The Thin (Chartres) Blue Line
Did the builders of the great medieval Gothic cathedral pray it into being, summoning the knowledge to construct it across a porous barrier?
Let’s go back to Notre-Dame de Chartres for a bit. The intense cobalt color in the windows came to be known as “Chartres blue.” There is a legend that the recipe for making it was lost to history, but that isn’t true.
Here is the Labyrinth in the nave:
If you enter the Labyrinth and follow the path, it takes you round and round, eventually taking you to the center. Some historians think the Chartres labyrinth, which is 40 feet in diameter, is a symbol of Christ’s harrowing of Hell. It is also a symbol of the pilgrimage through life. I wrote in this space the other day (“The Rose & The Labyrinth”) about how I stood in the center of the Labyrinth as a 17-year-old tourist, beholding the Rose window on the south portal, and knew in my bones that God existed, and that He wanted me. That epiphany was the beginning of my coming to faith.
Watching a documentary about the cathedral’s sacred geometry today, I thought about how I had cheated, in a sense. I did not follow the path; in my naivety, I walked straight to the center of the Labyrinth, and found enlightenment — or at least the beginning of enlightenment. What I learned, so to speak, was that I should return to the start of the Labyrinth, and begin the long walk back to the center. I knew I was going on a meaningful journey. As the years have gone by, I have found myself closer to the center, but then moving away … then back again. If you follow the path, it will take you on a winding but methodical route near to the center, and away, before finally concluding at the center of the circle.
As I wrote in the Rose & Labyrinth piece, if you laid down the west facade of the cathedral atop the nave, the Rose Window depicting the Last Judgment would fit exactly atop the Labyrinth. The cathedral builders were saying with this that the journey through the Labyrinth is one’s pilgrimage through life. When one arrives at the center, and beholds the Rose Window, one is prepared for the Last Judgment. Where you’re standing at the Labyrinth center precisely corresponds to the heart of the Rose Window, where sits Jesus Christ, to judge your soul.
In the film, Prof. Keith Critchlow discusses how the medievals regarded the cathedral as a symbol of the entire cosmos. The geometric proportions and codes built into the cathedral beggar belief. Critchlow says that we don’t really know how the cathedral builders did it, or even their names. Critchlow tells the interviewer that he believes the medievals somehow intuited their genius for its construction by praying. He meant that they were closer to the eternal, to the transcendent, because theirs was an age when the barrier of belief between the temporal and the eternal was thinner. If you watch the film, and learn how extremely complex the geometry of the Chartres cathedral is, and how not a thing is out of place, you’ll just about believe him.
Here’s a really interesting piece the theologian David Bentley Hart wrote in First Things some years back, about Reuben, an eccentric man he knew in England back when he was a student in Lancaster studying Buddhism. Excerpts:
Reuben was, I should also mention, quite devout. He had never had any cause, he said, to doubt the tenets of the Christian faith; and he clearly took deep joy in the Anglican hymnal, from which he was fond of singing snatches at odd moments. He told me that once or twice in his early years he had been challenged by persons of an Evangelical bent, who had sought to convince him that his view of reality was tainted with paganism or that he was in fact the prey of demons. He found their arguments unconvincing, however, and had developed a rather sophisticated theory (inspired in part by Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth) about terrestrial spiritual intelligences. To his mind, there were spirits abroad in most of nature, though perhaps not nearly as many as once there had been, who were to be counted among the more benign “powers” and “dominions” of the created order. Christians, he felt, had no cause to worry about them at all: For one thing, Paul assures us that Christ had subdued all the more recalcitrant spiritual agencies in the cosmos; for another, “They’re very affable for the most part, if you behave decently towards them.”
He also sometimes argued (partly inspired by the writings of Owen Barfield) that human consciousness may have changed rather drastically over the epochs, and that perhaps the very frame of nature has altered with it. He believed that at one time human beings had been much better able to perceive certain dimensions of reality that, with our modern mechanistic view of nature, we no longer can. Perhaps, he once opined to me, it all has something to do with the relative preponderance of the right and left hemispheres of the brains—though, as an enemy of all materialism, he was convinced that, if this was so, a change in our shared metaphysics had slowly altered the balance of the cerebral cortex, and not the reverse.
Whatever the case, he believed that in the past a doorway within us had been open in a way it generally is not now, and that the dream images and strange music and mystical poetry that came from another region of the soul had flowed into the conscious mind without much hindrance. Whatever that now-repressed capacity had been, however—whether a more influential right hemisphere or something else altogether—he was sure it was not a source of illusion but rather a window through which the light of reality had shone with greater clarity than through any other faculty within us. As far as he was concerned, he was simply one of those fortunate few in whom the causeway between the two sides of the self had not been tragically sealed off.
Have you ever heard of the book The Master And His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning, by the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist? It was well-reviewed when it came out a decade ago, and it’s as good as they say. Here’s a link to Dr. McGilchrist’s website, where you can download the introduction. And here is a link to a 12-minute animated video explaining the thesis.
I wrote about this book on my blog a few years ago. McGilchrist’s argument is that the intuitive right brain (the Master) communicates with the logical left brain (the Emissary), which sorts the intuitive impressions and makes it possible to live in reality. A healthy person, and a healthy society, lives in a state of balance between the two. But since the Enlightenment, we have privileged the left side and its way of knowing so much that we are badly out of balance, and in fact becoming mad. In short, McGilchrist — who also trained in literary studies — that the left brain is obsessed with control, with making all crooked lines straight so it can master them. We are in a condition now in which the left brain takes its own construal of reality to be reality itself, and silences anything from the artistic, religious, intuitive side of the brain that challenges its dominion. Here is the dilemma:
One [the right brain] says ‘I do not know,’ the other [the left brain] ‘I know – that there is nothing to know.’ One believes that one cannot know: the other ‘knows’ that one cannot believe.
What is beyond reasonable doubt, however, since it has been established by repeated research over at least half a century, is that schizophrenia increased pari passu with industrialisation; that the form in which schizophrenia exists is more severe and has a clearly worse outcome in Western countries; and that, as recent research confirms, prevalence by country increases in proportion to the degree that the country is ‘developed’, which in practice means Westernised.
McGilchrist offers scientific evidence for what Reuben theorized. Not that sprites and fairies exist, but that there is something about modern man that has closed off the intuitive, perceptive faculties of our brain, such that there is a dimension of reality that we once perceived, but now do not. You have to read David Bentley Hart’s short essay to learn what happened to Reuben. It’s tragic. It’s deeply tragic.
We live under the illusion of progress — that we are getting smarter with each passing generation. And in some ways, we are. But what are we losing? What capacities?
A reader sends in this long, reflective comment about what the failure of Charles and Diana’s marriage (see yesterday’s “The Pity of the Royal Marriage”) has to tell us not only about marriage in our time, but also about Christianity:
A couple of points come to mind in reading this thoughtful piece.
The first is that it's true that Charles and Diana found themselves unfortunately living through a transition -- one from a period of "duty" expected of royalty to a period in which one expected the royals to somehow reconcile that duty with personal satisfaction/"hedonic marriage" norms which had taken hold in the greater society. It's true that when you are living through such a transition, you can become a casualty. I think in some ways our generation lived through this kind of transition if you think about how people went about choosing spouses differently than they had in earlier generations, and the change was fairly sudden ... not all of us transitioned equally well, and some people (not a few unfortunately) ended up being caught in the middle of having been raised with one set of expectations and entering a marriage "market" where others had the "new" set of expectations, which, when combined, often led to bad results. At this point, we are on the other side of that transition, and so marriages that happen seem to be somewhat more stable than they were, because at this point people entering marriage at all to begin with (a smaller number) appear to be on the same page about what the expectations of a "hedonic marriage" entail.
In any case, my point is not about marriage, but rather about Christianity itself. I think many people would say that we are living through this kind of a transition phase in Christianity. That is, we are transitioning from one way of doing Christianity to another way of doing it, as was the case with the transition from role/duty/rule marriage to hedonic/fulfillment/intimacy marriage. And that in the case of Christianity, this transition is from a Christianity that emphasizes role/duty/rule in marital and sexual matters to one that emphasizes hedonic satisfaction, fulfillment and intimacy -- in other words, the same basic transition that has happened in marriage, but applied not only to how Christian marriages "work" today, from the inside-out (which very much follows the "hedonic/fulfillment/intimacy" model, at least for almost all Christian marriages that succeed today), but rather more broadly to how the Church envisions and teaches about human intimate relationships, sex, and marriage. The most obvious examples of this are the pressures surrounding the treatment of gay marriage, extramarital sex, emergent things like so-called "polyfidelity" (don't laugh ... as you know what seems outlandish today is normative in 15 years time these days) and the like, where the culture is moving to a new understanding, and the Church is going through "growing pains" in accommodating this new understanding into itself.
The church managed the transition in straight marriage (i.e., from role/duty/rule to hedonic/fulfillment/intimacy) more or less silently. That is, teachings often didn't openly change, and when they did, they did so often subtly -- it was simply the case that over the span of 1-2 generations, most Christians started choosing spouses differently, and had different expectations of them in marriages than had been the case in prior generations, regardless of what Christianity actually taught about role/duty/rule in marriage. The friction came up most prominently with divorce, of course, but the church adapted to this without missing a beat, mostly by relaxing existing praxis in the direction of being more permissive without fundamentally changing the doctrine. That is, the "official teaching", whether in a Catholic or Protestant environment, was still more or less the same about divorce, but the practical tolerance of it, and the pastoral acceptance/management of it, changed dramatically and, again, mostly silently, as the church accommodated the cultural changes and incorporated them into its life. Again, this didn't happen painlessly, and there were people who got lost in the shuffle of the transition, but the transition nevertheless happened and the church survived, albeit in a changed form.
The obvious "next phase" is how the church deals with homosexuality, transgenderism, and, to a lesser degree, non-marital sex in general (given how late people, including most Christians, are now marrying relative to puberty onset). The argument is that a transition here from role/rule/duty to hedonic/fulfillment/intimacy is similarly inevitable, particularly given that the church has already transitioned this when it comes to heterosexual relationships and marriages -- that is, it has de facto changed its praxis relating to the latter already, thereby making the pressure to change its rules and praxis regarding the former both inevitable and, ultimately, irresistible, regardless of the "content" of the rules that are being changed. This process is already underway in some corners of Christianity (most notably mainline Protestant churches in the US), but the big news of the next generation will be the move in American evangelicalism, which I think is inevitable now due to the generational shift on this issue as that intersects with the "cultural relevancy" approach to revival-style evangelism that these churches emphasize, away from a role/rule/duty approach to homosexuality and trans issues and towards a hedonic/fulfillment/intimacy approach. Again, this change seems inevitable at this point, as we have seen the same kind of change ripple through all of Christianity when it came to straight marriage, again in a similar way to how the shift to hedonic marriage rippled through The Firm itself. Culture is an absolute force, it is incredibly strong.
Of course, the entire church will not agree, so we will see splits over the issue as we have already seen in the mainline churches -- the same will replicate itself in evangelicalism. But I think the fact that there will be an emergent form of Christianity that isn't the blue-haired (and often blue-blood) mainline variety but more the "folksy" kind that has long been most popular among the general populace here and which embraces the new social morality about "LGBT" and sex in general will likely place a floor on the "decline of Christianity" here. The masses have already shifted in favor of the new social morality, as we know, and if the evangelicals, at least in part, meet them on this issue, they will find evangelistic success on the same basis they always have -- by being light on doctrine and high on cultural relevance and resonance.
In any case, that leads to my second point, which is that the institution that undergoes these kinds of transitions -- if it survives them at all -- is fundamentally altered in content by them at the very least. Marriage in our generation is a fundamentally different thing than it was for our parents -- not incrementally different, fundamentally different. It's external contours are the same -- a man and a woman and a commitment -- but everything else about it is different from soup to nuts. It is an institution that likely would not have emerged if it weren't the successor to a very different one -- that is, it isn't one that the current culture would have come up with, brainstorming from scratch starting with a blank piece of paper. Rather, it's a blend of the legacy "form", filled with the new "substance" -- the "form" of marriage looks the same, but the substance of it is more or less entirely and utterly new and different.
Most of us prefer the new form to the old form. My parents had the old form, and it was similar to what you described in your piece -- stayed together for the vow. My mother, who is now 90, still credits herself that, and I don't blame her -- suffering to follow God's will is not a small thing, to be honest, even in a very imperfect person otherwise (as we all are in the end). But most of us prefer the hedonic/fulfillment/intimacy model to the role/duty/rule model. However, it's also the case that quite a few people -- it's not clear exactly what the percentage is, but it seems clear to me that it's a significant percentage -- can't succeed at the hedonic/fulfillment/intimacy model. The reasons are probably a combination of personality, upbringing, context, environment, economics, self-control and discipline, opportunity cost, and other things I am not thinking of -- but the reality seems to be that the new model of marriage results in fewer marriages and fewer successful marriages (as a percentage of the total population of people, even as the divorce rate falls for people who do manage to actually marry, still), but more satisfying marriages for people who do marry. We've made marriage more satisfying but less attainable and less sustainable for the average person. Now, of course, a lot of effort is being made to fix that -- some people think we can fix it by changing economics to make people more "marriage viable" economically, and others think we can change it by making people more marriage-minded culturally, more commitment-minded and so on, but to me at least it seems that when you change the fundamental rules of an institution in such a way as to make it more dependent on the personal qualities of the individuals involved, and their ability to satisfy them, and less dependent on rules and expectations that are extrinsic to those qualities, you will have far fewer successful iterations of the institutional behavior. The institution becomes smaller, therefore, over time, and more focused on those who can manage to satisfy the personal qualities that it now demands, rather than the broader group who were able to participate in it by submitting themselves to the extrinsic rules regardless of their personal qualities. In other words, the institution not only changes, it also narrows, and becomes much more selective, smaller, and more "elite" in terms of being limited to a certain group with certain personal qualities, even if it does, at the same time, become much more dominated by "satisfying" relationships.
There is evidence that this is happening in the Firm itself, as Charles, based likely largely on his own experiences, is actively seeking to limit the "public duty" portion of the family to only a few people. Under this approach, the rest of the family can live privately, without the crushing expectations imposed by royal duties, while a smaller "core" remains subject to them, albeit presumably in the modified form we see in Charles's children. However, we can already see, with Harry and Megan, how this isn't really working, even in itself. The "middle ground" of having a modified set of rules isn't really any easier to sustain, as it turns out, than the strict rules were, in the face of relentless cultural pressure to the contrary. In fact, the main reason it seems to me that William and Kate work the way they do is that Kate herself is amenable to being a royal -- something which will not always be the case in the person chosen by the next in line to the crown as the one he falls in love with. The whole thing, viewed from that point of view, is rather rickety from an institutional perspective. In other words, while William and Kate may very well have a successful hedonic/fulfillment/intimacy marriage (they may not, but let's assume that they do), institutionally this is very hard to ensure going forward generationally for each successor generation of royals. Rather it seems far more likely that the "love match" that can sustain a hedonic/fulfillment/intimacy marriage properly will, either sooner or later, be to someone who is singularly ill-suited for a role in the Firm, and when that happens (i.e., Wales falls in love with Megan and not Kate), the institution will again be in crisis, perhaps terminally if the "next in line" is also in such a marriage, as appears more likely under Charles's vision of a smaller "inner core" surrounded by an outer core living according to non-Firm rules -- so the "Edward option" may be off the table going forward, as a way out of such a crisis. I honestly think that the Queen realized this at some stage after the Diana debacle blew up in her own face following Diana's tragic death, and that at this point she more or less sees the future of the royal family, and its continuity after her death, as being iffy and ultimately beyond her ability to control.
If we apply this to the church, I think we get similar results. That is, the percentage of people who can find and live out a hedonic/fulfillment/intimacy marriage appears to be capped in our culture as a whole, and when you add onto that Christian ideas about marriage, at least the remaining ones that survive that transition, the group gets even smaller. The "larger church" which adopts the new norms, including LGBT, wholesale, will do so obviously at the cost of Christian moral orthodoxy -- in this sense they are the parallel of Charles's "outer circle" of "members of the biological family who are no longer subject to all of the Firm's rules, because they are no longer serving a public role" -- while the morally orthodox part of the church that embraces hedonic/fulfillment/intimacy marriage like everyone else but combines it (or tries to) with moral orthodoxy on sex in general is as rickety as Charles's inner circle of the Firm. It very much depends on personal qualities of the people involved, because the whole basis of the success of it stands or falls on the choices of the individuals who are a part of it -- something which we take as a "given" today, but which is nevertheless very much NOT the case when the basis is the extrinsic, always applicable, role/duty/role, rather than the intrinsic, and therefore not always present, "hedonic/fulfillment/intimacy" of any given relationship. In a sense, this means, to me, that the survival of this kind of church is itself rather rickety -- at least as rickety as the survival of Charles's shrunken Firm is, and for similar reasons.
I think as a result that the church, or "Christianity", will survive, in the part that "walks with the culture", because it will be able to provide a "spiritual outlet" for people who want it, but are walking themselves in lockstep with cultural orthodoxy. The morally orthodox side of the church, though, that form of Christianity which tries to "do both" in the sense of having marriages that meet the post-sex-rev standards of hedonic/fulfillment/intimacy while still upholding sexual moral orthodoxy otherwise will not be able to sustain that over the long term, other than in tiny outposts, because the number of people who can embrace both parts of that is very small -- it faces the same problem, therefore, that Charles's vision does, once it runs into an heir who selects a love match who doesn't fit the firm. For every morally orthodox Christian who finds a love match under the hedonic/fulfillment/intimacy model (a precious find, since it is hard to do) who does not fall under the strict sexual orthodoxy of the church, either in practice or in belief/commitment, there is likely one less morally orthodox Christian. Multiply that out going forward and the end result becomes clear enough to me.
I am always eager to receive your comments, and maybe even publish them. I’m at roddreher — at — substack — dot — com.
I write compulsively, but I’m going to try to exercise some self-discipline this weekend, readers, and not send out newsletters on Saturday and Sunday. Thanks so much for reading. The feedback from you has been marvelous. If I get some long(ish) and interesting e-mails from you tomorrow or Sunday, maybe I’ll send out the newsletter as From The Mailbag features. Please write!