Monday, December 28, 2009

"The divine nature exceeds each finite good..."

I admit before I start that I am grasping to understand what I read even as I read it and still as I write this, so I beg your pardon for however half formed are the ideas that I am about to present. They are my reflections upon reading an essay by David Bentley Hart, “The Mirror of the Infinite” (which I will quote at length).

Solid comprehension of how the Trinity functions both as a unity and a triunity has plagued Christian thought since the beginning of systematics. We have attacked it with analogy and discourse, but all to often the result is ultimately frustration. Any sense of satisfaction we gain, as with so many of our answers to the most pressing questions (I think particularly at the moment of Anselm’s satisfaction at having finally “proved” God), is always turned to despair upon deeper consideration of the problem. My aim is certainly not to solve once and for all the understanding of how God exists as both three and as one. Instead, I want to address a possible explanation for why we do not and perhaps cannot every fully wrap our minds around how God exists in community and personal unity.

This quote from Dr. Hart originally caught my interest, initially for its complex beauty but immediately after for its provocative content:

“Our being is synthetic and bounded; just as (again to borrow a later theological vocabulary) the dynamic inseparability but incommensurability in us of essence and existence is an ineffably distant analogy of the dynamic identity of essence and existence in God, the constant pendulation between inner and outer that constitutes our identities is an ineffably distant analogy of that boundless bright diaphaneity of coinherence, in which the exteriority of relations and interiority of identity in God are one, each Person wholly reflecting and containing and indwelling each of the others.”

Now certainly it is not a new thought that the nature of God should be reflected in the nature of man. After all, it was the Cappadocians who famously drew analogies between the community of man and the community of God. Such a social understand of God’s nature its relation to the human desire for community is actually quite fashionable now. Less recognized, but no less novel, is the realization that this analogy is “ineffably distant” from the nature of God. When one tries to understand the triunity of God as somehow analogous to three coessential humans, the theological fallout is mind boggling. This tends toward the conclusion that the community of God is so distant from ourselves that not only can we not use humanity as an analogy for understanding God, but we also cannot use our understanding of God’s community as normative for the “ineffably distant” reality of human community.

And, yet, I think both of those conclusions may be overturned when we understand precisely why it is that we are so ineffably distant in our reality from God. Dr. Hart describes the community of God:

“Surely this progression – from the divine nature’s infinite source, through God’s gnosis of himself, to the “conversion” of that recognition into delighted love, into agape – is a description of how the one God, even in his infinite simplicity, eternally conceives his equally infinite image, knowing himself perfectly in his Logos, and so eternally “wills” himself an equally infinite love, so completing his Trinitarian life in the movement of the Spirit.”

Knowledge and love, logos and agape if you will, are the communal acts of God. Through self-knowledge and self-love (in the words of Gregory of Nyssa about whom the article is written “He desires what he possesses, and possesses what he desires”) each Person not only knows Itself and loves Itself but knows the Others, without qualification, and loves the Others, without qualification. In so doing, every movement, every aspect of His being, every inclination of His nature is a total unity which is utterly indivisible. For where there is no distinction of will or knowledge, and where the “aporia that theology much inevitably confront” is solved by seeing God “in terms of the order of relations that distinguish the Persons from one another ‘causally’”, we are left with a totally satisfying, though no less incomprehensible, picture of God.

While still beyond human conception, while still necessitating that we stop before God in silent recognition of our ignorance and insufficiency, this revelation is not totally without merit. For not only can we use humanity’s psychology and society as analogies for God’s unity and community, but we can also reap the psycho-social benefits of understanding what separates our nature from closer analogy to God: namely imperfect knowledge of self and others, and imperfect love of self and others. Human psychology is strewn with the victims of inadequate self-knowledge and self-esteem (or love), and certainly every mental health professional would encourage people to develop both a healthy love of self and a healthy knowledge of one’s own person. Yet, do we ever think that in doing so, we better embody the image of God and more closely mimic what it is to people transformed into his Incarnate Image? The same applies for society. How often do we hear it preached how far a little understanding of one’s neighbor can go towards a peaceful, harmonious, and productive society? Nowhere do I hear, however, about how making the effort to know one another is actually pursuit of divinity, which itself is the perfect exemplar of what it means for Persons to be in fully disclosed harmony with one another.

So while the sinfulness of humanity and the limitations of our nature will always prevent any dramatic ascent towards the divine nature, the perfectness of that nature understood through the ineffably distant analogy of what we know of our own nature (created as it is in His image) can serve as a motivator for the personal and interpersonal transformation of God’s people into God’s likeness. I will leave you with a final quote from Dr. Hart, who clearly expresses his thoughts better than I do:

“We waver between these two analogical orders at an infinite distance from their supereminent truth; and obviously the orders are not separate: knowledge and love of neighbour fulfill the soul’s velleity towards the world, and so grant each of us that internally constituted ‘self’ that exists only through an engagement with a world of others…”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merit Based Education

I am a firm believer in merit based education. As someone who has never felt adequately challenged in a classroom full of people who are my peers only with regard to their age, I am frustrated by the present system which encourages everyone toward academic mediocrity. While I understand the realistic hurdles implementing the below system would entail, I outline below the basics of what I think an ideal, merit-based educational system would look like. The entire system is understood to be public, funded in the same way schools are presently, with all people still having the option of private or home education. The system I describe would hopefully not only aid students in reaching their full potential and thereby cultivate for each generation the best doctors, lawyers, scientists, historians, philosophers, and artists but also properly allocate government resources so that the most tax money was being spent on those who were working the hardest in school and the least on those who are not. The present system which spends X dollars on the next Albert Einstein and X dollars on the next Big Mac “engineer,” while equitable is inefficient and inadequate in my opinion.

Merit-Based Education (An Ideal Scenario)

All education would be standardized, much like it is now in the USA, from Kindergarten to the 8th grade with a general curriculum oriented towards basic proficiency in English, Math, Science, and Social Sciences. Everyone, after all, in civilized society should be able to add two and two, read, write, know the capital of their own country, and understand that babies don’t come from storks. The only difference between the present system and the new system is that every year students would receive three different “grades,” or evaluations, instead of only one. The first would be the standard grade, based entirely on the performance of the student on work assigned and assessments administered. The second would involve teachers K-8 providing a subjective evaluation of each student based on personal interactions and perception of potential. The final evaluation would be in the form of a general, standardized aptitude test that would measure the various intelligences and objectively gauge a child’s potential. At the end of the 8th grade, a cumulative score would be calculated with the three scores from 8th grade having slightly more weight than those from the 7th grade, which in turn have slightly more weight than those from the 6th grade and so on. Every student would be ranked relative to the other students in his or her class, and be presented with four options.

1) A three year program that offers the entire high school curriculum at an accelerated rate.

2) A four year program that offers the entire high school curriculum at the standard rate it is given now.

3) A two year program that focuses on basic life skills and vocational training. It would provide the basics of a high school curriculum in a condensed form with heavy emphasis on electives that teach life and vocational skills.

4) A student may choose to withdraw from school altogether.

Based on the ranking derived from the scores accumulated in grades K-8, students would be given the following options:

  • The top 15% would be granted automatic admission to the three year program, though they would have the option to pursue any of the four courses.
  • The next 35% would be granted automatic admission to the four year program, though they could choose the two year program or withdrawal if they desired. Of these with automatic admission to the four year program, the top 5% could opt for automatic admission to the three year program on a probationary status with continuing enrollment being based on academic performance in the first year.
  • The bottom 50% would be given automatic admission to the two year program, though they could simply choose to withdraw. Of these with automatic admission to the two year program, the top 15% could opt for automatic admission to the four year program on a probationary status with continuing enrollment being based on academic performance in the first year.
  • Any student of any rank could prepare an appeal to be presented to an appeal board in an effort to gain admission into the three or four year program on a probationary status, with a certain quota of appeals required to be granted every year.

A program like this would hopefully solve some of the deficiencies in the present system: maximize potential both for students and tax payer dollars, reduce teacher burn-out, and still maintain a certain degree of charity for anyone who feels in some way disadvantaged by the system.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Revealed in darkness; hidden in the light

The classic stance on the nature of God, one to which I have long subscribed now, is that He is totally transcendent, ultimately unknowable and inaccessible. The greatest spiritual leaders of the Christian tradition (John of Sinai, Gregory the Theologian, Pseud0-Dionysius, and Gregory of Nyssa all spring immediately to mind) conclude their great quests for knowledge and experience of God with the revelation that the closer one gets to God the more that person realizes that He is so very far away. Yet, as I read St. Serafim he seems to emphasize precisely the opposite, that is the accessibility of God for the truly devout man. It seems to me, and you be the judge, that his theology is reacting to the Enlightenment. It is expressed best in these two quotes:

"In our time because of the almost universal coldness toward the holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and because of our inattentiveness with regard to the acts of His Divine Providence concerning us, as well as to the communion of man with God -- because of all this -- we have reached a state in which we may be said to have withdrawn almost entirely from the true Christian life."

"Now some people say: '...Is it possible that men could see God thus clearly?' Yet there is nothing obscure here. The lack of understanding is attributable to the fact that we have strayed from the simple vision of the early Christians and, under the pretext of enlightenment, have entered such a darkness of ignorance that we consider inconceivable what the ancients grasped so clearly; even in their common talk, the idea of God appearing to men had nothing strange in it."

He provides a number of proof texts for his point of view, but more interesting to me is the connection I see to the Enlightenment. In an ancient world that had no aversion to the idea of the miraculous and revelation, the unkonwability of God was emphasized. As a reaction to a world that now rejects the miraculous, St. Serafim instead stresses that accessibility of God to the person of true faith, one living the "true Christian life." In fact, his whole theology centers on the acquisition of the Spirit of God as the purpose of the Christian life. God is something gained by the doing of good works in the name of Christ, and trading those good works for grace. In market language, he suggests that the Christian should "Gather up the capital of the blessed abundance of Christ's Grace, [and] deposit in the eternal bank at a rate of interest unmeasurable in earthly terms." God is not only accessible, but his blessings are commodities that can be traded at a favorable rate for the Holy Spirit.

It makes me think about two things. First, it strikes me as ironic that now, as we live in a time of darkness, God should be viewed as accessible, not only by St. Serafim, but by Pentecostals, Holiness churches, other charismatic groups, and anyone who conceives of God more as a friend and less as an untouchable monarch. Second, I wonder if perhaps, in his fervor, maybe St. Serafim hasn't quite gotten back to what "the ancients grasped so clearly," that even the most precise language cannot begin to grasp God, much less the crude language of modern economics.