"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, August 23, 2019

Michael Martin on Transfiguration

Running interviews on this blog is one of its real delights, and never more so than with authors of such fascinating and wide-ranging erudition as Michael Martin, whom I previously interviewed here about his earlier book on sophiology. This also allows me to repay, in part, the kindnesses he bestowed on me in helping get my own recent book into print and then blurbing it so generously.

As usual in these interviews, I e-mailed some questions to Michael. Here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background.

I started out as a musician and songwriter, long, long ago, before I eventually wandered into Waldorf teaching. Around the same time as I started teaching, I became involved with the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening movement and also did some garden design and consulting in that regard. After sixteen years of Waldorf teaching, I left to become a professor of English, philosophy, and religious studies at Marygrove College in Detroit. When the College—shockingly—announced it was eliminating its undergraduate program in 2017, I found myself at a crossroads. Since then, I’ve concentrated on farming and alternative education. My wife and I run a CSA and market garden (Stella Matutina Farm) and also raise dairy goats, poultry, hogs, and tend an apiary. I also started The Center for Sophiological Studies in 2018, where I offer online courses, education, and occasional lectures.

AD: What led to the writing of Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything?

MM: In summer of 2016 I hosted a conference at our farm on the theme of “The Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything.” We had sessions on all the themes represented in the book as well as thoughts on conviviality, liturgy, and ecumenism. In fact, my journal, Jesus the Imagination, was conceived that weekend. So I guess we could say that the seed for the book was planted then as well.

In 2017 I taught a course called “Science and Religion: At the Crossroads” and started thinking seriously about what “science” could possibly mean in a religious context. As a scholar of 16th and 17th century religious literature, I am acutely aware that what we now think of as “science” did not exist then and that understandings of phusis or natura were not exactly separate from the concerns of metaphysics, ontology, or theology. What we now call science and mysticism, for instance, were often indistinguishable from one another, as, for example, in alchemy, astrology, and magic.

John Milbank and Adrian Pabst have spoken of the “alternative modernity” that has continued since the Scientific Revolution—a modernity characterized by sympathies for hermeticism, mysticism, and, maybe not so obviously, Sophiology. I wondered what would have happened if science and religion had not been divorced at that time (and who did the kids end up living with?). What would science look like now if the realm of the spirit had not been excluded from consideration, let alone investigation? So that got me started. Eventually I expanded it to other areas of concern: education, the arts, economics, technology.

AD: People often gloss over sub-titles but I’m quite struck by what seems a real tension in yours between: notes, radical, and everything. The latter two suggest a kind of totalized, comprehensive, far-reaching, and inescapable revolution, while the first suggests provisionality, hesitation, incompleteness, a work-in-progress. Explain for us if you would a little bit about that tension (which seems to me both healthy and necessary).

“Provisionality” is exactly what I was going for: the book was meant to be an initiation to conversation and thoughtful consideration. But I am also seriously and adamantly interested in a radical re-imagination of everything. I think we are at the mercy of old forms and obligations in the Church which need to be re-imagined, or thrown out, or otherwise transfigured. If not, I think the game’s over—and by “the Church” I have a much broader understanding than meaning “Rome” or “Constantinople,” just as the “Catholic” of the title is meant to include a broader field than individual confessions. Indeed, after the disaster of last summer (which impelled you to write your important Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed) I very nearly took “Catholic” out of the subtitle. However, I felt an obligation to the impulse that started at the conference and the tiny movement that arose from it, and decided to let it stay, though not without misgivings.

AD: I have to say that your introduction really resonated with me in this being a book you did not want to write but did so out of a sense of vocation to the future, which is something I felt and feel about my own recent book. What did you mean by that?

MM: I felt a distinct call to write this book, even though I had planned on working on a volume of poetry. It was like a spiritual tap on the shoulder: you need to do this. I was not unaware of the boldness—that some might take as outrageousness—of some of my proposals. But I was also tentative.

I wrote the first chapter in 2016, but waited almost year before beginning the rest. My friend, the composer, musician, and clinician Therese Schroeder-Sheker encouraged me along the way. She reminded that me that only I could write this book, no one else: my particular biography had prepared me for it and that it was important that I should get it out there. It was my task; I was called to it. I sent several drafts to Therese and another friend as well as to my publisher with the instruction that they should tell me whether or not I’d lost my mind. They encouraged me to not hold back. So I didn’t. John Riess, publisher at Angelico, said, “It sounds like most of the things you write. What’s the problem?” Ha! I suppose I could have played it safe, like a good academic, but I didn’t want to face the Master after my death without having performed my task. That’s how strong this sense of vocation was. It’s like your book: I don’t see how anyone else could have written it. You were called to it; your biography prepared you for it.

AD: I’m very glad to hear you speak of the desperation on the part of some Catholics who bring out Mendel or Roger Bacon as examples of “Catholic scientists,” a move that you suggest leaves nothing changed by merely juxtaposing two disciplines or commitments. Instead of that, yours is a more far-reaching call—here is the ‘radical’ of your sub-title coming in, it seems to me—for a Catholic science, as you call it. That phrase, as you know, on the part of clumsy apologists and opponents alike can be easily abused (“does 2+2 = 5 if the pope says so?”), so why don’t you unpack it for us a little bit.

Well, first of all, I think it’s okay to admit that the tendency for some Catholics to point to various scientists (those you mention, as well as Lemaître...even Descartes!) is not much more than a desperate plea for cultural legitimacy. It’s embarrassing. As you can see in the book, I think Goethe’s “delicate empiricism” offers something much more hospitable to a Catholic/Christian sensibility than the exploitive, even rapacious arm of the corporatacracy that science as we know it has too often become.

There are other scientists out there—David Bohm, Brian Josephson, Rupert Sheldrake, to name just three—who offer something more holistically sympathetic to a Catholic/Christian and, indeed, sophianic worldview than that parade of “scientific saints” typically wheeled out by the Catholic mainstream; but since these figures were or are not dues-paying members of team Rome they get ignored while the scientific materialism and spiritual emptiness of the scientific saints is celebrated just because somebody went to or celebrated Mass in between materialist conquests. I don’t doubt the faith of the canonized scientists. It’s their science I have a problem with.

Also, to reiterate, when I use the term “Catholic,” what I really mean is “sacramental.” So this attributive can also be applied to Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy. As a Byzantine Catholic who grew up in the Latin church but is a scholar of the Metaphysical Poets—most of them Anglican clergymen— my spiritual psyche is pretty much all over the place. And the older I get, the more the alleged divisions between these different confessions just look stupid and petty: a reading of Christian history first as tragedy, then as farce.

AD: Reverence for life, understood much more comprehensively than any of us in the sciences or humanities alike (“we murder to dissect”!), is a key theme of your first chapter, but almost everywhere strangled by our tendencies for abstraction, materialism, and problems in operative cosmologies. Tell us a bit more about this, and how you see sophiology playing its part here.

I recently caught a video on social media of a woman, ostensibly a housewife, being interviewed while on LSD. This was in the 1950s when scientists routinely explored these kinds of phenomena. When the non-participant researcher asks her what she is experiencing, she says things like “Can’t you see it? I’m part of it…We’re all part of it... Everything is one...I’ve never seen such infinite beauty in my life.”

Sophiology does the same thing, but with none of the harmful side-effects. Something one notices when reading through the history of Sophiology is that all of the great sophiologists—Boehme, the Philadelphians, Solovyov, Florensky, Bulgakov, Merton, and Tomberg to name only a handful—came to a similar holistic insight, sometimes through liturgy or prayer, sometimes through the arts, sometimes through nature; but always through contemplation. (I don’t think it’s any accident that most of them held to apokatastasis, either.) It all goes back to Proverbs 8: “When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth.” Proverbs 8 is my touchstone, the place to which I return, again and again, to remind myself what reality is. It cuts through ideology, confessionalism, tribalism. I think this is where Sophiology meets phenomenology: it engages the epoché and is present to what is.

And “what is” is Sophia, the Glory of the Lord, the Presence, shining through Creation (to my mind, Terrence Malick’s films are essentially an extended meditation on this insight). And once you see it: that’s it. There’s no turning back. Such an experience requires, indeed, impels one to a holistic, ecumenical sensibility. Actually, the original subtitle for The Submerged Reality was “Ecology, Ecumenism, Orthodoxy.”

“Reverence for life,” unfortunately, has become something of a hackneyed and politically-charged phrase. Before one announces reverence for something, it’s a good idea to actually know what it is. But once one sees this shining, reverence is the only response. Goethe’s science, in fact, adopts reverence as a methodology. He called the science of Bacon and Newton “the empirico-mechanico-dogmatic torture chamber” for a reason.

AD: Your claim at the end of your first chapter, “We don’t need a new revelation; we need to do something with the revelation we already have” (33) seems to me linked to another bold claim at the start of your second: “Christians are afraid of the death of Christianity. This is irony at its most sublime” (35). Two thoughts: is this fear a universal problem, or perhaps more acute in the US, especially among certain evangelicals and Catholics? Second, is this fear of the death of Christianity (and perhaps more accurately the social power of its proponents) what lies behind the mania for new “revelation,” new programs (“evangelization”) and new “options” (pseudo-Benedictine and otherwise)?

Maybe it would have been better for me to have written “The Christianity that we are so desperately trying to hold onto is already dead.” I think that’s what we see all over the place—especially in America, Europe, Australia (and I am not a fan of the “the Church is strong in Africa/South America, etc.” chorus; what I see coming from those spheres seems pretty rigid)—but it is not something anyone wants to admit.

Some Traditionalists seem to think that if everybody just went back to the Tridentine Mass all of our problems would go away and there would arise a new Holy Roman Emperor or something. Dream on! Is this not a kind of infantilism? On the other hand, I share their eye-rolling at what often transpires in the typical Novus Ordo Mass, which more and more strikes me as a kind of Infomercial for Jesus.

I do think the fear is connected to a fear of losing power. But no one wants to own up to that! As you can tell from the book, I think the “bunkerism” of much of what passes for Christian culture (especially, but not exclusively, in conservative circles) is pretty desperate, and often pathetic. Let’s call it “The New Martyrdom.” That is the polar opposite of the Sophiological, which is characterized by porousness, an openness to grace, and idealism (not in a philosophical sense) and not by fear and what appears to be a death wish.

Did you ever look around during a Mass or Divine Liturgy and wonder why nobody looks happy? I mean really happy. I’ve been obsessing too much about this lately, perhaps—but would people look that maudlin if Christ were really there? (I mean, He is, but nobody acts like it). In Denys Arcand’s film Jesus of Montreal there’s a great scene in which the actress playing Mary Magdalen in a reworked Passion Play comes running at full speed down a cavernous hallway, her eyes on fire and with a tremendous smile on her face. She sees the disciples and announces, “I’ve seen Him! He’s alive!” Should we not be doing the same thing?

AD: You tell us in your second chapter, “Art as Eschatology,” that any Christian art properly so called should be “grounded in the future.” Tell us a bit more what you mean by that.

Even though there are some fine Christian artists out there doing innovative and imaginative work, much of what is promoted as “Christian art” is often a simple regurgitation of earlier forms, particularly from the Renaissance, but also in the endless iterations and appropriations of Eastern iconography. I don’t dislike the Renaissance, and I do pray before icons: but come on already. This “let’s make Christian art great again” schlock is setting back both Christianity and art—and not in the way its purveyors think. Let the dead bury their dead.

On the other hand, the appropriation of secular forms characteristic of much Christian popular “art,” particularly prevalent in Evangelical circles (such as in the dreadful God Is not Dead franchise and the phenomenon of “praise bands”) only shows, if anything, how incredibly inept Christian attempts at art can be. So maybe the Catholic-Orthodox propensity is to look to the past, while the Evangelical is to look to the present. Either way: it’s not working.

I get a surprising amount of poetry sent to Jesus the Imagination written in formal verse. Now, I have nothing against formal verse, but to assume that “Christian poetry” somehow has an allegiance to the august forms of the past is sheer ideology (the strange allegiance to “liberal education” among the same ilk is likewise performative….of something…but I don’t think it’s Christianity). Paul Claudel, T.S. Eliot, William Everson all may have appreciated tradition, but their poetry arrived from the future, and brought with it life.

For me, the paradigmatic figure of the Christian artist is not St. Luke or even St. Cecilia, but John the Baptist. He calls the Messiah from the future. That’s what Christian art should be doing now, even as, especially as, Christianity is dying. For we live in the most eschatological of times. Retreating to the imagined golden age of Christendom is to already admit defeat or at least irrelevance.

AD: Your chapter on education has, it seems to me, obvious echoes of Alasdair MacIntyre’s skepticism (in his Gifford Lectures, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry) about the fetish for “classical” education among some Christians today, and rightly notes how bloodless and joyless too many schools, Christian and public alike, are today. I also heard echoes of Ivan Illich when you say we need to stop thinking of education in the terms of “degree-granting institutions.” Though appreciative of much of what you learned as a Waldorf teacher, you want to go beyond that in part, if I'm not mistaken, because schools as they are currently structured function according to capitalist logic, not least in terms of their scheduling and timing, which do not allow for curious meanderings and wide-ranging exploration (the kind of “free association” method of Freud). I just finished Joshua Eyler’s fascinating new book How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching, and he argues in there that too many teachers and institutions today specialize in killing curiosity. Would the “hedge schools” you describe, based on Irish models, be a place for cultivating curiosity and the “contemplative engagement” you discuss in your last chapter?

What drew me to the Irish hedge schools was their incredibly bold and subversive aims. The Irish weren’t about to let their British overlords define what an Irish education could be; and if they had to do so in secret, so be it. We, especially in America but also in Europe and Australia from what I can tell, are typically at the mercy of our overlords, usually under the guise of accreditation and “best practices,” which are neither best nor practiced for the most part. This thinking also infects Waldorf schools (to a lesser degree, obviously) and nearly every other institutional educational model. The hedge school as I am envisioning it would be anything but institutional. Current educational models are based on the assembly line, usually with the goal of socialization in mind, but not always (a great book on the failure of most current educational models—and a fine proposal for a new one—is Kieran Egan’s The Educated Mind).

After almost thirty years of teaching—and I have taught everything from kindergarten to graduate school, including a stint as a Master Waldorf Teacher—I have seen how students best learn when given time to enter into subject matter through a contemplative engagement. But that takes time, and stopping to run to the next class when the bell rings (is this not the most Pavlovian of practices?) is an absolute obstacle to such engagement.

I also think contemplative engagement arises organically through involvement in the arts, both fine and practical. This is certainly something I learned—and saw—as a Waldorf teacher. In face of the increasing totalization of the internet and online “environments” in education it seems to be absolutely crucial that people actually learn how to do real stuff—like playing an instrument, carpentry, painting, gardening, archery… Of course, some people do these things, usually as specialists, but education should be that of a whole person, and a whole person should be able to do a little of all these things—and many more. It also drives fear away. People with broad exposure to different ideas, practices, and skills are naturally engaged with the world as a real thing. Nothing could be more sophiological.

AD: A devil’s advocate reading your fourth and fifth chapters might say “Okay, you start off by talking about what was lost in medieval England during and after the Reformation, move on to attack ‘Big Agriculture’ and ‘big tech’ and their ecologically (and other) disastrous practices, approvingly mention ‘community supported agriculture,’ and then call for ‘cultivating an authentic relationship to creation’ (126). How can I, just Joe Average in suburban America, be expected to put any of this into practice?”

An easy thing would be to join a CSA. What a subversive move! Food, Inc. is a dreadful and poisonous (literally) behemoth completely tied into the governmental/industrial/pharmacological complex. Not only buying direct from farmers, but getting to know them and the place where one’s food comes from ties one to nature, to the farmer, to the cosmos.

Not long ago I went to a Facebook distributist forum to ask if anyone there belonged to a CSA. Almost no one! Then I asked what the members did that was “distributist-y.” Most of what I heard was theme on variation of “I write a blog” or “I read Tolkien, Belloc, and Chesterton.” Take me now, Lord Jesus! Just getting freed from the meshes of the interNET and engaging the arts or practical activities (gardening is a good one) is another thing anyone—even Joe Average in suburbia—can do. There was life before television and the internet, even in suburbia. There still could be.

So let’s take suburbia as an example: ditch Chem Lawn! Turn your yard into an organic garden, and add a wayside shrine. Reclaim what you’ve been given to steward for the Kingdom.

Of course there are other things (avoiding plastic, for example). But I think the key (the sophiological key) is to do this out of a sense of joy and with an eye to the Glory of the Lord, not out of some guilt-ridden sense of unworthiness and despair that all too often turns misanthropic. The Kingdom of Heaven is among you. Intentionality means everything.

I agree with Patrick Deneen and Guido Preparata (begrudgingly) that significant change in the economic sphere might not be able to occur until the current “filthy, rotten system,” in Dorothy Day’s apt expression, finally atrophies and eats itself. But we can still do things that enact what Bulgakov calls “the sophianic economy.” As he writes in his The Philosophy of Economy, the purpose of economy, “is to defend and to spread the seeds of life, to resurrect nature. This is the action of Sophia on the universe in an effort to restore it to being in truth…. Economic activity overcomes the divisions in nature, and its ultimate goal…is to return the world to life in Sophia.” Anything working to this end, and joining a CSA is just one way, is engagement with the Real. As such, in our current economic realities, it is absolutely subversive as well as radically Christian in its reverence for the Creation and our role as stewards.

AD: Sum up your hopes for the book.

My greatest hope for the book is that it might shake people out of their complacency about accepting things as they are. Why do we accept the scientific, educational, artistic, and economic paradigms we’ve accidentally inherited as the only possibilities available to us? I also hope it might help some folks migrate away from the “bunker mentality” so characteristic of Christian “culture” at the moment. Playing martyr is too easy. And boring. Create the Kingdom instead.

AD: Having finished Transfiguration, what are you up to these days? Is there another book in the works?

Well, I have an edition of the satirical 17th century alchemical romance The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkruetz coming out very soon (though I finished almost two years ago). Also, I just started work on a second book on Sophiology. I hadn’t planned on it, but I felt a nudge to explore some ideas I didn’t have time for (and didn’t exactly fit) in The Submerged Reality. I wanted to more deeply investigate the Sophia figure in Gnosticism as well as the notion of the Shekinah in the Kabbalah, among other things. The project will also examine the sophiological insights of the poets William Blake, Thomas Traherne, and Eleanor Farjeon. Other than that, I’m pretty busy farming, beekeeping, and teaching.

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