Archive for September, 2007

Occupying the Same Space

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

I’m afraid it’s a serious mistake to write, as you have, that “most Christian theologians have labeled the belief in one fully Divine Jesus as the monophysite heresy”. This is by no means the case. Every orthodox Christian believes and teaches that there is only “one” Jesus and that He is “fully divine”. Monophysitism is the heresy that claims, not that Christ was fully divine, but that He was only divine—that His divinity was such as to overwhelm or destroy His humanity, with the result that after the union effected by the Incarnation the only thing “left” was the nature of God. The Church rejected this claim—at the Fourth of the Ecumenical Councils (Chalcedon, 451)—on the grounds that divinity and humanity are not related in the same way as physical objects, which cannot occupy the same space at the same time. On the contrary, human nature becomes all the more perfectly or fully human when it’s joined with the very nature of God. Insisting on the “two natures” of Christ is therefore a crucial step in safeguarding the soteriological heart of the Christian tradition, as this is expressed in the well-known Patristic maxim: “God became man that man might become God.” Only if divinity itself is fully human can humanity be fully divine.

Two Birds

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

I can easily understand your desire to re-marry; given your many years in that state, it’s only natural that you would feel lonely now and only natural in turn that you would keenly desire to return to what you knew.

At the risk of seeming rather cold and uncaring, however, I feel obliged to point out that it would be a mistake to hold your future happiness hostage to the contingency of finding a new partner. We do not have God’s measures and do not know what the future may bring. In the meantime, what we do know—or should know as rational beings—is that no earthly condition is permanent and that nothing of this world can ever provide us with genuine happiness. I’ve never been one to tell people “what God is trying to teach them”—how fatuous for anyone less than a prophet! But surely we can say, with due humility, that your present circumstances provide an opportunity, however painful, to engage in a more careful, existential “study” of the essence of happiness.

You ask how to “cope” with the feelings you have. You may be asking—you probably are asking, and who would not in your circumstance?—how to “dispel” the feelings. The answer is that you can’t; or rather, if you will allow me this paradox, the only way to dispel them is to stop trying. Instead just watch them—watch N., that poor, suffering being in your mirror—as she experiences this flux of emotions. “There are two birds sitting in the tree of life,” according to an Upanishad. “One eats. The other watches.” Shifting the focus of your attention so as to adopt the standpoint of the second bird, and with as little concern as you can possibly muster for the other bird’s indigestion, is the key here.

You also ask how to “quickly work” toward another marriage. As you will have gathered from all I’ve been saying, I want you to ask yourself very seriously whether this is really the goal. I’m not suggesting you should resign yourself to living as a single woman for the rest of your life. But at the same time I don’t think you’re going to find the “right man”—or not at least at the moment, given your current state of mind—by actively searching for him, any more than you will find peace from your sad feelings by trying to push them aside. Patience in both cases is necessary, leaving it to God to open up whatever earthly consolations and satisfactions He knows to be best for your soul and your continuing spiritual journey.

How To Be a Poet

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

Your reference to Crossett’s poem is most timely. As it happens we just finished J. R. R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion in the “Oxford Inklings” honors seminar I am teaching this term, and during the course of exploring this book we had occasion to discuss Tolkien’s important essay “On Fairy-Stories”, in which he describes the “sub-creative art” of Fantasy as a “making by the law in which we’re made”. Crossett would have wholeheartedly agreed with this definition, as his poem clearly shows, and I’m therefore minded to post the poem below for any of my students who may chance by Anamnesis in the days ahead.

For those who’ve never heard my stories about him, John Crossett was my classics mentor at Cornell College, and without doubt the greatest teacher I ever had; my Breviary of English Usage, based in part on his own demanding rules, is dedicated to this “master of the Trivium“. As I’ve told many of my own students over the years, Crossett was someone who left you convinced that Plato’s Socrates was no mere invention—that there could in fact be a real human being who was able to see down the dialectical path fifty or even a hundred moves in advance. Meeting him was like being struck by intellective lightning, and I’m happy to say I never recovered!

As for what occasioned the poem, there was this annual auction at Cornell—a benefit for some charity, as I recall—and the faculty would offer any number of curiosities to the highest bidder, from odds and ends acquired during their travels to homemade dinners with exotic cuisine. Crossett’s offering was always a sonnet, which he promised to write in one week on whatever subject the lucky bidder might specify. I was determined to secure one of these poems, and as fortune would have it my bid won the day. I was also determined to be clever, and if possible to extract this master’s secret—or at least one of his secrets—so I asked for a poem on the subject of how to be a poet.

I can still remember the rather chiding look in Crossett’s eye and his instant response: “Do you really want the poem to be about ‘how to be a poet’ or should it be about ‘how to become a poet’?” Obviously I should have chosen the second topic—seeing that I was not yet and am still not a poet!—but this nineteen-year-old wasn’t about to give the impression he hadn’t thought to make this subtle distinction himself! In any case, what I got, well within the promised single week, was the following, a deceptively simple piece of writing that I find myself still learning from these many years later.

How to Be a Poet

John M. Crossett

Starting with what the Lord of Logos made,
Logically you fake a paradigm
Of accidents essentially so real
Your logos comes to see a world of being.

With what the Logos seriously played,
You work at putting reason into rhyme,
Conceptualizing what you really feel
Till logos comes to be a world of seeing.

The contradictory is not allayed
Within eterne eterminable time:
The secret that the poet would conceal,
Revealing doing signifying dreeing.

As paradigm surpasses model, so
Great work are greater than their authors know.

The Greatest of Sinners

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

What you describe is not uncommon. The spiritual life entails a process of purgation, and it is in the nature of things that the ego, sensing its own eventual death, will react against this. From the ego’s point of view, as a spiritual master once told me, “It is as if there were a corpse in the next room.”

In any case, your response to these problems should be twofold: on the one hand, it is important to apologize and make amends for your actions as soon as you can after committing such an offense, thus restoring equilibrium on the horizontal plane between you and your neighbor; at the same time you should inwardly—perhaps I could say “vertically”—take stock of what has happened without becoming anxious or blaming yourself. You understand, I trust, that I’m not recommending complacency. I don’t mean to make light of your actions, which were certainly “unskillful”, as the Buddhists would say. But you need not, and should not, identify yourself with them or attach yourself to them, with the result of supposing that “I” am “bad”.

I fully realize that the formula for corporate confession in the Orthodox Liturgy includes the statement: “I am the greatest of sinners.” But it seems to me that the “I” of this phrase must be in reference to the ego as such, and not some particular ego—certainly not to the ego of the person who sincerely endeavors to make these words his own and who in doing so shows himself to be less a sinner, at least in this respect, than he might otherwise have been. It’s a curious formulation, to be sure, and it grows ever more curious the more one ponders its implications. It’s a bit like “This sentence is false”, don’t you think?

Reacting, Judging, Criticizing

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

Allow me to add a postscript to “Caught in the Middle” (see September 12). As I suggested but perhaps did not sufficiently emphasize, one of Hadot’s most important points in his book is that the ancient schools were united more by their commitment to a common intellectual and spiritual discipline than by any doctrinal unanimity. The author provides abundant documentation in support of this thesis, but in a sense all one really needs is the example of Aristotle, who hung about the Academy for nearly twenty years, after all, first as a student and later as a teacher, even though—as Coleridge rightly observed—he “never did understand what Plato meant by an idea”!

Or did he, and just not acknowledge it publicly? Hadot’s reading of ancient philosophy provokes some rethinking of Coleridge’s other memorable claim, namely, that “all men are born either Platonists or Aristotelians, and while an Aristotelian may become a Platonist, no Platonist would ever become an Aristotelian”. When I once mentioned this dictum to Peter Kreeft, he quickly retorted: “Coleridge was wrong. Two Platonists did become Aristotelians. Aristotle and me!” Well, Professor Kreeft will have to speak for himself, but I can’t help but wonder now about “the Philosopher”, especially in view of the following, again from Hadot:

“When Aristotle taught a course, it was not, as Bodés has pointed out, ‘a “course” in the modern sense of the term, with students intent on writing down the master’s thoughts in view of God-knows-what kind of subsequent study’. The goal was not to ‘inform’, or to transplant specific theoretical contents into the auditors’ minds; rather it was to ‘form’ them…. Aristotle expected discussion, reaction, judgment, and criticism from his listeners; teaching was still, fundamentally, a dialogue” (What Is Ancient Philosophy?, p. 87).

It is a great deal of fun imagining the Divine Plato and his number one pupil staging a series of public disagreements precisely in order to provoke reactions, confronting the less advanced of their students with ever more seemingly inescapable, and thus ever more fruitful, sets of aporiai. Did the Master of Those Who Know (Inferno, 4:131) know that “dialectic is the science that proceeds by demolishing its own hypotheses” (Republic, 533d), and was he thus merely aiding and abetting his own Master? I wouldn’t dream of guessing. What I can say is that I wish you and other students would do a little less “writing down” and a lot more “reacting, judging, and criticizing”.

Caught in the Middle

Wednesday, September 12th, 2007

I’ve just finished an interesting book and recommend it wholeheartedly: What is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot (Harvard University Press, 2002). Just in case there was any doubt on the subject, the author very convincingly demonstrates that for Plato and Co., unlike their modern counterparts, philosophy was a complete way of life, which included not only training in elenchos but a thoroughgoing physical, emotional, and spiritual ascesis.

One of Hadot’s most provocative suggestions is that the increasingly cerebral and largely speculative nature of the western philosophical enterprise resulted from two distinct causes: on the one hand true dialectic gave way to a merely scholastic rehearsal of the viewpoints of past authorities, while on the other hand the practical or methodical dimensions of the ancient art were appropriated by the early Christians, especially the monks, who copied the disciplines of the “pagan” schools.

One comes away from this book with a clearer understanding of why the contemporary Christian Platonist is so often caught in the middle between (1) the “professional” philosophers, who no longer believe that quantum sumus scimus (“we know only insofar as we are”) and are therefore no longer engaged in real interior work, and (2) his co-religionists, who no longer seem to know how to argue, preferring instead the comforts of a largely unexamined set of ipse dixits.

The following few snippets will perhaps whet your curiosity:

“Ancient philosophers did not withdraw into the desert or into a cloister; on the contrary, they lived in the world, where they often took part in political activity. If they were genuine philosophers, however, they must have been converted—that is, they had to profess philosophy, and make a choice of life which obliged them to change all aspects of their behavior in the world, and which in a certain sense separated them from the world. They entered into a community, under the direction of a spiritual master, in which they venerated the school’s founder and often took meals in common with the other members of the school. They examined their conscience and perhaps even confessed their misdeeds…. They lived an ascetic life…. They followed a vegetarian diet and devoted themselves to contemplation, seeking mystical union” (247-48).

“[Teaching for Plato] had consisted above all in training students in methods of thought and argument, and the important members of [his] school [notably, Aristotle] often had very different opinions; but during the [imperial period, beginning in the first century B.C.] the teaching of a school orthodoxy became essential…. The truth was now conceived as faithfulness to a tradition, which originated in ‘authorities’. In such a scholarly, professorial atmosphere, there was often a tendency to be satisfied with knowing the dogmas” (148-49).

“Henceforth, philosophers and their students did not talk about the problems themselves, or about things themselves; instead, they talked about what Plato, Aristotle, or Chrysippus had said about such problems or things. The question ‘Is the world eternal?’ was replaced by the question, ‘Can we admit that Plato considered the world to be eternal, if he allows for an Artisan of the world in the Timaeus” (151).

“There is a radical opposition between the ancient philosophical schools, which addressed individuals in order to transform their entire personality, and the university, whose mission it is to give out diplomas, which correspond to a certain level of objectifiable knowledge…. The university tends to make the philosophy professor a civil servant, whose job, to a large extent, consists in training other civil servants. The goal is no longer, as it was in antiquity, to train people for careers as human beings, but to train them for careers as clerks or professors” (261).

“From the Middle Ages to today, some philosophers have remained faithful to the vital, existential dimension of ancient philosophy. At times they have been active in the very heart of the university, but more often they were reacting against it” (261).

Poor, Silly Self

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

Several points occur to me. I offer them in no particular order, and as always of course in full recognition that “God is more wise”.

1. While a regular schedule, physical exercise, adequate sleep, and lectio divina are important—indeed essential—elements in the spiritual life, they are nonetheless extrinsic and circumstantial; it is nepsis, inward attentiveness, that is the key.

2. It is no surprise at all that such a long-standing and deep-rooted tendency should persist in spite of these and other external precautions; your imagination (as you mentioned recently) is in need of a radical reformulation.

3. The sin you committed is indeed the “same” sin as in the past, but the results are evidently not the same; you have clearly learned something: what the Fathers say about the stages of temptation—in particular, the “sleepiness” and “dreaming” that make possible our “coupling” with the provocations that come our way—has become existentially real to you.

4. So no, you have not simply returned to a Sisyphean starting point. Whatever happens to us, and whatever we do, is an occasion for self-observation and deepened insight. You have seen yourself sin yet again, and it is disgusting, ugly, and a little frightening that you seem such a fool. “Poor, silly self”, you can say; “perhaps this time I can really learn from his mistake.”

5. Tears can be a gift. I understand that what you described may have been mostly tears of frustration, thus tinged with egoism. Nonetheless they seem to betoken a desire truly to change. God willing, they will continue as effects of a genuine liquefaction.

The Passion of the Christ

Sunday, September 2nd, 2007

Did I ever see Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, and if so did I not find it “unnecessarily disturbing”? Yes, I did, but no, I didn’t; nor did it “grate against my Orthodox sensibilities”, as you suggest. On the contrary, there seemed to me nothing particularly sectarian about the film; indeed I was somewhat surprised, and pleased, to find none of the humilitarian or sentimentalist faults common to a certain brand of Catholic piety. It was simply the Tradition, thoughtfully and prayerfully presented.

“Disturbing” it was, of course; the question is whether this element was excessive. I agree the film pulled no punches; no one with an ounce of compassion could see it without being repeatedly moved to tears at the horrific treatment of Christ, and one came away knowing in one’s very bones that the devil is no myth, but a powerful and palpable antagonist. And yet the ultimate effect in my experience was something wondrously positive, and this I take to be owing to the skill with which the divinity of Christ was shown as shimmering through even the moments of greatest brutality and suffering. The nourishing and avataric presence of the Blessed Virgin throughout Her Son’s ordeal contributed mightily to the same effect. You’re right of course that Orthodoxy tends to place its stress on the glory of the Christus Victor and not on His suffering, but somehow that very distinction breaks down in The Passion. Things “ring true”; every movement and every gesture of Christ and His Mother seem proportionate, and one sees existentially that it all makes perfect sense sub specie aeternitatis, the Lamb of God having been slain “from before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

Now I realize my perceptions and observations may be at least in part a function of my being a Christian, and that a Muslim like you, who “lives and moves and has his being” within a different spiritual universe, will have different concerns and perhaps different responses. To take what would perhaps be a parallel case, I don’t think it would be beneficial to my soul to take darshana before the images of Kali, even though Ramakrishna would have told me he found even the most frightening among them extremely “beautiful”. His practice of the Hindu tradition made it possible for him to understand and assimilate the symbolic dimensions of these forms of art in a way that’s simply not available to me as a non-Hindu. My experience in viewing The Passion should perhaps be taken with the same grain of salt by you and your co-religionists.

With regard to the differences between our traditions, there is yet another point that may be usefully mentioned. You have spoken of the “negative effect” the portrayal of Sayyidna Isa might have for certain people in your community, but frankly I think that it’s the positive impact the film might have that should concern you more. This is a somewhat ill-sounding formulation, I realize! But what I have in mind is the principle once articulated by Schuon when he said that “if the Buddha were suddenly to appear in the midst of us spiritual men”—he was speaking to Sufis at the time—”we would have no choice but to become Buddhists.” It seems to me anyone planning to see The Passion should understand in advance that the portrayal of Christ is extremely, almost magnetically, attractive, and this may not be something a person who is following a non-Christian path will wish to confront in so dramatic and compelling a fashion. It’s obviously just a film, and I don’t mean to exaggerate or overdraw my comparison. But it’s a very powerful film, perhaps the most powerful I’ve ever seen, and its potential for an “evangelical” impact on a given soul should be considered no less carefully than its potentially disequilibriating effect.

Perhaps I should add—though surely it goes without saying—that I’m talking of (and to) people, regardless of what religion they practice, who have a deep sense of the sacred, not to demythologizers. As luck would have it, shortly after the film came out, I found myself sitting next to John Dominique Crossan, the notorious “Jesus Seminar” scholar, who had been invited by my department for our annual New Testament lecture at USC. We happened to be staying at the same B & B near campus and ended up breakfasting at the same hour. When I came in he was talking about The Passion with three or four of the other guests, explaining in no uncertain terms how misleading it was, that it corresponded in no way to the real historical facts—according to Crossan, you know, the empty tomb can be explained by the “fact” that Jesus’s body was eaten by dogs!—and that no real scholar would dream of thinking otherwise. Of course I felt obliged to speak up in defense the film, and when I did so, and he realized I was a professor in the very department that had invited him to speak, he was simply dumbfounded—though perhaps not as dumbfounded as I continue to be by how many “experts” on religion seem tone-deaf to their subject.

I think of what Owen Barfield once told me: “The ideal scholar is the man who’s read everything lest he be less than ideal, but who’s understood nothing lest he be more than a scholar!”