Sunday, June 6, 2004

Jacques Maritain on understanding Christian "contempt" for the world

One of the books I've picked up lately is Jacques Maritain's The Peasant of the Garonne, a moderately-traditionalist critique of various problems he witnessed in the Church in the wake of Vatican II and one of the last books he ever wrote. It's been a while since I read Maritain, and I'd forgotten what simple intellectual pleasure can be derived from his work.

In the third part of his book he talks about "a long misunderstanding with bitter fruit", rooted in the misunderstanding of what he calls speculative vocabulary and practical vocabulary -- the first considering the ontological structure of things; the latter "the manner in which the acting subject should conduct himself in their midst, and face to face with them" -- and the devastating consequences which occur when the two senses are confused.

As an example of such theological confusion, Maritain refers to various understandings of "contempt for creatures" by the saints (especially the Christian mystics). 1 Maritain says:

Let us think of the "contempt for creatures" professed by the saints. The saint has a right to despise created things (while loving them); the philosopher and the theologian (who, as such, have the duty of knowing, not loving) do not have this right; for the word contempt does not have the same meaning in both cases. For the philosopher and the theologian it would mean: creatures are worth nothing in themselves; for the saint: they are worth nothing for me. . . . The saint sees in practice that creatures are nothing in comparison with the One to whom he has given his heart and of the End he has chosen. This is the lover's contempt for all that is not Love itself. To him, it is nothing to give up "all the wealth of his house" for God [going on to quote St. Paul, Phillipians 3: 8-10: "For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as a dung hill, in order that I may gain Christ, that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings." 2
But here's the catch (emphasis mine, in italics):
. . . for to love a being in God for for God is not to treat it simply as a means or mere occasion to love God, which would amount to dispensing oneself from loving it (and at the same time, ceasing truly to love God, who is truly loved only when we love his visible images, too): it is to love this being and consider it as an end, to desire its good because it deserves to be loved in itself and for itself, this very merit and dignity flowing from the sovereign Love and sovereign Lovableness of God. 3
Regarding the mystical formulas of Christian mystics such as St. John of the Cross (ex. when he speaks of "contempt for all things, with the desire to be content with God alone"), Maritain cautions the reader not to take such sayings as implying a contempt for the world, citing a passage (what bloggers might call the "money quote") from his philosophical magnum opus, The Degrees of Knowledge:
There is no worse philosophy than a philosophy which despises nature. A knowledge that despises what is, is itself nothing; a cherry between the teeth holds more mystery than the whole of idealistic metaphysics. 4
Maritan describes what can happen when a misappropriation of the speculative and practical senses in Christian literature goes unchecked:
. . . for most of the faithful, and even for the cleric, who have no access to the modest empyrean, at once temple of wisdom and insane asylum where philosophers and theologians are closeted [another delicious turn of phrase!], it is difficult to refrain from what I would call a speculative distortion and misappropriation of the maxims of saints (by involuntarily depriving them of their real meaning). The process has taken a great amount of time, but the fact is that at a given moment they became the innocent authors, and victims, of such a misappropriation.

To make a long story short, let me say that for centuries, . . . Christian homiletic teaching was busy convincing men (who naturally love created things but not in the way saints do) that created things are worthless. The trouble was that by dint of repeating this commonplace, the ascetic writers and the preachers wound up extending St. Paul's "dung hill" to the whole of creation, no doubt in as much as it might tempt the human being, but also, finally, and without being aware of the distortion, even when the creation was taken in itself. Simply through a phenomenon of inattention, a masked manicheism was thus superimposed on the Christian faith, though without ruining it. . . . Hence the creature was itself a dung-hill; the world was in itself nothing but corruption. Original sin had rotted everything in nature. A Catholic would certainly not have advanced such a proposition. But it often underlay in a more or less unconscious way his idea of fallen nature. 5

Finally, in addition to a misuse of speculative and practical terminology, Maritain speculates that Protestantism and Jansenism were possible influences as well. This may very well be true. However, while Maritain's referral to St. Paul's "dung-hill" may bring to mind Luther's "bondage of the will" to sin or Calvin's notion of "total depravity" after the fall, it should be noted in fairness that the popular attribution of the phrase "snow-covered dung-hill" to Luther is -- according to Bill Cork -- dubious at best. 6

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