“A great positive achievement”

While watching the mass of the Abyssinian Orthodox church in Debra Lanos in 1930, during the coronation of Ras Tafari as emperor of Abyssinia, Evelyn Waugh noted that the liturgy was “quite unintelligible.” As a Roman Catholic, he had thought that the “canon of the Mass would have been in part familiar, but this was said in the sanctuary behind closed doors.” This observation led him to reflect on the exoteric (as opposed to esoteric) nature of Western Christianity:

“I had sometimes thought it an odd thing that Western Christianity, alone of all the religions in the world, exposes its mysteries to every observer, but I was so accustomed to this openness that I had never before questioned whether it was an essential and natural feature of the Christian religion. Indeed, so saturated are we in this spirit that many people regard the growth of the [Christian] Church as a process of elaboration — even of obfuscation; they visualize the Church of the first century as a little cluster of pious people reading the Gospels together, praying and admonishing each other with a simplicity to which the high ceremonies and subtle theology of later years would have been bewildering and unrecognizable….”

Parenthetically, I would note that this last observation captures the beliefs of many Unitarian Universalists: that early Christianity, in the days before the Nicene Creed — or Paul, or whomever one believes to be the bogeyman who spoiled true Christianity — was pure and simple. But let us continue with Waugh’s meditation:

“At Debra Lanos I suddenly saw the classic basilica and open altar as a great positive achievement, a triumph of light over darkness consciously accomplished, and I saw theology as the science of simplification by which nebulous and elusive ideas are formalized and made intelligible and exact. I saw the Church of the first century as a dark and hidden thing: as dark and hidden as the seed germinating in the womb; legionaries off duty slipping furtively out of the barracks, greeting each other by signs and passwords in a locked upper room in the side street of some Mediterranean seaport; slaves at dawn creeping from the grey twilight into candle-lit, smoky chapels of the catacombs. The priests hid their office, practising trades; their identity was known only to initiates; they were criminals against the law of their country. … And I began to see how these obscure sanctuaries had grown, with the clarity of Western reason, into the great open altars of Catholic Europe, where Mass is said in a flood of light, high in the sight of all, while tourists can clatter round with their Baedeckers, incurious of the mystery.” (Evelyn Waugh, “A Coronation in 1930,” When the Going Was Good [Penguin Books, 1946/1976], pp. 118-119)

Waugh, in 1930, was a recent and fervent convert to Roman Catholicism, and a good part of what he wrote here may be classed as Catholic apologetics directed at his Church of England readers. And some of what he wrote came from the fanciful imagination of the novelist, which is not to say that it is untrue, but it isn’t careful and dry academic discourse. And there is a core of truth in what he wrote: the mainstream of Western religion tends towards the exoteric, rather than the esoteric. This is as true of Protestantism and newer forms of Christianity as it was of Waugh’s Roman Catholicism. When the Pentecostal receives the baptism of the Spirit and speaks in tongues, it happens in front of the gathered congregation, and videos may be taken of the event and posted on Youtube. When the Unitarian Universalist minister delivers a highly intellectual sermon, everyone is welcome to come and listen to it, though you may need an advanced degree to keep up with the literary allusions and verbal footnotes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve : *
30 + 25 =