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Catholicism and Transcendentalism: The Christian Consciousness

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Christian Consciousness 280x280The important 1967 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Populorum progressio (On the development of peoples) called for, among other things, a new transcendental humanism (§16, §20). In May 2011, Pope Benedict XVI, addressing the faculty of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, renewed the call for “a new, integral and transcendent humanism.”

Precisely such a transcendental humanism can be found articulated with great depth, insight, and beauty in the literature of the 19th century American Transcendentalists and Unitarians, many of whom were Christian. I believe that modern Roman Catholics would do well to examine this literature.  It is a treasure-trove of ideas and inspiration, and the ‘old religion’ expressed in a form uniquely suited to the American mind.

As an example, below are excerpts from an 1859 discourse by Octavius B. Frothingham, ‘The Christian Consciousness, Its Elements and Expression’.  (O. B. Frothingham, Christian Consciousness. Philadelphia, 1859; pp. 3—33).

* * * *

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit. (John 15:5a)

“HAVE you ever fairly mastered this thought: That once upon a time, eighteen hundred years ago, what we call Christianity was all gathered up in the person of a single man, who lived and breathed like other men, in the far-off land of Judea, — when Christ was Christianity, and all the Christianity there was on earth? … In that remote corner of the earth, Jesus of Nazareth stands alone, uncomprehended by the few who love him, despised or feared by the few who love him not, unheeded by the many who see in him nothing by which he can be distinguished from common humanity; solitary in person, and solitary in spirit, having little in common with his generation; solitary, with his great Religion folded in the secret place of his own heart. The mighty Truths which the world hail as revelations and build up into confessions, are his private thoughts. The creative forces which have wrought such moral results, and even something like a transformation in the sentiments of the most elevated portion of mankind, are the silent affections of his heart. The regenerating principles which have effected so much towards the growth of a new order of humanity, are the deep convictions of his individual conscience; and profoundly hidden in the experiences of his soul, are the spiritual laws that have since purified the piety and re-constructed the worship of millions of men. In that one peculiar being, as in a seed, [Christendom lies latent.] … The seed fulfils the conditions of all growth. It falls into the ground and dies.

“Ere long the fruit it was to bear, begins to appear. Little clusters of people like grapes on a vine are found in cities both near and remote from the place where he lived. They cling to each other. They grow together as if united by a common life, and attract the notice of all men by the singularity of their worship and behavior…. To them existence is not what it was; the world is not what it was; new thoughts occupy their minds; fresh affections, making old things seem distasteful, are yearning after congenial intercourse; an awakened moral sense abhors the practices in which they had before innocently engaged, and makes another order of the world necessary to their peace and satisfaction; strange hopes have taken hold on their souls; strange aspirations and purposes, which have altered their whole attitude towards their generation. They are one in the sympathy of a common Faith, Hope, and Charity. And what has begotten in these people, this new and singular spirit? They have seen, heard, conversed with, the men to whom this Jesus had communicated himself through some subtle influence which they could neither explain to themselves nor to others. They had no insight into his motives or intentions. Up to the very last hour of his life, they indulged a hope, which all his life long he had been laboring to dispel. His immortal ideas they failed to grasp, while they clung to his less significant words with a tenacity that nothing could loose. Yet, through all their stupidity and prejudice, his spirit had found its way to theirs. His being had bathed them like an atmosphere; had refreshed them like another climate. His character had shed itself like an aroma from his person, and penetrated invisibly to their natures’ roots. The mild radiance of his presence, the beaming of his face, the glance of his eye, the accents of his voice interpreting to their hearts words which their understanding could not apprehend, the indescribable serenity of his mien, so holy and so gracious, all expressed and imparted the spiritual life that was in him, so that when he died, that life was in various forms reproduced in those that knew him, according to their degree of susceptibility. And these, again, borne like seeds on the breath of the Spirit, spread the divine contagion even to distant lands, and made the attributes of the inward Christ visible in multitudes of communions, some of which knew him not, even by name.

“You will understand now what I mean by saying that Christianity was LIVED into the world. It was not built up by any skill in organizing establishments. It was not planted by sheer force of authoritative teaching. Men were not drilled into it, nor indoctrinated into it; they were BORN into it. It came to them as inspiration comes, and the effect of its coming was a new CONSCIOUSNESS, a new motive force, an original stamp of mind, and style of character. In a word, there was another life in the race….

“Christianity, let me repeat, was LIVED into the world. As a life, it reproduced and extended itself.   Its tendency, at least, nowhere completely fulfilled, it is true, but everywhere pushing against the obstacles in its path, was to re-animate and re-construct human relations….

“We have heard much lately about the Christian ‘CONSCIOUSNESS,’ as distinct from particular forms of belief or modes of thought; a general state of mind and affection that belongs to all genuine Christians alike, the partaking of which makes one a Christian, the lack of which makes one to be not a Christian; a prevailing and determining spirit, which, having the hidings of its power far down among the roots of human nature, distributes a secret but vital and quickening influence all through the substance of the moral and spiritual being, and diffuses abroad an aroma too delicate to be caught and imprisoned in symbolical books and sacred confessions, yet powerful enough to impress every spiritual sense and stimulate every spiritual desire. I believe there is such a spiritual Consciousness, common to all Christians, and distinguishing them from all who are not Christians more clearly than divines have ever succeeded in doing, while, at the same time, it prevents Christians, however artificially divided among themselves, from falling out finally with one another; a spiritual Consciousness which is nothing more or less than the mind of Jesus organizing itself in humanity….

“These are thoughts, vast, deep, shadowy. They are not dogmas; they are not opinions. They are spoiled and clipped by logical definition. They are spiritual truths, addressing themselves to the higher reason, which each may define for himself who can, or may innocently leave in the indistinctness which the soul best loves. They are inferences from what the Christian regards not as a notion but as a fact, a fact of inward assurance, a great conviction, that abides as a cornerstone, immovable in the deep soil of his heart. They are his translation into thought of a feeling that is deeper than all thought and runs before it.”

* * * *

One must read this material selectively. Along with sublime thoughts are a few prejudices and errors – many American Transcendentalists and Unitarians rejected, along with the harsh doctrines of Calvinism (from whence these movements evolved), many fine and noble elements of traditional Christianity.  For example, Frothingham writes,

“Put the intervening centuries by. Let your imaginations brush away, like so much dust on a window-pane, the vast Church that stands between you and him. Disappear, pope, cardinal, and priest; cathedral, chapel, shrine, altar, vestments, symbol, cross and goblet, keys and dove; vanish, creeds of every complexion, sects of every name.”

That is, in his appeal to  readers that they consult directly their Reason, Conscience, and intuitions for direct evidences of God, he goes further to question the validity of certain external forms of religion.  But remember that if we demand perfection of our saints, we shall have no saints. Despite certain prejudices, many of which are understandable if one considers the historical context, there is much that is saintly in these writings.

This caveat notwithstanding, there are times reading this literature that I am struck with a conviction that, in it, the prisca theologia, the ancient and venerable religion, reached its highest level of literary expression, before the radical materialism of the 20th century eclipsed the spiritual senses.  It remains there, providential, evidence of the action of the Holy Spirit in history, for us to consult and build upon.

This Old World religion, brought by the Puritans to New England and developed in the rich soil of village life in colonial America, I recognize as the same spiritual tradition in essence and fundamentals that was transmitted to me by Catholic sisters and priests at the parochial schools I attended as a child.

I should certainly try to follow up this post with more detail about the 19th century American Christian Transcendentalists and Unitarians.  One note of general interest to add here is that there is a direct literary and ideological connection between these writers and the Cambridge Platonists of the 17th century.  Besides Frothingham, some names of particular interest are William Ellery Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Francis Henry Hedge, and Abiel A. Livermore; but there are dozens more.

Additional Readings

Frothingham, Octavius B. Transcendentalism in New England. New York: Putnam, 1876.

Gardiner, Harold C. (Ed.). American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal. New York: Scribner, 1958.

Howe, Daniel Walker. The Cambridge Platonists of Old and New England. Church History, 57, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 470-485. Reprinted as Ch. 7, ‘The Platonic Quest in New England’ in: Daniel Walker Howe, Making the American Self, 189-211. Oxford University Press, 2009 (orig. 1997).

Livermore, Abiel A. Discourses. Boston: Crosby, Nichols & Co., 1854.

Wells, Ronald V. Three Christian Transcendentalists: James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry, Frederic Henry Hedge. Columbia University Press, 1943.

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The Theory of Human Collective Memory and the Atonement of Jesus Christ

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On this Good Friday, the points below try to tie together in a new way two different concepts:  the theory of the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ, and the theory of a human collective mind or collective memory.

1. Many psychologists (Jung and Freud included) have believed in the possibility of a collective mind or memory pool for the entire human race, such that, by some as-yet unspecified non-physical means, a mental experience of one person, once had, may become available for all other human beings to experience.  Some (limited) experimental evidence supports this theory.

2. The principle of a collective memory or collective mind is also found in many esoteric traditions (e.g., the Akashic Records of theosophy, the Adam Kadmon in the Kabbala, etc.)

3. Such a principle of a metaphysical collective mind would supply a possible mechanism for understanding in a new way the meaning of the theological principle of the ‘substitutive atonement of Jesus Christ’.

4. The theological doctrine of Jesus’ substitutive atonement holds that, by his life, passion, and death on the cross, Jesus Christ accomplished the actual or potential reconciliation (at-one-ment) of all human beings to God.

5. The atonement doctrine has several variants.  One especially problematic, but common, version is that Jesus literally, by his death, paid a ‘blood guilt’ or penal debt or which mankind incurred through disobedience to God. The difficulty with this is that it relies heavily on the terrible Calvinist doctrine of the innate depravity of human beings.  It also makes God out to be rather ungenerous, if not outright malicious, in requiring that a ‘blood guilt’ price be paid.

6. The collective mind theory supplies a potentially new perspective on the atonement of Christ:  by willingly accepting death, and completely subordinating his own personal will, Jesus of Nazareth achieved a level of humility, unselfishness, and union with God’s will entirely new for the human race. It set a new precedent of egolessness.

7. Jesus Christ having done this, then the thoughts, judgments, and insights by which he reached this peak of moral attainment, being those of a human being, would be deposited in the collective mind of humanity.  Thenceforth, all other human beings could potentially tap into this new mindset, and imitate it.

8. If so, this would potentially explain *why* God would want to incarnate as a human being, Jesus Christ.  In order to deposit those insights, judgments, etc. of Jesus Christ that enabled him to completely overcome his human ego into the collective mind of humanity, God would need to become a man himself.

9. Further, this model would help explain how individual Christians may follow in Christ’s steps.  Each person, by engaging in some new moral precedent or new sacrifice for the sake of humanity, would deposit new material in the collective mind, and thereby enable other human beings to do likewise.

10.  This mechanism would operate in addition to that of the historical and social example set by Jesus Christ, as transmitted by oral and written tradition, which is also a means by which the life, passion, and death of Jesus may be imitated and contributes to the atonement of humanity with God.

The Communion of Saints

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A search for a clear exposition of this distinctive and sublime Christian teaching revealed Wyllys Rede’s book, The Communion of Saints (Longmans, 1893). This charming devotional work has three special virtues:

First, it is plainly a labor of love.  Rede discloses that he lost both parents in infancy and felt a later spiritual connection with them; this interest, and the study and reflection pursuant to it, formed the earnest foundation of the book.

Second, a generous, diverse and interesting selection of quotes from earlier literature is supplied.

Third, the material was first delivered as a series of lectures; this often has, as here, the effect of enhancing the content, reasoning, and organization of a work.

Rede consistently appeals to the instincts and intuitions of the readers, diplomatically sidestepping and deflecting certain historical contentions that have sometimes surrounded the topic.

Though an Episcopalian cleric, Rede takes a non-denominational perspective.

An interesting detail from the author’s life is that, at age 3, he sat on the knee of President Lincoln and was entertained with stories immediately preceding to the latter’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address.

The chapters are as follows:

1. What is the Communion of Saints?

2. Is there a Life after Death?

3.Where are the Souls of Departed Saints?

4. Do the Saints departed Live a Conscious Life?

5. What is the Relationship of Departed Saints to us?

6. What is our Relationship to Departed Saints?

7. What is the Relationship of all Saints to God?

As seen, the book is structured in the form of questions which, the author candidly observes, are those which people naturally wonder about.  Below we excerpt the principle questions of each chapter, and the author’s conclusions concerning them.

1. What is the Communion of Saints?

What is the Communion of Saints?

The word “communion” is not difficult to define. It means a common share or fellowship. When used in a religious sense, it means a mystical partnership in some supernatural grace or life. [p. 4]

By the communion of saints we mean the spiritual relationship which knits together all God’s saints in the mystical Body of Christ. [p. 4]

To whom can we properly apply the title of “saints”?

I claim the name of saint for every soul [living or dead] that has been baptized into Christ and tries to live up to its baptismal vows. I claim it for every life that can with any degree of truth be called a consecrated life. I claim it for every one (however frail, however full of faults) who yet looks longingly before where Christ has gone and tries to follow Him. [p. 11]

2. Is there a Life after Death?

[His answer is yes. This chapter mainly sets the stage for subsequent discussion. Iit can be skipped or lightly read without limiting understanding or appreciation of later chapters.]

3. Where are the Souls of Departed Saints?

Rede affirms the traditional teaching that souls must await the Last Judgment at the end of the world before reaching a final reward with God in heaven.  This period(?) between death and the Last Judgement is termed the intermediate state.  For the virtuous, it is envisaged as a kind of Paradise, more a ‘school for souls’ than a place of punishment.   Supporting this view, Rede cites the words of Jesus on the cross to the penitent thief: Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43) Rede draws particular attention to the words today, which implies something immanent, not delayed until after the Last Judgment; and with me, which suggests a continuing connection or relationship of the soul to Jesus in this paradisiacal state.

The possibility that souls of the unjust go to another place, and undergo a purgatorial purification, is also considered.

Do they [departed souls] go at once to their final abode?

Every human soul must wait until its body has been raised from the grave, and God’s general judgment passed before it can enter on its final state. [p. 49]

Is there an intermediate state in which the spirit lives and waits the coming of God’s own good time ?

Our Church, our Creed, and our Bible tell us that there is. The Church in all ages, especially her earliest, has believed in such a state of life. [p. 51]

Where is their [just souls’] abode, and what their life between the hour of death and the judgment-day?

The Holy Scriptures teach us distinctly, though somewhat indirectly, of the existence and character of the intermediate state. [p. 52]

By Paradise He [Jesus] must have meant some intermediate state preparatory to the heavenly life into which He was later on to ascend. [p. 53]

The conclusions to be drawn from this parable [the rich man and Lazarus]; seem to me to be partly these: that the life of the soul goes on after death in some place or state provided by God for disembodied souls; that this has two divisions or states of life widely separated from each other, at least in the tenor of their existence. In one of them the spirits of the saints (represented by Lazarus) enjoy rest, refreshment, and companionship. In the other, those who have squandered their lives and hardened their hearts to the extent of final impenitence, await with apprehension the just and final judgment of their God. [pp. 59 – 60].

They have entered a new cosmical sphere of life, which differs totally from this material sphere of time and space. [p. 64]

“an inward realm where life lays bare its root, whereas in this world it shows only the branches of the tree.” [quoting Hans Lassen Martensen; p. 65]

“a kingdom of calm thought and self-fathoming, a kingdom of remembrance in the full sense of the word.” [quoting Hans Lassen Martensen; p. 65]

They are spending “a school-time of contemplation,” as in this world they endured “a discipline of service.” [quoting Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman; p. 65].

This word [Paradise] our Lord used, and ever since it has been a consecrated word, and has been understood to mean the outer court of heaven, the gardens of delight which stretch about the dwelling-place of God, the pleasant land in which all faithful souls shall dwell until they enter in through the everlasting doors into the palace of the Great King. Its beauty must be transcendent, its delights infinite. It must be worthy of that city of God which it surrounds, worthy to be the royal road that leads up to gates of pearl and into streets of gold. [pp. 62-3]

4. Do the Saints departed Live a Conscious Life?

Is the life of the soul in the Intermediate State a conscious life?

In His [Jesus’] promise to the penitent thief upon the cross He distinctly asserts the continuance of consciousness.… It must imply that the soul is not shorn of its powers in Paradise. [p. 74]

Having, as I trust, established the fact of consciousness in the future life, we want to know what are its activities. With what is it occupied? How is it limited?

At death soul and body separate, and the soul begins to live alone. It no longer receives its impressions through sensations of the body…. The mind acts, but no longer through bodily media. The result is a great quickening of the mental and spiritual faculties. [p. 76]

The intellectual and spiritual life is unhindered now, and a magnificent horizon opens before it in which it is free to range. [p. 76]

What are the occupations of the life beyond the grave? With what are souls busy in the unseen world?

I answer, they are undergoing a process of soul-growth and ripening, a progressive sanctification, a purification from the defilements of this world. [p. 77]

Does the soul in Paradise remember the past?

Without the contrast which memory would draw between the “evil things ” which he had suffered in his earthly life and the “good things ” which he now enjoyed, he would be deprived of a large part of his reward. [p. 82]

The pure and precious loves of this life are not forgotten in the life to come. God is love, and He will not quench any love that has a right to live. [pp. 82-3]

And if there come thoughts of penitence and visions of past sins, as come they must, with them will come a fuller knowledge of the loving mercy of their Lord to soothe the self-accusing pangs of memory. [p. 83]

Shall God, who gave man knowledge, hide it from him at the very time when He is perfecting him for an entrance into the very fulness of knowledge? I know not. What will be the limits of that knowledge we may not dare to define; but that in its gradual growth it will far surpass the knowledge possible in this world we may rest assured. [pp. 84-5]

5. What is the Relationship of Departed Saints to us?

How much do they know of our present life and needs? Are all the events of the world’s history and of our individual experience known to them?

Knowledge of all that goes on here might be rather a hindrance than a help [p. 105]

While they do not know by their own powers of perception what passes here, such knowledge may be conveyed to them through other avenues. Their numbers are increasing day by day, and each soul that goes hence carries with it into the other world some news from this. The angels, as they go to and fro upon their ministries from God to men, let fall by the way so much as God permits them to tell of what is going on here. Finally, our Lord Himself imparts to the souls which dwell in His nearer presence something, as much as it is best for them to know, of what is happening to those whom they have loved and left behind. Thus, while we have no proof that they know of themselves all that is passing here, we are at liberty to think that their loving Lord lets them have such knowledge of us as they need. [pp. 107-8]

While we do not suppose that the saints in Paradise are directly cognizant of what is said or done by us, we are led to think that our Lord reveals to them so much of it as is best for them to know. [p. 120]

Do the saints in Paradise pray?

The souls in Paradise are with Christ, in a closer fellowship than was possible on earth. Their speech with Him must, therefore, be freer than it was before. It must be frequent, frank, and unrestrained. [p. 110]

Do they pray for us?

The  souls in Paradise are still the same souls. They have not lost their identity. Their traits of character and their affections are the same as before, only exalted and purified. All that was good in them remains unchanged, except for the better. They love us still, they think of us, they long for the time when we shall join them in their holy home. Therefore they must pray for us. They must often and earnestly ask God to work His will in us and bring us safe home to them. They must plead with Him to protect us from harm and pardon all our sins. They do not need to be spurred on by a full knowledge of all that is happening to us. Out of their own experience they can guess our needs well enough. Their warm true love for us, and their realization of the joy that awaits us, must drive them on resistlessly. They know, as they never did before, the tremendous issues of human life. They see our dangers clearer than we do. And so they pray for us. [pp. 110-111]

And are their prayers effectual for our good?

Their loud unceasing cry goes up to God for us. Will God not hear that cry? Will He turn away His face and make as though He heard it not ? Does He not love to hear it ? [pp. 111-12]

“The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” What, then, must be the power of the ceaseless prayers of a Paradise full of holy souls ? The mind of man cannot measure the blessings God shall give in answer to the prayers of Paradise. [p. 112}

The saints departed pray for us, but can we ask them for their prayers? Can we in any sense pray to them ?

[Rede cautions against attributing] to the saints powers and prerogatives which encroach upon the [unique] mediatorial office of Christ. [p. 118]

The earlier and purer doctrine of the post-Nicene age, namely, that of prayer for prayer, the Ora pro nobis [pray for us; addressed to deceased saints] of the old service-books, has never been condemned in any part of the Church Catholic. [p. 119]

How good it is to think of the mighty chorus of prayer which is ever going up from the saints in Paradise… I love to think of it, and try to catch some far-off echo of its harmonies. [pp. 123-4]

6. What is our Relationship to Departed Saints?

May we pray for those who are gone, or are they beyond the need and the reach of our prayers?

The same love which binds together the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, when God has permitted it to bind human hearts, must be as eternal in the one relationship as in the other. [p. 129]

In this life one of the strongest bonds that holds together human-kind is the mutual ministry of prayer. Nothing unites us closer to a friend than to pray for him. Nothing stirs us more deeply than to know that some one is praying for us. [p. 132]

If, then, our hearts and minds are full of those who have gone out from our midst, and our desires seem to be centred and summed up in them, are we not praying for them anyhow? … Such is the natural yearning and reasoning of the human heart. Must it be repressed? Is there anything to forbid us to carry out these natural inclinations which are so strong? [p. 133]

I think no honest mind can doubt that His silence gives consent. We seem to hear Him say, “I would have told you, if it were not so.” (John 14:2). The Second Book of Maccabees tells us that some two centuries before our Lord became incarnate in the flesh it was customary to pray for the dead.  The records of ancient Hebrew life and the testimony of the best Jewish scholars assure us that prayers for the dead were common when He was fulfilling His earthly ministry.  In every synagogue they were offered as a matter of course, and are to-day. They formed a part of the Temple worship, where sacrifices were offered for those who had departed this life in a state of imperfect holiness. [p. 134]

All the liturgies of the Primitive Church contain prayers for the dead. [p. 137]

What is accomplished by such prayers, and for whom may we offer them?

One of the popular difficulties of our times is to understand how such prayers can benefit those whose earthly life is at an end. If you believe that their probation-time is past and that they are at rest in Paradise, why do you pray for them? So the world asks us. We reply, Yes, we know that they are at rest, we suppose that their time of probation is fulfilled, that they have entered on their reward. But they are not made perfect yet. They still need blessings from the hand of God. They need to be purified and drawn closer to Him day by day, and there will come a time when they with us must stand before their Judge. There is, therefore, much which we may ask of God for them. [p. 141-2]

7. What is the Relationship of all Saints to God?

It consists chiefly, on the one side, in the communication of a divine supernatural life from God to men; on the other, in the offering of an individual and united worship by men to God. [p. 153]

Written by John Uebersax

March 2, 2012 at 10:34 pm