Archive for September, 2011

Discriminations and Precisions

Monday, September 19th, 2011

You ask what the dividing line is in Orthodoxy between acceptable and unacceptable “beliefs and perspectives”. It’s certainly true that a certain diversity of viewpoints is inevitable among the members of a given religious tradition, and within certain limits the tradition itself makes room for that diversity. In Orthodoxy an important distinction is made between dogmata (“dogmas”), which everyone is obliged to assent to, and theologoumena (“opinions about God”), which may vary from person to person without contradicting or compromising the dogmatic dimension.

You’re absolutely right, of course: most Christians, or at least most Orthodox Christians, disagree with my perennialism; but the disagreement is at the level of “opinion” since what I believe—namely, that the Divine and Uncreated Logos has not limited its saving expression to Jesus of Nazareth—does not deny or contradict what these other Christians (and I too) believe: namely, that this same Logos “came down from Heaven, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary”, etc. In other words, though I may subscribe to more than is claimed in the Creed (and other essential bases of the tradition), I subscribe to no less.

It would be something quite different, however, if I decided, as a matter of conscience or personal conviction, that Jesus was not the Logos incarnate, or that the Trinity was a lie, or that the Resurrection was a hoax. Obviously there are people who have these opinions, and there are indeed certain churches of a liberal bent which tolerate, and even promote, such opinions. Needless to say, the Orthodox Church is not one of them! Indeed the rigor of Orthodoxy, its uncompromising fidelity to ancient tradition, is one of the features that makes it so attractive to me.

You speak of feeling a certain divide between your personal “perception” and what Christianity teaches, and you say you are finding that “parts of the doctrine” conflict with your conviction about what’s right and wrong. This sounds to me like a case of conflicting dogmata and not just personal theologoumena, but I’m afraid I would need to know more precisely what those doctrines, or parts of doctrine, are before I could give you very helpful advice regarding what you might do to resolve the conflict. All I can say at the moment is that resolve it you must, for dogmas are, and should be, non-negotiable.

As for your related question on the subject of “judgment”, this is fairly easily answered. When the Bible teaches us not to judge, the point is that we have no right to say who is saved and who’s not, no right in other words to make claims about the state of someone’s soul or about the underlying substance of his character. On the other hand, Holy Tradition is clearly brimming over with “judgments”, and with criteria for judgment, concerning the way people think and act. Why? Because, like all religions, Christianity teaches that certain thoughts and actions are good for people and certain thoughts and actions are not. Simply put, traditional Christians are intellectual and moral absolutists, not relativists.

Admittedly, “paying attention to what others are doing” can, and no doubt often does, become a convenient excuse for ignoring one’s own faults. Christ speaks of the mote in the neighbor’s eye and the log in one’s own. Christians, like Muslims—and no doubt the zealous faithful of all the orthodox religions—have frequently made the mistake of “hating the sinner because of the sin”. But Blessed Augustine (whom I’m quoting here) immediately adds that it’s just as wrong to “love the sin because of the sinner”. On the contrary, what we have to do, he says, is “love the sinner while hating his sin”; indeed our love for him as a person obliges us to “judge” his thoughts and actions when we can see they are harming him.

This of course raises the question of what exactly constitutes “harm”. Suffice it to say that Christianity (again like every religious tradition) does not limit its “judgments” to what may or may not “directly harm other persons” (your phrase). In fact its key interest is in helping people avoid harming themselves—by advising them, at the level of principle, concerning what is and isn’t good for them spiritually and by teaching them, at the level of practice, certain strategies for overcoming self-destructive thoughts and behaviors.

Perhaps these discriminations and precisions will be of some help to you in your efforts to discern your way forward.

Passing through the Gateless Gate

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

Your message began with a quotation from Sri Ramana Maharshi:

“The guru helps you in the eradication of ignorance. The ego is a very powerful elephant and cannot be brought under control by anyone less than a lion, who is none other than the guru, whose very look makes the elephant tremble and die.”

The first thing to say—just in case it’s not obvious!—is that I’m no guru, and I’m therefore quite unable to solve your problem with no more than a mortal glance! I would point out, in the second place, that the Maharshi’s analogy is almost certainly elliptical, for however paradoxical it may seem, the “I” must be more than merely passive in its own demise. While it’s true that “I” myself am the problem, “I” must nonetheless desire “my” own death and must strive to bring it about, and this desiring and striving “I” is a no less essential part of the alchemy than the guru himself. In the Maharshi’s words, the guruhelps [my italics] you in the eradication of ignorance”, but he doesn’t simply do it for you, lion though he may be to your elephant.

Or in an equivalent Orthodox formulation: “Without God man can do nothing, but without man God will do nothing” (Metropolitan Kallistos Ware).

In any case, to come to the specific problem you pose, you ask “how to practice wu wei or kenosis through the will if the will belongs to the ego”, or again “how to achieve non-doing through trying not to do”, and you rightly note that “this dilemma is something that sooner or later shows up” in the spiritual Way. Indeed just a few days ago I had a message from another correspondent who has found himself seemingly trapped in the same aporia, struggling to pass (in Zen terms) through the same Gateless Gate. My counsel to him was that he try looking outward, away from himself and his troubles—outward and upward toward God through His Name. Invoking this Name as much as possible is always the right thing to do; indeed, it is the very best of acts and, in the final analysis, the only thing we can “do”. For it is the only doing in which “our” act dissolves in God’s.

The dilemma you speak of stems at least in part from an excessive, and one may even say narcissistic, self-examination and self-questioning, which are just as paralyzing as the parameters of Zeno’s paradox: as long as I remain confined by a purely analytical inspection of the task before me—an analysis which tells me that I’m unable to traverse a full distance until I have first traversed half, nor this half before half of that, etc.—I will be stuck in place, unable to take even the very first step toward my goal. In the same way, as long as I keep recycling the thought that “I” am the problem, but that “I” am precisely the one who is thinking and lamenting the fact that “I” am the problem, etc., I will remain locked in my egoism, a prisoner in a dungeon to which I alone hold the key.

The “key” in this case is to suspend analysis and to stop looking in the rear view mirror of the self so as to see where “I” am or how well “I” am doing. One must resolve to turn one’s attention—two or three times every second, if necessary!—away from oneself and toward God. In Sufic terms, this means looking away from the dhakir (the invoker) toward the Madhkur (the Invoked) through the dhikr (the invocation). But if this is to happen, the “adult’s” analytical proclivities must give way before the “child’s” contentment with synthesis. This in part is why our authorities so often stress the importance of cultivating a heart that delights in “little things” and why we are told that the rigors of Abstention and Action must be balanced by the gentleness of Peace and Trust.

I realize full well, of course, that this “key” as such is no solution, for it’s no less susceptible than any other collection of words to the ego’s manipulation and can easily be transformed into a means of deepening even further our sense of paralysis. In fact this is precisely what the ego will do, inevitably, as long as what I have called “contentment with synthesis” remains a mere prescription for an action anticipated but as yet not engaged in. At some point—and for some people it can happen only in a moment of intense frustration or even despair—you are simply going to have to give up the vain hope of understanding how spiritual things work, and just let them work.

How does one engage in wu wei?. How does one do without doing? Answer: By doing it and not asking how! I’m reminded of a Zen story. A monk asked the roshi, “We have to dress and eat every day. How do we escape from that?” The roshi replied, “We dress, we eat.” “I do not understand,” the monk persisted. “Then put on your clothes and have your breakfast!”

I pray these poor words may be of some little help.