Sunday, February 18, 2018

Byzantium Joy

Since Western civilization was founded on Judeo-Christian values and Greco-Roman law, we are fortunate that Constantine decided to shift the capital of his empire from Rome to Constantinople. At the time, Rome had become vulnerable to the barbarian tribes from the north. This move to an eastern capital allowed the Roman empire to last another thousand years. Constantinople was a fresh start, a city without a history, founded exclusively on the new religion. This is the place where Constantine would elevate Christianity from a persecuted sect to the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The Eastern part of the Roman Empire known as Byzantium mostly prospered, while the Western part of the empire eventually collapsed under the weight of the Germanic invasions. While this led to a Dark Age upon Europe, this was not the case with Byzantium. Unlike the Western Church, which struggled, but eventually thrived by engaging in worldly affairs, the Byzantine Church withdrew to more monastic and mystical affairs. This would eventually take root as the Orthodox tradition of the Christian faith.

As part of lent season, I am reading several Orthodox contemplative texts by Frederica Mathewes-Green, Kyriacos Markides, and Martin Laird. The appreciation you find with the Eastern Church is the deep and rich mystical tradition that allows for the experiential connection to God. Yet, we come to see God is beyond experience. I suppose if more westerners were aware of this historic thread, they would not necessarily seek out those other Eastern religious traditions. As Markides points out, “Christianity, a Catholic bishop in Maine once told me, has two lungs. One is Western, meaning rational and philosophical, and the other Eastern, meaning mystical and otherworldly.”

While the Church of Rome's focus on the rational and philosophical had its place, it was the Byzantium tradition that gave the Church its center. This lineage began with the Desert Fathers and Mothers who sought out loving communion with the silent depths of God. It was by centering in these depths, that a soul strength in the early Christians began to endure. Mathewes-Green notes, “How come Christians who lived in times of bloody persecution were so heroic, while we who live in safety are fretful and pudgy? How could the earlier saints “pray constantly,” while our minds dawdle over trivialities? How could they fast so valiantly, and we feel deprived if there's no cookie at the end of the in-flight meal? How could the martyrs forgive their torturers, but my friend's success makes me pouty? What did previous generations of Christians know that we don't?”

One such early practice from the Desert Father Evagrius of Pontus instructs the following: “Let him keep careful watch over his thoughts. Let him observe their intensity their periods of decline and follow them as they rise and fall.” As we go deeper into the cave of the heart, we can inquire: Are we these thoughts? Where do thoughts appear from? What is the nature of these thoughts, and who is aware of them?

Laird says,
“Precisely because our deepest identity grounding the personality is hidden with Christ in God and beyond the grasp of comprehension, the experience of this ground-identity that is one with God will register in our perception, if indeed it does register, as an experience of no particular thing, a great, flowing abyss, a depthless depth. To those who know only the discursive mind, this may seem a death-dealing terror or spinning vertigo. But for those whose thinking mind has expanded into heart-mind, it is an encounter brimming over with the flow of vast, open emptiness that is the ground of all. This "no thing," this "emptiness" is not an absence but a superabundance.”
While we can't escape metaphysics and discursive thinking, such reasoning can be in service of the whole. As Theophan noted in regards to thoughts about God only make God appear outside you, it is the Byzantium practices of the Eastern Church that allowed for the Kingdom of God to be within you.

“In an age when people claim to be "spiritual, not religious"—not really knowing what they mean by either—lack of proper motivation is common. We must long for truth, freedom, loving communion with the silent depths of God. (Laird)”

Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Taste of Thomism

The rationalist is always downstream of the poet. Right brain can contain left brain, but not vise versa. That's why we can't logically prove the existence of God, and tie it up in a neat little bow like the theory of relativity. Proof will always be probabilistic, not demonstrative.

St. Thomas Aquinas understood this. Although he said proofs can be demonstrative for believers, because they already took the leap of faith. This is the whole point. God requires each of us to work for it: to find our own path towards salvation and liberation, to make belief and faith our own, and to discover Truth in our minds and hearts. We would never value anything that was easily provable anyway.

I spent the last couple weeks taking an abridged class on the St. Thomas and the Philosophy of God. I've always felt I've leapfrogged over some essential philosophy by taking on the modernists and postmodernists first. I realize now many of the errors from modern philosophy resulted in its disdain for tradition. 

Much of modern philosophy assigns greater reality to the parts of an organized whole than to the whole itself, while the postmodernism maintains that the only the parts have reality and that the wholes they constitute are illusory. Aquinas started with metaphysics as the study of being knowing that Truth could be found in a natural reason that was in service to what was above reason. Reason and logic can only prove tautologies; so we start with existence to prove what exists antecedent to it. Simple (or maybe not).

One of the most fundamental distinctions in traditional philosophy is that between act and potency. This is just a more fancy way to make the distinction between permanence and change, or necessity and contingency. But for something to change sans chaos, there must be something that stays the same. As such, the ultimate cause of all change does not change. And that is ultimate act, or God.

Since the ultimate act is perfect (not lacking excellence), God is perfect in intelligibility, love, beauty, truth, goodness, and so on. The big insight that went along with this is that potency is always correlative with the act, so God being the ultimate act of intelligibility gives man faith in reason to discover creation.

Not everyone prefers this version of God. For one, it comes off as God is outside the whole order of creation, and man is ordered to Him, and not conversely. Therefore, there is no dynamic relationship between God and the world. This is sometimes viewed as a sort of deism, where God creates all at once and then does not engage in creation. This isn't exactly the nuance Aquinas was pointing towards. He says, “It ought to be said that the gifts of grace are added to nature in such a way that they do not take away nature but perfect it; whence the light of faith, which is instilled in us by grace, does not destroy the light of natural reason, instilled in us by God.” Grace (or the Holy Spirit) is the mediator between God and man, but in the vertical over the horizontal.

In regards to the spiritual modernists who want to immanentize and depersonalize God (via process theology or evolutionary panentheism), Chesterton makes a clever quip in his book about St. Thomas: “By their superficial theory everything can change; everything can improve, even the nature of improvement. But in their submerged common sense, they do not really think that an ideal of kindness could change to an ideal of cruelty. It is typical of them that they will sometimes rather timidly use the word Purpose; but blush at the very mention of the word Person.” 

He then later concludes, “the essence of the Thomist common sense is that two agencies are at work, reality and the recognition of reality; and their meeting is a sort of marriage. Indeed it is very truly a marriage, because it is fruitful; the only philosophy now in the world that really is fruitful. It produces practical results, precisely because it is the combination of an adventurous mind and a strange fact.”

Very strange indeed.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

I [God] Gave You Dylan

A co-worker of mine recently lent me Bob Dylan's latest release, Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981. It's absolutely terrific!

I was never a huge Dylan fan, but appreciated much of his earlier work that got airplay over the years. I even saw him live in concert once in the mid-1980's. I still think it ranks up there as one of the worst shows I've ever seen. The guy on stage that night couldn't care less what the people thought of him, and it showed. I know for many music enthusiasts, their relationship to Dylan is a complicated one.

With that being said, I've started to see through Dylan's idiosyncracies and shortcomings, and have begun to hone in on the Dylan as a creative vessel at his best. In his 60 Minutes interview, he humbly reveals a mystery to his work and his inability to explain how he channeled the songs he did back in the day...

I found this piece of the interview particularly illuminating: one of the best songwriters of a generation can't seem to take credit for what he did. Only a God-loving person would say such a thing. Well, what do you know.

I was partially aware of his Christian conversion over the years, but not to the extent as to how deeply it changed him. Even prior to his conversion, there are many hints in his music as to this movement in his heart. Bishop Robert Barron, an ardent fan, goes into this here...

His real conversion took place in 1978. One night on tour in San Diego, Dylan looked down and saw a cross someone had thrown on stage. He reached down and put it in his pocket, not thinking much about it at the time. As to what happened later that night in his hotel room, he mentioned once to a reporter that he felt his “whole body tremble,” and that “the Lord knocked me down and picked me up.” 

It was during the next few years when many of these songs on The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 got recorded. These well-crafted gospel-inspired songs have an intensity to them that I've rarely heard Dylan radiate. Clearly, he was in some sort of exalted state, and had the caliber of a band to accompany it.

Interestingly so, Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame, and a vocal atheist) writes the liner notes for The Bootleg Series Vol. 13. Jillette claims Dylan's Christian period was his best musically, and has no doubt of the conversion that influenced it. In a recent interview he says, “I mean if there were a God, and God was to reach me on judgement day, God could say to me, 'Penn, I gave you Dylan in '79 and you still turned your back on me. I gave you Dylan!'”

Ha! He certainly did...

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Why Quit Therapy?

It was around my early thirties that I entered a significant existential crisis (one of a few). This one was over making sense of a romantic relationship. The lady in my life at the time encouraged me to begin therapy, and that was the impetus I needed to take the leap.

On occasion, I've had a disposition towards melancholy (a word I am trying to restore in my vocabulary over being 'depressed').  I think we have overly embraced the illness of depression in today's culture, since it conjures up a disease that needs a cure. Maybe a pill. And yet, melancholy is so much part of the human condition for most, and maybe a healthy catalyst for some.

Nevertheless, it was not my disposition that was the issue, as was the inability to make big life decisions. And as they say: not making a decision eventually is a decision.

I dreaded the idea of going into my past. It seemed so futile. And yet, that's always part of the process when it comes to therapy. To not be held by it, one must be able to hold it.

After almost a decade of it, it became clear (in Attachment Theory speak) I was on the avoidant end of the spectrum partially due to my poor secure attachment to my parents. So I wanted to be loved, but was too overly independent to receive it. I feared being engulfed by another. It's still a sticking area for me, but I am much more objectively attune with it. 

I was fortunate with my therapist. He was a well-spoken gentlemen, with a keen sense for listening attentively while displaying useful insight when needed. He was also quite likable. I am not sure if this is necessary in these dynamics, however, when it comes to therapy they often say what most people need is just a good, wise friend. I think that's often true, so maybe likability is part of the mix (albeit the professionalization behind it).

During the latter part of some sessions, we would often meander about political or philosophical discussions. I enjoyed these moments. You can get sick of talking about yourself. And he would challenge me around some bigger themes that were more compelling to wrap my mind around. I often think he enjoyed these talks also. I can't imagine what it must be like to hear people's problems all day long and appear interested through it all.

But eventually I stopped. At the time, it wasn't like I was "cured". Neurosis never is. It's more like I felt I was in an endless loop about me. It started to bore me. And I knew it was time to take break.

I recently came across a passage from Earnest Becker (I started to look through his classic book again after discussing it with a friend who is reading it for the first time). Becker brilliantly noted that, 
“Man wants to focus his love on an absolute measure of power and value, and the analyst tells him that all is reducible to his early conditioning and is therefore relative. Man wants to find and experience the marvelous, and the analyst tells him how matter-of-fact everything is, how clinically explainable are our deepest ontological motives and guilts. Man is thereby deprived of the absolute mystery he needs, and the only omnipotent thing that then remains is the man who is explained away. And so the patient clings to the analyst with all his might and dreads terminating the analysis.”
Maybe that's why psychoanalysis has done so little for some (see Woody Allen). But it also points out how we are all condemned to religion. It's just a matter of choosing the right one. As I started to see the limits of my therapy, a part of me was orientating more towards transcendence.

It's been several years since I quit therapy, yet I still often think about going back to him for a session here and there. Not because I need a "tune-up" (although it sometimes feels as I may). But I think I want to reconnect with his decency that saw my decency.

With everything I learned about my idiosyncrasies during those sessions, what stays with me most is the imprint of a sort of friendship. Maybe we all need a good, wise friend.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Four Inklings Walk Into a Bar...

Here's the scenario: you're a fly on a wall at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford on Thursday night, and you encounter J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams chatting about metaphysics. What do you say? Not much, since you're a fly after all. But even as a person, you would most likely be verklempt. In such fortune, enough satisfaction would come for the opportunity to at least eavesdrop.

Such was my experience to much extent reading The Fellowship. Lewis would coyly say, “We smoked, talked, argued, and drank together.” In a sense, that was all true. There was nothing fashionable about the Inklings. They were a small group of white men who got together to talk about religion, literature, and philology while smoking and eating unhealthy pub food. But I would have loved to have been a part of it!

Behind all the pub levity and intellectual quarreling, there was a intent of high aim through their writing. As the Zaleskis note, “their great hope was to restore Western culture to its religious roots, to unleash the powers of the imagination, to reenchant the world through Christian faith and pagan beauty.” This wasn't seen as a return to the past, as it was making the present more alive. These were challenging times with two major incessant wars that consumed their day. These men were restoring light through the darkness of modernity. Lewis, the former atheist, would go on the say, “Something inside me seems to be so intensely and burningly alive, and everything round me so starkly dead...” 

“The members' shared Christianity also included a wide spectrum of views. Tolkien was Catholic, Barfield, Anthroposophist; Lewis, a "mere Christian"; Charles Williams, Anglican with a dash of ritual magic. Differences notwithstanding, the members were glued together by shared adherence to the Nicene Creed... and a shared set of enemies, including atheists, totalitarians, modernists, and anyone with a shallow imagination.” As such, they had much to work with. 

Instead of being overly sanctimonious, these men worked with cultural forms they had at their disposal. Tolkien emphasized recovery, escape, and consolation as a model for his imaginary epic tails. Lewis approached his novels similarly, but also a defended Christianity in his other books in a straightforward, rational way that didn't echo the preachiness of early-day chaplains. Barfield carved out an evolutionary framework that bridged science and spirit. And Williams brought in aspects of occult and idiosyncratic interests that intrigued people more interested with Christian mysteries and orders. 

“That the Inklings may have been on the whole more decent and less vain than many other literary coteries can only be because they made a conscious effort to follow the path of real conversation.” And “the dispute over the exact nature of the Inklings —cabal or club?—has faded as history has stepped in with a third alternative: that whatever the Inklings may have been during their most clubbable years, today they constitute a major literary force, a movement of sorts.” Such movements may bring in something new, but as Lewis once said about humanity: “it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving anything behind.”

Despite the happy endings they brought to their stories, they “were not optimists; they ... understood that sacrifices must be made and that not all wounds will be healed in this life. ... One may be as gloomy as Puddleglum or as convinced as Frodo that "All my choices have proved ill" without losing hope in a final redemption.” In the end, the only hope they could leave from a quaint pub to the modern world was a redemption of the Eternal. 

All in all, their prolific contributions were nothing less than extraordinary. I wish I knew them.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Church of Jim Carrey's No-Self

In Greta Gerwig's terrific new film, Lady Bird, there is a scene near the end of the film where the protagonist, Christine, asks a new college classmate, “Do you believe in God?” When he responds glibly with a resounding no, she chides him for his shallow thinking with a clever, yet nuanced retort: “People go by the names their parents give them, but they don't believe in God.”

And then there's Jim Carrey these days, who would probably say a name is nothing but a label that is not associated with anything, because the self and objective reality is just an illusion. Recently, there was a lot of social media chatter with an interview he gave at a fashion show (seen below). Much of the reaction revolved around how deranged and incoherent he came across. But truthfully, Carrey isn't so much crazy as he is just delluded by a common mantra in certain spiritual circles these days. 

Seeing the illusion of self-world gets its roots in neo-advaita teachings. In the Vedic teachings, specifically from the mystic/philosopher Shankara, there is no recognition of reality between the Absolute and the relative. Hence, the individual is also an illusion if seen through the veil of ignorance. Spiritual practices would aim towards extinguishing the personality since there was no mediator between God and world. All was not-two. 

Carrey, a student of Eckhart Tolle in past years, drank the radical non-dual kool-aid. Moreover, some of his acting experiences allowed him to get so absorbed in character, he would later get disoriented to who his real self really was. 

And yet, in the end, as one mystic said, it seems there is “no cure for personality.” The metaphysical genius Robert Bolton is known for writing about these needed correctives in Shankaran philosophy. He states, “In reality, individuality can have spiritual potentialities just as much as the profane ones it is usually associated with, while conversely there is nothing to prevent anti-individualistic systems from serving profane delusions as well as wisdom, as modern history shows.”

While it is true: “it can be shown that the perceived world is in many ways not the same as the known world.” It is also true: “If the ultimate reality is pure unity, there must be a mind to know it to be so, and that means something more than the pure unity. At the same time yet other minds can know the mind that knows the Unity, as though reality had a self-multiplying infinite regress in it. This is closely attached to the fact that all mystical states, monistic or dualistic, include the continuation of the subordinate faculties in the same personal life. The dualistic conception makes this easier to understand than does the monistic one, and the principles on which it is based account for the existence and truth of Theistic religion as distinct from Pantheistic.

Again, the point here is not to confuse ontology with experience. Mystical realization is never the same as metaphysical or moral insight. While I agree some mystics have the "experience" of no-self, most have not been very adept at integrating this as a lived philosophy. In the case of Carrey, I would gather his experience is mostly a combination of spiritual by-passing and espousing the Shakaran view that he was indoctrinated to. 

Ross Douthat makes an interesting point (while quoting Leszek Kolakowski) about how “The Christian churches imposed strict limits on their mystics... they were expected to maintain "the ontological distinction between God and the soul" and to refrain from suggesting that "the mystical union involves a total annihilation of personality." They were forbidden to use their experiences "as a pretext for disregarding the traditional rules of obedience, let alone the common moral duties." And their claims to divine favor were tested against their conduct: "A mystic's experience, if genuine, strengthens his common virtues of humility, charity, chastity; it proves to be a diabolic temptation, rather than God's gift, if it breeds hubris, indifference to others, or irregularities of conduct."”

Bolton says, “The idealism that makes the most sense is that everything on every level is a manifestation of Consciousness Itself. This viewpoint allows for a material reality that actually exists, but is a stepped-down modification of an all-subsuming universal Mind, a.k.a. God.” As such, and “Unlike the Oriental traditions, a Christian gnosis requires both ‘poles’ of consciousness, because belief in the Incarnation does not allow that the manifest personality is only a ladder to be kicked away when some unspecified entity has identified with the Nous or Atman.” It would be all to easy if “our representation of objective reality could be simplified away if we had the right to say that this just meant that everything was an illusion.”

When Chesterton said “Love desires personality; therefore love desires division,” he was pointing to the telos of the cosmos. We are not put here to extinguish objective reality, but to become sanctified through our love for it. 

Besides, if I ever asked Mr. Carrey for some of his financial holdings, I doubt he would freely say there is nobody who has this money to keep for himself.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

One Christmas Fairytale

This from David Warren:
My favourite “modern” Christmas song is, “Fairytale of New York,” by the Pogues. I have it not on disc, but listen every Christmas Eve on YouTube. If I had to explain why I so love it, the spell would be broken. Suffice to say, it is perfect in its kind. There are people, even in New York, and these days even in Ireland, who can make no sense of it. This is their constitutional right. But there ought to be a law to prevent it from being “covered” or re-recorded.
He reminds me how much I love the song also. I'll add that Shane MacGowan always had this way about him as to how he wears his struggle on his sleeve (yes, he's had his share of demons), but with enough self-awareness to know it has its part in purifying human fallibility. It could be an Irish-thing too. 

Definitely in agreement with David here:

Merry Christmas!