Archive for May, 2007

Second, Not Second Best

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

It would be more accurate to say, not that Christ is the incarnation of the Second Person, but that Christ is the Second Person incarnate; indeed Christ is the Christian Name for the Second Person as such, whether incarnate or not—the Name, in other words, for the Logos “by whom all things were made” and the “light of men”. You may wish to read, or re-read, my short article on “Perennial Philosophy and Christianity“, which raises the question of other avataric manifestations of the “only Son”.

Why do “we” base our religion as Christians on the Second Person? Because God did! God became man, and in so doing He made it possible for man to “become God” through a sacramental assimilation of His “real presence”. From a point of view that accentuates the Divine Transcendence, the Second Person might seem to be “second best”, a kind of compromise or lessening of the metaphysical Absolute; but from a point of view that accentuates the Divine Immanence, the Christian possibility can be seen as the superior Way inasmuch as the possibility of deification is placed front and center.

Schuon writes, “Esoterically speaking, there are only two relationships to take into consideration, that of transcendence and that of immanence: according to the first, the reality of Substance annihilates that of the accident; according to the second, the qualities of the accident—starting with their reality—cannot but be those of Substance.” If Islam stresses the first relationship and Christianity the second, we must nonetheless remember that Transcendence is immanent, and Immanence is transcendent.

A Case of Mistaken Case in the KJV

Sunday, May 27th, 2007

Thank you for your note concerning the fifth example of an error regarding case that I give on the first page of my Breviary of English Usage. I so much enjoy discussions of the language; so few people, including academics, seem to care anymore.

It is no doubt a risky business to criticize the KJV translators, but it seems to me they must have been mesmerized by the accusative in the Greek text they were translating, which is (correctly) governed in that context by the infinitive einai. In English, too, we use the accusative as the subject of an infinitive: e.g., “I thought her to be a fine teacher.” But if we used the past tense instead of the infinitive of the verb, we would have to change to the nominative case: e.g., “I thought she was a fine teacher.”

One could of course choose to translate Mark 8:27 more literally (and awkwardly) by preserving the infinitive in English, and we would have: “Whom do men say me to be”, with both pronouns—the personal and the interrogative—in the accusative case. But I do not see how “I” and “whom” could ever be yoked in one phrase, the beauty of the Authorized Version notwithstanding!

A handy test is to change an interrogative sentence to a declarative sentence to check for the proper case. By shifting the word order, the sentence in Mark 8:27 becomes “Men do say that I am ___”. What are we going to put in the blank? It becomes clear, does it not? that the second pronoun must be a predicate nominative: “I am who” and not “I am whom”.

Japa Yoga

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

There is of course for every spiritual traveler, inevitably, a certain cycle of alternation between times of dryness and times of consolation. The sense of “distance” from God which you mention is not unexpected and you need not be concerned about it; my counsel is simply to turn your attention, gently, away from the question of how you are “feeling” so as to focus more directly, and consistently, on the “task” at hand, which is simply to invoke the Name.

As for differences between Hinduism and Orthodoxy, let us be careful not to compare “apples and oranges”. The proper comparison, surely, is between Hindu japa and the Hesychastic use of monologic prayer, and at this level the parallels are precise. True enough, there is a certain complexity or subtlety in the methodic use of psychosomatic techniques in various yogic schools, and you are right that one finds nothing quite like this in the Christian tradition. But we need not feel disappointed about this, to say the least, for according to no less an authority than the Bhagavad Gita, japa is the best method for our yuga.


Saturday, May 19th, 2007

Regarding vanity, I suppose if you were having dinner with Saint John Maximovitch he would make a point of ladling his soup over his mustache and beard and then “making himself up” to mock you. Not being a fool—or not at least in that sense!—I shall keep my own soup in the bowl. If you find yourself struggling further with this, however, we can together ponder some strategies. Perhaps a Buddhist meditation or two on what you are going to look like after a few years in your grave. Try superimposing that over the image that looks back from your mirror. In the meantime, you might simply ask the Virgin, as you go to work or to your violin lesson, to help you guard your thoughts and be sober and modest.

Evolution and the “Facts”

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

What you are referring to, I believe, is a piece of mine that actually appeared last year as a letter to the editor in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle rather butchered it, but I have placed it below in full:

Richard Monastersky informs us in his article “On the Front Lines in the War over Evolution” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 March 2006) that more than 10,000 U.S. clergy have signed on to “An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science”, the gravamen of which is to insist that religion and evolutionary science are perfectly compatible. The fact that clergy trained in the mainline seminaries are so sanguine about evolution, while a bracing reminder of the continuing effects of Kantian epistemology on modern theology, really tells us nothing about whether the cosmogonies of the religions they profess to believe in can be so easily forced into the Procrustean bed of a Darwinian a/anti-teleology. All it shows is that serious attention to metaphysics has given way to social ethics in the contemporary divinity curriculum.

These doubtless well-meaning signatories notwithstanding, one need not have read the Bible (or Koran or Upanishads) literally or subscribe to what currently passes for “creationism” to know, and not merely opine, that cosmology and theology ought to go hand in hand, and one therefore need not be a flat-earther to listen closely when someone of the intellectual stature of a Thomas Aquinas (let us say) informs us—in words echoed mutatis mutandis by innumerable other authorities, East and West—that “an error concerning the creation, by subjecting it to causes other than God, engenders a false science of God, and takes the minds of men away from Him, to whom faith seeks to lead them” (Summa contra Gentiles).

Taking minds away from God may be just what is needed, of course. Several of the more aggressive proponents of evolution clearly think it is and that a mass injection of evolutionary doctrine is the key to curing the disease called religion. Richard Dawkins comes readily to mind for his in-your-face quip, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist” (The Blind Watchmaker), but E. O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett, and other polemicists are not far behind. They are wrong of course, atheism being a logically self-contradictory faith, but I am frankly delighted to have their voices in the mix and indeed much prefer their tough-mindedness to the flaccid and unthinking abdication proposed by the “Open Letter”.

Fine, let us not teach creationism in the science classroom. But why not instead a required course for high school students—mandatory as well for all those grownups in the academy and clergy who themselves seem to have missed out on the relevant lessons—in the history and philosophy of science? No doubt the reigning evolutionary paradigm affords a way of envisioning our terrestrial environment, but to suppose it the only way, uniquely qualified to give genuine insight into the world around us, is merely to prove that one has never given two seconds thought to the question of what constitutes a fact—never realized that what we take to be an empirical given is always the result of many prior selections and interpretations, now embedded in the fossil record of an unexamined worldview.

Phenomenology of Religion

Monday, May 14th, 2007

All I can say “in a nutshell” is that the phenomenology of religion means different things to different scholars; it would be hard for me to predict how this particular professor might interpret it or how he would use phenomenological methods. Basically, it is an approach to religion that tries to take religious teachings, symbols, and practices seriously on their own terms, just as they “appear” (as “phenomena”) to believers, without the reductionist tendencies of the historicist, etc.; this is the sense, I suppose, in which the Schuonian approach to sacred traditions could be called “phenomenological”.

The problem of course is relativism; many—perhaps most—phenomenologists steer clear of objective standards that might help to differentiate between a valid tradition and some diabolical cult, eschewing as a matter of principle anything that might be construed as a cultural or philosophical “bias”, if in fact they do not deny the possibility of objectivity altogether. Religions and cults and sects are all alike, after all, qua systems of appearances, and from the perspective of the “believer” any given belief is naturally treated as valid; in this respect, obviously, Schuon is the furthest thing from a phenomenologist.

Now having said this, let me add at once that if you think the professor is good, it could not hurt for you to learn something about one of the major “methods” in the scholarly study of religion.

Until She Brought Forth Her Firstborn Son

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

The author lists a number of other texts in the Bible where “until” cannot possibly be taken to mean that, after the event marked by the moment “until”, things suddenly changed. If in saying that Joseph did not “know Mary [sexually] until she had brought forth her firstborn son” (Matt. 1:25), Matthew meant to imply that Joseph did have sex with her afterward, then we would be obliged to conclude that when he ends his Gospel with the words, “And lo, I am with you always even until the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20), the Evangelist meant to say that after the end of the world, Jesus would abandon everyone and go off on a permanent vacation! The Greek word eos, which we translate as “until” in both cases in English, just does not have that force.

The Roaming Mind

Friday, May 4th, 2007

Regarding your practice and your “roaming” mind, this of course is the experience of everyone when first trying to concentrate. My advice is that you should be less concerned about “concentration” than about purity of “intention”. If one in fact has undertaken a practice in sincerity and with the intention of “serving” God, “loving” God, or “knowing” God, and not with the aim of gaining a reputation for sanctity or of acquiring spiritual “powers” or in some other way of exalting the ego, then that good intention in a way makes up for our shortcomings when our concentration fails. You might want to look again at Chapter 22 of my Advice to the Serious Seeker.

There is also this to be said: the times of “struggle”, when the mind seems the most “out of control”, can be much more spiritually useful in the long term than the times of relative calm and contentment. If we remember to “come back” to our practice each time we find we have wandered, that act itself—the act of return—will help us in time to strengthen our attention. Do not be angry with yourself, or force yourself with anxiety or tension; a simple and gentle return is all that is needed. “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” said Christ.