Thursday, January 03, 2013

Christmas and Cartesian Dualism

ONE OF THE CORE principles of modernism is ‘Cartesian dualism,’ the philosophical theory that the spiritual mind of man is divorced from the material human body. We see the practical results of the belief in this divorce in political practice, where material concerns are tightly and comprehensively regulated by the state, while the soul is seen as being completely free from all considerations, even regarding morality, which we find in political rhetoric considering freedoms and rights. According to the notorious ‘mystery passage’ of the Casey decision, the Supreme Court of the United States stated: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”; Besides being metaphysically absurd, this passage has been subsequently used to devise novel rights.

The fact that people do make up various theories of the meaning of life should not mean that all these theories are right: we are all free to make up our own theories of gravitation, but we know that there are very few theories of gravity that are even close to be plausibly correct. The orthodox view instead sees the material body and spiritual soul integrated into the human person; in the order of creation, we sit midway between the purely material animals and the purely spiritual angels.

It is quite odd, but it is quite common for men of science — pure materialists, one would think — to be attached to strange, occult and unorthodox spiritualism. Perhaps this is a consequence of the modern divorce between the soul and body.

Modern Cartesian man often has a feeling of unreality; he feels that he is a ghost wandering in a material cosmos, for that is a consequences of the theory that we are ghosts in a machine. But we know that we are one person, and not two. It has been noticed that there are some circumstances when modern men snap back into reality, when they realize who they are. The late southern Catholic writer, Walker Percy, noted that both sex and violence pull us back into the real; the normal Cartesian disembodied state snaps back into reality when something really important happens, especially if that something is violent, cataclysmic, or involves the basest of animal passions.

Everyone who remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the assassination of President Kennedy, or the destruction of the World Trade towers, or times of more personal tragedy, can likely recall in vivid detail what they were doing at that time when they first heard of the news. They, suddenly, were pulled back into what is real. In the aftermath of such disasters, all that is truly good in human nature suddenly flourishes: people show love and concern for each other, people appreciate what they have, they see the world about themselves with a new clarity; drug addicts no longer feel the need to get a fix, and abortionists have no clients.

Sadly, this clarity of life and the new appreciation of reality does not last, and modern men go back into their disembodied, ghostly Cartesian state. But perversely, this means that people look forward to the next disaster because it makes them feel real. Percy argues that this is the reason why people are fascinated by news reports on tragedies, and I suspect this may be a reason why people find end-of-the-world predictions so compelling or even desirable. This can lead to gnostic-like thinking, where people are so alienated from the material world that they seek to chastise or even destroy it.

The Church has always been inflexible in holding to the doctrine of the Trinity, because it is the center of our Faith. But it is also psychologically necessary: the season of Christmas reminds us in a vivid, concrete way that Christ is God Who took on human flesh to save us. The material world is not a mistake, but was made very good; its is not a prison house for the soul but is an essential part of what we are; although fallen it has been sanctified.

One of the delights of the Catholic faith is its liturgical year, and its cycle of festivals, where one mystery of the faith is celebrated on one day, and other mysteries are celebrated on other days or during other seasons. But some modernist theologians insist that all of the mysteries ought to be celebrated simultaneously, all of the time, as if a Christian would forget about Good Friday on Christmas Eve. But does this not seem excessively spiritualistic, denying the right ordering of things in time? Is this a sign of the modern Cartesian mentality?

The public festivity of religious holidays therefore signals an orthodox understanding of the importance of the material world.

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