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Catholicism and the Gravity of Horror

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An introduction to Catholicism can very well begin with horror. It is, for good reason, an uncommon point of entry, yet in an apology for the conversion of someone peculiarly interested in the aesthetic of abstract horror to Catholicism, and to explain the relevance of Catholicism to a world held more and more in a vice-grip by forces it barely understands, it is a necessary one. The link is tight, intuitive, yet hard, today, to adequately explain. The following notes, then, track the thought process that undergirds this leap—by no means the only path to understanding Catholic religion, but one that is relevant, unduly overlooked, and of present and future relevance.

To consider God is, primordially, to be struck by fear. The fear of God is the foundation of all wisdom, Scripture repeatedly reminds us, and as we first awake to the strange asymmetries that might govern the relationship between ourselves and an All-Powerful One it may only seem appropriate to beg him, with Job, to “withdraw his hand”: “Will not his majesty terrify you?” the Uzite asks (13:11), “and the dread of him fall upon you?” The Christian cosmos is caught from the start in the torsion of an entanglement of historical time with infinity, in the operation of God’s hand in material history. At Sinai a covenant was struck between these apparently irreconcilable poles, and their relation only tightens in later salvation history: “in the beginning was the Word,” yet the Word walked among us; all things are made subject to a judgment pronounced from a throne beyond time itself. To follow this unfolding of history is to be drawn, through it all, by an inescapable gravity of difference—the impulsive sense, familiar in the aesthetic of horror, of shadowy movements that overflow human comprehension: “For the Lord will rise up … to do his deed—strange is his deed! and to work his work—alien is his work!” (Isaiah 28:21).

Given this dynamic of incommensurability, it’s unsurprising that the universe of the Old Testament in particular is so overwhelmingly and—it seems—embarrassingly a universe of horror, its pages teeming with the strange, the disturbing, and the dissonant. The very fact of God’s intervention in the world is, in Mark Fisher’s sense of the term, weird—“the presence of that which does not belong.” His presence, his activities, are the products of a radical freedom not of this world; pure act cannot be comprehended by this world, and certainly does not belong to it. The appearance of heaven to Ezekiel, its only direct unveiling until the book of the Apocalypse, is more than a match for any Lovecraft story, and how else can we understand the tesseractic unfolding of providence in this world as a whole? It is easy to see, from this perspective, that to be aware of an alien exterior to our perception is itself to sense God.

The reference to Fisher at this point should not be taken lightly. It is striking that modern philosophy, particularly aesthetic philosophy, driven for centuries with all its enlightened instincts away from religion, comes at its edge once more and continually into contact with theology. The rapturous aesthetic of religion, before any consent to its logic, seems inescapable to any serious theory of affect—and it reaches its culmination in a Christianity that is far from linear, having assumed all temporalities into itself. The properly “hyperstitional” ethos of surrender to the Outside is precisely the ethos of the Prophets, who are branded on their lips with coal and assigned the virtually unbearable mission of speaking the words of God through their mouths. It is this ethos that is brought to its climax in the obscure figure of the “Servant of the LORD” in Isaiah, traditionally a type for Christ, who enslaves himself entirely to the will of God and offers himself in expiation for mankind; it is the same ethos of uncompromising self-surrender that the saints have perpetuated since the Crucifixion.

Yet in this context the Marcionist tendency of modern liberalism, whose limited concept of love cannot at all fathom that the universe of the New Testament is this same universe, is equally unsurprising. Christ preeminently represents and inaugurates in its most complete form God’s own love and humanity’s love in obedience of God—yet we have barely begun to grasp the unity of love and horror. The event of the Transfiguration, for instance, soars from the text of the Gospel, where Christ for a moment unveils his glory directly, revealing a light that radiates both from his face—the face of God—and from his clothes—that of his creation. Caught in its dazzling splendor, Peter, James, and John “fell on their faces, and were filled with awe” (Matthew 17:6). The unity of this awesome splendor arcs over the universe. To the basic question “why something rather than nothing”, Christianity points to an unfathomable and jealous love, greater than any human feeling yet still mysteriously sharing its form, that is branded in the structure of reality by virtue of its very existence because to allow it to exist is an act of sovereign love and freedom greater than almost any other imaginable.

It is this distinctive unity—the unity of the two Testaments, but also the unity of splendor and horror that conditions reality itself—that is so strongly maintained in Catholicism against all competing religious understandings (not, for the moment, to speak of the Christian East). In its institutions, Catholicism succeeds above all through its routinization of the strange. To think of the cosmic significance of the miracle of the Mass, or of the unlimited remission of sins in the confessional, is utterly overwhelming—and yet it goes on, day after day. There are many saints who testify with their tears at the sight of the consecrated host; the miraculous sight of the Eucharist appearing visibly as true blood and true flesh was, for the medieval mind, an object of horror and awe, even a sign of God’s judgment against the beholder. That this can be hidden only enough that it can be sustained in repetition over thousands of years is in itself a miracle.

This veiled existence of the strange and the miraculous in the immanent world is crucial to Catholicism—and a feature peculiarly intolerable to the levelling, iconoclast mindset of the Reformation, as even one such as Nietzsche could see: “The Lutheran Reformation,” he says, “in all its length and breadth was the indignation of the simple against something complicated.” It is a complexity that attained its greatest height of splendor, however, in the Tridentine theology of the Baroque, in which the darkness of the Deus absconditus could throw into relief the radiant light of his salvific plan, and complete its very glory. Everything has its significance in this scheme, and everything is oriented towards its overarching purpose: the architecture of a church, the diction of the liturgy, the posture of the worshipper, the vestments of the priest. This orientation does not have to start from a specific cultural form; as the Baroque well showed, it can find its place in a transfiguration of modernity itself.

The Church today, mystical body of Christ that it remains, is not the ideal Church. Across its history it has been all too easy to founder, driven to despair by its mysteries or—far more common today—losing sight of them entirely, falling into a simplistic world of smooth and total immanence and giving up the commission of self-surrender. The theologian walks a precipice, and must take care neither to collapse, like Luther, into the oppressive darkness of a fallen world, nor to dissolve in the false light of an insipid liberalism that averts its gaze because it has forgotten how to fear. For the academic theologian today, Tridentine theology all too often seems ridiculous. But this is to say nothing more than that the very idea of glory, doxa, has become difficult to fathom. Over against the distinctively capitalist collapse of thought and aesthetics into personal whims, Catholicism retains, almost uniquely, the potential to restore its purposiveness, and to combine its burning sense of justice with an overt and radiant beauty.

These were once unfashionable thoughts in a world that measured itself by the empty ticking time of progress. Under the compressive impulse of recent modernity, however, the distinctively open future of the Enlightenment seems to be coming to a close. What is characteristic of this “cyberpunk” age is the collapse of the boundaries not just between the future and the present—a “future so close it connects”—but also the past: for progressives as much as conservatives, the future comes to be constituted by the recovery of historical projects prematurely foreclosed. The liberal understanding of Catholicism is ill-suited to this new context, in which “progress” is no longer linear and consensus reality itself seems to be disintegrating. The Church itself, however, has all the resources it needs to adapt. Beyond the dilemmas of Protestant modernity, the postmodern metropolis with its Gothic darkness and its neon lights, its complex and unbearably persistent ethical disparities, points towards a potential rediscovery of the profundity of the human soul—the outlines of a new Baroque. In the twenty-first century, the horror, splendor, and love of Catholicism will have their role to play once more.

Vincent Garton is a historian of political thought in Cambridge, UK. Follow him on Twitter.