On December 13, 1929, at the Mecca Temple in New York City, the famous philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell debated novelist John Cowper Powys on the question, “Is Marriage Modern?”. The debate ran its course and, in the concluding statement, the moderator (a positivist, and definitely on the side of Russell) opined, contra Powys’ poetical understanding of marriage, “But to a man who never quite got through college, you can’t put one and one together, and get one — you must get two. Until two people go into church, and two people come out, I won’t feel that marriage is modern.”
Of course, the correct answer as to how many people come out of a Church after a wedding ceremony, (modern or not), is “one AND two,” but I raise this issue not as a problem of mathematics, but as a way to introduce the idea of a “poetic metaphysics,” the subject, (along with the overlapping and fascinating subject of Sophiology), of Michael Martin’s new book, The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics. I also raise the issue to bring up the name, John Cowper Powys, a prophetic and neglected sophiologist in his own right. But more on him later.
I first saw this book ‘Liked’ by Elias Crim on Facebook a few weeks ago and immediately ordered it. While waiting for it to arrive, I pulled out my Boehme, my Novalis, my Goethe and Tomberg, as well my de Lubac, VonBalthsar, de Chardin and Merton, (this gives you a sense of his chapter subjects). I also pulled out my Bulgakov, Solovyov, Berdiaev and Florensky, and then my Steiner, (may God bless Professor Martin for the courage to wade into those waters!), along my Daniel Andreev (interesting omission!) and Powys. Martin’s topic for this book is probably the closest thing I can think of to “the topic I would write about if I could write a book,” and I was both elated and depressed to find that he is smarter and a much better writer than yours truly. And, as if to add insult to injury, he’s also funnier and has more children.
The worst is the corruption of the best, we know, and so it’s both wise and humorous in the early part of the book for Martin to separate his subject, (which is necessarily going to involve the environment: a topic that the controversial commentary from Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ has shown), and approach it from other similar-sounding ventures. For example, he calls the work of ‘Creation Spirituality’ founder Matthew Fox, “the theological equivalent of bell-bottoms,” and he sees the “materialist and political” hermeneutics of many feminist theologians as having turned a lot of theology departments into “deserts of intellectual monoculture.” In using humour while distinguishing his investigation from that of the more reductionist and heretical approaches, Martin stands in the strong company of saints likes Irenaeus of Lyon (d. 202) took the same approach in his battle with the gnostic systems of Valentinus.
According to Rowan Williams (in an excellent introduction to the topic), Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, “rather like the principle of ‘logos’ in the philosophy of Philo of Alexandria at the beginning of the Christian era, is what you might call the area of overlap between divine and created life.” In other words sophiology is a tradition of reflection and iconography and prayer that enters into the mystery of how God creates a world that is both free but not alone as if, deistically, adrift in space, far removed from the Creator’s constant attention and care.
The best way I can think to help make familiar the subject of sophiology (which for many people, would be completely new) is by way of bullets, along references to more well-known theologians and theological projects which are illuminated by Martin’s use of sophiology.
–In taking aim at the problem of Natura Pura, a nature existing as if outside the imminent presence of the divine, Martin uses the Sophiological tradition to help illuminate the nature-grace dispute (and resolution) and provides buttress the magisterial, but disputed, work of Henri de Lubac.
–Like the approach French religious thinker, Jean Luc Marion, Martin’s approach to questions using a poetic metaphysics strongly questions the separation of philosophy and theology: “For one thing, philosophy and theology, if not finally and formally divorced, were further estranged from one another and the pure nature debate’s almost schizophrenic oscillation between theological and philosophical modes of inquiry developed languages increasingly foreign to one another.” (p. 20)
–Like Charles Taylor, Martin is going to examine “disenchantment of nature” and find in it an illness that needs healing. He says, contrary to people like Maureen Mullarkey “secularization (the disenchantment of the world) is not built into the structure of religion as its teleological inevitability. Rather, my claim is that secularization is a pathology, a kind of cancer that metastasised on the Body of the Church Militant. This pathology, generated, (and continues to generate) other pathologies” (p. 32). Martin would agree with Mullarkey, however, that certain approaches to the “disenchantment” are worse than the disease. Martin’s book is worth reading for this analysis alone as we can’t avoid the necessary healing just because we’re afraid of some poorly proposed cures.
–Like Patrick Deneen and others, Martin’s project proposes a revaluation of certain historical touchstones such as the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment: “It takes more than a book or a school of thought; it takes a paradigm shift. It may be, however, that such a shift is not impossible. Indeed, it is time to acknowledge the obvious shortcoming off the scientific revolution and Enlightenment which influence even the Church. Indeed the ‘logical conclusions’ of Enlightenment thinking are now bearing fruit throughout what used to be called Western Civilization (which impacts the entire planet), so much so that we no longer can be certain what nature is, what a family is, what rights are and from where (or whom) they are derived, what gender is, or, indeed, what a human person is. Sophiology answers all of these questions, and it does so by describing how in every new and multifarious ways the Holy presence of God inhabits his creation” (p. 203).
Finally, as if bringing all of this together, Martin does a wonderful job portraying this “Poetic Metaphysics” within the sophiological tradition, as, (and this is, I think, is the heart of the matter) a participatory metaphysics. “Participatory”. It’s such a simple word but it’s loaded. I very much like Martin’s line, “For the beautiful to exist without it being perceived is absurd” (p. 10). I often have to pull myself up short so as not to miss such startling clarion calls to change the whole gameplan when it’s so easy to read them as just another statement of logic and move on. We can’t. A participatory and “poetic” metaphysics calls for an emphasis on practical reason as being a precursor to theoretical reason and not the other way around. In other words, we have to begin discussing the question of how to raise our level of perception. And perhaps this is what Rahner meant when he famously said that, “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.”
Martin quotes the prophetic Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), in this regard, to the effect that: “The difficulty lies, in the last resort, in the impossibility of explaining in rational and logical terms the relation between the Creator and the creature. Out apprehension of it must inevitably remain mystical, i.e. metalogical, and can only be expressed in categories that belong to ‘unity of opposites’” (p. 147).
Again, and in short, (and here please think of the theoretical problem of describing color to a colorblind person), the task here, (a problem VonBathasar—quoted in the book—looked at in terms of “Splendor” and “Glory”), is a task of perception: “The supernatural is not there in order to supply that part of our natural capacities we have failed to develop…The same Christian centuries which masterfully knew how to read the natural world’s language of forms were the same ones which possessed eyes trained, first, to perceive the formal quality of revelation by the aid of grace and its illumination and, second, (and only then!), to interpret revelation” (Von Balthasar quoted on p. 85).
I mentioned the courage it took for Professor Martin to bring into his discussion of sophiology the work of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, (and Waldorf Schools and Bio-Dynamic Farming, etc.). Though not an orthodox thinker, Steiner did probe deeply into the question of perception and even wrote a book called How to Know Higher Worlds that is really much more sober and grounded that its title might seem to indicate. And the book itself is mentioned in Pavel Florensky’s great sophiological work, The Pillar and Ground of Truth. Perception, (Think Oswald Spengler’s “physionomic eye” and his apocalyptic quote: “One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be — though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes will remain — because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone.”), is the crux of the issue. Perception was of central concern to Goethe, too, and people could do far worse with their time than to spend listening to David Caley’s interview with scientist Arthur Zajonc, or read an introduction to Goethean science at The Nature Institute.
Finally, in heralding my favorite sophiologist, John Cowper Powys (who has, I admit, the rather unique distinction of never mentioning ‘sophia’), I can’t recommend too strongly his The Complex Vision (free at archive.org) and many other of his non-fiction works where philosophy is not some intellectual system we keep in our head, but a way of life, along with mental exercises, that has everything to do with attention, perception and imagination. George Steiner, who wrote well of ‘presences’ himself, claimed that Powys was the only 20th century writer on par with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Now that’s saying something. Powys has a chapter in the The Complex Vision called, “The Illusion of Dead Matter.” In reading this chapter, as in reading any great work in the sophiological tradition, you get a sense for what might be called the ‘mysteries of matter’, (a word that’s etymologically connection with “mother”). In this time of Lent, reading into this tradition makes passages like Luke’s “the stones themselves will cry out” (Lk 19:40) along with the Resurrection itself, (a stone tomb could not keep Him bound), resonate with splendour and glory. This mystery is, after all, connected to the “Submerged Reality” of Martin’s title. It’s a reality worth exploring.