The Wor(l)d before the Word
Prof. Johannes Hoff, Ph.D. (Heythrop College, London)
Michel de Certeau’s infamous thesis that the Holy Scripture became mute after the sixteenth- and seventeenth century uncovered a paradigm shift that transformed not only our theological and spiritual understanding of the word. It also transformed our modern understand of the world. As Charles Taylor has argued more recently, the ‘great disembedding’ of the modern age was accompanied by the emergence of a ‘buffered self’ that perceives the world as a uniformly objectifiable impersonal order. What had changed in our social imaginary?
For a long time the Christian understanding of the ‘word’ was intrinsically connected to the public performance of the Holy Scriptures in accordance with the yearly cycles, historical changes, and vagaries of time. In this way, it shaped our perception of time and space. Only after the Reformation this cosmic contextualisation of the gospel dwindled away. ‘The word’ was increasingly perceived as a positive entity (‘the bible’) – a mute object that required its custodians not primarily to listen but to act.
This explains the paradox of modern Christianity: Thanks to Guttenberg and the Reformation, ‘the bible’ became available to every literate individual; but its spiritual significance appeared now, more than ever, to be a hidden secret. As the shared liturgical imagination of the past ran wild, so the desire to uncover the ‘deeper meaning’ of the ‘divine word’ was forced to rely more and more on professional interpreters who made it speak again. The liturgical focus on the habit of listening became replaced by the ideological focus on rhetoricians, educated preachers, theologians, and catechists that relied on their trained capacity to make themselves heard.
This phonocentric professionalization of ‘the word’ was accompanied by a symmetric, ocolocentric professionalization of our perception of ‘the world’. While the public authority of the word was increasingly subjected to the authority of educated teaching agencies, mathematically educated scientists subjected the authority of our (primarily visual) perception of the world to the secretive authority of scientific academies and learned societies.
The last shift explains why our scientific and philosophical knowledge became increasingly detached from its contemplative and spiritual roots. In the age of Galileo and Newton it was still possible to relate the articulation of scientific theories to spiritual practices, or to contemplative forms of theoria in the Platonic or Aristotelian sense of this word. But this was no longer the main concern of the innovators of this time. Hence, Descartes’ Meditations of 1641 marked a kind of threshold – the transition point from the premodern concept of theoria, which built on practices of meditation and contemplation, to the modern concept of science, which builds on the mathematically modelled manipulation of ‘empirical facts’.
Descartes summarised this new concept of scientific theorizing in the following words: “I have described this Earth, and indeed the whole visible universe, as if it were a machine”. However, the machine-like cosmology of the emerging modern age built on a philosophical assumption that was anything but self-evident: the world that we inhabit had to be represented by a detached observer who adopts a ‘view from nowhere’.
As we have learned from phenomenologists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and psychologist and neurologists, like Iain McGilchrist, and James J. Gibson, this account of human knowledge and perception is anthropologically unrealistic. The things in my world have the power to make me act and respond to their presence – they speak to me with a silent voice. For similar reasons, premodern philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas still knew that practices of prayer and contemplation are more than a private activity. Contemplative practices bring us back to our responsive basic attitude towards the world: They enable us to act in response to a world that speaks.
What are the implications of this return of a repressed past for our understanding of the sacramentality of ‘the word’? Is it still possible to recover liturgical practices that enable us to listen and respond to the ‘sacramentality of the world’ in a way that is of more than private relevance? The last possibility would not only require Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) to overcome the clerical and academic paternalism of modern Christianity with regard to the ‘word’ without undermining the sensus fidelis for its public significance. It would also require us to question the ‘anthropological turn’ of modern theology, and the accompanying modern dualism between vision and audition, which forces theologians to focus on the linguistic or communicative capacities of human ‘subjects’ in order to provide a ‘critical’ account of the divine word.
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