Marshall McLuhan and Eastern Christianity: Probing an Interfaith Interface with the Symbolic World in Mind
Canadian literary critic Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) became at once a media personality and a media guru in the 1960s, with his ground-breaking reflection on different communication technologies’ effects on consciousness, from the alphabet to the Internet —which he is often said to have anticipated.((See Levinson, Paul. Digital McLuhan. A Guide to the Information Millennium, Routledge, 1999.)) But he soon became a victim of his success when his reputation subsided like just another sixties fad, somewhat akin to psychedelia in involving an imaginative break with conventional thinking and a highly creative improvisational use of language. The enduring relevance of McLuhan’s work became more widely acknowledged at the end of the last century, when a flurry of publications (including a special issue of Wired magazine) pointed to his prescience about the cultural effects of the digital stage of electronic media.
Until that revival of interest in McLuhan’s thought, relatively few people realized the importance of its religious underpinnings (and many still do not). And yet, its impetus has to do with his conversion to Catholicism in the 1930s under G.K. Chesterton’s influence, while he was doing graduate research in English literature at the University of Cambridge. He was then led to unpack the entire background of obscure Elizabethan polemics he had chosen as a thesis topic, all the way back to the early Church Fathers. Drawn down that rabbit hole, he came out the other end a changed man, remade by a deep assimilation of the Catholic Church’s medieval Scholastic intellectual tradition: “a Thomist for whom the sensory order resonates with the divine Logos. I don’t think concepts have any relevance in religion,” he could write to the editor of The United Church Observer. “Analogy is not a concept. It is resonance. It is inclusive. It is the cognitive process itself. That is the analogy of the Divine Logos.” As his son Eric McLuhan further explains in introducing The Medium and the Light. Reflections on Religion, the book that came as a revelation of that crucial depth dimension of McLuhan’s thought in 1999:
To a Catholic, faith is not simply an act of the mind, that is a matter of ideology or thought (concepts) or belief or trust, though it is usually mistaken for these things. Faith is a mode of perception, a sense like sight or hearing or touch and as real and actual as these, but a spiritual rather than a bodily sense. (The Protestants, he found in his research, had decided to regard faith in terms of ideas and concepts. Their decision meant that they had, in terms of the trivium, hitched their fortunes to dialectic, and abandoned the old alliance of rhetoric and grammar to which the Church still resolutely adhered.)((McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium and the Light. Reflections on Religion, at xv. Stoddart, 1999.))
Marshall McLuhan would come to see that crucial shift in emphasis as a concrete effect of that from hearing to sight as the dominant sense with the advent of the printing press. The latter, as he would explain in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), was thus a direct cause of the breakdown of Christendom with the Reformation. His investigation of media as “an inventory of effects” (to quote the subtitle of his 1967 book with Quentin Fiore The Medium is the Massage —a fortuitous pun on his famous message about the Mass Age) was thus a Catholic humanist response, relying on rhetoric and grammar, to the modern dominance of dialectical, purely logical modes of thought. For he linked the latter to the print-based, visual-biased conceptualism and moralism typified by Protestantism as the Roman Church’s “Other”, the rival account of Christianity that protested against her authority.
—But what of Catholicism’s other “Other”: an Eastern Christianity that remains alien to the Western matrix of modernity, yet closer to Christendom’s ancient roots? For the Orthodox Church was spared reconstruction in visual terms when she denied the novel claims of the Roman See to direct universal jurisdiction over the other apostolic patriarchates (Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria), which allowed it to remain more in tune with ancient Christianity. This may seem counter-intuitive, given the centrality of icons to Orthodox worship. What is important to understand here is that it is a matter of bias, of emphasis among sensory data that yet still come from all organs at once, just not in the same ratio between the two basic arrangements that play out with many variations in different anthropological settings, namely: the acoustic —or rather “audile-tactile”— space of oral and non-alphabetic cultures, and the visual space of literate —and especially print— cultures. The shift from one world to the other is readily apparent even in the way the art produced in the Western Church started to visibly and functionally differ from that produced in other ancient Churches after the Great Schism.
For during the first millennium, similar symbolic patterns and canonical styles were consistently found across Christendom’s entire reach from Ireland to India, mutually legible and readily understandable across all local and temporal variations. Thus, Romance art is still canonically Orthodox in a way that Gothic art soon ceases to be. The latter starts to favour psychological expressiveness in increasingly naturalistic settings, tending toward high-definition 3D rendering on different perspectival planes within geometrically homogeneous space structured by historical or allegorical narratives.((See Bigham, Steven. Romanesque Art And Icons and Other Iconographic Studies, self-published at Smashwords, 2015, https://www.academia.edu/35868866/ROMANESQUE_ART_AND_ICONS_AND_OTHER_ICONOGRAPHIC_STUDIES)) These traits of so-called “Primitive” painters of the European tradition are soon systematized by Renaissance masters that define our idea of pictorial art as a stand-alone, window-like device opening onto a continuous world as an extension of the physical one “out there” in virtual space. This stands in sharp contrast to the liturgical or communal context and use of earlier Christian art, little different in many other respects from its Eastern counterparts from Persia to China. For here too, as with the pictorial art of these other scribal cultures from before mass alphabetic printing, we are struck by the symbolically potent, hieratic frontality of figures appearing out of a timelessly resonant encompassing background. They are like mysterious sounds arising out of nowhere amidst a thick fog, without objective reference points to latch on to beyond their own manifestation to structure the surrounding space we sense through our whole body as well as our ears. The stance these images call for is one of listening to the unpredictably heterogeneous space they attune us to, as opposed to the perspectival gaze —pinpointed and panoramic in turn— that colours all of Gutenberg man’s perceptions, even that of sound (as in the development of metrical, highly analytical musical notation).
Being so aware of this turn to visual bias that defined the Christian West over against all other civilizations, what did McLuhan make of the challenge a non-Western Christianity represented to his intended defence of Christian qua Western civilization? McLuhan’s references to Eastern Christianity in The Medium and the Light reveal an ambivalence that raises fruitful questions about his premises as a Western Christian. They also deserve to be pondered by Eastern Christians who may not share them all. For by and large, they have yet to formulate anything resembling McLuhan’s sustained critical engagement with the ways different media shape man —especially in electric conditions. This may seem paradoxical, since their own tradition, as exemplified by icon-worship and its theology, shows extraordinary sensitivity to those issues. It should come as no surprise then that one possible exception to this pattern has come from iconographer Jonathan Pageau, in the way he has found himself spearheading a whole movement of probing (also in McLuhan’s intuitive perceptual sense) cultural criticism. Arising from his churchly artistic practice and experience, it has taken an essentially oral, dialogical form in the neo-acoustic environment of electronic social media. This should not be so surprising, since these new media retrieve certain features of pre-print and even preliterate cultures, e.g. in that their information overload favours instant symbolic pattern recognition over sequential dialectical exposition.
Even before he stumbled into unexpected prominence on the so-called Intellectual Dark Web, Jonathan Pageau had been pressing me for several years to write for the Orthodox Arts Journal he co-founded an article along the lines of this one, which instead first took shape as a paper for the McLuhan Faith and Works Conference held at St. Paul’s College, Winnipeg on October 18-19, 2015. In this updated version for the Symbolic World blog, I will be probing this largely uncharted ground of the interface between Eastern and Western modes of Christian thought and experience, as applied to the shifts in the apprehension of the symbolic order of reality tied to different media regimes through the centuries. I will be approaching this enquiry from an angle in some ways comparable to McLuhan’s own trajectory, namely as a Western convert to Orthodox Christianity for over three decades now —about as long as I have been fitfully grappling with McLuhan’s insights.
Fateful Ruptures: Before the Reformation, the Gregorian Reform as Great Schism
As a Renaissance scholar, Marshall McLuhan embraced Roman Catholicism just as he was coming to realize that the Protestant Reformation was the product of print, “as the Church was destroyed or dismembered in that era by a stupid historical blunder, by a technology.”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 46.)) For “this slide towards the visual also explains the appearance of sects. The word sect evokes visual fragmentation. … Suddenly, with Gutenberg, classification took on enormous importance, including classification of religious attitudes and dogma.”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 47.)) This was a result of the unmediated availability of standard texts now directly available to any individual out of local contexts, within the vast, delocalized audience created by print, allowing each reader to “invent his own particular point of view. Things did not happen in this way in manuscript tradition, because the operation was much more acoustic than visual, and because transmission mostly came about orally”: silent, individual reading was even physically impossible without mouthing the words. This ability only became widespread along with printed books, and became central to the first Protestants who “transposed the old method of scholastic discussion into the new visual order: they thus used the new discovery of print to dig the trench that separated them from the Roman Church.”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 46-47.))
“Medieval culture based on manuscript allowed for a style of communal life very different from the mass community which appeared with print”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 46.)): a style that persisted in the Eastern Church. But there, it has long been understood to be thanks to an early rejection, both instinctive and theological, of Scholasticism, seen as a dangerous temptation from a Western Church that was already straying into a conceptual—and therefore visual—bias unconducive to an inner understanding of the faith as orally transmitted, e.g. through the liturgy. To be sure, a new wave of scholarship has been piecing evidence of a more nuanced and appreciative Eastern reception of Scholastic thought than was long stressed when Orthodox theologians were still trying to free their Churches from a centuries-old “Babylonian captivity” to Western models and methods (to use the famous phrase by Georges Florovsky, initiator of the Neo-Patristic turn in modern Orthodox theology). Nevertheless, Greek theologian Christos Yannaras may have put his finger on an epistemological difference of the same kind McLuhan highlighted within the Western Church around the time of the Reformation, only locating soon after the medieval parting of the ways between East and West. For according to him, the latter’s increasing reliance on scholasticism soon after the Great Schism already “ruled out cognition as the experience of communion and relation, it limited truth to individual comprehension, to the correspondence of thought and the object of thought (veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus)” as critiqued by Heidegger in On the Essence of Truth.((Yannaras, Christos. The Church in Post-Communist Europe. ¨Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute Distinguished Lectures 1998”, at 17. InterOrthodox Press, 2003. See Heidegger, Martin. On the Essence of Truth, based on a translation by John Sallis of the fourth edition of the essay (1961). https://aphelis.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Martin-Heidegger-On-the-Essence-of-Truth.pdf, 1943.))
It founded an individualist anthropology and a rationalist theory of knowledge that saw their completed systematization in Scholasticism and later in Descartes. The theology of the West wanted to establish itself as a positive science —to prove the existence of God with rational arguments and to impose its ethics as functionality. It thus transformed God into a dead concept (blosser Begriff —Kant) preparing the way for metaphysical nihilism.((Yannaras, The Church, at 18.))
Thus, the transformation of faith from a percept to a concept was, from such an Eastern perspective, underway long before the advent of print, as the very process that drove the Roman Church out of communion with the other ancient patriarchates in the same orthodox faith. For her invention of a universal Papacy came to a head with the XIth-century Gregorian Reform, at the same time as the emergence of Scholasticism, the infatuation with Roman law (stressing such uncommunal concepts as sovereignty and property), the satisfaction theory of atonement (as the Son’s payment of man’s infinite debt to assuage the Father’s wrath), Purgatory (with its individualized accounting of the soul’s post-mortem destiny), and other dubious religious innovations. All these related developments had in common that they tended to enshrine individual salvation and institutional standardization as hallmarks of a new visual bias.
Beholden as he was to this medieval synthesis that set Roman Catholicism apart from previous and further ecclesial developments, McLuhan recognized that “the Eastern Church, being iconic and audile-tactile, could not tolerate the visual hierarchy of Rome with external, materialistic aspects,” later bolstered by the Counter-Reformation’s emphasis on print-based centralized bureaucracy. The latter felt to him as dead weight now that Catholicism was caught in the alternative to sink or swim in the neo-tribal electric environment “with its multi-locational boundlessness”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 137.)): the sense of everything in the world happening as it were within earshot all at once, in a “global village” that came into view with television and later became palpable through smartphones as new audile-tactile organs within the worldwide Web of permanent interconnectedness. Eric McLuhan thought this new media environment could affect Catholicism in that “something more like the Eastern Church may be in the offing”, with doctrinal authority but no central high command.((McLuhan. The Medium, at xxviii.)). This could be one way to interpret McLuhan’s quip: “It would be a good time to be Russian Orthodox: they split off from Rome because it was too literate.”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 60.))
Beside “an emerging body of Catholic theological writing on the Western drift back to Eastern holism” ((Rosman, Artur. “John Milbank: The Eastward Movement of Western Theology”. Cosmos The In Lost blog, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/cosmostheinlost/2015/07/28/john-milbank-the-eastward-movement-of-western-theology/, accessed July 21, 2020)), it might be tempting to take as evidence of a trend towards such a recovery of an audile-tactile experience of Christian life the Eastern theological current of “eucharistic ecclesiology”. For its emphasis on the communal, sacramental embodiment of the Church at the local level of parish and diocese has recently come to gain a wide appeal even beyond the confines of Orthodoxy. Even more telling perhaps of a shift in religious sensibilities concomitant with the flipping back of visual into acoustic conditions, rare is now the Catholic or mainline Protestant church that does not display at least one Eastern-style icon as a self-evident touchstone of authentic, ancient Christianity. Is that new appeal of Eastern Christian forms to be seen as the Trojan horse of an Oriental peril to Western civilization as it dissolves into a global electronic environment, as McLuhan sometimes seemed close to suggesting? Or is it, on the contrary, an indication that the Eastern Church, far from being aligned with ethereal “electric information environments” that add up to “a reasonable facsimile of the mystical body, a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ” ((McLuhan. The Medium, at 72.)), might instead offer the promise of a concrete antidote to it? She is after all more faithful in many ways to the original, locally embodied acoustic Church, of which a discarnate electric planetary consciousness is but a Luciferian parody.
The Roman Church for her part remains saddled with old and new baggage of her own shift away from the common acoustic paradigm of Christianity’s first millennium. The inherited centralized universal jurisdiction of her defining visual bias was initially bolstered in the mid-second millennium by the Council of Trent (1545-63) that came up with her own answers to the issues the Protestant Reformation purported to address. This Counter-Reformation thus opened the way for spectacular propagandistic appeal to the senses and sentiment (witness Renaissance and Baroque church decoration), regimented institutionalization (e.g. the proliferation of specialized active religious orders and the methodical institutionalization of schooling), and the legalistic micromanagement of morality that came along with catechisms of formulaic tenets to define the faith. On the other hand, at the height of McLuhan’s career, the Second Vatican Council seemed to enable an acoustic reversal of modern Catholicism’s self-understanding, in the direction of the contentless ecumenism of an emerging “noosphere” of electronic media and new technologies, portrayed as the immanent realization of divine Spirit through mankind’s increasingly collective planetary consciousness by the visionary Jesuit evolutionary thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who remains a kind of “patron saint” to transhumanists). Both templates of Roman Catholicity have in common a definition of it in terms of continuous extension in space: it incorporates whatever relates to the Roman See, taken as the signifier of universal validity or outer jurisdictional reach. This Roman “quantitative” emphasis on Catholicity (meaning “universality”) as spatial extent may be contrasted to Orthodoxy, whose very name entails a definition in intension (qualitative content), or better yet in comprehension (a specific set of such experiential contents), as locally transmitted through time.
These two ecclesiological models can be correlated to the two imperial models identified by Harold Innis (an immediate forerunner of McLuhan in what is known as the Toronto School of communication theory —see http://thetorontoschool.ca) in surveying world-history: the militaristic empires concerned with the conquest of space and the religious empires privileging transmission over time. It is clear that the Roman Church decided around the turn of the last millennium to organize and image herself as a world-conquering administrative State (initially to compete on the same turf with the Roman Empire she had recreated in the West in 800 in defiance of the surviving Eastern half). By contrast, the Eastern Churches’ paramount concern has always been to remain in communion through time and beyond time with the ecumenical Church as she existed for a thousand years before the Great Schism, even at the risk of dwindling into geopolitical insignificance. (“Better the Turk than the Pope!” was a cry heard in Constantinople in response to eleventh-hour attempts to reunite the divided Church and stave off the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire; ironically, it would later be taken up by Protestants in their own struggles against the Roman Church.) The Western bias toward space coincided with a new visual emphasis, whereas the Eastern bias toward time has remained a function of an acoustic emphasis. “It was Innis’ conviction that stable societies were able to achieve a balance between time- and space-biased communications media. In his writings, Innis is forthright in his own bias that the oral tradition”, based as it is on taking time for personal transmission, “is inherently more flexible and humanistic than the written tradition, which he found rigid and impersonal in contrast.”((Soules, Marshall. “Harold Adams Innis: The Bias of Communications & Monopolies of Power.” http://www.media-studies.ca/articles/innis.htm, accessed October 16, 2015.)) Harold Innis held up both classical Greece and Byzantium as unique examples of balance between oral and written culture, that pointed a way to the future. McLuhan’s own stance was more complex as well as more ambivalent, and it went through significant shifts.
Ex Oriente Lux or Peril from the East? Orthodoxy in Technological Society
Marshall McLuhan started out as a wistful advocate of the acoustic paradigm he still recognized in the late Middle Ages, rather critical of the visual ascendancy of the “Gutenberg Galaxy”, as he called in his eponymous book the modern world born of the printing press. He is still often assumed to have welcomed the contemporary turn away from literacy to renewed acoustic conditions ushered in by electronic media’s neo-tribal drums —even coming to be viewed as their sanguine booster. And yet, he eventually turned to a defense of beleaguered Western literate civilization, aligning its ancient Greek emergence from the Phoenician alphabet with its modern European print version, over against all things Eastern, pre-modern, or even early medieval. That is why he sometimes lumped together Orthodoxy and the Orient, as they both answered post-literate Western man’s longing “to be immersed in things and lose the individual self.” He saw how increasingly out-of-place this private subject had become, being “a by-product of the alphabet and the visual world that flows from it. The Eastern Church, especially the Slavs, traditionally tends towards the inner trip: from that comes the importance to young Westerners of Dostoevski and similar authors”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 95.)). McLuhan knew what he was talking about, since those same Russian novelists had drawn him to Christian faith when he was young and still a rebel against the soulless mass individualism of print culture; “for there is a true and eternal pattern for human life which the ‘progress’ mongers wot not of. Blessed are they that find and follow that pattern”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 17.)), which leads to the symbolic world!
One might have expected McLuhan to rejoice at the prospects for reconnection with this symbolic world inherent in a revival of audile-tactile primacy within the human sensorium. This is certainly the impression he usually gave at the height of his glory in the 1960s. Nevertheless, there was a note of concern in McLuhan’s frequent musings in later life as to “whether the Church has any inherent and inseparable bond with the Greco-Roman tradition of civilization”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 129.)). Had she not brought salvation in the fullness of time precisely to the post-tribal “private individual equal before a code of written laws”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 128.)), born of the phonetic alphabet of the ancient polis?
Christianity definitely supports the idea of a private, independent metaphysical substance of the self. Where technologies supply no cultural basis for this individual, then Christianity is in for trouble. When you have a new tribal culture confronting an individualist religion, there is trouble.((McLuhan. The Medium, at 85.))
According to McLuhan, it was far from “accidental that Christianity began in the Greco-Roman culture. … A sense of private substantial identity –a self– is to this day utterly unknown to tribal societies.”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 80.)) However, it is not in these terms nor on the premises they express that, out of an Eastern Christian sensibility, Russian writers and artists such as Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn and Tarkovsky have mounted their spirited defense of the integrity of the human person not only against collectivistic “Oriental despotism” of the communist type, but also against the mass individualism of the liberal “civilized” West. I know of at least one bold Orthodox attempt to show that the Gospel message is not married to Greco-Roman culture and could just as well, or even more appropriately, be couched in the language of Chinese humanism and Taoist wisdom ((See Damascene, Hieromonk. Christ the Eternal Tao, Valaam Books, 1999.)). But it is true that the broader consensus of Eastern Orthodoxy (non-Chalcedonian Oriental Orthodoxy is a different matter, having developed somewhat independently of Greek culture) does tend to assume a providential link between Christianity and a Hellenism that managed to break the acoustic spell of archaic tribalism. Still, this shift is understood in somewhat different terms than the typically Roman ones used by McLuhan. Orthodox theology would quibble with or balk at almost every term of McLuhan’s alignment of Christianity as such with “the idea of a private, independent metaphysical substance of the self”.
For one thing, Greek theology has always been wary of the kind of substance ontology taken for granted in the West from Augustine onward, as applied to Godhead as an essence somehow distinguishable from the Persons of the Trinity: the filioque is often portrayed as having simultaneously muddied the waters of divine triunity and favoured in compensation a drift toward neat conceptual abstraction and away from faith’s apophatically apprehended existential antinomies. Heidegger’s deconstruction of Western metaphysics as tied to onto-theology (the confusion of God with Being —equally deleterious to both) and naturally leading to the nihilism of Technique is taken by Christos Yannaras as independent confirmation of the wrong turn taken by Western Christianity. Significantly, another great Christian thinker of Technique, the High Church Anglican philosopher George Grant (a Canadian convert from liberal Protestantism like McLuhan), also came to this view, under the decisive impact of a British convert to Orthodoxy, namely through Philip Sherrard’s account of The Greek East and the Latin West (1959):
For Grant, the distinction is important for the simple reason that the West attempted to too clearly define God and God’s Being, whereas the Orthodox tradition was more willing to dwell in the Mystery and Essence of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The fact that the Roman Catholic church attempted to be too sure about the economy and operation of God by the inclusion of the ‘filioque clause’ (the relationship between Father, Son, Spirit and Son and Spirit) worried Grant. It was this Western need to sharpen, clarify and fully understand that blinded the West to that which could not be comprehended. [CR: Clearly a function of its need to visually grasp within neat concepts!] Grant thought that Aristotle was back of the Western Roman Catholic-Protestant way, and Plato informed the more mystical and contemplative Orthodox way. ((George Grant: A Biography: pages 232-237)) It was the meditative Orthodox way that Grant held high, and he thought that Western Christianity had lost its spiritual and mystical way. Grant was fusing Simone Weil, Sherrard and Orthodoxy in the 1960s, and he knew where he stood and why. Grant, therefore, saw in the ‘filioque clause’ the budding of the Western rationalist way that would blossom into the need of 16-17th century science for clear and distinct ideas and the western technological drive in the 19th-20th centuries to master through reason and will the earth, knowledge and human relationships.((Dart, Ron. “George Grant and the Orthodox Tradition”. Clarion. Journal of Religion, Peace & Justice, https://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2010/08/george-grant-and-the-orthodox-tradtion.html, 2010.))
Furthermore, in contrast to McLuhan’s identification of a private self as of the essence of Christianity, most Orthodox theologians take for granted the distinction between “person” and “individual” made popular by Christian thinkers of various churches in the first half of the last century, opposing to the humanistic natural individual, defined by privative separation of oneself from other selves, the Christian person in —and as— free communion with other beings. At bottom, they reject the Western definition of the personal self as rational substance (going back to Boethius in De duabus naturis et una persona Christi adversus Eutychen et Nestorium liber, c. ii: “Naturæ rationalis individua substantia”, “an individual substance of a rational nature”), only accepting a relational subject, patterned on the three Persons of God. Thus, for John Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamon, “the person, viewed in the light of the Trinity, is not an ‘individual’, in the sense of an identity which is conceivable apart from its relations”((Zizioulas, John. Communion and Otherness. Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, at 177. T. & T. Clark, 2006.)), for “the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit indicate ‘a mode of existence, that is of relation’”((Zizioulas. Communion, 175.)), to cite the Cappadocian Father Amphilochius.
Personhood as a situated nexus of mutual “relations of ontological constitutiveness”((Zizioulas. Communion, 173.)), not unlike symbolism as a complementarity of particulars that points to their co-emergent interrelation as a larger whole, is a function of resonance within acoustic spacing. As such, the person thus understood is a resonant focus of relations (rather like the classical actor’s mask at the dramatically sonic origin of the word persona). It remains at odds with the notion of fixed substances standing apart in uniform visual space, only affecting each other in predictable outer sequence. In McLuhan’s terms, “for the auditory man, no two times or two spaces could be alike. Each is unique. Everything has its own structure. This is what brings the stress on existentialism” that McLuhan rightly connects with Russian authors and the appeal of the East. Yet he assumes that such a relational “internalization” implies that “the human condition is focused on the group, the tribe, the family”. Ultimately, he fears, “according to Zen Buddhism, you have to immerse yourself in things and efface the self; you have to disappear.” “The same characteristics apply to the Eastern Church as a whole”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 50.)), McLuhan maintains.
But this is not quite how the Orthodox sense of the person as a kenotic “selfless self” (to borrow the title of a 1997 book by Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk who draws on the Desert Fathers for a way of Christian meditation) in ecclesial communion plays out. Zizioulas could thus follow up his classic “Studies in Personhood and the Church”, gathered under the title Being as Communion (1997), with further studies of Communion and Otherness (2006), to spell out how, “if Chalcedonian Christology were to be expressed philosophically, it would be absolutely necessary to work out an ontology whereby distance is not an inevitable corollary of otherness, and unity does not destroy but —this is important— affirms and realizes otherness”((Zizioulas. Communion, 293.)). In a person’s aural encounter with another, both resonate together within shared space more than they sequentially communicate across visible distance. Here, the neighbour appears as the concrete instantiation of a universal —though not uniform— whole, more or less in tune with all other parts, and indeed as a singular member of their cosmic choir. This is the acoustic experience of space that sets the tone of the typical visual environment of an Orthodox church, with its rows of icons of saints of all times that all feel present together beyond time, their individual features arrayed in a single attentive stance of communion with the sacred space reverberating through them. The cosmic ethos that is meant to flow from this liturgical experience of the divine mystery echoing in human persons has been eloquently formulated by Saint Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris (martyred on July 20 1945 in the Ravensbrück concentration camp for aiding persecuted Jews):
The “churching of life” is the realization of the whole world as one great church, adorned with icons —persons who should be venerated, honored, and loved, because these icons are true images of God that have the holiness of the living God within them.((Skobtsova, Maria, "The Mysticism of Human Communion," in Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, at 78-9, Orbis, 2002, cited by Plekon, Fr. Michael. The Nun Whose Monastery Was the World. https://holycrossoca.org/newslet/1002.html, accessed July 20, 2020.))
Ecclesial Being as Cosmic Choir: Beyond Private Selves and Global Tribes
Marshall McLuhan appears to concur with the kind of audile-tactile, local-global “eucharistic ecclesiology” associated with Zizioulas when he stresses, in a letter to Allen Maruyama (31/12/1971), how “characteristic of man’s humanity is his freedom in community, which the Christian community provides … in the corporate freedom in the mystical body of Christ, the Church.” Now that the electric age has subsumed individual freedom into a corporate one “in a tribal context,” “the hope of man is that he can be changed sacramentally so that he will eventually come to an awareness of himself in his community and discover individual freedom in his community.”((McLuhan. The Medium, at xxvii.)) This hope is consonant with the Eastern sense of the Church as a body singing in unison, which translates in a local setting as the monodic, unaccompanied, partially notated chant of traditional Eastern liturgies (with only cues for orally transmitted knowledge —much as symbols awaiting completion by the proper spirit they point to). This is why people raised in these ancient forms of Christian worship often feel dismay when they come to encounter virtuosic scripted polyphony and even instruments in a church setting in the West, which both foregrounds individuality and standardizes it, relying on technical aids.
This clash between a non-technological, acoustic experience and a visual, individualized experience of what the Church and even a Christian is extends to the very understanding of the nature of theology and (small o) orthodoxy. McLuhan once said that “orthodoxy, in the etymological sense of the word, is to corner oneself into a single point of view.”((Interview with Pierre Babin, cited in de Kerckhove, Derrick. “Passion and Precision: The Faith of Marshall McLuhan.” http://www.media-ecology.org/mcluhan/mc_pass.txt, June 4th, 1982.)). But in the Eastern view —which is really a form of hearing, the word “orthodoxy” does not translate just as “right teaching”, but interchangeably as “right praise”, that is to say, right singing, in unison, without the discordant voice of individual choice that is the meaning of heresy. Hence the ultimate theological authoritativeness of the sung texts transmitted in the liturgy, as per the adage lex orandi, lex credendi (“the law of prayer is the law of belief”).
McLuhan comes close to this kind of Orthodox understanding of the nature of theology when he says it “can become a work, perhaps as part of the opus dei, part of the prayerful contemplation of God”, instead of a mere game as a “theoretical or intellectual construct.”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 82.)) Due to the visual bias of his own faith tradition, he may be one-sidedly stressing the extent to which the Church “wrapped itself in a visual culture that placed static permanence above all other values”: the “hard shell” of Greco-Roman culture, that brought in the “alphabetic age” of “visual man, logical man —Plato and Aristotle”, read in the key of “Parmenides and the first logicians who wanted to logically connect all beings.”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 49.)) This may actually be more of a belated Roman key, whereby, according to Christos Yannaras, a more Heraclitan —fluidly agonistic if acoustically resonant— “Greek concept of logos”“was supplanted by the Latin ratio”((Yannaras, The Church, at 14-15.)) and its fixed constants. He insists on the unbroken continuity of Hellenic civilization as fulfilled by the Eastern Church in substituting divine love for natural necessity in the definition of logos. For Yannaras,
the decisive meaning of logos is relation; the reference and the reception of or the response to the reference, which constitutes the event of communion. The entire universe, the whole of reality, is for the Greeks a communion of logical relations. (It is a harmonic ordering of “referrings” and referential responses to “referrings”.) This logical element renders the universe into cosmos, a word meaning embellishment. The cosmos is embellishment of harmony and order.((Yannaras, The Church, at 15.))
This harmonic, resonant cosmos is the world McLuhan identified as that of the Pre-Socratics —especially Heraclitus, terming them “acoustic people”. “They lived in a world abounding with voids, gaps, and intervals. For them, things stirred, intersected, and reacted on each other.”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 48.)) This Pre-Socratic acoustic world was if anything retrieved in the Eastern Church by the conversion of really existing, continuous Greek civilization to the Christian mystery, which recycled its philosophical ideas within the symbolic array of prayerful paradoxes that is Patristic theology. By contrast, in the Latin West, struggling to emerge from the rubble of a classical civilization overrun by barbaric frontier conditions, it was the other way around: the faith itself came to be recast within the reassuringly solid framework of visually inflected Greco-Roman concepts that is Scholastic theology.
Shedding that “hard shell” might not be tantamount to losing Christian civilization to the neo-tribalism of a clan-ridden global village, as McLuhan feared. It might even be an opportunity to realize that neither Christianity nor Hellenism are necessarily dependent on visual dominance as enshrined until recently in print culture. McLuhan’s concern about Christian prospects beyond the West as defined in both time (modernity) and space (the Atlantic world) may have been exaggerated, on that count at least. For there are some indications that Greek Christianity can thrive in its wake, by providing an authentic, embodied alternative to electronic facsimiles of what Roman Catholics call the mystical body of the Church. This may be especially true in cultures still close to their acoustic tribal roots. Witness the exponential missionary growth of Orthodoxy in Africa, after local Christians spontaneously started seeking out the ancient patriarchate of Alexandria to join its timeless liturgies, with all the Greek accoutrements of the Eastern Roman Empire.
A more challenging missionary field might be the global “West” of hypermodernity as discarnate electronic environment, so far gone from its roots both alphabetic and acoustic that it is increasingly swept by an impulse to tear away residual stumps of historical and religious “baggage” as cultural irritants. There, McLuhan’s brand of media-savvy Catholic humanism and the mystical theology of the Eastern Church may well gain from mutual engagement to make intelligible to post-Christian cyberculture how, through the Incarnation, the human race “has been assumed into the life of the Divine Logos, which is Christ”((McLuhan. The Medium, at 158.)), in whom “there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message”.((McLuhan. The Medium, at 103.))
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