Sunday, August 19, 2018

British Roman Catholic Traditionalism in the 1940s and 1950s

As Scott Randall Paine, an American priest teaching at the University of Brasilia, notes, there are not many Roman Catholic Traditionalists. This, Paine thinks, may be because it is hard to transfer the central esoteric/exoteric paradigm from Traditionalism into Catholicism, as for Catholics “the ‘inner secret’ of God as Love is overtly on display in the crucified and risen Lord… [and] the ‘availability’ of this mystery to one and all… is at the very heart of the Gospel message” (Paine 2017, p. 9).

Be that as it may, there have been some Roman Catholic Traditionalists, including Jean Borella. Another, less known, is Bernard Kelly (1907-1958), whose writings Paine has collected in A Catholic Mind Awake: The Writings of Bernard Kelly (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2017).

Kelly, a London bank clerk, was a Dominican tertiary and an occasional contributor to Dominican publications, including Blackfriars. Some of these contributions are reprinted in A Catholic Mind Awake, dealing for example with Gerald Manley Hopkins and “Christians and the Class Struggle” (1937). Then, in 1940, Kelly discovered the work of Ananda Coomaraswamy, with whom he began a long correspondence, and thus also the work of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, who he later visited in Switzerland. He remained, however, a committed Catholic.

A Catholic Mind Awake is divided into four sections. The most interesting is the first section, “Metaphysics East and West,” which makes up almost half the book and reflects Kelly’s Traditionalism. The other three sections contain mostly earlier work, on “Spirituality and Beauty,” “Poetry and the Arts,” and “Reflections on Society.” This is where the essay on “Christians and the Class Struggle” is to be found; it also contains two later essays from Kelly’s Traditionalist period, both reflecting on the work of Eric Gill (1882-1940), the English sculptor, typeface designer, and printmaker who had been a friend and admirer of Coomaraswamy.

The four main articles in the section on “Metaphysics East and West” attempt to reconcile Traditionalism with Catholic doctrine, notably Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), and to introduce the key Traditionalists to a Catholic, Dominican audience. The earliest is “How May we Approach the Spiritual Traditions of the East?” (1946), which objects to the “impudent philistinism” of “humanist philosophers” and instead advocates “metaphysical contemplation” to access “the truths diversely/expressed in the varying traditions of mankind,” and regrets in passing “the spiritual chaos of the modern world” (pp. 51-52). It then cites Coomaraswamy at length.

The second article, “Notes on the Lights of the Eastern Religions” (1954) attacks Western translators of Hindu texts who lack traditional training and “appear to have taken their philosophical language from the newspapers” (p. 31), and then introduces and praises the work of Coomaraswamy and Guénon. “A Thomist Approach to the Vedanta” (1956) likewise introduces and praises Coomaraswamy and Guénon, adding Schuon and Burckhardt. It also attempts a Christianization of Traditionalism, referring to a “primordial revelation to mankind of which we have a record guaranteed to us in the first chapters of Genesis” and noting that finding the truth in other traditions “requires of us an interior rather than an external approach” (p. 21). This is one way of solving the problem of the esoteric and exoteric. The last article, “The Metaphysical background of Analogy” (1958), addresses Aquinas and Thomas Cajetan (1469-1534).

Bernard Kelly’s attempt to promote Traditionalism within a Dominican context is indeed unusual and interesting. It seem to have met with some success. Two articles by Coomaraswamy were published in Blackfriars, perhaps through Kelly’s influence (“Why Exhibit Works of Art” in 1942 and “Gradation, Evolution and Reincarnation” in 1946). An editorial in 1948 praised Coomaraswamy, comparing him in importance to C. G. Jung and Nikolai Berdyaev (Editorial 1948). A Dominican priest, Victor White (1902-60), likewise praised Coomaraswamy (White 1951, 586; White 1953, 331). White, however, also took exception to Guénon’s “smugly superior… didactic and pompous” style (White 1959, 18) and his “strange illusions” regarding the Western tradition (White 1946, 441), though he still welcomed Guénon’s “rare flashes of insight” (White 1951, 586).

Bede Griffiths (1906-93), a Benedictine monk who later became a celebrated Christian yogi, found Schuon’s attempt to reconcile Christianity and Islam “not very convincing,” but even so felt it should be taken seriously, and concluded of Guénon that “though a Christian has to make continual reservations, there is revealed an astonishing insight and a vast erudition in the spiritual doctrine of east and west” (Griffiths 1954, 30).

There was, then, something of a Roman Catholic Traditionalist milieu in and around Kelly and Blackfriars in the 1940s and 1950s.

Works cited
Editorial 1948. “Over the Wall of Partition.” Blackfriars 29, pp. 257-263.
Griffiths, Bede, 1954. Review of The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times by René Guénon and The Transcendent Unity of Religions by Frithjof Schuon. Blackfriars 35, pp. 29-31.
Paine, Scott Randall, 2017. Introduction. In A Catholic Mind Awake: The Writings of Bernard Kelly, ed. Paine (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2017), pp. 1-15.
White, Victor, 1946. Review of Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines by René Guénon and of Man and His Becoming According to the Vedanta by René Guénon. Blackfriars 27, pp. 440-441.
White, Victor, 1951. “Buddhism Comes West.” Blackfriars 32, pp. 585-591.
White, Victor, 1953. “The Impact of Eastern Wisdom on The West.” Blackfriars 34, pp. 329-333.
White, Victor, 1959. “Some Recent Studies in Archetypology.” Blackfriars 40, pp. 216-219.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Ibn ‘Arabi, Schuon, and Universalism

Ever since Ivan Aguéli drew the attention of René Guénon to the work of the great Sufi mystic Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), Traditionalists have seen Ibn ‘Arabi as a perennialist universalist, if not as a Traditionalist in other ways. This understanding of Ibn ‘Arabi has become very widespread in the West, given the major role played by Traditionalists in the translation and interpretation of Ibn ‘Arabi. it is now comprehensively contested in a new book by Gregory A. Lipton, Rethinking Ibn ‘Arabi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Lipton knows well both the work of Ibn ‘Arabi and the work of modern Schuonian scholars, which enables him to see how this work forms one whole, and also to see what lies behind it. This is not just René Guénon and Perennialism, however, but also wider intellectual currents in the West. Lipton introduces Schleiermacher and Kant into his discussion, and parallels between them and Schuon’s thought are drawn. Lipton also introduces, more controversially, Ernest Renan (1823-92) and Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), two key thinkers of race in the Aryan-Semitic frame. Finally, he interrogates the very idea of religious universalism. This is a lot to do in one relatively short book (with copious endnotes).

The book consists of an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction presents the issues that the book addresses and the main arguments that it will develop. The first chapter discusses what are probably now the most often quoted lines of Ibn ‘Arabi, at least in Western languages:

My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,

And a temple for idols and the pilgrim's Ka’ba, and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Koran.

I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love's camels take, that is my religion and my faith.

The translation is by the great Cambridge Orientalist Reynold A. Nicholson (1868-1945), and the passage has been widely used to demonstrate Ibn ‘Arabi’s religious universalism. This is the very widespread understanding that much of Lipton’s book contests—an understand that did not start with the Traditionalists but, as Lipton shows, with Nicholson and the great Austro-Hungarian Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921).

Lipton makes his argument in two main parts. In chapter one, he shows that—despite the views of Goldziher, Nicholson, Henry Corbin, Toshihiko Izutsu, Michael Sells and Reza Shah-Kazemi—Ibn ‘Arabi may have welcomed variety in interpretation, especially for someone occupying a high spiritual station, but he never welcomed diversity in religion, understood in terms of allegiance, path and law (sharia). In chapter two, Lipton shows that—despite the attempts of William Chittick and others to argue against this—Ibn ‘Arabi clearly subscribed to the standard Islamic view that the revelation of Islam abrogated all previous revelations.

Having revisited Ibn ‘Arabi to contest the very prevalent reading of him as a religious universalist on the perennialist model, Lipton then, in effect, asks why and how such a view ever became established in the first place. This leads him to discuss leading Traditionalists and Traditionalist scholars (Guénon, Schuon, Nasr, Chittick and Shah-Kazemi) in his third chapter, and then to focus on Schuon’s “Aryanist discursive practices” in his fourth chapter. This is where he brings in Schleiermacher, Renan, and Chamberlain; Kant is brought in mostly in the conclusion, which develops a number of new points. The fourth chapter is based on Lipton’s 2017 article on Schuon’s Aryanism, previously mentioned on this blog here.

Lipton’s Rethinking Ibn ‘Arabi is essential reading for anyone interested in Ibn ‘Arabi or in religious universalism in Islam, and also of definite interest for those interested in Traditionalism, as it shows how Traditionalist views have molded the general understanding of Ibn ‘Arabi, and also places Traditionalism in three interesting contexts in which it has never been placed before—Nicholson and Goldziher, Kant and Schleiermacher, and Renan and Chamberlain. The book also makes an important point about universalism—that although at first sight universalism looks all-inclusive, it can often in fact be exclusivist, claiming a universal validity for one particular interpretation. Lipton argues that this is what happened in the case of Schuon, whose views, he argues, were ultimately “hegemonically supersessionist, subtly authorizing its own perfection, while classifying the religions of Others as necessarily incomplete” (p. 150).