Archive for November, 2007

Not a Consolation Prize

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

On the subject of salvation and the posthumous states, a distinction is sometimes made among traditionalist authorities between (1) salvation as such and (2) deification, the second being equivalent to the Hindu moksha, that is, to the realization of our “non-difference” from the supreme Self.

You are correct in thinking that the first possibility, salvation, has to do essentially with entry into Paradise, which we could define as a Blissful Proximity to the Divine; this is the Hindu Brahma-Loka or the Amidist Sukhavati, or again the Christian Kingdom of Heaven. In “practical terms”—to use your deliciously paradoxical phrase—it obviously includes freedom from all the results of the fall, including sickness, sin, death.

It would be a mistake, however—at least within the eso-exoteric context of Orthodox Christianity—to suppose that the state thus described is merely a kind of “consolation prize” for those unable to obtain the winning ticket of theosis! On the contrary, the two states are as it were two sides of a single coin, two ways of envisioning man’s final end. No saint will ever be on the same “level” as God; on the other hand, as Saint Gregory Palamas says, the deified man becomes “uncreated, unoriginate, and indescribable”.

I suggest rereading what Schuon has to say on this subject in “The Servant and Union” (see his Logic and Transcendence).

Mental Health and the Classics

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

Though I’m very sorry to hear about this “bump in your road”, I’m not really sure what to recommend in the way of helpful reading. I’m probably a poor person to ask, in fact, since my own greatest solace in moments of crisis tends to come mainly from what one might call “generic” reminders of the primacy of the Absolute rather than from specific solutions designed to address a given problem at hand. If I’d been diagnosed with the serious disease you describe, and if I were looking for something to keep me “mentally healthy”, I would simply return to the traditional authorities and classic texts.

I would reread, for example, Plato’s “prison dialogues” and of course the Apology. I would meditate on some of Ramana Maharshi’s talks, focusing on the question, “Who am I?”. I would submit myself to the difficult and demanding dialectic of Nagarjuna. I would study the Mystical Theology of Dionysius the Areopagite, endeavoring with his help to prescind from all categories. And I would doubtless give special attention to Boethius, a sage who’s much too often neglected but whose Consolation of Philosophy has seen many of my former students through critical moments in their lives (including, in one tragic case, a father’s murder).

I’m just not a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” sort of person!—to allude to what people tell me is a popular series of books, with titles now including such irresistible gems as “Chicken Soup for the Chocolate Lover’s Soul” as well as a “Chicken Soup for the American Idol Soul”. Lord, have mercy! No, the classics for me. As C. S. Lewis once noted, “There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.” Lewis then proposes a strategy for study with which I fully concur: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”

This seems to me an especially valuable rule when it comes to dealing effectively with the sufferings of life. The solution to suffering is, of course, detachment—the nirodha of the Buddhists, which undercuts the tanha that in turn causes dukkha—and sometimes the first step in this process is to detach ourselves from the contemporary moment and present place with which we unconsciously but habitually identify ourselves. Entering into the mind of masters who lived in past times and perhaps distant places can help provide us with the impetus we need for moving, finally, beyond time and space altogether—provided of course their words are joined with our prayers.

One Tactic

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

Keeping one’s emotions in check is not the same as pretending they aren’t there or suppressing them. The people who, you say, “encourage and demand the full experience of whatever emotion you are going through” may be concerned that otherwise the emotions will get buried in the unconscious where they can do hidden damage.

That’s a legitimate concern, no doubt. So I agree we shouldn’t ignore the emotions. But neither should we wallow in them, encourage their persistence, or do things that end up increasing their force—as can happen, for example, when people deliberately turn on certain kinds of music that mirror and thus help sustain the “mood” they are in, or when they sit around rehearsing the conversation or mentally replaying the event that gave rise to the emotion in the first place. This is spiritually dangerous because it leads to even further confusion as to who we really are; we get lost in the maze of our feelings, forgetting that they are by their very nature in flux—”e-motion” and “movement” are related words, after all—rather than endeavoring to find that point of stability, permanence, and perfect clarity which is the goal, or rather a preliminary goal, of the whole spiritual life.

So what should we do? One tactic is to watch our emotions with as unprejudiced and as non-judgmental an attitude as we can possibly muster, neither blaming nor praising them. We can even say out loud, “I am feeling anger”, “I am feeling sadness”, “I am feeling delight”; these very propositions themselves can help us acknowledge the feeling while at the same time detaching ourselves from it. “I know I’m feeling this given emotion”, but the minute I say this I also know “I” am not the emotion.

Non-Dual Christianity?

Friday, November 16th, 2007

I’ll have to go back and reread the chapter you mention—Philip Sherrard’s “Metaphysics of Logic” in his Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition (Holy Cross, 1998)—before I can offer anything close to a solid response.

What I can certainly say, however, is that I’m always more than a little dubious when someone tells me there are some things to which logic can’t be applied, even at the level of the Trinity, since of course this very claim, insofar as it negates the proposition “there is nothing to which logic can’t be applied”, depends for its truth on the logical law of the excluded middle! Is that really what Sherrard wants to claim?

While I’m reviewing this chapter—and don’t hold your breath!—perhaps you and other readers might wish to make a corresponding study of a little book called Christianity and the Doctrine of Non-Dualism (Sophia Perennis, 2004) by “A Monk of the West”. (We learn from the translator’s preface that the author was a lay brother of the Cistercian Order, one Alphonse Levée in the world; the book was first published in French in 1982.) The contrast between these authors’ positions is stark. Sherrard writes:

“The Christian doctrine of an Absolute that is triune and personal, and its idea that what is created and relative may have an eternal destiny within the Absolute itself, without on that account ceasing to be created and relative, conflicts with [the] extreme non-dual form of metaphysical doctrine” (105).

It appears clear from the context, as I glance back at this passage, that the “extreme form” he’s talking about is simply Shankarian Advaita Ved?nta, in which, quoting Sherrard again, “the creature qua creature represents a state of bondage, mental or physical, in unreality, total deliverance from which is possible only on condition that it ceases to exist as a creature”.

Contrast this with the following in Christianity and the Doctrine of Non-Dualism:

“The ‘person’, however we conceive it, cannot be the last word concerning the Real…. There is no ‘person’ where there is no relation and otherness. The idea of a unique person who could be identified with the totality of the Real, and that of a personal Infinite, are thus equally illusory…. ‘As Creator, God is both Trinity and Unity. As Infinite, He is neither Trinity nor Unity, nor anything that can be enunciated’ [quoting Nicholas of Cusa]” (107).

Or again:

“We will say unequivocally that after more than forty years of intellectual reflection on [advaitic] doctrine … we have found nothing that has seemed incompatible with our full and complete faith in the Christian Revelation” (136).

Try as one might, it’s hard in this case not to think that, for once, the Catholic is right, and the Orthodox wrong! But I shall look again at Sherrard, time permitting.

Pulling Back

Monday, November 12th, 2007

Finding the right balance is certainly difficult, though I’ve been playing the juggler long enough, I suppose, that I take a certain delight in moving, as efficiently and skillfully as possible, between my university teaching and my writing and publishing commitments. As you rightly noted, there’s undoubtedly a danger, especially when we’re busy and pressed for time, of losing ourselves in the “outward whirl of thoughts and actions”. On the other hand, if we endeavor to guard our hearts and to be as attentive as possible to our inward states as we enter into this potentially dispersive flow of forces, it’s sometimes possible to use the swirling current and the pressures of time against themselves.

Of course, in order to do this we have to know when enough is enough, when it’s time to pull back from outward responsibilities and return to the “one thing needful”. This knowledge—not merely of a theoretical order, but rooted in the very texture or substance of daily prayer and meditation—comes in turn from our efforts, our repeated efforts, to effect a corresponding “pull-back” from interior distractions. And please note that it’s the pulling back itself, the effort to resist all centrifugal ideation and emotion, which is the key to our interior work, and not—or not at least only—the admittedly more satisfying state of relative repose we occasionally find ourselves enjoying when that retrieval has been momentarily successful.

Such at any rate has been my own, admittedly limited, experience.

Devotional Reductionism

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

I’ve been invited to lead a program this weekend for a nearby chapter of the C. S. Lewis Society. I told them I didn’t wish to give a lecture but that I’d be happy to guide a Socratic discussion—in part as a nod to Lewis’s own presidency for many years of the Oxford Socratic Club, but more importantly as a way of preventing the afternoon from descending into mere adulation. As you know, I myself have always been one of CSL’s biggest fans, but I’ve no wish to lead a pep rally.

So the tactic will be to foment a debate by putting Lewis on the defensive. The group will have read Book II of Mere Christianity, and I thought I’d get things started by quoting Lewis’s friend Owen Barfield, who, singling out this collection of BBC radio broadcasts, offered the following: “I doubt very much that Lewis would have been happy with the notion of participation in the life of the Trinity…. Lewis, or so it seems to me, in his theological utterances always emphasized the chasm between Creator and creature rather than anything in the nature of participation.” I myself had the very good fortune of knowing Barfield fairly well during the last couple decades of his lengthy life, and we talked several times, in this regard, about what he liked to call Lewis’s “devotional reductionism”.

To say that CSL always emphasized the chasm is putting things a little too strongly, however. It would be fairer to say that there is a certain tension, if not inconsistency, in his writing—evident, indeed, in the five chapters of Book II—between division and participation. In the first chapter, where he sets himself against a rather vaguely defined “pantheism”, he insists that as a Christian “you must believe that God is separate from the world”; but by the time he gets to the fifth chapter he has no hesitation in saying that “the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts”—indeed (perhaps heretically!) that bringing people to the faith is important since “every addition to that body enables Him to do more”.

In any case, my plan is to lead off with the question of how many Gods this alleged monotheist is actually talking about? That should be enough to incite at least a few of the Lewis faithful! Can a God who takes risks, invents matter, bestows free will, and “lands” in “enemy occupied territory”, as CSL puts it, really be the same as that One whose Self-surrender inwardly affects—in fact effects—man’s own self-surrender? Could this happen if Lewis were right to begin with about there being some sort of radical, ontological separation between Creator and creature?

My God and Your God

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

Do manus, of course. How could I not agree that my post last week (October 27) concerning the McGrath vs. Hitchens debate was “rather simplistic”? Do keep in mind, though, the limits of this medium. Any given entry is bound to cut corners. Over time, God willing, readers will be offered enough bits and pieces to begin assembling their own Summa Theologiae. My aim is to provoke, not propound. Nonetheless, a precision or two does seem in order.

As one of my commentators rightly pointed out, good theology cannot but include at least a modicum of metaphysics. The problem, however, is that most theologians—I’m tempted to say “all” but am prepared to keep the door slightly ajar for a possible exception or two—attempt to ground their intellections, which are the sine qua non of metaphysical validity, in the shifting sands of time. To put the point in Biblical terms, they get tangled up in the narrative flow of the Scriptures and end up thinking that I AM is “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”.

I can almost feel certain readers bristling, so let me add at once that, yes—of course!—the God of these undoubted Patriarchs is undoubtedly the I AM. But the proposition can’t be reversed. As the ineffable Name makes crystal clear, nothing—not even a covenantal relationship with a particular people—can be truly said of an X that is its own predicate: I AM THAT I AM. How many theologians know this, or if they know it act accordingly? How many truly see that the God whose revelation affords their data exists at the level of M?y? in divinis? “Do not cling to me…. I ascend to my God and your God” (John 20:17).

Keep in mind: for the metaphysician, it’s facts that are “abstract”. The purity of intellection, far from being “disembodied”, reveals the very body of bodies.