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