Getting Real

Here is the best articulation I’ve seen of what it means to "get real:"

"… a subjective term, meaning different things to different people. It is used … to mean to be authentic; to be truthful; to say what you mean; to be congruent with what you value; to penetrate past lazy thinking, facades, games, defenses, fears, illusions; to get a core understanding, to get to the heart of the matter; to open your belief systems to examination; to increase your awareness of what is really going on, and your choices of how to respond." Mahan Kalsa, Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play (Salt Lake City: White Water Press, 1999), p. 12.

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Lewis on “the other religions”

“I have asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you on thing that Christians do not need to believe. If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth…. But of course being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic — there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.” Mere Christianity, ch. 1

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The Power of a Paradigm Shift: “the Secret”

As some of you know I work 20 hours per week at Starbucks. A few weeks after I first began to hear about “the Secret” (it has been all over Oprah, Ellen Degeneris, and CNN; the book version is currently #1 on the New York Times best seller list), I began to realize that several of my fellow Starbucks partners had enthusiastically embraced it, some to the point of really committing themselves to living out its principles.

So, naturally, my curiousity began to grow.

At first I was skeptical. As I continued to hear & see all the buzz I imagined that “the Secret” was just another self-help craze. And actually when I read Newsweek’s piece on it a couple of weeks ago this sense was only confirmed.

But, finally, I have seen the 90 minute video, and I must say, it is impressive. “The Secret” is the name given to the idea that all human reality operates according to the so-called “Law of Attraction,” that what our minds focus on gravitates into our lives. That is pretty much the main point, and everything else flows out of that, especially the idea that what we think about in our minds has the power actually to bring about reality (changed relationships, that new sports car, a healthier body, etc.).

First, let me say that this philosophy contains significant grains of truth. Proverbs says, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” and Jesus says in the Gospels, “Where your heart is there will your treasure be also.” And, as “The Secret” is quick to point out, Genesis teaches that man is created in “the image and likeness of God,” implying that human beings have a God-like capacity to create, to bring about reality.

Second, if you were to watch the video (or perhaps watch the Larry King interview at http://jamesray.com/resources/larry-king-live.php) you would see that the “gurus” who speak of this powerful way of thinking and being are quite articulate and compelling. The fact that many different voices are all speaking to the same issues makes “The Secret” even more compelling, it seems to me.

However, as compelling as “The Secret” may seem to be, and as much as I believe we (especially Christians) ought to look for truth and affirm it wherever we find it, this approach is flawed in a couple of areas. I will focus on only one right now.

First and foremost, the area of community. I fail to see how anyone could deny that “The Secret” is individualistic. (One might see it as self-centered, but I can see how folks might argue against this.) Martin Luther King, Jr. (himself approvingly quoted in the video) said brilliantly, “In the beginning was relationship.” He was referring here to the fact that, uniquely among all world religions or worldviews, the Christians God, the Christian ultimate reality, is not just “personal,” but is actually interpersonal. Our God is a community. The Christian Bible teaches, and Christian tradition confirms, that ultimate reality consists of eternal, loving, personal relationship.

When Genesis says that humankind is created in the image and likeness of God, one of the most fundamental things it is saying is that we are created for community. The fact that human beings are communal is the fundamental reality to what it means to be human. Apart from community (friendship, marriage, neighborliness, erotic love, church, Eucharist, etc.) we simply are not fully human.

At one point in the video one of the speakers attempts to make a very significant point. He says something like

“Ask a quantum physicist: ‘what is energy?’ He will tell you: ‘Energy has always been, it will always be, and it is in constant motion.’ Then ask a theologian, ‘what is God’ and he will tell you the same thing: “God has always been, will always be, and is constantly in motion.'”

What is so disturbing to me is that so many viewers, including evangelical Christian viewers, will watch this video and swallow the point made by this advocate of “The Secret.” And it is the church’s own fault that we have allowed “God” to be thought of as something so non-personal, non-relational. (See previous posts on this blog on Eastern Orthodox critiques of the West’s “God of the philosophers.”)

What this advocate of “The Secret” is suggesting is that God is impersonal and non-relational. That is theology worthy of the trash heap (not even worthy to be composted). Sadly, though, according to the way many modern westerners (including “Christians”) think about God, he is right.

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Plato and Chesterton on the Sun, against Derrida

Anyone who has spent much time in discussion with me will know that I love to quote G.K. Chesterton’s analogy of the sun, in which he basically says that Christian mysteries (ie, the Trinity and the Incarnation) are like the sun: you cannot look directly at them, but they illuminate everything that we see.

Only now am I realizing how dependent this idea is on Plato. In the Republic (509b) Plato teaches (in the words of Catherine Pickstock) that "as the source of all light, the sun is more diffi-cult to see than anything else, but it is a beneficent mystery that lets things be seen in their true nature, while itself remaining but obliquely visible. As well as letting things be seen, the sun gives things to be seen, for although it is beyond being, it is the ground of all being(s)."

What this passage asserts, and what Jacques Derrida fails to see in his reading of the Phaedrus, is the transcendant, ecstatic nature of the good. It is beyond us (and all other beings), but it is particible. 

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The Construction of the Secular

John Milbank’s famous first sentence of his Theology and Secular Theory is “Once there was no secular.”

He goes on to explain how, in premodern times, the “secular” meant the period of time between the fall of man and the eschaton. Modernity, in service of the nation state, then began to construe the secular not as time but as (cultural?, political?) space.

Catherine Pickstock’s treatment of Plato’s Phaedrus (and of Derrida’s reading of the same) gives a terrific example of the spacializing of time.

Phadrus’ (and the sophists’, and Derrida’s) preference for writing over speech — seen in his fetish for his scroll of Lycius’ speech — is an attempt to “gather up the present moment with a view to offering it to an anonymous posterity, not for the sake of interpersonal benefit through time, but as a means to ensure lasting reputation, a reflexive ‘gift’ which does not freely inhabit time, but seeks to reclaim identically the anterior moment of donation, thus transposing time into a spacial domain.”

This spacializing of time is inimical to tradition, to the exchange of gifts, to the “contengency” of temporality, and to the community based nature of socratic dialectic. In these and other ways, it is quintessencially modern.

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“[Living] for love in singleness of purpose …

… with the aid of philosophical discourse.”

Sounds Christian, doesn’t it? These are the words of Socrates in the Platonic dialogue Phaedrus. (257b)

In his leisurely conversation with his friend Phaedrus, Socrates attacks the sophist Lysias for the latter’s willingness to contractualize or to commodotize erotic relationships.

To Socrates’ mind (much of this is explained in Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing) this is an irresponsible cop-out, a failure to grapple with the human tension between the desire for pleasure and the desire for “what is best,” i.e., “the good.”

At one point while reacting against Lysius, Socrates begins to lapse into the opposite extreme: he begins to extol the virtues of mere self-control. To quote Pickstock:

“Socrates then abruptly breaks off his speech in horror at his own attack [not, now, on Lysius, but] on the higher eros, as opposed to purely human and parsimonious modes of self-control.”

Socrates then pursues wisdom first in the form of a myth of the soul (where the soul is a chariot pulled by the two horses of desire and the good) and then in an extended theoretical description of philosophic love.

What intrigues me, however, is that in the Phaedrus Socrates’ attempt to reconcile desire with the good, first is shot through with awe before mystery (why else does he interrupt his discourse to pray to the gods?), and second, is characterized by a refusal simply to react to the inherently nihilistic sophists by going to the other extreme. Instead he seeks a completely different route.

What is that route? Good question.

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(The Gnostic Character of) _The Da Vinci Code_

It seems to me that the most fruitful way for a Christian to process this book / film is to see it through the grid of Gnosticism, even if this is not the standard evangelical response to this attack on the historic faith. (For an excellent primer on Gnosticism, see Philip J. Lee’s Against the Protestant Gnostics.)

 

Gnosticism disdains the public nature of religion. Despite the fictionalized suggestions of the book / film, the Christian church does not, in the main, seek to hide the real facts about the identity (ie, two natures, divine and human) or the work (ie, the resurrection from the dead) of Jesus Christ. As the work of NT Wright, for example, demonstrates, these aspects of the life of Jesus are radically open to the normal canons of history. As Paul told Festus in Acts 26, the life and resurrection of Jesus “did not take place in a corner.” Contrast this with The Code’s “Priory of Sion,” which tightly guards the private secret of the alleged real truth about Jesus, completely sealed off from the public investigation of historical inquiry.

 

In addition, Gnosticism scorns sex. There is much irony here, for the book / film attacks the Christian faith for the latter’s supposed prudishness. (One wonders if Dan Brown is aware of the Song of Solomon.) Contrast, however, what the Bible teaches about sex and the role of sex as portrayed in the Da Vinci Code (see chapter 74 of the book). The Christian tradition, based on Scripture, says that Christian men should strive to please their wives sexually in the marriage bed, and vice-versa. (See, for example, I Cor 7:1-5.) In the Priory of Sion, however, the role of sex is to afford the male participant an unmediated vision of God, via his union / intercourse with “the Sacred Feminine” (ie, his sexual partner in the context of tantric, pagan ritual). Nevermind the sexist way in which the Priory (and the Gnostic tradition) denies women sexual pleasure and an active role in sex. Here sex is merely a means to a “spiritual” end. The human, fleshly, embodied side of sexual love is eclipsed, in quintessentially Gnostic fashion. Against this, the Christian vision is one of celebration: sexual love within marriage is one of God’s best gifts!

 

Finally, as alluded to above, the Gnostic experience of Godis unmediated and direct. Ultimate bliss is to behold the naked God with the bare human intellect. Rejecting the elitism inherent in this view (only the smartest and richest, eg, the Leonardo DaVinci’s of the world, can possibly achieve such a climactic experience, even if it were valid and real), the Christian faith teaches that we find God through the means he has provided: word, water, wine, warm community. Thankfully, even (or especially) the poorest and most uneducated have free access to these effectual means of grace.

 

Let us not stand in fear of The Da Vinci Code. Let us not (even worse) fight Gnosticism with Gnostic responses. Instead, let us situate the Da Vinci Code as the latest installment of the oldest, most dangerous heresy the world has ever known: Gnosticism. Let us expose the counterfeit by learning, loving, and living out genuine Christian orthodoxy, the real thing.

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Yannaras on God as a Conceptual Necessity

“European metaphysics had been built upon the presupposition of God’s existence, while progressively excluding his presence from the world. God is either identified with the conceptual notion of an abstract and impersonal ‘first cause of the universe’ (causa prima), or of an absolute ‘authority’ in ethics. In both cases the existence of God is a conceptual necessity, secured by demonstrative argument, but unrelated to historical experience and the existential condition of human beings.

“Precisely because it offers an absolutized rational affirmation of God, European metaphysics prepares for the possibility of its own rational refutation. The ‘death of God’ is but the end result of this historical unfolding of this absolutized and double-edged rationalism, which took place in the nations of Western Europe over the span of approximately a millenium.”

— Christos Yannaras, On the Absence and Unknowability of God, p 22.

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The Genesis of Western Nihilism

As I have delved into Orthodox writings (Zizioulsas, Bradshaw, Ware, Schmemann, Louth, Yannaras, etc.) over the past few weeks I have noticed that almost all of these authors interact with modern western continental philosophy, particularly Heidegger and the existentialists, who passionately languished and mourned over the nihilistic culture of modern western Europe (even, perhaps, while embracing it at the same time). Incidentally, Andrew Louth interacts briefly with Derrida (and Jean-Luc Marion) in his introduction to the Yannaras book mentioned below).

Heidegger, who considered Neitzche stunningly prophetic in his proclamation of the "death of God" as the result of a long decline in the history of western metaphysics, saw this western trajectory culminating in what he termed "onto-theology."

Christos Yannaras describes Neitzche’s proclamation of the death of God as "a negation that cancels all ‘intellectual idols’ of God, without offering any truths in their place." (On the Absence and Unkowability of God, p 22) What the death of god (I use the lowercase "g" intentionally, following the likes of N.T. Wright) attempts to do, says Yannaras, Eastern apophatic theology succeeds in doing, in a way which is utterly faithful to the one true God revealed in history, in Jesus Christ, and in Holy Scripture.

Assuming, as I do, that onto-theology (and "the death of God") is an accurate description of our idolatrous tendency to turn the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ into a philosophical concept (remember that the earliest Christians’ refusal to lump their Lord in with the other cultural theoi of the day won them the label "atheists"), where did this trajectory to nihilism begin? What is its genesis?

For Yannaras, Radical Orthodoxy (Milbank, et al), and (I would imagine) Andrew Louth the origins of onto-theology lie in the ninth through the fourteenth centuries (Yannaras refers to "the radical distortion of Aristotelian epistemology by scholastism"), culminating in such thinkers as Duns Scotus and William of Ocham.

David Bradshaw, however, in his Aristotle East and West, wants to locate the West’s nihilistic origins as early as Augustine himself, at least in latent form. The Bishop of Hippo, argues Bradshaw, "identified God with being itself, ipsum esse," (p xi).

Powerand ed by Qumana

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what you really long for: repentance

All of the following life-altering quotations are from Eastern Orthodox Christians, and all are contained in chapter 3 (“The Orthodox Experience of Repentance”) of Kallisos Ware’s The Inner Kingdom.

“I came here to weep for my sins.” — Abba Milesius, when asked what he was doing in the desert.

“Truly, I am not sure if I have even begun to repent.” — Abba Sisoes, on his deathbed.

“Repentence is … not just a single act but a continuing attitude. In the personal experience of each person there are decisive moments of conversion but throughout the present life the work of repenting remains always incomplete. The turning or recentering [of repentance] must be constantly renewed.” Kallistos Ware, commenting on Abba Sisoes’ attitude on his deathbed, expressed in the quotation above.

“Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance.” — St. Theophan the Recluse, again commenting on how, paradoxically, repentance exponentially deepens as we mature in Christ.

“In every age, and above all in this present deeply uneasy, tired and restless age, nothing is more essential than repentance. Often there is nothing for which we long more profoundly, but we have no clear idea what we really want.” — Father Seraphim Papakostas, head of the Zoe movement in Greece during the years 1927 – 54.

“We are not condemned for the multitude of our transgressions, but for our refusal to repent.” — St. Mark the Monk.

“[Repentance, ie, metanoia] is not just regret for the past, but a fundamental transformation of our outlook, a new way of looking at ourselves, at others, and at God…. Repentance is not … remorse or self-pity; it is the re-centering of our life upon the Holy Trinity.” — Kallistos Ware

“Repentance is the daughter of hope, and the denial of despair.” — St. John Climacus

“This life has ben given to you for repentance. Do not waste it on other things.” — St. Isaac the Syrian

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