terms of that is of God but this is not. Everything is experienced within the orbit of faith.

But he was conscious that his teaching could be interpreted as Quietism. He countered this in his Present Moment, ‘I must not, like the quietists, reduce all religion to a denial of any specific action, despising all other means, since what makes perfection is God’s order, and the means he ordains is best for the soul’. Quietism was triggered off by the Spanish priest de Molinos and his followers who saw passivity and the contemplative life as superior to that of meditation and godly service. This view was condemned as heresy by the Papacy and Molinos was arrested and died in prison.

Communicating the faith

To my mind it is de Caussade’s focus on the here and now that needs to be emphasized in communicating the faith to the contemporary world. As Christians we tend to give the impression that there is something intrinsically bad about the world and that we need to fix our eyes on the eternal. This, I believe, presents a false dichotomy.

If creation emerged, as some scientists suggest, from a speck of proto matter then everything comes from the heart of God and therefore is essentially good. This means, I believe, that everything, heaven and earth, spiritual and material, time and eternity is held together in a creative unity. Reality is not just up there or down here but is in a constant state in which we are privileged to exist.

Of course, this understanding raises the question of good and evil. But, as de Caussade pointed out, ‘God instructs the heart ... by pains and contradictions.’ That great visionary Poet, William Blake, put it this way, ‘Man was made for joy and woe, / And when this we rightly know, / Thro’ the world we safely go’. The negative side of experience may possibly play some part in the creative process in which we are called to take part.

Much has been said from the top about the urgency of communicating the faith. It appears to me that we have to enter first into the fundamental questions of life and faith reflected in Raphael’s painting; we need to enter the School of Athens. The next step, as Matthew Arnold touched on in the nineteenth century and Don Cupitt in his Sea of Faith, is to evaluate and understand contemporary culture. The third step, with a renewed vision, to proclaim the Gospel but firmly rooted in significance of the here and now and how it may be applied to our daily lives. ND

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