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.

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