Archive for July, 2008

A Distinction of Loves

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

My sense is that agape and caritas have come to possess very similar, indeed all but identical, connotations. Etymologically, however, there remains a small, but perhaps significant, difference: the Latin caritas (n.) is cognate with carus (adj.), meaning “dear, highly prized, (even) high-priced”; hence caritas carries the sense of “esteem, affection, (even) desire”. The Greek agape (n.), on the other hand, is cognate with agapao (v.), meaning “to caress, to care for”.

To make use of C. S. Lewis’s distinction in The Four Loves, there would thus seem to be rather more “need-love” in caritas and rather more “gift-love” in agape. Caritas is a love whose object is estimable, if not esteemed, and it is directed toward something regarded as demanding or meriting love. Agape, however, is a love that reflects or embodies the lovingness of the subject more than the loveableness of the object; in fact in its “chemical purity”, if you will, it exists in spite of—even as a function of—the unloveableness of the object. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Mind you, I’m splitting hairs when I say this! After all, when it comes to Saint Paul’s great hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13, the Vulgate translates the Greek agape with the Latin caritas precisely, and this comes directly into the English of the Authorized Version as “charity”: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (verse 13). On the other hand, given the etymological facts, it seems to me worth making a subtle distinguo in order to underscore the fact that in the Christian understanding the God who “is love” (1 John 4:8) is “agapic” before He is “charitable”: He is the One who loves the unloveable into a condition of lovability.

You also asked about the Latin imperative miserere. As far as I can tell, there is no difference whatsoever between it and the Greek eleison; each can mean either “have pity” or “have mercy”. But this dual significance itself suggests another important distinction: pity, after all, is compassion for someone who is suffering in a way or to a degree he does not deserve, whereas mercy is clemency or leniency toward someone who is not yet suffering, or not at least fully or adequately, in the way he does deserve. At the risk of another overly subtle distinction, it therefore occurs to me that it might be worth our while to muse upon the following proportion:

Caritas : miserere (or eleison) as “pity” : : Agape : miserere (or eleison) as “mercy”

In other words, the love that loves what it deems to be intrinsically or essentially worthy of its love is naturally inclined to a compassion that pities, whereas the Love that loves because it is intrinsically or essentially Love as such naturally gives rise to a compassion that bestows mercy.

That’s almost certainly more than you needed, or wanted! But I “love” words, and the playful seriousness of etymology, or perhaps better nirukta, I always find irresistible!

Operative Absolutism

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

You’re right to suppose that Schuon’s views on the subject of abortion were consistent with the teaching of traditional Islam as to the moment of quickening—a teaching shared by Saint Thomas, unless I’m mistaken—though of course they were framed in terms of the cosmologia perennis. According to Schuon,

“The individual substance, which ‘transmigrates’, is linked to the potentialities of the divine All-Possibility and has nothing to do with the genes that transmit hereditary dispositions; these dispositions are super-added to the substance of the individual and do not begin to be actualized until the moment the substance enters the body, more or less at the third month of growth; this combination constitutes the soul…. The birth of the soul takes place upon the entry of the individual substance—’transmigratory’, not genetic—whereas the birth of the body, the vehicle of the soul, is what is usually understood by the word ‘birth'” (Unpublished letter, Summer 1988).

A parallel observation comes as something of an aside in his “Mystery of the Bodhisattva”:

“The Enlightenment that occurred in the lifetime of Shakyamuni beneath the Bodhi tree is none other than what in more or less Western parlance would be called ‘Revelation’, namely, the reception of the Message or the prophetic function; just as the soul descends suddenly on the embryo once it is sufficiently formed—neither before nor after—so Enlightenment descends on the Bodhisattva who has acquired, side by side with his Knowledge and his Nirv?na, the cosmic perfections required for the prophetic radiation” (Treasures of Buddhism [World Wisdom, 1993], 124-25).

Needless to say, none of this meant that Schuon would have treated an as-yet-unensouled fetus with indifference. I’m reminded of the following:

“If a man does not trample on a flower without reason, it is because the flower is something of God, a distant effect of the infinite Cause; whoever despises a flower indirectly despises God. If a good man had the power to destroy a stone, he would nevertheless not do so without a motive, for the existence of the stone—this quasi-absolute something that distinguishes it from nothingness—is a manifestation of the Principle; it is therefore sacred. In every neutral contact with matter—and this is all the more true of contact with one’s fellow men—a man should either not leave any trace or else leave a beneficent trace; he should either enrich or pass unperceived. Even when there is a need to destroy—in which case the destruction is divinely willed—a man should destroy in conformity with the nature of the object, which then objectifies human nothingness to the extent the man is the agent of a celestial will. The life of man being sacred, the destructions it inevitably requires are also sacred” (Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts [World Wisdom, 2007], 179-80).

Obviously, what is true for a stone is a fortiori true of a human embryo. I wouldn’t wish to opine as to how these considerations might apply to specific situations of the sort you mention—rape, incest, risks to the mother’s life, etc. What I will say is that there seems to be a spectrum of possibilities here and that one would be ill-advised in insisting that every abortion, no matter how early in the mother’s pregnancy and no matter the circumstances, should be regarded as absolutely intolerable.

We must be absolutists, of course, but ours is an operative and not, or at least not necessarily, a formulaic or propositional absolutism. It’s true that there can never be more than one perfectly appropriate act, but it’s impossible in every case to anticipate this act with a rule or a system of rules. Intrinsic or essential morality—the only morality that is never subject to conditions—is based on a discernment of principial realities and not on purely sentimental or pro domo considerations.

How Do You Explain Saint Anthony?

Friday, July 18th, 2008

Needless to say, the claims of your son’s professor—that Nicaea was merely the scene of a political power-play and that the Christianity “invented” by Constantine and his henchmen was not, and is not, the only option—are far from surprising; it’s the usual classroom fare these days: there are Christianities, Hinduisms, Judaisms, and so forth because professors of religion seem no longer capable of seeing the forest for the trees; as far as I can tell, they wouldn’t recognize an essence if it struck them in the face, as by all rights it ought to!

I’m not sure I would have responded, or rather suggested responding, in so exclusively historical or sociological a way, however. Informing this young man—and his politically fashionable teacher—of the facts of Church history is certainly important, but these facts are rooted after all in an experience in which we may all participate, verifying in our own persons the fundamental claim of the Tradition: “God became man that man might become God.”

I believe you’ve read the on-line lectures for my Christian Theology course at USC. You might have your son take a look at Lecture 12 in particular, “The Logic of Nicaea”. To quote myself briefly:

“Rather than engaging in a skeptical dismissal of the matter [as your son’s professor clearly has] and rather than resting in pious statements of praise [as you may be tempted to do], we need to focus our attention on the theological ‘logic’ of the claim [that Christ is ‘of one essence with the Father’]….

The closer one looks at this issue, and the more one reads the writings of early theologians (like St Athanasius) who were close to the whole dispute, the clearer it seems that the Council of Nicaea ended up making this change [that is, adding the term homoousion to the earlier Creed of Caesarea] and insisting on Christ’s deity for specific theological reasons.

Whatever the ‘political’ context might have been and whatever the human or Divine explanation for the (apparently) sudden and surprising turn-around in that Turkish summer of A.D. 325, the logic behind the new creed is clear” (p. 121).

The logic in question, as I go on to point out, is clearly rooted in the experience of theosis—in the regenerative power that flows from participation in Christ, who cannot but be God if the effects He produces are so obviously Divine. Athanasius cut straight to the heart of the matter in his biography of his spiritual master: “If Christ isn’t God, how do you explain Anthony?!”

Perichoretic Emptiness

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

Thank you for referring me to the review of this book: Mystics, by William Harmless, S. J. (Oxford, 2007).

The problem, of course—or one problem—comes in the reviewer’s claim that “the Christian conception of knowing a personal God and the deity-free Buddhist conception of realizing Buddha-nature are markedly different”. Are they indeed? In some ways this is doubtless so, but one must nonetheless call the bluff regarding this matter of “person”.

Even C. S. Lewis—not generally considered a “mystic”, though see my paper “Lewis as Apologist and Mystic“—could write, “Christian theology does not believe God to be a person…. It believes Him to be something very different from a person, just as a cube, in which six squares are consistent with unity of the body, is different from a square” (“The Poison of Subjectivism”, Christian Reflections, 79).

How different, or how similar, the perichoretic indeterminacy—like Wisdom, “more moving than any motion”—of a tri-hypostatic Godhead may be when compared to the emptiness of the Buddha-nature is, frankly, not something it seems to me this reviewer may have the capacity to assess. And if the author shares this opinion, I fear the book may be rather less “harmless” than his name suggests!

The Virtuous Circle

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

Self-discipline appears to be the root problem, and it obviously entails a sort of “vicious circle”: one wishes to be more disciplined, more strict with oneself, but in order for this to happen the wish must itself be transformed into effective action, which requires an a priori willingness! How to get started?

I always tell people not to bite off more than they can chew. In other words it’s best to begin small, and then when the volitional muscles have been strengthened a bit and you have begun to taste the benefits of a given regimen, you can expand or increase incrementally.

This is important: your goal is not to become more disciplined! That’s just a means. Your goal should be the full fruit of the discipline: lucidity, peace, the perfect happiness that comes from participation in God (2 Pet. 1:4). Any genuine path is going to embody this goal every step of the way, which means that it will give you at least glimpses, hints, of what you’re aiming toward.

Don’t get so caught up in the doing of the discipline that you miss these joyful anticipations. The circle should be a virtuous—and victorious—one.

The Once and Future College

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

I’m glad you noticed my “Once and Future College” and am pleased you found some of your questions about Socratic teaching answered. I posted the talk on my website—under “Articles and Papers”—a few weeks ago now, but you’re right that I hadn’t yet mentioned it here in Anamn?sis.

As you can see from the header, the talk was delivered in early June in Chicago at the annual meeting of the Orthodox Theological Society of America. One of the Society’s themes this year had to do with Orthodoxy and higher education, and they invited me to come and talk about Rose Hill, the little Orthodox great books college I helped to establish back in the mid-nineties.

People continue to contact me about the experience, most recently a priest in Washington who is involved in a similar venture and who wrote to ask my permission to use the Rose Hill College Catalogue as their template. I was therefore glad for the opportunity to tell a bit of the history and, more importantly, to write at greater length than I had before on both the perils and promise involved in combining dialectic with traditional religious commitment.

If only everyone were an apophaticist! I’m reminded of Schuon: “Metaphysics cannot be taught to everyone, but if it could be there would be no atheists.”