Thursday, March 4, 2010

Divine Dilemma

We too easily flatten (and think ourselves justified in overlooking) the thinking of the early philosophical lights of the Christian age by reading into them a naive and unreflective Platonism. The polemic of apologetics may veer at times in the direction a heavy-handed condemnation of all the likenesses of truth pretending to the position of the original, but we must ask whether it is after all through some studied intellectual ascent that the original becomes discernible as such.

The always insightful and inspiring Bioluminescences blog offers a reflection (not unflavored by the customary proportion of rosemary) on the situation of idolatry and demonism in the derivation of evil presented in St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation. The familiar Platonic structure of imitation subverting original suggests that we should expect that these two forms of imitative divinity would automatically take pride of place in this derivation. Instead, we find the Doctor of Deathlessness (you can use that one, everybody) thoughtfully developing the imitative impieties in the context of a narrative of descent:
The last paragraph of Chapter 11 traces out a particularly striking picture of that path down through rings of Hell on Earth – a set of dominoes crashing down, one after the other, inevitably. But that idolatry and blatant sinfulness we come to expect are found in the middle of that path. They are neither the first causes nor the final effects, but rather the inglorious unfolding of a tragedy whose root is ingratitude and whose fruit is ignorance.

If ingratitude is the ground from which every impious turn begins, is gratitude a guarantee against impiety? Or are there limiting cases in which the most earnest gratitude would still devolve through demonism into a disappearance of piety? How should we read W. B. Yeats's poem, "Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors?"
What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

What is there to be thankful for in this instruction? I wonder with a shudder at the identity of these instructors. There is the cold, unpitying savor of tragic joy in this precipitous dependence of all things upon... what remains--when all things are said to hang--for them to hang upon? Nothing. Can we be grateful for nothing?

I believe that the possibility of a redemption of Yeats's poetics hangs upon the answer to this question.