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Thursday, 10 May 2012

Self-sacrifice and distinctive Christianity

I’ve read Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time immediately after Sam Norton’s Let us be human and have been fascinated to find that both have been addressing the same issue; that only by becoming more distinctively Christian can we engage constructively with the crises of our times.

For Tarkovsky, writing in the 1980s, the crisis is that of competing ideologies where the “assertion of class or group interests, accompanied by the invocation of the good of humanity and the ‘general welfare’, result in flagrant violations of the rights of the individual, who is fatally estranged from society.” The individual either “becomes the instrument of other people’s ideas and ambitions” or else becomes “a boss who shapes and uses other people’s energies with no regard for the rights of the individual.” He argues that “the laws of a materialistic worldview” are that “selfish interests ... make up a ‘normal’ rationale for action.” Modern man, he suggests, “is not prepared to deny himself and his interests for the sake of other people or in the name of what is Creator.” As a result, “many of the misfortunes besetting humanity are the result of our having become unforgivably, culpably, hopelessly materialistic.”  This is particularly dangerous because “we seem to have a fatal incapacity for mastering our material achievements in order to use them for our own good” and “have created a civilization which threatens to annihilate mankind.”
For Norton, the contemporary presenting issue is that of peak oil; limits or a peak to the volume of fossil fuels which can be produced leading to a decline in production. Because our “contemporary way of life in the affluent West is built around the easy availability of cheap liquid fuel,” peak oil inevitably means significant change and challenge for our culture. However, it also exposes an underlying predicament, “that exponential growth cannot continue within a finite environment.” Exponential growth – “the continued doubling of a quantity over time” – has been worshipped as an idol within Western society because such growth in water use, food production, steel production, and our economies generally “has led to great abundance in the rich countries, and a much higher quality of life for those who live in industrialised countries.” Our “way of life has been built around the maintenance of exponential growth – and as that way of life crashes into ecological limits, so too will that way of life.” Norton writes that for this way of life to come to an end will be a blessing, because “our present way of life is a terrible, terrible pestilence on creation.”
So, the presenting issues which they address differ but the underlying issue or predicament which they identify is broadly similar. Both also criticise the place that science has come to assume within our society.
Norton argues that the “origin of our frenetically anti-phronetic society” – phronesis is practical judgement - “lies in the political assertion of science at the expense of Christianity.” This has taken two forms; first, “to say that scientific truth is the only truth” and second, that what we gain from processes of scientific investigation is more important than anything else. To make these two assertions downplays “the knowledge and awareness that can come through understanding poetry or art or great fables and stories” and also the passing on of wisdom which “is conducted through the rites and practices of religious faith, the telling of stories and sharing of rituals that embody and express a particular way of viewing the world and asserting a particular pattern of value.”   
Tarkovsky uses a more poetic and ambiguous image to again say something broadly similar:
“Seeing ourselves as protagonists of science, and in order to make our scientific objectivity the more convincing, we have split the one, indivisible human process down the middle, thereby revealing a solitary, but clearly visible, spring, which we declare to be the prime cause of everything, and use it not only to explain the mistakes of the past but also to draw up our blueprint for the future.”
Tarkovsky argues that “the individual today stands at a crossroads, faced with the choice of whether to pursue the existence of a blind consumer, subject to the implacable march of new technology and the endless multiplication of material goods, or to seek out a way that will lead to spiritual responsibility, a way that ultimately might mean not only his personal salvation but also the saving of society at large; in other words, to turn to God.”
Similarly, Norton, after saying that our “way of living – the western way of life, with its excess consumerism and mindless destruction of creation – this way of life destroys life,” then writes that the “vision of Christian life, of full humanity, is that there is a way of life shown to us by Christ which allows us to be all that God intends us to be.”
Their different vocations – of film-maker and priest – then lead them to develop slightly different emphases in the working out of the way that leads to wisdom and spiritual responsibility.
The key for Tarkovsky is to rediscover “the Christian sense of self-sacrifice,” “the Christian ideal of love of neighbour”:
“Concerned for the interests of the many, nobody thought of his own in the sense preached by Christ: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ That is, love yourself so much that you respect in yourself the supra-personal, divine principle, which forbids you to pursue your acquisitive, selfish interests and tells you to give yourself, without reasoning or talking about it; to love others. This requires a true sense of your own dignity: an acceptance of the objective value and significance of the ‘I’ at the centre of your life on earth, as it grows in spiritual stature, advancing towards the perfection in which there can be no egocentricity.”
Tarkovsky’s can be seen as a slightly individualistic conception of the spiritual way. It is one which sees little value in the contemporary Church:
“Not even the Church can quench man’s thirst for the Absolute, for unfortunately it exists as a kind of appendage, copying or even caricaturing the social institutions by which our everyday life is organised. Certainly in today’s world which leans so heavily towards the material and the technological, the Church shows no sign of being able to redress the balance with a call to spiritual awakening.”
Tarkovsky’s alternative to the Church is art:
“In this situation it seems to me that art is called to express the absolute freedom of man’s spiritual potential. I think that art was always man’s weapon against the material things which threatened to devour his spirit. It is no accident that in the course of nearly two thousand years of Christianity, art developed for a very long time i the context of religious ideas and goals. Its very existence kept alive in discordant humanity the idea of harmony.
Art embodied an ideal; it was an example of perfect balance between moral and material principles, a demonstration of the fact that such a balance is not a myth existing oly in the realm of ideology, but something which can be realised within the dimensions of the phenomenal world. Art expressed man’s need of harmony and his readiness to do battle with himself, within his own personality, for the sake of achieving the equilibrium for which he longed ...
Art affirms all that is best in man – hope, faith, love, beauty, prayer ... What he dreams of and what he hopes for ...
In a sense art is an image of the completed process, of the culmination; an imitation of the possession of absolute truth (albeit only in the form of an image) obviating the long – perhaps, indeed endless – path of history ...
Finally, I would enjoin the reader – confiding in him utterly – to believe that the one thing that mankind has ever created in a spirit of self-surrender is the artistic image. Perhaps the meaning of all human activity lies in artistic consciousness, in the pointless and selfless creative act? Perhaps our capacity to create is evidence that we ourselves were created in the image and likeness of God.”
Norton, by contrast, sees a much more significant role for the Church:
“The heart of what the Church is about is worship, because worship is where we learn to be different. Worship is the primary means of making disciples. This is why worship and getting worship right is so important, because worship is where we come into the presence of God formatively, and we are formed differently. We hear the word, we share the sacrament and that changes us ... Spiritually, this is the answer to the predicament which our civilisation faces. This is where we learn the wisdom that is the antidote to the poisonous asophism which afflicts our culture. The Church Fathers said ‘The Eucharist makes the Church’. I want to add ‘The Eucharist heals the world’.”
This focus though does not in any sense mean that he thinks that the church has perfectly fulfilled this role. Instead he writes:
“For all the things that are going wrong in our world the church must confess its own responsibility. It is because the people who have custody of the knowledge of God and whose duty it is to teach that knowledge of God have failed in their task that our civilisation has come to be in the predicament we now have to endure.”
Tarkovsky might well agree. While the Church, not the Arts, are Norton’s main focus, we have already noted his valuing of the Arts. He also writes that “the common recognition that science has too important a place in our cultural life has only been able to be voiced at the margins of society, amongst poets and playwright – those whose scientific credibility is not strong.”
He calls us to “get on with the task of building our cathedrals of justice, forgiveness and kindness in our communities, and walking humbly alongside the Lord, who is with us, letting Him teach us what it means to be human”:
“All of which is saying that the practice, the actual living out of Christian faith comes before the proclamation. The living out of the faith is foundational because that is what gives the words their weight. The practice is something which changes us on the inside and radiates out into our wider lives.”
It would seem possible that Tarkovsky had not encountered a contemporary church practising the faith in the way Norton describes and it would be interesting to know whether such an encounter would have changed his view of the Church. His injunction to “love yourself so much that you respect in yourself the supra-personal, divine principle, which forbids you to pursue your acquisitive, selfish interests and tells you to give yourself, without reasoning or talking about it; to love others” is  a focus on “the practice, the actual living out of Christian faith” about which Norton writes.      

Olga Sergeeva - Kumushki.


Sam Charles Norton said...

There's so much I could say here - in addition to a profound 'thank you for understanding me' - but it had probably best wait until I see you next. My wife might get in touch though...

Jonathan Evens said...

Thanks Sam. It will be good to talk when we catch up next. Thought the book was excellent. All the best, Jonathan