Archive for March, 2013

A Dimension of God

Saturday, March 30th, 2013

I don’t know your friend, nor her theology, and I wouldn’t wish to guess what she means in saying that your misadventure was “all in God’s plan”.

Perhaps she’s a Calvinist, in which case you may be right that she’s envisioning God as a “puppet master”. On the other hand, one doesn’t have to look at things in so predestinarian a way to use such an expression. To suppose—as I certainly do—that there’s some deep meaning, or inner significance, to the events of our lives could be “translated” into more or less anthropomorphic terms by saying that Heaven “has a plan”.

Considering our lives in this way is no threat to free will, as you seem to think. True enough, if freedom consisted merely in fork-in-the-road choices between horizontal or planimetric possibilities, there would be a problem. Jonathan Edwards was surely right: confronted by the world, we always choose the greater apparent good, and not being responsible (or not directly so) for the mechanism that generates the appearance, we’re not responsible for the choice, and thus we’re not really free.

Genuine freedom, however, is vertical: it’s our ability, though rarely exercised, to take a step or two back from what’s going on, whether outside our bodies or inside our minds—to detach ourselves, even if only for a split second, from our ego’s reactions, worries, frustrations, desires; its likes and dislikes, its ups and its downs—to watch ourselves, as if from above and from the point of view of a larger perspective.

That larger perspective, speaking very elliptically for the moment, is “God” … or at least a dimension of Him.

Orthodox Autology

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

I agree, of course, that there is simply no way to make Christianity, or any other Semitic tradition, as “direct” as Ved?nta: the doctrine of the Self must remain largely hidden in such a context. As Schuon notes, “The Vedantic perspective finds its equivalents in all the great religions that regulate humanity, for truth is one; the formulations, however, are dependent on dogmatic perspectives that restrict their immediate intelligibility or that make it difficult to express them in a straightforward way.” This is certainly the case with Christianity.

On the other hand, if one is willing to look not so much at as along the fundamental doctrines and practices of our Orthodox tradition, the Truth of the Self is clearly, if deeply, there—and one doesn’t have to be a perennialist to see it. To take but a single example, consider the following reflections concerning the Feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God, celebrated by the Church on November 21st. They come from Father Alexander Schmemann, sometime dean of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, who (as I’m sure you know) was one of the most respected of 20th-century Orthodox theologians.

The subject [of this Feast] is very simple: A little girl is brought by her parents to the Temple in Jerusalem. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this since at that time it was a generally accepted custom. Many parents brought their children to the Temple as a sign of bringing them into contact with God, of giving their lives ultimate purpose and meaning, of illumining them from within through the light of higher experience.

But on this occasion, as the service for the day recounts, they lead the child to the Holy of Holies, to the place where no one except the priests was allowed to go, the mystical inner sanctum of the Temple. The girl’s name is Mary. She is the future mother of Jesus Christ, the one through whom, as Christians believe, God himself came into the world to join the human race, to share its life and reveal its divine content. Are these just fairy tales? Or is something given to us and disclosed here, something directly related to our life, which perhaps cannot be expressed in everyday human speech?

Here was this magnificent, massive, solemn Temple, the glory of Jerusalem. And for centuries it was only there—behind those heavy walls—that a person could come into contact with God. Now, however, the priest takes Mary by the hand, leading her into the most sacred part of the building, and we therefore sing, “The most pure Temple of the Savior is led into the Temple of the Lord.” The meaning of these events, words, and recollections is simple: from now on man himself becomes the Temple. No stone temple, no altar, but man—his soul, body, and life—is the sacred and divine heart of the world, its “Holy of holies”. One Temple, Mary—living and human—is led into a temple made of stone, and from within brings to completion its significance and meaning.

What now enters the world is a teaching that puts nothing higher than man, for God Himself takes on human form in order to reveal man’s vocation and meaning as divine. From this moment onward man is free. Nothing stands over him, for the very world is his as a gift from God to fulfill his divine destiny. When we celebrate Mary’s Entrance into the Temple, we celebrate man’s divine meaning and the brightness of his high calling.

Now clearly, as one can immediately discern from his books, Father Alexander was no metaphysician or esotericist, or at least no more an esotericist than any other serious adherent of this exo-esoteric religion. Nonetheless an advaitic Light repeatedly shimmers through the stained glass of these words, notably those I have taken the liberty to italicize, words which seek to convey “something directly related to our life”, but at the same time “something which perhaps cannot be expressed in everyday human speech”.

You call yourself a “crypto-Vedantist”, and I agree that you would no doubt be well advised to continue muting your metaphysics at Church. But that’s simply because Orthodox Autology is itself rather cryptic, not because it’s nonexistent!