Archive for June, 2008

Dividing the Path into Parts

Monday, June 30th, 2008

According to traditional Christian doctrine, the Son of God shares the Divinity of the Father, and for this reason, or to this extent, the Son may be said to be “equal” to the Father. On the other hand—as I’ve pointed out several times in this forum—the Son qua Person is not the equal of the Father qua Person, and He Himself says so: “My Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). Metaphysically speaking, there is therefore something relatively determinate—”relatively Absolute”—about the Divine Son in comparison with the Fons et Origo from whom His Divinity is derived, that is, the Father.

Basing yourself on these Christological axioms, you pose a question. Citing Metropolitan Kallistos—”to be deified is to be ‘christified’: the divine likeness that we are called to attain is the likeness of Christ” (The Orthodox Way, 74)—you want to know what “level” or “degree” of Divinity a man may expect, or rather hope, to share in as a result of theosis.

No doubt Christianity offers us the possibility of becoming all that Christ is (Ephesians 4:13) and of having exactly the same relationship as He has with the Father (John 17:21). But if there’s something “greater than” the Son, Divine though He is, must there not also be something greater than the state enjoyed by the saint, deified though he is? And if so—you ask—doesn’t it follow that a Christian is obliged to disavow the Hindu’s goal of realizing the Identity, or better Ipseity, designated by the Upanishadic maxim Tat tvam asi?

This is a clever, and no doubt inevitable, question, but it seems to me you’re allowing yourself to be mesmerized by the terminology and forgetting that the teachings of the world’s saving traditions aren’t meant to match up in some sort of one-for-one way. Dogmas are essential, of course, but we need to make sure we don’t allow them to trap us in a sort of Zeno-like paralysis, where we end up convinced we can’t cross the lines with which we ourselves have divided the Path into parts.

Perennialists contend that there is a transcendent, not an immanent, unity of religions—a Summit located in the Divine “stratosphere” and not the human “atmosphere”. Twist and turn our words as we might, I freely admit we’ll never find a way of mapping the language of Trinitarian theology onto the language of Advaita Ved?nta. Nonetheless it’s obvious—is it not?—that three-in-oneness and not-two-ness are inconnumerably pointing us in the same direction. It is for us to move.

That Greater Blessing

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Do not be so concerned about concentration per se. Your task is to endeavor to concentrate. Whether or not you succeed—whether or not, in other words, you’re blessed with an experience of repose or lucidity—is entirely God’s business. It’s the purity of our intention that counts, and not the “fruit of the action”.

It’s true, of course, that when we are able to concentrate, japa becomes less a burden and more a pleasure. But don’t make the mistake, the very common mistake, of interposing some imagined or remembered consolation between the act of invocation and the mantram. Come what may, whether refreshment or tedium, our effort should remain the same.

In a sense it’s the times of tedium, of dryness, that are ultimately of greater value, for then we have the best opportunity for exercising vigilance, for strengthening and toning our spiritual “muscles”. I’m reminded of the 17th-century physician and man of letters Sir Thomas Browne:

“Some believe the better for seeing Christ’s sepulcher, and when they have seen the Red Sea, doubt not of the miracle. Now contrary, I bless myself and am thankful that I lived not in the days of miracles…. Then had my faith been thrust upon me, nor should I enjoy that greater blessing pronounced to all that believe and saw not” (Religio Medici, 1.9).

Mind you, I’m not advocating fideism! Nonetheless there’s an important sense in which what the good doctor says may be rightly, and profitably, transposed onto the plane of contemplative method. Experiences, however extraordinary, are not our goal. God is.

Requiring Religion: Be What Knows

Friday, June 20th, 2008

You’re right to have realized that a serious engagement with the spiritual life entails a radical shift in one’s thinking about everything else. A commitment to Tradition, together with the initiatic affiliation it presupposes, is not something that can simply be grafted onto an otherwise modernist or post-modernist perspective.

Needless to say, this is an especially crucial fact for would-be academics to consider. In a post earlier this month on “The Pride and Perils of Name Brands“, I lamented the dismal situation facing traditionally minded people who aspire to graduate studies in religion. But it’s important to add that this is just the first of a whole series of obstacles they’re going to face. One must not only get into but get out of graduate school, after all, and then land a tenure-track job, and then actually succeed in gaining tenure—at the schools that still have it, and it’s hard not to wonder how long that may last.

Even then, to be honest, the situation improves only in relatively minor logistical ways—even at an institution like mine, where I’m in fact blessed to have a surprisingly large number of sympathetic colleagues, including a couple of moles in the sciences! Regardless of where he teaches, the tenured traditionalist can no longer be fired for his views (or at least that’s the theory), but he will certainly find himself swimming, throughout his career, against some very strong and very dangerous ideological currents.

By no means the least of these is the increasingly invasive empiricism and scientism of contemporary university culture. This past April I was asked to give a short talk to a group of fellow faculty at my university who’re interested in “dialogue” between religion and science. I used the occasion to shine a bright light on the extent to which professors of religion have capitulated to modern notions of what constitutes knowledge, and to warn the members of this little forum that in the absence of a thoroughgoing reappraisal of what it means to know, any supposed dialogue will simply degenerate into parallel monologues.

In case you’re interested, I have just posted this talk on my website along with some of my other articles and papers. It’s called “Requiring Religion: Be What Knows”.

Dealing with Reductionism

Monday, June 16th, 2008

The problem you describe is by no means uncommon, for it’s one thing to see—and to be rightly disgusted by—the pernicious consequences of reductionism and something quite different to be able to justify that disgust dialectically. You’re right to think that “learning how to think is the key”. Writings by authorities like Schuon are profoundly helpful, of course—for example, the opening chapters of his Logic and Transcendence, which I’m currently translating and editing. It’s very easy, however, merely to acquiesce in accepting what he says in “Fall and Forfeiture” (Light on the Ancient Worlds) or “Consequences Flowing from the Mystery of Subjectivity” (From the Divine to the Human) instead of allowing his words to provoke the active mental engagement one needs in order to defend the principles he articulates.

What I would recommend, very highly, is a careful, line-by-line study of the third chapter of C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles. It’s called “The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism”, and it’s proven to be just the right therapy for others in your shoes—people who are having a difficult time in debates with reductionists. Having read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested Lewis’s argument, you could perhaps then bring some of your newfound love of Sri Ramana to bear on the problem by asking yourself, “Who is being ‘plagued’ by reductionism? Who is it that might not ‘really be free’?” Obviously, the “who” who is asking these and similar questions is not in the instant of asking them inside of the reductionist box. To know a limit qua limit is ipso facto to be unlimited by that limit.

One other bit of advice: don’t fight for too much. It’s important for a fallen man to admit that the greatest part of his day-to-day life is indeed determined by powers beyond his immediate control and that much of his behavior, both inward and outward, is well described by reductionist thought. Freedom is a spectrum, after all, and not a yes or no. Only God is totally, perfectly free. The first step toward entering into His freedom, of “partaking of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) through theosis—Hindu moksha—is to acknowledge that our actions and thoughts and seeming choices are in large part not truly “ours”. On the contrary, we are asleep, benighted, “dead in our sins”, and most of our time is spent responding (poorly) to forces we didn’t put there. Once we see this—and of course the “we” who do see it, and don’t just read about it in some book, are already beyond the grip of these forces—we can begin to take steps to break free and wake up.

On Confession

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

The first thing to point out, of course, is that I’m a mere layman, and I would not wish to mislead you by presuming to anticipate what your spiritual father may ask of you during confession itself.

Different confessors have different “styles”, reflecting their specific experiences, strengths, and intuitions, and in a sense the better the confessor the less susceptible will his expectations and methods be to a set of rules. At the top end of the scale is the father who can read your mind and heart, so that you don’t have to say anything. I’m going to assume your confessor doesn’t offer these advantages, or else you wouldn’t be asking me what to do!

In any event, with these important disclaimers firmly in place, my general advice to people is that they make a point of stating their sins as succinctly and dispassionately as possible: “I lied”, “I engaged in sexual fantasy”, “I was angry”, “I procrastinated”. Unless you’re specifically asked to elaborate, you needn’t talk about context or occasion, and you certainly don’t need to record the date or time of your sins. Attention to unnecessary detail tends to give a kind of “color” and “solidity” to the sins, and as a result it can be more difficult to see through to their causes and thus to dispel the energy that caused them.

I would definitely guard against the tendency which some people have—and which some priests even encourage, I fear—to express remorse in a strongly emotional way, for this can lead to a kind of “appropriation” of the sins, as if they defined the true Self. It is of course perfectly appropriate, and in any case inevitable, to feel embarrassed and stupid in regard to what one has thought or done. But these feelings ought not to be artificially strengthened.

On the other hand, those who may use examples of such emotionalism to justify themselves in supposing that metaphysicians are somehow beyond the need for this sacrament are entirely, and dangerously, mistaken. On the contrary, there is a very important alchemy in confession that can be most advantageous for inward spiritual work, and it would certainly be stupid not to take advantage of it. Schuon puts it this way:

“When virtue reaches the innermost regions of the soul, it gives rise to illumination; when the wall of a darkened room is broken, light cannot fail to enter. Complete virtue is the elimination of everything that constitutes an obstacle to gnosis and love.

“Actions are not only superficial manifestations of the individual but also criteria of his heart, hence of his essence and of his knowledge or ignorance. To watch over one’s actions is therefore not only an individual preoccupation; in some cases it is also a pursuit of purity of heart for the sake of the knowledge of God.

“This confers on the theory of sin, on the examination of conscience, and on penitence a significance that goes further than any religious individualism, making them compatible with pure spirituality: in Muslim esoterism as in Christian mysticism, this strictly alchemical way of regarding actions, whether good or bad, goes hand in hand with selfless contemplation of God” (Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts [World Wisdom, 2007], 197).

I pray you avail yourself fully, and regularly, of the power of this alchemy.

The Pride and Perils of Name Brands

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

As I always tell the prospective professors who come my way—and they’re not a few, given how much I obviously enjoy my own work in the college classroom—graduate studies in religion involve a difficult, demanding, and sometimes dangerous gamble.

Going to one of the most highly ranked schools is all but essential if you’re to have much hope of landing an academic position later on. But like virtually every other institution of higher learning in the land, these schools are dominated by liberals, with their tired and rather tiresome penchant for critiquing the traditions they purport to be experts in while at the same time castigating, if not simply dismissing, all criticisms of their own post-modernist agendas. It’s an incredibly sad state of affairs, to be sure.

Basically, you’ve got two choices: you can put your brain and your convictions on hold for a few years and go to the school with the highest ranking possible in hopes that the “name” will be a ticket to a job, which will then in turn—God willing—provide you with an opportunity to help future students like yourself, intellectually and spiritually. This was my strategy. I knew very well that Harvard was in thrall to the Zeitgeist and that the theology faculty would teach me very little worth knowing, but I also knew that the mystique of the Harvard brand would likely lead to a tenure-track job. My undergraduate classics mentor, the great Crossett, whom I have praised on this weblog before and who himself had a Harvard Ph.D., told me I would hate the experience, and he was largely right.

On the other hand, you can try to find a school, regardless of its reputation or potential name-recognition, which has at least one faculty member whose work you respect and whom you would like to apprentice yourself to. This would obviously be much better for your soul in the short term, though—as I’ve said—it’s a gamble: there just aren’t that many academic positions for religionists and philosophers, and the less well-known your Ph.D.-granting institution the greater the odds are against your finding a job. And of course by the same reasoning the less well-known your M.A.- or M.T.S.-granting school the greater the odds are against your getting into a top-notch Ph.D. program.

You could always just be a monk. I’m perfectly serious. This is what one of my current masters students plans to do: get the degree and run, moving directly onto something having a clearly intellective, if not intellectual, significance!