The English Philosopher Sir Roger Scruton explains in this visually beautiful documentary why beauty is important and how it relates to the true and the good. Beauty calls to us from beyond. Beauty opens our hearts and minds to the eternal and the transcendent. Sometimes beauty and art can be a substitute for religion but for Roger Scruton they share a joint witness to that reality that calls to us from beyond and offers the experience of homecoming.
I have been reading the work of the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce. Recently two of his major works have been translated into English, The Crisis of Modernity and The Age of Secularization. Del Noce devoted his scholarly life to understanding the rise of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. He had a unique understanding of the emergence of both Communism and Fascism. The standard narrative is that the massive brutality of both of these regimes represents a reaction to the progressive forces of modernity. Demagogues are able to rally people afraid of the progress and liberation of the modern world and are able to usurp power with the rhetoric of scapegoat and security. The descent into barbarism is a parenthesis in history, an interruption in the inevitable forward progress of history in which reason, science and technology will bring in a more just and equitable society.
Del Noce who was a young man when Mussolini came to power and who briefly embraced Marxism but was ultimately unable to reconcile himself to revolutionary violence. Del Noce came to believe that the rise of totalitarianism was not a parenthesis in the march of modernity but that totalitarianism is quintessentially modern. He came to believe that what makes the modern age modern is atheism. Del Noce’s study of the early philosophical writing of Karl Marx convinced him that atheism is foundational for Marxism. In order for man to be free he must be liberated from all dependencies. The greatest of all dependencies is the dependency on God. God must not exist or else man cannot be free. Marx insists that we make ourselves by our own labor or engagement with the world. This absolutely autonomous self is the idol of the modern world and millions have been slaughtered on its altar.
This radical atheism of Marx has profoundly influenced the intellectual culture on both sides of the Atlantic in the Twentieth Century. It is a radical atheism because it is not only faith in God that is attacked but the reality of any transcendent point of reference for humanity. One of the consequences is a change in the nature of philosophy. Philosophy ceases to be a search for the truth and becomes merely instrumental. The question is no longer is it true but does it advance the cause of the revolution, or progress or sexual liberation or whatever the cause may. The worth of ideas is judged by who proposes them and not by any inherent quality. Philosophy is collapsed into politics and politics is collapsed into war. The war can be cold or hot but all that is left is raw power when any sense of universals or moral absolutes is gone.
Del Noce predicted the collapse of Soviet Communism. He thought there were two elements in Marxism, the destructive atheism and relativism, and the romantic, revolutionary impulse which functioned like an atheistic religion. He thought it inevitable that the relativism would consume the romantic, revolutionary and religious side of Marxism and history has born him out. Del Noce said that Marxism failed in the East because it won in the West. But what comes as the result of the triumph of the negative pole of Marxism is not the revolution but the nihilism of the technocratic society. Rather than overturning the bourgeoisie, the atheistic and relativistic side of Marxism has produced a hyper bourgeois society in which any transcendent restraints on capitalism have been rendered impotent. People are controlled by a new totalitarianism that oppresses chiefly by restricting and managing desire. The desire for the transcendent must be anesthetized at all costs.
In the same way the hyper individualism that comes with the radical atheism and the loss of the transcendent must, because of the logic of ideas, lead not to greater and greater individual freedom but to a new kind of totalitarianism where dissenters to the anti-religious and anti-metaphysical mode of the technocratic society will be exiled to “moral concentration camps.” Modernism is not the tide of history running against totalitarianism but the tide running toward it. But also Del Noce said it does not have to be so and religious and metaphysical reality can be rediscovered and indeed cannot be forever suppressed.
Carlo Lancellotti, the translator of Del Noce can explain his work far better than I can. I recommend this YouTube video from Notre Dame and this video from Biola. I think the implications of Del Noce’s work for Christian mission are significant. Among other things opening the religious and metaphysical dimension through beauty and art and serious philosophical discussion become important for reawakening the deepest desires of the human heart so that contemporary people can recover their hunger for the true, the good and the beautiful and the hunger for God.
Here is the link to my sermons on the Cathedral webpage.
Here is a link to a piece that I wrote last year when I visited a famous Blues venue in Austin Texas while attending the General Convention of The Episcopal Church.
Below is the homily I preached at the funeral of the widow of the priest that sponsored me for ordination.
Burial Homily for Gay Hadden Watson
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bangor, Maine, July 25, 2015
By The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding
Jesus says a remarkable thing to his disciples. (John 14:12). He says to them, greater things than I have done you shall do. He has healed the sick. He has fed the multitudes in the desert. He has driven out the evil spirit and set the captives free. He has raised the dead.
Yet he says to his disciples – greater things than I have done you shall do. And this prophecy has come true. Think of the millions that have been helped through the ministry of Christian hospitals. People forget that hospitals are a Christian invention. Millions also have been helped and healed by the ministry of Christian prayer often working hand in glove with the practitioners of the healing arts. Think of the millions of poor that have been fed and people of all sorts who have been liberated from addictions and depression and other oppressions of the spirit. Think of the worldwide effort to eliminate slavery – heroically led by Christian disciples such as William Wilberforce and John Newton – the author of the hymn Amazing Grace. Literally millions upon millions of captives have been set free.
The lame walk and the blind see not only literally but figuratively. People who have been limping through life – they find Christ or better Christ finds them – the church enfolds them – embraces them – they become part of the community of the Holy Spirit – of Christ’s body the church where the lifeblood of his sacrificial love comes through the whole body –and people who have been limping through life begin to walk and run. The prophet Isaiah says that they who wait upon the Lord will rise up as on eagle wings. They shall walk and not tire. They shall run and not faint. People who have been blind to the reality of God – to the significance of eternal and holy things – now see a whole dimension to life they could not see before. Their eyes are opened to see who God is, who Jesus is and to recognize the Lord in the stranger at the door.
And the dead are raised by the millions, as people who are dead in their sins without the knowledge of God and without hope for this life or the life of the world to come discover new real and abundant life – a new life with God and with their neighbors that begins now and which the grave cannot hold.
We are here today to give thanks for the life of Gay Watson and to renew our hope in Jesus Christ the Lord and our faith in the resurrection of the dead in the life of the world to come.
One of the things that we can give thanks for is that Gay completely identified herself with this great work of Christ that he does through his disciples.
Given her family background and the schooling and the social circles with which she was well acquainted, Gay could have married someone with tremendous prospects by the world’s standards. She fell in love with and married a seminarian soon to be a mission priest and spent the best part of her life supporting his ministry and making a home for her husband and sons – a home with enough love and welcome to extend to include the people in the parishes they served. Many, many people were blessed by that warmth and welcome and genuine Christian hospitality and I am one. I shall always be grateful for it and for the many kindnesses that Father Watson and Gay showed to me.
I run into a lot of people who been very successful and around midlife they are looking for a change. They are looking now for significance rather than success. I think Gay chose significance right from the start. She knew she was choosing a sacrificial life. She had clergy in her family. One of her relatives was a Bishop. She knew it would be a life of real sacrifice. There was of course financial sacrifice. Clergy salaries are a bit better now – though still modest by worldly standards.
I remember being in Aroostook County with Father Watson and going to hear a talk on eligibility for food stamps with a view to helping our parishioners and realizing that we were probably qualified.
There are other sacrifices the rectory family makes. If you live in a rectory you have 100 landlords – some of whom think it is their personal mission to keep an eye on the rectory family. You live in a fishbowl. While the parish can be a wonderful support and web of Christian friends for the rectory family – nevertheless, original sin strikes everywhere – and the rectory family can be the victim of great unkindness and of an unfair judgmentalism. It is part of the cost of the ministry. Nobody I think would volunteer for this scrutiny. Some flee from it – unwilling to stick it out and take the good with the bad and soldier on and do their duty. Gay stayed the course.
Some of the sacrifices that the clergy make are quite visible. Some are invisible. The same is true – especially true for rectory families. There are many invisible sacrifices the rectory family makes that make the ministry go and today is a good day to feel the weight of those sacrifices and to give thanks for them – to ask the good Lord for forgiveness and healing for what has been endured that should not have had to be endured and to look at the fruit of that sacrifice.
To be part of what Christ is doing – the greater things that he is doing through his disciples – is to make an investment of Christian love in others not knowing the fruit – not knowing the ultimate significance.
Monica was a widow, and strong Christian. Her son was not. He was a brilliant academic with a playboy lifestyle. She prayed for him every day. She showered him with motherly affection. She prayed for decades. He became St. Augustine, perhaps the greatest Christian thinker of all times.
To be a Christian and to practice the Christian faith and live the Christian faith is to be involved in a ripple effect and you don’t know where the ripples will end. We do know this – St. Paul in the course of talking about the resurrection says – that nothing done in the name of Christ is ever done in vain. We will not know until we get to heaven the full effect of our efforts that look so small and seem so defeated in this life. Our sacrifices are not in vain. God uses them in his plan to accomplish more than we can ask or imagine.
I don’t like it when preachers talk about themselves but I am going to talk about myself for a moment as a way of talking about the impact of the witness of Gay and Father Watson.
It was through Gay that my wife and I were introduced to Father Watson. I had a lot of trouble getting ordained. I was stopped one time. Another time a rector forgot to turn in my paperwork. I had a seminary degree but no strong advocate for my ordination. During the summer after I graduated from seminary my wife and I were shearing sheep in Nova Scotia. We sheared sheep for a woman named Ann Priest. She was a well-known New York actress who owned Blue Island in Nova Scotia. We went out to Blue Island and sheared her wild island sheep. With the door to ordination closed, my wife and I had decided to go back to farming and had bought a farm in Presque Isle, Maine. When Ann Priest asked us what we were going to do after the summer shearing, we said we were going to Presque Isle. Oh, she said. The wife of the rector there was my roommate in prep school. I will give you an introduction.
Ann and Gay talked. Gay and Father talked and before I ever arrived in Presque Isle Father Watson had talked the Bishop of Maine into not closing St. Anne’s mission in Mars Hill because he had the vision to place me there. So let me give you a progress report on one life that was touched by the warmth of the rectory in Presque Isle.
I am now 34 years ordained. I have served 8 churches including a cathedral. I have preached well over 1000 sermons – celebrated the Eucharist more times than that – presided over countless baptisms marriages and funerals. I have obtained a PhD in pastoral theology from Boston College. I have authored four books. I have been a seminary professor with direct teaching of over 500 students. Several of my students are now bishops in Africa. One of my students has started a seminary in Brazil and another teaches at a seminary in Africa. One of my students is leading the renewal and turnaround of a major historic New York City parish. Many of the students that I taught are serving the kinds of places the Watsons served their whole life, places clergy are not standing in line to serve. Who can know where it will end? None of it would’ve happened without Father Watson. Father Watson would not have happened without Gay Watson. And this is just one life they touched. There are many more. Gay’s life was in many ways humble and quiet but it was a life of great significance.
We give thanks to God for all of it.
We did not pretend that Gay was a perfect person. One of the great consolations of the faith is that our hope ultimately does not rest on our accomplishments or our virtues.
Our hope is in the mercy and love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ the Lord. We cling to that and rest our hope in Him and we commend our sister to that never failing love and mercy, knowing that he will bring to perfection the good work begun in her. Amen
A Sermon Preached at the Ordination of Aidan Everett Smith to the Sacred Order of Deacons in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Catskill, NY by the Rector, The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding, March 28, 2015
We have come here today to witness and participate in the celebration of the sacrament of holy orders.
So what is the sacrament? Sacrament is the Latin word; mysterion, the Greek word. The sacrament is a sign, a holy mystery. It is a sign that really and truly participates in the reality to which it points. And the reality to which it points is Christ. In a sacrament there is a real and true presence of Christ, a sacramental presence. Christ is really and truly present in the mystery of the water baptism, in the bread and the wine, when the man and the woman make promises to each other and to God in the face of the congregation, when a penitent makes a confession and the priest utters the words of Christ’s forgiveness, and there is a real and sacramental presence of Christ in this mystery of holy order.
God is bigger than the sacrament, infinitely more, utterly above and beyond. But in and with and through the sacrament Christ is, as Martin Luther says, havable. In the sacrament we can lay hold of Him. He is present and active to accomplish His purposes – to complete the work the Father has given Him to do, to bring many sons and daughters to glory and perfect all things in Himself and offer them to the Father in the power of the Spirit in a cosmic act of Eucharist.
Christ will be present here today in a unique way through this sacrament of holy order. There are three forms of this sacrament of ordering, of ordination: bishop, priest, and deacon. Today the church is gathered here to receive from Christ Himself, present through the Holy Spirit, working in and through the prayers of the whole church, laying His hands on the ordinand through the hands of the Bishop—a new deacon. There is a unique presence of Christ to the person being ordained. Christ is present granting the grace, power and authority for the ordinand to accomplish the work to which they are being called. Christ is also present in and through the ordinand gifting the church with the gift of holy order. The holy order of the church is today being strengthened and amplified so that the work of Christ may go forward both in the church and in the world. In this ordination it is also clear that a share of the order in the church is being placed in the hands of a new generation.
So what is the gift of Holy Order? In what way is it a participation in Christ and an effectual sign of His presence in and through His Church? All the sacraments are about salvation, about God fixing us, healing us, blessing us, making us whole and holy and not only us but also about God healing and making new the whole creation, the whole cosmos. Doesn’t St. Paul say, in Chapter 8 of Romans that the whole creation is groaning in travail like a woman in childbirth waiting for the appearing of sons of God? God’s purpose in Jesus Christ the Lord is to remake the human race as the first stage of remaking and renewing the whole creation.
In the beginning the Father brought out of nothingness the good creation. He spoke it into existence through a Word of eternal Love–the Word who is the eternal Son of God and who became incarnate in Jesus Christ the Lord. It is the will of God that the whole cosmos should be a harmony of love—such that the whole creation is a song of praise and adoration to the Father, each and every creature rightly related to each and every other creature, all bound together by the Holy Spirit of Love through whom the Father and the Son delight themselves in each other.
At the pinnacle of this creation, at the top of this creation of love God creates the man and the woman. They are to know God’s love and to return it freely and to delight in and care for the good creation and lead creation’s praises to the Father through the Son and in the power of the Spirit.
Out of the chaos of nothingness God has created a cosmos. The cosmos is the ordered creation that has been spoken into existence through the eternal Word of God’s love. The cosmos is a hierarchy, a holy order of love. The creation, the cosmos is itself a sacrament of the Creator. The creation does not contain God. We are not pantheists but the creation does participate in the divine order of God’s love, in God’s holy order, in God’s hierarchy.
Since God’s holy order is a holy order of love, there must be freedom. Where there is freedom there is the possibility of rebellion. The Bible points in a mysterious way to a rebellion that precedes the rebellion of Adam and Eve. A rebellion against God’s loving order has already taken place. The poet Milton imagines that Satan says, “better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven,” and so the hierarchy of God’s love is rejected. The man and the woman reject God’s order and they become profoundly disordered. They have a disordered relationship with God and with each other and with the rest of the creation. The question of salvation is a question of hierarchy, of holy order and how holy order is to be restored.
Hierarchy has become a suspect word in our time. But it is a perfectly good church word. It means literally holy order, hieros arche, holy order. The sacrament we come to celebrate today is the sacrament of hierarchy, of holy order and one of the things that is happening is that someone is being made a member of the hierarchy of the church. The hierarchy of the church exists by God’s providence so that there may be in the church and through the church in the world, a sacramental presence, a real presence of the havable Christ reordering us, recreating us, delivering us from chaos into cosmos and from disorder into holy order.
Here is what is happening in this ordination. The crucified and risen Lord comes to the apostles in the upper room where they are hiding after the crucifixion, appears and shows them his hands and his side. He breathes on them and into them and says, “my Peace – my shalom – I give you.” And what is the shalom of the Lord but the holy order of the Father’s love perfected in the future which the Son has just won for them at the price of the cross– that future as the prophet Isaiah says where there shall be no more disease, no more hurting or killing, where the lion and Lamb will lie down together – where death itself is vanquished, where the knowledge of God covers the earth as the waters cover the sea and where God is all in all. This shalom – this Holy, right ordering Spirit, he breathes into them and then says to them, “as the Father has sent me even so send I you.”
In the sacrament of order the Lord gives the gift of his spirit which makes apostles. He puts forth his crucified and glorified hands in, with and through the hands of the Bishop and gives to the ordinand a share in the apostolic vocation which is to create a people in, with and through whom God will establish his holy order of love. A people completely surrendered and subject to Jesus Christ, living under his hierarchy. A people living under the rule of love and by the law of love and oriented, ordered, taking their bearing, fixing their aim toward the perfection of all things in the love of God himself– Jesus Christ the Lord.
The crucified and risen Lord searches out these frightened and discouraged men utterly sunk in darkness and chaos, and by the gift of his spirit – which is the spirit of the resurrection and which comes at the price of the cross – he re-creates them. He brings them out of chaos and places them in holy order that they might by their life of witness and worship be a sacrament of the new life, the new creation, the new cosmos which he brings up out of the grave– the kingdom which will come on earth as it is in heaven – the kingdom – the holy order of law.
The gathered apostles are a sacrament of the cosmos renewed and re-created in love by the sacrifice the Savior. This community which is born in the encounter with the crucified and risen Lord is a sacrament of Christ himself, victorious over the chaos of sin and evil and death, breathing into the world new life – the holy order of shalom. The church cannot contain Christ. He is too big. But he is really and truly present in the church. He is havable here. He is havable in and through the words of the scripture, and in and through the bread and wine, and in and through the fellowship and service in his name, and he is havable in and through those who are the successors of the apostles who by the power of the Holy Spirit have received the gift of holy order and therefore the vocation to be a sacrament within the church of the crucified and risen Lord breathing his shalom into men and women – restoring them to the holy order for which they were made – so that the church can fulfill itself as the body of Christ – his sacrament in the world of the first fruits of the kingdom of love – the life of the new cosmos – the new creation.
Bishops have the fullness of this gift. Priests and deacons have a share in the bishop’s ministry. They assist him in different ways. The priest is sacramental sign of Christ the priest, the pastor and the teacher. The deacon is an icon and sacramental sign of Christ the servant, who came not to be served but to serve.
The church is a great democracy. It is a great democracy of sinners and a great democracy of the redeemed. The ground at the foot of the cross is flat and before the holiness of the sacrificial love of the Savior, we are all alike lost, all alike saved. In this sense the church is the most egalitarian organization that can be imagined.
But the church is also thoroughly hierarchical. It is an upside down hierarchy where he who would be first of all must be least of all. It is a very strict hierarchy. It is a hierarchy of love and sacrifice.
The Bishop and those who share in his ministry, the priests and the deacons, have by the gift of holy order, authority. They are to be a sacrament of Christ’s rule in his church, of Christ’s very own power and authority. And what might be the character of that authority? It is the character of sacrificial love which bears in itself the gift of new life – a life rightly ordered to God and to our brothers and sisters and to the new order of God’s new creation which is both come and coming.
The clergy must nourish this gift of order by returning again and again to the witness of the Apostles and to the apostolic encounter with the crucified and risen Lord where we know ourselves as sinners redeemed at great cost and as people delivered out of the chaos of a disordered life and into the holy order of God’s love. The clergy must give no other witness than the witness of the Apostles and convey intact their teaching and practice that the prayer which the saviour says over them might come true, “Even as the Father sends me, send I you.”
The clergy will fail, poor and frail human beings are bound to fail. Yet even when they do, in, with and through the sacrament of holy order there is a real presence of Christ in his church showing his people his hands and his side breathing into them new life. After all, the promises of God are irrevocable. Such promises are given in the sacrament of order.
Now Aidan in a few moments this congregation will join the prayers of Angels and archangels bidding the Holy Spirit to come upon you by the laying on of the Bishop’s hands – to the end that you might have the gift, calling and authority to be one of those through whom the crucified and risen Lord is really and truly present to his people – showing them the wounds of his love now glorified by the power of the spirit that he’s breathing into them – the spirit of God’s shalom. You are to be part of the holy order of the church so that the church – the whole people of God – can be the sacrament of Christ’s holy order in the world – so that many people shall be brought out of chaos and death to cosmos and the eternal life of God’s love.
Your seminary degree is well-earned. You have studied diligently. The sacrament of holy order which you are about to receive is unearned and undeserved and is yours by the providence of God and by his absolutely gratuitous mercy. It is a particular form and an intensification of the crucified and risen Lord reaching out to you – showing you the wounds of his love and breathing new life into you, bringing you out of chaos into cosmos and giving you a part, a share in His world changing work. He first did this in your baptism – He renews it in every Eucharist. Here He is touching you in, with, and through the hands of the Bishop, breathing into you His holy order, His shalom – so that your servanthood will take this special form and bear much fruit – so that Jesus Christ may be havable in the world in with and through his people. Christ is here today. The Spirit is here today. Breathe deeply. Amen