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.


Anonymous said...

I must say Mr. Sedgwick, you are a strange man. What are you hoping to achieve by all this? I mean, these works are all readily available for whoever is interested to directly read them and come to their own conclusions. It's not as if we're dealing with ancient fossils that require the expert opinion of specialists, right? All these works in their original formats are available for anyone to read on the internet. Why present them through the unnecessary colour of your own bias? It makes no sense at all! It amounts to nothing but gossip in the end, gossip about people who can longer defend themselves since most of them are dead.

Mark Sedgwick said...

In response to Anonymous: Indeed all these works are available, and people can indeed read them themselves. The purpose of posts like the one of mine you refer to, like the purpose of book reviews, is to draw people's attention to them. I'm not quite sure how this amounts to gossip.

Anonymous said...

The manner in which you claim to approach this subject is the basis of my accusation of gossip. In your reviews, you focus on the lives of the individuals,as opposed to focusing on the pertinent principles themselves. Is that not gossip? Similarly, it's clear you wish to reduce all these occurrences to a human level and even then, to the most limited part of the human level, why else would you focus on the boring details of the individuals involved, in a domain where they themselves have said their individuality counts for nothing? Why not focus on the doctrines themselves? Let me ask an honest question bluntly: what do you make of Metaphysics as presented by the signature "Rene Guenon"? Is it all a bunch of nonsense to you? Are you able to consciously perceive something that goes beyond the five senses? If not, are you at least able to conceive it?

I'm not belittling the prodigious effort you have put in all this research, but in the end it really is all strange; there are better ways to bring attention to all the doctrines described in the books signed "Rene Guenon".

Anonymous said...

Mr. Sedgwick, in the future, if you wish to censor someone's comments altogether, it'd be better if you did it in their first response. I was actually looking forward to an answer from you, with regards to the questions I had posed. There's nothing wrong with criticism after all. Good day.

Mark Sedgwick said...

In response to Anonymous: I think intellectual history is much more than gossip. Ideas need to be put in their context to be fully appreciated and understood, whether or not those who propose them think their individuality matters. Understanding how ideas develop, how they are produced and transmitted and received, is key to understanding humanity and human society--whether or not one likes the ideas in question. But since you ask what I make of the ideas presented by René Guénon, I will reply that I find them fascinating in themselves, as well as because of their impact. And yes, I can certainly conceive of something beyond the five senses, and may even have perceived it.

Mark Sedgwick said...

And in response to Anonymous on October 10--apologies for taking so long to get to your comment, and also taking so long to respond. Absolutely no censorship. The only comments I delete on this blog are those that are abusive or spam. But sometimes I do not have enough time to get through my email in-box...