Archive for March, 2008

The Scandal of Particularity

Monday, March 31st, 2008

No, I never supposed you were a perennialist, your curiosity and somewhat sympathetic ruminations notwithstanding, or not at least in the sense that the Schuonian uses the term. I agree, and have acknowledged the fact in my writings, that most Christians historically have been either exclusivists, who believe everyone else is damned, or inclusivists, who insist that only Christianity is fully true, though other religions may contain partial truths. It’s clear your “Christian humanism” is a variation of the latter position.

I agree that one can’t be a Christian without believing that all salvation comes through Jesus Christ. The question, however, is whether this Christ, the eternal Logos, bound Himself irrevocably through the events of the Gospel to a particular form and whether Christianity must therefore be identified with the “scandal of particularity” you associate with Barth and Brunner. While there are Patristic exceptions, of course, the consensus of the Fathers and Councils would seem to be otherwise. “Though Christ was in the body,” says Saint Athanasius, “He was not circumscribed by that body.”

Marriage Is Half the Religion

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

You ask about the had?th that “marriage is half the religion”. As a Muslim, you obviously know much better than I how your tradition interprets this axiom.

But since you’ve asked, I’ll risk a suggestion or two. If religion consists in our return to God, and if this journey home requires self-effacement and a death to our ego, what could be a better foundation than the crucible of married life, where each partner is offered repeated opportunities to give way to another that is intimately united to himself—with whom he is indeed “one flesh”? We are of course truly one Self with all men—which is why we’re told to love the neighbor “as the self”, and not merely “as if he were the self”—but in our wives and husbands we have a chance to come to terms with this fact in a context where we’re already predisposed to wish the other well.

Of course, the question will then arise as to why this is only “half”, and not the whole, of the journey. What more remains? Part of the answer, surely, lies in the fact that love of neighbor, even the neighbor to whom one is married, gets us nowhere without love of God. Another answer may be found in Krishna’s admonition in the Gita—that we must learn to detach ourselves from the fruits of our actions, even (or perhaps especially) those that come from the action of loving our spouse, sacrificing those delicious fruits in the fire of the knowledge that we are not the Actor.

Regarding your idea that marriage creates a “third thing” in addition to the two spouses—what you call a “union of essentials”—this may be true in some cases. But I suspect this mystical tertium is going to be rather rare—something we may certainly seek in this life, but without its being fully realized while we’re still in the body. You sound disappointed that even the closest of terrestrial relationships must always retain an element of “distance” and “mystery”. I agree that this can be “unsettling”, but isn’t that in fact just as it should be? For in confronting the unknown in another person we’re confronting, indirectly, the Unknown itself, in whose image the other person is made.

A proving ground for our growing knowledge of God: this, it seems to me, is a sufficient ideal for any marriage to aim toward. And then, if Heaven in its wisdom and generosity decides to make of it something more—to provide a foretaste of the supreme bliss we’ll partake of when all are in each and each in all—then of course Deo gratias.

Creatio Ex Nihilo Praeter Deum

Friday, March 21st, 2008

Creatio ex nihilo praeter deum is not a formulation that can be traced—or not at least one I have traced—to a specific traditional source. I use that phrase in my theology class as a way of expressing, elliptically no doubt, at least something of what C. S. Lewis has in mind when he writes—in his Letters to Malcolm, which students are reading at that point in the class—

“I know that to create is defined as ‘to make out of nothing’, ex nihilo. But I take that to mean ‘not out of any pre-existing material’. It can’t mean that God makes what God has not thought of, or that He gives His creatures any powers or beauties which He Himself does not possess. Why, we think that even human work comes nearest to creation when the maker has ‘got it all out of his own head'” (Letters, Ch. XIV).

I can usually get away with this ellipsis when I’m lecturing undergraduates! This semester, however, four graduate students are also taking the course, and one of them very rightly insisted that I stop and explain myself more precisely. Did this mean, he asked, that God is not only the efficient and final, but also the material, cause of the universe? And, of course, I had to reply in the negative: things obviously aren’t made out of some sort of “God-stuff”. Nevertheless, it is equally obvious that created things have no source but God, so that in some sense they do indeed come forth “from” Him and from “nothing” else.

We need a distinguo, it seems, between senses of “from” or “out of”. In a short chapter entitled “Ex Nihilo, In Deo” (in his Play of Masks) Schuon offers such a distinction, pointing out that

“in the expression creatio ex nihilo, the word nihil determines the meaning of the word ex: in this case ex does not presuppose a substance or container as is normally the case; it simply indicates a possibility in principle, though in this case the possibility is denied precisely by the word nihil in regard to creation, rather as the word ‘with’ indicates a possible object in the expression ‘with nothing’, though in fact what the expression means is ‘without object'”.

I’ve said that things are “obviously” not made out of God in any material sense, but it is also obvious—and indeed a fortiori—that they can’t be made out of some quasi-substantial nothingness. If I had had the presence of mind, I might have told my student that Aristotle’s material cause simply doesn’t apply, except perhaps by way of analogy, when one is considering the causality called creation or the cause called Creator.

As for traditional Christian sources—if not of the Latin formulation itself, then of the essential point it expresses—the following from Philip Sherrard’s Human Image, World Image (p. 154, footnote 10) will perhaps be useful to you:

“Already in the fourth century the Cappadocian theologians recognize that non-being is one of the Names of God. St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, identifies the nihil out of which this world is created with God Himself in His super-essential Non-Being (see H. A. Wolfson, “The Identification of Ex Nihilo with Emanation in Gregory of Nyssa”, reprinted in his Studies in the History of Philosophy and Religion [Cambridge, Mass., 1973]). Creation ex nihilo means God’s own self-creation, His self-manifestation in theophanies, His movement from darkness to light. Nothing (nihil), Eriugena remarks, is another name for God, and creation ex nihilo is creation from or out of God (see Dermot Moran, The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena, op. cit., pp. 236 and 238ff).”

Perhaps I should also quote what Sherrard writes in the body of his text before adding this footnote:

“If the phrase ex nihilo is to have any significance beyond that of guarding against the idea that God creates out of some self-subsisting, independent element, the ‘nothing’ in question cannot indicate a purely negative category; on the contrary, it must indicate either the metaphysical Nothing … a world of uncreated spiritual energies in which there is no thing; or, beyond that, beyond even Being itself, a world of pure potentiality, the Ungrund or Abyss in which the unmanifest virtualities or divine Names of God Himself are occluded” (p. 154).

I confess I’m not sure what the distinction is between “metaphysical Nothing” and “Abyss”; but I certainly do agree with his fundamental insight: namely, that everything which exists comes forth, not only from nothing but God, but from the Nothing God is.

Attention Alone

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

I’m gratified to hear that you’ve been able to extract from your academic studies some useful spiritual guidance. What’s the point otherwise of a religion major? You should be thankful that there are professors at your university who, even if they do not encourage this extraction, at least do not seek to prevent it.

The most important of the “operational commonalities” among the several masters you mention, who are otherwise so widely divided in time, place, and tradition, is the stress they place on attention—what the Hesychast teachers call nepsis. Practically speaking, this is the key to your finding a lasting solution to your personal battles with concupiscence. It is attention, and attention alone, that will allow you to “go behind” the now-unconscious, image-making forces of your mind. And it is there, and there alone, that you will find the power to dispel the elements of fantasy before they cohere and are projected upon the mirror of your soul. As the neptic Fathers stress repeatedly, a resolve put in place only after you have begun to “couple” with the images is much too “late” and will always be defeated, leading hence to a vicious circle of guilt and weakened resolve in the future.

All these latter efforts and reactions are but the surface of a pool into which you must eventually dive, and into which we can very readily dive, if we will, each time the Name is pronounced with awareness.

A Subtler and Larger Reality

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

I would reassure you first that you’re not alone. I receive messages with some frequency from Orthodox, both clergy and laity, who are deeply interested in the perennialist school but who feel they can’t really talk about it with their priests or hierarchs. A few of the laity want to argue with their priests, and I always make a point of emphasizing that we go to Church to receive the Mysteries, not for a lesson in comparative religion: a spiritually serious exclusivism is much better than a banal and fashionable ecumenism.

It should be pointed out, second, that the perspective of the abbot you mention is not that of all Orthodox Christians, nor are the writings of Father Seraphim Rose, which he apparently cites, universally regarded as having the authority his spiritual children, quite understandably, may attribute to them. Orthodoxy comprises a much wider spectrum of theologoumena on such subjects as universal salvation than it seems your mentors think. Metropolitan Kallistos, for example, while by no means propounding a definitive teaching, is nonetheless quite open to the idea of universal salvation; he goes so far as to say, in The Orthodox Way, that even Satan may be saved; and he answers the question he poses in the title of an article called “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?” with a resounding affirmative, quoting in so doing Saint Silouan: “Love could not bear that…. We must pray for all.”

Also worth considering is the fact that Holy Cross Greek Orthodox press saw fit to publish the late Philip Sherrard’s final book, Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition, in which the author explicitly espouses the idea that there is a transcendent unity of religions. I might mention too that when I sent a copy of one of my own books—Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East—to one of the monks I met last summer on the Holy Mountain, he wrote back to say that he had read it appreciatively, passed it around to other English-speaking fathers, and would be placing it in the monastery’s library. None of this is to say, of course, that this man is, or will ever be, a perennialist, but it’s clear that his Brotherhood would not refuse me the Mysteries simply because of my opinions on this score.

Now I suppose all this “evidence” would only lead some people, perhaps your friend the abbot, to start raising questions about who is really Orthodox. I am well aware, for example, that Metropolitan Kallistos has his detractors, among some Old Calendarists at least and perhaps elsewhere as well. And Sherrard is undoubtedly a very controversial writer. So I’m certainly not suggesting that these facts will sway every interlocutor or that you should adduce them in endeavoring to argue with fellow Orthodox. All I’m trying to do is to help bring some peace to your heart with the encouraging news, if it is news to you, that Orthodox Christianity is a subtler, and larger, reality than some people may realize.

I’m reminded of a maxim I heard back in the mid-90s when I was visiting Saint Paisius Abbey in Forestville, California—a maxim that came, let me add, from none other than the abbot, Father Herman Podmoshensky, Father Seraphim’s old friend and the co-founder of the Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood: “Being Orthodox is what counts,” he said; “being thought to be Orthodox is merely a luxury!”

Have Mercy on Us

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

What’s the preferred form of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” or “… have mercy on us”? As you know, both forms are found in the tradition, and clearly both have their value. It depends in part on one’s intention: in saying “us” we’re praying not just for ourselves but for all men.

From the point of view of an operative gnosis, however, the plural has another, somewhat subtler meaning as well, serving to remind us that we are not to identify ourselves with our vices. Of course we do sin, and in our personal prayers and sacramental confession we’re obliged to admit this and to strive toward amending our lives. Nonetheless, the esoterist knows that what he truly is is Virtue, not sin. As I point out in my Advice to the Serious Seeker,

“Virtue consists essentially in fidelity to our fundamental being or theomorphic nature since there remains within every man a level of primordial perfection [this is the fitrah of traditional Islamic teaching] existing on an inward plane deeper than the level of the fall. Hence Virtue is not something which I do or acquire. Virtue is what I already am in my transpersonal depths” (63).

In its inward unity the real “I” is already perfect. We can come to realize this fact, however, only if we detach ourselves from the multiplicity of false selves, the demonic “legion” of the Scriptures, who wish to confuse and distract us. One asks for mercy on “us” because it is precisely as us that I sin.

Figments of the Divine Imagination

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

To say the personal God is not fully real is not to say He is unreal. You seem to be thinking of a strict black-or-white dichotomy: either real or not, either completely true or completely false.

The key here is to remember the idea of a “great chain of being”, with degrees of reality ranging from the supreme Principle to nothingness. Remember what Schuon said in the chapter on Ved?nta our class recently read from Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts: “It is not possible to understand that the enunciation ‘Brahma is the Almighty Creator’ contains an error before having understood that it expresses a truth.”

God as Being may be less real than God as Beyond-Being, but God as Being is nonetheless infinitely more real than His creatures, ourselves included. The mistake I think you’re making is this: you think you’re being asked to suppose that we mere mortal creatures, indeed fallen egos, are somehow the creators of the personal God, who is thus merely a figment of our imaginations. Not so, and indeed just the opposite. The metaphysician would prefer to say—though this is somewhat ill sounding, I realize—that we are merely figments of God’s imagination.

No matter how “fully realized” a given sage might be, he remains—and he knows it!—a creature of the Divine Creator. The key chapter of Schuon’s on this subject is “The Servant and Union”, in Logic and Transcendence.