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, January 30, 2017

Fair Questions: Does Hebrews 9 refute the Real Presence and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

The following verses from Chapter 9 of "The Book of Hebrews" in the Bible is sometimes used by Protestant thinkers to provide a Scriptural proof for the errors of the ancient churches in understanding the Eucharist as having an inherently sacrificial character while repeatedly celebrating it every week since the days of the Early Church.

"25 Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; 26 for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him."

The argument is that our understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrifice and our offering it repeatedly is mutually exclusive with the claims in the verses above that (1) Christ does not offer Himself again and again, along with the corollary that (2) Christ's sacrifice occurred once for all time.

Let's make it interesting and point out that if we employ the way of reading Scripture being used by some Protestant thinkers here, then we must conclude that Christ Himself was in error.  Why is that, you might ask?

In Chapter 26 of the Gospel of Matthew, Christ says that, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."  In Chapter 14 of the Gospel of Mark, Christ says, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many."  In Chapter 22 of the Gospel of Luke, Christ says, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood."

These statements are pretty clear and are not a single isolated instance that can be read in a reductively metaphorical way.  Christ claimed quite specifically that the wine of the first Eucharist is the blood of the new covenant.

But wait, how can that be?  In Christian theology, Christ's blood shed on the cross at Calvary is the blood of the new covenant, the perfect sacrifice to end all sacrifices in the Temple at Jerusalem.  So how can Christ claim that the wine offered at the first Eucharist is the blood of the new covenant?

Those two events (of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion) happened at different times.  How could the blood of the new covenant be present in a time prior to the blood of Christ being shed on the cross?

I'm really not sure how that's possible, myself.  But it is exactly what Jesus claimed to be the case.

So either (1) our Lord was correct, in which case His precious blood of the new covenant was present before it was even shed on the cross (and by extension could be present afterwards at Emmaus), or (2) our Lord Jesus Christ was wrong in what He said at the Last Supper, or (3) Scripture is not a reliable record of our Lord's teachings.

The only way to make sense of Christ's teaching here (and in Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John) is to propose, as the ancient Church did and continues to do, that the sacrifice of the thrice-holy Lamb of God suffuses the temporal created order, unbound by our human sense of time as linear and discrete.

So when Christ died on the cross, he died once for all time, it's true. Nonetheless, His sacrifice of love exists in the fullness of all time, not just 2,000 years ago on a particular day. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we enter into that very moment of His Holy Sacrifice which He gave to us for all time when He instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper.

In short, we don't sacrifice Christ again any more than He sacrificed Himself again on the cross after pouring out His blood of the new covenant at the Last Supper. We just enter into the salvific event of His sacrifice which He made for every land and every people unto ages of ages.

Related: The Poetry of Divine Love

Note:  This post was partially paraphrased from a discussion I participated in on Reddit.  The above is an image of an icon of Christ literally giving Himself to His disciples in the form of bread and wine.  I purchased it from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com for my mother.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Reductive Philosophy of Religion

I've gotten in a habit of writing about writing lately.  That may be simply be a product of having done so much of it over the past several years and having the opportunity to reflect.  Specifically, I like to reassess the processes I use in my writing.

One reason for this is that I want to identify areas in which I can improve my writing, and the other is that I want to identify areas in which I can improve my thinking.  Though what I primarily spend time on is self-assessment to identify my own mistakes and correct them, I have also noticed some mistakes made by other writers.

A common one that I try to avoid when writing about religion in the form of a philosophical exposition is the creation of what I call a reductive philosophy of religion.  I've noticed that many intelligent bloggers, and journalists, and occasionally even professional philosophers have a tendency to manufacture a reductive philosophy of [insert religion here].

Nietzsche, for example, despite his very real brilliance, had a somewhat reductive understanding of Buddhism and Christianity.  While he presented his case robustly, and I really enjoy his works in general, Nietzsche had significant gaps in his knowledge of both religions, as well as his knowledge of Judaism.  I tend to think that he presented a reductive philosophy of religion to some extent, though perhaps to not as great an extent as some others among the Four (German) Horsemen of Atheism.

Certainly not all the folks writing about religion do this.  But there are many, especially in journalism and blogging, who do frequently manage it.  This is probably not their intention (though a few do seem to be malicious).  I tend to think that most people covering the topic of religion through philosophical exposition are seeking to be respectful of the religion, but are following common intellectual practices that lead in the other direction.

What I mean by this is that they seem to use a couple of approaches that tend to produce a reductive philosophy of a particular religion or of religion in general.

  1. The first approach is the one which assumes that we can understand a religion well enough from its text(s) alone, or from a translation of those texts, and then critique the religion from our reading of the text(s).
  2. The second approach is the one which assumes that we can understand a religion as a set of philosophical propositions, isolated from its larger context and the experience of its practitioners, and then critique those propositions as if they were the religion.

The problem with these approaches is not that reading the texts is a bad idea or that understanding the philosophical propositions embedded in the religion is a bad idea.  Both, I think, are quite necessary for performing any kind of philosophical exposition of a religion.

The problem, then, is that these approaches, even when combined, are insufficient for understanding a religion.  Reading the texts is a great start, and considering precisely what sorts of philosophical propositions are found within the religion's teachings is also a good start.

So what else do we need to understand a religion properly?  Reading the commentaries on the texts from highly educated and strongly devout practitioners of the religion is a good addition.  Reading translator's notes is important.  Reading about the historical context of the events being recounted in the text is necessary to understanding also.

Reading the testimonies of people who converted to the religion can be useful as well.  Reading the profound experiences people had while practicing their religion can be quite eye-opening.  But all this reading, extremely good as it is, isn't quite enough to really understand a religion.

Speaking to a normal everyday person who tries sincerely to live their religion's teachings is valuable in that regard.  Attending the services of that religious group is just as necessary as reading the texts.  And for those who really want to understand another religion, taking up its practices for a time adds a whole new dimension to understanding the religion.

More importantly, our experience of the religion can help us to view it and the people who practice it more holistically, more charitably, and more accurately.  We can then convey the truths proclaimed by the religion more robustly and more fluently.

We can then see what is good, what is mediocre, and what is bad in the religion with more clarity.  Not only that, but we can then articulate the beauty found in the religion, even the beauty in its flaws, with greater eloquence and genuine appreciation.

It is this genuine appreciation for what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful in each religious tradition that keeps us out of the most egregious pitfalls that lead to producing a reductive philosophy of religion.

Related: How can we dialogue with other religions respectfully?

Note: The above image is part of the cover of my copy of Nietzsche's collected works.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Praying with Icons: Holy Foremother Ruth

O Holy Foremother Ruth, of the land Moab,
you married into the House of Israel, there
to remain even when death came to disturb
you by taking a husband and adopted father.

You held fast to Naomi as your true family;
though she, Elimelech, and their sons were
foreigners in your land and grieving Naomi
bid you to return to Moab with your sister.

The Lord granted you to become the King's
ancestor, firstly the ancestor of King David
and secondly of Christ the King who brings
us to be adopted into a heavenly household.

Grandmother of Jesse, pray for us, that we
may be ever faithful to the people of God,
be loving to them as our own dear family,
and welcome those from the foreign land.

Great-grandmother of David, please pray
for us, that we not allow death to separate
us from our adopted family, that one day
we lay at the feet of Christ, fully prostrate.

*     *     *

The Gospel of Matthew includes Ruth in Christ's genealogy.  For this reason, she is called a Holy Foremother of Christ.

Note:  The above is a picture of an icon of Ruth, the Holy Foremother of Christ, which I purchased for my grandmother.  Please get your own at bostonmonks.com and support the Holy Transfiguration Monastery.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Love it to Death: The Forgiveness of Love

I find it easy to forgive people when they haven't really done anything to harm me.  Or at least when I can divest myself of my ego long enough to recognize that it only felt like harm because I was being irrationally selfish in my attachments to things that are ultimately trivial.

What's more difficult to forgive is the kind of actions that are objectively harmful even when the ego is set aside.  How do we forgive someone who assaulted us?  Someone who killed a close relative?  What about someone who sexually molested a child who was in our care, whether a child in our own family or a friend's family?

I find that I can eventually forgive when I pray for those who have done grave wrong, when I gradually come to genuinely wish them well and hope for their full restoral.  Though it is extremely difficult with those who have sinned grievously, when I will their healing (heart, body, mind, will, and soul entire), I can begin to let go of my vision of them as being merely the immoral vehicle of the sinful act which they committed.

When we reduce a person to their worst sins, we deny their humanity, we deny their virtues, and we ultimately deny that they are an imago dei, made in the image and likeness of God.  To forgive, we must begin to look at those who have committed the worst sins in the same way that Christ, the Son of God, looks at us.

Christ does not look at the filth on our souls and regard us as nothing but the filth.  He looks upon us as a whole being, our past and present and future visible simultaneously in His gaze that sees things in the fullness of time.  He looks upon our creation in the image and likeness of God, the good deeds we do in secret, and the deep internal wounds that drive us mad so that wallowing in the filth seems like a good idea.  And yes, He sees the filth too, more of the filth than anyone else can see.

And yet, He forgives.  Christ forgives even those who directly commit an objectively evil act against Him, those who murdered Him when they scourged Him, forced Him to carry the cross to Golgotha, and then nailed Him to it by His hands and feet.  His response to their brutal tortures leading up to his last breath was to say, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."

This is a heroic forgiveness, a boundless forgiveness, the forgiveness of Love Himself.  Though He forgave heroically the sins of the world, many have separated themselves from Him, refusing to repair their relationship with the incarnation of Love.  And so it may be with us; there may be some who refuse to repair their relationships with us, leaving us to love them from afar through our prayers for their good.

We would rather not love from afar.  We want forgiveness to be the beginning of a bridge between us and the ones who have wronged us.  And yet we must respect their choice if they are never willing to help us span the distance.  In the same way, Christ respects our choice when we are unwilling to cross the bridge He builds to reach us with His forgiveness as He bore our sins on the cross, a forgiveness offered to us in the spirit of Love.

He loved us unto death, bearing our sins so that we could experience the forgiveness of Love and have the opportunity to cross the bridge to the divine life love which was formed of the Holy Cross, the bridge to adoption as sons and daughters of God our Father.  So too we must love to death our slavery to sin by bearing with the sins of others, forgiving them in the spirit of love.

Just as Christ forgives us over and over for the wrongs we commit, still seeking the full communion of love with us, we are called to forgive those who have sinned gravely against us, to forgive as many times as we are wronged.  Just as the forgiveness of Love is endless, so too our forgiveness must be endless if we would participate in the divine life of Love.

We who are icons of Love were created to manifest the divine life, reciprocating the divine love poured out on us in the form God's grace by making our lives a sacrifice of praise, by reflecting His divine love into all the world.  Following Christ's example as He walked with us on the earth, we make Love's forgiveness of our sins known when we freely forgive all those who have sinned against us as we walk through life.

O, how can we Christians ever forget to forgive?  The entirety of the Incarnation, the fullness of the eternal Word brought into the temporal world, was a message of forgiveness from the Father.  Through the sending of His son, the Father said to us, "Your sins are forgiven.  Rise up, and walk humbly with your God."

Note:  The above is a picture I took of a replica of a Russian icon of the Crucifixion with other scenes from the life of Christ, which I purchased from legacyicons.com recently.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Weight of the Scapular

Recently at a Christmas party, I was given a brown scapular by friends I've seen wear the scapular continuously.  For the new year, I had wanted to begin a new commitment to daily prayer beyond what I was already doing.  And the scapular was given to me at just the right time to do that.

So earlier this month, I asked the pastor at my parish to perform the blessing and investiture for someone who begins wearing the scapular.  After we prayed, he advised me of the duty to perform one of the specified penances, and I affirmed that I had committed to praying 5 decades of the rosary every day.  Which I have, and it has been very good for me.

I've had a very stressful month at work so far, from New Year's Eve onward, and the added prayer time has been very helpful in de-stressing and refocusing before I sleep.  I find that prayer in general is good for that, especially at the beginning and ending of the day.

Unlike some Roman Catholics, I'm not overly concerned about the indulgences attached to praying with the scapular and kissing it devoutly.  I figure I've earned whatever time in Purgatory is given to me, and I'm not in a hurry to take days away here and there.

I'm also not treating it as a lucky charm, or as a guarantee of getting to Heaven, though scapulars generally have the associated promise on them: "Whosoever dies wearing this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire".  It may sound like this promise is mere superstition, but the Sabbatine Privilege isn't a Get-Out-of-Hell-Free card.

The requirements attached to the promise are pretty serious:

  1. Wear the brown scapular continuously (harder than it seems if you live an active life).
  2. Be chaste according to your state in life (continence for unmarried folks and the fidelity of love in the case of married folks).
  3. Perform one of several daily penances permitted by the priest who invested you.

How many people do you know who are chaste in the Catholic sense of what it means to be chaste?  I know very few.  If one can conquer sexual sins, then growth in holiness to a high degree is very likely to be already occurring.  People who can remain truly chaste are probably the kind of people who are more likely to go to Heaven anyway because they're extremely holy.

Also, people who are sufficiently committed to their practice of Christianity to perform lengthy daily prayers or other penances and wearing the scapular continuously are also the kind of people who are willing to put the effort into developing the sort of close relationship with God that is essential to holiness.

I'm not suggesting that I'm the kind of holy person I just described; I'm certainly not there yet.  Nonetheless, what I'm learning is that the act of committing each day to trying to live up to the requirements of the scapular promise helps me to gradually become more like the kind of person I just described.  I have a long way to go, but the small weight of the scapular is enough to remind me of my Christian duties to God and neighbor.

I noticed the difference today because, for the first time since being invested, I forgot to wear it to work after changing into my work clothes (though I put it on when I got back home).  I put it back on because the weight of the scapular helps to remind me of what's important.

Its weight serves as a regular reminder that I need to pray for those who bear much heavier burdens, that I need to help bear the burdens of others, and struggle to bear patiently my own cross each day.

Note:  The above is a picture I took of the scapular I wear.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Islamic Mysticism: The Divine Dance Music of Rūmī

As I've mentioned before, 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, including his poetry invoking music and dance as an ingredient of the spiritual life.  Music and dance are indeed a part of Islamic spiritual traditions, just as they're a part of Christian spiritual traditions and Jewish spiritual traditions.

In his notes, the translator (Coleman Barks) for The Essential Rumi points out that Rūmī has fashioned a theory of language around the reed flute (probably the Turkish ney of his day), one of the important instruments of classical Turkish music.  He provides this as an immediate preface for the following poem:

"Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.
'Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.
At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,
a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden
within the notes.  No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,
spirit up from body; no concealing
that mixing.  But it's not given us
to see the soul.  The reed flute
is fire, not wind.  Be that empty.'
Hear the love fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment
melts into wine.  The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn
and drawn away.  The reed is hurt
and salve combining.  Intimacy
and longing for intimacy, one
song.  A disastrous surrender
and a fine love, together.  The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.
A tongue has one customer, the ear.
A sugarcane flute has such effect
because it was able to make sugar
in the reedbed.  The sound it makes
is for everyone.  Days full of wanting,
let them go by without worrying
that they do.  Stay where you are
inside such a pure, hollow note.
Every thirst gets satisfied except
that of these fish, the mystics,
who swim a vast ocean of grace
still somehow longing for it!
No one lives in that without
being nourished every day.
But if someone doesn't want to hear
the song of the reed flute,
it's best to cut conversation
short, say good-bye, and leave."

This poem is quite famous, and many things can and have been written about it.  But I won't be addressing all the many beautiful layers of meaning here and in the larger work of the Masnavi.  The one important image I want to begin with is that of the reed flute, because it represents the human being as a symbol of the absolute via the reed and the human longing for union with Allah via the music it produces.

In this poem, Rūmī tells us that the reed flute is fire, not wind.  That is to say: we human beings are not merely a blowing wind, but a dancing fire.  Or at least that we can be a dancing fire when we empty ourselves of desires other than the love of God, moving ever to the sound of our longing for the divine life of love.

"Don't worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn't matter.
We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.
The strumming and the flute notes
rise into the atmosphere,
and even if the whole world's harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.
So the candle flickers and goes out.
We have a piece of flint, and a spark.
This singing art is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl
somewhere on the ocean floor.
Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge
of driftwood along the beach, wanting!
They derive
from a slow and powerful root
that we can't see.
Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out."

When we move our entire lives to the sound of the music of our heart's profound yearning for that divine life of love, the breaking of the small things to which we are attached in this life no longer worries us.  We become free of the burdensome dance of acquiring more possessions or more worldly honors, and for us all the world is suffused with the music of love, a pure love which is directed toward the divine life first, and through the divine life, directed toward all that participates in it.

This music of love is less a music of words and more a music of motion, a music that gives life its tempo, a rhythmic shape by which we shape our lives in the pattern of love, making our lives notes in the song of divine love.

"Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened.  Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading.  Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kiss the ground."

The power of this divine dance music is found most strongly when we share it with others; divine love is ever overflowing the boundaries of our own hearts while we participate in it.  Rūmī teaches us that when we humbly dance according to the divine dance music written on our hearts by Allah, the composer of the soul, our active lives are every bit a mode of prayer and prostration, just as the five daily prayer times are.

When we participate in the divine life, it is the soul which dances, and our body which expresses the movements of the soul's fiery essence.  Oh, to dance to the music of love and life itself!  How vital it is, in every sense of the word.  It is indeed life-giving, life-sustaining, and a symbol of the fire of love we are made to be.

"Daylight, full of small dancing particles
and the one great turning, our souls
are dancing with you, without feet, they dance.
Can you see them when I whisper in your ear?"

It's fairly well known that dancing is important to Sufis such as Rūmī.  It's probably less well known that it's a form of contemplative prayer (albeit involving unusual levels of physical exertion) known as dhikr in the Islamic tradition.  Though tourists seem to like to watch it, Sufi whirling isn't some sort of performance art meant primarily for the enjoyment of the audience.

The dance is a moving meditation, a remembrance of Allah that is pushed along with each turning of the body until it glides continuously on the wings of prayer.

"I feel like the ground, astonished
at what the atmosphere has brought to it.  What I know
is growing inside me/  Rain makes
every molecule pregnant with mystery.
We groan with women in labor.
The ground cries out, I Am Truth and Glory Is Here,
breaks open, and a camel is born out of it.
A branch falls from a tree, and there's a snake.
Muhammad said, A faithful believer is a good camel,
always looking to its master, who takes perfect care.
He brands the flank.
He sets out hay.
He binds the knees with reasonable rules,
and now he loosens all the bindings and let his camel dance,
tearing the bridle and ripping the blankets.
The field sprouts new forms,
while the camel dances over them, imaginary
plants no one has thought of,
but all these new seeds, no matter how they try,
do not reveal the other sun.
They hide it.
Still, the effort is joy,
one by one to keep uncovering
pearls in oyster shells."

After we have learned to follow God's law, separating ourself from all might draw us away from the eternal substance of the divine life and toward the ephemeral pleasures of mere worldly comfort, we are then freed from the bindings of the law.  They have kept us from our temporary longings, and in the space left in our hearts, we are gradually able to water and grow the seed of love into a flourishing plant whose leaves reach out for the rays of the divine life.

The music of our souls grows into an eternal symphony, a song dedicated to the divine love which leads us back to the Garden, the unveiling of the divine mystery in which we delight as the lover delights in a lifetime of learning ever more, little by little, of the beloved.  Oh, how we enjoy finding the pearls of love underneath the hard shells of those we love!

"All day and night, music,
a quiet, bright
reedsong.  If it
fades, we fade."

And so we dance, moving our lives to the divine dance music that Rūmī kept playing as the song of his own life, seeking always to move to the beat of the song of Allah, the song that plays quietly all day and all night.  A song that we can only hear when the soul is quiet, listening for love itself which is the foundation of life itself.

Rūmī knows that without the divine dance music of the soul's yearning for the love of God, we fade into nothingness.  In the end, we are nothing without the love and the longing for love planted in the reedbed of the divine ground of all that exists.

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.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Fair Questions: Does the existence of Hell contradict God's unconditional love?

Related: Why is it so hard for us to believe that a loving God exists?

Though I used to be more progressive in my positions on matters of Christian doctrine, I was never on board with all the progressive Christian ideas.  While I might have thought that it was inevitable that women priests would be common at some point in the Catholic Church, I never thought same-sex marriage would be.

While I might have thought that Traditionalists were wrong about lots of things, including about how many people were going to Hell, I never went farther than dabbling with the idea of universal salvation.  Though I had very abstract and watered-down philosophical ideas about what Hell meant, I still thought that some people were going to Hell (or at least something like it).

Why?  The same exposure to philosophy that moved me in the direction of modern progressive ideas also exposed me to some very old ones: the ideas of Greek philosophy.  The ancient Greeks had the understanding that love and relationships are strongly associated with each other.  Like my contemporaries, they may have found it difficult to imagine love without a relationship of physical proximity or direct communication.

They had several words that we translate into English as love.  Philia (or philos) indicated the expression of love between friends and family members that was virtuous (according to Aristotle).  Eros indicated the expression of love as a deep and passionate longing for a person (or possibly an abstraction of them), a love greater than that of philia, often associated with dating or marriage.  These are just a couple of examples, and you’ll note that both of these understandings are bound up with notions of relationship.

In the writings of early Christianity, another Greek word for love was used: agápē.  As a result, this word became associated with the love that God has for us, an unconditional and volitional act of giving of one’s self that respects the free will of the beloved.  But many Christians struggle with the idea that a God who loves us in this unconditional and self-sacrificing way could ever allow us to go to hell, which is currently understood by the largest Christian communion (the Catholic Church) as total separation from God and those in communion with God.

Universalists (which for brevity I will use as a descriptor for those who believe in universal salvation) make various arguments as to why the Christian understanding of God suggests that He would do as Origen proposed and restore all souls to their life in Him.  Some of those arguments are very interesting, and some are stronger than many who oppose them will admit.  But most seem to rest on the assumption that to love someone means having a close relationship with them.  I don't think that assumption is correct.

I contend that the existence of hell and the residence of persons in that state do not in any way violate the truth of God’s unconditional love for us for a very simple reason.  Love is unconditional and cannot be lost, but relationships are always conditional and can be lost.  For example, if my brother attacks me and steals from me, I will still love him, but our relationship would be violated and it would take time and effort to come to reconciliation and renew that relationship.  I still love my ex-girlfriend, but that does not mean the relationship we previously had must continue to exist after she chose to end it.

These human relationships have the same quality that relationships with the divine have; they can be ended when one party violates the conditions of that particular type of relationship.  If a condition of our relationship with God is that we talk to Him every day, then failing to talk to Him would cause harm to that relationship.  Just as in human relationships, if we frequently violate the conditions of our relationship with a divine person, then it is understandable that the person would realize that we did not wish to maintain that relationship, that we had chosen to end it.

It is not that God does not love us or even necessarily that we do not love Him, but that we choose not to be in relationship with Him.  And I certainly cannot blame God for respecting a person’s choice to separate themselves from Him by allowing them to exist in Hell, a state of total separation from He who is the source of all love and goodness, any more than I could blame a person for respecting their significant other’s decision to end a romantic relationship.

Love does not force itself onto others, it simply gives them every opportunity to come into its welcoming arms.

Related: Why do religions say there are terrible consequences for believing the wrong things?

By Turgis - Turgis, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45719762

Note:  Large portions of this post were originally posted on a now-defunct Xanga blog, then moved to a still-existing WordPress blog. where I still write semi-regularly on politics and current events.

Fair Questions: What is the relationship between faith and reason?

In my last post on the relationship between faith and evidence, I examined what sorts of standards of evidence we might have and what their implications are.  Because there are today some who put forward the idea that faith and reason are opposed to one another, or that having faith in anything is mutually exclusive with being a reasonable person, this seems to be a timely topic.

I've taken enough philosophy courses to learn that, in practice, faith in unproven propositions that we nonetheless intuitively feel are correct propositions is universal.  I've never dialogued with any religious or irreligious person who didn't have to resort to just asserting something without proof.  Maybe that happened at the level of ontology, or epistemology, or meta-philosophical critique, but it always happened.

These sorts of foundational assumptions can of course be overturned, albeit usually with great difficulty.  I and many other people have overturned our previous foundational assumptions, rebuilding our understanding of the world, hopefully upon a more solid basis.  Or at the very least, we may have arrived at a more internally coherent worldview, reasoning more correctly from our premises to our conclusions.

This seems to be the kind of thing we see in the most sophisticated intellectual debates, such as the one between Bertrand Russell and Fr. Copleston.  They both demonstrate extremely high intellectual acuity and consistency and willing to examine other views honestly.  They simply have two very different ways of understanding the world and what we can conclude about it.

Both are internally coherent and well-reasoned, and both rest on certain claims that cannot be proven.  In this case, they seem to differ at the level of epistemology, providing different rational answers to the question of what we can know and how we can know it.  The value of these sorts of debates isn't to find the right answers to our questions about our world.

It's that we begin to understand in a more precise and accurate way how exactly it is we disagree, and which foundational assumptions are at the root of the disagreement.  These foundational assumptions, or acts of faith, are necessary for any kind of rational dialogue to take place.

Without, for example, the assumption that we can use reason and sensory evidence to arrive at (at least potentially correct or less incorrect) conclusions about our world, there could be no rational debate of any kind.

In the end, reason without faith is impotent, and faith without reason is incoherent.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Fair Questions: What does it mean to be pastoral?

In contemporary Catholic discourse in the West, there is a great deal of discussion about being pastoral.  Unfortunately, these discussions are minefields in many cases.  Why is that?

Well, it's a long story.  There have long been debates among Christian Bishops about how to best emulate Christ the Good Shepherd in their role as pastors of the Church; that is nothing new.  What does seem to be new is the width of the gulf between the basic principles of the two largest camps in that debate.

In the post-WWII era, debates about how to be pastoral stopped being a matter of attempting to figure out how best to uphold Christian moral teaching in difficult circumstances (and living out Christian moral teaching has always been difficult).  That was a complicated debate in and of itself.  But the debate has since shifted to far more complex terrain.

Now, debates about how to be pastoral are a matter of attempting to persuade the other side that we should (a) change Church teaching, (b) leave it unchanged but ignore it in practice, or (c) uphold it in practice even when it's difficult.  Positions (b) and (c) seem to be the most popular now, though there was a time when (a) had a stronger following.

At that time, pastoral was used by many of those who favored option (a) or (b) as code for another word that starts with the same letter: permissive.  As a result, those who favored option (c) tend to treat the word "pastoral" with some suspicion.  That's understandable, given the circumstances, but it can tend to prejudice them against the views of others who use the word pastoral in a way that's not euphemistic.

As I've mentioned before, I wasn't around for the debates that occurred at the time, though I do see them re-hashed today by some who were around while they were more lively.  So I don't have quite the same emotional stake in the matter as those for whom these were immediately pressing debates at the time when option (a) looked like it had a good chance at succeeding.

Currently, it looks like both the folks who preferred option (a) and option (b) are working to get option (b) implemented across the whole Church in the short term in the name of "being pastoral", and it very much looks like what they actually mean is: being permissive.  They understandably warn against pastors being too harsh with people and not bothering to understand individual situations in their complexity.

I tend to agree with them that those are important warnings.  They are not wrong to warn against those failings, but it does not follow from the failings of those who are too harsh in holding their flock accountable that we ought to stop holding the flock accountable for following Christian teaching, either in specific cases or in general.

That would not be pastoral, at least not in any sense of the word that actually goes back to its roots.  In a Christian context, a pastor is called a pastor because pastors are the shepherds of the flocks given into their charge, and they are called to emulate the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

We know from the Parable of the Lost Sheep in the Gospels that Christ the Good Shepherd goes out to the lost sheep and brings it back to the rest of the flock, carrying it gently and tending its wounds so that it can be healed.

Those who prefer option (a) are like shepherds who bring the whole flock to the rocky terrain where the lost sheep was injured and are optimistic that the wounds of the lost sheep will be healed by its fellow sheep in community with one another.  They warn against option (d), which is to go out and treat the lost sheep so roughly that it doesn't want to come back to the flock and runs away again.

Those who prefer option (b) are like shepherds who don't want to take the whole flock to the rocky terrain, but are willing to set up a separate pen for the lost sheep who are on that rocky terrain and let more and more of the flock wander there, gradually creating a second flock.  They also warn against option (d).

Those who prefer option (c) are like shepherds who go out to the lost sheep and bring it back to the rest of the flock.  They may disagree over how best to handle the lost sheep when trying to bring it back to the flock, but they don't move the whole flock to be with the lost sheep, nor do they build a separate pen for the lost sheep.

Those who choose options (a) and (b) can be correctly said to be doing many things, but being authentically pastoral isn't one of them.  I think it's fairly clear that those who prefer option (c) are the ones who are emulating the Good Shepherd Himself, however imperfectly.

They are, in fact, being pastoral in the Christian sense by calling the lost sheep back to the flock, by going out to find the lost sheep in order to restore the lost sheep to the whole flock (rather than establishing a different flock on different terrain).

I sincerely hope that all our bishops and priests can be authentically pastoral, laying down their lives for the flock that's been divinely established, just as the Good Shepherd Himself did.  In this way, the sheep can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and know it is Him.

Related: The War of the Pre-Vatican II and Post-Vatican II Traditionalists

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4765715

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Death of "Death of God" Theology

I read an article in First Things magazine a few months ago that has stuck with me an unusually long time.  It was entitled "Death of God Fifty Years On" and in it the author (Matthew Rose) described how Death of God theology was born.

Paul van Buren was one of those labeled as "Death of God" theologians.  Interestingly, the New York Times quotes him as saying, "The so-called death-of-god movement is a journalistic invention."  His goal was apparently not to proclaim, with Nietzsche, that "God is dead."  Rather, he seemed to take it for granted that "God" didn't mean the sort of transcendent and immanent ground of being described by classical theism.

Because he believed that the term "God" as traditionally understood was empty of meaning, his project was, "trying to find an utterly nontranscendent way of interpreting the Gospel."  He wanted a Divine Command theory of morality derived from Christian scripture, but without the "Divine" part of it.  On the other hand, we have Thomas Altizer.

Thomas Altizer did proclaim, with Nietzsche, that "God is dead."  But he didn't stop there, perhaps because to simply agree with Nietzsche would just be boring.  And Altizer, to his credit, wasn't a boring thinker.  He went beyond Nietzsche's claim that Christianity's practice of self-denial in the pursuit of truth eventually leads to the death of belief in God.  Nietzsche wrote:

"Unconditional honest atheism (and its is the only air we breathe, we more spiritual men of this age!) is therefore not the antithesis of that ideal, as it appears to be; it is rather only one of the latest phases of its evolution, one of its terminal forms and inner consequences--it is the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God."

Thomas Altizer agreed with Nietzsche that God was dead, but in his view, it wasn't the inevitable end-product of Christianity.  Instead of a deicide at the hands of Christians, it was a suicide-by-Romans.  Though it might seem as though he were an atheist (and that's probably technically true), Altizer has described himself in an interview as "a committed radical Christian who has been inspired both by the Radical Reformation and by radical Christian thinkers and visionaries from Paul through Joyce."

He truly believed the God was dead, and had died on a Roman cross.  He recognized that this was a radical (and heterodox) Christian view, but nonetheless a Christian one.  It might seem that Christian atheism is a logical impossibility, but he managed to bring it about.  He brought together a contemporary disbelief in God and a surprisingly High Christology in his theology.

More often, Christian atheists have a Low Christology, believing (like Paul van Buren) that Jesus wasn't the incarnated transcendent God, but rather just a good moral teacher, or a radical political figure worth following, or something similar to those ideas.  Altizer's view was the apotheosis, if you will forgive the pun, of the Christian atheism of the post-WWII West.

He certainly wasn't the beginning of Christian atheism in the WWII era, however, and we must give credit to Dietrich Bonhoeffer here.  Though I don't believe that Bonhoeffer was a Christian atheist, some of his later writings from prison in Nazi Germany do speak in ways that sound like a belief that God has abandoned us to our own devices, and according to Matthew Rose, Bonhoeffer proposed a "religionless Christianity" that is a necessity because "God is teaching us that we must live as men who can get along without him."

In the spirit of charity, I think we ought to assume that being imprisoned (soon to be executed) for opposing Adolf Hitler would prompt some morbid reflections for anyone, and that it's unlikely that Bonhoeffer recanted his dearly-held Lutheran faith.  Nonetheless, these reflections capture the spirit of the WWII-era disbelief in God and the idea that we can and must do without religion, particularly the Christian religion.

Like French-Algerian atheist Albert Camus, many people struggled with the idea that God would allow human beings to bring about the horrors of WWII: the fire-bombings, the nuclear bombs, the trench warfare in Europe, and of course the Holocaust, Hitler's grand final solution to the "problem" of the kinds of people he didn't want around.

And what, in the end, did theologians like Paul van Buren and Thomas Altizer offer them as a way to retain Christianity while accepting that God, at least as they had understood Him before, was dead in either a literal or figurative sense?  Not much, it turns out.

Most people who believed that God's existence had been falsified by the events of WWII would have recognized that Christianity didn't make much sense unless it was rooted in divine revelation.  And most atheists of Christian heritage today don't feel any need to explicitly retain much of that heritage.

Sure, they often believe some of the basic moral precepts (though they may not apply them in the way that Christians traditionally have).  But they don't feel a need to reconcile the Bible with their Christian moral views, because what is there to reconcile with an out-of-date text that says very little worth hearing?  Without a transcendent divine inspiration, the Bible isn't worth wrestling with, from their perspective.  And understandably so.

Thus, the manufactured "Death of God" theology movement died pretty quickly, and we might wonder whether it had truly lived.  Whether the "God" of the Bible was never really a live option, as Paul van Buren saw it, or God had truly died for us on the Roman cross and wasn't coming back, as Thomas Altizer saw it, there was no reason to take the Bible or Christianity seriously anymore.

And so many people didn't.  Ironically, the Christian theologians who disagreed with Nietzsche may have proven him right.  After all, they did, because of their commitment to truthfulness, eventually forbid themselves the lie involved in believing in God.

Related:  In Denial: Nietzsche's Asceticism

Note:  The above image is part of the cover of my copy of Nietzsche's collected works.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Bhagavad Gita: The Wisdom of Krishna

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

Previously, in The Yoga of Krishna, I examined what Krishna taught Arjuna about the nature of yoga in some depth.  Immediately after the teachings on yoga referenced previously, Krishna goes on to teach Arjuna about the nature of wisdom.

What we generally think of as wisdom in the West is not the wisdom spoken of by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.  As I've mentioned before, the Bhagavad Gita is a discourse that strikes at the heart of spiritual matters, and it is a discourse that takes place on a great battlefield at the climax of the great epic known as the Mahabharata.  The battle is about to be joined by great warriors, and it is at this time of calm before the storm that Krishna helps Arjuna to understand his place in this life and the nature of spiritual fulfillment.

After Krishna has answered his question about whether he ought to fight the battle before him or abandon it, Arjuna asks another question: "Tell me of those who live established in wisdom, ever aware of the Self, O Krishna.  How do they talk?  How sit?  How move about?"

As before, Krishna gives an answer which has real depth and meaning; this is not the dismissive answer of a parent who just wants his child to get on with doing what was asked.  This is the answer of a parent who truly wishes to teach his child wisdom for living well, who truly wants his child to flourish.

"They live in wisdom who see themselves in all and all in them, who have renounced every selfish desire and sense craving tormenting the heart.  Neither agitated by grief nor hankering after pleasure, they live free from lust and fear and anger.  Established in meditation, they are truly wise.  Fettered no more by selfish attachments, they are neither elated by good fortune nor depressed by bad.  Such are the seers.
Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will.  Aspirants abstain from sense pleasures, but they still crave for them.  These cravings all disappear when they see the highest goal.  Even of those who tread the path, the stormy senses can sweep off the mind.  They live in wisdom who subdue their senses and keep their minds ever absorbed in me.
When you keep thinking about sense objects, attachment comes.  Attachment breeds desire, the lust of possession that burns to anger.  Anger clouds the judgment; you can no longer learn from past mistakes.  Lost is the power to choose between what is wise and what is unwise, and your life is utter waste.  But when you move amidst the world of sense, free from attachment and aversion alike, there comes the peace in which all sorrows end, and you live in the wisdom of the Self."

The word translated as Self here is Ātman, the eternally enduring consciousness Krishna described previously.  The wisdom of the Self is a wisdom of an eternal perspective, not the wisdom of one who frantically scrambles to escape immediate death.  The wisdom Krishna refers to here is the the wisdom that comes from detachment from the sensual comforts of this world.

Krishna's description of those who are bound by their attachments to the simple stimulus-response game of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain sounds eerily like he's describing someone who is addicted to painkillers, or methamphetamines, or even marijuana or alcohol.  He's describing those of us who are still attached to the comforts of this world as addicts who are stuck in a cycle of seeking transient pleasures, blissfully unaware of our downward spiral because we only allow ourselves to focus on the next temporary high.

"The disunited mind is far from wise; how can it meditate?  How be at peace?  When you know no peace, how can you know joy?  When you let your mind follow the call of the senses, they carry away your better judgment as storms drive a boat off its charted course on the sea.
Use all your power to free the senses from attachment and aversion alike, and live in the full wisdom of the Self.  Such a sage awakes to light in the night of all creatures.  That which the world calls day is the night of ignorance to the wise.
As rivers flow into the ocean but cannot make the vast ocean overflow, so flow the streams of the sense-world into the sea of peace that is the sage.  But this is not so with the desirer of desires.
They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego-cage of 'I,' 'me,' and 'mine' to be united with the Lord.  This is the supreme state.  Attain to this, and pass from death to immortality."

The danger of the mind which is not integrated and unable to be focused in its attention is that its disunity frustrates our capacity to truly enjoy the many good things in life.  Instead, we leap toward whatever pleases us superficially and away from whatever displeases us without regard to whether these are rational choices.  Krishna invites into the process of uniting our mind around the singular purpose of union with the divine life he embodies, asking us to re-order our lives by putting this transcendent purpose first and letting everything else fall into place.

Arjuna pushes back against all this mystical-sounding advice by asking Krishna an additional question: "O Krishna, you have said that knowledge is greater than action; why then do you ask me to wage this terrible war?  Your advice seems inconsistent.  Give me one path to follow to the supreme good."

We are probably inclined to sympathize with Arjuna's question here.  We might wonder how the path of wisdom Krishna just described is coherent with his admonition to Arjuna to carry out his duty as a warrior by killing other great warriors he respects immensely.  However, Krishna rejects Arjuna's false dilemma and explains that the path of wisdom and the path of following one's duties even against one's inclinations are the same path, that they are not the separate paths we imagine them to be.

"At the beginning of time I declared two paths for the pure heart: jnana yoga, the contemplative path of spiritual wisdom, and karma yoga, the active path of selfless service.
One who shirks action does not attain freedom; no one can gain perfection by abstaining from work.  Indeed, there is no one who rests for even an instant; all creatures are driven to action by their own nature.
Those who abstain from action while allowing the mind to dwell on sensual pleasure cannot be called sincere spiritual aspirants.  But they excel who control their senses through the mind, using them for selfless service."

There have been two paths in many religions, and these are generally the more active life and the more contemplative life.  This is just as true of Christianity and Islam as it is of Buddhism and Hinduism.  Fortunately, these paths which appear to be quite different lead to the same destination when walked with sincerity.

Both the contemplative and active life contain elements of the other, as Krishna points out in the next passage.  Both of these lifestyles, rightly focused on the purpose of union of the divine life, re-shape our lives because they are selfless.  These paths are both the path of rejecting the life of selfishness in favor of eternal union, a re-orienting of life toward what is transcendent, the life that is above and beyond our pursuit of transient pleasures and aversion to temporary pains.

"Fulfill all your duties; action is better than inaction.  Even to maintain your body, Arjuna, you are obliged to act.  Selfish action imprisons the world.  Act selflessly, without any thought of personal profit.
At the beginning, mankind and the obligation of selfless service were created together.  'Through selfless service, you will always be fruitful and find the fulfillment of your desires': this is the promise of the Creator.
Honor and cherish the devas as they honor and cherish you; through this honor and love you will attain the supreme good.  All human desires are fulfilled by the devas, who are pleased by selfless service.  But anyone who enjoys the things given by the devas without offering selfless acts in return is a thief.
The spiritually minded, who eat in the spirit of service, are freed from all their sins; but the selfish, who prepare food for their own satisfaction, eat sin.  Living creatures are nourished by food, and food is nourished by rain; rain itself is the water of life, which comes down from selfless worship and service."

Krishna teaches us here that humanity was created with a general telos to act, and specifically to act selflessly.  And not just that we have this inborn purpose, but also that this selfless service for the good of others is what connects us ever more profoundly with the divine life.  He explains that what nourishes life itself in this world is the result of selfless worship and service, and that we should want to reciprocate that divine selfless giving which is the ultimate cause of all that we enjoy in this world.

He also teaches us that even perfectly natural actions which are not inherently moral or immoral (such as eating) are imbued with a moral dimension because of the intentions we bring to them.  The problem with eating for pleasure isn't that we're eating, but rather that we are doing so selfishly rather than because it keeps us strong enough to give selflessly of ourselves to serve the genuine good of others.

"Every selfless act, Arjuna, is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead.  Brahman is present in every act of service.  All life turns on this law, O Arjuna.  Those who violate it, indulging the senses for their own pleasure and ignoring the needs of others, have wasted their life.  But those who realize the Self are always satisfied.
 Having found the source of joy and fulfillment, they no longer seek happiness from the external world.  They have nothing to gain or lose by any action; neither people nor things can affect their security.
Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life.  Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.  It was by such work that Janaka attained perfection; others too have followed his path."

What's more, Krishna teaches us that our capacity for selfless action is grounded in the very divine life which created us, the ultimate reality known as Brahman, the immutable cause of all that is.  We are most truly our Self when we participate in the selfless action which is a reflection of the selfless, creative, and life-giving action of Brahman.

He points out that we are happiest when we are not devoted to seeking our own immediate pleasure and avoiding our own immediate pain, when we are not bound by the chains which we wrap lovingly around the ego as a result of our addictions, chains that inevitably result from even those addictions to things which are not inherently bad for us, but enslave us nonetheless because we still perform them selfishly.

"What the outstanding person does, others will try to do.  The standards such people create will be followed by the whole world.  There is nothing in the three worlds for me to gain, Arjuna, nor is there anything I do not have; I continue to act, but I am not driven by any need of my own.  If I ever refrained from continuous work, everyone would immediately follow my example.  If I stopped working I would be the cause of cosmic chaos, and finally of the destruction of this world and these people.
The ignorant work for their own profit, Arjuna; the wise work for the welfare of the world, without thought for themselves.  By abstaining from work you will confuse the ignorant, who are engrossed in their actions.  Perform all work carefully, guided by compassion."

In his wisdom, Krishna understands that it is our human instinct to follow those who are behaving in an excellent way when we are exposed to their actions.  It is by observing the actions of the wise that we learn how to live as they do, selflessly giving both the fruits of their actions and the fruits of their contemplation for the welfare of all.

Arjuna's problem isn't that he isn't conscientious enough, but rather that his reluctance to follow his dharma is rooted in selfish reasons rather than selfless ones.  Krishna offers himself as a model to Arjuna, inviting him to selflessly work according to his nature as a warrior just as Krishna selflessly works according to his nature as the avatar of the divine sustainer of all things (Vishnu).

The wisdom of Krishna teaches us that the more we seek to grow to be like those who are most wise, both the human and divine sages, the more we become wise ourselves.  Krishna shows us that wisdom is not merely a matter of knowledge.  The greatest wisdom is not gained through the study of esoteric ideas and ancient texts, but rather through cultivating a relationship with the wise here in this world who point us to the divine wisdom so that we can encounter it more fully in the next world.

The Yoga of Krishna - The Wisdom of Krishna - The Meditation of Krishna

Note: The above is a depiction of Krishna dancing.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Praying with Icons: The King and Queen of Heaven

What the world would call noble birth
was not given to You, the Son of God.
Though you were of the line of David
the King, born of royal stock in Israel,
yet You were born in a humble stable,
between an ox and an ass laid to sleep.

Your mother had her promise to keep,
the holy fiat of a descendant of David
who bore in love the very Son of God.
Though born of a station very humble
in the poor land of a conquered Israel,
Mary became the mother of the King.

Thus, Mary became Heaven's Queen,
seated with her child the King whose
life was a gift from the Father, a rose
ever blooming from the root of Jesse,
crushed for our iniquity, bore quietly
what the world calls an ignoble death.

You proclaimed the Kingdom of God,
the Kingdom that is not of this world.
You sit enthroned at the Father's hand,
the King born to Mary, Mother of God.

Related: Why do Catholics call Mary the Queen of Heaven?

Note: The above is a picture I took of a Coptic icon called the King and Queen of Heaven, depicting Jesus the King as a child, Mary His mother enthroned, and the angels surrounding them.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Fermentation and Distillation of Christianity

I was speaking with a friend today about one of the major differences between the ancient Church and the Protestant and/or Post-Reformation churches.  As a former Protestant speaking to a cradle Catholic, I was attempting to explain why Protestant understandings of soteriology are, while being partially correct, usually so simplistic.  I suspect that it's because Protestant theological methodology is fundamentally different from earlier approaches.

Protestants, and those churches which broke away from them after the Reformation was initiated, start from the working assumption that the Catholic Church added a bunch of extra stuff to the teachings of Christ, the Apostles, and the Early Church (Early Church being defined differently by many of them depending on exactly when they think this corruption of doctrine happened).

In addition, they propose that this was a bad thing, that all of the Catholic doctrines, devotional practices, art forms, ecclesiastical structures, and canons (rules) that came about after [insert the specific preferred time here] were both unnecessary and dangerous accretions.

These claims have important consequences for how Protestants and their heirs approach theology.  After all, if it's true that there is a large body of accretions in the areas of doctrines which are arrived at by theological reasoning, the task for an earnest Christian in search of the truth is to try to toss out the accretions and uncover the pure Christian teaching underneath all the extra stuff.

To explain how this results in oversimplified soteriology, for example, I used an analogy of a flower.  Let's suppose that we believe (rightly or wrongly) that some parts of this flower don't belong to it, that they were pasted on rather than growing organically out of its natural root.  Understandably, we would want to remove things that look like they're pasted on.

But the trouble is that we can't agree on exactly which sepals and petals are pasted on; all we can agree on amongst ourselves is that the stem is definitely part of the original flower.  So we just keep the stem, and this leaves us with a simple structure, but it's probably missing some sepals and petals that had grown organically out of the stem because we couldn't agree as to which ones those were.

Or perhaps more accurately given the circumstances, some of us leave some sepals on, others remove all the sepals, some of us leave some petals on, others remove all the petals, some of us give up and toss the whole flower away, and somewhere a florist is weeping all the while.

This process of stripping away what is believed to be pasted on is the necessary result of the working assumptions of Protestant thought.  The flower will get stripped down in some fashion, and because there is no one authority who decides what gets removed based on some coherent standard, the result is likely to be quite ugly and destructive to the flower.

My friend proposed what might be a more sympathetic analogy, that the Protestant approach is like a process of distillation.  Their approach is to try to separate out the various components of ancient Christianity to derive from it the pure substances.  I agree that this is a good analogy, and I think we can take it further.

Protestant theology and its offshoots are like various whiskeys, distilled so much that they are very strong drinks made of simple substances.  And like all strong drinks, these distilled Christian teachings are best appreciated in moderation and imbibed only occasionally.  The problem with them isn't that they're impure, but that they are in their purity missing many of the ingredients that serve the valuable purpose of keeping the less extreme beverages well-balanced.

The fermentation process that produced the ancient Church (present in the Catholic communion, the Eastern Orthodox intercommunion, and the Oriental Orthodox jurisdictions) is understood by Protestants and their heirs to have become a faulty one beginning at a certain time in Christian history.  Perhaps, by analogy, they think that too many sugars were added in the process at too many different times.  And so the distillation of Christianity began in earnest (and continues today, 500 years later).

In this distillation, Christian art became increasingly minimalistic, pious devotions were abandoned, ecclesiastical structures were pared down, and rules were tossed out (and then recreated later in some cases).  Christianity might have been able to survive these changes, if this were all the distillation process accomplished, if it had only gotten rid of traditions that could be rebuilt if needed.

But, inevitably, that wasn't the end of it; the distillation process couldn't help but affect the whole of Christianity.  The purification into separate elements didn't stop at doctrine and theology.  Most importantly, the intricate tapestry of Christian theology had many threads yanked out of it.  The distillation of Christian teaching resulted in a purity of being in tatters, unable to hold together.

Note: This is a picture I took of a sour ale I was drinking.  The artwork on the label was excellent.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Love it to Death: The Mercy of Love

I was praying a rosary before bed a couple of nights ago, and I was meditating on Christ's carrying of the cross on the road to Golgatha, falling as his body started to falter under the weight of the cross.

As I contemplated this image of Christ, I felt a strong urge to go and help Him carry the cross out of a sense of mercy.  Though it is I who need the mercy of our Lord (Kyrie eleison!), my heart was moved to act in a merciful way as I contemplated his bloody journey under the weight of the cross on the via dolorosa.

I began to wonder how often I had failed to act mercifully toward the many people in my life who were struggling to carry their own crosses of ill health, broken hearts, anxious minds, and wills weakened by addictions to life's comforts.  How often have we failed to be as merciful to His least brothers and sisters as we would happily be to Christ as he carried the cross?

Ought we not strive to treat the Icons of Love, these people made in the image of the living God, with the mercy we would willingly treat our savior?  It is they who need mercy, in its corporal and spiritual works.  Mercy is always active; it requires us to work for the benefit of others.  Mercy is no mere feeling of sympathy or empathy or even a heart wrenched with pity.

Mercy walks up to those who are carrying their crosses and reaches out to help them lift those crosses.  Mercy does not stop at lecturing from a distance or gazing fondly at the one carrying their cross along the difficult path of life; it enters into their sufferings so that they are not borne alone.  To be merciful is to join with those who are suffering under the weight of their crosses and bring out the redemptive quality of suffering by suffusing those who suffer with love.

It is not merciful to throw the crosses of those who suffer to the ground and leave them there, as if their struggles can be left behind and ignored safely, as if their burdens and struggles were meaningless and can be safely abandoned, as if leaving behind the crosses does not inevitably cause others to have to bear the weight of those sufferings for them entirely.

Such is the false mercy of the Pharisees, who rejected Christ's teaching on the permanence of marriage as too harsh, believing that a radical, transcendent, superogatory love was too heavy a cross to be borne by everyone.  If we are truly merciful and thus willing to help all of our brothers and sisters bear their crosses, then their yoke and ours will be easy, and their burdens and ours will be light indeed.

If we support them in living out their marriage vows in difficult times, just as the Good Samaritan supported the man who was beaten and robbed, this act of mercy enables them to live out the radical, transcendent, and supererogatory love to which we are called by Christ.  In doing so, we act with the mercy of Love Himself, the Lord who had mercy on us when he bore the weight of our sins with us and for us as He died on the cross.

Though it is in our power to leave His least brothers and sisters to their own devices or to punish them, in practicing the mercy of Love we instead take up their burdens with them, making them easier to bear so that they can reach their own Golgatha and find the healing that comes from working through our sufferings, the resurrection that follows after the death of selfish attachments for the sake of love.

When we act with mercy in this way, we are fulfilling Love's command to us that we take up our cross and follow Him.  By helping others to carry their crosses, our own cross becomes easier to bear as we carry it along our own via dolorosa, and we participate in Christ's ultimate act of loving to death the weight of our sins.  He is the divine Mercy whose life, death, and resurrection was the ultimate act of mercy toward we who are so loved that He entered fully into our human sufferings.

Christ is the Mercy of Love, the one whose holy Incarnation was and is the answer to our prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  He is the Mercy of Love whose Ascension to the heavenly household of God the Father showed us the glory that awaits those who are adopted sons and daughters of God.

The Mercy of Love shows us how we must be merciful in order to fully participate in the divine life of love, the full communion of Love which is beyond all telling.

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

The Ladder of Divine Ascent: The Heart of Exile

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a well-known treatise on the Christian spiritual life, at least in some circles.  Its author is sometimes named after the book, being called St. John of the Ladder rather than by the name St. John Climacus.  The book is addressed to the Abbot of the Raithu monastery, and was written at his request, so there are some portions that directly refer to the Abbot as John's father, which he means in a spiritual sense.

The third rung of the ladder described by St. John Climacus is the way of exile (or pilgrimage), by which we make firm our renunciation and detachment.  These first three steps are all related to re-ordering our lives in order to put God first, and because the spiritual life is recursive (consisting of many falls and moments of repentance) rather than a linear progression, we often need to retread the same ground after we've taken a few steps backward.

Abba John is aware of this, and so he provides ample repetition to help us absorb the lesson and permanently reform our lives.  That said, there's something unique about each step, and his description of exile is no exception:

  "Exile means that we leave forever everything in our own country that prevents us from reaching the goal of piety.  Exile means modest manners, wisdom which remains unknown, prudence not recognized as such by most, a hidden life, an invisible intention, unseen meditation, desire for humiliation, longing for hardship, constant determination, to love God, abundance of love, renunciation of vainglory, depth of silence.
  2. Those who have come to love the Lord are at first unceasingly and greatly disturbed by this thought, as if burning with divine fire.  I speak of separation from their own, undertaken by the lovers of perfection so that they may live a life of hardship and simplicity.  But great and praiseworthy as this is, yet it requires great discretion; for not every kind of exile, carried to extremes, is good.
  3. If every prophet goes unhonoured in his own country, as the Lord says, then let us beware lest our exile should be for us an occasion of vainglory.  For exile is separation from everything in order to keep the mind inseparable from God.  Exile loves and produces continual weeping.  An exile is a fugitive from every relationship with his own people and with strangers."

Why would the spiritual life involve a desire for humiliation or a longing for hardship?  In my experience, hardship and humiliation show us the depth of our emotional insecurities and physical weaknesses as well as how much stronger our wills ought to be.  Hardship and humiliation reveals to us how much we need to improve and what areas of life we most need improvement; it shows us the selfish attachments we have so that we can let them go and let God more fully into our lives.

Like any good spiritual director, Abba John reminds us of the danger of extremes in the spiritual life.  Just as our physical health can become unbalanced and deteriorate when we either exercise far too little or far too much, our spiritual health deteriorates when we lose a balanced approach by either refraining from the spiritual exercises we ought to do or taking our spiritual exercises to an injurious extreme.

He also warns us that one of the dangers we face is in seeing ourselves as grand heroes for leaving everyone else behind, and crediting it to ourselves as righteousness.  At that point, we've lost the righteous purpose of making ourselves inseparable from God and turned a selfless act of love into a selfish act of abandonment of responsibility.  The fact that we need to resort to exile in order to rid ourselves of our many unhealthy attachments should rather teach us humility by showing us how weak we are that we need to do such a thing to strive for holiness.

  "4. In hastening to solitude and exile, do not wait for world-loving souls, because the thief comes unexpectedly.  In trying to save the careless and indolent along with themselves, many perish with them, because in course of time the soul's fire goes out.  As soon as the flame is burning within you, run; for you do not know when it will go out and leave you in darkness.  Not all of us are required to save others.  The divine Apostles says: 'Everyone of us shall give account of himself to God.' And again he says: 'Thou therefore that teachest another, dost thou not teach thyself?'  This is like saying: I do not know whether we must teach all others; but we must most certainly teach ourselves.
  5. In going into exile, beware of the demon of drifting and of sensual desire; because exile gives him his opportunity.
  6. Detachment is excellent; but her mother is exile.  Having become an exile for the Lord's sake, we should have no ties at all lest we seem to be roving in order to gratify our passions.
  7. Have you become an exile from the world?  Do not touch the world any more; because the passions desire nothing better than to return.
  8. Eve was exiled from Paradise against her will, but the monk is a willing exile from his home.  She would have liked the tree of disobedience again; and he would certainly expose himself daily to frequent danger from relatives according to the flesh."

Here, Abba John urges us to look to our own salvation first, to work it out with fear and trembling before we concern ourselves with the souls of others.  It is so easy to ignore his advice, to fall into the habit of constantly correcting others and neglect our own faults that need urgent healing by Christ the divine physician.  He rightly advises us that not everyone is given the gifts of saving many souls, and that those of us who aren't should use the gifts we were given to tend to our own souls.

He also advises us that even if we try to live lives of detachment, there are always temptations to fall into.  We so easily slip into a habit of seeking comfort in small material things like clothes, food, bedding, or even our own bodies.  All of these material things are good and necessary, but we must be on constant guard against forming unhealthy attachments to them that put God back in 2nd, 3rd, or even last place in our lives.

  "14. It is not from hatred that we separate ourselves from our own people or places (God forbid!), but to avoid the harm which might come to us from them.  In this, as in everything else, it is Christ who teaches us what is good for us.  For it is clear that He often left His parents according to the flesh.  And when He was told, 'Thy Mother and They brethren are seeking for Thee,' our good Lord and Master at once showed us an example of dispassionate hatred when He said, 'My Mother and My brethren are they who do the will of My Father who is in Heaven.
  15. Let him be your father who is able and willing to labour with you in bearing the burden of your sins.; and your mother -- contrition, which can cleanse you from impurity; and your brother -- your comrade who toils and fights side by side with you in striving toward the heights.  Acquire an inseparable wife -- the remembrance of death.  And let your beloved children be the sighs of your heart.  Make your body your slave; and your friends, the holy powers [angels] who can help you at the hour of your death, if they become your friends.  This is the generation of them that seek the Lord. ...
  18. For our solitary life let us choose places where there are fewer opportunities for comfort and ambition, but more for humility.  Otherwise, we shall be fleeing in company with our passions."

Abba John's warning to monks about not going back to see relatives sounds harsh, but he explains that it's because we are weak and prone to following others into sin that a monk needs to avoid a return to the family.  This is not because our families are evil, but because we fall easily into gluttony when we smell the fresh baklava made by our mother, and we fall easily into pride and calumny when we see anew the failings of our siblings.

Until we can stop carrying our unhealthy attachments around with us, we should keep company with those who lead us to holiness, so that we no longer keep with us the passions that lead us into temptation.  When we make our sole passion the pursuit of full participation in the divine life of love, the lesser passions no longer have room in our lives.

When our hearts have been so filled with the love of God that they overflow with love for all, and evil cannot be poured into these hearts of ours which have become fonts of love, we have the heart of exile.  In the end, the heart of exile is the heart that is no longer restless because it has found its rest in the Lord.

Note:  The above is an image of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com, and it is a replica of an icon at Mount Sinai where Abba John Climacus lived and worked with his fellow monks to ascend the ladder to Heaven.