I am halfway through Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation: the weaving of a sacramental tapestry and am enjoying it very much. The first half, about how what he calls “the tapestry” is unraveled, and even cut apart, is discouraging in one sense, obviously, because that’s not very nice. But in another, his description of what has happened over the last five hundred years is calming, like discovering that someone was, in fact, turning the gas
stove lamps down even while they were telling you they weren’t doing it. Boersma concludes the chapter called “Cutting the Tapestry” this way:
Ironically, modernity’s very insistence that creation must be valued and enjoyed for its own sake results in the loss of any and all value and enjoyment. If there is no sacramental participation of creation in God’s being, created objects have no inherent relationship to each other or to God. The result is a nihilist constructivism in which value and enjoyment are the results of external or nominal connections rather than a participatory or real bond with the eternal Word of God. By drawing us away from heavenly contemplation, modern secularism has placed on us the burden of constructing our own truth, goodness, and beauty. If the experience of postmodern vacuity teaches us anything, it is that such a burden is too much to carry.
Yes. It is far too big a burden to carry. No one can construct their own world and identity and end up being satisfied with the result. Everyone needs help, at the very least society’s help, but even more, help from someone like God. So I was interested to see this Tweet bright and early this morning:
If I can understand the tweet, Weiss seems to be saying that many people today gaze fondly at the past by the false assumption that it was a different world than this one. You might long for the piety and social order of a country village just before everything was wrecked by Henry VIII or something, but the Middle Ages were actually a raucous egalitarian time chockablock full of non-binary fun such as we have. If that is what she is saying, that point is highly debatable. In fact, Boersma’s description of the way those long-dead people saw the world makes the opposite point. Not that they weren’t sinners like we are, but rather that they hadn’t yet so completely exiled God from the world and themselves.
In this way, Weiss must be absolutely right. Ninety percent of western people who suddenly found themselves in the Middle Ages would not be able to cope. Who said that the past is a foreign country? Going there suddenly would be a terrible shock to the modern system and cause deep feelings of misery, as any cross-cultural activity generally does, though usually after a few weeks when the glow of amazement and delight has worn off. It’s called “culture shock” and is disorienting, though it has only killed a few people that I know of.
But as someone who did grow up in another country, and who has been watching in wonder as ordinary American people melt down to, what seems to me anyway, unprecedented degrees, I think it would be useful to wonder why the Middle Ages, in particular, seem so attractive to some. Is it just nostalgia? How could that be since none of us have actually been there? Is it just escapism? Or LARPing? There is some of that, of course. But something has really been broken. Whether or not Weiss thinks the Middle Ages were hedonistic and egalitarian or pious and patriarchal, they had the necessary sacramental underpinning that we don’t have.
Take the three elements Weiss names that apparently did not exist in the Middle Ages: deep piety, reverence, and set gender roles. Named thusly, they appear to be random experiences of happenstance that one can either do with or without depending on personal preference. Even if they didn’t ever exist, ‘do you want to live in a world of set gender roles? I mean, do you really? You say you do, but you have no idea…’ if that’s what Weiss is saying.
I could be misreading her, of course, but scrolling through the comments the choice seems to be between the reverence, the piety and the set gender roles and that very essential and necessary blessing–indoor plumbing. That and lashings of modern technology and health care. Which would you rather have? A society ordered around what one might usefully call “reality” in which one might take one’s place and not constantly be thrust back on one’s own existential trauma? or indoor plumbing? The choice is clear for all of us. We all choose indoor plumbing because we do not even understand the world of piety and reverence and set gender roles.
On the other hand, as we are seeing daily, a life without those three things is one untethered, an existence that could be likened to floating on a sea of certain mental illness and despair. Do read Dante and the Canterbury Tales, as she suggests. They describe a rich and fascinating world, a place of agony and pain just as we have. The one missing element for us is God. It isn’t really that we can’t live without indoor plumbing–we would probably figure it out. No, it is that we cannot live with God. That is the part we cannot endure, and, most tragically, it is the only bit that would make life now as rich and interesting as it was back then.
Have a nice day!