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 Plato is right. However, I would ask him, "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, 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, 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,


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ode to Chaucer's Prologue

When the eros of nature swirls like sweet liquour
in the mouth of the poet,
when the West Wind has taken his psyche,
then the desire of nature, Venus,
is at seeming odds with
all that Beckett stood for.
Yet the longing of the folk to go on pilgrimage,
that human longing, ambiguous and imperfect
is a two-fold bridge-longing,
because within the divine purpose that contains them both,
these enemies Venus and St. Thomas-saint, warring nature and super-nature,
become instead fruitful polarities.

*indebted to the ideas of Arthur W. Hoffman

Monday, July 06, 2015


The ships at Aulis lie like beached, dying seals,
blackened hulls heaving in heat-waves,
tar the smell of rotting flesh, slicing through
the wafts of salt, nutty shore reeds, and baked marble.

Men scream, chant, bellow, their faces
in the night by torchlight living choral masks;
Agamemnon paces full-armored,
his helm-mask overlayed by a single sheet of gold:
a pantomine of gods, frozen in the expression
of a lion looking up from his kill.

The kings of a thousand men planted in a circle,
tortured by, married to a golden god-doll
shimmering in the haze above the sea;
Helen in Priam's Troy made them thirst beyond
all water, their inner law enslaved to the huntress.

Iphigenia travels towards Aulis in a marriage train, deceived;
she is to be married to the knife, to the dream of chasing a harlot;
she is to lose her maidenhead to the lust of an army
and a pantheon of demons destroying their toy-men
in a game of balance.

Hellas, are you Agamemnon, lusting to be Troy?
Hellas, are you the people screaming in the torchlight outside the megaron?
Hellas, are you Iphigenia, scapegoat?
Hellas, what have you done?

Have you left your early morning olive trees,
your marbled hillsides,
the simple cries of crickets,
the careful meditation of smoothing white cheese,
the joy and leisure of hearth and philosophy
to chase Helen, to die at Troy,
to placate the irrational, faceless, cruel gods?
Have you forgot those gods are cruel,
those gods of gold are the gods without law are the gods
smelling with delight the odors of the funeral games,
the games that are playing now on screens everywhere?

I see Agamemnon in his armor, a blue suit;
I see the kings of a thousand circled around him;
I see the people screaming, bellowing in the torchlight
outside the Zappion and the Parliament;
I see the gods of finance softly speaking about sacrifice.

And I see, her, Iphigenia, throat sliced open,
in the faces of the old, the simple, the poor,
and the children who have lost their patrimony:
their cathedrals of beauty, their shards of pottery for voting,
their innocence and joy.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Diagram in the Dust

St. Augustine confessed, "Scarce
understanding came even with many learned masters not merely lecturing,
but making many diagrams in the dust."

Only four hundred years after Christ,
this drawing diagrams in the dust must
have been custom:
if modeling, mashals, exhortations, lessons
did not sink in, did not convert overtly,
then the master kneeling
in a last resort to draw a picture, meaning
that truly the truth had escaped,
bounced off
a blindness, an ignorance too rooted to be easily uprooted.

What diagrammed drawing
the stones
the Pharisees fade in shame?

For the Jews, words were signs, multi-leveled,
not these banalized, horizontal, shallow things
floating in unreal space, lighter and more meaningless
than clouds shaping and re-shaping with the wind;
the word
could have been both word
and diagram,
a perfect Euclidean sphere-word
bearing eternal perfection,
a real child of the

The One in the flesh leapt
the myths, histories, laws, schools, masters:
He made a diagram in the dust;
perhaps something so simple,
that all not united with it faded into mere chaos.

Being Himself in the flesh drawing a diagram
for a bit of marred flesh
as only the artist can judge the painting before the paint,
as only the writer knows
the character before the story was written.