Archive for November, 2009

But the Church Isn’t a Factory

Friday, November 27th, 2009

No, I’d not in fact heard of the formulation you quote from Father John Romanides: “If the Church were a factory, its product would be relics.” And no, I wasn’t thinking of things in quite so osteopathic a way when I spoke in my last post about the “production of saints”.

It’s a clever line, of course, and it’s very attractive to think that there might be some empirical criterion for sanctity. I’m certainly in favor of finding (what you called) a “measure beyond religious and denominational politics”—assuming that “measure” is an appropriate term in this context. Nonetheless I would hesitate to draw the conclusions you have.

Incorruption may well be a proof of sanctity. Having venerated the relics of numerous fathers on the Holy Mountain, I’m among the very first to respect this possibility. But it doesn’t follow that corruption—or rather non-incorruption—is therefore a proof of non-sanctity. Let’s not be Father Feraponts, turning up our noses—or pinching them, as the case may be!—at all but the most obviously physiological manifestations of holiness.

Bodhidharma’s cautionary advice is apropos in this connection: “If someone strikes you as so holy that you are inclined to call him a saint, this is a sign that the person is not a true saint. For the true saint cannot be described in such terms: He breaks through the limits of all such conceptual categories.”

Paganism and the Production of Saints

Friday, November 20th, 2009

In the American South where I teach, the question comes up much less frequently, I expect, than in your part of the world. But yes, there are certainly a few people here, including the occasional student, who claim to be practicing “pagans”.

Obviously, the first question to ask is what exactly your interlocutors mean by “paganism”. For some it seems to be primarily a word of protest, signaling their rejection of all “institutional religions”, especially Christianity, and often accompanied by a smoldering resentment of “patriarchy”. On the other hand, the term may be used in a somewhat more learned and politically neutral manner to refer to the spiritual doctrines and practices of pre-Christian Europe, ranging from the Greco-Roman “mystery religions” through their medieval and early modern successors and parallels—doctrines and practices which, it is often claimed, were more attuned to the Divine Immanence than are those of their Abrahamic counterparts.

Given the context in which the question arose, my guess is that your inquirers are using the term in the second sense and that they may well be spiritually serious people who are searching for a genuine Path. If I were in your shoes, I think I would therefore begin by discussing the fact that religions have life cycles. While there are good reasons to think that the ancient Greek and Roman religions—those at least for which we have any historical record—were already in a decadent or degenerate state, I would be prepared to concede that in their own day they may well have been no less spiritually efficacious than Orthodox Christianity is in ours, and I would readily grant that the same might be said for the religion of the people (to take just one example) who constructed Stonehenge.

The problem, of course, is that these considerations are all quite beside the point from an initiatic or operative point of view. We can read about these religions in books, we can study their scriptural and archeological traces, and we can try to reconstruct what their theurgical rites might have looked like. But not being apostles or masters of the traditions in question, there’s no way for us to establish the necessary sacramental links to the originating revelation. Let’s just say—putting the matter in the best possible light—that contemporary paganism is in fact a distant reflection or last vestige of a truly valid religion. So what? Without an unbroken spiritual connection to this past, based upon the pagan equivalent of a silsilah or some other bona fide proof of initiatic filiation, the whole question is moot.

Let me repeat: I’ve no doubt that some of those who call themselves “pagans” are sincere and serious people. Others are clearly just in it for the novelty and exotic flavor, if not for the “protest” that I mentioned above, and others still may well have entered into contact (whether they realize it or not) with demonic agencies, and if so they are operating in a very dangerous state of spiritual delusion. One advantage of beginning your conversation with a discussion of this whole question of “apostolic succession” is that it should help you determine in which category your interlocutors fall. For anyone who is truly serious about the spiritual life will understand in his very bones the importance of sacramental continuity in the “production” of saints. And what’s the point of religion, any religion, apart from sanctity?

Contextualization and Contradiction

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Yes, my students too are always quite puzzled—and often worried that I mean to undermine their faith—when I tell them there are some things even God can’t do. In my Theology course the issue first arises when, in lecturing on the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, I underscore the important distinguo between two modes of necessity: extrinsic and intrinsic.

While it’s true, I explain, that God is extrinsically free in the act of creating, since He’s subject to no force or authority “outside” Himself, He’s nonetheless intrinsically obliged to create. He cannot but act in accord with His nature, and it’s in His very nature to be the Creator. God can therefore no more not create than He can lie or commit deicide. For all such actions entail contradiction, and as St Thomas says, “Nothing which implies contradiction falls under the omnipotence of God” (Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 25, Article 4).

But wait! my young charges counter. Why should mere contradictions prove to be such a problem in Heaven? Surely God can suspend the law of non-contradiction, in just the same way that He’s able to suspend other laws whenever He works a miracle.

Even though it’s mainly Christian students I teach—most of whom take the Bible seriously and who are therefore firm in their conviction that “the Logos was God” (John 1:1)—pointing out that the English “logic” is derived from the Greek logos usually doesn’t get me very far! So what I do instead, and I recommend you consider this strategy, is to ask them three questions of my own:

1. If God did “suspend” the law of non-contradiction, would it be false to say that He had not suspended it?

2. If it would be false, wouldn’t God still be acting in conformity with the law?

3. If it would not be false, then wouldn’t the law still operative?

It can take some minutes, but as soon as the smiles (or grimaces) of recognition begin showing up on a few faces, I step back from the reductio and propose the following moral: Saying that God can’t do something may sound a bit strange at first, but the alternative is madness.

I wish I could say that this whole business about the possibility of contradictions in Heaven was rooted in my students’ piety alone—in their wish to safeguard the majesty of God. I have little doubt, however, that they’re willingness (even eagerness) to credit the Divine with a tertium which is obviously non datur is rooted at least in part in their wish to avoid the hard edges of truly rigorous argument. If only the occasional A could also be not-A—if only they could have their propositional cake and eat it too—they wouldn’t have to think so hard!

But let’s not lay all the blame on the young people. Given the postmodern and other relativistic pseudo-philosophies by means of which our students’ minds are increasingly victimized, their attitude is hardly surprising. Contextualization can’t help but induce complacency in the face of contradiction.