Thursday, June 22, 2017

Pride Addicts

Robert Barron mentioned in a recent podcast how the root etymology of the word 'addiction' in Latin is 'to lose one's voice'. We are all addicts in some way. The question is whether or not our vice in inherently evil. Some vices are only dangerous in excess, but can be fine in moderation. But when it comes to vices that deny goodness (and our voice) all together, then there should be no compromise. 

The good news is if you invert these vices, you have opposing virtues that can render these demonic impulses harmless to the soul. 

But let's hone in on pride, because it seems to be the one vice that even takes down the most spiritually committed aspirant. It also seems to be the most challenging to see. It's sometimes difficult to discern if I'm searching for God, or if I'm an ego searching for God. On most days, I probably will admit it falls somewhere in the middle.

The real clincher for me is how Kreeft points out that the introvert can often be more prideful than the extrovert. The extrovert may be more vain, because he/she is concerned with their standing with others and is therefore less focused on the self. But an introvert may be less inclined toward their social status in the world, and have alienated themselves from others. Sadly, “the truly proud person couldn't care less what others think of him.” 

As an introvert, it does seem hopeless sometimes. And yet, there is hope.

Humility is the only cure for pride, and “The only way to become humble is to admit you are proud. (Kreeft)”

Kreeft elaborates: “C. S. Lewis encapsulates Augustine's essential point in The Great Divorce: "There are only two kinds of people, in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'thy will be done.' " This is what theologian Karl Rahner calls everyone's "fundamental option", being for or against God, however imperfectly known. God is a gentleman and respects our fundamental choice-eternally. Pride is the greatest sin because it is the living heart of all sins. Every sin says to God, "my will be done".”

So it's a 12-step program compressed into three: admit your pride and that you're helpless in dealing with it on your own, surrender yourself to a higher power, and then realize your life is not about you. 

Sounds like a plan that was never my plan.

The Buddhist and the Stoic and the "peace of mind addict" teach detachment for the sake of tranquility or nirvana, but the Christian wants to be unclothed with the world and the goods of the body and the body itself only to be reclothed with Heaven and the resurrection body. — Peter Kreeft

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Experiencer Experiencing Experience!

Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience. — David Bentley Hart

Some books fade over time, but others seem to grow in their significance. It's not that I can remember the details, it's more like this pull to keep going back to them and appreciating the way they convey Truth to me with a deeper richness. I'm sure there's reciprocal relationship going on here; between myself, the author, and the space in between.

I've been watching some videos on David Bentley Hart, and that's what made me revisit his Experience of God. (I also plan to read another book by him very soon.) When I see him on video, I can pick up on the cantankerousness and cynicism at times, but along with the lucid and exalting articulation. So he may not have the transmission of a saint, but I'm okay with that. Moreover, his writing style is so beautifully impactful, that I am willing to give him a pass on his humanity.

Let's look at some highlights. On the idea of alternative facts (before the phrase became fashionable), he makes this interesting quip:

“In the end, pure induction is a fantasy. The human mind could never arrive at an understanding of reality simply by sorting through its collections of bare sense impressions of particulars, trying to arrange them into intelligible and reiterative patterns. It must begin the work of interpretation at even the most elementary of levels, by attempting to impose some kind of purposive meaning upon each datum.”

We can't live on facts alone! Especially when we all have those narratives living our lives. And on those who believe the only things that can be known to be True must be verified: 

“Most of the things we know to be true, often quite indubitably, do not fall within the realm of what can be tested by empirical methods; they are by their nature episodic, experiential, local, personal, intuitive, or purely logical.”

If you really think about it, the things we value the most can't be quantified. And for those that want to believe life is one big random contingency: 

“As a brilliant physicist friend of mine often and somewhat tiresomely likes to insist, “chaos” could not produce laws unless it were already governed by laws.”

Doh! Who created the order in the chaos? And don't tell me it's turtles all the way down! And how about the process/evolutionary types who believe God evolves along with us:

“God cannot change over time, moreover, as he would then be dependent upon the relation between some unrealized potentiality within himself and some fuller actuality somehow “beyond” himself into which he may yet evolve; again, he would then be a conditional being... it means only that his knowledge or bliss or love does not involve any metaphysical change in him, because it is not based on a privation; it is not a reactive but a wholly creative power, not limited by that difference between active and passive states to which finite beings are subject. God’s knowledge of something created is not something separate from his eternal act of creating that thing; so he is not modified by that knowledge in the way that we are necessarily modified when we encounter things outside ourselves.”

I couldn't say it better myself. And on the concept of progress itself:

“But there really is no such thing as general human progress; there is no uniform history of enlightenment, no great comprehensive epic of human emergence from intellectual darkness into the light of reason. There are, rather, only local advances and local retreats, shifts of cultural emphasis and alterations of shared values, gains in one area of human endeavor counterpoised by losses in another.”

I sort of believe this be true at times, and other times not so much. I do appreciate some exterior advancements, but at times I feel we are still the same, old fallible human. And on those who think AI will become conscious: 

“We have imposed the metaphor of an artificial mind on computers and then reimported the image of a thinking machine and imposed it upon our minds.”

And...

“All computation is ontologically dependent on consciousness, simply said, and so computation cannot provide the foundation upon which consciousness rests. One might just as well attempt to explain the existence of the sun as the result of the warmth and brightness of summer days.”

Ha! Also...

“When Kasparov lost his game in 1997, he was defeated not by a machine but by a large alliance of human opponents, himself among them.”

And when he gets to the topic of consciousness...

“Consciousness does not merely passively reflect the reality of the world; it is necessarily a dynamic movement of reason and will toward reality.”

And...

“Individual psychology is complicated, but subjective consciousness is simple.... [It] perfectly possesses the end it desires.”

Beautifully said. And then on God: 

“Whatever image of God one abjures, it can never be more than an idol: a god, but not God... God is the source and ground of being and the wellspring of all consciousness, but also therefore the final cause of all creation, the end toward which all beings are moved, the power of infinite being that summons all things into existence from nothingness and into union with itself; and God manifests himself as such in the ecstasies of rational nature toward the absolute.”

Also... 

“God is known in all experience because it is the knowledge of God that makes all other experience possible.”

I believe that earns a mike drop. Boom!

Monday, June 12, 2017

(Don't Always) Mind the Gap

The gap between the Divine and man / Father and son / the Supernatural and the natural can not be crossed easily. Only simply. We tend to over intellectualize it, search for its ontological underpinnings, and construct a moral order that attempts to close it. While these are fruitful efforts to cultivate as above, so below, it will always be limited by the mind that contains it.

The bottom line is we want to know how to live, and we hope bridging the chasm is the way to cure our spiritual disease.

Let's take a look at some of the major diagnoses that have been made over eons. It seems like if I got a problem in-here, the solution is going to be out-there (not ideal) or go-deeper-in-here (better). Kreeft summarizes how many of the sages and saints have gone about unpacking their version of problem-to-solution approach.

And if we were going to nitpick here, I would say Christ and Buddha got closest to cutting the problem at its root. And why would that be? It would seem to me that the chasm has caused a split in our soul, and the only only thing that could heal it is a transcendent bridge. 

This bridge goes by many names, but it can't be conceptualized or willfully enacted. It can only be invited and experienced. Richard Rohr recently gave it many invocations during a homily to celebrate the recent Pentacost. Here is a partial summary...

pure gift of God
indwelling presence
promise of the Father
Eternal praise
inner defense attorney
inner anointing
reminder of the mystery
homing device guiding you home
implanted peace maker
overcomer of the gap
magnetic center
God compass
inner breath
Divine DNA
given glory
hidden love of God
implanted hope
seething desire
fire of life and love
sacred pacemaker
the nonviolence of God
seal of the incarnation
first fruits of everything
Father and Mother of orphans
truth speeker
God's secret plan
great bridge builder
warmer of hearts
space of love between everything
flowing water
wind of change
descending dove
uncreated grace
cloud of unknowing
cloud of knowing
deepest level of our longing
attentive heart
sacred wounding
holy healing
softener of our spirit
great compassion
generosity of God
universal sadness
universal joy
God's tears of joy
welcoming within
internal covenant
covenant written in our hearts
dynamic flow of life and love through the body
the great connector
Holy Spirit

And while the Holy Spirit may not always tell us how to live, it can reveal where we should live from.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Not-So-Virtuous Dude Abides

We all hypocrites to some degree. But being a hypocrite isn't so bad. Well, it's not the worst. Ultimately, it means we hold to some belief, but we aren't living it out fully.

The issue then comes to what we believe. Today, people talk more of values. But what are these values? For the most part, they can be whatever you want them to be. Values are a formal way of discussing our personal or societal preferences. In other words, they don't have to be objective in any way or form.

But it wasn't too long ago, we would often refer to virtues: moral excellence, right living, a goodness. Yes, virtues are seen to be more objective than not. It would be hard to be ethical without them. Yet, the word is a tad out of fashion, and we don't like it very much because it imposes on us to believe in an objective goodness too strongly. Hence, we like values better.

So what is worse than being an hypocrite? It would not be having a lack of virtue, because then we at least would believe in something objective and be aware that we aren't holding to it. What would be more corrupt is having any lack of knowledge or belief about virtue. And this is main issue Peter Kreeft tackles in his excellent book, Back to Virtue.

If we don't have any virtuous standards, then we can never be hypocrites. Sure, it makes living easy — but to a point. It really means we have no self-mastery over ourselves. And “If we can conquer everything except ourselves, the result is that we do not hold the power” (Kreeft).

It's not that we don't have any virtue these days, or are even more immoral than our predecessors. Kreeft notes, “I do not think we are necessarily more wicked than our ancestors, overall. True, we are less courageous, less honest with ourselves, less self-disciplined, and obviously less chaste than they were. But they were more cruel, intolerant, snobbish, and inhumane than we are. They were better at the hard virtues; we are better at the soft virtues. The balance is fairly even, I think.”

So it's probably more our virtues have gotten too one-sided. We are all about being kind, compassionate, nonjudgmental, and tolerant. This sort of let's us off the hook, because it doesn't require too much from us. 

It was Aristotle who recommended the golden mean when certain virtues got too extreme. For example, between foolish tolerance and strict judgement is the virtue of discernment, requiring a more refined perceiving that is appropriate to the circumstances.
But this refined approach to virtue has been mostly lost, even in how we see our exemplars. As Kreeft points out, we have even reduced Jesus to the nice guy guru instead of seeing his virtue as a whole...
“Why have we reduced him to meek and gentle Jesus? Because we have reduced all the virtues to one, being kind; and we measure Jesus by our standards instead of measuring our standards by him. But why have we reduced all the virtues to being kind? Because we have reduced all the goods to one, the one that kindness ministers to: pleasure, comfort, contentment. We have reduced ourselves to pleasure-seeking animals.
And so it is this version of Christ that gets somewhat mocked in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski. (The Coen Brothers are known for plenty of religious symbolism in their films.) Near the end of the film, there is the amusing dialogue between Jeff Bridges and Sam Elliott:
The Dude: Well, take care, man, gotta get back.
The Stranger: Sure. Take it easy, Dude.
The Dude: Oh yeah!
The Stranger: I know that you will.
The Dude: Yeah, well - The Dude abides.
The Stranger: "The Dude abides." I don't know about you, but I take comfort in that. It's good knowin' he's out there. The Dude. Takin' 'er easy for all us sinners. 
While the Dude's virtues aren't all that bad, I believe Kreeft is making the point that any attempt to stress certain virtues with the positive exclusion of other virtues is doomed to failure by undermining goodness all together. 

Ultimate goodness requires a univocal wholeness; a place where the Dude does not abide so well.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Experiments with Truth

I was a resident assistant in college, but I was turned down the first time I applied. During the interview, I was asked one word to describe me. I've always been cerebral in nature, so I the first thing that popped to my mind was ‘thinker’. At the time, I didn't believe it was a bad answer until I went back to my apartment and told my roommate about the interview. When I mentioned my response to the noted question, he looked at me with bewilderment and said, “they don't want thinkers, they want doers!”


“Shit, he's right,” I said to myself. 

When I didn't get the position, I believed I needed to re-orientate myself to the nature of the work I was aiming for. What I didn't realize at the time is I should also be re-orientating myself for work that fit my nature.

This isn't always easy to do. We live in a culture that extols doing over being, analysis over intuition, and success over depth. Going against the grain is never easy.

Moreover, we are raised with this belief that we can be anything we want. Even today, I have a friend who goes around claiming any shortcoming seen about oneself is just a ‘limiting belief’. And yet, we all have limits: and it's in those limits where we can learn to hone in our essence to go deeper into our callings.

In his lovely book, Parker Palmer says, “The God I know does not ask us to conform to some abstract norm for the ideal self. God asks us only to honor our created nature, which means our limits as well as potentials.”

Those limits always have a way of exposing themselves, mostly in times when uninvited. As Palmer notes, “how the road closed sign turned me toward toward terrain I needed to travel, how losses that felt irredeemable forced me to discern meaning I needed to know. On the surface, it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of a new life were always being sown.”

I've felt the same in many other failings I've had to contend with around vocation. I recall being laid off from my first post-college job at an engineering firm, and falling into a fit of anger and depression for several months. Looking back at the event, I could almost see no other way that would have benefited my transformation. At the time, I was full of hubris and took the work for granted. I needed a swift kick, because those taps on the back were not sufficing. 

Over analyzing our parachute idioms my help rationally guide, but in my experience will add little more. Instead, embracing the mystery as to what is the-best-version-of-ourselves fully, instead of fitting things into puzzles, will allow of true vocation to unfold organically while transforming us in the process. 

Unlike a childhood friend I had who knew he wanted to be an architect at age 5 and is still working as one at age 50, the rest of us need to experiment a tad more. If we could see that “our lives are experiments with truth... and in an experiment negative results are at least as important as successes” (Palmer).

And I would add, success is never as good of a teacher as is failure. My failures are still thankfully teaching me.

*          *          *

I want to add I also just finished a great audio book by Matthew Kelly (thanks to the girlfriend). I recently came across a list of books that transformed his life, and decided to go through a few of the ones I haven't read (including Parker Palmer's book). It's quite a compelling list so I thought I'd share:

1. Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer.

2. Back To Virtue by Peter Kreeft.

3. Three Philosophies Of Life by Peter Kreeft.

4. As a Man Thinketh by James Allen.

5. He Leadeth Me by Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J.

6. Conversation With Christ by Peter Thomas Rohrbach.

7. The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis.

8. Man's Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl.

9. The Return Of The Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen.

10. Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre De Caussade.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Truth is Beyond Words (But We've Gotta Start Somewhere)

I mention in the subtitle of this blog that it’s about Exploring Truth and Beauty with a broad margin for error. So in regards to error, I am willing to admit I am fallible with my aim. But then again, aren’t we all. 

So what is this Truth thing I am trying to get at? While I am interested in so many life themes, they all do revolve around one thing. Call it what you may (Divinity, Tao, Brahman, God), but simply put: it’s Truth.  

As James Allen says, “Men formulate perishable dogmas, and call them Truth. Truth cannot be formulated; it is ineffable, and ever beyond the reach of intellect. It can only be experienced by practice; it can only be manifested as a stainless heart and a perfect life.”

So if Truth is ineffable, then what am I doing wasting my time writing this blog? It could be that if Truth is Eternal and can’t be talked about directly, then maybe how it shows up in the world can be. If we’re open to it, we can see the Eternal in the temporal. And it’s in this space where the horizontal can engage with the vertical. 

“Truth is nothing if not unchangeable, and in so far as a man takes his stand upon Truth does he become steadfast in virtue, does he rise superior to his passions and emotions and changeable personality. (Allen)”

Well, I try. But some folks don’t even try. Take this interesting video between Stefan Molyneux and a caller. He is clearly a very left brain person, who prides himself on his logical articulation, and she is more intuitively right brain. You can see what happens when these two sides collide…



A strictly logical person can’t understand an intuitive person, while some intuitive persons can understand logic. In other words, the right-brain can contain the left brain but not vice versa. Both hemispheres need each other, but only the right side knows this.

In his superb book, Iain McGuilichrist mentions that “the left hemisphere has to blot out the right hemisphere in order to do its job at all. That is surely the import of the functional and anatomical evidence that left hemisphere superiority is based, not on a leap forward by the left hemisphere, but on a deliberate handicapping of the right.” And we can see Molyneux do exactly this in the video. By playing by his rules that are strictly logical, he is unable to take a leap to where the caller is pointing to.

Allen notes, “the outer conditions of a person's life will always be found to be harmoniously related to his inner state.” Molyneux’s inner state is clearly so overly rigid, he can suck the life out of life. He doesn’t realize “Entering into the Infinite is not a mere theory or sentiment. It is a vital experience which is the result of assiduous practice in inward purification.” 

While logic serves a useful and needed purpose, it can lead to a dead end when in service to itself. Who cares how intelligent you are when you can’t even affirm the real Source of your intelligibility? 

I’ll take childlike wisdom over lifeless rationalism any day.

We can never make others understand something unless they already, at some level, understand it. We cannot give them our understanding, only awaken their own, latent, understanding. — Iain McGuilichrist

Friday, May 5, 2017

Between Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

My title here may create issues for some, as they would say it's not both/and when it comes to orthodoxy and heterodoxy. It can only be either/or. If orthodoxy is the belief in doctrine, then the heterodox would take issue with any official position to belief. They would play in an open field to come up with something new.

I suppose some would say in the postmodern era, we are all heterodox. Then again, Fr. Andrew Damick says, “Orthodox dogma never claims to expound the whole truth about anything, but only delineates the borders of the mystery.” He expounds, “You can be a true theologian in the Orthodox Church and yet be mentally retarded, because true theology is not defined by the acuity of the rational mind, but by the quality of the prayer of the heart.”

Here, I think we can agree. And it is in the space between doctrinal belief of the orthodox and the more open expressive beliefs of the heterodox, where we can meet in the inner science of the heart. While there may be paths that are doctrinally divided, they are still charismatically one.

I recently watched a video by Bishop Robert Barron, where he acknowledges that had Luther not made grace alone as part of his doctrine, but instead made it only primary, it could very well be he would have created another order in the Roman Catholic Church instead of a major historic schism. In other words, maybe there is a place where the orthodox and heterodox can meet. 

Which leads me to A Different Christianity by Robin Amis, who embraced Christian Orthodoxy by spending some time with the monks at Mount Athos. But he also studied some modern mystics (Gurdjieff, Mouravieff), who were able to couch Eternal Truths with language that was more culturally relevant.

(I recommend viewing the 60 Minutes segment on Mount Athos. It sort of brings out a fantasy of mine to spend time in such a setting; however, I am well aware that I am probably best a lay householder than a true ascetic.)

Amis brings out the deep mysticism that is inherent to Orthodox Christianity. So much so, I sense if more seekers knew about it in the west, they would not turn east (Buddhism, Hinduism) to find themselves. He notes these practices can create “an actual shift within the individual of the center of awareness” where there is a redirection “from thought, imagination, and physical sensations to the heart.”

In his own way, Amis acknowledges that it is this shift that makes one a Christian: “The Greek philosophical teachings are incomplete in the sense that they leave their student destitute of strength to perform the commandments of the Lord”; however, “The Christian inner teaching, if comprehended in full, is complete in the sense that once it has been fully assimilated or digested, it gives the student the strength to perform those commandments.”

But unlike my counterparts of eastern practices (Buddhism, Hinduism) that rely primarily on own's effort, the Christian inner teachings rely on the grace of God along with man. “Some people believe that inner growth and “working on oneself ” are something we do of ourselves. Nothing much comes of it all until we learn that despite the great efforts we must make, this view is not wholly true. Others believe that spiritual change happens in an instant, as if by magic. Both these views are based on a lack of self-knowledge, on inadequate information about what actually happens. The inner change that matters is a work of God in synergy with man. This is a process, and a process takes time. (Amis)”

In place of the common conventional term awakening, the Orthodox Christians refer to metanoia. “In most English translations of the Bible, metanoia is translated “repentance.” Whatever it meant when the King James translation was originally produced, today the English word has acquired moralistic overtones that have obscured and confused the early meaning. It is not generally understood that the word metanoia (meta-noia) actually refers to the renewal of the nous described by Saint Paul in Romans: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your nous, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2). (Amis)” 

Metanoia is not to be reached by technique, but simply cultivated through a method of prayer (as in a relationship with Christ) and attention (without control). “Metanoia is two things: a slow transformation of the nous and a sudden reversal. The first is an inner healing process by which we lengthen and deepen the stillness of the nous until it begins to become enlightened, and so begins to overcome the effects of the Fall. But the final change is discontinuous: in this context a partial reversal of direction is a meaningless concept, so that we will discover that metanoia can be instantaneous and in some sense is always instantaneous, yet to those who work at it, metanoia is a slow and difficult process; only when we face and work against this difficulty does the Christian religion pass for us from being an idea to being a reality. Only then can we behave as Christians, as well as thinking that we are Christians. (Amis)”

As these inner experiences become more common and stabilize in our lives, we will eventually accept these experiences as real and meaningful sources of knowledge. But there also needs to be a context, and that usually comes from metaphysics of the path we are on. In Christian Orthodoxy, the path and the goal are the one in the same: “All we have to do is to become what we are: to be ourselves as God made us; to do what we see to be right according to our inherent sense of what is right and our best abilities. (Amis)”

If Reality is what is, then to become what we are is I am