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

Monday, October 31, 2016

Fair Questions: Did a Historical Jesus really exist?

This morning I ran across an article on the Washington Post's website entitled, "Did historical Jesus really exist?  The evidence just doesn't add up."  I thought perhaps it was going to make a stronger case than most of these sorts of articles, given that it specifically purported to deal with weighing the evidence.

Usually, these articles invoke vague doubts, but don't articulate a clear and useful standard of evidence, so I was looking forward to one that actually examined the evidence.  After reading it, I do think that the author succeeded in looking at the evidence.  That was a refreshing change of pace.

On the other hand, I have some concerns about the standard of evidence being used and lines of reasoning presented with regard to what we can conclude from that evidence.  I thought that perhaps the article seemed to dismiss evidence unusually quickly and make odd leaps of logic because it had been edited significantly for length, so I looked at the original article.

Sadly, it didn't offer any more substance than the re-printed version in the Washington Post, though there were some minor edits that changed nothing of importance.

One important distinction the author (Raphael Lataster, a University Lecturer in Sydney) makes is the distinction between a "Historical Jesus" and a "Christ of Faith" as being two different persons whose existence can be considered separately.  Later, he notes the difficulty in disentangling those two people as they are present in the Gospels, and suggests that perhaps Jesus was originally a pure myth about a divine figure who was later written about as being a man as well (a point I'll return to later).

To be fair, if one proposes that there is a "historical Jesus" as distinct from a "Christ of Faith" figure in the Gospels, it's hard to see how one could possibly draw a rational line between them.  The Gospels are written with the deeply embedded idea that Jesus is simultaneously the Son of God and a Son of Man and make no effort to draw such a distinction, so it makes sense that it would be hard to tell based on the Gospels where the divine Jesus of Christianity begins and the mere man (however characterized) of many secular scholars ends.

And if the overwhelming majority of the earliest textual evidence is written with this assumption, then even drawing a distinction between a "historical Jesus" and a "Christ of Faith" might be impossible using those texts.  It might make sense to, at this point, just remain uncertain about the very idea of a "historical Jesus" and back away slowly from trying to draw hand and fast conclusions about a "historical Jesus" from either the Gospels or the Epistles, those earliest of Christian texts.

If this was where Lataster had stopped, I think he would be standing on fairly solid ground.  But he didn't stop there.  He boldly ventured where others are unsure there is any ground at all when he suggested (as I mentioned earlier) the possibility that Jesus was originally a pure myth about a divine figure who was later written about as being a man as well.

Then went on to claim that 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 refers to demons when it mentions the "princes of this world" and that Paul's letters consistently taught a "celestial Jesus" or "Heavenly Jesus" as opposed to a human Jesus rather than in combination with a human Jesus.  He points out the Paul doesn't spend much time describing Jesus' earthly life events and teachings in the Epistles, as if this was somehow supportive of the argument for Jesus as originally a pure myth.

But, as we all know, Paul was writing these letters to existing Christian communities in various places, churches full of people who would have already heard those stories and teachings (and probably caused them to believe in Christ).  Given that he was already writing to people who already accepted the truth of Jesus' life and teachings, why would he spend a lot of time on that in his letters?  Doesn't it actually make more sense for him to provide a theological explanation of how those teachings applied to their immediate problems and struggles, both communal and personal?

Doesn't it make more sense to clarify and synthesize those teachings rather than repeating them to people for whom those stories and teachings were already a standard part of their oral tradition?  Why would Paul attempt to use those stories and teachings to (as Lataster suggests he should have) "bolster his own claims" when writing to people who already believed those claims?

I'm not sure why Lataster thinks that would be a good idea in the slightest.  Sure, if Paul were writing a "Letter to the Heathens Who Tried to Kill Me" and trying to convince them from the ground up that his claims were rational, he might well do as Lataster thinks he ought to do and start with the events of Jesus' life and Jesus' teachings.  That just wasn't at all what he was trying to do, and so it makes no sense to suggest that Paul should emphasize those things.

I think Lataster makes a much more useful point with regard to the Criterion of Embarrassment and the Criterion of Multiple (or Independent) Attestation.  I would certainly agree that many people take the weight of the former to be far greater than it actually is and that the latter isn't satisfied very strongly by the writings of Josephus or Tacitus.  The existence of references to Jesus in these works doesn't really function as strong evidence of his existence, and Christian apologists sometimes have an unfortunate habit of presenting them as if they do function as such.

There's definitely a problem of confirmation bias making many Christians, especially those who haven't studied history or literature very deeply, prone to think that the historical evidence for various Christian truth claims is stronger than it actually is.  Unfortunately, rather than just acknowledging that this is a problem for Christians, Lataster waves away any truth value in the earliest Gospels by pointing out that the authors of the texts were biased.

I don't think this is a good approach for a very simple reason: every author is biased strongly toward their point of view.  Unless you're willing to toss out the overwhelming majority of textual evidence for any event in human history, such a method also undercuts every single historical text Lataster (or anyone else) might use for any purpose other than casting doubt on every author whose work he cites.
Sure, we have to take into account bias, especially when the author makes claims that are very convenient against his opponents, for example.  Or when the author seems not to apply his standards consistently.  And I do wonder if Lataster applies his standard consistently.  As I've mentioned before, the Pāli Canon wasn't recorded until several hundred years after the Buddha's passing on, which is pretty far removed compared to the Gospels of Christianity that were written decades after Jesus' death.

Does Lataster have the same concerns about bias and contemporaneous independent corroborating accounts with regard to the earliest Buddhist texts?  Does he also propose strange interpretations of some of the suttas that completely ignore the audience for which they were written and the purpose of them?  I don't know the answer to that question.  Maybe he does, and if so, that's very much to his credit that he applies the same standards consistently, regardless of my disagreements with his standards.

Let's suppose for the sake of being charitable that he also doubts the veracity of the Buddha's discourses as recorded in the Pāli Canon because the monks didn't write them down until several hundred years after the "historical Gotama" passed on from this life just as he doubts the veracity of the Gospels written decades after Jesus' death (or maybe more so given the longer passage of time).  That's a consistent standard, to be sure.  It's just not the only one.

Because there is good scientific evidence that human beings are quite capable of preserving accurate information by oral tradition for many thousands of years and then communicating it effectively in a new language, it is by no means implausible that human beings similarly motivated by a significant event would do the same for mere decades or a few hundred years.  That's why I tend to give texts based on oral tradition about a significant event the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were probably referring to a real event, though perhaps with liberal embellishment and literary license being employed to make a larger point.

Lataster spends a great deal of time near the end of his piece asking what the underlying sources are for the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), who produced them, and what style of literature they were written in, among other things.  I'm just not sure why he or anyone else assumes that there's some sort of written proto-Gospel that we're missing.  The most parsimonious explanation is that the proto-Gospel is the oral tradition about Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

Oral tradition is usually how these things start (as we can see in the case of Judaism and Buddhism and many other religions), and written records of those traditions generally come later once it's either technologically and/or economically feasible to write them down and spread them around.  Which brings me to Lataster's suggestion that it's odd that only centuries after they were written would Christian apologists point to the works of Josephus or Tacitus as evidence that Jesus was a historical figure.

That's not odd in the slightest.  Most people would not have doubted that the Gospels were evidence of the existence of some fellow named Jesus at the very least (and that's still true even of most anti-Christian historians today), though they might think many of the claims about him were utterly unbelievable and absurd.  And the few people who did have those doubts probably didn't have some formal standard they applied consistently to historical texts that made it likely that they would accept the works of Josephus and Tacitus as evidence.

Frankly, given how little work those pieces of evidence do, I wouldn't expect Christian apologists to use them much at all.  I certainly don't.  One thing I do look to as evidence is how the texts were treated by those who were exposed to the Christian community during that time period.  Though Lataster thinks that we can't know whether the Gospels were "intended to be accurate historical portrayals, enlightening allegories, or entertaining fictions", it seems to me that the reactions from the people who read the text suggest that it was not intended to be a set of entertaining fictions.

Whether it was the Gnostics who used the Gospels as the basis for their claims to a higher, more esoteric and secretive truth, or the Greeks and Romans who criticized its message philosophically, the people who were most likely to be familiar with the literary forms and intentions of the Gospel writers never treated it in the way that modern scholars who are far more distant from both the Christian community and the literature of the day do in the 21st century.

It may not be a coincidence that those most likely to understand the Gospels and the intent of the authors directly took it much more seriously than we do today.  Whether they agreed or disagreed, they didn't do impressive intellectual gymnastics to find a way to invalidate the Gospels by pretending that the authors weren't actually referring to Jesus when they referred to Jesus.

Maybe the "historical Jesus" doesn't exist because the very concept is a reductionist attempt to find a way to separate the Son of Man from the Son of God in writings which present them as the same person.  Maybe Jesus who is written of as having both human and divine natures has to be accepted or rejected as he's presented rather than whittled down into a form more palatable to people who aren't as bold as Lataster, people who are unwilling to go so far as to say that there was no historical Jesus, but are entirely willing to pretend that Jesus was actually just a nice guy who agreed with their modern views despite their being even less evidence of that than the alternative.

Either way, it's important to have a consistent standard of evidence when we deal with questions like this, and that's something I hope Lataster's work can encourage, if it accomplishes nothing else.

Painting by Amédée Varin - http://www.culture.gouv.fr/GOUPIL/IMAGES/101_Christ_sur_eau.jpg (Gravures et eaux fortes), Public Domain, Link

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Fair Questions: What's wrong with contextual theology?

Recently, a friend of mine suggested on Facebook that what we might call "contextual theology" projects such as Feminist theology, Queer theologyBlack Liberation theology, or Latino theology is just a waste of time, and that we need to ask how it can be coherent with the whole Christian tradition.  I think that is indeed a necessary question to ask, but I'm not so sure that contextual theology is a waste of time.

For one, I think it's a good idea to be up front about one's biases when doing any kind of intellectual work, whether it's theological or philosophical or scientific or other work.  To their credit, theologians who self-identify with these contextual theology movements are being very forthright about their biases in a way that many other theologians are not.  Such theologians are often inclined to point out that other theologians who are not part of whatever sex-related, race-related, or ethnicity-related group classification they fall into are not open about how their cisgender, male, white, non-Hispanic theological projects aren't open about their biases.

Specifically, that cisgender white males of non-Hispanic cultures won't admit how being cisgender, or male, or white, or non-Hispanic shapes how they view theology.  And it's generally true that cisgender white males won't admit how their experiences with regard to those aspects of their lives shape their theology.  There are of course exceptions to this.  Some male theologians are quite explicitly engaged in a theological project of reclaiming masculinity in Christianity.  And White nationalists of the Christian Identity movement and nationalists of other stripes in Europe and Russia will explicitly have a nationalistic or ethno-phyletistic way of viewing theology.

Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox churches condemned this phenomenon as a heresy.  And this makes sense.  When anything other than Christ (found in His Eucharist, His Sacred Tradition, and Sacred Scripture) is the primary lens through which we understand who we are and how we relate to God, we end up as lost sheep who have strayed far from the path that leads to life.  These nationalistic race-based and ethnicity-based theological movements are wrong because they let socio-political concerns take an over-sized role in understanding Christian theology.

Inevitably, using socio-political concerns to evaluate theology in this way causes problems, either because it becomes heretical or it leads people to heresy down the road.  This is true not just of White nationalist movements, but also of Black Liberation theology, Latino theology, et cetera.  Admittedly, I'm much more sympathetic to Black Liberation theologians and Latino theologians, because they at least have as a part of their analytical framework a profound concern for those who are oppressed, vulnerable, and impoverished.  Those are concerns we should have as Christians.

The theology of White nationalism isn't quite so willing to be engaged with those concerns in a global way.  It's even more myopic than other race-based or ethnicity-based theological approaches, though the others do tend to be somewhat myopic as well, both in terms of ethnicity and/or race and political causes (the latter of which I will return to later).

This ethnic or racial myopia isn't something we really see in the early Church.  St. Moses the Ethiopian (also known as Abba Moses the Black) wasn't doing Ethiopian theology or Black theology.  Nor, though he was one of the Desert Fathers, was he doing Desert theology.  Abba Macarius of Egypt wasn't doing Egyptian theology.  And Amma Syncletica of Alexandria wasn't doing Alexandrian women's liberation theology, nor was St. Mary of Egypt doing Egyptian feminist theology.  They were doing Christian theology in a particular time and place rather than doing the theology of a particular time and place to impose on the whole Christian Church.

They were all engaging in universal Christian theology accepted by the whole Church, and that was because Christ was the lens through which they viewed all theology.  What often happens in contemporary contextual theology is that our particular socio-political situations are the lens through which we view all truth, including the truth about Christ.  White nationalists might believe that Jesus was White, for example, in contradiction of all the evidence about who he was.

Or someone engaged in Queer theology might conclude that Jesus was a transgender man, which has indeed been proposed recently in a popular online magazine and by transgender Christians.  While there's no good evidence for the claim, it is very appealing to people who want to re-shape Christian belief through the lens of their socio-political situation or contemporary beliefs.

And that's the fundamental problem with contextual theology projects that are based on the ethnic or racial or gendered experience of the theologian.  Instead of becoming a part of a synthesis of the teachings of many male and female apostles and saints across Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya, Greece, Syria, Rome, Turkey, India, and many other places, contemporary contextual theology ends up undermining that universal synthesis by taking a particular situation as a way of interpreting the Gospel rather than taking the Gospel as a way of interpreting their particular situation.

But this doesn't mean that contextual theology is a waste of time.  We do need to find ways to incorporate the Latino experience, the Black experience, the transgender experience, and the experience of modern women into the great Christian synthesis of the Church's teaching.  And contextual theology, because it reveals how those experiences form the views of those theologians, is an invaluable help to accomplishing that task.

What I hope is that we can find an effective answer to my friend's question.  How can we have a Latino theology, or Black Liberation theology, Queer theology, or Feminist theology that is coherent with the whole Christian tradition?  Unfortunately, I don't think most theologians doing the work in those areas want to find an answer to that question.

While the whole Christian tradition has room for the various analytical approaches used by many men and women from all over the world who have lived the Christian life, it doesn't seem to have room for the analytical approach used in contemporary contextual theology projects.  Various approaches that can be loosely grouped under the umbrella of Critical Theory seem to all lead to the conclusion that the Christian synthesis is wrong and oppressive, that we need to overturn key components of that synthesis.

And what's more, in many cases they can't seem to even imagine that the theological synthesis of the Church isn't a contextual theology also, specifically that it's not in fact the White Male Supremacy and European Imperialism theology.  And I suppose that if one does theology explicitly through the lens of one's particular socio-political situation, it might be hard to imagine that anyone doesn't do theological work in the same way.

But at least for myself, I don't.  I don't like it when I find vaguely misogynistic views among Church officials.  I don't like it when Christians misunderstand transgender folks and condemn them unfairly.  I don't appreciate the racism that I see among some Catholics, and the lack of concern that some of them have for our Black and Latino brothers and sisters in particular.

Fortunately, I've found a way to authentically incorporate those concerns into the traditional Christian synthesis when it comes to my personal theological work.  But that only happened because I made a consistent effort to do so.  Unless others who are working on contextual theology projects do the same, it will be very difficult to find a good answer to my friend's very important question.

Note:  The above is a picture I took of an icon of St. Moses the Ethiopian.  The flashing of sunlight reflecting off of its surface give it an interesting aesthetic quality.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Unfettered Mind: The Selfless Death

Please listen to the embedded podcast version or read the written version of this post below.

This past week, I re-read The Unfettered Mind written by Takuan Sōhō.   Because of my interest in both martial arts and Zen Buddhism, I had read it many years ago, but like many books I re-read later in life, I find that my understanding of it now is deeper than it was when I was in my early twenties.

After studying Buddhism more deeply over the past 5 years, I now find myself better able to understand what Takuan Sōhō was trying to convey to master swordsman and instructor Yagyū Munenori.

The second part of The Unfettered Mind is entitled "The Clear Sound of Jewels" and has an interesting exposition on the relative value of life and right-mindedness.  Appropriately, Takuan Zenji begins with life.

     "There is nothing dearer to us than life.  Whether a man be rich or poor, if he does not live out a long life, he will not accomplish his true purpose.  Even if one had to throw away thousands in wealth and valuables to do so, life is something he should buy.
     It is said that life is of small account compared with right-mindedness.  In truth, it is right-mindedness that is most esteemed.
     Nothing is more precious than life.  Yet, at the moment when we throw away this valued life and stand on right-mindedness, there is nothing more highly esteemed than right-mindedness.
     Looking carefully at the world, we can see that there are many people who throw away their lives lightly.  But do you suppose one person in a thousand would die for right-mindedness?  It would seem that among the humble servant class, contrary to what you might expect, there are many who would.  Yet it would be difficult for people who think themselves wise to do the same."

As many Zen masters do, he subverts conventional beliefs and assumptions.  In this case, he points out that it is the humble who are more likely to die a good death of right-mindedness, not the proud and mighty ones who think themselves wise because they lack the humble self-awareness of the servant class.

He also points out that at the moment when we choose to die, we inevitably decide what is more valuable than life.  We can die for light, insubstantial reasons.  Many people do.  But we can also die for right-mindedness, and this is a weighty reason to die.

"As I was saying such things half to myself while passing a long spring day, a certain man came up and said something like this:
     'While wealth truly pleases our hearts, having life is the greatest wealth of all.  So when it comes to the moment of reckoning, a man will throw away his wealth to keep his life intact.  But when you think that a man will not hesitate to throw away the life he so values for the sake of right-mindedness, the value of right-mindedness is greater than life itself.  Desire, life, right-mindedness--among these three, isn't the latter what man values most?'
     At that time, I replied something along these lines.
     'Desire, life, and right-mindedness--to say that right-mindedness is the most valued among these three is only natural.  But to say that all men without exception value right-mindedness the most among these three misses the mark.  There is no man who simply values desire and life but keeps right-mindedness in his thoughts.'"

Here we see that Takuan Zenji is exploring the arguments for various positions on right-mindedness and how common it is to die for right-mindedness.  His interlocutor correctly claims that it is right-mindedness that is most valuable, but goes on to suggest that men in general value it most of all.

This is where our Zen master parts ways with him; a Zen priest knows too well from a life of self-denial that even among those who know that right-mindedness is greater than the desire for wealth or life, it is rare that anyone consistently puts this knowledge into practice in his mind.

     "Then another man said, 'Wealth is a jewel of life.  Without life, wealth is useless, so life alone is valuable.  However, it is said that there are many who lightly throw away their lives for right-mindedness.'
     I asked, 'Is any man able to take his life lightly for the sake of right-mindedness?'
     He responded, 'There are many people in this world who cannot abide being insulted and who will quickly, along with their foes of the moment, throw away their lives in a fight.  This is having right-mindedness foremost in mind and taking one's life lightly.  It is dying for right-mindedness rather than for wealth or life.
     Those who were cut down in the face of battle--their number can hardly be known.  All were men who died for right-mindedness.  With this in mind, it can be said that all men value right-mindedness over desire and life.'
     I said, "Dying because someone is vexed at being insulted resembles right-mindedness, but it is not that at all.  This is forgetting oneself in the anger of the moment.  It is not right-mindedness in the least.  Its proper name is anger and nothing else.  Before a person has even been insulted, he has already departed from right-mindedness.  And for this reason, he suffers insult.  If one's right-mindedness is correct when when he is associating with others, he will not be insulted by them.  Being insulted by others, one should realize that he had lost his own right-mindedness prior to the offense.'"

The next interlocutor makes the claim that many people die for right-mindedness, but for the wrong reasons.  Takuan Zenji understandably asks how anyone could possibly die for the wrong reasons while being right-minded.

He goes on to explain that dying because one has been dishonored or insulted is by definition something other than right-mindedness.  There is nothing right-minded about giving in to anger.  When we are angry, our minds are filled with selfishness (in the form of a need to attack what is pricking our ego) and have no room for the loving-kindness that comes from right-mindedness.  Right-mindedness is not some grand selfishness that leads to unthinking rage.

     "Right-mindedness is a matter of extreme importance.  Its substance is none other than the Principle of Heaven, which gives life to all things.  When this is acquired by the human body, it is called one's nature.  Its other names are virtue, the Way, human-heartedness, probity and propriety.  While the name changes according to the situation, and though its function is different, in substance it is only one thing.
     When this is written as human-heartedness and the situation involves human intercourse, its function is benevolence.
     When it is written as right-mindedness and the situation involves social station and integrity, its function is in making no mistakes in clarity of judgment.
     Even in dying, if one has not hit upon the principle therein, he has no right-mindedness, albeit some think that if a person just dies, he had this quality."

He rightly observes that we tend to lionize those who die without really knowing their intentions at the time of their death.  We rarely know when someone's death was truly a selfless act of benevolence or when they had the clarity of mind to judge correctly that it would be right to die.

More interestingly, Takuan Zenji tells us that this selfless benevolence, this sacrifice of one's life for the right reasons, is the very substance out of which all life grows.  He tells us that when we partake in it, we become virtuous, we follow the Way, and we become compassionate and respectful.  So how do we partake in this Principle of Heaven?

     "Right-mindedness is considered to be the substance devoid of perversity that is the core of the human mind; and in using the straightness in that core of the mind as a plumbline, everything produced will exhibit right-mindedness.
     Disregarding this core and dying because of desire is not a right-minded death.  As for those people we mentioned who die for right-mindedness, can there be even one in thousand who would truly do do?
     In regard to this, from the time one has been taken into a daimyo's service, of the clothes on his back, the sword he wears at his side, his footgear, his palanquin, his horse and all of his materiel, there is no single item that is not due to the favor of his lord.  Family, wife, child, and his own retainers--all of them and their relations--not one can be said not to receive the lord's favor.  Having these favors well impressed on his mind, a man will face his lord's opponents on the battlefield and cast away his one life.  This is dying for right-mindedness.
     This is not for the sake of one's name.  Nor for gaining fame, a stipend and a fief.  Receiving a favor and returning a favor--the sincerity of the core of the mind consists solely of this."

Here he points out to Yagyū Munenori that as a warrior in the service of a daimyo, almost everything he has is a gift from his lord.  And when we are given such an immense set of gifts, we naturally feel grateful and seek to reciprocate the great gifts we have been given.

The radical act of giving one's self in the service of one who has given you much is the right-minded death.  It is not the death that follows from being enthralled by rage and brought on by egotistical insecurities.  It is not the death of a social climber seeking to advance himself and his descendants in fame and wealth and power.

It is, in short, not a selfish death.  To die for right-mindedness is to die because one is, in that moment of sacrifice, truly selfless. Such a death, which is a gift freely given to one's lord who has given so generously to you, is the selfless death.

The Immovable Wisdom - The Selfless Death - The Strength of Faith

Note:  The above is an image of the book cover of the translation of The Unfettered Mind that I used for this post.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

In Denial: Nietzsche's Skepticism

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche covers a wide array of topics, and his writing is always as incisive as it is difficult to follow for those accustomed to textbooks.  As always, I enjoy his writing greatly even when I disagree with his conclusions.

One of the most interesting parts of the book from my perspective was his series of ruminations on skepticism.   In Part Six of the book, Nietzsche turns his considerable polemical ability on skepticism immediately after verbally scourging those who pretend to objectivity.

     "However gratefully we may welcome an objective spirit--and is there anyone who has never been mortally sick of everything subjective and of his accursed ipsissimosity? --in the end we also have to caution against our gratitude and put a halt to the exaggerated manner in which the 'unselfing' and depersonalization of the spirit is being celebrated nowadays as if it were the goal itself and redemption and transfiguration.  This is particularly characteristic of the pessimist's school, which also has good reasons for according the highest honors to 'disinterested knowledge.'
      The objective person who no longer curses and scolds like a pessimist, the ideal scholar in whom the scientific instinct, after thousands of total and semi-failures, for once blossoms and blooms to the end, is certainly one of the most precious instruments there are; but he belongs in the hand of one more powerful.  He is only an instrument; let us say, he is a mirror--he is no 'end in himself'.'  The objective man is indeed a mirror: he is accustomed to submit before whatever wants to be known, without any other pleasure than that found in knowing and 'mirroring'; he waits until something comes, and then spreads himself out tenderly lest light footsteps and the quick passage of spiritlike beings should be lost on his plane and skin."

The critique Nietzsche levels against the self-described objective man is not the critique that a college sophomore would launch; no, he's much less timid in his assertions.  Nietzsche points out that the more a man pursues objectivity, the more he becomes an object.

He subtly points out that objectification is the natural result of objectivity in men.  While he does concede that the objective man has some things that are quite admirable about him, traits that set him apart from the herd, he sees that the objective man is still less than a fully human being, not rich in personality and vibrant in the joys and sorrows of life as others are.

     "If love and hatred are wanted from him--I mean love and hatred as God, woman, and animal understand them--he will do what he can and give what he can.  But one should not be surprised if it is not much--if here he proves inauthentic, fragile, questionable, and worm-eaten.  His love is forced, his hatred artificial and rather un tour de force, a little vanity and exaggeration.  After all, he is genuine only insofar as he may be objective: only in his cheerful 'totalism' he is still 'nature' and 'natural.'  His mirror soul, eternally smoothing itself out, no longer knows how to affirm or negate; he does not command, neither does he destroy.  "Je suis meprise presque rien," he says with Liebniz: one should not overlook and underestimate that presque.
     Neither is he a model man; he does not go before anyone, nor behind; altogether he places himself too far apart to have any reason to take sides for good or evil.  When confusing him for so long with the philosopher, with the Caesarian cultivator and cultural dynamo, one accorded him far too high honors and overlooked his most essential characteristics: he is an instrument, something of a slave though certainly the most sublime type of slave, but in himself nothing--presque rien!  The objective man is an instrument, a precious, easily injured and clouded instrument for measuring and, as an arrangement of mirrors, an artistic triumph that deserves care and honor; but he is no goal, no conclusion and sunrise, no complementary man in whom the rest of existence is justified, no termination--and still less a beginning, a begetting and a first cause, nothing tough, powerful, self-reliant that wants to be master--rather only a delicate, carefully dusted, fine, mobile pot for forms that still has to wait for some content and substance in order to 'shape' itself accordingly--for the most part, a man without substance and content, a 'selfless' man.  Consequently, also nothing for women, in parenthesi."

Nietzsche recognizes that even the most objective man is at best an instrument of measurement that is far from perfect, that the objective man has much about him that is not designed to ascertain objective truth and indeed seems bound to find at best a blurred vision of reality.

But this isn't the main point of his examination of the objective man; Nietzsche wants us to see how being an objective man causes a man to be something less than a truly free and virile man, to see how sterility is a result of objectivity.  He describes in quite visceral terms how the objective man loses the traits that make men so attractive to women, the traits that make them so full of life and capable of reaching the depths and heights of the human heart in love.

And this objective man, having been reduced to an object, is in some sense "selfless," but not in the sense of denying the self so that he can give the gift of radical love to another.  It's a selflessness that does not even aspire to such heights, a selflessness that is mere abasement before the facts and nothing that acts boldly based on those facts.

With this in mind, let's take a look at what Nietzsche has to say about skepticism.

     "When a philosopher suggests these days that is not a skeptic--I hope this is clear from the description just given of the objective spirit--everybody is annoyed.  One begins to look at him apprehensively, one would like to ask, to ask so much----Indeed, among timid listeners, of whom there are legions now, he is henceforth considered dangerous.  It is as if at his rejection of skepticism they heard some evil, menacing rumbling in the distance, as if a new explosive were being tried somewhere, a dynamite of the spirit, perhaps a newly discovered Russian nihiline, a pessimism bonae voluntatis that does not merely say No, want No, but--horrible thought!--does No.
     Against this type of 'good will'--a will to actual, active denial of life--there is today, according to common consent, no better soporific and sedative than skepticism, the gentle, fair, lulling poppy of skepticism; and even Hamlet is now prescribed by the doctors of the day against the 'spirit' and its underground rumblings.  'Aren't our ears filled with wicked noises as it is?' asks the skeptic as a friend of quiet, and almost as a kind of security police; 'this subterranean No is terrible!  Be still at last, you pessimistic moles!"

Here we see that Nietzsche compares the skeptic to the objective man; he paints a picture of someone who is too timid to believe hard things.  The skeptic is depicted in all the glory of the amateur philosopher who, rather than boldly venturing into the deep, is lulled to intellectual sleep by the lullaby of an uncertainty that keeps him from having to risk anything by standing by something he truly believes is of utmost importance.

Like the objective man, the skeptical man may be better than the religious man with his slave morality, but only just.  Even the sincere religious man is bold enough to really give his Yes or No to the beliefs of others while the skeptic is reluctant to face the dangers of fully committing to principles that are hard to live by.

     "For the skeptic, being a delicate creature, is frightened all too easily; his conscience is trained to quiver at every No, indeed even at a Yes that is decisive and hard, and to feel as if it had been bitten.  Yes and No--that goes against his morality; conversely, he likes to treat his virtue to a feast of noble abstinence, say, by repeating Montaigne's 'What do I know?' or Socrates' 'I know that I know nothing.' Or: 'Here I don't trust myself, here no door is open to me.'  Or: 'Even if one were open, why enter right away?'  Or: 'What use are all rash hypotheses?  Entertaining no hypotheses at all might well be part of good taste.  Must you insist on immediately straightening what is crooked?  on filling up every hole with oakum?  Isn't there time?  Doesn't time have time?  O you devilish brood, are you incapable of waiting?  The uncertain has its charms, too; the sphinx, too, is a Circe; Circe, too, was a philosopher.'
     Thus a skeptic consoles himself; and it is true that he stands in some need of consolation.  For skepticism is the most spiritual expression of a certain complex physiological condition that in ordinary language is called nervous exhaustion and sickliness; it always develops when races or classes that have long been separated are crossed suddenly and decisively. ... This disease enjoys the most beautiful pomp- and lie-costumes; and most of what today displays itself in the showcases, for example, as 'objectivity,' 'being scientific,' 'l’art pour l’art,' 'pure knowledge, free of will,' is merely dressed-up skepticism and paralysis of the will: for this diagnosis of the European sickness I vouch.”

The kind of skeptic Nietzsche is writing about is the kind of skeptic who doesn't want to commit himself to accept or reject a particular philosophy or religion.  For this kind of skeptic, doubt isn't some bold rejection of the beliefs of his ancestors in favor of a radical seeking of truth on the horizons of human knowledge.  Instead, it's a timid and waffling perpetual uncertainty that passes itself off as sophistication, though it's mostly just a lazy unwillingness to do the hard work required to sift through the many exclusive truth claims made throughout the ages.

This skeptic might make the argument for the value of uncertainty and doubt, and those things do indeed have value to me personally and to a philosopher like Nietzsche.  He was certainly not afraid of doubt.  And yet he understood that doubt is an invitation to carefully and methodically work our way to the truth; doubt is not an excuse for us to avoid the hard work of finding the truth in favor of wallowing in the perpetual certainty of having something about which we can be uncertain.

     "The sickness of the will is spread unevenly over Europe: it appears strongest and most manifold where culture has been at home longest; it disappears to the extent to which the 'barbarian' still--or again--claims his rights under the loose garments of Western culture.  In France today the will is accordingly the most seriously sick, which is as easy to infer as it is palpable.  And France, having always possessed a masterly skill at converting even the most calamitous turns of its spirit into something attractive and seductive, now really shows its cultural superiority over Europe by being the school and display of all the charms of skepticism.
     The strength to will, and to will something for a long time, is a little greater in Germany, and more so in the German north than in the center of Germany; but much stronger yet in England, Spain, and Corsica, here in association with indolence, there with hard heads--not to speak of Italy, which is too young to know what it wants and still has to prove whether it is able to will--but it is strongest and most amazing by far in that enormous empire in between, where Europe, as it were, flows back into Asia, in Russia.  There the strength to will has long been accumulated and stored up, there the will--uncertain whether as a will to negate or a will to affirm--is waiting menacingly to be discharged, to borrow a pet phrase of our physicists today.  It may well take more than Indian wars and complications in Asia to rid Europe of its greatest danger: internal upheavals would be needed, too, the shattering of the empire into smaller units, and above all the introduction of the parliamentary nonsense, including the obligation for everybody to read his newspaper with his breakfast.
     I do not say this because I want it to happen: the opposite would be rather more after my heart--I mean such an increase in the menace of Russia that Europe would have to resolve to become menacing, too, namely, to acquire one will by means of a new caste that would rule Europe, a long, terrible will of its own that would be able to cast its goals millennia hence--so the long-drawn-out comedy of its many splinter states as well as its dynastic and democratic splinter wills would come to an end.  The time for petty politics is over: the very next century will bring the fight for the dominion of the earth--the compulsion to large-scale politics."

He proposes that the shared root of Europe's sickness and the skeptic's weakness is a lack of the will (whether to truth or power) to act on the natural desires that have effectively animated so many of their ancestors.

Also, the strength of the will is what is sapped of its vigor when skepticism dominates; the man who is a skeptic through and through has no reason to pursue vigorously the actualization of his own desires in life.  That embrace of the challenges and opportunities of life requires sincere belief and the perseverance to actualize it despite numerous obstacles.

Nietzsche proposes that there is an alternative to this sterile skepticism that animates the Europe of modern times, that skepticism does not have to be so sickly and weak.  But what would such a skepticism of strength look like?

     "To what extent the new warlike age into which we Europeans have evidently entered may also favor the development of another and stronger type of skepticism, on that I want to comment for the present only in the form of a parable which those who like German history should understand readily.  That unscrupulous enthusiast for handsome and very tall grenadiers who, as King of Prussia, brought into being a military and skeptical genius--and thus, when you come right down to it, that new type of German which has just now come to the top triumphantly--the questionable, mad father of Frederick the Great himself had the knack and lucky claw of genius, though only at one point: he knew what was missing in Germany at that time, and what lack was a hundred times more critical and urgent than, say, the lack of education and social graces--his antipathy against the young Frederick came from the fear of a deep instinct.  Men were missing; and he suspected with the most bitter dismay that his own son was not man enough.  In this he was deceived; but who, in his place, wouldn't have deceived himself about that?  He saw his son surrender to atheism, to esprit, to the hedonistic frivolity of clever Frenchmen: in the background he saw that great empire, the spider of skepticism; he suspected the incurable misery of a heart that is no longer hard enough for evil or good, of a broken will that no longer commands, no longer is capable of commanding.  Meanwhile there grew up in his son that more dangerous and harder new type of skepticism--who knows how much it owed precisely to the hatred of the father and the icy melancholy of a will condemned to solitude?--the skepticism of audacious manliness which is most closely related to the genius for war and conquest first entered Germany in the shape of the great Frederick."

The skepticism for which Nietzsche advocates is the skepticism of those who are able to make hard choices, the men who have the will to be bold in their decisions, men who are willing to make mistakes as they pursue what they deem to be good ends, even though they might turn out to be evil ends.

He eschews the skepticism that is too risk-averse to take the chance of believing hard and being wrong as a result, though he sees people who reflexively believe in the Christianity and Judaism of their ancestors as quite wrong to do so.

"This skepticism despises and nevertheless seizes; it undermines and take possession; it does not believe but does not lose itself in the process; it gives the spirit dangerous freedom, but it is severe on the heart, it is the German form of skepticism which, in the form of a continued Frederickianism that had been sublimated spiritually, brought Europe for a long time under the hegemony of the German spirit and its critical and historical mistrust.  Thanks to the unconquerably strong and tough virility of the great German philologists and critical historians (viewed properly, all of them were also artists of destruction and dissolution), a new concept of the German spirit crystallized gradually in spite of all romanticism in music and philosophy, and the inclination to virile skepticism became a decisive trait, now, for example, as an intrepid eye, now as the courage and hardness of analysis, as the tough will to undertake dangerous journeys of exploration and spiritualized North Pole expeditions under desolate and dangerous skies."

In Nietzsche's view, the skepticism worth having is the German skepticism that not only doubted the truth claims of Christianity and Judaism and Islam, but also took a bold position which subverted their modes of thinking and their conclusions about human nature.  This is the skepticism of the Four Horsemen of Atheism, German intellectuals who inverted the Christian worldview of their ancestors and struck out into what they saw as the wild frontiers of thought.

Their skepticism was a virile skepticism, capable of begetting something, producing new sets of values and new rationales for them, new moral duties, and new political programmes and pogroms.  They might have been wrong, but one cannot say that they were timid or weak-willed.  They were willing to brave the desolation that comes from holding firmly to unpopular beliefs in contradistinction to their fellow citizens.

In the end, Nietzsche has little patience for the typical skepticism of the modern world which is afraid to take a stand for anything lest it be wrong or even right in a socially unacceptable way.  He is no fan of the skepticism which is in denial about its own value, not seeing how worthless a perpetual uncertainty in the face of evidence is, especially in a world in which so many things are certain enough to kill us as they exercise their will to power.

He proposes that a more virile and bold skepticism will take its place in time, that the skeptics who are fearless enough to take a stand and persevere in accomplishing their deepest desires for power and truth are the ones who are victorious.

Nietzsche's AsceticismNietzsche's Anti-Semitism - Nietzsche's Skepticism

Note:  The above image is part of the cover of my copy of Nietzsche's collected works.  See my Sources page for more information about which translation I used.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Unfettered Mind: The Immovable Wisdom

Many years ago, I first read The Unfettered Mind written by Takuan Sōhō because of my interest in both martial arts and Zen Buddhism.  I still have a strong interest in martial arts and some interest in Zen as well, so I picked the book up again this evening.

Like many books I re-read later in life, I find that my understanding of it now is deeper than it was when I was in my early twenties.  After studying Buddhism more deeply over the past 5 years, I now find myself better able to understand what Takuan Sōhō was trying to convey to master swordsman and instructor Yagyū Munenori.

The Zen master begins, appropriately enough, with the mind of a beginner.  In typical Zen fashion, he doesn't just give us the easy answer, instead leading us on a journey that takes us to the answer.

"The term ignorance means the absence of enlightenment.  Which is to say, delusion.
     Abiding place means the place where the mind stops.
     In the practice of Buddhism, there are said to be fifty-two stages, and within these fifty-two, the place where the mind stops at one thing is called the abiding place.  Abiding signifies stopping, and stopping means the mind is being detained by some matter, which may be any matter at all.
     To speak in terms of your own martial art, when you first notice the sword that is moving to strike you, if you think of meeting that sword just as it is, your mind will stop at the sword in just that position, your own movements will be undone, and you will be cut down by your opponent.  This is what stopping means.
     Although you see the sword that moves to strike you, if your mind is not detained by it and you meet the rhythm of the advancing sword; if you do not think of striking your opponent and no thoughts or judgments remain; if the instant you see the swinging sword your mind is not the least bit detained and you move straight in and wrench the sword away from him; the sword that was going to cut you down will become your own, and, contrarily, will be the sword that cuts down your opponent."

There are surprising connections between martial arts and spirituality, as I've written about before with regard to The Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scupoli.  One of those connections is that both effective martial arts and effective spirituality require us to find a serene state of mind that isn't easily disturbed by events that occur.

I learned that lesson the hard way: I had my jaw dislocated as a result of an opponent's cartwheel kick because I was wondering what he was doing instead of moving to strike him.  Fortunately, the referee helped me pop my jaw back in place, and I continued the match.

In any martial art, letting one's mind be detained is extremely dangerous.  There simply isn't time to think about what is happening during combat, and my personal experience is that taking time to think during any part of combat is likely to be extremely detrimental to one's health.

On the other hand, being free of any thoughts that detain us is extremely advantageous.  While in battle meditation, with a mind free of any detaining thoughts, one is a far more effective fighter and can take full advantage of an opponent's vulnerabilities.

     "In Zen, this is called 'Grabbing the spear and, contrariwise, piercing the man who had come to pierce you.'  The spear is a weapon.  The heart of this is that the sword you wrest from your adversary becomes the sword that cuts him down.  This is what you, in your style, call 'No Sword.'
     Whether by strike of the enemy or your own thrust, whether by the man who strikes or the sword that strikes, whether by position or by rhythm, if your mind is diverted in any way, your actions will falter, and this can mean that you will be cut down.
     If you place yourself before your opponent, your mind will be taken by him.  You should not place your mind within yourself.  Bracing the mind in the body is something done only at the inception of training, when one is a beginner.
     The mind can be taken by the sword.  If you put your mind in the rhythm of the contest, your mind can be taken by that as well.  If you place your mind in your own sword, your mind can be taken by your own sword.  Your mind stopping at any of these places, you become an empty shell.  You surely recall such situations yourself.  They can be said to apply to Buddhism.
     In Buddhism, we call this stopping of the mind delusion.  Thus we say, 'The affliction of abiding in ignorance.'"

The calm mind of a master martial artist, not being detained by any interruptions, is free to simply accomplish the task before it without ever naming the task or thinking critically about how to perform the steps involved.

And this is true in the spiritual combat as well; one with a calm mind not disturbed by worries or by passions or attachments to material possessions is free to fight, not detained by his own distracting thoughts.

In both martial arts and the spiritual combat, the mind of the beginner is often detained by all sorts of things going on around him.  It's easy for us to lose focus on the world at large as we put most of our awareness into various people and things around us, and especially when we go back to putting most of our awareness onto ourselves.

     "Glancing at something and not stopping the mind is called immovable.  This is because when the mind stops at something, as the breast is filled with various judgments, there are various movements within it.  When its movements cease, the stopping mind moves, but does not move at all.
     If ten men, each with a sword, come at you with swords slashing, if you parry each sword without stopping the mind at each action, and go from one to the next, you will not be lacking in a proper action for every one of the ten.
     Although the mind act ten times against ten men, if it does not halt at even one of them and you react to one after another, will proper action be lacking?
     But if the mind stops before one of these men, though you parry his striking sword, when the next man comes, the right action will have slipped away.
     Considering that the Thousand-Armed Kannon has one thousand arms on its one body, if the mind stops at the one holding a bow, the other nine hundred and ninety-nine will be useless.  It is because the mind is not detained at one place that all the arms are useful.
     As for Kannon, to what purpose would it have a thousand arms attached to one body?  This form is made with the intent of pointing out to men that if their immovable wisdom is let go, even if a body have a thousand arms, every one will be of use."

Takuan Zenji points us to an important truth about our minds: the mind stops moving along the path of right action because we allow it to be moved by many other things.

He explains to us the importance of the example of the thousand-armed Kannon (also known as Guanyin or Avalokiteśvara), advising us that it matters not how much strength or how many weapons we might possess if our minds can be so easily diverted from using them effectively.

This constant diversion from right action by our transient thoughts is one of the fetters which binds our mind, imprisoning us in the cage of the self and blinding us to the path of righteousness.

     "When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all the others.  When the eye is not set on any one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in the mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit.  But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there.
     One who has understood this is no different from the Kannon with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes.
     The ordinary man simply believes that it is blessed because of its thousand arms and thousand eyes.  The man of half-baked wisdom, wondering how anybody could have a thousand eyes, calls it a lie and gives in to slander.  But if now one understands a little better, he will have a respectful belief based on principle and will not need the simple faith of the ordinary man or the slander of the other, and he will understand that Buddhism, with this one thing, manifests its principle well.
     All religions are like this.  I have seen that Shinto especially is like this.
     The ordinary man thinks only on the surface.  The man who attacks Buddhism is even worse.
     This religion, that religion, there are various kinds but at their deepest points they are all settled in one conclusion.
     At any rate, when one practices discipline and moves from the beginner's territory to immovable wisdom, he makes a return and falls back to the level of the beginning, the abiding place."

The kind of seeing that is recommended here is the same kind of seeing that is most effective in martial arts.  Instead of focusing in on your opponent's feet, or his hands, or his weapon, it is better to take in all of them at once by looking beyond your opponent.  If our eyes are fixed on the hands, it will be easy for our opponent to strike us with a foot or a knee.

But if we are calm and empty of thoughts, focused on the whole of the panorama of our vision, then neither the feet nor the hands nor the weapons will escape our attention and we can respond to them quickly and effectively.  In the spiritual life, this kind of sight allows us to see beyond the bars of the cage of the self in which we are imprisoned by our own choice.

Once we have seen beyond the cage of the self, the bars built of our own egotistical thoughts, then we can work to free ourselves from it through the disciplines of the mind.

     "There is a reason for this.
     Again,  we can speak with reference to your own martial art.  As the beginner knows nothing about either his body posture or the positioning of his sword, neither does his mind stop anywhere within him.  If a man strikes at him with the sword, he simply meets the attack without anything in mind.
     As he studies various things and is taught the diverse ways of how to take a stance, the manner of grasping his sword and where to put his mind, his mind stops in many places.  Now if he wants to strike at an opponent, he is extraordinarily discomforted.  Later, as days pass and time piles up, in accordance with his practice, neither the postures of his body nor the ways of grasping the sword are weighed in his mind.  His mind simply becomes as it was in the beginning when he knew nothing and had yet to be taught anything at all.
     In this one sees the sense of the beginning being the same as the end, as when one counts from one to ten, and the first and last numbers become adjacent.
     In other things--musical pitch, for example, when one moves from the beginning lowest pitch to the final highest pitch--the lowest and the highest become adjacent.
     We say that the highest and lowest come to resemble each other.  Buddhism, when you reach its very depths, is like the man who knows nothing of either the Buddha or the Buddhist Law.  It has neither adornment nor anything else that would draw men's attention to it.
     The ignorance and afflictions of the beginning, abiding place and the immovable wisdom that comes later become one.  The function of the intellect disappears, and one ends in a state of No-Mind-No-Thought.  If one reaches the deepest point, arms, legs, and body remember what to do, but the mind does not enter into this at all."

When we are beginners, we naturally do what is effective insofar as we are able.  Sometimes this is called "beginner's luck" even in skill-based competitions.  And Takuan Zenji is exactly right that as we analyze our techniques, perform them in various steps, and relearn more effective techniques, we lose that natural effectiveness for a time.

Later, after much discipline practice day in and day out, month after month, year after year, those more effective techniques are so much a part of us that we can perform them without conscious thoughts.  We can at that point perform them with an unfettered mind.  And this is true of the spiritual life as well.

In both cases, we must feel the fetters keenly before we can muster the effort to free ourselves from them.  We do not understand the urgency of freeing ourselves from the fetters that chain us in our own minds until we get a visceral sense of precisely how they bind us.  This is why the Buddha taught so explicitly about death and hellscapes, to draw our attention to our fetters so that we realize the importance of escaping them.

Both the martial arts instructor and the Zen master have to make sure we know exactly what is holding us back so that we will be motivated to free ourselves from the fetters which bind our minds and trip us up in both physical combat and the spiritual journey.

This is indeed the immovable wisdom that moves us out of and back into the abiding place where we too can become immovable, immune to the rushing thoughts which cannot stop the unfettered mind.

The Immovable Wisdom - The Selfless Death - The Strength of Faith

Note:  The above is an image of the book cover of the translation of The Unfettered Mind that I used for this post.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Love in a Perfect World

I asked myself a question this morning: "What would love be like in a perfect world?"

The world I longed for constantly at 16 years of age, and occasionally even at 32 years of age, is a world that was perfect for me.  I wanted a world that would shape itself to my desires and my convenience, a world not merely free of physical suffering and mental anguish because of severe trauma, but also a world free of any minor frustrations.

In this world, rain would fall when I wanted it to, stop when I wanted to, and stay on the ground only as long as I wanted it to.  The sun would shine when and where I wanted, not causing glare while I was driving, and streaming clouds would block the sun at the just the right times to keep me from getting sunburn.

In this perfect world, I would never stub my toes, or lose a life in a video game, or fall down while running on the soccer field.  I would never have a church experience that was less than profound, or fellow churchgoers who coughed during the service, or people at church who weren't friendly to me.

I would never have any fights with my family in this perfect world, because they would always consider my needs (implicitly I believed that my needs should be considered first).  I would never have any internal turmoil, or grief, or a broken heart, or unrequited love in this perfect world.

And if other people could have a perfect world too, that would also be very nice.  I wasn't completely self-centered, after all.  I wanted nice things for others, provided that didn't cost me very much.  This is a world I kept longing for until my early twenties, and because there was such a mismatch between the perfect world I longed for and the world I lived in, I was angry and depressed much of the time when things didn't go perfectly.

But I kept trying to make this life more closely match the perfect world I longed for without understanding why I longed for it, and in some areas of my life, I succeeded.  This, paradoxically, did not make my life better.  All that happened was that I grew less able to deal with small sufferings when they arose, and more angry about those small sufferings, which deepened my depression that was fueled by the futility of my quest to make the world convenient for me.

The love I had in this perfect world (I recognize now) was a small, shriveled love.  It was a love that wasn't willing to risk much for the good of others, a love not worth giving to anyone whose value as a person I actually understood.  It was a love that I am sorry to say was far less that I ought to have given to all my friends, my family, and the least brothers and sisters of Love Himself.

It turns out that love in a perfect world, a world of immediate pleasure to satisfy our transient desires, decreases in strength because it is rarely exercised except by the bonds of family and friends, and even then can become progressively more shallow and superficial when we don't have to sacrifice much to keep them.  In a perfect world, love can so easily be taken for granted.

It turns out that in this imperfect world, once I began to embrace its imperfections and learn to deepen my love in suffering the slings and arrows of only mildly outrageous fortune, everything can help me to grow in love.  Each moment in which I must set aside my transient desires and help someone who is struggling or wish good upon those who are suffering is a moment in which I become less imperfect.

And I am profoundly imperfect; my love is still not willing to risk as much as it ought, a love that is of less value than the richness of love given to me, a love that has less strength than what I would like to have to give to all the people I encounter who need lifted up.

This good but imperfect world, by its imperfections, helps me to reform my heart so that it is full of a bolder love, a more compassionate love, a more perfect love.  This world in which the rain falls upon the just and unjust alike, with its inconveniences and pains and frustrations, shapes my desires so that I desire temporary pleasures less and less, while desiring to help others in a spirit of love more and more.

Love in a perfect world such as I had once longed for is deformed and sickly; love in an imperfect world can be gradually perfected.  I no longer wish for a perfect world that would suit my self-centered desires.  I embrace the imperfect world that contradicts my self-centered desires, forcing me to choose to cling to them all the harder or abandon my selfish desires altogether.

I now wish for a perfect love, the will to take up my cross daily and lay every aspect of my selfishness down, accomplishing the death of my ego for the good of many.