The “Rite of Spring” as Praeparatio Evangelica

When I first heard Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring I failed to be impressed.  I knew something of what I thought Stravinsky tried to accomplish, to make something “primal,” but felt that the orchestra may not have been the best tool for that purpose. Besides, I tended to hear jumbled nonsense.  Years later I thought again about the piece and admired it a bit more (but not that much more) when I perhaps gained greater understanding of what Stravinsky might have intended in relation to the end of the Victorian era (something I speculate on in this post).

When The Bad Plus, a jazz-rock piano trio and probably my favorite musical group, decided to play the piece I raised an eyebrow.  True, they had covered other 20th century classical pieces to great effect, but I didn’t really like the “Rite of Spring” all that much.  It didn’t seem like a piece open to reinterpretation or rearranging, and if they did not do this I feared that they would simply play the score rote with a drum beat over top.  Add to that, what ultimate spiritual significance could the piece have?  If Stravinsky hearkens back to a pagan past, could it be considered a historical reflection?  Or if he meant to contemporize the concept, to what extent could I “buy in” with a pagan message?

Thinking about this I recalled a story of G.K. Chesterton in his “Father Brown” stories (I cannot remember which one) where one of the characters has a spiritual transformation by witnessing a person devote themselves to an umbrella (I think) on a ship lost at sea.  He realized that such a person, though crazy, had more spiritual insight about God than his own vague vanilla theism, for the crazy man at least understood the nature of devotion and sacrifice.

The law clearly serves as a preparation for the gospel (Gal. 3:24), but we can wonder to what extent certain elements of pagan religion had their roots in anything beyond the revelation of creation (Rom 1:21).  The Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Norse all have myths about a dying and rising god.  Nearly all pagan religions involved notions of propitiation.  Perhaps this is one reason why Gentiles can directly bypass Judaism and go straight to Christ.  They too had a tutor.  Some early church fathers, notably, Eusebius, wrote about how paganism could be a praeparatio evangelica — a fancy word for “preparation for the gospel.”

Stravinsky’s own walk of faith had its ups and downs.  Raised in the church, he walked away from the faith in his later teens, returning to Christianity for good only in his early 40’s.  He wrote the “Rite” during his sojourning period.  But during this period he apparently did not slip into vaguely religious cant.  With the “Rite” he stayed connected to the crucial truths about death and life. Perhaps the “Rite” served as his own praeparatio evangelica

On Paul’s missionary journeys we generally see three classes of people: 1) “Ensconced” Jews, 2) “God-fearers,” or Gentiles who had converted to some kind of Judaism, and 3) Standard pagans. The “God-fearers” responded the best of these three, but the pagans responded better than the lifelong Jews.  No doubt many reasons exist for this, but one simply might have been complacency.  Perhaps living far away from the temple might have distanced them from the notion of sacrifice, of the need for life to come from death.  For all its faults the pagans still believed enough to offer sacrifices, and perhaps this opened them up to the truth of the gospel.*

So, back to the Bad Plus.

This is a great recording.  The fact that we have just two instrumentalists, and one of them a bassist, gives the music a more spare and earthy feel.  Dave King’s drumming roots the music far more to the ground than and orchestra could.  For me, this is a recording of the “Rite” that makes the music make sense and gives it the power Stravinsky no doubt intended, and for me at least, never achieved.  Here below is an excerpt of the last movement (Bad Plus fans will note their own personal exclamation point in the form of the end of their own song “Physical Cities”).  Normally I hate it when people say, “You have to listen to the whole album to get the full effect.”  In this case I think it true, but this gives one a good entry point.

Having experienced the prelude, we can now experience an “A.D.” reality, with a conductor who marvelously looks like he might have just arrived from a sacrificial dance (try pausing it right at .06 to see some wild hair).  A Merry Christmas to all . . .

*In his essay, “Christianity and Civilization,” historian Arnold Toynbee makes this very point.  I include a portion of it here . . .

. . . In this Catholic form of the Church, I see two fundamental institutions, the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Hierarchy, which are indissolubly welded together by the fact that the priest, by definition, is the person with the power to perform the rite. If, in speaking of the Mass, one may speak, without offence, with the tongues of the historian and the anthropologist, then, using this language, one may describe the Sacrifice of the Mass as the mature form of a most ancient religious rite of which the rudiments can be traced back to the worship of the fertility of the Earth and her fruits by the earliest tillers of the soil. (I am speaking here merely of the mundane origin of the rite.) as for the hierarchy of the Church in its traditional form, this, as one knows, is modelled on a more recent and less awe-inspiring yet nevertheless most potent institution, the imperial civil service of the Roman Empire. The Church in its traditional form thus stands forth armed with the spear of the Mass, the shield of the Hierarchy, and the helmet of the Papacy; and perhaps the subconscious purpose –or the divine intention, if you prefer that language– of this heavy panoply of institutions in which the Church has clad herself is the very practical one of outlasting the toughest of the secular institutions of this world, including all the civilizations. If we survey all the institutions of which we have knowledge in the present and in the past, I think that the institutions created, or adopted and adapted, by Christianity are the toughest and the most enduring of any that we know and are therefore the most likely to last –and outlast all the rest. The history of Protestantism would seem to indicate that the Protestant act of casting off this armour four hundred years ago was premature; but that would not necessarily mean that this step would always be a mistake; and , however that may be, the institutional element in the traditional Catholic form of the Church Militant on Earth, even if it proves to be an invaluable and indispensable means of survival, is all the same a mundane feature which makes the Church Militant’s life different from that of the Kingdom of Heaven, in which they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are as the angels of God, and in which each individual soul catches the spirit of God from direct communion with Him –‘like light caught from a leaping flame,’ as Plato puts it in his Seventh Letter. Thus, even if the Church had won a fully world-wide allegiance and had entered into the inheritance of the last of the civilizations and of all the other higher religions, the Church on Earth would not be a perfect embodiment here on Earth of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Church on Earth would still have sin and sorrow to contend with as well as to profit by as a means of grace on the principle of ?Ueae iUeio, and she would still have to wear for a long time to come a panoply of institutions to give her the massive social solidity that she needs in the mundane struggle for survival, but this at the inevitable price of spirituality weighing her down, On this showing, the victorious Church Militant on Earth will be a province of the Kingdom of God, but a province in which the citizens of the heavenly commonwealth have to live and breathe and labour in an atmosphere that is not their native element.

The position in which the Church would then find herself is well conveyed in Plato’s conceit, in the Phaedo, of the true surface of the Earth. We live, Plato suggests, in a large but local hollow, and what we take to be the air is really a sediment of fog. If one day we could make our way to the upper levels of the surface of the Earth, we should there breathe the pure ether and should see the light of the Sun and stars direct; and then we should realize how dim and blurred had been our vision down in the hollow, where we see the heavenly bodies, through the murky atmosphere in which we breathe, as imperfectly as the fishes see them through the water in which they swim. This Platonic conceit is a good simile for the life of the Church Militant on Earth; but the truth cannot be put better than it has been by Saint Augustine.

“It is written of Cain that he founded a commonwealth; but Abel –true to the type of the pilgrim and sojourner that he was– did not do the like. For the Commonwealth of the Saints is not of this world, though it does give birth to citizens here in whose persons it performs its pilgrimage until the time of its kingdom shall come–the time when it will gather them all together.”

This brings me in conclusion to the last of the topics on which I am going to touch, that of the relation between Christianity and progress.

If it is true, as I think it is, that the Church on Earth will never be a perfect embodiment of the Kingdom of Heaven, in what sense can we say the words of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in Earth as it is in Heaven’? Have we been right, after all, in coming to the conclusion that –in contrast to the cyclic movement of the rises and falls of civilizations– the history of religion on Earth is a movement in a single continuous upward line? What are the matters in which there has been, in historical times, a continuous religious advance? And have we any reason to think that this advance will continue without end? Even if the species of societies called civilizations does give way to a historically younger and perhaps spiritually higher species embodied in a single world-wide and enduring representative in the shape of the Christian Church, may there not come a time when the tug of war between Christianity and original sin will settle down to a static balance of spiritual forces?

Let me put forward one or two considerations in reply to these questions.

In the first place, religious progress means spiritual progress, and spirit means personality. Therefore religious progress must take place in the spiritual lives of personalities –it must show itself in their rising to a spiritually higher state and achieving a spiritually finer activity.

Now, in assuming that this individual progress is what spiritual progress means, are we after all admitting Frazer’s thesis that the higher religions are essentially and incurably anti-social? Does a shift of human interests and energy from trying to create the values aimed at in the civilizations to trying to create the values aimed at in the higher religions mean that the values for which the civilizations stand are bound to suffer? Are spiritual and social values antithetical and inimical to each other? Is it true that the fabric of civilization is undermined if the salvation of the individual soul is taken as being the supreme aim of life?

Frazer answers these questions in the affirmative. If his answer were right it would mean that human life was a tragedy without a catharsis. But I personally believe that Frazer’s answer is not right, because I think it is based on a fundamental misconception of what the nature of souls or personalities is. Personalities are inconceivable except as agents of spiritual activity; and the only conceivable scope for spiritual activity lies in relations between spirit and spirit. It is because spirit implies spiritual relations that Christian theology has completed the Jewish doctrine of the Unity of God with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is the theological way of expressing the revelation that God is a spirit; the doctrine of the Redemption is the theological way of expressing the revelation that God is Love. If man has been created in the likeness of God, and if the tue end of man is to make this likeness ever more and more like, then Aristotle’s saying that ‘man is social animal’ applies to man’s highest potentiality and aim –that of trying to get into ever closer communion with God. Seeking God is itself a social act. And if God’s love has gone into action in this world in the Redemption of mankind by Christ, then man’s efforts to make itself liker to God must include efforts to follow Christ’s example in sacrificing himself for the redemption of his fellow men. Seeking and following God in this way, that is God’s way, is the only true way for a human soul on Earth to seek salvation. The antithesis between trying to save one’s own soul by seeking and following God and trying to do one’s duty to one’s neighbour is therefore wholly false. The two activities are indissoluble. The human soul that is truly seeking to save itself is as fully social a being as the ant-like Spartan or the bee-like Communist. Only, the Christian soul on Earth is a member of a very different society from Sparta or Leviathan. He is a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and therefore his paramount and all-embracing aim is to attain the highest degree of communion with, and likeness to, God Himself; his relations with his fellow men are consequences of, and corollaries to, his relations with God; and his way of loving his neighbour as himself will be to try to help his neighbour to win what he is seeking for himself –that is, to come into closer communion with God and to become more godlike.

If this is a soul’s recognized aim for itself and for its fellow souls in the Christian Church Militant on Earth, then it is obvious that under a Christian dispensation God’s will will be done in Earth as it is in Heaven to an immeasurably greater degree than in a secular mundane society. It is also evident that, in the Church Militant on Earth, the good social aims of the mundane societies will incidentally be achieved very much more successfully than they ever have been or can be achieved in a mundane society which aims at these objects direct, and at nothing higher. In other words, the spiritual progress of individual souls in this life will in fact bring with it much more social progress than could be attained in any other way. It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it. This is the meaning of the fable in the Old Testament of Solomon’s Choice and of the saying in the New Testament about losing one’s life and saving it.

Therefore, while the replacement of the mundane civilizations by the world-wide and enduring reign of the Church Militant on Earth would certainly produce what to-day would seem a miraculous improvement in those mundane social conditions which the civilizations have been seeking to improve during the last six thousand years, the aim, and test, of progress under a truly Christian dispensation on Earth would not lie in the field of mundane social life; the field would be the spiritual life of individual souls in their passages through this earthly life from birth into this world to death out of it.

But if spiritual progress in time in this world means progress achieved by individual human souls during their passages through this world to the other world, in what sense can there be any spiritual progress over a time-span far longer than that of individual lives on Earth, and running into thousands of years, such as that of the historical development of the higher religions from the rise of Tammuz-worship and the generation of Abraham to the Christian era?

I have already confessed my own adherence to the traditional Christian view that there is no reason to expect any change in unredeemed human nature while human life on Earth goes on. Till this Earth ceases to be physically habitable by man, we may expect that the endowments of individual human beings with original sin and with natural goodness will be about the same, on the average, as they always have been as far as our knowledge goes. the most primitive societies known to us in the life or by report provide examples of as great natural goodness as, and no lesser wickedness than, the highest civilizations or religious societies that have yet come into existence. There has been no perceptible variation in the average sample of human nature in the past; there is no ground, in the evidence afforded by History, to expect any great variation in the future either for better or for worse.

The matter in which there might be spiritual progress in time on a time-span extending over many successive generations of life on Earth is not the unregenerate nature of man, but the opportunity open to souls, by way of the learning that comes through suffering, for getting into closer communion with God, and becoming less unlike Him, during their passage through this world.

What Christ, with the Prophets before Him and the Saints after Him, has bequeathed to the Church, and what the Church, by virtue of having been fashioned into an incomparably effective institution, succeeds in accumulating, preserving, and communicating to successive generations of Christians, is a growing fund of illumination and of grace-meaning by ‘illumination’ the discovery of revelation or revealed discovery of the true nature of God and the true end of man here and hereafter, and by ‘grace,’ the will or inspiration or inspired will to aim at getting into Him. In this matter of increasing spiritual opportunity for souls in their passages through life on Earth, there is assuredly an inexhaustible possibility of progress in this world.

Is the spiritual opportunity given by Christianity, or by one or other of the higher religions that have been forerunners of Christianity and have partially anticipated Christianity’s gifts of illumination and grace to men on Earth, an indispensable condition for salvation –meaning by ‘salvation’ the spiritual effect on a soul of feeling after God and finding Him in its passage through life on Earth?

If this were so, then the innumerable generations of men who never had the chance of receiving the illumination and grace conveyed by Christianity and the other higher religions would have been born and have died without a chance of the salvation which is the true end of man and the true purpose of life on Earth. This might be conceivable, though still repugnant, if we believed that the true purpose of life on Earth was not the preparation of souls for another life, but the establishment of the best possible human society in this world, which in the Christian belief is not the true purpose, though it is an almost certain by-product of a pursuit of the true purpose. If progress is taken as being the social of Leviathan and not the spiritual progress of individual souls, then it would perhaps be conceivable that, for the gain and glory of the body social, innumerable earlier generations should have been doomed to live a lower social life in order that a higher social life might eventually be lived by successors who had entered into their labours. This would be conceivable on the hypothesis that individual human souls existed for the sake of society, and not for their own sakes or for God’s.But this belief is not only repugnant but is also inconceivable when we are dealing with the history of religion, where the progress of individual souls through this world towards God, and not the progress of society in this world, is the end on which the supreme value is set. We cannot believe that the historically incontestable fact that illumination and grace have been imparted to men on Earth in successive installments, beginning quite recently in the history of the human race on Earth, and even then coming gradually in the course of generations, can have entailed the consequence that the vast majority of souls born into the world up to date, who have had no share in this spiritual opportunity, have, as a result, been spiritually lost. We must believe that the possibilities, provided by God, of learning through suffering in this world have always afforded a sufficient means of salvation to every soul that has made the best of the spiritual opportunity offered to it here, however small that opportunity may have been.

But, if men on Earth have not had to wait for the advent of the higher religions, culminating in Christianity, in order to qualify, in their life on Earth, for eventually attaining, after death, the state of eternal felicity in the other world, then what difference has the advent on Earth of the higher religions, and of Christianity itself, really made? The difference, I should say, is this, that, under the Christian dispensation, a soul which does make the best of its spiritual opportunities will, in qualifying for salvation, be advancing farther towards communion with God and towards likeness to God under the conditions of life on Earth, before death, than has been possible for souls that have not been illuminated, during their pilgrimage on Earth, by the light of the higher religions. A pagan soul, no less than a Christian soul, has ultimate salvation with its reach; but a soul which has been offered, and has opened itself to, the illumination and the grace that Christianity conveys, will, while still in this world, of the narrower opportunity here open to it. The Christian soul can attain, while still on Earth, a greater measure of man’s greatest good than can be attained by any pagan soul in this earthly stage of its existence.

Thus the historical progress of religion in this world, as represented by the rise of the higher religions and by their culmination in Christianity, may, and almost certainly will, bring with it, incidentally, an immeasurable improvement in the conditions of human social life on Earth; but its direct effect and its deliberate aim and its true test is the opportunity which it brings to individual souls for spiritual progress in this world during the passage from birth to death. It is this individual spiritual progress in this world for which we pray when we say ‘Thy will be done in Earth as it is in Heaven.’ It is for the salvation that is open to all men of good will –pagan as well as Christian, primitive as well as civilized– who make the most of their spiritual opportunities on Earth, however narrow these opportunities may be, that we pray when we say ‘Thy Kingdom come.’