Sunday, June 07, 2015

The Spiritual War

It should not surprise us that the great spiritual war we must fight in our modern day and age is to love one another.  The world runs, it seems on war: whether between states or more commonly between ideological factions, or between businesses who compete not as fellows, but as enemies bent on market domination.  Our marriages are wars, our friendships are wars, we even war near constantly with our children.  That war is part of life in a world beset with sin and death should not surprise us; but we must find the root of these wars and do battle against it.  Is not the source of this trouble that we do not see each other, from the most famous celebrity to the most outcast homeless or most deranged criminal, as being made in the Image of God, as icons of Christ Himself, however damaged?  Can He not restore that which is His and was made to refer back to Him, the Source of all Good and Life?  It is strange, then, that we must war against war, but we must.  Life comes only through the death of God on the Cross; we must join in that war, but it is not a war fought with the weapons of world, whether those be material (guns, bombs, and so forth) or passionate (malice, hate, indifference, apathy).  Rather, this war is fought through prayer, especially with the Psalms, and through acts of justice, goodness, mercy, humility and kindness.  That our churches have spectacularly failed to train us for this contest is one of the greatest obscenities of our age: we must go to our pastors or priests or prelates and demand of them training in the spiritual life that overthrew Rome and Gaul and Persia.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Philosophy for the Young

A brief thought in the importance of philosophical training, especially for the lower levels of education:

Philosophy, especially post-Kant ("Kant" being a German name that can be roughly translated as "Satan"), has earned, for all philosophy, the reputation of dry, mostly incoherent thinking about impractical things.  Whether this is fair or not is beyond my immediate (practical?) concern.  The problem with this state of affairs is that philosophy, especially that stemming from Plato and Aristotle through the Church Fathers and Ascetics, is eminently practical.  One of its main concerns is to develop virtue, habits of heart, mind, and body that lead one (both the soul and the society) away from akrasia (acting against the will's natural desire for the Good) and towards hesychia (peace, stillness, ease in any situation).  In other words, philosophy seeks to enable the student to wisely engage in all aspects of existence without being overwhelmed by the allure of material, sensate things or the power of the emotions.

Having been a teacher for 8 years and a human for roughly 4 times that, I've seen the necessity in students to have developed these virtues by the time they reach college (or wherever post-secondary they end up: homemakers, tradespersons, artisans all need virtue, not just some educated "elite").  Many students I've known have been anxious to get "practical" training, yet suffer from debilitating emotional problems or attachments to transitory goods (such as the vast accumulation of wealth).  This is not, of course, to say that true, diagnosed mental illness can be treated or cured through Plato: these things must be competently handled by trained (and virtuous!) counsellors and mental health practitioners.  However, for many who do not have a diagnosable illness, a sturdy askesis of philosophy would help to reorient and redirect the errant passions, desires, and loves back to the Good.

A person, suitably and properly trained in virtue, can then take up any higher learning, or trade, or profession towards the end for which they are made.  That this needs to be accomplished before the state of adulthood (culturally defined here as 21, although most cultures historically have placed it much earlier) seems obvious to me, yet the lower levels of learning rarely address these matters (if, even, they can in our state of cultural and societal disarray).  Richard Rorty, if I remember correctly, once said that if a child isn't virtuous by the time he/she reached college, there was no hope for them -- they had calcified in a state of arrested development (and, Lord, I pray this isn't true).

This means, ultimately, that philosophical training must start in the home, as young as possible.  But, if you are like me and live in an almost constant state of akrasia and acedia (spiritual listlessness), this seems not only daunting, but despairing. Where shall we go to learn that which we desire to pass down to our youth?  It is here that, I think, the broader classical Christian tradition has something great to offer: 2000 years of handing down ("tradition") this life, refined away from the inherent problems of the Socratic tradition in all its variants.  I'm not speaking solely of the intellectual content of the Faith, either, but the life of the Church, her discipline or askesis: fasting, feasting, feria, alms giving, prayer, self-denial, love of God and neighbor.  These we must learn, or relearn, to build up our children to live virtuous lives.

Well, so much for brief...

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

An Address of Sorts to Geneva College Students

I've always wondered what would happen if I got the chance to give you all a valedictory address.  Sort of like a commencement speech, but to all the classes and lacking in the typical self-focused irrelevance.  As my memory fades from the institution (in 3 years once this crop of first year students graduate), this seems to me to be my only chance.  What would I say, though?

First, you have been and will continue to be loved.  If there is one overarching theme I see coming from young Christian students, it is this: you do not believe that God could love you, or could continue to love you because of your (real or perceived) faults in morality.  We all perpetuate this, as we are convinced that if we are really saved, we must automatically lead holy lives.  But, my joys, this simply isn't true.  God calls us, eventually, to wholeness.  But it is a wholeness that always bears Christ's Cross, just as Symeon of Cyrene on the Via Dolorosa.  We find Christ by entering His sufferings, not by "having it all together" or "being perfect."  Indeed, don't take this as a license to cupidity; rather it is a sterner call to the holiness that we feign and therefore fear.  God calls us, daily, to our martyrdom. As we turn from the shoring up of the self and the ego, we find that these are merely false fronts -- duck blinds -- given by sin to hide the fact that they lead to nothingness, to the nihil from which we were called into being.  Sin tells us that God cannot love us, for God reveals the horror of what sin truly is.  We are all disordered in our loves; we must walk together on the road, leaving no man or woman behind.

This leads, naturally, to the second point: we must love if we are to know love.  God loves us, but just because "the Bible tells me so" is insufficient.  Love is a mode of existence, not a sentiment or a feeling, certainly not just a claim made without support.  This is why St John says "God is love," not "God has love."  To really know, in a much deeper than rational way, we must enter that mode of existence.  We must forgive our friends and our enemies, then we will see that Christ's forgiveness has been there all along.  We must love -- warm and fill -- our brothers and sisters, then we will find the One who says, "When I was hungry, you gave me food; thirsty and you gave me drink."  We should note that the sheep in that parable are surprised: "When did we do this to You?"  Cultivate those surprises.  Never fail to hope and expect Christ in the other, even when they fail to live up to our world's standards of "where God is pleased to dwell."  We are to become, by graced askesis, God's Temple.  However, we must not determine where God in His Spirit may move, for He is "everywhere present and fulfilling all things." Those who refuse to see the Christ will "weep and gnash teeth," seeing that the Love was already there, but they had cut themselves off from it by not loving the brother they could see.

Third, this love is transformational, or better yet is is transfiguring.  When Christ shines out the Unceeated Light on Mt Tabor He is giving us a glimpse of our own destiny.  Loving one another is not a giving a place for continued sin: it is a call to suffer for and with those who need God's glory to indwell them.  It may take years, and seem to bear no fruit, but God gives the increase in His own time and often in the hidden chambers of the heart.  Love one another.  Love is cruciform, so you will suffer.  Count it joy when you suffer for the Kingdom in this way: your reward is greater than the whole world.

Know, my joys, that many have suffered with and for you already.  Your parents, your teachers, your friends -- we are, along with all the saints, the Great Cloud of Witnesses looking to the Lord Jesus, who begins our Faith and beckons us to the end in Him.  Take up this Cross -- light and easy compared to the glory which will certainly be revealed in us -- with us.  The Church, those gathering in Christ's Cross and revealing His Resurrection, is important.  Our cultural religion would have you believe that you can have all the benefits of Jesus without religion.  In a sense, this is true: if we mean by religion a set of more-or-less arbitrary rules meant to manage guilt and create exclusive tribes.  The Lord Jesus does not dwell there.  But if we mean that community who seek, over time and in obedience to those who have traveled the Road before us (for what else is Tradition, friends?), to inhabit the Cross and live that mode of existence I've called love, then where else would the Christ be?  This is true religion, this is the Church.  It will involve rites and rituals and other things we find, for a variety of reasons, distasteful.  Medicine is often distasteful -- that doesn't mean it isn't healthful.  True, bad medicine leads to greater sickness: we must cultivate a spiritual awareness that can tell when our spiritual direction is harmful, so that we might seek out the good.  The wisdom here is hard: what seems rough at first might lead to health, to the crucifixion with Christ of the false self.  That which placates our conscience, or enables us towards self-actualization, or whatever may feel good for a time -- and we may mistake it for the Truth -- but it leads to death.  How are we to tell?  Is the Cross there along with the joy and the peace?  Joy and peace are of no avail, they are the City of Man, without the Cross.  In the Cross, they are God's grace and light spilled out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.  We need to find spiritual directors, fathers, mothers, and companions who know the joy and the Cross -- they can, through God's indwelling -- lead us in His paths and tend our souls.

Lastly, sing.  There is a reason that the whole ancient Church chanted every part of her liturgy.  Find that reason.  It must be sung.

God's blessings on you.  You have blessed me for 8 years in the classroom.

Yours in Christ,

Prof. Russ

Monday, April 27, 2015

What about the Basil Option?

Rod Dreher, writing over at The American Conservative, has been formulating what he calls “the Benedict Option” in our current cultural moment:

If an avalanche is coming, you don’t surrender to it and slide down the hill with the rocks, and you don’t get yourself killed by standing in front of it hoping that God will stop it before it hits you, or that someone will show up at the last minute to rescue you. You get out of the way, and take shelter where you can until it passes you by.

The idea is based on a brief passage in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, in which he advocates the necessity of small communities disengaging from the dominant cultural landscape in order to preserve what is good, true, and beautiful in those self-same cultures. St Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order of monks, did just this in the waning days of Western Roman civilization.

One of the difficulties of this, pointed out by many reviewers and commentators, is that Benedictine monasticism requires a fairly hefty withdrawal from the world; it is generally better situated among rural areas and out of the way places. Much of the history of Western monasticism, taking its cue from St Antony of Egypt and others, can be understood as this pull away from the urban to the secluded. Dreher speaks often of how the Benedict Option does not require one to become a survivalist, but we should be open to the practicality, even wisdom, of a complete disengagement from the urban cultural and political scene. Wendell Berry comes to mind as a possible “abbot-at-large” for the Benedict Option.

I don’t want, in any way, to diminish what Dreher is trying to accomplish; on the contrary, a revival of monasticism in its cenobitic form would do this country a world of good. The constant witness against the crass and ubiquitous materialism that the cloister preaches is a dire necessity for us; the devotion to intimate care from oblation to dormition constitutes a non-verbal gadfly against our revulsion of those who are young and those who are dying. However, the Benedict Option is best suited for the “highways and the hedges” in our country. So, instead of criticizing, I want to suggest that another saint provides a more concrete model for urban cultural engagement on the level that Dreher is arguing for: St Basil of Caesarea, rightly called the Great.

Basil is credited with developing what St Gregory of Nazianzus, in his elegy for his friend, called the ‘New City’ and which we know as the ‘Basiliad’:

A noble thing is philanthropy, and the support of the poor, and the assistance of human weakness. Go forth a little way from the city, and behold the new city, the storehouse of piety, the common treasury of the wealthy, in which the superfluities of their wealth, aye, and even their necessaries, are stored, in consequence of his exhortations, freed from the power of the moth, no longer gladdening the eyes of the thief, and escaping both the emulation of envy, and the corruption of time: where disease is regarded in a religious light, and disaster is thought a blessing, and sympathy is put to the test. (Oration 43.63)

Basil had set up a community of religious dedicated to the care of the urban poor, the displaced, the leper, the sick, and the dying. All within the metropolitan limits of Caesarea. Part of what allowed this to take place was Basil’s preaching on the true use and reality of wealth (a sentiment shared by none other than St John Chrysostom): the rich are for the health of the poor, the poor are for the salvation of the rich. It was a form, if you will, of separation in the midst of the world. Bounded by the strong sense of Apostolic Tradition, of the true Faith, and then sent out as humble, consubstantial healers in the city. This, it seems to me, is what Dreher is after.

The question that arises in my mind, though, is whether or not we have a solid enough Faith here in the States to start these sorts of communities of outreach and healing. Can there be any chance of coherent community outside a unified Faith, at least on the local level? Can the Presbyterians continue to fracture and shatter into a million warring factions (see Jonathan Frame’s classic and depressing essay “Machen’s Warrior Children” for how this has worked out on a level outside of the PCUSA) and expect to be a cultural bulwark? Can the Catholics recover from the cultural damage caused by the sex scandal? Are the Orthodox a significant enough presence in our urban areas, and are they willing to give up ethnic and nationalist distinctives for the sake of the salvation of the American soul?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Boast

In Romans (and Galatians) St Paul is at pains to exclude some sort of "boasting" before God.  It is explicitly condemned in 3:27, being excluded by the "nomos of Faith."  What is this boast? Most often, I've heard, and paradigmatically assumed, that it is a boast of law completion; I've kept the law, so I have something of which to boast of before God and man (implying that I can then leveraged that boast into some sort of earned salvation scheme -- effectively tying God's hands).  However, the first place in Romans St Paul uses the word is 2:17, where the boast is not in nomic performance, but a "boast in God," which seems -- utilizing 9:4-5 -- to be a boast in terms of election: the Judean has confidence before God because of his privileged covenantal status (granted initially by God via Abraham and later through Moses), which can be backed up (at this point as proof, not as merit) by circumcision and nomic obedience.

It goes without saying, I think, that this changes a good deal of how the early chapters in Romans are to be interpreted.

H/T to the book I'm reading: Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans: 2009).

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

A Prayer for Salvation

Lord Christ, by the grace of Your Cross and by the power of Your Resurrection, save me, save my family, save my friends, save my enemies. Save, Lord, all men as is Your desire. Amen.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Meditations on Holy Week

The fig tree withers
and the temple is cleansed.
May the passions within us
find the same fate, as You,
the Lover of all Humankind
grant us Your Great Mercy
on the Tree.

As You entered into Jerusalem,
cleansing the Temple,
so enter our hearts, O Good One,
and drive from them the sinful passions
that beset us and defile us.
For You love humankind
and are the Savior of our souls.

O Lord Christ, as You were silent before Your accusers,

so we are silent before You, the Source of Living Waters
whom we have spurned time and time again.
Open our lips, O Lord, that our mouths might proclaim Your praise;
Silence the tongues of our accuser, the enemy of all souls,
and crush the head of the murdering dragon,
granting us Your Great Mercy
and the world's salavation.

As Joseph was lifted out of the pit
by the remembrance of the cupbearer,
so You Lord were lifted up on the Cross
causing the thief to cry out,
"Remember me in Your Kingdom, O Lord!"
His cry is ours so that this day
we might join You in the Paradise who is the Spirit,
You who are the Lover of Humankind
and the Savior of our souls.

Your cry, O Christ, upon the Tree
"My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?"
spoken from God to God -- Hallelujah
for in our Godforsakenness of death
of sin, of corruption, You abide with us,
every crying out in intercession;
for you are the Lover of Humankind
and the saver of our souls.

The Tomb, cut out of rock,
will receive the one proclaimed,
"Behold, the Man!" on this day
of man's primordial creation.
From dust to dust, You return
to be resurrected the third day
so that we, being dust, might be raised
with You to Heaven,
for You are the lover of Humankind
and the Savior of our souls.