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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

May the Force be with you (and with your spirit)

Tonight I was reading Luke's genealogy of Jesus, trying to follow the Greek as much as I could (gripping stuff), and was richly rewarded by 3:26:
the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda,
Or, in the Greek:
τοῦ Μάαθ τοῦ Ματταθίου τοῦ Σεμεῒν τοῦ Ἰωσὴχ τοῦ Ἰωδὰ
Notice that last name, the original spelling of "Joda". Its pronunciation should stand out to anyone familiar with the Greek alphabet...

"My beloved son you are; well pleased I am with you."

In addition to being the Lord, the Savior, the Son of God and the Son of Man, Jesus is also a Jedi.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

To Know and Taste the Truth

Someone who has actually tasted truth is not contentious for truth. Someone who is considered by people to be zealous for truth has not yet learnt what truth is really like; once he has truly learnt it, he will cease from zealousness on its behalf. (Kephalaia IV.77; The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by Sebastian Brock)

Last time I studied what St. Isaac was not saying in this passage, how he is not rejecting the positive biblical language about "zeal" for God or "contending" for the truth. This time I'll try to delve into the profundity of what he is saying as I have been exploring it for the last few weeks. Here is where some research into what more qualified writers have made of St. Isaac's words is in order.

Polemics and passions

Fr. Gregory Jensen, an Orthodox priest and chaplain, wrote in 2008 on Orthodox-Catholic relations and why they tend to degenerate into polemics, offering some helpful insights on healthy conversation that eventually intersect with St. Isaac's words. Using the example of how "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature" (Luke 2:52), he argues that mental health, "the integrity of the person's cognitive, emotional and social functions", is not something automatically conferred by an encounter with God, but something we must learn and grow in, a natural part of human development. Summarizing his professor, he explains, "to live a constant human life means that we remain open in awe, trust, and gratitude to the Mystery of Being (God) and becoming (human life as a life of dynamic openness)." He incisively applies this to Catholic/Orthodox conversations (and inter-traditional dialogue in general):
We often talk as if the Catholic/Orthodox dialog is a conversation is between two different, even competing, traditions. In fact these conversations are always conversations between human beings who in their conversations with each other, make selective appeals to their own understanding of the past, both their own and the other's. Traditions, to state the painfully obvious, do not have conversations—only human beings can speak, can enter into a conversations. Tradition, as Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) has pointed out in Being in Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, only exist enhypostatically, that is, by way of the person. 
Too often conversations between Eastern and Western Christians are not understood as human encounters. In fact, I would suggest that the reason that our conversations are so often polemical, is because we imagine that there is nothing of ourselves in our talks with each other. Let me go even further, we are so often polemical because we are striving not to encounter one another. We do not wish to know the other, because not only do we do not wish to be know by the other, we do not know, or even wish to know, ourselves personally. Any human encounter is necessarily one that demands from me both self-knowledge and change. To refuse one or the other of these is to refuse the encounter, the gift of the other person and so to refuse to receive my own life as a gift from God. 
For too many of us, our attachment to our religious tradition is an escape, a refusal, of the dynamic and gratuitous quality of our own lives. We do not wish to grow, to change. Our conversations are polemical because more often than not, our thinking about ourselves is static and rigid. Catholic/Orthodox polemics—at least as we see them in contemporary practice—are only accidentally theological. In the main (and I will address this more in another post) our polemics reflect our own lack of wholeness, of balance, of our own lack of virtue. Or, to borrow from psychology, our encounters so often go wrong because of we are neurotic.
According to Fr. Gregory, our polemics, our defense of and contentions for "the truth" as we perceive it, are in fact a way of refusing authentic knowledge of ourselves and each other, of resisting needed change and growth by drawing doctrinal lines in the sand and refusing to see, much less step beyond them. But by shutting out others, by refusing to let ourselves encounter them as fellow humans (or even living icons of the Almighty) rather than just representatives of enemy traditions and threats to the "truth", we do the same to God. (cf. Matthew 25:31-46)

I am reminded here of how Andrew Louth wrote that truth-as-mystery, the really vital, weighty truth we encounter in the humanities and especially in religion, is of a sort that makes personal demands of you, that cannot be engaged with in a merely "objective", detached sort of way. Theological conversations are not simply abstract debates between rival systems of truth to determine which has the epistemological upper hand; they are human encounters like any other, and to treat them as less than this does not do justice to God, our neighbor, or ourselves.

Fr. Gregory continues in a follow-up post by applying John Zizioulas' description of tradition as existing "enhypostatically" to the subject of inter-traditional conversations:
Let me suggest that if the tradition only exists by way of the person, then tradition is not simply, or even primarily, an objective content. Rather tradition is a virtue and virtues wax and wane. In other words, a tradition is only more or less revealed by how I live my life. Complicating this further, is that I do not live or embody only one tradition. Rather each human life is lived as the intersection of multiple traditions.
Tradition is not merely a body or system of teachings; it is a way, a life, or (in the case of other "traditions", like where we live, where we go to school, or experiences that have shaped our lives) at least a part of how we live. All of these things contribute to how I, as an individual, come to experience and embody the Orthodox tradition. They also add considerable complexity, depth, and need for sensitivity to what we may be tempted to suppose is a simple, straightforward conversation between two rival forms of Christianity (or other traditions).

Add to this the fact that none of us are flawless representatives of our tradition. All too easily we can end up representing instead our own egos, our insecurities, the desire for pleasure and avoidance of pain that Orthodox call the "passions". Fr. Gregory warns that "unless we are well formed in the spiritual life, and psychologically sound, what we are mostly likely to give voice to is not the tradition of the Orthodox Church or the tradition of the Catholic Church, but our own passions. And this, I would suggest, is true regardless of the objective validity of any given statement that we might make." Speaking truly requires more than getting the facts right—again echoing how Louth wrote that holistic truth is not merely objective. Gregory gives an illustration:
The example I use with my own spiritual children is this, it may in fact be objectively the case that I am stupid and my mother dresses me funny, but it is unlikely that telling me this truth is sufficient to change my life. Still less is telling me this likely to encourage me to trust you and give you a place of authority in my life. And let us make no mistake here, in any conversation I have, I only listen to the views of those who I see as authoritative—I might or might not trust [their] authority, but I still must see them as an authority for me.
The great danger of polemics, he warns, is that in our rush to defend "the truth" it is all too easy to become oppositional and hostile, to cease acting and treating others in accordance with that truth.
Whatever the reason, sharp disagreements are inevitable when we are looking together at what divides us. Polemics, however, seem to me to begin with that sharp disagreement. In so doing, they are intellectually unchaste embodying as they do an underlying lack of respect for the limitations of both self and others. In our polemical attitude we are freed from any consideration of our own passions in the pursuit of the Truth. The fact that we often say things which are true does not remove from us the burden of intellectual dishonesty.

Truth as appetite

If we treat dialogue as merely an exchange and weighing of "objective" truths for which the persons involved are merely vehicles, we leave the personal dimension (which is closer to the level on which Truth actually exists) of the "rational" conversation to be governed by our sinful passions. University of Alberta professor David Goa, beginning with the quote by St. Isaac, describes more precisely how this happens. He sums up relativism and zealousness for the truth as two sides of the same coin, two related ways of "misunderstanding our deep desire for a firm truth. ... In both we see this human desire [for truth] turned into an appetite." What follows is a deep diagnosis of the polemical attitude:
Whatever we come to look at and care about is then forced into conformity with the idea, image, or ritual that we have erected as absolute. We begin to hang all our hopes and dreams on the truth of our chosen framework, our precious absolutes (including the relativists’ precious absolute that there is nothing of ultimate value). Our longing is captured by an absolute of our own making. It follows, almost without saying, that once we hang all our hopes and dreams on something that we claim as absolute, it is a short step to hanging all our fears on it as well. In this moment the holy longing of the human heart and mind that lies behind the search for absolutes becomes polluted. Zealousness for the truth frames how we see and understand and reshapes our response to the fragility of the life of the world.
It is this passion, this disease, that St. Isaac says we are freed from when we learn what truth is really like. But we are only open to learn what truth is like when our understanding of truth itself is transformed.
For the relativist, this transformation involves letting go of the rejection of absolutes. But his description of the one who is zealous for truth sounds uncomfortably like me:
The zealous, often religious men and women, have yet to walk through the valley of shattered absolutes. They erect elaborate temples of truth, statement-by-statement, fact-by-fact, temples that have turrets strategically located, each well armed and poised to fire at a moment’s notice. Both the relativist and the zealous are spiritual adolescents at best, and in our fragile world, where the news media often shape the public discourse, they have bonded with each other to divert attention away from serious encounter with “what truth is really like.”
Using public discourse about Islam as an example, Goa goes on to describe how parties (for example, political parties) that are diametrically at odds with one another can unwittingly work together to "contribute with equal passion to the emotional landscape that traps the human spirit somewhere between indignation, despair and cynicism." Both parties antagonistically use the pressure and the perceived threat posed by each other "to reduce complex issues and themes to what they have come to understand in their zeal." For the positions of the religious right and secular left, "truth has become coterminous with a selected set of facts, real or imagined." He then seeks to apply the line of thought offered by St. Isaac to this standoff:
For St. Isaac, zeal for truth is itself a symptom of a spiritual disease. Or, perhaps, it is a condition that tends to develop at a certain stage in the spiritual life and is itself simply a marker of that stage. It is the spiritual equivalent of adolescence where the young try out all sorts of ideas and actions with the conviction that no one else has ever had these thoughts or feelings and they are exploring them for the first time. How can it be that no one else has ever seen just how important and ultimate these thoughts and feelings are?
Recall what Fr. Gregory wrote about "mental health" as the the integrity and functioning of our natural faculties, something in which we should develop over the course of our lives. Zealousness for truth occurs when this growth is arrested by our stubbornly clinging to a certain set of facts as "the truth". And so, "one is stuck in the adolescent stage of the spiritual life."
Better than most wings of the Christian tradition, Orthodoxy has understood that the concern for truth and the question of truth are not anchored or bounded either by philosophical concepts or principles or by historical fact. Fact is not truth nor is truth merely fact. Truth is far beyond the reach of fact. That either philosophical ideas or historical facts are cast in the language of the Christian teaching does not make them any more a matter of truth. You can dress them up all you like, but they remain exposed for what they are, simulacrums for truth. They all indicate that one has not “tasted of truth.”
Goa is exploring the implications of what I glimpsed as I was investigating Orthodoxy, that Truth is not merely "that which corresponds to reality", but reality itself—the supreme Reality, God in three Persons. Statements of fact, while they may soundly describe this Reality, are not the Reality Himself. When we make something less than this Reality the "absolute truth" around which we orient ourselves, no matter how correctly it describes reality, we have replaced the Truth with something less than ultimately true. And this substitution, this idolatry, is the basis for "zealousness for truth".
We want the comfort of our truth statements, of our elevated theologically clothed philosophical doctrines. And we want them because we are addicted to the spiritual adrenalin we feel at the sudden rush of winning, at least in our own minds and hearts, the argument for truth. We want to be defender of the faith, the kind of person who knows he is right and takes pride in staking a claim to what is true no matter what the cost.
Orthodox are no strangers to this phenomenon, especially converts to the faith, who go through what is known as "conversion sickness" (as useful a reference as my lengthy series on becoming Orthodox is, I was probably in the throes of conversion sickness when I wrote it). Calvinists apparently go through it as well, calling it the "cage stage" (the word-picture implying that these zealous new converts need to be temporarily locked in a cage until they calm down to avoid hurting themselves or others). The remedy St. Isaac offers for this zealousness is to "taste the truth". Goa concludes:
We are called to better. We are called to better precisely because in Him who is “the truth and the life” we are freed from the habit of taking refuge in abstract notions of truth. If we taste of truth at every Eucharist we know better. If we taste of truth every time we, like the disciples, find ourselves in Emmaus breaking bread with someone we didn’t know we knew, we know better. We know better every time our hearts are moved with compassion.
No wonder St. Isaac says that when we learn what truth really is we will cease being zealous for truth, cease responding as if it were our place to defend and protect truth. If the history of religions teaches us anything, and I think it teaches us much, it teaches us that one of the most serious religious diseases is zealousness. It was a deep concern to Jesus as he walked the valley of the Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem. And he finally healed us of its bondage when he spoke from the throne of the cross to those who were contentious for truth, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Fr. Gregory, in his last post on the subject, finally cites both St. Isaac and Goa. After summarizing Goa, he concludes with his earlier point that
polemics, a zealous approach to the truth has a strangle hold on us because we do not wish to grow, to change. Our conversations are polemical because more often than not, our thinking about ourselves is static and rigid. Catholic/Orthodox polemics—at least as we see them in contemporary practice—are only accidentally theological. In the main (and I will address this more in another post) our polemics reflect our own lack of wholeness, of balance, of our own lack of virtue. We are, as I said earlier, neurotic.

To know the Truth

Drawing from multiple commentators, I hope I've painted a fairly clear picture of what he meant by "zealous" or "contentious" for truth. In contrast to the good, more metaphorical uses of these terms in the Bible to denote religious fervor and discipline, "zealousness for the truth" is, as Goa says, an appetite for certainty, our disordered passions—pride, insecurity, fear—hijacking our natural will's desire to know the Truth. We erect the system of our own perception of "truth" like a fortress, pledging to defend it against any and all threats, satisfying our appetite by zealously vindicating "the truth" as we see it over against the falsehoods that others have come to stand for in our eyes. In 1 Corinthians 11:16 the word translated into "contentious" is is philoneikos, literally "victory-loving"—a telling construction. Safe and secure in our fortress of facts, we don't authentically encounter God, ourselves, or others, but only the thrill and agony projected by our passions onto the contentious interplay of "truths" being lobbed across the great divide.

Implicit in Isaac's statement is that the truth we are zealous for is something less than the real Truth, which the "zealous" have not yet tasted. Zealousness for truth, as I have been describing it, entails the substitution of a rigid, constructed system of "truth" for openness to encountering and being changed by the Truth that exceeds all of our attempts to define and circumscribe it. When we move from reality to statements corresponding to reality, however correct the correspondence may be, we are removed a step from tasting the truth. This step back is the basis of the "human tradition" that Jesus (Mark 7:8) and the Reformers rightly deplored. Holy Tradition, if it is to be any different, must be the Church's Spirit-guided ascent towards, and life within, the divine Reality, never stopping to accept any lesser construction as ultimate. (Apophatic theology, "theology of negation", is one way of realizing this)

Our need to always be open to and growing is why an inherently parsimonious of minimal approach to truth, such as the Enlightenment ideal of questioning everything and basing one's beliefs only on what can be demonstrated by reason, is inappropriate for us. For if we refuse to accept anything that we cannot fit into our established system of truth, that cannot pass by the gatekeeper of our judgment, we make it impossible to grow in the truth, to be changed by it. We become "closed-minded". There is a similar danger to insisting on only "objectively knowing" the truth at the expense of subjectively engaging with it.

In the Orthodox tradition Truth is, most "truly", the person of Christ (Jhn 14:6), the "one who is", the ultimate Reality and the ground of all being. To know this Truth is to participate in him, to be known by him. Christ is the reality towards which all of our statements and doctrines are directed; they call us forward, to actually taste the Truth, to push past all lesser substitutes. (This is why no one is simply argued into believing, because belief is so much more than the acceptance of certain facts) Thus truth does exist "out there", independently of ourselves, as apologists for "absolute truth" are so quick to assert, but it does not exist independently of persons; rather, the Truth is a Person. The Truth objectively exists (in fact, he exists much more objectively than we do), but cannot be truly known objectively. To know God is to love God. (1 John 4:7-8) Relationships, intercommunion or sharing of life between persons, are much closer to the "natural language" of the Truth than mere words or propositions.

If this really is the case, then it is obvious that the Truth does not need our help, in contrast to systems of truth constructed by us. We need the Truth, he does not need us. And so it is that "tasting the truth" frees us from needing to be zealous on its behalf. Once we have actually tasted truth, our assurance and experience of truth is no longer based on a system that we construct in our minds and need to defend, but on reality, on living experience which is not in any way endangered by what others are saying; we know better. In Orthodox thought, knowledge is indistinguishable from participation. Tasting the truth, partaking in the truth, frees us from the neurotic doubt that drives us to zealously defend truth. The real problem is not the truth itself being somehow threatened, but simply people refusing it, preferring darkness to light, and we respond not by treating them as enemies to be polemically defeated, but by inviting them in.

Tasting the Truth

St. Isaac's words come as an answer to the intense concern I felt for the "unity of the church" and divisions among Christians during my period of doubt. I was grieved by the polemics, the doctrinal disagreements, and the schisms I saw among Christians, and not just because they made it impossible for me to find "true" teaching concerning my doubts without arbitrarily choosing the version I wanted to accept. I sensed that the state of division I felt immersed in was not the way things were supposed to be. While I no longer believe that the mystical body of Christ is divided in this way (praise God for this), this study of polemics has allowed me to see more clearly what was going on, and why theological debates are so intractable: one or more parties have made truth into a sinful appetite, substituted their own perception for reality, and dug into polemical trenches, ready to defend "the truth" against all threats.

The real kicker is that this can happen regardless of the "truth" of the position being defended, how well it expresses reality. Belief that you are in the right, no matter how well-substantiated, does not justify "zealousness for the truth", but rather is undermined by it. Humility, admission of our own weakness, removal of the plank in our eye are just as essential in discussions of traditions and truth as everywhere else. Faith in the Truth can invisibly slip into faith in ourselves as its designated defenders. Zeal for a "false" belief isn't just a matter of ignorance, illogic, bias, or faulty reasoning; it is a symptom of sin, a sickness of the soul. Proving a zealous person wrong, even if you somehow manage to do it, won't cure them of their zeal. Instead we must confront zealousness with patience, grace, and compassion, not contentiousness in kind, like any other sin.

Zealousness for the truth, the mirror image of postmodern pluralism and relativism, pervades our society (especially in election years). It characterizes a fair amount of the dialogue between Christians, especially those belonging to disparate traditions, as well as the constant skirmishes of the "culture wars". But reflecting on St. Isaac's words, I see the pattern he describes nowhere so clearly as in myself—as I feel threatened and angered by opposing viewpoints, build "temples [of truth] that have turrets strategically located, each well armed and poised to fire at a moment’s notice", or leap at opportunities to represent and defend all the treasure I have found in the Orthodox tradition.

Especially now, I am glad that St. Isaac did not speak of "tasting" the truth merely metaphorically, but concretely and intentionally. For in just three days, I will be received into the Orthodox Church by the sacrament of chrismation and finally, after a year and a half of visiting, partake in the mysteries of the body and blood of Christ. On that day, I pray that St. Isaac's words will be fulfilled in me as I taste the Word who gave himself for my sake.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Zealously Contending for Truth?

Someone who has actually tasted truth is not contentious for truth. Someone who is considered by people to be zealous for truth has not yet learnt what truth is really like; once he has truly learnt it, he will cease from zealousness on its behalf. (Kephalaia IV.77; The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by Sebastian Brock)

When I first came across this passage of St. Isaac a few months ago, it grabbed my attention forcefully because I recognized its truth in myself (and not because I'm "someone who has actually tasted truth"). As I've listened to the reflections of wiser men than myself, I've began to glimpse its profundity, far greater than I first imagined. In just a few words, this bishop who lived in the seventh century on the other side of the world diagnosed a spiritual sickness that is running rampant to this day.

Before I can begin to explore more of what St. Isaac meant, a bit of ground-clearing is in order. He wrote against being "zealous" or "contentious" for truth, but aren't we supposed to have zeal for God (Rom 10:2, 2 Cor 7:11), and "to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3 ESV)? How can Isaac proscribe what God commands?

The first thing to note is that as his title implies, St. Isaac the Syrian was not writing in Greek, but in Syriac, so of course the words he used for "zealousness" or "contentious" are not exactly the same ones used in the New Testament. This makes possible the same kind of semantic slippage that we see in the denigration of the "passions" (epithymia) as dangerous and needing to be subdued both in the New Testament (Rom 6:12, Gal 5:24, Tit 2:12) and in the Orthodox tradition, whereas today the word "passion" is used much more positively, especially in Evangelical Christianity, to mean a God-given affinity or calling to something that is generally worth following.

I don't know a word of Syriac, but I can at least investigate how the New Testament speaks of "zeal" or "contending". The word used in Jude 1:3 is unique in the NT, but it is constructed from the more common root agonizomai, "I struggle/fight", used by Paul to refer to "fighting the good fight" (1 Tim 6:12, 2 Tim 4:7), as well as striving in the work of God (Col 1:29) or to lay hold of salvation (Luke 13:24). Paul uses it to metaphorically describe the way of Christ as a foot race in which we compete for the prize, salvation (1 Cor 9:25). Just once is it used negatively, to refer to physically fighting in John 18:36.

The Greek word for "zeal", in both its noun and verb forms, is more mixed. It frequently denotes  envy, jealousy, or coveting (Acts 7:9, 13:45 17:5, Rom 13:13, 1 Cor 13:4, 2 Cor 12:20, Gal 5:20, Jas 3:14,16, 4:2) and can also mean indignation (Acts 5:17, Heb 10:27). But it can also be rendered as earnest desire (1 Cor 12:31, 14:1,39) or simply "zeal" (John 2:17, Rom 10:2, 2 Cor 7:7, 11, 9:2, Phil 3:6, Col 4:13, Rev 4:19). Paul writes that "it is good to be zealous in a good thing always" (Gal 4:18 NKJV). Paul is "jealous for you [the Corinthians] with godly jealousy" (2 Cor 11:2), and in the Septuagint God himself teaches that he is a "jealous God" (Exo 20:5, 34:14, Deu 4:24, 5:9, 6:15, Jos 24:19).

What it seems to me is happening with these usages is that zeal/jealousy and contending/fighting/struggling, while literally denoting undesirable qualities, are being used metaphorically to mean something good. I don't know what else to make of "godly jealousy". It's somewhat like how Jesus commands us to hate our parents (Luk 14:26)—obviously he is not commanding us to break the fifth commandment, but calling us to love God so surpassingly above any other attachment that it seems like hatred in comparison.

Most people are already aware of this example; I think something similar is going on with the usage of epagonizomai and zelos/zeloo. Physical altercations and quarrels have no place among God's people, but there is a "good fight" to fight (1 Tim 6:12), and we are to "contend" for the faith (Jude 1:3)—describing how we are to strive for the life and salvation of ourselves and others with the vigor and discipline of an athlete or a soldier. God's concern for the good of his people, that they worship and serve only him, is so strong and stringent that it is described as jealousy (Exo 20:5), as is Paul's (2 Cor 11:2). God wants us to belong to him and not to any idol or lesser thing. When applied to us (Gal 4:18), zeloo probably likewise refers to the fervor, exclusivity, and purity of our devotion to "a good thing", and not anything else. Likewise, the "zeal" for which the Levite Phinehas is commended in Numbers 25:11 (same Greek root) is his concern for the purity of Israel's worship, mirroring God's zeal/jealousy for his people.

Presumably, St. Isaac did not have these positive meanings of "zealous" and "contentious" in mind, but was writing more literally, with the negative connotations not elided through metaphor. I also think he was speaking more with respect to the inner life, whereas the NT authors are metaphorically describing external actions and disciplines by drawing parallels between them and combativeness or jealousy. (This is especially evident in descriptions of God as jealous, which are certainly anthropomorphisms) The Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul paraphrases his peer John Piper as aptly saying "that we not only have to believe the truth, that it’s not enough even to defend the truth, but we must also contend for the truth. That does not mean, however, that we are to be contentious people by nature." I think St. Isaac is highlighting this same distinction, between contending for the truth and becoming contentious.

That wraps up the ground-clearing. The next post will be longer and delve as deeply as I can manage into what St. Isaac did mean.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Freedom and Free Choice

Unveiling of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World
(1886), by Edward Moran
In terms of importance to the western cultural ethos, freedom or liberty is up there in the company of such ideological priorities as life and equality. The story of modernity is easily conceptualized as a progression from less freedom to more freedom, from bondage to despots, superstition, and the shackles of nature to the freedom offered by liberal democracy. More "freedom", whatever form it may take, is a Good Thing; it is thus common for debates on social issues to be framed in terms of promoting freedom.

Just what kind of "freedom" is being assumed here? Arguably, it is the freedom of choice, of self-determination, the freedom to chart one's own course in life by acting on one's free will, and the corresponding freedom from any oppressive constraints that prevent one from doing so. (This is the distinction between positive and negative liberty) On a societal level, in modern liberal democracies this freedom is seen as a goal in itself; it serves to support and ensure the capacity of the individual to formulate and live out his or her own goals in life, whatever they may be, and it is the duty of the state to protect it.

But, however praiseworthy the power of choice may be, does "freedom" truly consist in it? I would  disagree. Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart (in a First Things article about, of all things, Janet Jackson's accidental exposure at the Super Bowl) considers the consequence of equating freedom with choice to be "that we tend to elevate what should at best be regarded as the moral life’s minimal condition to the status of its highest expression, and in the process reduce the very concept of freedom to one of purely libertarian or voluntarist spontaneity." For Hart, and for many others in the eastern Christian tradition, "freedom" includes, but is much more than, the freedom of choice. "True freedom," he says, drawing on the definition inherited by classical Christianity from Platonic philosophy, "is the realization of a complex nature in its proper good (that is, in both its natural and supernatural ends); it is the freedom of a thing to flourish, to become ever more fully what it is."

In light of this definition, choice is not automatically an expression of freedom, but can actually impair it. In fact, as Hart says in his book The Doors of the Sea, "the will that chooses poorly, then—through ignorance, maleficence, or corrupt desire—has not thereby become freer, but has further enslaved itself to those forces that prevent it from achieving its full expression." (71) Freedom is not simply the ability to choose between ends arbitrarily; it is directed towards a particular end, the realization of what we are, what we are created to be (not simply what we choose or wish to be via self-determination), and freedom is truly suppressed when this realization is hindered—even by our "free" choice. The particularity, the directionality toward which our nature is oriented, far from a constraint which much be cast off to maximize freedom, is rather the mode in which we are most truly free. In the words of my high school economics teacher, true freedom is freedom for (the full realization of our nature), not merely freedom from (oppression and constraint).

In Orthodox theology, this dynamic is applied in the distinction between two kinds of "will", the natural will and the gnomic will, developed especially by the 7th-century church father Maximos, as Fr. Stephen Freeman explains:
St. Maximos the Confessor, in writings that have become the teaching of the Church following the 5th Ecumenical Council, held that there is such a thing as the “natural will.” This is the will of our human nature. The natural will always wills the good and right thing. It wills the proper end and direction for a human being. This is an inherent part of every nature. It “wants to be” what it is, so to speak. But we do not directly experience our nature for the most part. What we experience as “choice” is a brokenness that St. Maximos called the “gnomic will.” It does its best (as we do when we’re at our best) but is frequently torn between things.
The innate desire of the natural will is the "true freedom" described above by Hart. It is an inalienable part of who we are, namely beings created good by a loving and all-powerful God for union with him (cf. John 17:21-22), and through it we innately, naturally desire to be more what we really are. Our created freedom to realize this highest end is a consequence of our creation in the image of God (Gen 1:20-21), who is perfectly and completely free to be who he is, as the second-century church father St. Irenaeus writes:
If then it were not in our power to do or not to do these things, what reason had the apostle, and much more the Lord Himself, to give us counsel to do some things, and to abstain from others? But because man is possessed of free will from the beginning, and God is possessed of free will, in whose likeness man was created, advice is always given to him to keep fast the good, which thing is done by means of obedience to God. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies IV.37.4)
Throughout this section, Irenaeus presupposes that the created nature of man and the biblical admonishments to obey and choose the good which he is given entail the power of choice, "so that those who had yielded obedience might justly possess what is good, given indeed by God, but preserved by themselves." (IV.37.1) Our active, free participation in the good is what makes it so precious and worthwhile. In the same vein, St. Gregory of Nyssa later wrote in the fourth century:
He who created human beings in order to make them share in his own fullness so disposed their nature that it contains the principle of all that is good, and each of these dispositions draws them to desire the corresponding divine attribute. So God could not have deprived them of the best and most precious of his attributes, his freedom. (Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Oration 5)
But obviously we do not always realize the desire of this natural will. We sin, we miss the mark, we fall short of attaining to the likeness of God (Rom 3:23) as our natural will desires. And so, because of sin, our will experiences fragmentation, debilitation, corruption, inner division. We become double-minded, as James describes in chapter 1 of his epistle. Our nature itself does not change (for this is a misunderstanding of the concept of "nature", and otherwise no one could "by nature do" the things of the law, as Paul describes in Rom 2:14, followed by a description of the double-mindedness involved). As Freeman writes, if our nature had actually changed from good to evil, "we could never be nor become what we truly are", because we would truly be evil, and any change from this natural state would be a delusion. Nor is our freedom of choice totally abolished, for then we could not be held responsible for sin (a common intuition among the Fathers, especially Irenaeus and Chrysostom), but the faculties of our nature, the will and the passions, are blinded and corrupted. The image of God is still very much present in us, and our nature remains good just as God created it, but the expressions of these things become distorted and confused.

And so choice, intended to be the manifestation of our natural will's freedom, always freely choosing God, instead becomes its own kind of bondage. Choice is no longer simply the singular voice of the natural will calling out to God and freely moving towards him, but an often agonizing and unclear deliberation of one course of action among numerous alternatives. We have to choose because we are torn between the still, small voice of the natural will and the corruption of sin, and so situations that are transparent to the natural will seem opaque to us. For to one who knows the way perfectly, there is no real "choice" to make between possible routes; there is only freedom to walk the Way. Similarly, I normally don't have to "choose" to be faithful to my wife, but only in times of extreme temptation and weakness do any alternatives to faithfulness begin to seem like possibilities. This imprisoning necessity of choice which the world considers true freedom is what Maximos calls the "gnomic will". Hart writes that "this is the minimum that liberty must assume; but it is also, just as obviously, a form of subordination and confinement." (The Doors of the Sea, 70-71) Freeman further describes our situation:
We may choose countless numbers of ways to remain in bondage. But unless and until we can see the proper goal of our life and existence, we cannot freely choose it. We live our lives in an illusion created by free-choice, but always with a vague, haunting sense that something is missing – this is the echo of the natural will.
This is something like how Orthodox believe that we have the freedom of choice, so that we can actually be expected to obey the commands of God and held responsible for disobedience, while remaining enslaved to sin and unable to free ourselves. For we are not saved simply by making the right choices, even if salvation necessarily involves our active "yes". Christ promises to set us free, as in John 8:32-36—what kind of freedom is this? Not the voluntaristic freedom of choice idealized by modern western culture (which, as we have seen, is really the expression of our captivity), but the kind that makes us "slaves" to God and to righteousness (Rom 6:18-22). This is no paradox or contradiction, but the heart of Christian soteriology.

In my opinion it is characteristic of the western controversies about justification and the "order of salvation", especially following the Reformation, to conflate and confuse these two kinds of freedom or willing. Pelagius, against whose teaching much of the debate was reacting in one way or another, arguably did so. Jaroslav Pelikan describes Pelagius' view:
[To Pelagius, t]he doctrine of original sin was self-contradictory. 'If sin is natural, it is not voluntary; if it is voluntary, it is not inborn. These two definitions are as mutually contradictory as a necessity and [free] will.' Even after sin the will remained as free as it had before sin was committed, for man continued to have 'the possibility of committing sin or of refraining from sin.' (The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 315)
Pelagius' heresy, in one sense, was the denial that we are any less free after sinning than we are before, because sin remains voluntary; we can seemingly choose to sin or not. Yet as we have seen, according to the Orthodox tradition choosing not to do any particular sin does not make us any freer; we remain trapped in the necessity and blindness of choice itself. In a very real sense, all of our choices not made by faith, even our "good" ones, are sinful (that is, they miss the mark of union with God); see Rom 14:23. Despite having the "freedom" to choose, we remain in bondage to sin. Pelagius' error was supposing that because the gnomic will remains "free", the natural will must be free as well.

The Protestant response to Pelagianism tends to continue his conflation of the natural and gnomic wills and argues the contrapositive—that because our natural will is bound, our gnomic will must be bound as well and our "freedom of choice" abolished. Instead of the minimal, sorry condition of our fallen nature, free choice is seen as somehow exceptional, a power that has been lost to the Fall, the power to "save oneself" in a Pelagian sense. Conversely, when we are made "free" in Christ, this refers to the restoration of choice; as one saying puts it, after redemption in Christ, we become free to sin or not to sin, whereas before, we could only choose to sin. The role of choice in salvation, somewhat paradoxically, thus tends to be exaggerated, especially in traditions placing great emphasis on the "decision for Christ" as the decisive crux when someone "gets saved".

This way of thinking presupposes a radical view of the Fall as abolishing or destroying the image of God in man, or actually changing our nature to be evil instead of good as originally created (which, again, is a contradiction of the classical definition of "nature"). As the commonly used term "sinful nature" suggests, in this view sin is taken to have become the "natural" or baseline condition of our existence as human. Such an intensive view of the Fall is unknown in the Fathers, and is considered by Orthodox to be incompatible with the doctrine of creation, and of evil as a privation of the good. For in this view, sin cannot exist on its own, as a discrete thing occupying the place formerly held by the love for God in our natural will, but only as a parasite, alongside and beneath a good will. If there were no prior desire for God in our hearts, there would be nothing for sin to corrupt. If the image of God were not only tarnished and damaged, but actually destroyed, along with our free will, we would be little different from the animals, unable to be held responsible for our sins (St. Irenaeus expresses this idea in Against Heresies IV.37.2), and there would be no one to save. St. John of Damascus wrote that "God made [man] by nature sinless, and endowed him with free will. By sinless, I mean not that sin could find no place in him (for that is the case with Deity alone), but that sin is the result of the free volition he enjoys rather than an integral part of his nature." (The Orthodox Faith II.12) Our freedom of choice is not removed by sin; it is what makes it possible for us to sin (and to be saved).

All of this speaks to my prior confusion about how the Fall could have actually changed our nature; how did Adam have such power to do so? Why can I not change my nature back through my own choice, as he apparently did? Or did God inflict the "sinful nature" on him as a punishment, thus creating the problem he would later solve through the gospel?? As I came to understand and accept the Orthodox teaching on the matter, it became much clearer.

So for the Orthodox, "free" choice is not as a casualty of sin, but a symptom of it: it entails not that we have the power to save ourselves in a Pelagian sense, but that we are "rational" (not mere animals), able to be held responsible for our deeds. It is not really "free", not in the sense of being somehow prevented from choosing good, but because it testifies to our weakness, our frailty, our inability to see and know the good and our resulting vacillation between good and evil, or (as we all too often perceive them) pleasure and pain. Our rejecting the evil and choosing the good does not, in itself, make us any freer; against Pelagianism, Orthodoxy rejects the notion that we can be saved simply by the exercise of the will, without the intervention of divine grace received through faith. In other words, our "free will" (as choice) is not constrained; it is itself the constraint on the innate desire of our deeper, still-good natural will, as Hart summarizes:
The natural will must return to God, no matter what, but if the freedom of the gnomic will refuses to open itself to the mercy and glory of God, the wrathful soul experiences the transfiguring and deifying fire of love not as bliss but as chastisement and despair. The highest freedom and happiness of the creature ... is the perfection of the creature's nature in union with God. And the highest work of providential grace is to set our deepest, 'natural' will free from everything (even the abuse of our freedom) that would separate us from that end, all the time preserving the dignity of the divine image within us. (The Doors of the Sea, 85)
The Confession of Dositheos, an Orthodox confession promulgated by the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672 largely in response to the claims of Calvinism, expresses how the human will can naturally choose what is good (explaining how, in the language of total depravity, man is not as evil as he could be), but cannot do any "spiritual good" (leading to real salvation) without grace working through faith.
We believe man in falling by the [original] transgression to have become comparable and similar to the beasts; that is, to have been utterly undone, and to have fallen from his perfection and impassibility, yet not to have lost the nature and power which he had received from the supremely good God. For otherwise he would not be rational, and consequently not a human. So [he still has] the same nature in which he was created, and the same power of his nature, that is free-will, living and operating, so that he is by nature able to choose and do what is good, and to avoid and hate what is evil. For it is absurd to say that the nature which was created good by Him who is supremely good lacks the power of doing good. For this would be to make that nature evil — what could be more impious than that? For the power of working depends upon nature, and nature upon its author, although in a different manner. And that a man is able by nature to do what is good, even our Lord Himself intimates saying, even the Gentiles love those that love them. {Matthew 5:46; Luke 6:32} But this is taught most plainly by Paul also, in Romans 1:19, [actually Rom 2:14] and elsewhere expressly, saying in so many words, “The Gentiles which have no law do by nature the things of the law.” From which it is also apparent that the good which a man may do cannot truly be sin. For it is impossible for that what is good to be evil. Although, being done by nature only and tending to form the natural character of the doer but not the spiritual, it does not itself contribute to salvation without faith Nor does it lead to condemnation, for it is not possible that good, as such, can be the cause of evil. But in the regenerated, what is wrought by grace, and with grace, makes the doer perfect, and renders him worthy of salvation.  
A man, therefore, before he is regenerated, is able by nature to incline to what is good, and to choose and work moral good. But for the regenerated to do spiritual good — for the works of the believer being contributory to salvation and wrought by supernatural grace are properly called spiritual — it is necessary that he be guided and prevented [preceded] by grace, as has been said in treating of predestination. Consequently, he is not able of himself to do any work worthy of a Christian life, although he has it in his own power to will, or not to will, to co-operate with grace.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Why I Am (Becoming) Orthodox

Almost since I started becoming interested in Orthodoxy, a recurring theme in my journal entries has been my attempts to write an "elevator pitch" for it, not as if I were trying to sell something but a concise summary of why I find it convincing and why I am in the midst of a long transition from evangelical to Orthodox Christianity. If my 23-post series is any indication, I haven't come very close to "concise" yet. After a lot of reflection and brainstorming, I'm giving it a try now. Here are ten reasons why I am (becoming) Orthodox, hopefully kept to a short enough length that you won't have to schedule a time to read them in your calendar. (Optionally, compare my list with that of Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, in which I see some similarities with my reasons)
  1. The Incarnation. Perhaps the most fundamental reason I am drawn to Orthodoxy is how totally the Incarnation pervades everything the Church believes, prays, and does—what Fr. Alexander Schmemann calls the "sacramental worldview". This manifests in at least five areas (although the -logy terms I use for them are not used very commonly in Orthodoxy, nor are they treated as much like distinct fields of study as they are in Protestant theology):
    • Epistemology: Reflects the reality that Jesus is "the Truth" (John 14:6), i.e. that the Truth is a human person, and deeply explores and applies the implications of this. The result is that the faith is never remotely reducible to a body of doctrines to be believed; knowing God or having right theology is irreducibly relational as it is also propositional. Both the head and the heart are involved in really doing theology (in Greek usage the human capacity to know God is thought to be centered in the heart).
    • Bibliology: Similarly applies the reality that Jesus is the Word (John 1:1); Scripture is read as a fully divine and fully human book whose purpose is to witness to Christ and express the core of the faith he embodies. The human and divine aspects of Scripture, as well as of the Holy Tradition of which it is the center and within which it is rightly read, are seen as complementary rather than conflicting.
    • Ecclesiology: The Church is viewed as the body of Christ, an incarnational (not just a socioloical) reality, defined as much by its unique and salvific relationship by God as by its members. In Orthodoxy the Church is seen as truly one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
    • Soteriology: Unabashedly synergistic; with the Incarnation as an example, there is again harmony rather than tension or competition between our will and God's, just as is embodied in Christ. (The doctrine of duothelitism, "two wills")
    • Doxology (that is, worship): Holistic, utilizing all the senses, reflecting the fact that God became matter and saves us through matter. Thus the form worship takes is viewed as just as significant and meaningful as the "message" it carries. It is centered around the Eucharist, which is in a sense  a weekly celebration of the Incarnation.
  2. Orthodoxy's unbroken continuity with the early Church. Amid a sea of Protestant churches, movements, theologies, and groups making conflicting claims to represent "original Christianity" and the resultant skeptical attitude that no one can claim to be the "one true Church", Orthodoxy's apostolic succession and Holy Tradition which seeks to receive, treasure, and preserve the Truth rather than modify it made its claims stand out as believable. I truly believe is it is the unbroken continuation of the apostolic faith into the present day. The relative similarity of Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, despite the fact that they split off from each other long before the Catholics or Protestants went their separate ways, is striking and compelling evidence of the historical continuity of both.
  3. Its clear, wholehearted, unqualified affirmation of God's goodness. Uncertainty about God's goodness was the center of the struggles with doubt that led me to question everything I believed. Is God somehow complicit in the problem that "the gospel" solves? Is he the one from whom we are saved? Is sin willed by God, another means he uses to show forth his glory? Is death a punishment for sin created by God? Does God need to punish our sin before he is able to forgive us? Does God will to save only some and not all? Orthodoxy's answer to all such questions is a resounding and decisive "No", and I am incredibly grateful for it. Of particular note is its teaching that hell is not a cruel and endless torture chamber, the damned soul's experience of God's anger and vengeance, but of his love, which to them is torment but which to the saints is unutterable bliss. The message is that the difference between heaven and hell is not simply in how God treats us (for his love towards sinners never wavers), but in how we are able (or not) to receive his presence.
  4. The indivisible unity of worship, prayer, theology, and life. The theology of the Orthodox Church is not best expressed in a systematic theology (John of Damascus' The Orthodox Faith is the closest I know of to one), but in its worship, creeds, and prayers. "Theology" is truly knowledge of God, not just knowledge about God; as Evagrius of Pontus put it, "if you are a theologian, you pray truly, and if you pray truly, you are a theologian." Orthodoxy is seen not merely as a faith but as a way (leading to salvation), a life, namely the common life of the Church in union with the life of Christ. Knowing the truth and practicing it are two sides of the same coin. As a corollary, there is not much of a gap between the Church and the academy; the Church's best theology is not done in isolation from its worship. Much more often, it is expressed in its worship.
  5. Its beautiful, compelling, and perfectly-balanced vision of the gospel. To name just a few of the things I appreciate:
    • The theological focus on what we are saved to, namely the lofty (but attainable by the Spirit) goal of theosis, holistic, mystical, transformative union with God. What we celebrate in church each week, what I find constantly throughout Orthodox writings ancient and contemporary, is a joyful exploration of the riches we have in Christ, that is, what we receive and become through our salvation. A quote by St. Athanasius that is very frequently thrown around exemplifies this: "God became man that man might become god." Orthodoxy sets the bar for salvation very, very high and is itself the Way to reach it.
    • The gospel is cosmic as well as individual; objective as well as subjective. The constant focus in worship is on praising and making present objective spiritual realities, not just their subjective effects on and in me.
    • Salvation is physical as well as spiritual (the incarnational soteriology again); there is no popular misconception that Christianity is about "going to heaven when you die". Death in all its senses is the enemy just as much as sin is. The veneration of relics, far from idolatry, is a reflection of God's power to redeem even our physical bodies. Nothing God has made is outside the scope of the gospel.
    • Salvation is therapeutic rather than legalistic: we are saved not by meeting the right requirements in an impersonal system or being declared "not guilty" in a heavenly courtroom; though these metaphors can be applied, God does not need to do any such thing in order to forgive us, and they certainly do not describe the primary meaning of salvation. Rather, it is is viewed as healing, and sin, death, and the devil as oppressors from which Christ rescues us. What changes, what needs to change, is ourselves, not God's disposition towards us, which is in fact unchanging.
  6. Putting Christ and the cross front and center, in their fuller context. The divine victory was won just as much at Christmas and Easter as on Good Friday. Salvation is equally the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit, not the Son in isolation. Orthodoxy proclaims this reality clearly.
  7. Its wise wariness of the power of human reason, as well as its detachment from modernity and related tendencies like rationalism and individualism. In fairness, this may be in part a historical accident reflecting Orthodoxy's isolation from Scholasticism and the Enlightenment, but I see a somewhat similar trend of cautious, thoughtful engagement in its relations with classical philosophers. I sometimes hear talk of the "noetic effects of sin" in Protestant circles, but Orthodoxy is much more methodologically thorough in its distrust of human reason, not least in its sensitivity to the role of mystery in theology and the necessity to read the Scriptures with the mind of the Church instead of one's own judgment. Rational thought is considered a useful tool to support our knowledge of the truth, but is not a necessary or absolute criterion for believing it.
  8. No age discrimination in worship. In an Orthodox Church, there is no Sunday school, at least not during the liturgy; children and infants are baptized and chrismated and thereafter fully participate in worship alongside their parents, up to and including the Eucharist. I didn't realize how significant this is until I had experienced it for a while, but now I think it's quite beautiful (many Orthodox cite it as an advantage over Roman Catholicism as well). This reflects quite visibly Orthodoxy's lessened focus on reason and head-level understanding, as well as its understanding of salvation as healing and sacrament as mystery. You don't need to rationally understand grace in order to partake in it; in fact, the ways in which we receive grace are at bottom not rationally understandable. It strikes me as the fulfillment of Jesus' words in Matthew 19:14: "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven." Fr. Josiah Trenham comments on this: "It is not the children who must grow up and become like adults in order for them to be baptized and saved as the Baptists would have us believe, but, on the contrary, it is the adults who must be converted and become like children if they hope to be saved."
  9. Its realization of things that feel like unreachable ideals in Protestantism. Orthodoxy has great unity and clarity on "essentials of the faith", which is nominally the goal for Protestant unity but only rarely and incompletely achieved. Any Orthodox can tell you just what "praying continually" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) looks like in life, even if the saint who fully becomes prayer is a rare and precious sight indeed. There is no sense of a need to recover, rehabilitate, reclaim, or move towards important but missing parts of the faith; there is instead an almost tangible "fullness of the faith", which I heard mentioned by many others in my catechism class as a reason for their interest in Orthodoxy. This reflects the Church's unbroken continuity with the apostles, its preservation of the faith entrusted to them by Jesus, leaving nothing out.
  10. A consistent stance toward all of these things, rather than a confused or conflicted one. They are applied, not merely talked about or paid lip service. I found many of Orthodoxy's truths at least hinted at in the books I read while searching for the truth on my own, but too often they were just academic ideas, applied on a small or individual level if at all. But in Orthodoxy they are much more.
These reasons aren't meant as a decisive "proof" of the Orthodox faith (the concept of a "proof" connotes a kind of objectivity which I don't think is attainable at all in religious truth), or even as an argument for it; again, refer to my 23-post series if that's what you're looking for. They are rather a quick outline of why I find Orthodoxy convincing, and why I am joining it. Do any of them resonate with you as well?

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Culture of Martyrdom

It feels like every few weeks that American Christians find something new to get angry over. Some examples from this year: the false allegations against Planned Parenthood that it sells aborted fetal tissue for profit, Kim Davis, the Obergefell vs. Hodges ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, the recent absurdity over Starbucks changing their cup design to not include generic symbols of winter, the more general perception of a "war on Christmas", and the perennial controversies over states/cities/schools not supporting public prayer or public endorsements of Christianity (as distinct from cracking down on the private practice of religion).

Why is this Christian outrage so common? Some degree of pharisaic self-righteousness, of wanting to be (or feel) vindicated over against the sinful "world" probably has something to do with it. It is always far easier to identify and deplore error than it is to repair it, to proclaim the truth and embody the love with which we have been loved. There is also (as I pointed out in the context of the allegations against Planned Parenthood) a failure to love those one considers one's enemies, and an eagerness to believe the worst about them—and then get outraged over it. The capability of modern media, news and social, to spread a source of outrage like an epidemic well beyond its original scope to infect people who have nothing to do with it also has something to do with it. (Conversely, the media's role in amplifying and making visible the resulting outrage should not be underestimated) But I'm going to focus on and try to correct a reason for Christian outrage that arises from being aligned with the world, instead of overly hostile or self-righteous towards it.

I'm referring to what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind and co-author of the influential article The Coddling of the American Mind) calls the "moral culture of victimhood". That post on Haidt's blog is his summary of a paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, which posits the culture of victimhood as a new "moral culture" that influences how conflicts are handled, after the cultures of honor and dignity well-known to sociologists. In a culture of victimhood, individuals or groups respond to relatively minor slights not on their own but by calling for the intervention of an influential third party (in America, collegiate or governmental authorities). This requires the collecting of evidence or campaigning to convince the third party that they are being oppressed, denied equality, "victimized", or socially marginalized, and that this party's help is needed to end the injustice. This culture carries with it an elevation of victimhood as something desirable and virtuous; the authors wrote, "Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights."

This culture, as Campbell and Manning write, is most entrenched in college campuses where it encourages people belonging to groups seen as underprivileged to be hypersensitive to "microaggressions" directed against them, but a version of it has become influential in American Christianity. It is often referred to (by non-Christians) as the "persecution complex". As they point out in a response to comments on Haidt's blog:
But we certainly see manifestations of [victimhood culture] elsewhere, and many of our readers have, in person or online, pointed to various examples of conservatives, evangelical Christians, or others complaining about minor slights, portraying themselves as oppressed, or in some other way claiming victim status. This is something we point out in our article – that if victimhood confers status, then all sorts of people will want to claim it.
In a Christian context, then, victimhood culture means calling out a perceived slight, injustice, or instance of oppression for one's faith as "religious persecution" or a step away from it and campaigning (the louder the better) for a powerful third party (often the government, or maybe sometimes the general public?) to step in and protect one's civil liberties. Feeding into this is a narrative of Christians as a socially marginalized and disadvantaged group in America, reinforced by all the ways in which our society is "rejecting God": acceptance of abortion and gay marriage, declining church attendance and increasing nonbelief, the secularization and pluralization of culture, and incidents like the ones I listed above. Every instance of "persecution" strengthens this narrative, and with it the influence of victimhood (or perhaps martyrdom) culture in American Christianity.

As you may have guessed, I do not think victimhood culture is compatible with the Christian faith. Most of the time the persecution being experienced and causing the outrage is totally imaginary, as non-Christians can usually see pretty clearly. This wolf-crying has cost Christianity a lot of credibility in the outside world's eyes. America may not be a "Christian nation", but Christianity has long been woven deeply into its moral framework, and still occupies a relatively privileged cultural position. Considering Christians a persecuted minority because of a loss of cultural clout is doubly wrong and shows callous ignorance of what real religious persecution is (as any older Russian Orthodox could remind you). But even if the persecution is real, buying into the culture of victimhood is not an authentically Christian way to respond to it.

The elevation of "victimhood" as a desirable (and yet negative) status strikes me as an inverted parody of the Lord's teaching: "But many who are first will be last, and the last first." (Matthew 19:30) In a moral culture of victimhood people compete to be seen as "last" or "least"—last in the social pecking order, least privileged, most defenseless and victimized—because "last" is the new "first". It is exactly the same worldly, self-seeking logic, only turned on its head. There is the same kind of competition, striving against one another to get yours (in this case, the power of being seen as a victim), because as Campbell and Manning explain, "while everyone can have dignity, not everyone can be a victim", just as not everyone can be the most powerful, the most influential, the richest. But this is not at all what Jesus meant. Victimhood culture encourages a show of false humility painted over deeper anger, fear, and self-centeredness, but the Lord commands true humility. "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3), not in order that you might be vindicated against them through the exercise of this-worldly justice, but to love and serve them.

St. Paul more fully defines this love in his famous chapter in 1 Corinthians: "Love suffers long [and] is kind; ... is not provoked, ... does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." (13:4-7) The contrasts with the pattern of fear, outrage, and offendedness we see in victimhood culture are obvious. Being thick-skinned is a Christian virtue, not at all meaning insensitivity or callousness, but patience and resistance to being angered, able to overlook offenses except for how they harm the offender, just as God is always willing to do for our sins. Elsewhere he puts it in the form of two baffling questions: "Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?" (1 Corinthians 6:7) The Lord teaches us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), to be as patient and compassionate toward their wrongs as we are towards those of our friends and loved ones. I know from abundant experience that it is a virtue and a sign of Christlikeness not to be offended easily, and that this virtue is not developed without a godly, uphill struggle. Let us reject every human philosophy that tries to dissuade us from fighting to become more like Christ.

St. Peter writes words that speak very relevantly to Christian outrage at modern-day "persecution".
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed [are you], for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people's matters. Yet if [anyone suffers] as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.(1 Peter 4:12-16)
The caption reads "Martyrdom of the holy hieromartyr
Polycarp of Smyrna"
Remember that the pre-Constantine Church faced persecution far worse than anything faced by most American Christians even on our worst days. Yet Peter counsels the churches not to be surprised or shocked at this persecution when it comes but to "rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings". We are to rejoice when we are persecuted. Could anything be more counterintuitive? Yet it is just what we see in the early Church, for example in The Martyrdom of Polycarp. This echoes what Jesus himself taught in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed [are] those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake." (Assuming it is said falsely, and for Jesus' sake!) "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great [is] your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:10-12) St. Paul describes the Christian's response to his persecutors, namely to return love for hatred: "Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat." (1 Corinthians 4:12-13)

The modern elevation of the status of "victim" (in desirability, and yet not necessarily positivity) does seem similar to how the early Church held its martyrs in high honor and even desired to imitate them. How are they different? For one thing, the early Christians honored their martyrs without expecting or demanding that the world (or any institution within it) also do so. Why would it? The way of Christ was clearly seen as contrary, diametrically different from and opposed to the way of the world. Martyrdom does not convey "dignity", prestige, or a privileged status in some objective, universal sense that we can appeal to and expect the world to recognize, but the crown of life in the kingdom of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25, James 1:12, Revelation 2:10), which is foolishness to the world. (1 Corinthians 3:19) Martyrs look for justice not from civil authorities here and now, but from God, the true judge who is above every created power. Martyrdom is not the key to justifying your selfish demands for protection and status, but the ultimate renunciation of self as a witness to Christ. Christians buying into victimhood culture in response to real or perceived persecution are not witnessing to Christ, but to their own worldliness.

When persecution comes (and the fact that most "persecution" in America is in the eye of the beholder does not make real persecution impossible), let us face it as martyrs, not "victims".

Postscript. Fr. Stephen Freeman, who has a seriously uncanny knack for writing eloquently and insightfully on whatever I am trying to think on at the moment, has recently written two posts related to this subject. Do You Care Too Much? critiques our tendency to get pointlessly outraged via the media over situations that don't touch on us at all, for the sake of "caring". Such "caring", or having sufficiently strong sentiments about various "issues" (as a normative sentiment, apart from actually doing anything) is, he argues, one of the "passions" that try to master us and keep us from properly ordering our feelings in the Christian life. Living in the Real World focuses on the power of media to distract us from the real, particular world at hand, in which we actually engage and interact, in favor of "things in general": a passive response to vague sentiments over things that have nothing to do with us and which we can't do anything about. Both are far more worth reading than anything I could write (which is why I waited until the end to direct you to them).

Monday, November 16, 2015

Living the Mystery

This is my final post on the book Discerning the Mystery, by Andrew Louth. The first post can be found here.


In the previous five chapters Louth has attempted to trace the division between "head" and "heart", or between two different kinds of knowing truth, that characterizes much of our contemporary awareness. Now, in closing, he turns to look for a way to transcend this division and find unity.

The first possible solution he brings up is that of Baron von Hügel von Hügel traces this divide as being between reason, which is universal and sharable but merely explains and does not "move" us, and intuition, instinct, or feeling, which does "move" us but seems to be individual, evanescent, and not transferable. His answer to this dilemma is not a theory, but a life, "a life sufficiently large and alive to take up and retain, within its own experimental range, at least some of the poignant question and conflict, as well as of the peace-bringing solution and calm" (134)—or as Louth puts it, "the life of saint". As von Hügel says, not simply believing in God but feeling bound to believe as from God himself is what is important: "Not simply that I think it, but that I feel bound to think it, transforms thought about God into a religious act." (135) The saint is one for whom this religious act has become constant and basic to one's being, something made one's own, not merely thought about. Interpretation, understanding, and application are inseparable.

J.H. Newman wrote of a similar union between understanding and action. He seeks to free the concept or mind or intellect from its modern reduction to "mere ratiocination" (138) and to remind us of the classical concept of "mind", nous, as the faculty which enables us to know and commune with God and which is intuitive, moral, and active as well as analytical and contemplative. Faith understood in this light, Newman says, is a deeply intellectual act, but this does not manifest in a concern for proofs, arguments, and evidence. This is partly because our real reasons for believing things lie deeper and are more implicit; "The desire to make all reasoning explicit manifests 'a dislike of an evidence, varied, minute, complicated, and a desire or something producible, striking, and decisive.: such a desire is really irrational, as it fails to understand the realities of human behavior and action." (139) Faith is not merely passive engagement with the truth of the kind we see in the sciences, but active, whole-hearted engagement with it, a "reaching forward of the mind". It is more a skill than a method, a skill acquired by practice—the practice of love, humility, and trust in God. What is most important in knowing the Truth is not evidence but one's moral state.

Newman's striking doctrine of faith comes as a response to the objections raised by the Enlightenment against tradition. Against the scientific attempt to reject traditional ways of knowing, start from scratch, and build up a body of knowledge for oneself from the evidence, Newman defends tradition, the idea of the past as a bearer of the presumptions that allow us to attain to understanding. It is not a matter of applying the right method or technique, but something harder to define, a skill or insight developed by example, "something whose archetype is not the clever arguing of a debater, but the humble understanding of the saint, whose faith is tested and proven in a life." (141)

Louth next turns to a few briefer examples of attempts to transcend the Enlightenment divide. The atheist philosopher Iris Murdoch argues for something resembling traditional virtue ethics over against Kant's strong focus on ethics as a series of conscious moral choices. It is not a matter of consciously applying a rational moral law to choose the right action from a number of possibilities; rather, she says, a man acts because of the kind of person he is, and a truly good person will only see one possibility, the right one. Thus her holding-together of will and reason somewhat echoes von Hügel. Josef Pieper calls attention to the importance of wonder, "that purely receptive attitude to reality, undisturbed and unsullied by the interjection of the will" (142-143), to the contemplation of God. This wonder can be dulled, requiring the sensational rather than "everyday being" to be awakened, or reduced to doubt, a problem to overcome in the quest for knowledge. Yet wonder is not supposed to be temporary, but the lasting origin of philosophy.

The permanence of wonder, Louth says, corresponds closely to the irreducible nature of mystery. And it is a mystery that lies at the center of the Christian faith—and not just a philosophical mystery, but a mystery has been disclosed in the life of a historical person. The ultimate mystery of God is met in the particular, not merely for us to seek out but as the One who came to seek and save the lost. Here we see clearly how mystery is not just the focus of our questioning, but as that which questions us, calls us to account.

It is the centrality of mystery to human knowledge that is questioned by claims of the scientific way of knowing to be the only way to truth. For this way of knowing is blind to mysteries; it knows only solved problems and unsolved problems. But mystery is irreducible to the humanities, including theology, because they are concerned with what man has done as a free, personal being, not as constrained by rational natural laws.

In conclusion, Louth offers his thoughts on the value of theology for human understanding: "theology holds before us, and holds us before, the ultimate mystery of God, and suggests that it is because man is made by God in his image and likeness that he is ultimately mysterious and can never be understood as he really is in terms that prescind from the mystery of his personhood." (145-146) Its fundamental contribution to the pursuit of knowledge is, as Pieper puts it, "that it should hinder and resist the natural craving of the human spirit for a clear, transparent, and definite system", by keeping open access to the tradition in which we can behold the mystery of God in Christ. Theology is not only a matter of learning, though this remains important to its vitality, but is in Newman's terms "the apprehension of the believing mind combined with a right state of the heart" (147). Its fullest expression is a life, a life which testifies to the mystery of Christ and makes his light, his awe-fullness, his love manifest to others.

One more implication of Louth's description of the kind of truth present in the Christian tradition: not being able to justify or "prove" our beliefs of practices in a way that is convincing to an arbitrary, "reasonable" person (assumed not to share our convictions) need not cast doubt on them. It's a consequence of truth in theology not being purely "objective" (that is, dependent on the knower), and the role of tradition in helping us to rightly perceive truth. I was reminded of it again by Newman's point in this chapter that the real reasons (as opposed to the justifications) for what we believe and do tend to be deep and implicit, and "must be attenuated or mutilated" (139) to be turned into a logical argument. This helps explain why in discussing theology I focus not on whether a teaching is derivable from Scripture using sound hermeneutics and rational arguments, but more on its implications (does it contradict or sit in tension with what I know of the "mind of the Church", or fit with it?), or on its origin: is it received as part of the apostolic tradition, or was it added later?

Louth and the authors he draws from (Newman in particular) lay out clearly ideas I was reaching towards as I was rethinking my faith in 2013, ideas which show the radical break I was going through from the quasi-scientific way I approached the Bible and Christian truth previously. I brought up the fact that Truth is something personal, namely Christ himself, in my search for a better way of reading Scripture, but I didn't have the skill to explore the implications nearly as fully as this book does. (Itself an illustration of our interdependence in the search for truth) My dissatisfaction with the scientific definition of truth in theology and idea of a more personal, experiential dimension of truth as something you participate in rather than just perceived are echoed and greatly developed on in Discerning the Mystery. In the next post I hinted at something like Hort's idea of truth as multifaceted and beyond-"rational", Marcel's concept of mystery, and Louth's recurring statement that truth and Christian faith are not merely a matter of ideas, but of reality and our active engagement with it. Of course I saw none of these things clearly at the time, but I anticipated them in some way—much like how Newman describes faith as concerned with anticipations and presumptions, an active "reaching forward of the mind." This pattern of movement from dim apprehension (as faith is tested and built up) to clear fulfillment (as faith is rewarded) is important in the Christian tradition, and I can see something like it at work even in my journey to Orthodoxy, which is a major reason why I find it so convincing.

I decided to blog through Discerning the Mystery because I could tell the truths it witnesses to, things I had already sensed elsewhere in Orthodox teaching but nowhere as clearly, bear huge implications my faith, in particular for overcoming the head-heart divide, the "dissociation of sensibility" that I have long been aware of in myself. Yet this divide is so entrenched that even trying to get rid of it can end up perpetuating it, if I simply try to think myself out of it as I tend to do. The full answer, as Louth says, is not a theory or truth I need to understand analytically, but something I do and live. This is part of the broad and deep understanding of tradition he has been explaining throughout the book, and it is the beating heart of the Orthodox Church, inviting me to take part. Yesterday I began the 40-day fast leading up to the Nativity of Christ—which, as I have already reminded myself, is not simply the Christian version of kosher, but is meant to help us participate in the mysteries of God, to engage with the Truth of our faith, to grow in Christ-likeness. Practices like this, part of a tradition that is not just doctrines but a common life rooted in the everlasting life of Christ, offer someone like me real hope for uniting thought and feeling, belief and experience.