The Holy Image: Dogma as Object of Attention

In our day the term dogma has an altogether negative connotation. “Dogma still smells the same,” someone once said, “whether it comes from the podium or the pulpit.” And, however any dogma might give off its aroma, we have the Columbian writer and thinker Nicolas Gomez Davila telling us, “Modern man does not love, but seeks refuge in love; does not hope, but seeks refuge in hope; does not believe, but seeks refuge in dogma.” Dogma is to be encountered anywhere and everywhere with no exception, it seems to me, even and perhaps most especially in those areas of human endeavor that claim to have none.

Of course, the Church has her dogmas of the Faith, i.e., doctrines or bodies of doctrines formally and authoritatively confirmed, having developed them over many centuries, beginning with the Council of Nicaea in the year 325. Foremost among them are the dogmas of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation. What am I, a long-time student of anthroposophy and a lover of Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom, to do with these dogmas or any other dogmas of the Faith? Brush them aside, this being my native right as a free spirit? On the other hand, what am I, a believing and worshipping member of the Church Catholic to do with them? Assent to them, as is my duty in being a practicing Catholic, and simply not bother my head about them for the rest of my life?

Now, for Simone Weil, this argument for the right of the intelligence to exercise itself with complete liberty constitutes sufficient reason to remain outside the Church (quite apart from her many arguments on other matters relating to this stance in the Letter). For me, however, this argument delivers the same intelligence from an impasse, allowing me actually to move still closer to the Church. With Weil I unhesitatingly affirm that “complete liberty within its own sphere is essential to the intelligence”. But I equally affirm with her that “we owe the definitions with which the Church has thought it right to surround the mysteries of the faith, and more particularly its condemnations (. . . anathema sit) a permanent and unconditional attitude of respectful attention, but not an adherence.”

We owe the definitions with which the Church has thought it right to surround the mysteries of the faith, and more particularly its condemnations (. . . anathema sit) a permanent and unconditional attitude of respectful attention, but not an adherence.

We likewise owe a respectful attention to opinions that have been condemned, to the extent – be it ever so small – to which their content, or the life of those who propounded them, contains some show of good.

Intellectual adherence is never owed to anything whatsoever. For it is never in any degree a voluntary thing. Attention alone is voluntary. And it alone forms the subject of an obligation.

If one tries to bring about in oneself an intellectual adherence by the exercise of the will, what actually results is not an intellectual adherence, but suggestion. That is what Pascal’s method amounts to. Nothing degrades faith more. And there necessarily appears, sooner or later, a compensatory phenomenon in the shape of doubts and ‘temptations against faith’.

Nothing has contributed more towards weakening faith and encouraging unbelief than the mistaken conception of an obligation on the part of intelligence. All obligations other than the one of attention which itself is imposed on the intelligence in the exercise of its function stifle the soul – the whole soul, not the intelligence only.

The jurisdiction of the Church in matters of faith is good in so far as it imposes on the intelligence a certain discipline of the attention; also in so far as it prevents it from entering the domain of the Mysteries, which is foreign to it, from straying about therein.

It is altogether bad in so far as it prevents the intelligence, in the investigation of truths which are the latter’s proper concern, from making a completely free use of the light diffused in the soul by loving contemplation. Complete liberty within its own sphere is essential to the intelligence. The intelligence must either exercise itself with complete liberty, or else keep silent. Within the sphere of the intelligence, the Church has no right of jurisdiction whatsoever; consequently, and more particularly, all ‘definitions’ where it is a question of proofs are unlawful ones.

In so far as ‘God exists’ is an intellectual proposition – but only to that extent – it can be denied without committing any sin at all either against charity or against faith. (And, indeed, such a negation, formulated on a provisional basis, is a necessary stage in philosophical investigation.)

A permanent and unconditional attitude of respectful attention, she says, and don’t we owe (i.e., have a moral obligation to adopt) the same attitude toward any great work of art, whether the work is music, painting, poetry, or drama? Or for that matter architecture? Or even, if one is so-minded, philosophy? Yet can we in all seriousness say that we owe the same works of art our adherence? What could that possibly mean – to adhere, whether I understood it or not, whether I were moved by it or not – to Wordsworth’s Prelude, or to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, or to Coventry Cathedral? In this light, can we not consider all dogmas of the church to be great works art, not to be adhered to, but – far better in any case– to be given a permanent and unconditional attitude of respectful attention? As in the Eastern Orthodox Church the faithful venerate holy icons, so might I in this “unconditional attitude” come to venerate the dogma of the Holy Trinity and all other dogmas of the Church. Please understand, dear Reader, that I would not seriously now be suggesting this approach toward the teachings of the Church if I did not really believe with my whole heart that here is a way in complete freedom to come to the certainty of the truth in these dogmas, whether it is a matter of the dogma of the Holy Trinity or whether it is a matter for instance of the dogma of the Bodily Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven (yes, even though I am Anglican and the Anglican Church does not teach it, I nevertheless have for many years given this dogma the “permanent and unconditional attitude of respectful attention” I feel it deserves ).

Not long ago, an exhibit of seventeenth century Dutch paintings came to the Vancouver Art Gallery. Among the paintings in this exhibit there was one which, to me, clearly called for “a permanent and unconditional attitude of respectful attention”. This was The Beheading of John the Baptist by Rembrandt. Accordingly, on my two visits to the exhibit, I spent nearly an hour each time sitting in front of this one painting, to the exclusion of all others (yes, even to the exclusion of Vermeer’s The Love Letter, lovely as it was to look on). Could it come as any surprise to you, dear Reader, were I to tell you that this painting told me many deep and wonderful things during those two visits I had before it? People came and people went, spending on average maybe ten or fifteen seconds looking the painting over, before they moved on. I did not move on. I stayed where I was, gazing. For nearly an hour, on two different occasions, I sat there gazing. One of the curators came over and sat beside me and told me that she had never seen anybody do what I was doing. I told her, in my own carefully chosen words, that I was trying to give this painting the “permanent and unconditional attitude of respectful attention” I felt it deserved. I was very happy sitting there. Wonder to tell, I was amply rewarded. To this day I cannot say that I “adhere” to this great painting, but what I can say is that I have felt immeasurably graced with its truth. Its revelations continue even now as I write.

The dogmas of Faith can become objects of supreme attention; they can even become Holy Images to venerate. Do not be shocked, dear Reader, if I speak of faith and the dogmas of faith and of holy icons – I, who am a student anthroposophy and who would stake all for a single ray of living spiritual knowledge in the grace of a moment. I do not care to divide sharply the distinction between faith and knowledge. Though faith properly understood is not formal knowledge of an object, it can be, as Nicolas Gomez Davila has so aptly suggested, communion with an object, whether that object is a great painting by Rembrandt or a great dogma of the Church.

Pax et bonum,
Randall Scott

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