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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.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

God as Transcendental Given

Why do we wonder how it can be that consciousness exists?  Why do we try to explain the phenomenon, break it up into its component parts, comprehend the act of consciousness?  

So far from being a mystery, consciousness is the most obvious phenomenon of nature - a phenomenon prior to, and more obvious than, any explanation we could give of it.  Descartes hit upon a deep insight when he put consciousness as the most fundamental datum of phenomenology, although the later phenomenologists were equally correct to insist on the primordiality (we might say co-primordiality) of the contents of consciousness.  

In light of this, the perspective of the objective scientific worldview can be a distraction from the ordinary, usual human way of looking at the world.  It is not marvelous that we should be conscious, but rather that there should exist a material being which is not conscious.  It is only through accustomization that we accept the material world; the only self-evident truths are the spiritual truths.  

Indeed, as Descartes tried rather unconvincingly to prove rigorously, the only self-evident truth is that something should exist which is both a knowing (conscious) being and a necessary one.  I AM is the foundation of all our knowledge; it is only our immersion in the sensible world that has made it mysterious to us.  I repeat, it is natural to think and unnatural to be an object; it is the rock that needs explaining, not the mind.  What is only mysterious about the mind is its contingency.  How is it possible for me not to exist?  How can one imagine what it would be like to not exist, the experience of the world without existing to experience it?  And who can imagine the world apart from our experience of it?  Necessity is the only truly natural state for consciousness.  

All genuine philosophy begins in persona Dei; it is quite wondrous that we have realized our own non-divinity.  I AM is a transcendental given; it lies coprimordially with the contents of consciousness in every thought and every act of the mind, no matter how creative or abstract.  That our minds can even imagine a reality which does not experience the "I AM" - inert matter - is hence the real mystery to be solved.  If one were to speculate on the nature of the angels, one must think that they, in all their intellectual vision, cannot understand matter – or if they can, that to them it seems an unnatural and arbitrary thing compared to the awesome obviousness of Mind.  

I do not suggest that we should understand mind; to understand anything fully is to be able to reproduce it; therefore only God can understand Mind, for only God can create contingent intellects, and only God is His own understanding of Himself (again, philosophy – as all true philosophy does – leads to the Trinity).  We know that the created world exists because we see it; only God’s existence is too obvious to need sight.  

God is a fundamental, simple primary a priori truth; that is to say, it is the a basic thing we know without having to think about it.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Transcendental Thomism, Orthodox Apocalyptic Theology, and the Eucharist

In his semi-recent blog post "The American Apocalypse," Fr. Stephen Freeman references the eminent Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann in pointing to a basic difference in perspective between the Orthodox and Latin approaches to the sacraments.  The sacraments, Fr. Schmemann said, do not make things to be what they are not; rather, the sacraments reveal things to be what they truly are.

This character of the sacraments is true of the Christian faith in general - that it reveals the truth of things - and is rooted in the fundamentally apocalyptic character of the Christian faith.  Apocalypsis, or the revelation of a reality that once was hidden and now is know, is the core of the Christian faith; it is a necessary condition of theosis, since by the Incarnation Christ revealed the hidden Father, thereby making Him known to us and making us sons of God.  The "apocalypse" is the uncreated energy of God resulting from the Incarnation.  Just as the revelation of the Father through Christ is "energetic", so the descent of the Holy Spirit into the Eucharist is "energetic".  What apocalypse is not, despite the common American Protestant view, is a sensationalistic warning of future things to come into being.  It is rather a revealing, manifesting, and unfolding of the truth that is given to us now.  As Fr. Stephen writes, "the apocalypse is now."

The purpose of this essay is to explore how the theologian should respond when this apocalyptic view of the faith as applied to the sacraments meets the Latin theological structure of hylomorphic sacramentology, declared dogmatic in the Western Church as a way to combat the Protestant errors regarding the sacraments.  In hylomorphic theology, the sacraments are not revelations of a reality already present, but a real and substantial change in the matter under question.  The soul really is given an "indelible mark" that was not present before; the bread and wine really stop being bread and wine and become something they had not been, the Body and Blood of Christ.

The two points of view really do need to be harmonized.  There is little danger in the Orthodox world of falling into a Protestant view of the sacraments, but when Orthodoxy is preached in the Western world to an audience imbued with Western categories of thought, the clarity of simplicity of Latin hylomorphism is useful for telling us, plain and simply, that God is present and should be worshiped, that the Eucharist is the Body of Christ, that baptism really does sanctify a soul and is not simply a social rite of passage.  On the other hand, a return to the Orthodox vision of the cosmos as sacramental, liturgical, apocalyptic, theophanic or hierophanic, and iconographical in nature is absolutely necessary to save the West from the mechanistic and quasi-magical view of the sacraments that comes from the "two-story universe", which comes from a degraded late scholasticism that replaces authentically sacramental Christianity with a particular strain of "moral therapeutic deism" (or "theistic personalism"), and which is unable to hold water in the face of the atheistic critique.

Furthermore, for the Byzantine Church to be affirmed as equally Orthodox and equally Catholic as the Latin, the Byzantine theology must be accepted.  The Church's liturgy follows its theology.  Fr. Stephen quotes the Byzantine Liturgy of St. Basil with words similar to the Eucharistic formula of Cranmer - regarded at the time as suspect by Rome - "We implore You and call upon You, O Holy of Holies, that by the favor of Your goodness Your Holy Spirit may come upon us and upon the gifts now offered, to bless, to hallow, and to show… this bread + to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ…"

The truth of the matter is that the sacramental action happens in eternity, and is made manifest in time.  The sacrament - whether it be the sacrament of the Divine Liturgy, or any other sacrament - is not a "repeat" of the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary, but is a mystical participation and making present of it.  The bread and wine do not become something they are not on Sunday morning at 10 p.m.  The bread and wine were divinized with the whole cosmos, made into the Body and Blood of Christ through His becoming flesh, at the Incarnation.  Christ did not assume the nature of one man.  He assumed human nature - that human nature in which all men partake - and which includes the nature of the less specific genera in which it partakes.  By God becoming flesh, all flesh partakes in divinity, and that divinization of the cosmos through man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is revealed to us, made manifest to us, in the apocalyptic action of the Eucharist.

If the Eucharist really is the Body and Blood of Christ from all eternity, then what was it before the Eucharistic anaphora?  Clearly the prosphora/host is not treated as being God before it is consecrated - it is not worshiped or consumed - and yet the East does recognize its holiness and sanctity before consecration; the saintly Melkite archbishop of Galilee, Sayyedna Joseph Raya, was known to prostrate himself on the floor during the Great Entrance and insist that the unconsecrated prosphora be carried over his prostrate body.  The Eucharist may be the Body and Blood from all eternity, but we have not partaken in that mystery yet; it is hidden and has not yet been revealed to us until we enter into the eternal action of the Liturgy.

If the Eucharist really is the Body and Blood of Christ from all eternity, then how can the Latins say that the "substance" of bread becomes the "substance" of Christ?  The solution to this problem is quite easy, once we adopt the philosophical insights of German idealism.  Idealism and transcendental phenomenology were well known to have influenced 19th-century Roman Catholic and, even more prominently, Russian Orthodox theology, but curiously there are few overt traces of it in Schmemann.  The "substance" of the bread depends on what has been made manifest to us.  In other words, Aristotelian categories must be thought of as phenomenological categories, not metaphysical constituents of reality.  The cosmos really has been assumed into the light of Glory at the Incarnation; at the Liturgy we enter into that Mystery, the being and ultimate end of the Eucharistic elements are revealed to be nothing other than God Himself, transfinalized, transsignified, and transusbtantiated into God for our theosis.  This change in "substance" cannot be separated from our sanctification, since the nature of the bread and wine as it exists apart from our salvation - its "accidents", its chemical and physical properties - remain unchanged.  What remains changed is the final end it has for us (its transfinalization, in Rahner's term) and what it truly signifies for us (its transsignification, in Schillebeeckx's term - recalling that a sacrament makes really and substantially present that which it signifies).  Only God can bridge the infinite gap between creature and Creator, so to really understand what it means to efficaciously and substantially intend and signify God as the final end is to understand that the substance of the bread - that which enacts and signifies its end - is truly shown to be God.  Before the Liturgy, when the Mystery was still hidden, its final end for us was still that of bread and wine, God had not yet energetically shone through the elements of bread and wine to become really present for us, and consequently, it is correctly said that the "substance" of the Eucharistic elements were not God, but rather bread and wine.

In this way, by recognizing the phenomenological nature of Aristotelian categories, the transcendental Aristotelianism of Rahner and Schillebeeckx can be used to reconcile Latin hylomorphism to the Orthodox theology of the Eucharistic presence.