Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Lesson in Humility

From Gregory of Sinai, On Commandments and Doctrines:

Those who seek humility should bear in mind the three following things: that they are the worst of sinners, that they are the most despicable of all creatures since their state is an unnatural one, and that they are even more pitiable than demons, since they are slaves to the demons. You will also profit if you say this to yourself: how do I know what or how many other people’s sins are, or whether they are greater than or equal to my own? In our ignorance you and I, my soul, are worse than all men, we are dust and ashes under their feet. How can I not regard myself as more despicable than all other creatures, for they act in accordance with the nature they have been given, while I, owing to my innumerable sins, am in a state contrary to nature. Truly animals are more pure than I, sinner that I am; on account of this I am the lowest of all, since even before my death I have made my bed in hell. Who is not fully aware that the person who sins is worse than the demons, since he is their thrall and their slave, even in this life sharing their murk-mantled prison? If I am mastered by the demons I must be inferior to them. Therefore my lot will be with them in the abyss of hell, pitiful that I am. You on earth who even before your death dwell in that abyss, how do you dare delude yourself, calling yourself righteous, when through the evil you have done you have defiled yourself and made yourself a sinner and a demon? Woe to your self-deception and your delusion, squalid cur that you are, consigned to the fire and darkness for these offenses.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Evdokimov's "Proof"

Paul Evdokimov, Les Ages de la vie spirituelle, on knowledge of God (quoted by J. A. McGuckin in The Orthodox Church):

The insufficiency of the proofs for the existence of God can be explained by the basic fact that God alone is the criterion of his own truth. God alone is the argument for his own being. God can never be the subject of logical demonstrations, or enclosed in chains of causality…This means that faith is never invented: it is always a gift.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

True Love

There are two conditions of true love which run contrary to the popular perception of love. Love is, in its truest expression, conditional and intolerant. Certainly each of those assertions will require some explanation and qualification so as not to offend the sensibilities of anyone who might read them. But with any luck, even after they are explained, I may yet offend some readers.

Love is conditional. That is not to say that the lover loves conditionally based on some quality in the beloved. Instead, love is conditional in that it must meet conditions of authenticity. It is not love merely because we label it so; it is love because it meets the conditions of love, conforms to the objective criteria of love. Love admits no relativism in its expression, making any sentiment like “I love you, but…” irrelevant. Love permits not coexistence between love and an unloving act, because the condition of love is act. All behavior therefore either expresses love or it does not and thus logically precedes any profession of love. This reverses the traditional conception of conditionality. It is no longer “I love you because…” (which would imply that love exists because of some behavior of the beloved) but becomes “Because I love you…” (which requires the behavior of the lover to verify the existence of the love). Thus love is conditional, with the actions of the lover rather than the loved as the condition.

Love is intolerant. Not only this, but love is belligerently intolerant, because true love admits not fault in the beloved. This is not out of some warped delusion about reality, nor of some fantastic and unrealistic appraisal of the beloved. Instead it is out of unwillingness to accept anything but the best on behalf of the beloved. Certainly it tolerates no affront to the beloved from evil sources, but it also tolerates no belittling of the beloved from the beloved. When the beloved acts against her own interests, the lover responds naturally and rightly with an intolerant hatred. Elie Wiesel has quite rightly said, “The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.” If the ultimate lovelessness is apathy than love must be the ultimate pathos, coupling paradoxically in itself the most supernal joys and the most repugnant rages. Both express the underlying reality that love is supremely intolerant. The sentiment that “If you love me, you’ll accept me as I am” expresses the polar opposite of love. It is inimical to love, corrosive to it. G. K. Chesterton reminds that “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”

Thus, I suggest that it is not only appropriate but ultimately necessary to understand love as conditional and intolerant. A love which is unconditional and tolerant is a contradiction in terms. The love which does not require anything of the lover (unconditional) or the beloved (tolerant) is no love at all. It is a superlative mutual apathy, the darkest of all possible human relations.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Best Part About Atheist Persecution

The aggressive and repressive atheism of the USSR intrigues me. John Anthony McGuckin, in his book The Orthodox Church, gives a very brief history of the Russian church during this period, and some of the tribulations he describes are astonishing.

Under communism all expression of Christian freedom was dangerous. All formal evangelistic and catechetical work was forbidden to the church…The Bolshevik government rapidly passed anti-religious legislation even before it had secured a totalitarian grasp on the state. It confiscated all private and all ecclesiastical property in December 1917, and in January 1918 withdrew any state subsidy for ecclesiastical institutions, separating church and state, and outlawing any form of religious instruction of the state’s citizens. Between 1917 and 1923, when the Bolshevik zeal was hot, twenty-eight Russian bishops and 1,400 priests were executed.

From there McGuckin goes on to describe the thousands more, both clergy and laity, who were sent to work in labor camps, many of whom died while imprisoned there. If the human cost were not incalculable enough, the USSR went further still. They converted churches into museums and cinemas, stripping them of their icons, relics, and religious memorabilia. Whatever had value was sold in Western markets at obscenely reduced prices (considering that the often ancient items were in fact priceless); whatever did not was burned or defaced. And still the state atheism rolled on.

In 1926 the law explicitly forbade the continuing exercise of communal monastic life in the fewer than half the monasteries that had somehow managed to carry on in spite of the persecutions, a measure that accelerated the monastic decline, but still could not quence monasticism completely. The measures against the church were conducted by the ‘League of Militant Atheism’ with cells in every village. In 1927 the Council of People’s Commissars tried to initiate a Five Year Plan, whose aim was to ‘eradicate the very concept of God from the minds of the people, and to leave not a single house of prayer standing in the whole territory of the USSR.’

McGuckin’s account is, he admits himself, brief and incomplete, and yet at the same time it feels like he never runs out of new and horrible ways that the government of the USSR could enforce its program of dogmatic atheism. Monks and nuns were sent to Gulags and asylums (on the grounds that to be a monastic is to be insane). Christian universities were closed. Mobs were organized to interrupt the liturgy. McGuckin notes, and cites others who have the same observation, that the persecution under the communist regime in the USSR has been the most extensive, both in relative casualties and sustained duration, in the history of the church. The cost is of course beyond the grasp of cold numbers, but he estimates that the Soviets killed 600 bishops, 40,000 priests, and 120,000 monastics.

Yet in all that, this is what truly struck me:

Even so the religious life of Russian Orthodoxy was irrepressible. Even in the dark times of communist persecution the Orthodox attendance at the divine liturgy was far higher than European church attendance.

It cannot help but reinforce for me the truth that a church that does not suffer with Christ cannot call itself the body of Christ, not in the truest sense.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Imago Dei and a Cure for AIDS

My professor just proposed this hypothetical for demonstrating, against those who think evolution rules out any concept of the imago dei, that we all have an inherent sense of humanity's particularlity:

Let's say that we find a plant in the Amazon that will cure AIDS, but to get it we would cause irreparable harm to the plant. Most people would side with humanity in this case. We have a tendency as a species to recognize our specialness over against all other life. We allow experimentation on animals, etc.

That is a paraphrase, though as close to remembering what he said verbatim as I can. The problem with that, the absolutely glaring flaw, is that the kind of species chauvinism he is speaking of fits quite neatly into the evolutionary perspective, which imagines the perpetuation of the species as the driving force behind animal behavior. It does not separate us from animals. It reveals our animal brutality, the willingness to disregard the rights of other living creatures in order to perpetuate our own species. I think it would reveal the particularity of humanity more to point out the times when we refuse to press the rights of our own species against the rights of other species.

All of that, of course, is said without comment on the actual ethics of killing plants to cure AIDS.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Death and the Prospect of Eternity

Reading Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, I was intrigued by the way he relates death to our understanding of natural revelation, which for Staniloae consists primarily of our innate awareness of an eternal purpose for which all humans exist. Consider these two somewhat antithetical quotes:

No matter how self-evident it appears, natural faith, which has as its source in God’s revelation through nature, is subject to doubt…because the inevitable reality of death is opposed objectively to our thirsting after the fulfillment of the meaning of our existence in an eternal perfection.

By means of the words of supernatural revelation, man has also learned what he can understand from natural revelation when this is enlightened by supernatural revelation…Even death – and our inability to get used to death – teaches us not to be attached to this world, and shows that we are created for eternal existence.

I found it interesting that death should be both the cause obscuring the content of natural revelation and, in light of God’s more direct self-revelation, an evidence which attests to the basic content of natural revelation. On the one hand, the very fact that we experience death with an sense of finality – however illusory – tends to focus human existence on the finite and the temporal, the tangible here and the now. Death, after all, marks the period on the very short sentence of human life. To squander life on projecting ourselves theoretically beyond its inevitable end appears the greatest possible foolishness. Still, the very fact that in each person is an insatiable enmity with death testifies to its unnaturalness. Death looms always as the unconquerable enemy precisely because there is something within us which cries out to have it conquered nonetheless. There is some not-so-quiet voice within us that cries out to transcend death and temporality and here and now. In this sense, God truly has set eternity in the hearts of men, though we cannot fathom the contents of that eternity (Ecc. 3:11).

Death is the great enemy, but through our longing for its defeat we are drawn forcefully to Jesus Christ who has conquered it. Just another beautiful paradox of faith.