Thursday, October 4, 2018

Does Christianity make EXISTENTIAL sense ?

Many religions recognize man's greatness, but fail to see man's wretchedness, or vice versa, some even claim we have two souls, evil and good, such odd things we are, both animal and rational, some call us gods, some devils, but only Christianity sees man for what he really is; man is both wretched and great, a ruined exiled king - The Christian doctrines of creation and the fall alone seem adequately to explain the paradox - man's greatness could be explained in the fact that man was created in God's image. 

“What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, the glory and refuse of the universe!”

Commenting on Pascal’s above anthropological argument, Peter Kreeft writes, “Man is a living oxymoron: wretched greatness, great wretchedness, rational animal, mortal spirit, thinking reed.”

 “We are a puzzle to ourselves,” Thomas Morris notes. “One of the greatest mysteries is in us....How can one species produce both unspeakable wickedness and nearly inexplicable goodness? How can we be responsible both for the most disgusting squalor and for the most breathtaking beauty? How can grand aspirations and self-destructive impulses, kindness and cruelty, be interwoven in one life? The human enigma cries out for explanation.” 

The dilemma of man, that he is both great and wretched, is easy to document. The gap between animals and man is too great for evolution to adequately explain. No animal species will ever produce a Plato or Aristotle. Yet, the cruelty of man waged against man is unheard of in the animal kingdom. No animal species will ever produce a Hitler or Stalin.

Only Christianity with its doctrine of creation and the fall can adequately explain both aspects of man.

D. G. Preston comments on Pascal’s overall apologetic approach: 

"Pascal the empiricist starts with the data, notably the inexplicable phenomenon of mankind: unquestionably corrupt, subject to inconstancy, boredom, anxiety and selfishness, doing anything in the waking hours to divert the mind from human wretchedness, yet showing the vestiges of inherent greatness in the mind’s realization of this condition. Mankind is also finite, suspended between twin infinities revealed by telescope and microscope, and aware of an inner emptiness which the finite world fails to satisfy. No philosophy makes sense of this. No moral system makes us better or happier. One hypothesis alone, creation in the divine image followed by the fall, explains our predicament and, through a redeemer and mediator with God, offers to restore our rightful state."

Douglas Groothuis explains, “Pascal claims that merely human philosophies are unable to tell us who we are because they fall into two equal and opposite errors concerning humanity. They either exalt greatness at the expense of wretchedness or they exalt wretchedness at the expense of greatness.”

Kallistos Ware writer the following :

"We find a second “pointer” within ourselves. Why, distinct from my desire for pleasure and dislike of pain, do I have within myself a feeling of duty and moral obligation, a sense of right and wrong, a conscience? And this conscience does not simply tell me to obey standards taught to me by others; it is personal. Why, furthermore, placed as I am within time and space, do I find within myself what St Nicolas Cabasilas calls an “infinite thirst” or thirst for what is infinite? Who am I? What am I?

The answer to these questions is far from obvious. The boundaries of the human person are extremely wide; each of us knows very little about his true and deep self. Through our faculties of perception, outward and inward, through our memory and through the power of the unconscious, we range widely over space, we stretch backward and forward in time, and we reach out beyond space and time into eternity. 

“Within the heart are unfathomable depths”, affirm The Homilies of St Macarius. “It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.”

In this manner we have, each within our own heart, a second “pointer.” What is the meaning of my conscience? What is the explanation for my sense of the infinite? Within myself there is something which continually makes me look beyond myself. Within myself I bear a source of wonder, a source of constant self-transcendence."

What is this mysterious creature man who feels these unexplainable needs ?

1 the need for cosmic security
2 the need for meaning
3 the need to feel loved
4 the need to love
5 the need for awe
6 the need to delight in goodness
7 the need to live beyond the grave without the anxieties that currently affect us
8 the need to be forgiven
9 the need for justice and fairness
10 the need to be present with our loved ones

Humans have certain “existential” needs. N. T. Wright lists four such needs: “the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty.”

 Clifford Williams lists thirteen: 

“We need cosmic security. We need to know that we will live beyond the grave in a state that is free from the defects of this life, a state that is full of goodness and justice. We need a more expansive life, one in which we love and are loved. We need meaning, and we need to know that we are forgiven for going astray. We also need to experience awe, to delight in goodness and to be present with those we love.”
Faith in God satisfies these needs.
Therefore, faith in God is justified.

Williams states that this argument is not the same as an evidential argument: 

"A person who is convinced of an existential argument says, 'I believe because I am satisfied when I do.' A person who is convinced of an evidential argument says, 'I believe because there is a good reason to do so.'"

He also states that the argument is different from C. S. Lewis’s argument from desire, which argues that there is an explanation of the source of the existential needs: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Christianity also makes sense of the following profound human experiences :

1) "Experience of cosmic wonder"
2) "Experience of purposive order"
3) "Sense of being morally accountable"
4) "Sense of human dignity and worth"
5) "The Longing for transcendent joy"

Finally, the very life of Christ is the archetype of the human experience - betrayed by friends and religious elders, abandoned at his very lowest, constantly misunderstood, alienated, homeless, seeking only to love and nailed to a bloody cross without mercy as a reward....isn't this how life is ?  

Can you actually HATE God ?

There’s an old Catholic saying that goes, “If you’ve never cursed God, you’ve never known Him.”

But is that God, or only an idea of God, that you hate ?
I’m not sure, the Prophet’s often felt cursed by God and let Him know it, and perhaps this wrestling with God is part of what makes us human.

After all, if God created all this mess, isn’t He ultimately responsible ?

I’ve heard the apologetics : perhaps God isn’t all-powerful, or at least not how we think of power, perhaps God had to divest Himself of His power, maybe God has a morally sufficient reason to allow suffering, maybe there’s an entire level of reality and conflict we can scarcely conceive of, perhaps we ourselves WANT this reality - one where we can act against the Tao of the Universe to do what we wish, but that therefore brings death and decay into the universe, perhaps it’s up to us to sanctify the world with God’s grace, and only our refusal to bring creation to God causes the world to hurl into chaos, how can our small minds comprehend these mysteries, let alone pass judgement on them ? And on and on.

I can only say that
Christ is who I worship. I worship the God who hates death, who is scandalized by evil, and who weeps at injustice. Christ came to save us from all that. God Himself became man, died for us, grafting human nature onto Divine nature to raise us up out of this evil world.

This is the inexplicable power that, however rare, we come across when confronted by real acts of love and charity. So often I’ve been about to tilt into the abyss, and cried out in prayer, and a force wells up and rescues me from plunging into utter despair.  We all know this power exists.

We know God loves us, against all the evidence of evil, because He sent a light into this dark world to illuminate His true nature - that He is love. We can know that God is love by participating in His life in the Eucharist and liturgical rituals, shaped and oriented toward this revelation until it lives inside us.

We can trust the experiences of the saints, who have committed their lives over to this Mysterious power. Their lives, abundant in fruitful works of great love, all testify to these truths.

The rest is intellectual theologizing. Why does God allow suffering? What happened in the Fall? No one knows. 

There are stories that point, I think, to something true - that we live in some kind of metaphysical catastrophe, in Genesis with its two creation versions - the first being perfect with no death, that are trying to tell us something, that this world with death was never God’s intention, and the author of evil lies in another Power, an enemy of God.

Christianity is not a philosophy, not a series of propositions to affirm or deny, it is a Way of life. Truth is a person. Christianity is participating in the life of God, getting to know Him, being fitted for a new existence after death to live with Him.

What we do know is this power can rescue us from death, and it lays out a way, the Cross, to accept the senseless affliction of existence, deny ourselves, and put ourselves under judgement.

This is the power I worship - love in Christ, foolishly, against realty, even against God Himself if He refuses to give back my loved ones and wash them of all affliction. I stand by the power that condemns all death and suffering, and if I were to find God is part of those powers then I would condemn Him too.

God is utterly transcendent, every concept of Him inadequate and false. We know very little of just what the hell is going on in this universe. 

 I end with a few passages by possibly the greatest living theologian, David Bentley Hart :

There lies in this expectation (of the resurrection), necessarily, a kind of ultimate defiance of “reality,” and even of God if he will not raise the dead… "

"If, say, the Jewish child who choked to death in a cloud of Zyklon-B is not restored to a life that is more than life, is not given joy and eternity in his own person, is not given back, then why should we care what private intimations of transcendence Jesus might have experienced on the cross? And why should we want to find ourselves embraced in the arms of the demiurge whose world thrives in the death of children?"

Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. 

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy.”

Thursday, August 23, 2018

What's Wrong With Modernity ?

Q) what is so bad about secularisation?

A) John Milbank :

"Secularisation is bad, because the death of man necessarily follows upon the death of God. Without reference to God, our sense of the reality of mind and of the ethical tends to atrophy.

Ordinary language is saturated with assumptions of the reality of the spiritual dimension - good, evil, intentionality, responsibility, forgiveness, grace, prayer, and so on.
Yet we are increasingly governed by secular, scientific assumptions, which imply that this language is simply epiphenomenal "gossip". 

Consequently, the masters of an impersonal discourse concerning sheer material reality taken as the real truth increasingly assume command.
Such a denigration of the sense medium, in which the majority of people "swim", eventually renders democracy and respect for freedom impossible, even though these are the very values that secularity claims to respect most.”

Modernity is not a specific time. Or practical science. And there has always been technology. Modernity is a world view, a story. It is the story that says there is no story. Nothing we are part of, nothing to which we owe ourselves to.

For pre-modern peoples, because there is a Cosmos with right Order, it would be impossible to be a man who doesn’t give a shit about the planet. A man has a place and function in the universe, and a responsibility to his ancestors, family, tribe, planet, descendants and to God - he is called to act rightly. A man’s life has meaning, has depth, has purpose, a seriousness and wonder gathers around it.

Now ? There is no “right way" to “be a man.” In fact, today, we can scarcely say what a “man” is.

One must rely on one’s own thought, gathered from the shallow experience of a few decades, shaped inevitably by advertisers or experts, cut off from Cosmos and History, floating alone, as a cloud among a world of clouds.

What you kill and die for today, your own children tomorrow may overturn as evil. In any case, it is only for your own subjective convictions, liable to change at a moments notice, that you sacrifice, if indeed such an insubstantial thing can draw such heroic actions.

 Without any agreed notion about the nature of the world (except that it has no intrinsic nature)  or shared narrative, we can only only decide by sheer assertion, without a common notion of good, one is not simply in error of an objective reality that one can discuss and perhaps come to understanding of, to disagree one is EVIL.

Michael Gillespie notes that,

“ is vain to think that an alienated, atomized person can create in themselves a personality out of the muck of consumerism and mass media. Modernity tells us that we can form our own personality with tattoos, body modification, consumerist consumption, and status objects like automobiles.
Ultimately, what is created is not human, however, but subhuman: one’s personality is merely a combination of external signifiers devoid of inner content. Ironically.... the end result is a kind of perfect conformity.”

We must “free” (ie destroy) ourselves from all elements of ones-self which are “accidents of nature” to be “authentic.” Everything unchosen - our race, nationality, religion (unless self-chosen, no infant baptisms) ancestry, even sex - the State must step in to free the “individual” (which didn’t previously actually exist) from the contingencies of his birth and community.

Persons, as opposed to individuals, are essentially relational, existing in a web of thick mutually enforcing obligations and loyalties.

The person differs from the individual by the fact that he does not hold his life as his own, he knows he is the bearer of values which transcend himself, so that he has worth only as their servant and to them he should be willing, if necessary, to sacrifice himself.” 

To be modern is to believe in one’s individual desires as the locus of authority and self-definition.

It matters not if the goals are noble or virtuous, what matters is that they are freely chosen by the individual.

John Safranek, in The Myth of Liberalism notes the difference between our modern notion of freedom, freedom from constant, with the ancient notion of freedom for something :

Classic/medieval freedom was based on reason, logos, not desire, on what is, not on will. Freedom is based on reason, not desire. To understand what is being said here, two more points need to be recalled. The first is that, according to Plato, desire, by itself, is unlimited. This unlimitedness is a good thing in itself for that is what desire, as such, is. The second point is that, according to Aristotle, the purpose of virtue is to rule our desires and so achieve our end, not just our desires. Desires allow no “end,” only more desires. In themselves, desires are good things but they are to be ruled by reason. The difference between modern and classic/medieval thought, then, has to do with where we locate the center of our being: in desire, which is unlimited, or in reason, which limits or rules desire because it knows the end which desires serve.

Modern liberalism seeks, at every essential element of what-it-means-to-be-a-human-being, to substitute desire for reason to explain what a person is.

Once desires or pleasures are upheld as the fundamental good, morality (the self-rule of our desires) seems superfluous…. If morality is dispensable, then so are the political and legal precepts that it grounds.”

Patrick Deenan identifies Liberalism as the philosophy of modernity, 

Liberalism holds that human beings are essentially separate, sovereign selves who will cooperate based upon grounds of utility…contrary to the belief that we are by nature relational, social and political creatures; that social units like the family, community and Church are “natural,” not merely the result of individuals contracting temporary arrangements; that liberty is not a condition in which we experience the absence of constraint, but the exercise of self-limitation; and that both the “social” realm and the economic realm must be governed by a thick set of moral norms, above all, self-limitation and virtue.

It dismissed the idea that there are wrong or bad choices, and thereby rejected the accompanying social structures and institutions that were ordered to restrain the temptation toward self-centered calculation.

Liberalism thus begins a project by which the legitimacy of all human relationships…becomes increasingly subject to the criterion of whether or not they have been chosen, and chosen upon the basis of their service to rational self-interest....without broader considerations of the impact one’s choices have upon the community—present and future—and of one’s obligations to the created order and ultimately to God.”

It is a subject worthy of reflection that the common “culture” we share even now is largely the product of a culture industry,

“…insofar as liberal freedom is atomistic and precludes the claim of others on the property that is my person, the state tasked with securing this liberty will exist to protect me from God’s commandments, the demands of other persons, so-called intermediary institutions, and, ultimately, even nature itself. The liberal state then becomes the mediator of all human relations, charged with creating in reality the denatured individuals heretofore existing only at the theoretical foundations of liberalism.”
  • Micheal Hanby.

 Ultimately the State is the final arbitrater of reality. It can define marriage, redefine what sorts of things a “man” and “woman” are, or even if such things exist.

Stanley Huawras questions just what sort of freedom this has brought :

The left and the right are joined by the common project of increasing personal freedoms, even if the result is the atomization of our lives which makes impossible any account of our lives as having a narrative unity. Ironically, societies committed to securing the freedom of the individual end up making that same individual subject to impersonal bureaucratic procedures."

The bad boy of literature, atheist Michel Houellebecq:

captures our current predicament :

Children [in past ages] existed solely to inherit a man’s trade, his moral code and his property. This was taken for granted among the aristocracy, but merchants, craftsmen and peasants also bought into the idea, so it became the norm at every level of society. That’s all gone now: I work for someone else, I rent my apartment from someone else, there’s nothing for my son to inherit. I have no craft to teach him, I haven’t a clue what he might do when he’s older. By the time he grows up, the rules I lived by will have no value—he will live in another universe. If a man accepts the fact that everything must change, then he accepts that life is reduced to nothing more than the sum of his own experience; past and future generations mean nothing to him. That’s how we live now.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Faith. What is it ?

"God is not exterior evidence, but the secret call within us.” 
 - Olivier Clement 

Faith. What is it ? T
here’s the perspective from Biblical theology, Matt Bates puts it like this :

“saving allegiance includes three basic dimensions: mental affirmation that the gospel is true, professed fealty to Jesus alone as the cosmic Lord, and enacted loyalty through obedience to Jesus as the king”

And I can see that, faith being basically loyalty, as Paul says, “I have been true to the vision” - and indeed, when wracked by doubt, I think, this is such a beautiful vision, that there is a God madly in love with us, desperate to embrace us and make us whole that, even if it turns out to be false in the end, it is a vision worthy of being true to.

One must, little by little, believe God, trust His word, rely upon his presence, depend securely on his promises.

But, if I had to recommend one book, it’d be Rowan Williams Tokens of Trust :

“[Knowing God]... call it love, yes, only that can sound too emotional, or call it faith, and that can sound too cerebral. And what is it? Both, and neither... [its] the decision to be faithful, the patient refusal of easy gratifications... of Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane and on the cross, that bloody crown of love and faith. 

That is how I learn finally of a God who will not be fitted into my catergories and expectations... the living truth too great for me to see, trusting that He will see and judge and yet not turn me away... That is the mercy which will never give us, or even let us be content with less than itself and less than the truth... we have seen the truth enacted in our own world as mercy, grace and hope, as Jesus, the only-begotten, full of grace and truth..” 

“At the heart of the desperate suffering there is in the world, suffering we can do nothing to resolve or remove for good, there is an indestructible energy making for love. If we have grasped what Jesus is about, we can trust that this is what lies at the foundation of everything.”
Rowan Williams Tokens of Trust

It’s a great risk of love, but no relationship can start, and then deepen, until we put more and more trust in the other…

It’s also to take refuge in God, not idols, food, books, idea’s, dogmas, Priests…

And it’s also to anchor the meaning of our lives in Christ - if we get sick, or fall in love, are we interpreting these things through the person of Christ ?

In this short article Rowan Williams says, 

“Faith is not about what public opinion decides, and it is not about how we happen to be feeling about ourselves. It is the response people make to what presents itself as a reality - a reality which makes claims on you. Here is something so extraordinary that it interrupts our world; here is something that makes you "turn aside to see," that stops you short. Faith begins in the moment of stopping, you could say: the moment when you can't just walk on as you did before.

But even more challengingly, it is something whose claims involve change and even loss. If this is really what it seems to be, ideas, habits, hopes all change, and it is a change that is going to be painful…

When people respond to outrageous cruelty and violence, with a hard-won readiness to understand and be reconciled, few if any can bring themselves to say that all this is an illusion.

The parents who have lost a child to gang violence; the wife who has seen her husband killed in front of her by an anti-Christian mob in India; the woman who has struggled for years to comprehend and accept the rape and murder of her sister….in their willingness to explore the new humanity of forgiveness and rebuilding relations - without for a moment making light of their own or other people's nightmare suffering, or trying to explain it away - these are the ones who make us see, who oblige us to turn aside and look at Jesus, who asks of us initially just to stop and reflect, to stay for a moment in the light that allows us to see ourselves honestly and to see the world differently.

That is the heart of it: seeing ourselves honestly; seeing the world differently. That is where faith begins, beyond the answers of a system, or the disciplines of a ritual, or the requirements of a moral code. These have their place; and those who spend time in the company of Jesus will find themselves working out all these things in the light of the scriptural witness to the new life. But it all starts with that turning aside to see.”

Of course, for this faith to make sense, it must be
connected with the practices that make it intelligible: prayer, the sacraments, and the virtues. 

In a chapter entitled “Why Theologians Must Pray for Release from Exile,” the theologian Dr. D’Costa suggests that “prayer is the necessary condition to secure the objectivity of theology, because theology cannot be done with intellectual rigor outside the context of a love affair with God and God’s community. The formal object of theology is God, and, like other disciplines that require practices and virtues constitutive for knowing the object of their investigation, theology requires prayer.”

Dru Johnson says :

“our knowing is connected to what we do with our bodies. We don’t know as disembodied minds; without bodies and the tools by which we extend our bodies, we couldn’t know at all. Further, we don’t come to know in isolation but in community—specifically, in communal rites. We practice rites to know.”

James K.A.Smith has asks the important question :

"What if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers? What if you are defined not by what you know but by what you desire? What if the center and seat of the human person is found not in the heady regions of the intellect but in the gut-level regions of the heart? 

Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us.”

Which is why I had to go to an Orthodox Church with “thick practices” to shape me, to orient me towards knowing God, in a community. I had to preform faith. It’s relational knowledge, you have to act your way into this knowledge, live it.