|Review of The Sense of the Supernatural and The Secret of the Christian Way
|It was actually more than a decade ago that I first read an English translation of Jean Borella's work, and since that time, I have eagerly awaited the publication of this important French author on Christianity. Borella, author of the recently published books entitled The Secret of the Christian Way and The Sense of the Supernatural, is in the traditionalist line of René Guénon, but has by no means followed only in that author's footsteps. Borella's chief importance lies in his rediscovery and reaffirmation of orthodox Christian gnosis as espoused by such early Church Fathers as Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and in his application of this reaffirmation to understanding the nature of modernity. For many Christians, the word "gnosis" is suspect, usually associated with the Gnostics of antiquity and with a host of inventive heterodoxies from the early Christian era. Borella, in The Secret of the Christian Way, seeks to extricate the word "gnosis" from the opprobrium that usually is heaped upon it, and to demonstrate that in fact gnosis, direct spiritual knowledge, is central to the Christian tradition. In his view, gnosis is a result of a process called "deification," meaning the spiritual awakening to the divine of the individual. Borella writes that "gnosis is an immense and sacrosanct reality, a profound and mysterious reality, spoken about by the [orthodox] Christians themselves without need of further explanation(10)."
The Secret of the Christian Way begins by establishing that there was an orthodox recognition of an authentic gnosis by unequivocally orthodox figures beginning with St. Paul himself. The book then goes on to fulfill its subtitle: A Contemplative Ascent through the Writings of Jean Borella. The Secret is organized as a series of stages, beginning with "Contemplating God through His Vestiges in the Universe," and ascending through "Contemplating God Through His Image Stamped in Our Natural Powers," and culminating in "The Sabbath of Rest and Ecstasy." The Secret of the Christian Way is a significant book; it is without doubt a primary source for understanding not only Borella's thought, but also the possibility of an orthodox Christian gnosis. In many respects, The Secret may be seen as a preliminary book for those encountering Borella's thought for the first time, and as foundational for the more important of his two books in English: The Sense of the Supernatural.
Like The Secret, The Sense of the Supernatural is a devotional work on the orthodoxy of gnosis, but it includes a different aspect -- historical analysis -- and in this it is a groundbreaking and extremely important book. If in The Secret, Borella is concerned with establishing the necessity for an authentic Christian gnosis comparable to but distinct from what one finds in Taoism, Sufism, or other world religious traditions, in The Sense of the Supernatural, Borella's focus is much more analysis of what he sees as the various modernist heresies that have emerged in the past several centuries. Chief among these is the refusal not only of those in secular society, but what is worse in his eyes, of those who represent Roman Catholicism itself, the refusal to recognize the primacy of faith and of what he calls the "sense of the supernatural." Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular have become almost totally secularized, and Borella analyzes this secularization in some detail from the perspective of a traditional Roman Catholic clearly scandalized by it and by some of the rather astonishing pronouncements by contemporary or recent Roman Catholic clergy, theologians, and even bishops.
But what makes The Sense of the Supernatural so valuable is the perspective it offers on what I would call the paradox of modernity. The paradox of modernity is this: how is it on the one hand that modernity is indissolubly based in the notion of "progress," and that indeed there are numerous advancements, technological, medical, and otherwise that may be adduced to support the notion of progress, and yet it is self-evident that this "progress" is destructive not only of humanity and culture, not only of nature, but also of religious tradition? If from a purely materialistic perspective, we may be said to live in an era of unparalleled "progress," the same cannot be said of our eroding and disappearing religious traditions and traditional cultures. The paradox of modernity, simply put, is that all our "progress" appears to have as corollary effects cultural and religious regress or decadence, and the destruction of the natural world. The Sense of the Supernatural offers an analysis of modernity from a traditional Roman Catholic perspective informed by a vast erudition, secular and theological. This vantage point is in fact to a considerable extent outside modernity itself, and thus offers insights that one will not find elsewhere.
Of course, Borella's Guénonian logic, combined with his total devotion to Roman Catholicism, leads him to condemn not only modernist secularism, but also the Protestantism that inevitably led to modernism. According to Guénonian logic, Protestantism was nothing more than a manifestation of the downward movement toward the complete loss of the sense of the supernatural, toward the individualism, secularism, and decadence of modernity, caught as it is in unredeemed historicism and materialism. Of course, this rather condemnatory view of Protestantism does totally ignore the entire Christian theosophic tradition that began with Jacob Böhme in the early seventeenth century, and that continued throughout the subsequent history of modernity in such stellar figures as Franz von Baader in the nineteenth century, and Leopold Ziegler and Nicholas Berdyaev in the twentieth centuries. And indeed, the truth is that Baader (himself a Catholic and also a theosopher in the line of Böhme) has much in common with Borella's own insights. In overlooking the theosophic tradition in its entirety, and in its total condemnation of Protestantism as a whole, Borella's work loses some of its luster. It would be richer were it to include the Böhmean current of theosophy and its insights. This said, Borella is faithful to his Guénonian premises here; for Guénon too, coming from a Catholic perspective, totally ignored the theosophic tradition.
One other major contribution of Borella's The Sense of the Supernatural, beyond its analysis of modernity, is to introduce us to the work of Louis Lanneau, an eighteenth-century French missionary to South Asia who encountered Buddhism and who wrote a long manuscript on the Christian process of "deification" that was only relatively recently republished in French in full. One can see why for Borella the work of Lanneau would be immediately recognizable as important as a predecessor: it emphasizes the centrality in Christianity of a process of spiritual awakening through which one must go, as opposed to a merely historical understanding of Christianity according to which, since Christ died at a certain point in history, one need to nothing more than give lip service to one's belief in that death and its significance. For Lanneau, as for Borella, Christianity is nothing if not a process of spiritual awakening that leads to gnosis, or direct spiritual knowledge of the divine and individual deification.
If one were to only purchase one of these two books, I would strongly recommend purchasing Borella's The Sense of the Supernatural. This, in my view, is the more important of the two books, and I encourage purchase both by individuals and by libraries. I do not find myself agreeing with everything that Borella writes by any means, but The Sense of the Supernatural is an important publication that stands alongside the works of Philip Sherrard, the Greek Orthodox Christian traditionalist, both authors being important not least for their critiques of modernity. If we are to begin to understand what modernity consists in, and how it came to be, the works of Borella and Sherrard have much to offer us not least because their uncompromising perspectives are to a considerable extent outside modernity even as they participate in it. If we tend to take for granted the triumphalism of modernity as giving one a vantage point from which one might judge traditions and cultures, such works as these present an often startling shift of perspective that may well provoke genuine insights in understanding the sort of society in which we find ourselves, and what it really means to be religious within itnot to mention what it means when a society has become almost totally secular and lost its "sense of the supernatural."
|By Jean Borella
(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998)
|By Jean Borella
(Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001)