Archive for February, 2008

Not Second Class

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

If you’re finding discursive and intercessory prayer more “gratifying” and “fulfilling”, there’s certainly nothing wrong in keeping your focus on that.

It’s a question, at least in part, of calling and opportunity. A jnanic path is above all for people who have a concrete, existential, or ontological “need” to know God as such, the Divine Essence—and who understand, implicitly if not explicitly—that in order to know That which is they must be That which knows. This is a rare and high calling, to be sure, but it’s only one spiritual vocation among others, and not the “best” or the “right” one for everyone.

Temperamentally—as far as I may able to judge these things—you seem to be of a type that could benefit from a distinctly, or predominantly, jnanic way. But perhaps not now; perhaps not while you’re still raising your children. Such a path is quite demanding, to say the least … of time among other things.

Mind you, I’m not trying to dissuade you. But if and when you resume the more intense practices of concentration and remembrance, you should do so with your eyes wide open, seeing them as one set of practices among legitimate others, and not going back to them because you feel guilty or “second-class”.

Professing Knowledge

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

I’m happy to know you found my “World Spirituality” syllabus helpful, though I did have to smile when you talked about “reviving the philosophia perennis within the context of modern academia”. Let’s not get carried away! A revival is a very grand thing after all. Really all I’m endeavoring to do is to open a small door for those few students and fellow scholars in whom I’ve sensed a hunger for something more than the historical, text-critical, and phenomenological gruel they’re usually offered by religious studies professors.

Somewhat surprisingly, The Chronicle of Higher Education has allowed me to open such a door to its readers, though whether any will feel inclined to step inside remains to be seen. The January 25, 2008 issue of The Chronicle Review featured an article by one John D. Barbour, a professor of religion at St Olaf College, called “The Place of Personal Faith in the Classroom” . As usual I found myself irritated by The Chronicle‘s portrayal of religious studies, irritated enough in this case to write a letter to the editor, and believe it or not they have printed it in today’s issue, though with two or three sentences deleted or mangled and under the (deliberately?) misleading title “Professing Faith to Students”! Here’s what I said:

John D. Barbour’s “The Place of Personal Faith in the Classroom” (The Chronicle Review, January 25) is at once encouraging and maddening.

I am delighted by his willingness to challenge the widespread notion that expressions of religious conviction are impermissible in the college classroom, but it is a shame that in giving voice to this challenge he perpetuates the idea that such convictions must necessarily be merely “personal”. If, as Barbour admits, “religious assertions have intellectual content, which can be discussed rationally”, what is to prevent a given religion professor from saying something rational, and arguably true, about the Way Things Really Are? Why assume that professorial contributions to class discussion, when they are not of a strictly empirical or exegetical order, can be no more than a subjective sharing of “values or beliefs”? In short, why should we assume positivists won the argument just because they have gone on talking?

Barbour is right: “At public and private institutions alike, practitioners of religious studies have been anxious to prove that they can be as tough-minded and academically rigorous as their colleagues in any other discipline.” The problem is that so few scholars seem to have given serious thought to the question of what exactly tough-mindedness and rigor consist in. Might these admirable qualities not include pointing out that no one has ever, or could ever, come to know by means of the senses that all knowledge is based on the senses? Or calling critical attention to the fact that if our subjectivities were truly determined by our gender, race, social class, and other contingencies, no subject could ever truthfully say so?

Barbour tells us that he has only recently begun to grow “comfortable” talking with his students about “what I believe and why”. He is quick to add that he feels free to do this because he teaches in a church-related liberal-arts college. I for one have spent the last 28 years in my public university classrooms telling my students, in no uncertain terms, that questions about God can be given accurate and objectively verifiable answers, and propounding not a few of these answers myself. I started out with this pedagogy as an assistant professor and am now, thankfully, a tenured full professor, who has only once been criticized by a student for trying to “convert” him—to Platonism.

Of course, these autobiographical facts in themselves prove nothing, least of all the adequacy of my arguments. I am simply following Barbour’s own example of “giving testimony”. I do so in hopes of providing some encouragement to at least a few younger scholars, who will have doubtless been conned by the numerous devotees of the Zeitgeist into thinking that only historians, social scientists, and critical readers of texts have a place in the religious studies classroom. Think again.

Pure Consciousness

Monday, February 18th, 2008

As it happens I reviewed this book—The Innate Capacity: Mysticism, Psychology, and Philosophy (Oxford, 1998)—shortly after it came out. I think you’re right that the idea of “pure consciousness” is an important one when it comes to combating constructivists like Steven Katz, though looking back at my notes I’m not so sure the editor of the volume, Robert K. C. Forman, is speaking about quite the same thing as the Platonists are when they refer to the Nous or “pure Intellect”. In case you’re interested, here are a few words from my review:

The Innate Capacity is a sequel to its editor’s earlier collection The Problem of Pure Consciousness, and like the former book it concentrates on what the contributors call a ‘post-constructivist approach’ to religious experience. In the view of constructivists like Steven Katz, all experience is to be understood on the model of sense perception and is thought to be determined not simply by perceptual givens but by the language and culture of the perceiving subject. It follows for such interpreters that even the allegedly trans-empirical experiences of the mystics are, in fact, built up from the materials afforded by their varying religious and conceptual backgrounds.

Forman and others argue by contrast that there exists at least one kind of mystical state, a ‘pure consciousness event’, in which the human subject enters into a wakeful but object-less mode of cognition. All preconditions, assumptions, and intentional objects are extinguished, and the knower becomes aware of nothing but the knowing itself. All of us, it is argued, have an ‘innate capacity’ for this experience, and it is therefore not surprising that descriptions of such a state are to be found in all religions, nor that by its very nature it should elude the descriptive and explanatory powers of the empiricists and constructivists.

Forman clearly and forcefully defines the territory, calling the bluff on all those reductionists who have presumed to dictate the limits of consciousness. When it comes to what can and cannot be known, ‘the statements of philosophers have no legislative force. No matter how many Humes, Moores, or Hamiltons observe that they cannot catch themselves devoid of [sensory] perceptions, this tells us little about what a Hindu monk, Dominican friar, or Sufic adept might experience after years of yoga, Jesus Prayer, or Sufi dancing” (16).

The remarkable similarities in the accounts of such experiences lead Forman to posit a ‘perennial psychology’ (27ff). Unfortunately, in his efforts to distinguish this psychology from a perennial philosophy, the editor makes the common mistake of suggesting that the latter is based simply on a commonality of cross-cultural doctrinal claims. This was true perhaps in the case of such writers as Huxley, Watts, and Otto, whom Forman singles out. But for Schuon and others of the perennialist school, whom the editor has surprisingly neglected to mention, the ultimate unity among the religions and their several spiritualities transcends all dogmatic and discursive formulations and lies precisely where Forman is looking, in the domain of pure intellection.”

Juxtaposing Tenses

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

No, the Crucifixion is not an event in time, or at least not solely so, whatever those who like to insist on the “scandal of particularity” may think. On the contrary, “the Lamb [i.e., Christ] was “slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). As I always tell my students, if we can properly use the adjective “eternal” of the Trinitarian Persons, then we must use the adverb “eternally” with respect to Their actions. Whatever the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit may “do”, They are “always doing” it, if we’re to continue speaking (as of course we must) in temporal language. It’s therefore false to say that God “made” the world, unless we add at once that He “is making” and “shall continue to make” it, instant by instant.

So also for all the “events” in the life of Christ: the Nativity, Baptism, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension are all “ongoing” realities. Indeed the Second Coming has “already occurred”, as is affirmed in the Anaphora of the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom: “Thou it was who didst bring us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away didst raise us up again, and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst brought us back to heaven, and hadst endowed us with Thy Kingdom which is to come.” One cannot but think of a similar juxtaposition of tenses in Christ’s words in the Gospel, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58).

I would hesitate, however, drawing quite the same conclusion you have—though I certainly agree your formulation is a tempting way of reconciling Christian conviction with the apparent Koranic denial of the Crucifixion (4:157). You wrote that “if Jesus was crucified before time, then the earthly event was simply a temporal manifestation of that pre-temporal reality, meaning that they [the Jews] certainly did not kill or crucify Him because it had already happened”. My sense is that your words “simply” and “already happened” are not sufficient for coming to grips with Christian teaching on this paradoxical point, namely, that what “happened/happens/will happen” on Golgotha is the eternal Self-sacrifice of the Lamb in Heaven.

As I was just explaining to my Theology class yesterday, the eternal isn’t really “pre-temporal”; supra-temporal perhaps, but nonetheless not something in relation to which a historical event could be thought to come later.

Restoration to Our Natural State

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

There is some dispute on this issue among the Orthodox, but my own position, which has the support of several prominent authorities, is that the guilt of “original sin” is not inherited: every newborn is innocent.

I would cite, for example, The Orthodox Church, by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), in which the author points out that the “Orthodox have never held (as Augustine and many others in the West have done) that unbaptized babies, because tainted with original guilt, are consigned by a just God to the everlasting flames of Hell”. The reason for this difference, Ware explains, is that in the Orthodox perspective, men “inherit Adam’s corruption and mortality, but not his guilt: they are only guilty in so far as by their own free choice they imitate Adam.” Now it is true, he continues, “that an Augustinian view of the fall is found from time to time in Orthodox theological literature”—perhaps it is some such exception you have in mind—but this, His Grace observes, has been the result of western influence (see The Orthodox Church [Penguin, 1991], p. 229).

Agreeing for the sake of the argument that the Orthodox point of view may be correct, you say you’re nonetheless puzzled, as a Catholic, why infants should in this case be given the initiatic Mysteries. Are these not “irrelevant” or “superfluous”? Here in answer I would quote from another noted Orthodox theological authority, John Meyendorff:

“The Church baptizes children,” writes Meyendorff, “not to ‘remit’ their yet non-existent sins, but in order to give them a new and immortal life, which their mortal parents are unable to communicate to them.” This is the aim, in fact, of all the Mysteries: “Communion in the risen body of Christ; participation in divine life; sanctification through the energy of God, which penetrates true humanity and restores it to its ‘natural’ state, rather than justification, or remission of inherited guilt—these are at the center of Byzantine understanding of the Christian Gospel” (Byzantine Theology [Fordham University Press, 1974], p. 146).

No Country Is Home

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

Feeling Greek is considerably less important than being truly human, and in any case no one who reflects deeply on the nature of things feels “at home” or “in synch” with any earthly environment, whether ethnic, geographical, or otherwise.

Are you familiar with the following aphorism? One finds it, variously expressed, in more than one tradition:

“He for whom only his own country is home is but a raw beginner; he for whom every country is home has made some progress in the way; he for whom no country is home has reached the Goal.”

By all means make the trip to Athos, Patmos, and Samos, but do so in order to deepen your spiritual life and draw nearer to God, not to feel more like a Greek.

A Blink of the Eye

Saturday, February 2nd, 2008

I’m happy to know your retreat was a good one. I recommend making another soon. You said you cut the last one short owing to feeling tense and distracted. If the cycle of attachment is to be broken, however, it’s very important for you to stay the course through bouts with all kinds of tension. I realize that the tenseness one may experience during lengthy sessions of invocation is “phenomenologically” different from the physiological tension you’ve reported before in connection with concupiscence. But they’re nonetheless related.

When I recommended you avail yourself of the sacrament of confession, submitting then to whatever penance the priest might assign, you said you preferred not to—that is, preferred not to engage in a “combative strategy” on the plane, as it were, of the sin itself, and that you wished instead to take up a position above that plane, reposing in the mantram alone. I understand this perfectly. Nonetheless it’s important that this “supra-position” be brought to bear in some way on your habitual tendency; otherwise the formal retreats, collected or distracted as the case may be, will not “radiate” into the rest of your life.

One way to assist in this “radiation”, or in any case to render it more likely, is to make a special effort to stay within the “repose” of the “supra-position” come what may—even if you start feeling like “climbing the walls”. As with any session of meditation, you should feel free to stand up occasionally, take a few steps, or turn from side to side, so as to keep your body reasonably comfortable. On the other hand, you should resist the temptation to abbreviate the session simply for the sake of comfort.

“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Nonetheless there is a yoke and a burden. Spirituality entails discipline, though in the final analysis the real difficulty lies in keeping things simple, which means having the presence of mind to turn away from provocations in the very first instant you become aware of them—when the turning is as yet no more burdensome than blinking one’s eye.