Archive for May, 2008

Otherworldly Academia

Monday, May 26th, 2008

Only now, with my academic term ended and grades submitted, have I gotten around to reading your review of A. N. Williams’s The Divine Sense: The Intellect in Patristic Theology (Yale, 2007); thank you for sending it. This does indeed seem a title I should have a look at sometime. As it happens I just recently browsed her Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas (Oxford, 1999) and found parts of it helpful, though of course it’s dry as dust like every scholarly tome!

I was struck by this line in your review: “[Williams] compares Origen’s concept of purgatory to a ‘graduate school of theology’ for those who ‘majored in wisdom up to the intermediate level’ during their lives.” And it reminded me of a delightful piece by Nicholas Constas, a Harvard professor of Byzantine studies who abandoned academia three or four years ago and is now a monk on Mount Athos. I met him on the Holy Mountain last summer, and shortly afterward he sent me a very fine essay, “‘To Sleep, Perchance to Dream’: The Middle State of Souls in Patristic and Byzantine Literature” (Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 2001), in which he extends Origen’s educational metaphor even further, with the help of another sage of the Catechetical School:

“Clement of Alexandria … also viewed salvation as a process of growth, understood largely as a system of education. For Clement, the death of the body is a change for the better and marks an advance in the gnostic science of God. After death souls will be educated by angels in a seminar scheduled to last for a thousand years. Upon completion of their studies, graduating souls are transformed into angels and given teaching responsibilities over incoming freshmen, while their former teachers receive promotion to the rank of archangel. The martyrs, having already taken their advanced degrees through earthly correspondence courses, constitute a class of eschatological elites and are conducted immediately with full tenure into the presence of God.”

I confess there are days when I suspect that if academia does have any postmortem parallel it must be of the infernal sort! It’s reassuring to think there might just be a supernal prolongation, and presumably rectification, of all this present silliness!

Error Carried into Action

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

As a follow-up to my last post “On the Position of Sin” (17 May 2008), I recommend you give careful thought to the follow passage from Schuon:

“Gnosis objectifies sin—error carried into action—by referring it back to its impersonal causes, but subjectifies the definition of sin by making the quality of action depend on personal intention. The moral perspective, on the contrary, subjectifies the act by identifying it as it were with the agent, but objectifies the definition of sin by making the quality of the act depend on the form, and so on an external standard” (Stations of Wisdom [World Wisdom Books, 1995], 147-48).

As a bhakti marga, it’s in the nature of things that Christianity, even in its Orthodox form, should promulgate its doctrines from a “moral perspective” and hence encourage people to “identity” themselves with their sins (see my post on “The Greatest of Sinners“).

The gnostic need not trouble himself with this fact. Let people be who they are, and who they need to be.

The Position of Sin

Saturday, May 17th, 2008

With regard to my post from February 10th of this year concerning a “Restoration to Our Natural State“, you ask how I would reply to Saint Augustine when he writes about his Manichaean period:

“I still thought that it is not we who sin but some other nature that sins within us. It flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it…. I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing that was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was that it was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner” (Confessions, Book V, Section 10).

My reply is twofold. I would point out first that the Bishop of Hippo is not here speaking about the disputed point of inherited guilt, which was the subject of my earlier comment, but rather about the origin and “position”, as it were, of sin within those who have in fact committed sins and are thus morally guilty. And what he underscores in so doing is precisely the issue that Orthodoxy is also keen on stressing—that of personal responsibility. Although we’re all of us born into a fallen world where, in the words of Metropolitan Kallistos, “it is easy to do evil and hard to do good” (The Orthodox Way, 62), we’re nonetheless innocent until we have ourselves chosen the evil.

It’s also surely worth noting that while the saint is obviously right to be on his guard against a hamartiology that would serve only to “flatter” and “excuse” the sinful ego, he can’t be right when he says that “it was all my own self”—unless, perhaps, we accentuate the past tense of his verb in this phrase. For it can’t be “all his self” that is sinful in the very instant of his self-examination; what he sees as object is no doubt responsible for its sinful, hence guilty, state, but the subject that sees this is not this.

As you know, Augustine drew much of the inspiration for his teaching from the writings of Saint Paul, but even Paul—even in Romans—was able to distinguish the evil lying “close at hand” from his own “inner man”, in whom he continued to “delight in the law of God” (Romans 7:21-22).

The Essence of Christianity

Monday, May 12th, 2008

How would I sum up the “essence of Christianity”? And how would I “position” my answer in relation to the two well-known books by that title by Ludwig Feuerbach and Adolph von Harnack?

I don’t believe I’ve given ten seconds thought to these authors since my graduate student days at Harvard, back when I was obliged to read such nonsense! But now that you ask I suppose I would say that I’m considerably, though of course paradoxically, closer to the atheist than to the liberal—or at least to this atheist and this liberal. The “fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man”, Harnack’s jejune distillation, misses the point completely, reducing religion to moral platitude, whereas Feuerbach’s famous sneer—that “theology is anthropology”—merely gets things backwards: anthropology is theology, man being “a creature under orders to be God”, in the words of Saint Basil.

One answer I might give to your question—I don’t say it’s the best—would be to cite the précis I provide my university students about half way through their course in Christian Theology. The academic term just ended last week, and I gave the graduate students the task of explaining this summary on their final examination:

We’ve learned in this course that a transcendent and yet immanent Mystery, than which nothing greater can be thought, whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere, is (even as we speak) emptying Itself into our world and ourselves, at once (1) creatively and (2) re-creatively, bringing us and all things into existence from the No-Thing It is while at the same time redeeming and restoring those who, inevitably and yet reprehensibly, are falling away into a nothing It is not.

Now it is up to those who are falling away to respond, and this they do in two ways: (1) through their faith that the world-restoring operations of the Mystery have already achieved their goal; (2) through their recognition that, paradoxically, they are nonetheless responsible for achieving this very goal for themselves, which they can do by mirroring the operations of the Mystery, willingly emptying themselves into It even as It empties Itself into them, in order that finally they might become what It is.

As I’m sure you can see, Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximos the Confessor, John Scotus Eriugena, Bonaventure, and Meister Eckhart—among others—are embedded in these paragraphs, and it was up to the students to ferret them out and exposit the relevant principles.

Might there be an even more essentialized formulation of Christian doctrine? You tell me.


Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

Though you didn’t actually use the word, I believe you’re talking about the subintroductae or agapetae, that is, the consecrated Christian virgins who lived, and sometimes slept, with their male spiritual companions, though without sexual intercourse. There is some evidence, admittedly obscure, that Saint Paul approved the practice:

“If any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin … let them marry. Nevertheless he that standeth steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well. So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better” (1 Corinthians 7:36-38).

And it may be that he engaged in it:

“Mine answer to them that do examine me is this … Have we not power to lead about a sister as a wife, as do other apostles, and the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:3, 5).

Owing to its abuse, the practice was later condemned: Saint Cyprian raised the first official protest around 250 A.D.—”We must interfere at once with such as these in order that they may be separated while yet they can be separated in innocence”—and the Synod of Elvira (305) and Council of Nicaea (325) forbade the practice altogether. That there were abuses and scandals is surely not surprising, fallen human nature being what it is, and the Church was undoubtedly right in its censure. But there is no reason to think that a considerable alchemical benefit might not have been gained by at least some practitioners of this admittedly dangerous art.

The second-century Shepherd of Hermas suggests that the Apostolic Fathers were well aware of the practice. Hermas is entrusted by the divine Shepherd to a group of virgins, “very beautiful in outward appearance, clothed in black, properly girded, with shoulders bare and hair loosened”. When evening approaches, and the Shepherd has not returned, Hermas asks the virgins where he should spend the night, and they reply, Nobiscum dormies ut pater, non ut maritus—”Sleep with us as a father, not as a husband.” The women then kiss and embrace him and spread their clothes on the ground. Hermas lies down in their midst, and the night is spent in “nothing at all” but prayer.

Now all of this is presented as a “similitude”, in keeping with the rest of the text, and when the Shepherd returns he “interprets” the virgins as “holy spirits”: “And a man cannot have come into the Kingdom of God any other way than that they clothe him with their clothes.” And yet is it not obvious—given Paul’s somewhat guarded words as well as the later conciliar condemnations—that certain of the earliest Christians must have treated the “vision” of Hermas in a more literal way?

And why not? Tantric disciplines, in which kama or physical appetite is placed in the service of liberation, need not be a Hindu or Buddhist monopoly. Deliberately to detach himself from the passions that would physically unite him to a woman, while yet in her presence, affords a man the opportunity to become spiritually united to What she embodies, the Divine Infinitude—and vice versa, of course, for a woman, who may in this way seek to make herself a space for the Divine Absolute. No doubt this is so whether the discipline is permanent in the case of celibates or intermittent in the case of married couples.

Do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that there is no other, and no safer, path to God!