Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Slouching Towards Tyranny

In the 5th century B.C., Athens and her allies were at war with Sparta and her allies, in the Peloponnesian War made famous by the great historian Thucydides. In the first part of the war, Pericles son of Xanthippus was the leader of Athens: by all accounts, he was an able leader, not the least because of his apparent selflessness in the face of Athen's need, and  because of his honesty. He seems to have been a thinking man, and though humility was not a widely held virtue in the ancient world, Pericles seemed to have that essential nature of humility, which is to stand on the ground: to be in reality about oneself, and one's relative importance in the face of the danger that one's very values and way of life was near extinction.

For Pericles, and Thucydides, who was a general in the war, and the young and old Athenians who died, and those who kept the city going after war-death and plague-death, held out hope not based on chimeras and oracles, but based on the glory that was Athens, as described in Pericles' (Thucydides') words spoken in the famous Funeral Oration:

     "[Our constitution] favors administration for the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life fall to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom...also extends to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes...but all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace...we throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from learning or observing..." (Book II, 37).

Thus Pericles, as written by Thucydides, bases the glory of the war dead on that unique government springing from the Greek faith in human reason and a reasonable universe, a polis which built an administration to serve the many rather than the few, and built on the knowledge that human reason and spirit, if guided properly, and not crushed but allowed 'a life affording scope for the excellence of virtue" (Aristotle, Ethics) will guide the state to true greatness. Pericles exhorts the Athenians to fight not only for themselves but for human posterity in order that such a grand idea may be saved. He knows, as does any good leader intent upon true liberty, as many centuries later de Toqueville knew, that a democracy can only flourish as long as it is moral, and as long as it does not act upon fear but rather on the idea that right knowledge leads to right action, that humans have a nature and so history, and politics, can be guided based on right order and right principles. Every truth has a dark side, and the darkness of this truth is that if political life is not guided by right knowledge of right order, and becomes instead fear-based or too individualistic, terrible histories will repeat themselves: communism can come again, fascism can rear it's head once more, revitalized in the safety-seeking of fearful citizens who tend towards authoritarianism. Disordered thinking and the fear that results is a kind of vacuum which invites the unscrupulous or the fanatical to take advantage.

Thucydides' Pericles addresses this danger after the great plague during the war, to a people who have started bowing to the enemy, a people which have turned on him in their depression, fear, and despair:

" recede is no longer possible, if indeed any of you in the alarm of the moment has become enamored of the honesty of such an unambitious part. For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe. And men of these retiring views, making converts of others, would quickly ruin a state; indeed the result would be the same if they could live independent by themselves; for the retiring and unambitious are never secure without vigorous protectors at their side; indeed, such qualities are useless to an imperial city though they may help a dependency to an unmolested servitude."

In our current American situation, these words could have been spoken to both Left and Right, indeed, to a majority of our citizens, for our main enemy has become ourselves. On the one hand, we have severed the relationship of political law and natural law, of natural law and eternal law, all of which should form a kind of difference in unity. This has resulted in a fractious, individualistic culture made up of people who can no longer see the reason for laying their individualism down for the good of others, including the weakest among us. The virus of fractiousness, blooming inexorably over two hundred years into extreme individualism seems to have got into the American founding at the beginning, whilst at the same time, the opposite extreme, Federalism, also wormed its way in not long after the nation began. Thus, the new attempt at the Grand Idea of the Athenians, in America, was infected from the beginning and we are truly seeing the fruits of it now, two hundred years on.

Yet, there is something at the core of the American experiment that was akin to Athens. The insight that people should be valued not for what they can bring the few, but what they can bring to their communities around them, that a responsible, moral people hold a benevolent power that conquers the world through inspiration and virtue, is also American. However, the similarity unfortunately does not end there: Like Athens, we have become an empire, and like Athens, this push to empire has become a death-knell to us--like post-Periclean, imperialist and hubris-tic Athens, we are feared and despised by our known world--and yet, at the same time, we are envied and copied. Pericles also said that human judgement is relentless against the weakness that falls short of the true calling, or true ability of another. In our Left-ist rush to re-define reality for ourselves, our materialistic continuance of our hegemony and imperialism for the purpose of maintaining an outlandish standard of living for the few, our moral weakness is contemptible. And in our new-found Right-ist xenophobia, in response to the dangers we ourselves have helped create by our insane foreign policies, we also draw contempt for the weakness which falls short of what we are truly capable of as a once free people.

Are we free now? The fact that we would be even remotely close to electing a xenophobic materialist like Trump, or a manipulative, corrupt like Clinton, that we have no candidates available not tainted by empire-ism or fascism or rabid, amoral individualism, or plain inability, or the deeper fact that the presidential election eclipses the election of subsidiary authorities who should, by their closer connection to us, have more power to inform, serve, and guide their constituency, points to a fatal sickness growing.

Will the sickness be a new form of fascism? Or materialistic, utilitarian Rorty-style socialism? Or a slow slide into decay?

Regardless of the end, we are certainly slouching towards some sort of tyranny, not the least being the tyranny of our own unbridled passions or forays farther into interstellar silo-realities.

The answer? God.

This is simple and complex at the same time. It is simply that God is the eternal law, and the natural law, and thus the model, the true source, for individuals as well as political societies. In Him is the unity, and the relief and beauty of order and simplicity. Yet the truth, Reality, in a fallen world is overwhelmingly complex and even tragic. Pericles knew this as he exhorted his people to give their lives for something greater, even whilst standing in the midst of hundreds of bodies ravaged by the plague, by war, to live in the face of ultimate mystery. For most people, maybe almost all of us, we build chimera-walls, our own private realities, in order to escape the real one: we think we will live forever; we think science has the last word; we live almost purely in the realm of ideas, away from messy particulars; we make little gods we believe we can control; we create narratives, sometimes even taking the shreds we like from the fabric of the True Narrative.

Perhaps, truly, the human race is divided into two camps: those who live more or less in reality, but never truly in reality, on a spectrum nearer or farther from Reality, and those who are simply, saints. St. Francis comes to mind: He stands in the Assisi church surrounded by his family, his community, and his bishop, having divested himself of his clothes and anything that tied him to his old, woven life; he leaps into the unknown, into the hidden arms of God. Deemed crazy by everyone else, he was in the end, the only one in Reality among them. He said later that suddenly, everything shifted, and he saw himself as a fly upside down on a window; he knew that everything he'd known before was tainted, warped, by human narrative, and it was therefore not Truth. He saw the God who holds all things in a unified Whole, and yet counts the hairs on each person's head. In St. Francis' extremity of love from and for God, because he was a beacon from the rock, more profound and true than Athens, into the darkness of human culture, he was able to join a revolution that has influenced the world in a much deeper way than even Athens, or Rome, or any other political system, no matter the gifts each possesses.

In the end, we need God, who is Reality, to have healthy political societies; and because most of us are too afraid, sinful, selfish, or weak in love, we need saints to point the way. Otherwise, we will continue slouching towards tyranny and what is left of Athens will die once again. Open yourself to reality, become a saint, and you will be the best also for the nation you love: you may die, but as Pericles said, your legacy will be greater than if you'd lived submissive to tyranny, because by your sainthood, your being in Reality, you will remain for all time a light, a true light, born of Light, for all people.

This is leadership, the kind that serves, lays down life, does not tyrannize, the kind that points the way to happiness, the kind that matters--the kind to vote for.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Mystically at the Crib

Tomorrow night, God will again, for us, be born. We remember it in the ancient Jewish understanding of 'remembrance': it is a real, true re-happening, mystically, in our hearts and minds. As Fulton Sheen said about the crucifixion, through its re-presentation, we are able truly to be invited there, to the cave outside Bethlehem.

What do we see there? What we see, or don't see, reveals us, just as the sight of the scapegoat reveals us: do we see the poetry of truth, the true myth, or are we too ensconced in the poetry of the world, the narrative of the inner circles, the drama written by the powerful?

There was a great cartoon posted on Facebook recently: It was a couple, the woman pregnant, dressed in the clothes of today's poor: hoodies and shabby jeans. The man was on the payphone, and the woman was seated on one of those kiddie rides you see sometimes outside grocery stores--a donkey that rocks back and forth when you put quarters in it.

It is an exercise in seeing: what would you see if transported, as you are mystically, to the cave outside Bethlehem? An insignificant, poor couple who were not important enough to have a place to stay; a tiny baby that in all probability would either die before adulthood or become another insignificant, poor person struggling to survive; a scrap of human flesh hidden in the arms of a woman, another kind of insignificant in that culture and time.

Would you be a wise man? "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord." Wisdom is the ability to see the real significance of things, even those which seem insignificant to the world: perhaps especially those things. Wisdom is to recognize truth, to know enough of God to know that He is capable of becoming a baby, to follow His star no matter where it leads, and beyond human expectations for the signs of power, to follow that light to Weakness Incarnate.

Would you bring him gold nonetheless, though it may appear to everyone else to be throwing it down a charity hole?

Would you know enough to bring him myrrh; would you know that the sweetness of the nativity scene was also a vision of a more profound form of suffering and emptying than anything you could imagine on your own? Would you, as Caryll Houselander said, see the wood of the cross embedded in the wood of the cradle? Would you see that He was already on the road of suffering, taking the form of a poor flesh-scrap, intentionally risking the suffering of being profoundly misunderstood?

Would you know enough to bring him frankincense, the precious granules that were only burned before a god? Would you know that the telos of frankincense was now finally realized as the smoke gently rose before the poor, the laid aside, the refuse?

Would you be a shepherd? Like the poor child in your poverty, unsurprised by the animal stench and the rawness of the scene, but drawn in because in your familiarity with contemplation in the wilderness and the long night watches, could you see what was different here? Could you look past the suffering and see unusual beauty in the face of the Mother, in the aura of angels surrounding the Child?

Would you be, instead, an innkeeper, with so much else before your eyes, so many pressing concerns, that you only saw the insignificant poor couple who could not pay hiked rates for rooms? Would you be one of those crafty people who, as Jane Austen said, have "a presence of mind [which] never varies, whose tongue never slips"?

Would you be a Herod, a mover and shaker who, though pretending to be pious, are instead in love with power, with influence, with your own abilities, your own intellect--who sees only two categories for the Christ child: either someone to be used, or someone to compete with? Are you daunted, scandalized, fearful of God's choice to totally empty Himself and to suffer? Are you doubtful?

Let the Christ child reveal you to yourself. Perhaps you will find all these characters inside. The suffering of the child, of the mother, of the foster father is meant to assuage justice, to test you, to educate you, and to save you. He cannot save you if you do not know yourself, know that you need to be saved from selfishness, fear--and above all, as Fr. Zossima in The Brothers Karamozov says, from "the lie to yourself." He cannot love you if you do not know you need His love.

The scapegoat, for the first time in history, will, in the power of love, turn the scapegoating into a feast of love, and healing. He will become the Feast.

The baby in the cave is a paradox that reveals you and demands your potential for dignity, sacrificial love, demands in love that you become what you were made to be---and does this with the sweet, absolutely helpless cry of a newborn child. His very helplessness, like the poor of the world, the helpless, the humble, calls you out. What will you see when tomorrow night, you stand outside the cave among the shepherds and wise men?

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Whom Job Reveals

Job. Just the name can stab the heart; reading his story makes the knife turn. It is like reading news accounts of young and old people, innocent in many senses, trying to live their lives and create order as best they can, who have been gunned down: for what? The question, that question that is itself another form of suffering, perhaps the most concentrated form of all suffering, rises immediately: why?

The "why" must be answered in particular lives, and also by human beings together, but most importantly, it must be answered by God. And He does. As John Paul II shows us in Salvifici Dolores, the story of Job reveals new dimensions, new meanings of suffering beyond all expectation:

Job is at an intersection between Moses' record of a story of a God emerging from the mists surrounding human consciousness and something much more profound. In Job, the loss of every good, to the point of the disintegration of Job's own body, mirroring the writhing of his soul is a poetic, biting, visceral image of suffering. The intersection is that of two different definitions, meanings, purposes of suffering that come together in the events of Job, which coalesces with other Old Testament writings, but somehow, mysteriously, reveals something latent, deeper, more profound about suffering.

In the Pentatuch, especially in Genesis, we see that there is a Creator of a natural, supernatural, and moral order; Genesis itself is a pageant not only of virility and variety, but primarily of order. There is an Order-er, and thus He is also the Lawgiver, the laws of creation reflecting the order, the laws, of Himself. When that order is dis-ordered in some way, justice becomes necessary in a new way: now it is not only a giving of what is due, it also suddenly becomes a demand to re-order. This demand is fulfilled in punishment. Adam must wrestle with the elements to survive, instead of everything falling over itself to give him abundance; Eve must be relegated to a politically lower order and suffer pain.

Suffering related to order and justice, is, I think, easily understood by the human mind. Thus Job's friends, from this humanly understood, more simplistic order, look diligently for the causes of his suffering. "It must be rational," they say; "It must be something you've done," they murmur. Most of the ancient religions and many philosophies build their edifice on this, and this alone. The Greeks had natural forces personified, each force conflicting but ultimately bowing to a cosmic order. Reward and punishment is the paradigm for all of us at a purely childhood and very human level; indeed, it is a reflection of the natural law in us, in all of us. There is order; thus, a dis-ordering force must be dealt with.

Nowhere in the Greeks do we find an absence of fault as related to suffering. All must have a rational, just, ordered source. Nowhere in Hinduism do we find an absence of fault as a part of suffering.

And nowhere in Islam do we find this absence of fault. God is Supreme Order, and also Supreme Will. Punishment and reward are, as is normal for human beings, paramount in this worldview. If one understands God's will, and sets out to right any warpings of it, to spread that will, then one can understand how to mete out reward and punishment to most fully effect that will. Sharia law is the day-to-day expression, in minute form at times, of this will, interpreted by, depending on the form of Islam, the imans, or the caliphs (when there has been one reigning), or the mystics. It is so important because it is the daily expression of the will of God, which is all-important, that ordering force upon which all civilization, all meaning, all goodness, rests.

When thinking about the current political situation and indeed the whole of Islam's history from its first origins as a Judeo-Christian-Arabic amalgamation, we find ironically that Islam has much in common with Judaism: the focus on following the laws and will of God in all parts of daily life, that the whole of a person's life is dedicated to this 're-ordering' of the self towards the ordering of God, and that there is definite reward and punishment obvious not only in the direct suffering from subjective cause to effect (excessive drinking producing bad health, or a parent's sin affecting the children through the generations), but also on an entire people. Do they follow God as a human community or not? Are they 'holy' or 'set apart' for God, in His will, or not?

Thus, the truth that suffering is punitive, a re-ordering of that which has been dis-ordered, a 'guarantee of the truth and power of the moral order' could be argued to be almost a universal human concept, at least in the ancient faiths, the ancient world. The rub happens when we have to figure out who is qualified to articulate both the order as it applies to human communities and persons. Is it Moses? Mohammed? Buddha? Brahma? Zeus?

As we move on in Genesis, and meet the sufferings of Israel as he goes into exile, slaves for years for his chosen wife, wrestles with the angel of God, and loses his favored son to the greed of his other sons, we find a new kind of suffering. Suddenly suffering, as in the wandering homelessness of the desert, becomes not only punitive but also educational: it is revealed as a discipline, and even a means by which God brings about a higher good. In a highly poetic and mysterious way, we see those whose sufferings have made them more worthy to know, little by little, the Creator in a personal way. We see suffering, as John Paul II says, as a certain 'doing good to the subject' a re-ordering not only necessary for the guarantee of the Cosmic Order, but for the re-ordering of the person or the group.

We can see this also in other worldviews: Oedipus moves from an irascible, immature, prideful person into a luminescent, sacred entity who seems, at Colonnus, to enter the world of the gods through his uber-human, Job-like suffering; Odysseus becomes a truly political, moral person, more than the Cretan, cunning, liar-warrior of the Iliad as he finds new sources of suffering in disordered land spots among the sometimes writhing, sometimes wine-dark, sea; from wreckages to the super-ships of discourse, he becomes a man of profound language instead of a clever barbarian.

We see this also in Islam. The Sufi mystics, the Koran, all point to a kind of education out of punitive suffering. The system, so far, is quite logical and understandable if one understands the 'rules.'

Enter Job.

It is as if the old worldviews show up in the persons of his 'friends.' Zeus says, "You did something wrong"; Buddha says, "You must endure it and hope for something better"; Moses says, "It is so you can see the laws of God."

And Job refuses them all, because he is the definitively innocent man. He is more than a particular person, he is a poetic archetype, he is a Sign of the innocent, good man--we know this because we know that every particular, historical person has some fault within him, inherited or taken on through his own actions of disordering. But Job is innocent, good, so much so that he incites the envy of the Evil One. His sufferings do not come from a fault.

Again, and let it sink in: Job's sufferings do not come from a fault. In a sense, this is unprecedented. The order of the Cosmos is revealed by, is guaranteed by, suffering connected to faults, disorder. Does the order of the Cosmos lie in a heap, is it cheapened by the Sign of Contradiction that Job has suddenly become, as he sits in his filth, despised above all men?

Here, though it has echoes in other Old Testament writings, a deeper meaning of suffering is revealed in a raw, intense way: it is a test. Job's true loyalty to God, to Order, to Goodness, is tested, and through all forms of suffering, the most intense form perhaps being falsely seen by other human beings, an outcast in the purest form, that of being blamed when one is innocent, being profoundly misunderstood so that any physical suffering is made ten-fold, in loneliness and abandonment: even more profound, living in the temptation that to all human and rational account, God has disappeared, abandoned him who had served Him well.

Job's deepest complaint is the cry "Why have you forsaken me?" It is what is truly under the universal human question, "Why?" in the face of suffering.

In Job's refusal to bow to human wisdom, in his courageous assent that "I know my Redeemer lives," his dignity and profound depth as a human being, an image of God is manifested. The test reveals Job to himself, helps him "to regain the soul he thought he had lost."

And Job reveals more, much more. He becomes, himself, a questioner. He is searching in the dark, that profound darkness that suddenly is shown to be profound light. He questions God because he knows, beyond all else, that God is Good. What he finds, when God speaks to him in the whirlwind, is something beyond all reckoning: he finds, of course, power; of course He finds immutable will; but Job, when he lays down in dust and ashes, repents. Why does he 'repent'? The whole point of the book was that he had done nothing wrong. "Repent" means a "turning direction into the right way again"--Job, though he had done nothing wrong, did not really know God. When suddenly, because of his suffering, that great test, he comes into direct dialogue with God, he sees something--perhaps not with the eyes of the body--yet seeing nonetheless. His whole life, his understanding is turned, because he sees a great mystery of love when he sees God; he is known and he knows. Perhaps, though we don't know, Job sees the God who will reveal the most profound meaning, the true meaning, of suffering.

Beyond justice, beyond education, there is the suffering of love. There is God who is not only Omniscience and Omnipotence, Lawgiver--the God of the Pentatuch, the God of Sinai, the God Mohammed used as a model for Allah--there is He who "opened His suffering to man, because he became a sharer in human suffering." Through this 'com-passion' (co-suffering) God suddenly could live within each person in a new and profound way. The Cross was and is a point of union, a crossing, with each person beyond every other union. Because of the greatest descent into weakness, being pinned to a criminal's punishment, an absolute openness to the Power and Will of God was effected: by God Become Man.

Absolute emptying of what was the Highest is the most emptying possible: and this openness, because like Job, who partially reveals this greater Sign, was not based on a fault, was not based on a punitive order. It was love. And this great openness of weakness and love made a great space, an infinite space, for God to fill up again with power and love, to manifest Himself through the opened intersection between Himself and man, to pour living water out into the desert , among the wreckages of the world, over those suffering because of faults and sin, and when received, to make the latent seeds of human dignity, love, and greatness flower again. This was the also the co-gift of God and the great Christian martyrs, and as John Paul II says, all those who suffer for love, for others, for what is right.

Suddenly, suffering is also love. And it not only saves, but it creates, and regenerates, as Job was created anew, brought to a higher level, "happier than before." Jesus is Job, because He was human without fault, but He is also God in the whirlwind. Finally, the union, the thing for which we are hoping against all human hope when we read Job's story, is accomplished in Christ. He makes possible what Job saw but could not accomplish because his emptiness was, still, only human emptiness.

Christ asks us, each one, to live His dream with Him, His descent into profound emptiness in the light of the Resurrection. He gives us each a chance to make our suffering salvific, creative, to add our own paint to his great canvas, to again rediscover the soul, the greatness, the profound love, 'the awareness of life,' of hope, the dignity we are because--because He first loved us. With Him, our suffering can change the world, and we may not know the true value and joy of it until we can see God face-to-face.

We live in a world that still, in its exhausted punitive maliciousness, runs on reward and punishment: each worldview desperately trying to get back at the others because everything else but 'my way, our way' is 'disordered' or 'less than.' We live in a giant king on the mountain game that spews out reams on 'order' and 'justice.' Terrorism is punitive revenge, no matter who is doing it, and often it is a cover for groups attempting the most effective domination of all: the hidden kind, the kind that uses others' passions and beliefs for absolutely selfish aggrandizement. It is a hurricane-world, but it is only a blustering and barbaric imitation of Job's whirlwind which is the whirlwind that most truly reveals God, as Isaiah knew, in the gentle wind at the center, the weak and soft wind that is the power of salvific love.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Good Cult and the Bad Cults: Losing Your Life Vs. Systemists and Conspiracy Mystics

Today I felt like the horse who has just had its bridle taken off. I'm shaking my mane and trotting off, finding a nice place to roll. I feel free, because a truth took off that bridle. But the bridle was part of being able to know it. I've been under a discipline given by God. A discipline of humility, a discipline that in its own way, rattled my cage and also gave me something to begin to know well enough to reject; in this crucible we find our identity, we find what we really believe because one has had to die for it, in a sense. In the last weeks, the bridle was tightened again and again, to unbearable levels, but I bore it. I didn't lose it, the luxury I usually resort to; the golden-ness of age is the growing ability to bear it, and to know you've grown past the pain, in a sense, that accepting pain and death really is part of life, of really living, that the most alive thing you can do is die to yourself and take it in the face, and then turn the cheek in love. This is being alive. 

It is being rattled, buffeted by Reality, which in the end, is the real contact of the human spirit to a Reality so immense, a Reality of apparent paradoxes, apparent because to the limited, unaided human mind, it looks like cold, un-pitying gusts of wind working mindlessly on a leaf--when in truth, it is a beauty and order so beyond us as to be endless mystery. And yet, the concomitant mystery of Achilles lies within each of us, Achilles the half-human who had been destined to be the King of the Cosmos, Zeus' usurper; by machinations, he is left instead a demi-god, a creature strung between two worlds, between the descent to strengthless shadowhood and the ascent to knowing, participating in, the meaning of, the Whole, a god. He is left with the unbearable tension of an unknowable cosmos and the destiny to have that knowledge. 

He is Everyman: Achilles is, in a sense, us. 

The situation we are in, as animals made also with the image of God, feels dangerous, beyond us, unsafe, and if we are honest, we have no hope of navigating the ascent successfully in virtue of our nature alone: if we add in original sin, we know we are doomed. Ascent to something beyond us that we are nevertheless made to achieve with a being wounded from the start? 

No wonder we find in epistomology, especially, attempts to circumvent this dilemma, or at least make it do-able, safer. No wonder we find in religion and politics attempts to make systems that are simply, human-sized. Large groups of us rush into paradigms that promise to take us from as much Reality as possible, because Reality is dangerous. It is dangerous; we are flies on the back of a running cheetah, hanging on with our little legs, tucking in our wings. Of course we'd want to build an alternate cosmos, an understandable one, deep in the hair, away from the wind and uncertainty.

The first Bad Cult, then, is not really a cult. It is, in a sense, the opposite extreme to the Oracle of Apollo, the revenge of Aphrodite, the worship of mystery in deep caves. It is Systemism, the attempt to make rationality the end, and it begins--where? As the writer of Ecclesiasticus says, "Nothing new exists under the sun." Buddhism and perhaps Confucianism are examples in the East; in the West, it shows up in the Greeks in some ways with Aristotle's focus on systemization of Reality, and one sees it in the paradigm of 'saving the appearances', which means that in every milieu of speculative human thought, from astronomy to the soul, as Plato said, "We must assume that there is a rational explanation."

But is believing in a rational explanation, in a fundamentally ordered Reality rather than random chance, a bad thing?

No. I believe in many ways Aristotle is right, Plato is right. However, I would ask them, "Whose rationality can explain what is behind everything? Yours?" That sounds snarky. But I don't mean it that way. If a rational system admits, knows, its own truncated ability though it reveals certain truths, if it allows itself to live open to being corrected, even shattered if need be when the Truth enters, if it longs for the Beyond like a deer thirsting for the stream; as long as it does not attempt to co-opt everything else that challenges it into its own need for air-tightness, as long as it admits its own radical poverty in the face of God, it can become a sign for a much greater Object, a limited sign, but carrying truth nonetheless, a sign like marriage between sinful, limited human beings is a sign of the love within the Godhead. Plato, and Augustine, Catherine of Siena, St. Therese, even St. Thomas who knew his works were no better than straw compared to Reality, knew this. 

The bad cult, or rather 'Systemization' I am talking about is not humble; you shall know it by its foundation of fear, uncovered by the question: Is unaided human reason able to encompass, explain, systematize, Reality? 

If so, then Communism or Roman Republicanism or Shintoism ought to have worked at some point. Any system, any inner circle that promises to explain everything and make us, finally, safe, is a lie. It is not even at the level of a mistaken Cult; it is a facade, a ride at Disneyland that's supposed to let you experience Space Travel; it is the chimera of Caesar's appeals to Pax Romana and becomes instead potentially a cover for genocide, over a million Gauls. It becomes a system that must have its bogeys in order to hide it's own failures to make its own adherents safe. 

It is Occam's nominalism, Kant's moral philosophy and epistomology that effectively makes our own ideas Reality (and if we can't control our own ideas, then we're really not safe--in other words, should be the safest system of all), ditto for Hume and Descartes, the Fathers of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a veritable factory of systems that make us feel in control, that buffer us from Reality. We felt finally 'enlightened' when we lifted the burden of living by cutting ourselves off from the terrible angst that is living as an angel-beast in Reality. The Terrible Twentieth Century was the logical culmination of this; mind-buffering systems that effectively cut us off from reality provide a false sense of the human being, ostensibly enlightened  by a bare bulb in a tiny outhouse on the edge of Truth. A human being, called to something much more grand and dangerous, called to know, in a sense, the Whole, will become warped, insane, if left in a tiny outhouse for centuries. There will be backlash, there will be ever-more horrifying systems, there will be war because everyone knows in his heart of hearts that there can be only one Reality, and if we're going to believe it is ours (a necessary component of it being reality), then we have to beat back anything or anyone that threatens it. Finally, we become the incarnation of our own lies.

A rational system that reduces everything to hierarchy and propositions will cramp the human soul into a tiny space that isn't Real. The resurgence of Eastern mysticism in the New Age, and our other Bad Cult, David Lynchian facade-busting, conspiracy mysticism, is really perhaps a reactionism to Rationalism, Systemization. 

From the almost too-smart, edgy, often wrong, sometimes grotesque, but non-cultist, non-ideologist, unhinged, interesting Sam Kriss:

"Conspiracy theory isn't a type of proposition that can be taxonomically isolated by its propositional content; it's a relation between propositions, between knowledge and unknowledge, the seen and the unseen, the incomparably ancient and the buzzing urgency of the present."

Is Kriss articulating fundamentally an attempt to re-mystify born of an un-real Kantian tension with things that are claimed to be fundamentally unknowable, and that the content is not important, really?  Is he revealing an attempt to have a relationship with a world outside strict rational categories, a very un-Thomistic (with all the good and bad categories) attempt? That is why perhaps people fear can lead, for sure, to all kinds of paranoia and can be filling emotional/psychological needs. Kriss makes the point too that to begin to believe that there never have been objective conspiracy theories is to throw out all of history, to believe that Caesar was killed by random acts of insanity. It is when a person begins to live as if there is a hidden-ness to all 'surface' events, and simplifies things to this or that cause  that Kriss says you'll find the 'conspiracy mystic'. I can kind of see the line. The conspiracy mystic desires a relationship to reality, acts on a warped religious instinct as a kind of backlash to what we've been told by Descartes, Hume, Kant, Montaigne, et al--that being, real essence is something we have no communication with. 

If we do have communication with Reality, we are made to have this communication, then the project of the Enlightenment, to divorce us from it into our own minds, will produce psychological and spiritual dissonance, and at such a depth that there will be a backlash, an attempt to re-connect to the drama of Reality, which we all understand in the depths of our souls to be incredibly varied and fundamentally beyond us. The beyond-ness is ordered, but ordered like in chaos theory, beyond our human comprehension---but not God's. And we are made to connect with this kaleidescope of Reality because it is beyond us and beyond the rationalist and the existentialist, and the unknowability-of-reality systems are attempts to get out of this tension, a tension unbearable without truly loving God with your whole being, because it is that essential part of us that is like Achilles. We are meant to have union with God, but it is beyond our capability; it requires grace.  But if you do it whilst trying to maintain the world of 'my own individuality' then it will be a warped backlash, much like feminism was a warped backlash to the very real oppression of women, and at the deepest levels (indoctrinating them in every way to believe that they are fundamentally less human). 

So 'conspiracy mysticism' can be a warped backlash, much like the rise of truly crazy 'cults' like Scientology, Satanism, New Ageism, ad nauseam. And the backlash to this, and to all the leftist response to no contact with Reality by creating 'my own mysterious universe' is perhaps yet another return to a kind of rationalistic fundamentalism, the Rational-Fortress-Cult. There is nothing new under the sun...

What's the way to Reality?

I think you do find it in the Faith--the real Catholicism that I fell in love with at first sight of the Eucharist. I did not love it because of St. Thomas alone, or Augustine alone. Catholicism, as often as people try to co-opt it into their Systemism or into their New Ageism or conspiracy mysticism, cannot be reduced to those categories, because it holds in its poor stable someone Bigger than the whole Universe. At times, "Catholic" this or that, even most of the hierarchy living, has been co-opted. But that someone Bigger tends to shatter what tries to contain Him, and returns to the stables, the Eucharist, the simple, the poor, the paltry churches and reveals the wisdom of the world, the powerful, the unaided rational as mere leaves in the wind. As a more simple example, I didn't love the Greek miracle because of Aristotle alone, or Plato alone.I loved both these mileus, similar in their Pieperian openness to Reality, because they carried within them polarities--polarities that spoke, in their polarity, to both the order and the mysterious creativity that is reality: the truth that Reality is something we must continue to search for, always--and that this is a love affair--knowing that the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. The Catholic trump of the Greeks is the fact that the Whole is a Person, and yet a Person who is beyond the Whole.

The healthy cult is the one of charity, of death to life, of opening oneself to the whirlwind that is God. It is, as 'cult' is about mystery, about the only True Mystery. Here rationality finds its true place, and shattered and re-built in love, with God, in the ultimate rationality of knowing how truly small we are, and also how truly grand, that we have within ourselves the polarity, the paradox that is the fundamental essence of both fecundity and beauty. 

It is the Cult of "if you lose your life you will save it." If you lay your heart open to Reality, if you are willing to die for a truth that is so big it is beyond your capability of knowing it all except through the eyes of a love that will die rather than settle for anything but the Truth, a truth so simple it encompasses everything, a truth one cannot know except through knowing the Whole, a Whole so huge that it is simply, everything, a Whole of which I am a part, and so I cannot rationally stand outside it, a Whole I can stand outside through union with God, a union with God accomplished through ecstatic Love, a Love that is fundamentally sacrificial of the self, of the ego, a Love that will set my rationality, my heart, my whole being, free to know what cannot be known by rationality unaided. It is a dangerous cult because it will shatter me; it is a good cult because it is the Way to being myself, finally, only when I have allowed myself to die for it. It is a Cult of a Person, not a system that keeps me safe.

I've been under a discipline given by God. A discipline of humility, a discipline that in its own way, rattled my cage and also gave me something to begin to know well enough to reject; in this crucible we find our identity, we find what we really believe because one has had to die for it, in a sense. You find yourself in what you will lose yourself for; you are what you will die for. I feel more free, because I know now that my Third-culture-ness, my lifetime exile, my discomfort with Systems that claim hegemony, my being most comfortable in an airport, were always signs for me to search for the Un-Tame God, the Reality that cannot be encompassed by any culture, any human rational system. I am most myself, and most uncomfortable, in the whirlwind with Job, in St. John of the Cross' Darkness which is truly Light too profound for us to experience with sight at all, with Homer's blind poet, singing the incomprehensibly beautiful dance of God.  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Beyond Being Stoic

"Epictetus, what should I do about those who have hurt me?"

If you could ask the great first-century AD Greek philosopher and former slave, he would perhaps tell you about his life, and that his limp came from a broken leg, a punishment whilst a slave. He would talk about being considered, by others, a worthless, less-than-human creature meant for the benefit of those who considered themselves better.

But he would tell you this not for sympathy, but because he wants you to understand that these things are outside himself, external to his happiness. He would tell you so that you understood clearly that he knew about hurt, about injustice, about the temptation to become vicious in return and that his knowledge was won through deep suffering: exile, physical pain, the injustice of being considered a child of a lesser god, confined and bought and sold like a horse.

And then he would tell you where real happiness lies, where your real life lays, out of reach from all who seek, unconsciously or consciously, to damage you.

Epictetus was a Stoic, one of those who were seeking, like the Buddha, a kind of enlightenment in a world of suffering. He would ask, "What can you control?"

The Stoic answer is that I can control my rational judgments, and my will: my volition, based on rational choice, is truly who I am. Anything outside that is beyond my control, and cannot truly hurt me; my mind and will cannot be enslaved, ever, unless I allow it. So if a tyrant or even a brother or sister in Christ seeks my life, takes away my goods, it is hard, but neither can take away who I really am. In this, I can choose, always, to respond virtuously. In this lies my dignity, my freedom, and my true happiness.

Socrates once said that it was always better to be the person suffering injustice than the person who is inflicting it. This seems like an upside-down statement; but if one looks from the perspective of the virtuous soul, the freedom of the mind and heart in a search for the Good, then the statement comes clear, like the view out a newly cleaned window. To be the person suffering injustice may mean that one is suffering from the vices and fears of others, but not the vices and fears of oneself. The most enslaved person is not the man in shackles on a ship heading somewhere far, but the man who is shackled by his own insecurities, fears, ego, and vices, the man who inflicts injustice on others: and the worst form is from those who think themselves the best minds, the best Christians, the most loving in their contempt and lack of understanding.

I was looking out the window the other day, thinking about Epictetus, the slave-turned-philosopher who sought 'excellence in volition' as the truest happiness, and I was thinking about the man in Paris who said, "You will not have my hate" and the events and people in my life who have hurt me, about the blindness that happens to us all when we think we know enough to make judgments on others from our own paltry, stale, stock of wisdom, human, egoist wisdom that has nothing of the humility and love of God in it. I thought about when I have been inflicting that injustice on others, when I have been the egotistical, clueless Pharisaical tyrant or terrorist in the lives of others.

As I looked out the window, I wished I could meet Epictetus, one of my heroes; yet our meeting would not be just a fan getting an autograph. I would challenge him with the vision I got, as I looked out my window, of what is beyond Stoicism. I saw the truth clearly that yes, all I can control is my own choice, my process of rational thought leading to action, and it made me realize not my strength but my utter dependence on my ability to see Reality, and that this was given--it was not mine, in a sense. It was made mine for a purpose that included Another; I saw that through the narrow, humble door of my rationality and will, that God was calling me to do more than refrain from response-terrorism or tyranny. I was to use that volition to rise above it and to do more than not give back hate: I was to rise above to God, and ask Him to fill me with His love, the selfless love, agape. This was Reality. I was to pray for my enemy, to wish good for him. I lived it for an instant-eternity. I experienced it, and so I know it is possible. I saw myself, in that moment, rising above what seemed like a waterfall, the waters of emotion rushing down, the desire for revenge and justice rushing down, and I was flying up over it, past the powerful turn of water, and into a horizon of limitless space, each molecule of air golden and full of God.

The narrow door of the Stoic was just that: a door and nothing more; perhaps it is a discipline of humility, like the door in Bethlehem leading to the site of the Nativity, where one has to lean way down to get through to the place where the ancient golden star lays on the floor, and the golden lamps come down, like tongues of fire descending, where one wants to leave all behind and lay on the floor, hoping for the touch of a tiny infant, across millenia, who holds the cosmos in his rationality and will, and is paradoxically an even more humble, yet infinitely greater, Door.

My vision was telling me the way to join His rationality, his will; not by leaving mine behind, but through my poor rationality and volition, to choose with what He gave me, Himself. And He who is absolutely free, and absolute, unconditional love, will give me wings to rise above the waterfall of revenge and dignified, resentful restraint to a place where I can, truly, love my enemy, and do good to him, though he may never know it in this life: because those who have done injustice to you will need your love to be truly whole and I will need the love of those I have hurt to be whole. And yes, to have the prohairesis, or will, or agency, of God's love no matter what happens is true freedom--and happiness, for my enemy no longer controls me, nor does he constrain me in the small place that is my volition. I am free if I use my will to do good, but I am a whole new creature if I love with God where it is hardest. I become one with the Light.

Does this mean there is no pursuit of justice between human beings?

Love, the selfless love of God which baptizes all the other loves, has the truest sight. When we selflessly love another, wish his or her good, we can see more clearly than when we are wrapped in a pursuit of justice that is based solely on the sight which only includes our own good; as the Orthodox teach with such profound depth, this selfish 'good' is not really a good, because we are not separated from each other like tight-wound atoms in the void: we are more like the cottonwoods here in Lander which appear as separate but are really part of the same tree. My sin is also your sin, my holiness yours, in a sense; like the proverbial ripples a stone makes in a pond, our actions affect, over eternity, the whole human family: this makes suffering for each other very real, very effective, very visceral. We are a family and no one sins in a vacuum.

The only true pursuit of justice is done with the eyes of selfless love, the eyes that looked out from under thorns, eyes that wept, forgave, bled and closed as a scapegoat in the eyes of others. Eyes that opened again in defiance of death to heal those who had failed them: Peter who had failed in love, was re-established in love by three questions in front of others; Thomas was disciplined and given a great mission also in front of the others.

We know ourselves, we know our virtue and vice, we know others, within community that Christ calls to be built on love, because it gives us an openness and humility required for true learning. The most painful, destructive thing in a Christian community is the fearful one, the egoist, who cannot see others except perhaps as "one of those threats" or as iterations of his own narrative.

We can only be healed of our injustices and vices if we allow ourselves to be truly known and to know. This requires the love of God; it is beyond us. Only then will real justice happen. The sophists, the isolationists, the egoists, the prideful, the scapegoaters can do none of this, for these all stem from fear and pride. And the worst, worst of all, is what Fr. Zossima warns Alexei of in The Brothers Karamazov: "Be most wary of the lie to yourself." Be most wary of thinking you are pious, or holy, or a guru, or better than others. You become more blind than all others, because who can heal the blindness that is self-imposed?

Thus, justice in the world is often a chimera, a far-flung dream that we keep looking for, and it will not be fully realized until each of us dies in the sense of realizing that all we have is our own rationality and volition, and that  any true sight, and connection with reality, comes through the laying down of oneself and one's perceptions at the feet of God, who asks us to, simply, love our enemy.

Only then will we have justice; and from justice, flows peace.

Monday, November 02, 2015

A Christian Rehabilitation of Lucretius

Lucretius, the Roman poet-philosopher, died in the late 50s B.C., though his life dates are somewhat uncertain. Nevertheless, he lived and died in the great upheaval and overthrow of the Roman Republic; he thought and wrote in the same period as the great Cicero, Cato the Younger, and was an older man when Caesar was killed, or died just before the final death-throes of Caesar and ironically, the Republic which was ultimately done to death both by Caesar and his assassins, who only succeeded in providing space for Octavian and Antony. Lucretius probably knew that both Cato and Cicero were, in effect, killed by the strife and the radical loss of their highest ideals; he knew that Mars, the god of war, seemed to continually hold sway over Venus, the goddess of love.

Yet Lucretius, in an age when politics was the philosopher's most noble calling, spent his life-blood on philosophical poetry, and though he lamented over the strife he lived with in Rome, he focused not on these politics but on what he saw as the cure for war and strife: the freedom from the ultimate fear of death, the freedom from religio, or that which 'binds' the spirit (from which we get 'religion'), and the freedom for understanding reasonably the causes of all things. In other words, Lucretius thought that his master, the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived in the 4th-3rd centuries B.C., had journeyed farthest into the greatness of nature to find the answers; however, it was not a physical journey, though Epicurus was a radical materialist. It was a journey, like the other Greek philosophical pioneers, of the mind, the reason. How could a single human reason know the ultimate causes?

The Ancient Greeks, from the Ionian Presocratics on, believed in a cosmos that was ordered and knowable. The mystery and unsearchable nature of the gods and fate that marked earlier centuries gave way, slowly, to a belief in human reason as a means for finding truth, and ultimately, causes: the reasons for and the sources of, everything. This would allow human beings to create order in themselves and their community based on predictable reasons, not on a variety of conflicting, arbitrary, impetuous wills found in nature and personified as gods. Socrates died for this new belief, and like a martyr, his life and death sparked a kind of revolution, of which Epicurus was a part, though his ideas are not Socratic or Platonic, or even Aristotelian. The similarity between Epicurus, and therefore Lucretius, and the other Greek philosophers is two-fold: the belief in a knowable, ordered cosmos, and the fact that this order also includes human reason, like a great machine. Human reason held a special place for all of them, because they believed in an unprecedented way, that human reason could ascertain the whole machine and not just the parts that mattered for human survival. It was a faculty that is best expressed for Christians as God-like, as like a Being who can understand the purpose, the workings of a universe as a whole and the meaning behind it all.

Epicurus specifically thought the whole was an order of atoms, seeds which produced through movement, everything else. Everything is reduced to this cause: the movement and interaction of atoms. Thus, for him the material world is all there is, and thus everything dissolves back into these basic elements. There is no frightening half-life of Achilles, as we see in Homer, no judgment, no eternal punishment or reward. There is only this life. Epicurus and Lucretius after him thought that this would annihilate the basic source of fear for the human being: the fear of death. Without this fear, man could learn to live tranquilly in a balanced way, and by knowing the causes of everything in the movement of atoms, he could learn to live with order, not against it. This would produce peace; this was love; this was happiness: and most importantly, it was reasonable to assert that peace and order was attainable through human effort.

What about free will? Free will was produced by the random swerve of certain atoms; this would change what would otherwise be determined patterns; this swerve produced a kind of creativity in the basic elements of life and yet also made way for disorder in people and nature.

Epicurus and Lucretius believed that 'nothing comes from nothing' and that atoms have always existed, and that the universe is infinite and eternal. The senses are the only source of knowledge,and all thought, the soul, everything, is made of material in the form of atoms.

In the end, many people decide Lucretius and his master, Epicurus, are among the first atheistic materialists, and that especially Lucretius is anti-religious. Hundreds of years later, St. Jerome spent time attacking the doctrines contained in Lucretius and many religious people have done the same through the ensuing centuries.

Is Lucretius, especially, and his Epicureanism, a threat to Christianity, an anti-religious philosopher? Is he worth reading?

Let Lucretius speak in his 'heroic hexameter':

And there shall come the time when even thou,
Forced by the soothsayer's terror-tales, shalt seek
To break from us. Ah, many a dream even now
Can they concoct to rout thy plans of life,
And trouble all thy fortunes with base fears.
I own with reason: for, if men but knew
Some fixed end to ills, they would be strong
By some device unconquered to withstand
Religions and the menacings of seers. 

It is important to note when Lucretius is writing: Pre-Christianity, and without much knowledge of the Jews and their profound revelations from 'the law-giving and reasonable One who created the Whole.' It is also important to note the history and character of the religions he, and Epicurus actually knew: Lucretius, as his primary example of 'religion' uses Agamemnon's infamous sacrifice of his own daughter to gain the prevailing winds he needed to embark on a revenge war against Troy. Iphigenia's death on an altar to Diana seems to illustrate for Lucretius the hold that fear and superstition wielded on the human spirit, the deadening irrationality that the arbitrary, conflicting wills of mysterious forces engendered for whole societies. Agamemnon's crime, as the primary example, shows that Lucretius thought it an underlying temptation, outcome, principle of all pagan religion. And indeed the scapegoating is inherent. How could Lucretius know and expect that all sacrifice, in its true form, points to God who gives of Himself and saves? How could he know that God could undo all scapegoating, all Iphigenias, by becoming the scapegoat Himself?

In pointing out the pernicious, untrue, evil nature of purely pagan scapegoating and sacrifice, Epicurus, like Socrates and Aristotle and Plato, was right. Lucretius was right. Again, Lucretius uses the Latin word religio for 'religion' and this word meant, basically, 'to bind.' Lucretius rightly thought of pagan faiths as a 'binding' of the human spirit, human reason. Superstition not only feeds on fear, but it can be used by soothsayers and politicos for their own ends: either way, it is a terrible form of injustice and binds the ability to use reason well. One cannot understand the causes of things if one is held in the dark by untrue mythology and fears of displeasing arbitrary gods who are also seeking their own ends, sometimes against each other. How can one find truth when drowning in untruth?

Epicurus and Lucretius saw rightly that there was a knowable order, and that there were basic elements that transcended the entire universe and behaved in a logical and beautiful (orderly) way. Lucretius again:

Moreover, why should Nature not prepare 
Men of a bulk to ford the seas afoot,
Or rend the mighty mountains with their hands,
Or conquer Time with length of days, if not
Because for all begotten things abides
The changeless stuff, and what from that may spring
Is fixed forevermore? 

What did Lucretius get wrong? First, that unaided human reason is prone to hubris, and needs grace to see the whole correctly. Lucretius points out this fallibility as a 'problem with perception' but does not, ironically, reason it out to the logical ends: therefore, how could he, or Epicurus, expect to know that there is nothing beyond the atoms? Could this not be a problem with perception? This is where the pagans, in reserving a place for mystery, were right.

But there is an excuse for Lucretius: He could not, without revelation, understand that there could be both an apparently infinite (immense beyond all human conception) natural order and a divine Creator who was outside His creation. The idea of true transcendence was not well-understood, or even understood at all, among the Greeks, Romans, and even, it is said, by many of the Jewish teachers. This revelation flowered and became more clearly understood after the Incarnation. For most of the ancient world, up until Christianity, the idea of a God completely outside and beyond and Other than the cosmos was simply un-thought-of, except perhaps in a very few, and shadowy, exceptions, like almost hints, or logical but unsaid implications of Plato's more mystical thought, or in the slowly unfolding revelations of God about Himself in Jewish history.

So, Lucretius must be read in the context of his time and ability (unaided human reason). If read this way, he becomes a philosophical poet who critiqued the ravages of pagan religion and attempted to introduce Epicurus' rational solution for mankind. His aim was to get rid of fear, and thus to get rid of war, and strife, and to promote love and concord. He becomes best read when one understands that he loved the human spirit and the reason that engendered greatness and balance and tranquility, and accepted reality as a benevolent and ordered and beautiful, unified life. 

But again, what's wrong with his thought? At a basic level, though he looked to an infinite universe and the dance of the stars made with the same dust as the human body, he was not able to see far enough. Without the revelation that was Christ, he could not see how the dust of the Creation might be joined with the immortal and transcendent. In his quest to allay fear, he shrunk the soul to a conglomeration of 'light atoms' and relegated it to dissolution, though death was not annihilation, but a transfer of life to another beautiful configuration, like a planet, a star, a tree, a rock. For him, everything was life---and yet because there is no immortality, no eternal telos for human souls and human actions, there is nothing but revolving entropy: death, in a sense. Nothing, for him, was created from nothing, so everything is re-cycled. It brings the profound disappointment in the spirit one feels at the end of Contact or Interstellar. These films are good experiences of  the ramifications of re-cycled Epicureanism. 

This way of thinking, of course has tremendous consequences for everything: moral action, thought, love, rationality. 

Christians believe the opposite: Everything is created from, in the first cause, nothing. This directly implies a First Mover, but a First Mover not like Aristotle's, which was unknowable and within creation. The Christian First Mover is outside, beyond, Other. He is also a Person, a Society of Persons, and thus knowable in a sense of being capable of direct relationship with us and Himself. These facts are, I think, impossible to gain from human sense and reason alone, though what comes to us through Nature makes sense with this knowledge, is given by it its proper place and shows an order of Love primarily. This is because creating something from nothing means that what is created did not have to exist, or did not exist, simply, infinitely and eternally. The creation thus was wanted, and planned, and desired. Because it is, from its conception, in relationship with a Creator who wanted it, it is also about love. Because it was wanted, and planned by a loving Creator, it has purpose. It is less like a machine and more like a living, eternal love-story, a family. Judgment is real, because we matter, and we have free-will not from the cause of atoms swerving, but because it means we can love. We choose to love Reality, which is sourced in God, which is God, or to love our own perceptions more. This is heaven and hell. 

Thus, Lucretius was alive to the beauty and order that he could see; he wanted to allay fear, which he rightly saw as an evil, and the opposite of love and life; he rightly saw that the pagan religions bound people in darkness, and that reason and the reason's ability to see the whole order of the cosmos was essential and part of human nature. Thus, as a pre-Christian, I find Lucretius and also Epicurus to be admirable, and possibly heroic truth-seekers: mistaken, and possibly unnaturally closed off through fears of their own, and resentment of the abuses of religion, but with a little more excuse for not seeing the fingerprint of God, which was placed in them by virtue of being in the image of God. I can excuse them because of original sin and a history without knowledge of Sinai or Bethlehem and Golgotha.

However, I do not find modern materialists as admirable truth-seekers. Why? For the very reason that they are post-Christ. Materialism now seems a flight from God, though how much do Christians have to answer for this flight? If we had all been better, if the Wars of Religion, if Henry VIII's self-absorption and Luther's scrupulosity, if the Borgia popes had all rather been Catherine of Sienas and St. Louis-Kings and St. John of the Crosses, and if in our own time the millions of potential saints had not been killed before birth, would the materialists be here yet again?

There is nothing new under the sun. But as limited and mistaken as the materialist Lucretius is, he is a valuable resource not only for beautiful poetry, but an effective teacher of the abilities and the limitations of unaided human reason. 

Saturday, September 05, 2015

A Letter to Tim

My dear brother,

All these years, I have carried my encounters with you in the center of my being: pale light falling on your face in San Francisco General Hospital's cafeteria; the redness of your cheeks and nose with their pockmarks, signs to me of what your battle-scarred heart looked like; the watering of your pale blue eyes that was sometimes from the heart and sometimes from the body struggling; the mellow, quiet tones of your voice; your hands gently moving the salt and pepper shakers around, first having made them symbols of the people I loved, your reaching into my pain so expertly because you knew to first let me into yours.

Tim, I don't know where you are now. I can't feel if you are still alive, but I think I can feel your soul still, because you were part of my re-birth back into life. A part of you at least, lives: You are: in me. I hope and pray that means you are alive in God, wherever you are. I hope you are somewhere safe.

You were so alive then, though I don't think you really knew this; you felt, I think, like an anorexic trying on clothes alone in a department store full of over-life-size pictures of anorexic models. You thought you were obese and unwanted, but you were so, so much more than that narrow slice of your existence.

You spoke to me about the world of the gay man, that kaleidoscope of sex, bars, bathhouses; the long days at the chaplaincy where hurt and saddened and angry friends and lovers gathered in the AIDS ward on the fourth floor and watched each other burn to death, slowly, and disintegrate. Most of them looked at me across the table with hard eyes like diamonds, flashing the question: Why are you here? I must have looked like a naive pain-voyeur to many of them.

Your eyes were never diamonds; they were great pools of dark water, with lights deep in the center. You lived in that world, but as a person who deeply wanted to be loved. You wanted permanence, because you had a permanent heart open to others: you wanted real love because you really loved--even a rich girl from Santa Barbara, a sheltered girl. I know I looked like a person for whom there was no excuse for wounding; I was straight in a straight world; I was pretty, I was educated, I was in San Francisco on an internship in the attitude one would have at space camp.

You, though, looked past the appearances in me, though you could not in your own case. You saw the ugly wounds in me through the pretty veneer, but you knew, in your world, that no one was seeing past your ugly veneer into the beauty that you were. You told me that you were too ugly to find love.

And Tim, you were physically ugly. You reminded me of the Walrus in Lewis Carroll's poem; your large movements were bumbling and awkward; but, Tim, you didn't see yourself meta-morph from a catapillar when you were exercising the great gift God gave you, when you sat across from me in that horrible cafeteria, that place full of the pain of those who must feed themselves while those they love suffer away in little white rooms above or below. Tim, when you were allowed to exercise your gift of counsel, your skin turned inside out and revealed the beauty within, and made the cafeteria into a cathedral. When I think of you now, after almost thirty years, I think of light shining through water. You lived always in "I-Thou" mode and this was also the source of your pain. How could you be honest, be yourself, exercise your gifts, when that self was partly bound up with a kind of chimera that promised love but really had nothing to do with it, when that self had the deepest, hardest cross possible for a human being?

I did not understand then what 'gay' really was--I knew the fundamentals, but it was a phenomenon 'out there.'  I didn't think of 'gay people' as individuals, and then I came to San Francisco General Hospital to assist the chaplaincy. I was an assistant counselor and I went into patients' rooms, all kinds, and offered my heart, my ear, my assistance in the smallest of things. I was an advocate, a counselor, a spiritual sewer pipe.

After visits with the suffering, most truly poor people I have ever met, I would, exhausted, overwhelmed by my own inadequacy to face the tsunamis of pain and disorder and confusion, crawl behind the altar in the hospital chapel and lay on the floor, weeping. I thought the tears might send it all to God, and that He'd pay attention because I was a too-small sewer pipe for Him.

Tim, you were somehow assigned to me; perhaps you saw me crawling into the chapel one day. But you took me under your wing and met with me often to help me learn how to be a sewer pipe without drowning in the tsunami of waste. You introduced me to the concept of the wounded healer, who is--all healers, following the example of Christ healing from the Cross. You didn't tell me about; it,somehow, you were a walking liturgy for me, a living drama. You see, Tim, I listened to your words and read the Henri Nouwen book you gave me, but what really went into my soul was who you were--this tremendously beautiful man who was searching in the dustbins for real food.

What would have happened in your life had you been told, shown, loved into knowing the beauty that you really were, had you understood that the sin was not your identity, that the overwhelming percentage of you was beautiful? What would have happened had you understood that the hurt within your very being had somehow made you one of the most powerful wounded healers I have ever known? That you were in one sense, a walking miracle? What if you had really understood that the chaste life is a kind of radical pruning that cuts away anything purely natural, anything self-absorbed, and gives you the choice that makes you free, makes you a saint? It is the choice that happens when all that is left is the will, without any dross-attraction to lower things, to creatures, and asks us to love without return, without ego, without consolation...and then, oh Tim, the glorious turn: storge, philia, even eros, yes, the eros you thought was what you needed from a man, sheds its caterpillar skin, is pruned away, and shows itself for what it truly could be, is: the Eternal Youth, the source of springs, leaping down like a golden lion from the high mountains to both kill you and embrace you, and transform you, making you through your hard-won chastity a power-house of love, shooting out across the desert plain like water first pressed through a narrow pipe.

Did you, though, Tim, in your great wounding of always being a kind of outcast, a pariah, a warped tree, did you truly have it in you to make that great saint-choice? Were you rather determined by your very real internal perceptions and feelings and identity, no matter how it came about?

Did I have that choice then? I was selfish, green, spoiled, in love with my own feelings. We sat there, in that pale, weak city day-light, past lunchtime in an empty cafeteria, loving each other, fellow mis-guided believers, in small trickles and great rushes, but without answers. The most important answer you gave me, an answer that only flowered later like a cornflower in the high desert, was that sometimes the desire to be truly loving is not enough, though it is essential. It is the larger piece of the puzzle of what it means to be truly happy, to be truly good, to finally live and be supernatural love, in God.

The other, missing piece was the recognition of God who is both Love and Truth, Beauty and Woundedness, Justice and Mercy, the recognition of Reality rising like the great mountains of Afghanistan, rising like a great cathedral beyond the changing, deciduous aspens and the sulfur-blue lakes and green fields of the Kabul valleys of my infancy.

Did you, or I, have that view? Even if we saw glimpses of the mountains through the driving rain of our needs and wounds and bad choices, did we have the strength to reach even the foothills, or to understand the mountains' relationship with the merciful valleys? Had anyone taught us? Did our needs, our fears, our weaknesses, make us think we had no choice: I in my selfishness, you weeping in your dust-bins?

Partly because of the light I saw in you, Tim, amidst the darkness, hope was born in me--hope that a God who would make such beauty that still lived, that would deign to live in the rubbish heap that was both our souls, would, somehow also be merciful enough to show us the way if we desired it.

Now, it is thirty years away for me. For you, it may be the eternal present, or you may be an old man now. I have learned, Tim, more about those mountains--I have climbed some of them and have stood in the crystal air above the mists; I have seen the beauty of the valleys from the heights, and sometimes I can begin to see how they need each other, justice and mercy, truth and love, and how our very woundedness allows us to see their connection, if our hearts are desiring One above all else. I know now, Tim, that the pure of heart, the chaste hearts, see God, those who desire Him above all things, and that they are set free to love beyond the disorders, the woundedness, the tsunamis of waste that come from us all.

I have also fallen down deep crevasses, Tim. I have become hard, I have forgotten about the ever-crawling worm of pride within me; I have forgot that my ropes are not strong enough and that we must not trust to them but rather let go and fly like eagles on God's wind, a wind that takes us down to the valleys, and back to the mountains while we wait for the time that "justice and mercy shall kiss" within ourselves, and in the tortured human story of this world.

Tim, I wish at the last that you could have seen how God saw you. Maybe, if you have died, you do see it. I pray always, then, that at the moment of your meeting with God that you were able to drop yourself and run, fly, to Him for his mercy and because, finally, you understood the great eros in His justice.

Tim, if you found final forgiveness and are now on the heights planting aspens, be again my mentor.

With you in Christ on the Cross,