Archive for October, 2007

Picking Up Your Feet

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

It’s quite understandable that beauty, particularly sonorous beauty, is for you an opening to Heaven and even—in its way—a modality of prayer. There is certainly nothing to apologize for if you have an affinity for sacred music. On the other hand, this alone will not take the place of method or active asc?sis as such.

As for finding such a method, you seem to have read around in books about prayer, but I take it that your practice thus far has been desultory at best and more or less when the “mood” (your word) seemed right. But—you say—your “heart” is now “sure of the road to be taken”; all you have to do is “pick up your feet”. Indeed! Nothing I might say could add anything to this candid self-assessment.

There are people who spend their entire lives reading books about religion—and no, they’re not all professors!—and who are always thinking about beginning a discipline, but who continue to procrastinate and put off any real work on themselves. I’m afraid all the intelligence and erudition and good intentions in the world can’t make up for laziness. Even if “a sleeping man is still a Buddha”, a Buddha isn’t a sleeping man.

Atheist 1, Theist 0

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

The recent Christopher Hitchens vs. Alister McGrath debate? Yes, as a matter of fact I did see it—not in person, but on-line. One of my graduate students, who had thought about making the trip to Georgetown but then changed his mind, sent me a link, and with his (and other students’) interests in mind, I managed to sit through the video.

To be frank, I think debates of little value—at least as they’re usually orchestrated. True dialectic or elenchos, yes, which means zeroing in on the substance of relatively short statements and which includes the right to interrupt one’s interlocutor to request a definition or clarification and to point out inconsistencies, false assumptions, and so forth; but not the parallel monologues too often resulting from the formal protocols of such occasions.

There was entertainment to be sure in this face-off—all of it at McGrath’s expense. If you saw them in action, you know that Hitchens danced rings around his opponent, the atheist being by far the more erudite, engaging, persuasive, and witty speaker. McGrath’s nervous responses were almost never to the point, and the one (and only) time he had Hitchens in a corner—having asked him what sense moral obligation would make if men were mere higher primates “half a chromosome away from chimpanzees”—he allowed him to dance away from the problem with rhetorical flourishes about all the morally bad things religious people have done. Can no one really see anymore that you can’t get an ought from an is? Even Kant got that one right.

I was sitting there wondering: where is G. K. Chesterton, or C. S. Lewis, or even Peter Kreeft when you need them?

But then I thought, No: they probably wouldn’t do either. I haven’t read Hitchens’s recent book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and I confess I don’t care to. But I came away realizing, yet again, that “only esoteric theses can satisfy the imperious logical needs created by the philosophic and scientific positions of the modern world” (Schuon).

Hitchens’s criticisms seemed more or less reducible to his inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to understand that anthropomorphic imagery in the Semitic scriptures is of a strictly upayic value. He reminded me of the students I alluded to in the talk I gave last year at the Sacred Web conference: “The Noble Lie“. Perhaps like them he has realized, however dimly, that a personal God conceived by believers as no more than the leading actor in a historical drama can’t really be God; if so, then of course he just needs a good dose of metaphysics.

I admit this is probably putting much too optimistic, and charitable, a face on Hitchen’s gleefully sarcastic and satirical efforts to bait believers. Nonetheless, whatever his own level of insight and whatever his personal motivations, it’s becoming clearer by the day that if there is to be a truly compelling response to the increasing number of atheist criticisms, it’s not going to be framed in merely theological categories.

Sollemnitas in Conceptione Immaculata

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

Yes, I have indeed been rather “out of commission” with regard to this weblog for the last week or so, devoting my energies to preparing a short article I’m calling, provisionally, “Provocations in Place of Answers”. It’s been one of my most difficult, but also engaging, assignments.

The article is to appear in the program book accompanying the premier of Sir John Tavener’s new setting of the Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The Mass—Sollemnitas in Conceptione Immaculata Beatae Mariae Virginis—was co-commissioned by Religio Musica Nova, a Swiss-based arts organization that sponsors an annual festival in Zurich, and Saint Thomas Church in New York, and the premier will be December 8th in Zurich’s Grossmnster Cathedral—ironically, the church in which Zwingli preached his brand of Reformation.

Tavener, as you may know, has been saying for the last several years that Schuon’s work is the principal inspiration for all his new music, especially it seems the German lyric poetry FS penned during his last three or four years. The composer is calling this new work a “universalist” setting of the Mass, and the idea is to “show” in sound—choir, orchestra, solo soprano, organ—perennialist resonances between the traditions, but in such a way as to underscore the integrity of each religion, notably (of course) the Christian. There will be hints as to the deep relationships, I’m told, but no syncretistic mixing and matching.

In any case, I was asked to contribute a piece bringing together the main features of the weeklong festival and the culminating Mass in particular: Could I please talk about the perennial philosophy, liturgy, beauty, the meaning of the Immaculate Conception, and Mary and the feminine Divine—in ten pages or so?! The task has reminded me of what the Hieromonk Damian—he’s the iconographer who wrote the icon I feature on the homepage of my website—always says about how much more difficult it is to paint a small icon than a large one. All those details and so little room.

I’m to be on a couple of panels during the course of the week leading up to the premier, and I’ll try to make a point of posting a short report on the whole experience, as well as my article itself, sometime in December.

Unlimited Limitation

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

How, you ask, would the Christian tradition defend itself against the Islamic reproach that the Incarnation (hulul) “restricts” the Divine Presence? You would like to know, more precisely, what a Christian might say to those “several Sufis” who claim—citing the Koranic text, “Wheresoever ye turn, there is the Face of God” (2:115)—that “Islam is superior to Christianity because it acknowledges the immanence of God as being everywhere present and not confined to Christ alone”.

Obviously one could say a great deal!—more than I can possibly manage in this forum. What I can tell you briefly, however, is that no thinking Christian has ever believed that in becoming incarnate God was somehow obliged to fit Himself into the space of Christ’s body or that henceforth He could be found nowhere else. Be assured that Christian theologians, no less than their Muslim counterparts, understand perfectly well that the Divine omnipresence, unlike the mere ubiquity of something like space, cannot be divided up into parts or sectors. Though it is true that in Christ “all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19), the Supremely Real remained everywhere else in its fullness as well.

Perhaps in lieu of the book one would need to write on this subject, I can at least point you in the right direction by citing three crucial texts, two Patristic and one Biblical. God willing, you can then triangulate to the point of glimpsing a more thoroughgoing and appropriately nuanced answer for yourself. You might also wish to look back at my earlier posts on this weblog concerning the hypostatic identity of Christ as the Logos: notably, “Enhypostatic Humanity“, “Asymmetrical Dyophysitism“, “Occupying the Same Space“, and “No Longer Dying Death as Before“.

The first text I have in mind comes from the Quicunque Vult, or “Athanasian Creed” (c. 500 A.D.): “God became man, not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the taking of the manhood into God.” As you can see from this passage, the Incarnation is not to be understood as a Divine diminishment but rather as a human expansion or liberation, God’s in-carnation entailing man’s ex-carnation. It is thus that Saint Paul speaks of being “delivered from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24)—though let us hastily add that his words in no way conflict with traditional Christian (and Muslim) doctrine concerning the Resurrection of the body, albeit a “spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44).

A second key passage is found in the writings of Saint Maximos the Confessor: “Always and in everything God the Logos seeks to work the mystery of His Incarnation” (Ambigua, PG 91, 1084D). The saint calls our attention specifically to two other forms or modes of Divine “embodiment” (though without implying they exhaust the possibilities): namely, the Cosmos and the Scriptures. In any case it should be crystal clear from this text that the immanence of God in Christ, far from being in competition with other modes of manifestation, allows—indeed obliges—the Christian just as much as the Sufi to “acknowledge the immanence of God as being everywhere present”.

Of course, Christians are going to insist that God’s incarnate manifestation in Christ, while not exclusive, is nonetheless decisive. But if one grasps—or rather admits he can’t grasp!—the paradoxical “position” of this Christic presence, I don’t see how one could ever suppose their insistence means a limitation on God. You’ll understand what I’m talking about if you take a look at a third text, this one from the Gospel of John, where Christ is speaking to Nicodemus: “No man hath ascended up to Heaven but He that came down from Heaven, even the Son of Man, which is in Heaven” (John 3:13). In other words, nobody goes up except the One who came down, and though He certainly is “down”—otherwise He wouldn’t be standing right there in front of the poor flummoxed Pharisee—He’s at the same time still “up”!

What would a Christian say to a Sufi who was concerned that the incarnation places a restriction on God? I think he might quote the Shaykh al-Akbar: “Do not declare Him non-delimited and thus delimited by being distinguished from delimitation! For if He is distinguished, then He is delimited by His non-delimitation. And if He is delimited by His non-delimitation, then He is not He” (Fut贖ht al-makkiyya; see William Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination [SUNY, 1989], p. 112).

No Longer I

Friday, October 12th, 2007

You’ve come to realize, you say, that despite your best intentions your motives for spiritual work remain largely “ego-based”. It’s doubtless important to have noted this fact, but I wouldn’t brood about it. After all, Christ Himself appeals to the ego precisely in threatening damnation and promising salvation. How else could the seeming self be enticed into making an effort except on the grounds that it will benefit in some way? Of course, even while acting de facto as if everything depended on us, we must understand de jure that everything depends on God. Resolving this koan—is there any other koan?—means coming to realize that the act and the understanding are not successive or correlative or even complementary; they’re precisely the same, and must be sustained as such. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). In other words, “It is no longer I” (Gal. 2:20) because it never was.

The Despotism of the Eye

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

Be very careful: discrimination (viveka) between ?tm? and M?y?, or the Real and illusory, is a good deal trickier than you may have realized. It’s easy to make the mistake of supposing that the two terms are somehow parallel and thus equally real, even though this is precisely what the distinction is meant to help us avoid. “It’s not that the One became two, but that these two are One,” to use a formulation favored by Coomaraswamy—taken, if I recall correctly, from the Corpus Hermeticum.

We’re all of us subject at one level or another to what Coleridge called the “despotism of the eye”, which means among other things that we’re inclined to think in pictures or diagrams, or rather to extend the usefulness of such pictures and diagrams beyond their legitimate range, making of them something more than provocations to insight. And thus we end up, if we’re not vigilant, replacing the conjunction “and” by a mental line, with ?tm? positioned on one side and M?y? on the other. In truth, of course, there is no such line, no conjunction (that is, no actual joining of two different things), and—by definition—no M?y?.

Part of the problem can be traced to the analogies traditionally used to facilitate discrimination. ?tm? is sometimes compared to the sun and M?y? to the sun’s reflection on water, but the analogy misleads us as soon as we go looking for the metaphysical equivalent of the physical water; to suppose there’s a third thing in addition to ?tm? and M?y?, situated as it were along the interface between them, is only to reinforce the error of thinking there are already two things. The analogy of a rope that’s mistaken for a snake is doubtless less problematic, though here again there’s a misleading third entity, namely, the observer who makes the mistake. Better perhaps to visualize a man (?tm?) looking at his image (M?y?) in a mirror—though now you must beware of reifying the mirror!

From a certain point of view, the best—because least deceiving—analogy may be that of the dreaming man and his dream, since he himself is the one upon whom the dream is overlaid. This comparison also deceives, however, if the unreality of a dream is carried too far. For it’s clearly no solution to conclude that there’s really “nothing there”—there in that something-shaped hole where there might have been something but in fact there’s just M?y?. By calling into question our misguided efforts to imagine M?y? as if it were separate from ?tm?, we mustn’t fall to the opposite side of this dialectical tight-rope. M?y? is illusion, not hallucination, which means that something real, indeed the only Real, is truly “there”, not that a nothing has been turned into an apparently real. Advaitists are neither solipsists nor subjective idealists.

The Oxford Comma

Saturday, October 6th, 2007

I’m glad you liked Eats, Shoots, and Leaves; it is indeed a wonderful book, as you say. But I confess I was surprised when you expressed your disappointment that the author, Lynne Truss, “takes anything less than a fascist attitude toward imposing the Oxford comma”.

If I wrote to you and said, “We stopped by Isaac’s house on our way home, but the only people there were the twins, Jacob and Esau”, could you be sure how many people we met? If you knew the house in question belonged to the Biblical patriarch, you’d be right to think two. But if I’m talking about some other fellow named Isaac, and if he and his wife have a set of twins and at least two other children (whose names are coincidentally scriptural), and if furthermore—here’s the point—you couldn’t depend on my using my commas correctly: then for all you could tell there might have been four people at his house.

So shouldn’t we be “fascists”—to use your highly charged diction!—in imposing, as distinct from toward imposing, this punctuation? Or are you just being careless in your use of prepositions?—as careless, perhaps, as those who fail to discern the importance of this little mark to thoughtful prose!

No Longer Dying Death as Before

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

The key to Christian teaching on the subject of the Crucifixion is closely related to the Christological point I was speaking about in my last post (30 September). Christ is not merely empowered or indwelled by the Divine Logos or Word; He is that Logos in human form.

This being so, everything Christ says, everything He does, and everything He experiences, as described in the Gospel, must be predicated of the Word. It is the divine Word Himself who is therefore born, which is why Mary is the Theotokos; but it is also He who weeps at the death of Lazarus, He who is scourged and beaten, and He who dies on the Cross, “trampling down death by death”, in the words of the Orthodox troparion for Pascha (Easter). “If anyone does not confess that our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified in the flesh is true God and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity: let him be anathema” (Capitulum X of the Sixth of the Ecumenical Councils (Constantinople, 553) [Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. XIV, The Seven Ecumenical Councils (Grand Rapids, 1983), 314]. This was the Council’s way of expressing the so-called “Theopaschite Formula”, which can be traced to Saint Cyril of Alexandria: “One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh.” It’s very easy, I admit, to become confused on this point, and indeed many Christians don’t understand their own faith in this regard. But it’s crucial to an adequate grasp of the Christian darshana.

I’m afraid our friend Martin Lings was therefore misinformed when he wrote, “There is never any question in Christianity of the Divine Nature having been crucified” (A Return to the Spirit, 23). I suppose one might rescue his formulation by saying that the Divine nature was not itself killed on Golgotha, but of course a “nature” is not such as to be killed or to die in any case. Even when a given man is executed, human nature doesn’t die. Nonetheless, the implication of the statement is that the Person of the Word was not crucified but only “the human being” named Jesus, and this is simply wrong, and rather egregiously wrong, for the reasons I’ve indicated. In any case, the interpretation you offer of S?rah 4:157 (“They slew him not nor crucified”), an interpretation that divides Christ into two separate parts—one divine, which does not die, and one human, which does—is simply not going to fly with an informed Christian audience.

On the other hand, the “ambiguity” (your word) of this Koranic passage could well be at once stressed and accounted for—in perfectly acceptable Christian terms—by calling attention to the soteriological significance of saying that “God died” when Christ died. Obviously, this is a highly paradoxical affirmation from any point of view. It seems to me, however, that a Christian could agree—at least in principle—with the “quantum” proposal you put forward (à la Professor Nasr): namely, that the Crucifixion both did and did not occur, depending on perspective.

Something certainly did happen, and in the Christian tradition what this something was involved the death of the eternal Logos. “Though [Christ] was in the form of God [i.e., fully divine], He counted equality with God a thing not be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant. . . . and being obedient to death, even the death of the Cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). Nonetheless, precisely because He is divine—because, as the creative and life-giving Word, He Himself is the Origin and the Sustainer of all things (John 1:3)—when He died it was actually death that was “killed”, not God. This is the very heart of the Christian Mystery. “Though we die,” said Saint Athanasius, “we no longer die death as before” (On the Incarnation, 21), and this is because death has lost its “sting” (1 Cor. 15:55), having been “defeated” by the crucified God.