Chapter 22. Sancta Familia

(This essay was occasioned by an invitation to visit the Governing Board of Family Enrichment Society, Singapore)

There is a cult conviction that Leica lenses produce images that have what is called a Leica Glow. Nobody has quite been able to articulate what that glow is. Some say it is a “pop”. Others, its peculiar sharpness. Still others, quite curiously, account for the glow with an aesthetic distortion produced by Leica lenses- as if, that an error in production was in the end a happy fault. Detractors say there is no such thing at all, and that this is all imagined.

Being the proud owner of two Leica cameras, one digital Digilux 2 with a Vario-Summicron and another film Leica ii paired with a 5cm Elmar I have no care for what its explanation is, and am entirely happy to doubly affirm this most unique quality of Leica lenses: there is something subtly divine about Leica: the camera, the lens, the image…

Here is an example. A picture of my wife and son, my family. An ordinary shot, not posed. My son, beginning a tantrum just as he is refused another youtube clip of Thomas and Friends. There: the Leica glow. Surely, you must be able to see it. There are few images of such quality. There is something sacred, something so beautiful that saturates the frame…


(Taken with a Leica II with 50mm Elmar f/3.5, on B/W kodak bw400CN)

And quite appropriately too. For perhaps there *is* something sacred, something divine in the subject matter, which Leica and only Leica can so well represent. But, is there really? Or is this rather a reification of photographic appearances – indeed, a double reification: first of a glow which is not there, and then of the divine in what is in fact perfectly ordinary and mundane? Is this here the delusory Platonism which makes the ideas (ideos) more real than they deserve to be?

Yet even someone so opposed to the metaphysics of a Plato as Martin Heidegger would not too quickly dismiss the scared in the ordinary. Indeed, for him, skilful coping (Hubert Dreyfus’ term), or the skilled mastery of everyday activity, which is ordinary enough, is precisely that which unconceals being, or the plural meanings of our lives, and each “meaning” is not trivial: each is a gloriously wonderous experience of a very unique and fulfilling world that we, as aready involved there in the thick of the action (da sein), in contrast with being recessed in our armchairs speculatively contemplative, are able to uncover. And each emerged world is like a sacred existence, likened to the revelation of the gods, shown and given to us when we are skillfully coping in the world.  That for him is real theory (thea-horao: the god[des]s looking back –  with us gaping at the gods with piety)

St. Thomas Aquinas, I feel, would worry about Heidegger’s depreciation of the theoretical and the speculative, not just because Aquinas’ own metaphysical speculations have been derogatorily labelled, onto-theology, a phrase reserved for that kind of objective thinking which precisely hides the sacred in our ordinary experience: this is I think quite false a charge, as we shall see. But over and above that, the worry is warranted for another good reason: namely that in his enthusiasm for the special in the ordinary, Heidegger may have lapsed into some kind of pantheistic heresy – if we can still talk like that in this age.

The point is this. The saint would have been delighted to see in Heidegger the interest in the sacred which emerges from the ordinary, but would nevertheless point out that it is precisely his (Aquinas’) metaphysical speculations – his so called onto-theology – which help, theoretically, to show and to give to us rational beings, the insight that the divine is in the world precisely just when we exist, since we participate in the existence (esse) that comes from God, and which is God. For God is present to us as that which holds us in existence, without which we collapse into nothingness.

At the same time, Aquinas’ appreciation of the theoretical and its ability to unconceal the divine in the ordinary being steers away from the heresy of Pantheism, by affirming quite neatly (although somewhat abstractly) the real distinction between any being’s essence and its existence, and by making clear that any being’s existence which it has is outside of its essence, so that the existence which is had from God and is God is not part of any being’s essence, and hence not constitutive of what it is, although participated by what it is.

Of course for all of Heidegger’s rambling about being, his focus is really not on our existence, but rather on our manner of existence, and its meaning, which unfolds the sacred. So perhaps we have missed the point, and the difference between these two thinkers not well established. Well then let us explore the practical in St. Thomas. Consistently in Aquinas, any affirmation of the way human activity images the divine is made by way of an analogical argument, which implicitly admits the infinite distance between the two analogues. Indeed, Aquinas’s talk of the natural law (what Aristotle refers to as the first principles of practical reason) which grasps marriage – the exclusive love of man and woman open to children and their upbringing – as a choiceworthy, basic good and a terminal reason for action (here I am guided by John Finnis’ account of natural law) is, in his own words, a certain participation of the Eternal law in the rational creature. This suggests that there is a divine participation, a sacred imaging of the holy in families constituted by marriages, just as the very constituting of marriages is informed by a precept that shares of the divine, as a kind of the extension of God’s providence.

Now of course, the family is more than marriage: those not married to each other constitute a family: brothers and sisters, parents and children, even good friends who are bound by mutual care…but if many families are constituted by married lives, then many of these families, one can be quite sure, are quite special. This one, in this picture with the Leica Glow that I insist is there, would on that account be truly special and sacred, and not just because I wish it to be. Hence like Heidegger, we could affirm a scared meaning to this life-world of the family. But unlike Heidegger, such sacredness is always analogical, as the notion of participation, or sharing, implies. For to share is to have a part, and not to have it in its entirety. And it is also to be measured by and against a more perfect measuring standard, and one can, through distortion, or falling apart, fail to accord with the meaure. And still, admidst quibbles, neglect or other failures, there is the normative invitation to repent and reconstitute the marriage and family, precisely because of the beckoning exemplar.

Heidegger’s ideas, on the other hand, seem to me to invite a pantheistic confusion of the sacred with the natural – precisely since the sacred is located fully in one’s activity, and by implication one’s essence to the extent that one’s activity follows from what one is. Nor is there, as it is in Aquinas, the humble admission of a distant onto-theological divine which one poorly imitates, and so the insinuation in Heidegger could well be that the world which one emerges through masterly skillful activity is precisely that ultimate, significant sacred, without remainder, leaving nothing out. Indeed, one and one’s unconcealment, whatever it may be, is that final achievement, unaccountable towards any other exemplary measure, fully authoritative without possibility of wrong doing. Whether the family or marriage is built up or dissolved, each is a welcome world.

Perhaps this is an uncharitably prejudiced reading of Heidegger, and it probably is.  It is a thomist’s revenge for his lambasting onto-theology. In any case, the most important thing is not whether Aquinas has gotten the better of Heidegger, but whether there is really any basis for believing in something special, something wonderful behind the Leica glow. In relation to the latter, we could probably say that there is, and that the saturating givenness of the photographic image, or in the words of Roland Barthes, the striking punctum, is not a sheer illusion. There is, at least in this picture, really and actually, even if analogically, a sancta familia.