Quotation

He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Heritage of the Misbaḥah

I've mentioned before that how we engage with the beliefs and practices of other religions is something we need to be careful and intentional about with regard to our decision-making process.  So when I received a misbaḥah, my initial plan was to study it rather than to use it as a prayer aid, because I am leery of appropriating the practices of other religions and doing so in a way that doesn't reflect their beliefs.

So, for example, if someone were to give me a set of Tibetan Buddhist prayer beads, I wouldn't disrespect their tradition by turning it into a mere decorative adornment or by repeating the associated mantras without the meaning and intention it would have in Tibetan Buddhism.  And in the same way, I wouldn't disrespect the Islamic traditions that use the misbaḥah (known in some Islamic countries as tasbīḥ) by treating it as mere decoration or reciting the dhikr without the sincere intention to practice an Islamic form of prayer.

I am interested in learning the 99 Names of Allah that are recited on a 33-bead misbaḥah in three rounds (or a 99-bead misbaḥah in one round) as a matter of trying to understand Islam's practices, but it won't be a regular form of prayer for me.  What I have been making a regular form of prayer is the Christian practice of praying the Jesus prayer using the beads to count them out, of which there are the same number as the number of years on Christ's life on earth.

It may seem like an odd coincidence that a 33-bead prayer aid used by Muslims would also be used by Christians, but there's a pretty straightforward reason for that.  Muslims adopted the practice after encountering Christian ascetics using it.  The 33-bead configuration was one of several used by Christian ascetics on their prayer ropes which they sometimes used to help them pray the Jesus prayer rather than various other prayer options like the Psalter or Akathist hymns.

Because Islam was formally founded by the Prophet Muhammad more than 600 years after Christianity arose, it was in its first stages of growth when Christianity was already well-established in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Europe and Asia.  Judaism also had a smaller presence in many areas in which Islam later became dominant.  Given this situation, Islam needed to find ways to respond to Christian and Jewish theology and practice in order to proselytize effectively and gain converts.

So it's not surprising that Jesus is recognized as a very important prophet in Islam, or that many of the major figures of the Tanakh are also recognized as prophets by Muslims.  And it's also not surprising that devout Muslims living around a bunch of Christians would encounter a Christian prayer rope or a set of prayer beads and figure out that it would be a good way to help them to count through their own prayers while maintaining focus.

Some Muslims (often of the Salafi school) don't think that using prayer beads is the right practice and that one should use the hand just as the Prophet Muhammad counted through his prayers.  Nonetheless, they probably aren't going away any time soon, and I expect that many Muslims and Christians will have their misbaḥah close to hand for centuries to come.


Note: The above is a picture of the misbaḥah given to me by a friend who picked it up in the Middle East.  Its geometric designs are obviously Islamic and quite lovely.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fair Questions: What does it feel like to have Christ in your heart?

A dear friend asked me a question recently, and as I began to share my (probably profoundly inadequate) answer to that question, it occurred to me that others might have the same question.  I hope that any insight I can provide will be helpful to others who are on the journey to be united with divine love.

"What does it mean to have Christ in your heart? What does that feel like to you?"

To answer the first question, I would turn to Sacred Scripture; in the Epistle to the Romans, Paul exhorts us to put on Christ.  This is sometimes translated as clothing oneself in Christ, and this is an important point to understand.  To have Christ in our hearts is not just an internal abstraction, but rather should be obvious to the other people who see us, just as a garment is obvious to the people who see us.

To have Christ in one's heart is indeed a subjective state; we as individuals cannot fully express the internal dimension of our relationship with Christ when we have made room in our hearts for His divine love.  And yet it is not solely a subjective state.  There is an objective transformation of we who are subjects to the King of Heaven which we experience as subjects, and this is also apparent to those who come into contact with us each day.  Having Christ in one's heart does not merely make us subjectively feel better; it makes us better in every important objective way and then we feel better as a result.

Christ's love fills our heart as we move other things out of it that are not of Christ.  When that process is occurring, we will see in our lives that our old habits of serving ourselves go away, and new habits of ministering to others take their place.  When that happens, we will see our habit of anger and self-righteousness replaced by a habit of mercy and compassion for those who hurt us.  This profound transformation is often gradual, but it is noticeable by those who see us over the course of time.  And perhaps more importantly, God notices it and delights in our closeness to Him.

As this happens, we will feel greater joy and peace.  It's important to note that joy and peace are a product of our walk with Christ, not a precursor to it.  And it won't happen in an instant when we get the formula right, because relationships are not formulaic.  While it's true that good habits of showing love to one another, the routine exercise of mercy and compassion, may seem formulaic, its good fruits are varied.  No loving relationship looks exactly like another in every detail.

I remember giving my heart to Christ when I was 8 years old, but merely doing as Paul says in Romans, confessing with my mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believing it in my heart, did not magically turn me into a saintly person in that instant.  It did not make me a clone of Jesus Christ and save me from my sins by doing so because I said the right words.

Instead, it began a process of transformation, a grace given to me in order that I might set aside the fleshly lusts which are so often our outward garments and put on as clothing the divine love and mercy of Christ who sacrificed all so that we all might have the chance to live fully.




Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8921429

Note:  The above is a painting of the Divine Mercy of Jesus, an apparition that reportedly occurred with St. Faustina Kowalska as a witness.




Sunday, July 17, 2016

Islamic Mysticism: The Ecstatic Asceticism of Rūmī

Rumi is far from the only Islamic mystic, but he's the poet most likely to be familiar to the Western reader, so his work is a good place to start in examining the subject of Islamic mysticism.  It's valuable to point out that although Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī himself seemed to believe that he was authentically following the teachings of the Prophet as they were received from Allah in the form of the Qur'an, there are plenty of Muslims who find some of his statements to be inimical to Islam.

There are also plenty of Muslims who find his poetry to be a deeply moving reflection of Islamic spirituality.  Part of Islamic spirituality, as with Christian spirituality and Buddhist spirituality, is the practice of self-denial.  While many people focus on the mystical ecstasy that comes through in his poetry, Rūmī is firmly grounded in Islamic asceticism.  He understood that mysticism divorced from asceticism is in danger of becoming merely a habit of useless self-validation, a series of ecstatic expressions which do not transform us as God wills us to be transformed.

"Listen to the poet Sanai,
who lived secluded: 'Don't wander out on the road
in your ecstasy.  Sleep in the tavern.'
When a drunk strays out to the street,
children make fun of him.
He falls down in the mud.
He takes any and every road.
The children follow,
not knowing the taste of wine, or how
his drunkenness feels.  All people on the planet
are children, except for a very few.
No one is grown up except those free of desire."

We see here that his experience has taught him that true spiritual maturity is developed in part through the kinds of ascetic practices which gradually free us from slavery to our transient desires.  In the Islamic tradition, the fasting and almsgiving of Ramadan, daily communal prayer at the mosque, the sacrifices necessary to make the Hajj, the recitation of the dhikr are all part of the tapestry of ascetic practices which transform a Muslim in this way. Rūmī continues:

"God said,
'The world is a play, a children's game, and you are the children.'
God speaks the truth.
If you haven't left the child's play,
how can you be an adult?
Without purity of spirit,
if you're still in the middle of lust and greed
and other wantings, you're like children
playing at sexual intercourse.
They wrestle
and rub together, but it's not sex!
The same with the fightings of mankind.
It's a squabble with play-swords.
No purpose, totally futile.
Like kids on hobby horses, soldiers claim to be riding
Boraq, Muhammad's night-horse, or Duldul, his mule.
Your actions mean nothing, the sex and war that you do.
You're holding part of your pants and prancing around,
Dun-da-dun, dun-da-dun.
Don't wait till you die to see this.
Recognize that your imagination and your thinking
and your sense perception are reed canes
that children cut and pretend are horsies."

The picture he paints for us of a life bound by our transient desires is a life of silly fighting to protect our egos and pitiful attempts to use sex to find the profound intimacy of spirit for which we truly long.  Rūmī asks us to be willing to accept this hard truth now, the truth that much of what we spend our time doing is the acceptance of a paltry substitute for divine love, whether it's the thrilling height of self-righteous battle-rage or the thrilling height of sexual pleasure, both of which are nonetheless worthless next to union with the Beloved.

"The knowing of mystic lovers is different.
The empirical, sensory, sciences
are like a donkey loaded with books,
or like the makeup woman's makeup.
It washes off.
But if you lift the baggage rightly, it will give joy.
Don't carry your knowledge-load for some selfish reason.
Deny your desires and wilfulness,
and a real mount may appear under you.
Don't be satisfied with the name of HU,
with just words about it.
Experience that breathing.
From books and words come fantasy,
and sometimes, from fantasy comes union."

Here he invokes HU, the pronoun of divine presence.  Rūmī wants us to go farther than the mere acquisition of the knowledge of Creation, doctrine, or law (though he has a healthy respect for them and fair amounts of them himself); he wants to strive sincerely for union with the divine presence, allowing our being to be suffused with divine love.  He has found that denying our desires and putting an end to our egotistical wilfulness is what helps us to find a far greater ecstasy than those we had previously sought in the thrills of sex and violence.

The life of a mystic is made possible by the lifestyle of the ascetic; those who would drink of the wine of divine love must first deny themselves an all-too-easy reliance on the wine of the grapes and berries as well as the intoxicating droughts of sex and violence.

"God has given us a dark wine so potent that,
drinking it, we leave the two worlds.
God has put into the form of hashish a power
to deliver the taster from self-consciousness.
God has made sleep so
that it erases every thought.
God made Majnun love Layla so much that
just her dog would cause confusion in him.
There are thousands of wines
that can take over our minds.
Don't think all ecstasies
are the same!
Jesus was lost in his love for God.
His donkey was drunk with barley.
Drink from the presence of saints,
not from those other jars.
Every object, every being,
is a jar full of delight.
Be a connoisseur,
and taste with caution.
Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest,
the ones unadulterated with fear,
or some urgency about 'what's needed.'
Drink the wine that moves you
as a camel moves when it's been untied,
and is just ambling about."

The mysticism of Rūmī is not just some flighty and abstracted absence of the ego; his mysticism is a mysticism that is earthy, grounded in the messy reality of human experience while it soars on the wings of divine love.  Like the ancient Christian devotions that came before it along with the early Christian mystics, the Islamic mysticism of Rūmī is not dualistic; the spirit and the flesh are not good and evil, respectively.  Instead, the bodies we are given are to be given back to God in service and obedience, a very good part of the spiritual life.

Elsewhere, he tells a story which illustrates this nicely:

"As he was walking, Moses heard a shepherd praying to God, offering to comb God's hair, wash God's robe, and kiss His hand. Moses scolded the shepherd for his blasphemy. That night God appeared to Moses and admonished him. 'You have driven away a worshiper from his worship. In his sincere, simple way, that shepherd was much closer to me than most scholars and ascetics.'"

Rūmī also understood that asceticism divorced from mysticism is in danger of becoming merely a habit of useless self-flagellation; he notes that ascetics do not grow close to God merely by virtue of their ascetic disciplines.  And he understood that both our mysticism and our asceticism, in order to bring us to union with Allah the Beloved, must be centered on the goal of cultivating love for Allah, and for one’s fellow human beings, and for all of Creation.

"There is no salvation for the soul
But to fall in Love.
It has to creep and crawl
Among the Lovers first.
Only Lovers can escape
From these two worlds.
This was written in creation.
Only from the Heart
Can you reach the sky.
The rose of Glory
Can only be raised in the Heart."

It is in this life that we learn of the divine love which we can experience both here and after this life, a profound union of the spirit which transcends and fulfills the union we find with one another here on this planet.  This union begins with the self-denial of the ascetic, the first step on the journey to free the heart to love fully.

"If you could get rid
Of yourself just once,
The secret of secrets
Would open to you.
The face of the unknown,
Hidden beyond the universe
Would appear on the
Mirror of your perception."

In the end, Rūmī shows us in his writings a wonderful tapestry depicting the story of a self-denial which meets its end when the self is moved out of the way so that we can finally see the immanent and transcendent mystery of Allah the All-Merciful, our Beloved in whom we find the rest for which our restless hearts are yearning when they move us to drown ourselves in earthly wines.  Rūmī points us to the wine of divine love so that instead of drowning ourselves in earthly wines which bring suffering and death, we might drown ourselves in the wine that brings eternal joy and life.

The Ecstatic Asceticism - The Divine Dance Music - The Erotic Serenity




By Molavi - Masnavi Manavi Molavi, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17260486

Note:  The above is an artist's rendering of Rumi's portrait.  To see what I used to gather the Rumi quotations, see my Sources page.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Flower

A poem written a little over a year ago that I haven't gotten around to publishing until now...

The Flower

Spring is her time to shine,
petals unfolding so gently,
open to catching the light,
her stem poised so firmly,
awaiting the morning dew.

Summer brings her storms,
petals pelted by soft rains,
shaped into curved forms,
her stem bows and strains,
awaiting skies of cyan hue.

Fall is her time for fading,
petals drifting to the earth,
amid the leaves parading,
her stem bent to its berth,
awaiting death’s final cue.

Winter brings her snows,
petals fallen to the ground,
beauty brought to a close,
her stem on the icy mound,
awaiting a life begun anew.




Note:  Photo credit goes to me. In this poem I'm using fairly typical devices like a five-line stanza, end rhyme, start rhyme, internal rhyme, and natural imagery.  The meaning is both literal and allegorical, specifically a depiction of the life cycle of a flower (literal) and the life cycle of a soul (allegorical).

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Fair Questions: Is the free will debate asking a meaningful question?

I was listening to a podcast on Sam Harris.org recently, and I found a variety of the topics interesting.  One of the topics Krakauer and Harris spoke about was the way in which culture narrows the range of our possible choices, and also how services like Amazon or Netflix help to funnel us into a progressively narrower channel in terms of the kinds of content we are reading, listening to, and watching.

His previous podcast with Daniel Dennett was a discussion about free will.  As someone who took too many Philosophy courses for my own good, I was exposed repeatedly to the typical positions philosophers generally take.  And these positions are generally answering the same question: Do we (as human beings) have free will or not have free will?

To put it very simply (perhaps too simply), the determinists generally answer in the negative, the libertarians answer in the affirmative, and the compatibilists don't see the need to believe that our actions being determined by some kind of causal chain reaction is mutually exclusive with having free will in a meaningful sense.  As a disclaimer, I tend to think that the Compatiblists are at least onto something important, though I have concerns about how some of them think about free will.

In particular, I wonder if the question of whether or not human beings have free will may be making some unwarranted assumptions, and I want to focus on one of those at the moment.  Is there any reason to think that having free will is some sort intrinsic property that we have in its totality by virtue of being human?  What would the evidence be for that view?

Is it not at least possible that, as individuals, we have a will which is more or less free depending on various factors?  And if so, is the free will question as posed above even meaningful, given that most of us are unlikely to have a perfectly free will or a perfectly unfree will?

The view of our will as being more or less free seems to accord very well with our experience, after all.  If you want to get a general idea of how free your will is, try to consistently do various things that work against your natural instinct to seek pleasure.  Try to stop eating sugary treats and drinking sugary drinks.  Try to stop having sex for six months or a year.  Try to quit something you've been doing for a long time, like drinking coffee or smoking cigarettes or collecting some type of object.

And if you are able to do all those things quite easily, then take the test of your will's freedom up a notch by choosing to do things that work against our aversion to pain or loss.  Train yourself to punch a hard object or take a punch from a larger opponent.  Talk to the homeless person who shuffles around the parking lot looking for aluminum cans to sell for a little money.  Instead of simply giving money to the hard-bitten man, give him a ride home as well and listen to his troubles.  And when you do give money, try to give more than you can comfortably afford.

If our wills are truly free, then we ought to be able to choose to do things we would rather not do based on some principle in all cases, whether that principle is rational or non-rational, coherent or incoherent.  And if our wills are truly not free, then we should find that we are unable to choose things we would rather not do in all cases,

For most of us, we don't fall consistently into these categories.  We have areas of life in which we have the freedom to choose things we would rather not choose based on a principle, and we have other areas of life in which we struggle mightily to choose against our transient desires even once.  And we intuitively grasp that we should be able to freely choose in all these areas of our life, though we may give up on accomplishing it.

Freedom of will is being able to choose without coercion by the ego. It is easy to say, "Yes!" to what we like and "No!" to what we don’t like with the ego pushing us. To be free we must also learn how to say, "Yes!" to things we don’t like and "No!" to things we do like.

And eventually, maybe we can have free wills if we practice enough at it.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Love it to Death: The Compassion of Love

This weekend, the Gospel reading at Mass was the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  What struck me wasn't that Jesus told a parable in which the man who showed love for his neighbor was a Samaritan who would have been despised by his fellow Jews, though that's worth thinking about.  And what struck me wasn't that we so often pass by those who are suffering without helping them, though that too is worth considering.

Nor was I struck by the fact that the man who was saved by the Samaritan was headed to Jericho, known to be a sinful city, his plight an allegory of what happens to us when we decide to journey toward sin and away from God; we become vulnerable to a great many sufferings because we have many things to lose in this world the more we are attached to worldly pleasures.

Instead, I was struck by the cross and Christ's sacrifice for us.  The Good Samaritan is much like Christ in many ways: he was an outcast to the Jewish religious leaders, he was despised by many of them even though they had common ancestors, and he nonetheless showed great love and willingness to sacrifice for the most vulnerable among them.

Like Christ, the good Samaritan had compassion on those who were hurting deeply, even when they might have been heading in a sinful direction when trouble befell them.  Like Christ, the good Samaritan took care of those who were considered a burden to others, and bore their burdens for them.  Like Christ, the good Samaritan suffered to carry the weight of sinners whom he had no obligation to help.

To have compassion is to suffer with those who are hurting, in body, mind, heart, and spirit.  We enter into their sufferings and bear them up just as the good Samaritan did, using our resources to support them as we journey with them to a place where they can heal of their wounds.  This is what Christ did for us; he entered into the brokenness of human existence and into the sufferings of our daily lives, using His divine powers to support us as He journeys with us to a place where our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits can be healed.

Just as the good Samaritan took on the sufferings of the man beaten, robbed, and left for dead, so too Christ took on the sufferings of we who are beaten down by worrying about our daily tasks, robbed of the riches of joy by our hatred of those who have wronged us, and left dead inside by our reliance on the transient pleasures which can never fill our hearts with the light of compassion.

Christ did not take up His cross alone; he bore the crosses of many so that they might be healed, uniting Himself to their sufferings so that they might be redeemed.  His suffering was the suffering of Love, the suffering of one who loves others who cannot possibly repay Him for the gifts He brings to them.  Like the good Samaritan, Christ gives generously to those of us who are beaten, robbed, and left for dead so that we might be healed, and asks nothing in return; He invites us to accept the healing which He offers to us and pays the price for us.

Each time we enter into the sufferings of another person, bearing their cross with them, we act with the compassion of Love who bore the cross and suffered with us even unto death.  Each time we lift up those who are beaten down by worry, robbed of joy, or dead to divine love, then we participate in the ultimate act of compassion which was the death of Love on the cross.

Each time we unite our own sufferings to Christ, especially the sufferings we bear for and with His least brothers and sisters, we enter into the compassion of Love.

When we participate in the compassion of Love, we are transformed so that we might be adopted into the heavenly household.  It is in practicing the compassion of Love that we are healed so that we might journey away from sin and journey toward the divine love He has shown to us.  It is the compassion of Love which brings us back from the brink of inevitable death and gives us new life!

By growing in the light of the Compassion of Love, we love to death all those parts of us which do not reflect the light of Christ, transforming us into ever more beautiful Icons of Love.




Note:  The above is an image of The Good Samaritan by French artist Aimé Morot (1880).

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The River of Love: Part II

The desert hums with the struggling of arid life,
a vast ocean of sand burning in the day's heat,
and the scorpion's tail stings like a blunted knife,
the healing river cleansing our wounds so sweaty.

The canyon echoes with the rushing river's sound,
a soft knife carving a way through the jagged earth,
and the air fills with mist above eroding ground,
the rainbows forming and dying like a child's mirth.

The delta pours into the swamp's winding bayous,
a wetland made by the river's flooding each year,
and the fish are thriving amidst the willow's roots,
the gifts of love's living waters constantly near.

The ocean swallows the floating dirt and debris,
a vast expanse suspending the decay and death,
and the immense cosmos of love cleaning slowly,
the breakers washing all unloving back to earth.

The air carries the waves up to the falling skies,
a raincloud born of the steaming sea to us brings,
and the rain of love falling as thirsty earth dries,
the risen groundwater feeding anew the springs.



Note:  Photo credit goes to me.  In this sequel to a previous poem I'm using the same typical devices like a four-line stanza, end rhyme, start rhyme, internal rhyme, and natural imagery.  I tried to stick to a 12-syllable count for each line.  The poem is about our journey through the spiritual desert which culminates in reaching the fullness of love, represented by the ocean.  The ocean of God's love for us permeates the atmosphere of all of existence and rains down again to become part of the groundwater and bubble up from the mountaintop spring once again.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Fair Questions: What is the relationship between faith and confirmation bias?

Recently, I was discussing confirmation bias with a friend who proposed an explanation for confirmation bias, and the explanation was essentially that accepting a proposition without evidence (which was described as faith) is the beginning of the process, and it is then socially reinforced by a culture that encourages believing in propositions without evidence and further enhanced by the rampant narcissism of our age.

While I share the concerns about narcissism and social trends that reinforce accepting propositions as true without any evidence, I am less certain that the causal explanation properly starts with accepting a proposition without evidence.  My understanding (perhaps because of my pro-science bias) is that our cognitive biases are actually caused by our adaptive responses to evolutionary pressures.

I read a piece in Scientific American by famous skeptic Michael Shermer quite a while ago in which he offers the explanation (based on evolutionary psychology) that the mental heuristics we use to explain phenomena select for propositions to believe not based on whether those propositions are true, but rather based on what the costs are if we make an error.  (For some helpful visualizations and an audio explanation of the concepts involved, you can watch Shermer's TED Talk about it.)




This is the general explanation for our cognitive biases: our brains have been shaped by millions of years of evolutionary pressure which have resulted in mental heuristics for assessing the relationships between the events that work in such a way as to help us avoid the kinds of errors that might cost us our lives rather than helping us to find the truth.  Our cognitive biases are the result of efficient risk management, not the result of a choice to have faith in something.

The theory that faith is the cause of our confirmation bias problem is a result of confirmation bias on the part of those who already believe that faith is bad and subsequently interpret the evidence of human cognitive errors in light of that belief rather than assessing the evidence that suggests it is caused by scientifically understandable evolutionary processes.

That said, there is a relationship between faith and confirmation bias that should be mentioned, especially because many people in the post-industrial West seem quite prone to it.  This relationship has to do with our mental habits.  We can develop a habit of believing in things without going through a critical thinking process or we can develop a habit of believing in things after we have gone through a critical thinking process to help filter out untrue conclusions.

As Shermer notes, belief is our default modus operandi.  It is our natural predisposition to believe things not based on whether those things can pass the test of critical thinking, but rather on the different costs of committing various errors if we don't believe them.  This is why it's important, if we want to work towards true conclusions, to have a critical thinking process to mitigate our tendency to engage in these cognitive errors which are natural to us as breathing is.

The most pressing danger isn't the cognitive biases that have so far kept us alive long enough to worry about questions of truth, but rather the mental habits that render us unable to even approach questions of truth.  If a person makes an assumption that the universe is intelligible, or makes the assumption that the universe is largely incomprehensible, then these assumptions by themselves as single instances will not make a person unable to reason well or evaluate evidence effectively.

We all have operationalized philosophical assumptions.  Maybe your assumption is that the scientific method leads to accurate conclusions about how the world really is.  There are, admittedly, many problems with this assumption (and it's one I used to believe without thinking critically about it), but making assumptions is necessary to get through life.  It's not necessarily a problem to make an assumption.

Any mathematician or logician can tell you that in order to even perform a single mathematical or logical operation, various assumptions are required.  Axioms have to be selected to even begin a reasoning process; there is no reasoning process without a set of assumptions.  But if assumptions that we accept as first principles (take on faith) are not the problem, then what is the problem?

What will render a person unable to approach questions of truth is a mental habit of accepting claims as true without a critical thinking process, even in circumstances in which such a critical thinking process is quite possible.  It may not be possible in a life-or-death situation that requires a rapid response, but it is often quite possible in the post-industrial West where people are not living under the kinds of harsh survival pressures our ancestors lived under nearly constantly.

And I do think that we have a moral obligation to engage in the kinds of critical thinking processes that can help us mitigate our cognitive biases in situations in which that is possible.  Whether we are methodists or particularists with regard to the Problem of the Criterion, we have an obligation to critically think about what logical consequences flow from the assumptions we make in our response to that problem.

So while I agree with Michael Shermer that we "are natural-born supernaturalists" as human beings, I do not think that the search for truth is fruitless.  It's just very difficult, and we should expect to combat our cognitive biases every day in order to have a fruitful search for truth.

Faith and Confirmation Bias - Faith and Evidence - Faith and Reason

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Orthodoxy: The Maniac

This past year, I read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton after many years of my friends recommending it to me.  My reading list is rather lengthy, both in terms of the actual word count of the books and the number of books on my list to read at some point.  Fortunately, Orthodoxy is a fairly short book of only 154 pages in the edition I purchased, and the font size is not tiny as it would be if the publisher were trying to cram more words into fewer pages.

As I mentioned in my rather lengthy review of Waking Up by Sam Harris, I was struck early on by how similar my journey is to his journey in some ways and by how starkly different our journeys are in other ways.  The immediately apparent similarity was that Chesterton's journey to Christian orthodoxy had begun as an earnest journey away from Christianity to find newer and bolder truths than the tired pablum of his ancestors.

In the Introduction to the book, he describes this process as being like a man who sailed away from England seeking other shores and through a quirk of navigational error somehow found himself back in England, thinking at first that he had discovered a new land and subsequently realizing that he had returned to where he started, to that place he was seeking to escape from the banality of his homeland.

"For if this book is a joke it is a joke against me.  I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before.  If there is an element of farce in what follows, the farce is at my own expense; for this book explains how I fancied I was the first to set foot in Brighton and then found I was the last.  It recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious.  No one can think my case more ludicrous than I think it myself; no reader here can accuse me of trying to make a fool of him: I am the fool of this story, and no rebel shall hurl me from my throne.  I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century.  I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age.  Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth.  And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it.  I did strain my voice with a painfully juvenile exaggeration in uttering my truths.  And I was punished in the fittest and funniest way, for I have kept my truths: but I have discovered, not that they were not truths, but simply that they were not mine."

I happily echo his thoughts here, for my own journey in my early twenties is one of venturing away from Catholicism to try to find an enlightened belief system that provided a higher truth, a greater truthiness, if you will pardon my borrowing a Stephen Colbert expression.  While I was getting my first university degree, I started taking a serious look at atheism as an alternative to my current beliefs that was also conveniently compatible with my views on politics and my trust in science.

I eventually discarded atheism as a live option, but as one can see from how much I have written on the subject, it was indeed a live option for me at one point and I still wish to foster respectful dialogue between atheists and theists.  The other live option for me was Buddhism, and I struggled mightily to find a neutral standard that would allow me to choose between Buddhism and Christianity in a way that wasn't self-serving.  This was important to me because I know that given the chance, we humans are prone to choose the path that affords us the least resistance rather than the path of truth.

We all teeter on the edge of believing in our own competence to discern the truth so much that we make really stupid choices because our competence is so much smaller than we believe it to be.  Truth ought to help us offset this unfortunate consequence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but it is precisely this cognitive bias which leads us to believe that it doesn't affect us very much because we are so competent that it couldn't possibly overcome our reason.

In the chapter entitled "The Maniac" which follows the Introduction, Chesterton explains in his usual vibrant writing style what happens when we give in to the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

'Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world.  Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it.  The publisher said of somebody, "That man will get on; he believes in himself."  And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written, "Hanwell."  I said to him, "Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves?  For I can tell you.  I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success.  I can guide you to the thrones of Supermen.  The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums."  He said mildly that there are a good many men who really believe in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums.  "Yes there are," I retorted, "and you of all men ought to know them.  That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself.  That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself.  If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself  is one of the commonest signs of a rotter.   Actors who can't act believe in themselves; and debtors who won't pay.  It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself.  Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.  Believing in one's self is a hysterical and superstitious belief..."'

The idea that believing in one's self leads to success is quite the superstition indeed, requiring us as it does to conclude on the basis of insufficient evidence that things will work out in some unknown fashion that can only be called supernatural because we know from painful experience that success is not the natural consequence of complete self-confidence.  Our experience tells us that complete self-confidence often precedes egregious failure, and that complete self-confidence generally blinds us to the inevitability of failure which we can only see in hindsight.

But believing in one's self is not the only way to be a maniac, as Chesterton observes later in the chapter:

"There is a notion adrift everywhere that imagination, especially mystical imagination, is dangerous to a men's mental balance.  Poets are commonly spoken of as psychologically unreliable; and generally there is a vague association between wreathing laurels in your hair and sticking straws in it.  Facts and history utterly contradict this view.  Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them.  Imagination does not breed insanity.  Exactly what does breed insanity is reason.  Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do.  Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.  I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination."

This description and the examples that follow very much speak to my own experience.  When I was younger, my clinical depression was caused in large part by my analytical bent.  I very much wanted (and so did many of my peers) to be able to figure the world out and stow it in the simplistic logical categories and framework I had formed at the time through my philosophical training.

Unfortunately, the world is not even close to being simple enough for me or anyone else to comprehend it with such paltry mental tools as I was using.  The inevitable disappointment that occurs when reality is far too complex for our little minds to hold (even though we've been taught from many quarters that such understanding is readily available) is something I try to help others of my generation with when it hits them.

As is often the case, Chesterton expresses it quite pithily:

"The general fact is simple.  Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite.  The result is mental exhaustion, like the physical exhaustion of Mr. Holbein.  To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain.  The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in.  The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens.  It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head.  And it is his head that splits."

As a poet myself, I know all too well how valuable poetry is for my sanity.  It is the beautiful outlet for all the world's beauty which would otherwise split my head open by the force of its immensity, a healthy release valve for the daunting infinity of reality which I am all too happy to explore.

Given the chance and no healthy outlet, we will retreat from the beautiful infinite reality rather than exploring it; we will find a small piece of reality and cling to it as if it were the only real thing.  It is easier to believe that we have found the only thing that is real than it is to believe that this vast infinite something is ultimately incomprehensible to us, and so we believe with all our might in the transcendent value of the one thing we believe to be real and significant in life.

We will value it above all else, and we follow the valuation to its logical conclusion.  Those who value power and strength will follow it to authoritarianism and fascism.  Those who value liberty will follow that value to the point of doing horrible things to themselves simply because they are at liberty to do so.  Those who value the rule of law will uphold even the most unjust law rather than allowing it to be broken or having mercy on the one who broke it.

"A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent.  He can only be saved by will or faith.  The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his logical circle...
Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner, frequently a successful reasoner.  Doubtless he could be vanquished in mere reason, and the case against him put logically.  But it can be put much more precisely in general and even aesthetic terms.  He is the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point."

It matters not to the maniac that he is objectively wrong; he has created a subjectively coherent reality inside his head which he cannot deny and makes perfect logical sense within its own confines and given its own axioms.  And because this subjective reality cannot be denied, he must act on it even when it comes into conflict with the needs of others or the evidence of reality's lack of adherence to the boundaries which seem so clear and reliable in his mind.

"They are universal only in the sense that they take one thin explanation and carry it very far.  But a pattern can stretch forever and still be a small pattern. They see a chessboard white on black, and if the universe is paved with it, it is still white on black.  Like the lunatic, they cannot alter their standpoint; they cannot make a mental effort and suddenly see it black on white.
Take first the more obvious case of materialism.  As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity.  It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out.  Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, as, for instance, Mr. McCabe, and you will have exactly this unique sensation.  He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding.  His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world."

This is the problem with much of modern philosophy: it's so often maniacal.  It's not that the maniac who grounds the entirety of his worldview on liberty, or power, or law is wrong about that one thing being quite valuable.  Those things are indeed valuable.  But even the casual observer will be able to immediately discern that where the maniac went wrong is in reducing all of reality to one valuable thing rather than accepting that many parts of reality might be equally or unequally valuable.

He went wrong not by proposing a transcendent value, but rather by excluding all other values in a simplistic logical fashion.  He went wrong not by trying to explain everything, but rather by making everything so small that it could be easily explained.

The problem with the maniac isn't so much that he makes everything up; his problem is that he makes everything less than he knows it to be.

I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy. -- G.K. Chesterton



Note: The above is an image I captured of the cover of my copy of the book being reviewed here.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

In The Garden of Eden: The First Sin

In the Garden of Eden, much attention is paid to the first man and first woman because we want to understand our origins.  We want to believe that our origins are good and that we are thus great people who descended from them.  When we pay attention to our ancestors, it is usually for one of two purposes; either we are lauding our ancestors because it makes us feel important or we are disparaging our ancestors because it makes us look better by comparison.

But what we generally don't do is look to our ancestors to find the flaws which they have passed down to us, because we would rather not think on our flaws.  That would mean that we would be less good than we imagine ourselves to be, and also that we would need to expend great effort to correct our behaviors rather than using our existing behaviors as a standard by which to judge others.

For those who are bold and willing to uncover their own flaws, however, what stands out is not solely the greatness of our ancestors, but also their failings.  We look to their sins not because we want to put ourselves above them, but because we know that we are just as lowly and prone to error.  Instead of looking to the first man or the first woman to understand ourselves as great, we look to the first sin to learn of our weakness.

In the first sin, we find the prototype of all our sins which we commit daily; we disobey the laws of divine love in order to attain that which is not worth nearly as much as divine love.  We who sin are ever choosing the lesser pleasure of the senses, temporary and ultimately unsatisfying as it is, over the greater pleasure of the spirit in communion with divine love.

Over and over again, we accept paltry substitutes for love instead of striving for the fullness of love.  We will gladly take the smallest fruit of God's love for us without caring for the tree which provides us with that fruit.  We willingly accept sex without the radical self-gift of love which created our ability to unite and procreate in that act of intimate unity.  We settle for the heights of drug-induced euphoria rather than climbing the heights of divine love via ascetic disciplines and prayer from the heart.

Just as Adam and Eve settled for a taste of knowledge rather than seeking to remain in the paradise which was created for their eternal flourishing, so too we often settle for a taste of knowledge rather than seeking the paradise which was created for the eternal flourishing of our souls.  All too often, we choose the lesser desires of our bodies over the greater good of our souls.

We would rather disobey the most just statutes of the one who loved us into being for the sake of a moment's escape from suffering than obey Love's commandments which cause a moment's suffering, suffering which is as nothing when measured against His promise of life eternal.

The first sin is the sin of pride, the mortal sin from which all others flow and the final death follows; we recapitulate the first sin in each and every given moment in which we choose our transient desires over the delights of eternal love.

It is this First Sin which we reject when take up our cross daily and follow Him, uniting our transient sufferings to Christ's sufferings for the sake of eternal love.  It is the First Sin we abandon when we no longer act as though we are God, the one who determines what is good and what is evil.  It is the First Sin that is destroyed in us when we are obedient unto death for His sake just as Christ was obedient unto death for our sake.

In rejecting the First Sin, we embrace the cross of Christ who came to save us from the wages of Adam's Sin.  In abandoning the First Sin, we humble ourselves before the God who has loved us from the beginning, the God who knows far better than we do what is right and just, the God who knows what will lead us to eternal flourishing.

In accepting God's great gift of destroying the First Sin in ourselves, we can rise from the dead to glory in Heaven just as the Son of God rose from the dead and is seated at the right hand of the Mighty One.

When the First Sin is dead in us, we can become fully alive as God intended for us, returning to the greatness for which God made us in the Garden of Eden.

The New Eve - The New Adam - The First Sin



Note: The above image is of the Fall painted on the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo.

In The Garden of Eden: The New Adam

The garden of Eden is commonly understood to be a mythical place, and many people believe that this logically implies that it was never a real place, that someone created a fictional place for the sake of telling a story which had cultural significance, but did not have any basis in reality.

While I think that reading the creation narratives of Genesis as if they were scientific textbooks is a terrible approach that doesn't match the literary form being employed by the author, and that there is good evidence for the theory of evolution and current scientific estimates of the age of our planet, I also think that Genesis is indeed describing the reality of human experience.

Literature (I know from extensive experience) can be a source of the most profound truths about ourselves and the world even if that literature does not appear in any scientific studies.  And literature which is so powerful as to cause our hearts to burn with truth is always rich and multi-layered, a tapestry thick with meanings that convey to us the literal, allegorical, moral, and spiritual.

This literature which offers to us such a fullness of truth is rife with what seem to be glorious paradoxes when we look upon them with the eyes of one who wishes to fit the world in his head which cannot possibly hold such an immense expanse of truth by himself without deforming it beyond recognition.  And so he stuffs it into his head, crushing it down into a form which is a small enough truth that he does not have to expand his mind to hold it.

Thus in his vision Jesus is merely a man who came to tell us to love each other, and the glorious paradox of the Jesus who told us that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood to have life within us is flattened out by the force of his all-too-human reason into a mere one-dimensional metaphor empty of the boldness of the truth spoken by Jesus who let his followers leave Him rather than renounce it.

And while Jesus is viewed as a mere man in his eyes, Adam is not even a man in those same eyes, but is rather seen as a fabrication of other men who remain unnamed because his uncertainty about the author of the fabrication is just as strong as his certainty about the non-existence of the primogenitor.  For the one who sees only a falsehood where the first man fills his vision, the man who is God must also be demoted, though to the rank of a mere man rather than that of a mere falsehood.

What if the mere man is no mere man at all?  What if he is both the Son of Man and the Son of God, a glorious paradox who cannot be crushed and deformed so as to fit neatly into our minds?  What if the first man who was created in the image and likeness of God was redeemed by God Himself who took on the image and likeness of God to bring us the eternal life which was meant for us in the Garden of Eden?

If Adam's Sin caused the Fall of humanity into the state of degeneracy which opens us up to death and suffering, then would God restore us to life through His impossible act of becoming man?  Did God's plan of salvation include the balancing of the scales previously weighted by Adam's disobedience in order to match his disobedience with a greater example of the obedience of love?

This tilting of the scales is what happened when the sinless Christ died to offer eternal life to the human race, the eternal life intended for us in the Garden of Eden which was lost due to Adam's Sin.  The scales of God's justice were tilted in favor of restoring the human race to eternal life through the weight of God's mercy which bore all our sins that begin with a slavery to transient desires and lead inevitably to the final death.

Unlike Adam, whose sufferings as he toiled upon the earth were the result of an easy disobedience in one moment of giving in to temptation in the garden, Christ overcame the temptations of Satan in the desert in order to offer for us the suffering on the cross in obedience to the Father.  Where Adam took and ate of the fruit which belonged to God alone, Christ who is the firstfruit of God gave Himself freely to do the Father's will.  It was Adam who was formed from the humble clay of the earth and granted life eternal with God, and it was Jesus Christ the uncreated Son of the Father from the beginning who had life eternal and yet humbled Himself to become Man and lose His life for our sake.

Though Adam never knew a mother's love and tenderness even in the Garden, Jesus knew fully the love of Mary from the beginning and will know the love and tenderness of His Mother for all eternity.  Adam grieved for his son's sin in murdering his brother, and Jesus grieved for the sins of all God's children who have committed murder even in their hearts when they became angry at their brothers and sisters made in God's image and likeness.

Adam was the first man created in the image and likeness of God and adopted by God the Father so that he could be raised to eternal life; he went on to grasp at equality with God by taking the knowledge of good and evil which belongs only to God.  Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, did not grasp at equality with God and instead humbled Himself to be adopted by a man named Joseph who was created in the image and likeness of God.

Adam's son Cain offered to God the crops he grew from the land and murdered his brother Abel the shepherd who had offered unto God the firstfruits of his flock, causing the land to be barren and his livelihood to become unfruitful.  Jesus Christ the Lord who was handed over to death by His kinsmen is both the Lamb who was slain as a holy offering to God and the Good Shepherd who leads us back to green pastures of the Garden of Eden, and he who appeared as a gardener after His Resurrection is also the vine from which the branches of our lives of love grow ever more fruitfully to the heights of Heaven.

Through Adam's first sin, death entered into the world for all who were born of a woman and became an inevitable part of our existence, and through the sinless sacrifice of Christ Our God who was born of Mary death was trampled down by His death so that upon those in the tombs life everlasting could be bestowed.

Through the life of Christ, all that was lacking in Adam's humility was filled to overflowing, and in the life of Christ all that was lacking in the love of God and neighbor was restored to the fullness of divine love which is the glory God wishes to share with us.

Jesus is the New Adam, the Son of God who is consubstantial with the Father, and blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord to die once and for all so that we might have the life eternal he desired for us in the beginning.

The New Eve - The New Adam - The First Sin




Note: The above picture is of a silver-plated icon of Christ Our Lord.  I recently purchased this icon from the Paracletos monastery at the orthodoxmonasteryicons.com website.

Friday, July 1, 2016

In The Garden of Eden: The New Eve

The ancient Christian churches have a long tradition of understanding Christ as the divine Logos, the fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures and of the pivotal persons in the Old Testament such as Elijah, Moses, and even Adam.  And simultaneously, the ancient Christian churches have a long tradition of understanding Adam, Moses, the Judges, and the Prophets as prototypes of Christ, pointing us toward the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ which is the deep wellspring of divine love toward which salvation history is flowing and out of which God's love is pouring into the world.

For the early Church Fathers who were reading the Hebrew scriptures (whether in Greek or Hebrew), those scriptures were read through the experiences of the Apostles and other early disciples of Jesus Christ that was handed on to them.  This early Christian tradition that organically grew out of the witness of the first Christians was the lens through which the Hebrew scriptures were interpreted, because the New Testament had not been compiled at this point and could not yet serve as the lens through which the Old Testament is read.

At that point, all the early Christians had as a lens through which to read the Old Testament was Christ Himself and the firsthand accounts of His actions which they had received by oral tradition.  And at that point, it made a great deal of sense to think of Christ as the new Adam, especially because Paul was already writing to the early Christian community in Rome about the connection between Adam and Christ, which is why even contemporary post-Reformation Christians sometimes agree with the ancient churches about that connection.

And unsurprisingly, once we've accepted the theological connection between the Fall caused by Adam's Sin and the Resurrection caused by Christ's Incarnation, we also begin to wonder about Eve and her role in the Fall.  If Eve helped facilitate the Fall by giving the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to Adam, then is her action somehow matched (as Adam's Sin was) by God's entrance into the world?  Did God's plan of salvation include the balancing of the scales previously weighted by Eve's disobedience in order to match her disobedience with a greater example of obedience?

This tilting of the scales is what happened when the sinless Christ died to offer eternal life to the human race, the eternal life intended for us in the Garden of Eden which was lost due to Adam's Sin.  The scales of God's justice were tilted in favor of restoring the human race to eternal life through the weight of God's mercy which bore all our sins that begin with a slavery to transient desires and lead inevitably to the final death.  It was Mary who bore Him who was God's mercy incarnate come to free us from sin and death.

Unlike Eve, whose pains of childbirth were a result of an easy disobedience in one moment, Mary's childbirth was the result of a difficult obedience over the course of a lifetime.  Where Eve's taking of the fruit of the Tree was a theft of that which was only God's to give, Mary's giving of the fruit of her womb was a cooperation with God's plan to give eternal life to His children.  It was Eve who was taken out of the rib of Adam, and it was the New Adam who was born from the womb of Mary.

Though Eve was for the rest of her life afraid of the serpent which brings death, Mary no longer had to fear the serpent which brings death, because she had borne the God of eternal life into the world.  Eve grieved for the son she lost to the violence of his jealous brother and for all her descendants who died as a result of Adam's Sin, and Mary grieved for the son she lost to the violence of jealous rulers and rejoiced for all her descendants who became adopted sons and daughters of God through the blood of their brother Jesus Christ which was shed for them.

Eve helped the human race to encounter a seemingly endless string of deaths spanning a multitude of generations which is as uncountable as the grains of sand in the desert, and Mary helped the human race to encounter a truly eternal life of ages unto ages which are as uncountable as the stars burning throughout the universe.

Through the obedience of Mary, God's desire for humanity to have a full participation in the eternal life of divine love as children of God was brought to the fruition which was intended for Eve.  Through Mary's act of love, Love Himself entered the world so that he might descend into Sheol and lift Adam and Eve up into the eternal life in the divine household of Love.

Through the life of Mary, all that was lacking in the faithfulness of Eve was filled to overflowing, and  in the life of Mary every missing of the mark of divine love committed by Eve was lifted up by God's grace so that the arrow of Love would not fall short of His glory.

Mary is the New Eve, the handmaid of the Lord, and blessed is the fruit of her womb which she bore into a world full of death and sin so that the world might be filled with life and love as the Father intended in the beginning.

The New Eve - The New Adam - The First Sin




Note: The above is a silver-plated icon of the Holy Theotokos with the infant Jesus purchased from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com and painted at the Paracletos monastery.