Monday 25 October 2021

EF Schumacher - an uncompleted trajectory towards Romantic Christianity

I was very much affected by EF Schumacher's Small is Beautiful - which I bought a year or two after its publication in 1973 having seen a documentary about it on TV. I have been reviewing Schumacher recently, including the biography by his daughter (Alias Papa) and his final book Guide for the Perplexed published just before he died in 1977. 

Through his life Schumacher described a trajectory from Marxism, through socialism, then a 1960s style Buddhistic 'environmentalism' to become a traditionalist (and Thomistic) Roman Catholic in 1971. 

None of his Roman Catholicism, or even Christianity, was evident to my young self until I read Guide for the Perplexed (GftP); so I was pretty stunned by it. (I had been an atheist since about age six, and was hostile to Christianity.)

I now find Small is Beautiful to be obsolete and obviously wrong in its positive economic prescriptions. But reviewing GftP last week brought back my strongly-mixed response from 1977. 

As so often in my life; I was convinced by Schumacher's 'negative critique' of modern materialism, scientism, the shallowness, meaninglessness and purposeless of life since the industrial revolution. I strongly felt the same way. 

But I was unconvinced then, and still am, by his positive 'solution' in the form of a return to a traditional form of Christianity - one that is rooted in a categorical division of reality into four levels of the in-animate mineral, plant, animal and man (the same scheme as used by Rudolf Steiner). The whole style of Schumacher's positive argument strikes me as 'dead' and uninspiring; too systematic, too bureaucratic, too external. 

Regular readers will know that I see no valid division between living and non-living; and that regard reality as composed of beings, that are alive and conscious - and this includes the 'mineral'. Without a return to some-such 'animism'; Christians condemn themselves to alienation, and (as the neo-pagans recognized) cut-off a vital element of our human nature. 

Also, and this applied even in my youth, I see no valid division between animals and plants.

In more general terms, I would now regard Schumacher's position, at the time of death, as advocating a return to essentially the Greco-Roman-Medieval form of society; or what Steiner calls the Intellectual Soul phase of human consciousness, which is a gradually-transforming halfway between the 'Original Participation' of simple hunter gatherer societies, and the 'modern' (especially since the 1750s) 'Consciousness Soul' phase when the human mind feels cut-off from the rest of reality, and doubts even its own reality.  

Nowadays, I am sure that Man cannot go back to an earlier stage of consciousness: the project of revived traditionalism has been tried many times and failed many times; very few people truly want it; and it is harmful even to try. 

What we can and must do is 'Romantic Christianity' - and I have a strong feeling that Fritz Schumacher would have taken that further step had he lived longer than his 66 years (and with clear mind). This would have completed the implicit trajectory of his development; and I think that - having made the condensed and lucid statement of GftP he would probably have looked at it critically, tried it thoroughly, and (as he had done before) would have gone beyond it. 

More exactly; Schumacher had experienced the 'romanticism' of the 60s-style counter-culture with its 'eastern', Buddhist-Hindu-Sufi type of personally-experienced spirituality (meditation, yoga etc); he had discarded this and found Jesus Christ, again experientially but in a pre-modern-aspiring and communitarian form; and he would have wanted to combine these two deep impulses and convictions in a romantic, intuitive and experiential, Christianity. 

It did not happen - but all the ingredients were present in Schumacher: including a questing, critical and honest intelligence. 


Zach said...

My favorite E. F. Schumacher story:

"Fritz, isn't your 'Buddhist Economics' chapter really the same thing that the Popes wrote about in the social encyclicals?"

"Ja, that is true."

"Then why didn't you call it 'Catholic Economics'?"

(mischievous grin) "Because, then nobody would have read it."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Zach - Good story - and true.

ted said...

Hi Bruce, Schumacher does end his book with this good insight as to how one is to make progress on their spiritual journey which makes me think he was groping at the Romantic impulse:
"His first task is to learn from society and 'tradition' and to find his temporary happiness in receiving directions from outside. His second task is to interiorise the knowledge he has gained, sift it, sort it out, keep the good and jettison the bad; this process may be called 'individuation', becoming self-directed. His third task is one that he cannot tackle until he has accomplished the first two, and for which he needs the very best help he can possibly find: it is 'dying' to oneself, to one's likes and dislikes, to all one's ego-centric preoccupations. To the extent that he succeeds in this, he ceases to be directed from outside, and he also ceases to be self-directed. He has gained freedom, or, one might say, he is then God-directed."

Bruce Charlton said...

@ted. Yes, it does seem that way.

Jack said...

For me, the essence of Romantic Christianity is seeing oneself as the child of God, living that reality, and fulfilling Jesus statement that one must become as a child to enter the kingdom of God.

In this connection I have two texts to recommend.

The first is the Gospel of Thomas. One of the non-canonical gospels (i.e. not institutionally recognised at the Council of Nicaea) that was discovered a few decades ago. In my opinion it's one of the best of these recently discovered early Christian texts (it's the one I think compares well with the canonical Four), and the reason it was suppressed in the Patristic era is precisely because it represents a strand of Christianity that is more Romantic, more focused on the individual believer and their direct perception of God. It's even more Romantic in this sense than the Gospel of John, I believe. Read it for yourself.

The second text is Story of a Soul, by St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus. I think this is a founding text of Romantic Christianity. It comes from a Catholic nun who died at age 24 but who predicted before her death (in her typically effusive way, not being arrogant or egotistical) that she'd become one of the most well known / loved saints in the Church. And indeed she's the foremost Roman Catholic saint in modern times, the most popular, and the one who's statue you're most likely to meet in any random Catholic parish. She died at 24 like I said, and only left behind this brief autobiography of her soul, yet Pope Pius X called her "the greatest saint of modern times" and she was later declared a "Doctor of the Church", an honour usually reserved to very eminent theologians like St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. Countless books have been written about her. Despite being ritually-speaking fully embeded in Roman Catholicism, and a devout and obedient Catholic all her life, her spirituality is one of direct access, trust, and love of God. She had to fight very hard spiritually to overcome the decadent, despairing, formulaic spirituality that was rampant in the Church in her day in order to rediscover this power of the Gospel and the Christian soul.

Another text I recommend is "Postmodernist Manifesto" by Hisamatsu Shin'ichi. He was a Buddhist who I think discovered what you might call Romantic Buddhism, a Buddhist analogue to Romantic Christianity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jack - I don't agree about the Thomas Gospel. It is certainly interesting (although the translations I have seen diverge alarmingly! - so I am unsure of what it 'really' said) but it seems like a very Platonic/ Monist/ 'Gnostic' interpretation of Christianity as a generic mystical-initiate kind of spirituality - which I would regard as *fundamentally* different from the Fourth Gospel.

The difficulty of regarding pre-modern types of Christian practice as 'romantic' (another might be some readings of Julian of Norwich) is that they reference 'Original Participation' rather than looking forward to modernity to Final Participation.

Postmodernism does link quite easily with Zen Buddhism, but it is a self-contradicting and incoherent destructively-negative critique of Christianity, which needs to be transcended as quickly as possible!