This book casts a shining light in a darkening world. Its Catholic author, Michael Martin, locates the roots of that darkening in the Enlightenment, tracing them back to the Reformation and earlier scholastic nominalism within the Church. The result has been an ever more rationalist, machine-like civilisation, stripped of soul and filled, increasingly, with nihilism.
And, as Martin notes, even Catholics who truly recognise that the transubstantiated bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, nevertheless fall victim to the Enlightenment parody of reality in other areas of their lives.
Catastrophic consequences now manifest themselves everywhere and Martin considers some of the most obvious: the holocaust of abortion and the tragedy of gender ideology which reflect the nominalist denial of universalia.
Yet – creatively and unusually – Martin acutely identifies other heartbreaking consequences of our Enlightenment-poisoned thinking. These are things which should gravely concern Catholics, but often fail to. As Martin shows, they range from genetically modified food to the collapse of bee colonies to mechanical, modern education.
Martin, a manifestly sincere, inspired Byzantine Catholic, however, draws hope in the same hope that animated St. John Paul II: that East and West are both lungs that must breathe together.
To that end, the book is focussed on the Sophiology that animated the Russian Orthodox Soloviev, Florensky and Bulgakov. This Sophiology calls us to actively remember God’s living presence in Creation. For it recalls the teaching of the Church natura vulnereta, non deleta (nature is wounded but not destroyed) and and asks that we turn to Our Lady – unfallen pinnacle of Creation – in place of the soullessness of secular modernity.
In addition to these Russian Orthodox thinkers, Martin also considers the sophiological concerns of the little-known Russian Catholic convert Valentin Tomberg. Unlike some, Martin fully appreciates that Tomberg – pace Pickstock and Milbank – was ‘radically orthodox’ before his time.
Here is to say, Tomberg was a devout Catholic who took obedience to the Pope and the hierarchy seriously and yet remained, still, radical in the best of that word: going to the root of things.
Indeed, Martin’s book appears deeply indebted to Tomberg’s sophiological diagnosis of the crisis of the West. As Tomberg writes in his profoundly Catholic Meditations on the Tarot:
The Virgin is not only the source of creative élan, but also of spiritual longevity. This is why the West, in turning away more and more from the Virgin, is growing old, i.e. it is distancing itself from the rejuvenating source of longevity.
Each revolution which has taken place in the West —that of the Reformation, the French revolution, the scientific revolution, the delirium of nationalism, the communist revolution —has advanced the process of aging in the West, because each has signified a further distancing from the principle of the Virgin. In other words. Our Lady is Our Lady, and is not to be replaced with impunity either by the ‘goddess reason’, or by the ‘goddess biological evolution’, or by the ‘goddess economy’.
Here I note that Tomberg – quite pointedly I think – does not join Martin in decrying scholasticism. Rather, the Catholic Tomberg repeatedly turns to the Reformation as the original revolution that undermined Western civilisation. Here, I, too, have a point of dissent with Martin.
Still, of everything that has been written in English on Tomberg, Martin’s book is the best so far. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone trying to grasp Tomberg’s project to heal the West.
Finally, it should be noted that Martin also considers some unusual thinkers indebted to German Protestantism including Jacob Boehme and Rudolf Steiner. This will be problematic for some readers. However, even where Christians like these are problematic in some respects – or even apostate or heretic – it does not follow, ipso facto, that everything they ever said is worthless! It is to Martin’s great credit that he recognises this, whilst never straying from Catholic orthodoxy.
So much more might be said, but I limit myself to the following very personal conclusion …
I write these lines from Ireland, a country which now follows the rest of the West in turning away from Our Lady for the false goddesses of rationalism and reductionism. The recent same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland is – as I wrote here – only a further indication of how the West thereby becomes ever more machine-like.
More than anyone else, I am indebted to Valentin Tomberg for understanding this descent from the miraculous to the mechanical. Like Martin’s book, my own upcoming books, also treat of similar themes. In reading Martin, then, I am grateful to discover a fellow Catholic, whose heart, like Tomberg’s heart, is pierced, pierced with the Heart of the World.
And because Martin’s heart is pierced like this, he is actively engaged in searching for answers. It is a profound search and thus yielding fruit and hope.
So I return to the place where I started: This book is a living flame in the dark. If you care about the fate of humanity, I urge you to consider studying Martin. He is, with Valentin Tomberg, pointing to the only hope I have for the West: an obedient, pious, deeply traditional Catholicism, which is neither afraid to embrace Eastern Christianity, nor indeed any Christian wisdom, wherever it may be found.
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