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Friday, September 25, 2015

Transcendental idealism: brief thoughts

Transcendental idealism in three sentences: I am I. I am not not-I. The non-I is given, and not derived from the self; the non-I is transcendentally constructed by and not known apart from the self.

Or in three words: identity, difference, act.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

On Divinity and Being - Thoughts from Gilson's Esprit de Philosophie Medievale

In The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Etienne Gilson quotes Plato as saying that “the degree of divinity is proportionate to the degree of being; that, therefore, is most of all divine which most of all is being; now that which most of all is being is the universal Being of the All of being.”  

To modern ears, having forgotten the ontological and swimming in the ontic, this sounds strange (as, perhaps, does the Heideggerian terminology here).  God is in His heaven and we are on earth; divinity is "up there", and we are "down here", and only a madman would question that this lower level of our "two-story universe" is populated with beings, and therefore, with being.  It takes a quite radical readjustment of our entire way of thinking to understand what Plato could have meant to assert a unity between divinity and being.

The first thing that needs to go in our entire way of thinking is what a prominent Orthodox blogger, Fr. Stephen Freeman, has referred to as the "two-story universe" (along with its concomitant theological outlook which various prominent Catholic and Protestant bloggers have referred to as "moral therapeutic deism").  God and the universe are not two separate components or pieces to the totality of reality.  Rather, God IS the totality and fullness of reality, or as Plato phrased it, the "All of being".  And if the universe is populated with beings, it is because it shares in and participates in the radiance of that which is most properly Being - God.

The second thing that needs to go is the idea that divinity is a binary state.  Catholic and Orthodox Christianity scandalizes the modern world by its radical assertion of man's deification or theosis - that, in the words of St. Athanasios the Great, the Pope of Alexandria and champion of orthodoxy against Arius, "God became man so that man might become God."

The Byzantine theological tradition understands theosis in terms of participation.  Despite its protests to the contrary, Orthodoxy's conceptual framework was influenced heavily by Neoplatonism, although its spiritual foundation lies entirely and completely in the monastic experience of prayer and sanctification.  The Cappadocian Fathers developed the concept of God's "energies" or participatory action in the world, a theology which would become formalized by St. Gregory Palamas, the Archbishop of Thessaloniki in the late 14th century.  Palamas distinguished between the ineffable "Essence" of God - God as He is in Himself, by nature, apart from any participation - and the "Uncreated Energies" of God.  The contemporary Greek philosopher Christos Yannaras defined "energies" (rather controversially, among those who posit a stronger separation and reject absolute divine simplicity) as "the capacity of a hypostasis to be known and participated in", and as no creature except Jesus Christ is God by nature, it can be easily seen that the Essence/Energies distinction serves to present the mystery of man becoming God by grace.

Theosis is also a process, borne out of repentance and prayer.  As any process, it is attained in degrees, passed through stages, and blossomed in a growth characteristic of any form of life, of which spiritual life is really the analogue to which all other life should be compared.

And so divinity, as participated in, is a matter of degree.

Divinity can be found in its fullness, even when participated in.  This can be illustrated by reference to the famous filioque controversy.  Orthodoxy has always insisted that the Father is the single principle from which the Son spirates - while admitting that the Son bears a role in that process, participating the procession of the Spirit from the Father.  As the Logos is the perfect Image of the Father, He perfectly shares in whatever the Father does, and that includes the procession of the Spirit - including, as the Latin tradition insists, being the causa of the Spirit, the cause of His divinity.  From a Byzantine Catholic and eirenic Roman Catholic or Orthodox perspective there is no contradiction between the filioque and the Orthodox theology, because divinity - as being something that can be participated in - is an energy.  We balk at calling the Son the aitios or arche of the procession, but nonetheless He does join, so closely that it is "from a single principle", to whom must properly be attributed the name of the Father, with the Father in everything the Father does.  That includes being the source or cause or Latin causa of the Spirit, which would include being the source of His divinity.  Other Orthodox formulations of the Son's role include the "energetic manifestation" of the Spirit "resting on" the Son, and the procession of the Spirit "through the Son"; in my opinion the clearest explanation is a distinction between the "energetic procession" of the Spirit from the Son and the "hypostatic origination" of the Spirit from the Father.  

Divinity can also be found in partiality, in the imperfect saints.  These saints are said to be "divine" insofar as grace - created and Uncreated - is growing in them, but also "divine" insofar as they are images and likenesses of God, reflections of the Father, little icons of Christ.  As we refer to a picture by the name of the subject being drawn, so we call the saints by the name of the God whose image they are being formed into.  God is the standard or prime analogue to which we are icons, and insofar as we resemble Him, He is present in our soul (by "essence, presence, and power", if we are Thomistic by inclination).  We participate in the Uncreated Grace, the Uncreated Light of Tabor, insofar as our souls are "created grace", created and molded anew by God.  We participate in the Uncreated Grace precisely by becoming created grace - not that one is the cause of the other, but simply that they are two ways of saying the same thing.  Gratia creata and gratia increata, debated so bitterly between East and West, are ultimately nondual.

Plato adds his insight by showing us that insofar as we are “like God” – “divine” in a sense – we are like Absolute Being, Who is God.  Theosis is a process of becoming real.

O God, lead us from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.  Shanti, shanti, shanti.


There are of course those who have heavily criticized me in past conversations for referring to Our Lord Jesus Christ as a creature, or as a "human person", including some quite well-educated and well-respected Catholic and Orthodox bloggers and amateur theologians (including Nathaniel McCallum, among others).  In my defense, I profess the orthodox Chalcedonian faith of Jesus Christ, True God and true Man, possessing human and divine natures in one hypostasis (although I admit the orthodoxy of the Cyrillian formula "one Incarnate Nature of God the Word", which I hold to be convertible with the Chalcedonian formula).

However, my understanding - which I take to be properly characterized as nominalistic in a sense, and which McCallum thought was closer to Platonism - is that any adjectival characterization of a hypostasis, or of any substance or "thing" or subject, is a "nature", broadly speaking (without making any distinction between "nature" and "accident", as accidental determinations of Christ's being are not under discussion).  In other words, to speak of a hypostasis as having a human nature is, BY DEFINITION, to speak of it as a human hypostasis.  To say that Christ possesses a human nature is, BY DEFINITION, to speak of Him as a "human person" - and likewise, to speak of Him as possessing a divine nature is to speak of Him as a divine person.  To say that Christ was human is to say that Christ was a human person; this is simply how our everyday language works.

This is not Nestorianism (a bizarre allegation), because He is one person, who is both divine and human.  Unlike McCallum, I do not admit of any "personal properties" or adjectival characteristics proper to a hypostasis distinguishable from natures; I do not admit that one can speak of a "human hypostasis" without having already mentioned the nature (as if "humanity" were the hypostasis, rather than the nature).  To do so would seem to divorce a hypostasis and the hypostasis' being from their nature, and it reifies "nature" in the process (making "nature" something that one could possess, like a thing, rather than making it a statement about what the hypostasis is).  To say anything *about* a hypostasis is to give its nature (or accident).

I have also come under criticism for calling Jesus Christ a creature.  Yet any proper anthropology must do so, for the human body and soul are Christ *are* a creature (and, contra popular Cartesian dualism, one must say "a creature", not two creatures).  Bodies and souls are not something that humans possess, and if Christ truly became Man, He became a man.

(Theologians will correctly say that Christ's human nature was human nature itself, not just one instantiation of it, and hence human nature itself is redeemed and only awaits our participation - we are not only become real, but becoming human, through theosis - but the fact remains that Jesus of Nazareth was a man, who had a body, living in a certain time and place, with a height, weight, blood type, etc. - a particular, not a universal.)

I am my body.  I am my soul.  Christ *was* His body.  Christ *was* His soul.  His body was a creature.  Therefore, by a simple valid syllogism (BARBARA), Christ was a creature.  That is the full thrust and paradox of the Incarnation - "the Creator became a creature, so that the creature might become Uncreated".  A very wonderful book on Orthodox theology by Fr. Daniel Rogich is entitled "Becoming Uncreated:  The Journey to Human Authenticity", and the flip side to this paradox is that Christ became a human creature.  He remains the Creator in the process.  Nowhere in the entire corpus of Patristic literature is this denied, or the statement "Christ is a human person" rejected.  Rather, what is constantly and incessantly affirmed is what has been affirmed here - Jesus Christ is God made man, with the human and divine natures subsisting in one person, the God-Man, 100% God and 100% Man.

Finally, there are those who will object to my Hindu prayer at the end of the essay.  The prayer is entirely and utterly orthodox to any Christian.  If one objects to the word "shanti", he may take it up with the quite Christian poet T. S. Eliot, who employed it quite as freely as I do without looming under any cloud of heterodoxy.

Monday, November 17, 2014

On Holiness as Instinctive

To the unfallen soul, holiness is instinctive.  As Lao Tzu said, “It was when the Great Way declined that human kindness and morality arose.”  The Great Way declined at the Fall, but we can still see hints of this in very naturally good people who act kindly and with goodness merely by nature.

Holiness is the ground of our being as Christians.  “Were it not for their holiness, the spirits would soon wither away,” as Lao Tzu said.  Lao Tzu knew the identity of goodness and being.  Hell is witheredness.  Lao Tzu also uses images of a brook needed replenishing and species needing to be propogating – thus implying that holiness is as natural as natural processes, as indeed it is.  And he saw joy, the joy of the world, the joy of holiness.

And Lao Tzu even saw hints of Sehnsucht, of that ecstatic longing that joy instills in us.  Yet it is still hard to tell if it is Sehnsucht, or a more world-weary jadedness lying behind his words.  “What is most perfect seems to have something missing.”  With prayer, with the peace of hope, that "something missing" is experienced as the pangs of longing for the Beloved, as awe - but without the peace of hope, one can only become resigned to the sense of lack.

Did Lao Tzu experience that peace?  We cannot know.  A first reading of the Lao Tzu seemed to exude a jaded resignation.  A second reading indicated a joyful, quiet tranquility.  His words are a bit of an enigma.
In the Western tradition, the philosophers say that God is Pure Act; the theologians say that He is the Hound of Heaven.  Lao-Tzu said that “Tao never does; yet through it all things are done.”  These reveal complementary aspects of God, Who is both a burning act and yet, somehow, a quiet tranquility.  His Act, His Uncreated Energy, is shown to us through His Revelation.  But He held back His revelation for a time, and could only be known as the Natural Law or Way – the distant, passive, even awesome mystery “in which we live, and move, and have our being”.

I close these scattered thoughts with a Chinese poem, by Po Chu-i, one which seems to appropriately confound the puzzle further.

‘Those who speak know nothing,
Those who know are silent.’
These words, I am told,
Were spoken by Lao-Tzu.
If we are to believe that Lao-Tzu
   Was himself one who knew,
How comes it that he wrote a book

   Of five thousand words?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sunyata and the Golden Mean - a Taoist Rapprochement between East and West, Courtesy Seraphim Rose

One of the most simultaneously iconic and controversial figures in 20th century American Orthodoxy was Seraphim Rose, a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church and monastic founder who quickly achieved "guru" status and veneration as a saint, despite the violent controversies he stirred within and without the Church. Born under the name Eugene Rose, he was by education a linguist, studying Chinese at Pomona College with the unique and fascinating Taoist philosopher Gi-Ming Shien.  In his masters' thesis, Emptiness and Fullness in the Lao-Tzu, Rose argued against a nihilistic interpretation of the concept of emptiness in the Tao Te Ching (or, as he idiosyncratically calls it, the Lao-Tzu, after the purported author), in favor of an interpretation governed by the concepts of the "opposite" and "return".  This interpretation is surprisingly fruitful in hinting at a solution to the seeming impasse between the essentialist and ontotheological metaphysics of the Socratic/Western world and the "emptiness" experientialism of the Buddhist Orient.  An examination of Rose's thesis is a worthwhile exercise for the purpose of re-grounding and recasting the problematic ontotheological tradition in Buddhist terms, as well as for freeing our understanding of Buddhist thought from Western categories.

The Taoist syzygy of "emptiness" and "fullness" corresponds to an analogous conceptual duality in Buddhism, "emptiness" and "form", where "emptiness is form and form emptiness", an idea that resonates closely with modern physics.  As superficially interpreted through a European lens, talk of emptiness can appear to be a nihilistic denial of being, but Rose argued that for Lao Tzu emptiness is a golden mean between unbalanced affirmation and apathetic negligence.  "Emptiness" and "fullness" are not nouns in Lao Tzu's Chinese idiom, but rather verbs (which may be better translated as "waning" and "waxing"); however, the concept he elucidates corresponds remarkably to the Aristotelian concept of the "golden mean", also appropriated by Christian theology.

As Rose explained, the nihilistic concept of "emptiness" is referred to by Lao Tzu by a word best translated "exhaustion".  "Exhaustion" or "finality" means death, "reaching the end of the breath, total expiration" (Rose, Emptiness and Fullness, 33).  This is not the word Lao Tzu uses many many times to explain the "good" sort of emptiness, however:  "In the usual understanding of the word, both in English and Chinese, "emptiness" has a contrary, "fullness"; but if this kind of emptiness, and extreme, is what Lao-Tzu has in mind when he speaks of it, all that we have said on the "mid-point" as the ultimate goal of his thought is set at nought.  But in fact this is not what he had in mind.  To be "emptied" is not the same as to be "exhausted". "  (Emptiness and Fullness, 29)

Lest we mistake "emptiness" and "fullness" for metaphysical concepts, Rose reminds us that Lao Tzu's language is oriented around verbs, not reified nouns, and that "emptiness" and "fullness" are translations of words literally meaning the "waning" and "waxing" of the moon.  The comfortable Western concepts of “substance” and “person” are simply absent from Lao Tzu's vocabulary.  By contrast to Aristotelian essentialism, for the East a static or permanent plenitude of being or "nature" or "essence" is not what constitutes form, but rather emptiness, becoming, or sunyata.  The Hindu language of maya and illusion is avoided by the Taoists, but a somewhat more Heraclitean ontology of becoming and doing still eclipses any possibility of ontotheology.

This lack of substantive ontology has ramifications for Lao Tzu's quietism.  Since he did not reject appearances or phenomena or things as illusions, Lao Tzu did not embrace the violent rejection of being seen in certain strands of ascetic Hinduism, and since he did not regard "things" as real (lacking the vocabulary to place "things" as ontological categories at all), he did not embrace the worldly attachment to them.  Instead, he preaches the quietistic and apparently (though misleadingly so) complacent acceptance of the Tao, by exhorting us to be supple and fluent with the Tao - it is through suppleness that is found power (the famous "wu wei" paradigm).  "Wu wei" should not be viewed as cynical, nihilistic, or pessimistic resignation - it is through suppleness that is found power; it is through the Tao that we flower into who we are, that we find our "true potential", as humanistic psychology might see it.  As Lao Tzu said, “If one uses it [the Tao], it is inexhaustible” – for while the Tao is emptiness, all form is emptiness, so there is no contradiction in saying that this emptiness is inexhaustible.

The challenge for cross-cultural philosophy remains reconciling the Western categories of personhood and substance, so essential to Christian theology, with the common Oriental tradition of emptiness and fullness; Lao Tzu's placement of the "golden mean" within the context of sunyata provides a possible clue to its solution.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Phenomenological Demonstration from Sartre that Grace is Necessary for Salvation

Man is marked by his quest to unite both the being-in-itself (Being) and being-for-itself (Nothingness or consciousness).  “Man is the being whose project is to be God”, “man fundamentally is the desire to be God” (Being and Nothingness 694).  Man recognizes that he cannot satisfy this union in himself so he sees it as beyond the world – consciousness is haunted by its absent being.  Because Being and Nothingness are contradictory properties in man, man is left always striving for God in vain.  Man on his own cannot reconcile them; God has to descend in grace.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Thoughts towards solving the conflict between primal unity and primal dualism

One aspect of thought which I find difficult is that there seem to be two ideas – that of unity, or oneness, and that of duality, or twoness – which seem equally primordial and basic.  It seems they may be solved this way.  God – Who is one – is infinite; but so long as He is conceived ontologically and cataphatically, as the Creator-as-distinguished-from-Creation, He is not everything.  He is Being, but there is also non-Being, and hence the possibility of freedom, creation, and spontaneity; though He is perfect and immutable, He is not static.  Being and non-Being dialectically reconcile in Becoming, yet within the idea of Being is already contained the idea of non-Being, so Becoming does not proceed externally from Being automatically in an emanationist sense; nor do the dialects proceed by means of conflict or strife.  Non-Being is not supposed to be evil, but rather than potential for Being and a part of God’s act of Creation; hence the primal idea of duality would not have been lost if Satan had never fallen.  It is unnecessary that “non-being” and darkness (or night) has become evil.

We cannot of course posit an absolute duality between Being and Non-Being, though, nor can in an ultimate way delimit God to be a part of reality, as reality minus Creation, as Creator separated from Creation.  God's "withdrawing" from the world, creating an apparent space for the world to exist outside of Himself - tzimtzun as the Kabbalah calls it - is a matter of God's relation to us - God as He exists energetically - not God as He exists in and of Himself, God in His essence.  As it does not pertain to the ineffable Essence of God, His tzimtzun is a divine illusion, or maya, by which the infinite and boundless God - Reality itself - appears to be one part of the sum of reality, rather than the whole, or appears to give space for reality "outside" Himself.

The orthodox theologian knows, of course, that God is immanent in His transcendence, that He is "closer to man than his jugular vein", and that it would be more correct to say (with Aquinas) that the world is in God, than that God is in the world.  Non-Being - the space in which the universe is created - is nothing other than God.  We were created and subsist in Him.  One cannot posit duality between Being and Non-Being - though while preserving their nonduality, one must acknowledge a conceptual difference (a difference found in our human minds) between the ineffable depths of divine darkness, and the maya in divinis in which the universe is created.

Christian orthodoxy has often favored dualistic language - as every Christian creed begins, "I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth."  This should not be a problem for nondual Christianity.  A true nondualism overcomes the duality between dualism and nonduality, so that the gnostic should be equally comfortable with dualistic or nondualistic language.  They are not two truths, after all, or conflicting models, but rather two insights into the mystery of God and the world.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

That Paradox is the Essence of Sanity

Wholeness, as Friedrich von Schlegel knew, could only be found by embracing our opposites.  We are not created whole; man was made for woman.  Man is not made in the image of God; the family is.  

Yet wholeness is found not in becoming our opposites as Schlegel seemed to think, but by uniting oneself to our opposites while the two remain completely distinct, in image of the soul’s union with God.  Because wholeness is imaging God, and imaging God is the essence of religion, and embracing our opposites leads to wholeness, and philosophy (which is male) and poetry (female) are the opposites, it is completely true to say with Schlegel that Religion = Philosophy + Poetry.