Archive for November, 2008

Second Thoughts

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

Having started down a path toward Orthodoxy, you’re now having “second thoughts” and are thinking instead of a return to Islam. Do I know of any “similar cases”?

It’s a strange coincidence—or so it would seem from our perspective in time—but I received another email, the very same day your most recent message arrived, from a correspondent who had also written me for the first time several months ago, in fact just a day or two after I first heard from you. You, a Muslim, were at that point feeling the “call of Christianity”, whereas she, a Catholic, found herself “drawn by the magnet of Sufism”. Now, only a short time later, I hear again from both of you, only to learn that while you’re rediscovering the beauties of Islam, she’s finding this tradition increasingly “dry” and “juridical”, whereas her heart has started to “open again to Christ”.

I know nothing about either of you beyond these brief exchanges, and offering specific advice is therefore clearly out of the question. There are, however, four general principles that should inform any final decision.

1. All things considered, it’s always advisable for serious seekers to remain within the tradition in which they were raised, provided of course they have access within that framework to authentic spiritual guidance. As Schuon said, changing religions is much more like changing planets than like moving to a different country, and one must anticipate, and take very seriously, the scale and degree of disequilibrium such a change can involve.

2. On the other hand, questions of personal affinity are by no means without significance. Indeed they can sometimes serve as signposts pointing the seeker in a direction that will eventuate in his finding a master. The path of gnosis is obviously not the same as the path of love; nonetheless the gnostic must still “love” the barakah or “spiritual climate” of the Path he is following, and this includes its art, its symbols, its saints, its liturgies. And just as obviously different souls may legitimately love different things.

3. Reading one or two books is hardly enough, and of course if one is endeavoring to make an informed choice, as you are, between two traditional worlds, it’s essential to read books that are on the same “level” in order to avoid an “apples and oranges” comparison. You speak of having “plunged” in recent weeks into a study of Ibn Arabi, Rumi, Niffari, and other Sufi authorities. Well and good. But in that case you will need to give “equal time” to the works of Christian contemplative masters, including Dionysius, Maximos, Eckhart, and Silesius.

4. In the final analysis, choosing a religion really means keeping oneself open to the “choice of Heaven”, and this in turn means that while religious background, spiritual affinity, and thorough study are all extremely important, personal prayer is the key. Given the decision you and my other correspondent are faced with, I would strongly urge both of you to open your hearts to the Blessed Virgin, the “Mother of God” (Orthodoxy) and “Mother of All the Prophets” (Sufism). You will not be the first Christians and Muslims she has guided. See, for example, the introductory, autobiographical chapter—”How Did I Come to Put First Things First?”—in Martin Lings’s book A Return to the Spirit (Fons Vitae, 2005).

Too Much Perennialism

Friday, November 21st, 2008

Word is that administrators at La Trobe University in Australia have decided to scrap their thriving program in perennialist and traditionalist studies. Harry Oldmeadow, author of Traditionalism: Religion in Light of the Perennial Philosophy as well as a number of other important works, is their best-known scholar, but he’s been working for some years as part of a team of highly supportive colleagues, including Rodney Blackhirst, John Penwill, Roger Sworder, and Algis Uzdavinys, several of whom—as you know—have been regular contributors to Sophia: The Journal of Traditional Studies, Sacred Web, and Eye of the Heart.

I’m told the decision was ideologically, not financially, motivated, and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case. While my own department is not at the moment in danger of being cut, this may simply be because we perennialists are in the minority and thus less a threat to those who prefer to keep the study of religion safely within the confines of history and the social sciences! Of course, from the point of view of most contemporary scholars in our field, even one perennialist is one too many. In case you doubt this—and suppose I’m merely paranoid!—I would refer you to a “Report of the External Review Committee for the Department of Religious Studies, University of South Carolina” (6 May 2008).

Academic departments at USC—and, I presume, many universities—are regularly evaluated by teams of outside scholars in the relevant fields so that administrators can make funding and other “performance-based” decisions, and this past spring it was our turn. A committee of four, which included a former president of the American Academy of Religion and a former editor of the Journal of the AAR, spent three days interviewing our faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate majors, as well looking over such things as the department’s “mission statement”, graduate and undergraduate handbooks, course offerings, and enrollment figures. They then submitted a report to our dean and academic planning committee.

Ironically, though I spent the first 26 years of my academic career as the only member of my department with an interest in the philosophia perennis; though even now there are only two of us with such interests; and though my other colleagues include a Bultmannian and a “womanist” theologian: the very first question out of the committee chairman’s mouth when I sat down for my interview was, “Don’t you think there’s too much perennialism in this department?”—a “when did you stop beating your wife” sort of question, if ever there was one!

When the department was finally given access to the committee’s report a few days ago, I was therefore less surprised than I might otherwise have been at the concern it raised regarding “the place of perennialism in the department’s future”. By the way, you’ll be amused to learn that “perennialism” is defined in this rather curious document as a “somewhat [sic!] esoteric approach to religion that is of interest primarily to a small and committed group of followers in the field”. Talk about being damned by faint praise!

While the report makes a point of insisting that “as a committee we have no intellectual issue with perennialism per se“, it’s clear as crystal they do have issues, indeed serious reservations and objections, regarding the influence—and indeed the legitimacy—of our perspective. You’ve been around academic religionists long enough to decode the following lines, and you’ll see very quickly that it’s precisely the dangerous dragon of perennialist thinking the committee members had in mind, whether explicitly named or not:

“The study of religion contains at least two fundamental components: the concreteness of particular traditions and the ways in which that concreteness is constructed, analyzed, interpreted, and understood…. In the academy, religion is what we study, not how we study…. Echoing the movement within the discipline towards perspectives that situate religions within their socio-political contexts rather than treating them as a series of texts disembodied from their cultural surroundings, students … crave greater attention to historical context…. The strategic plan should take account of both the concreteness of religions and the intellectual diversity that are essential to the first-rate study of religion in an American research university.”

Now of course, there’s nothing surprising in the fact that religionists who trained as historians and social scientists can’t see the religious forest for the trees; that they’re unable—or perhaps just unwilling—to look along, rather than merely at, the traditional forms they study so as to discern the essences; and that they’re therefore puzzled, and in fact often miffed, by metaphysical insights. What is surprising, however—though also, I confess, rather gratifying!—is how worried these politically fashionable scholars seemed to be about what amounts to a minority voice within my department. Needless to say, in today’s university, not all minorities are created equal.

Though more than once expressing their wish for greater “interpretive diversity” in our program, it’s perfectly obvious that what the committee really wanted is what most contemporary scholars of religion want: more of the same old same old—more historical criticism, more sociology, more anthropology, more gender studies, more trendy post-modernism … in short, more distractions from “the one thing needful”.

Downsizing the Ego

Monday, November 10th, 2008

What you describe is entirely normal, and your way of describing it is accurate, if a bit casual! The ego is indeed fighting against being “downsized”. Longer, more discursive prayers give the ego a certain amount of elbow room, as it were; we can “sleep” between sentences, and “coast” through the memorized passages. But this isn’t possible, or at least it’s much more difficult, when we’re invoking the Name: its brevity, and the force of its repetition, keeps “squeezing” the ego, and the ego doesn’t like it!

What to do? A certain balance is important. It’s important, in other words, to combine rigor with gentleness. You mustn’t give up, or give in, in order to flee to something less demanding. On the contrary, it’s crucial, especially at times like those you describe, to take yourself firmly in hand and say, “This is my Way forward toward an increasing freedom and peace and happiness. I mustn’t allow myself to fall back into my old habits.” On the other hand, you must avoid all sense of “punishing” or “getting back at” the ego; this itself is just an egoic trick. After all, we’re trying to get past the illusion that everything somehow depends on us; it’s the Name that carries us, protects us, sustains us, feeds us—if only we let it.

So by all means don’t stop invoking: keep yourself focused on that practice, as much as you are able, but as you do so think of the “space” of the Name—the matrix of those precious syllables—as a little garden of peace, in which you need only rest and “melt”.

Fond and Fearful Memories

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

Believe me, I’m keenly aware of the problems you’re facing, and I thank God every day I’m not just starting out, as you are, in the college teaching business. May Heaven guard and defend you. For “business” is precisely what it’s become, at least at big universities like mine. Assessments, outcomes, credit productions, research dollars—only what can be counted counts.

I’ve not done a careful survey, mind you—in part because surveys are merely more numbers!—but I have little doubt you’re right: truly maieutic teaching has been all but swamped by the transmission of facts and the promulgation of politically fashionable —isms. About all you can do, if you wish to survive and make tenure while remaining true to principles, is to hunker down, say your prayers, and prepare for each and every class as if it were your last and as if your work were being judged, not by the students or some mindless dean whose sole concern is warm bodies, but by Saint Socrates himself.

You might also take some consolation from knowing that there are still a few real teachers out there, or at least a few compromised and self-confessed pretenders who gratefully remember having been taught by a genuine master and regret how much has been lost. In case you didn’t see it, I would highly recommend you take a look at an article that appeared this past May in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Fond and Fearful Memories of an Influential Professor”, by Ellen Handler Spitz. Spitz is an art professor at the University of Maryland, and her article is a deeply moving tribute to her Columbia University philosophy mentor, Mary Mothersill, who died earlier this year. I couldn’t help but think of my own “elitist” and “quirky” undergraduate mentor, John Crossett, whom I have mentioned before in this forum. Indeed the parallels are a little spooky.

“She was unabashedly elitist, whereas today’s professors cringe at the idea of harboring even the remotest trace of snobbery…. These many decades hence, I marvel at the brilliance of her pedagogy. Before the days of political correctness, and predicated on a strong, quirky personality, her teaching style was intended to hand down a particular canon derived from her own education—Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume…. She wanted, openly and boldly, to implant her own passions, predilections, and prejudices in her students. Her pedagogy relied on aura, respect, deference, and even dread…. To whiners and shirkers, Mary would bark, ‘Get cracking!’ She did not suffer fools gladly. Nor sloth….

“In a musty aerie on the highest floor of Milbank Hall, we studied the dialogues of Plato. Mary had chosen Hippias Minor, the text in which Socrates poses intricate questions about lying. Pacing back and forth in the narrow space, she would gaze pensively at an apparent vacuity or out the window for long stretches, and the silence that packed the room was thunderous. No other teacher I had ever studied with behaved this way; it was as though she were modeling for us the very processes of reflection—rethinking for herself every argument from start to finish. As she interrogated us about the text, no step was glossed over or hurried. There we sat, on our hard wooden chairs, trapped in varying degrees of puzzlement, forced to inhabit the wretchedness of our not knowing, desperately longing for closure, wishing for deliverance from the awkward void she refused to fill. For Mary brooked no quick solutions, no leap to a ‘bottom line’. Leaving us in the limbo of our own bafflement and the text’s apparent unintelligibility, she bided her time until, at last, someone broke the unbearable silence. From this experience, repeated weekly and relentlessly, I learned and relearned, or tried to learn, that true understanding requires patience … and that intellectual work must be done only by you yourself—it can never be done for you by anyone else….

“Rarely did [Mary] intervene or save a student; yet she always listened attentively. Unlike some professors of today, she was not indifferent. Not saving you in class did not signify abandonment. It was a means of compelling you to find out how to save yourself. It was for this that I revered her: for making us sit there and face and then push the limitations of our own understanding, for unwaveringly committing herself to teaching us philosophy as she believed it should be taught, and even for her sheer arrogance (justified in my mind by years of erudition and achievement and also by what I sensed as a smoldering intellectual passion).

“No mass-produced Internet pedagogy will ever give us a Mary Mothersill. Nowadays professors seek to be receptive to students, not dictatorial. We try to cover acres of ground to compensate for what students have not previously learned. We even valorize what formerly would have been deemed mistakes. We forswear severity and scorn; we try to be nice. We try not to teach in order to reproduce ourselves, encouraging our students to ‘think independently’. But we have lost something. As we mourn the passing of our teachers, we should remember what they gave us, each in his or her own way. And reclaim it. Not to imitate it, but to build anew on whatever was good and effective in it, for theirs was a pedagogy that, with all its faults, eschewed shortcuts and transported some of us on unforgettable, everlasting journeys into the intoxicating center of the life of the mind” (The Chronicle Review, Volume 54, Issue 35, p. B28).