Weekly Miscellany I

Introduction and disclaimer to the series: Weekly Miscellany

In the spirit of the title of this blog, I intend to use the space afforded me as a kind of sanctuary for unhurried meditations which I will post weekly. These meditations may be short or lengthy depending on the week. They will probably not be very organized, most of the time, and may vacillate between incoherence and simplicity. They will not be driven by argument or trying to prove a point; if anyone would wish to raise questions or disagreements in the comments, I will read and gladly respond, but probably not allow myself to be sucked into debate, because this is intended to embody a slow process of learning and fermenting ideas, and I do not have time or energy for too much debate too often. This is merely an externalization of internal thought processes, as well as an eclectic chronicle of weekly aesthetic and intellectual stimuli. I am hopeful that this will force me to express my thoughts more often by lifting from my conscience the compulsion for everything to be perfectly ordered and lucid, as well as make explicit and preserve to me some of the jumble of connections that form a part of transient life experience. Whether or not anyone chooses to read occasionally or frequently is extraneous, though there might be coincidental benefit through exposing the reader to ideas or associations not previously within his or her scope of experience.

Christ have mercy upon us.

Weekly Miscellany I,

November 4-10, 2013

Key scriptures under contemplation

Exodus 12-14

The basic Christological significance of the Passover lamb is so obvious and so well known that I will not attempt to elaborate on it here. However, I would like to briefly expand this typological scope to other aspects of the story, to the ransom pattern visible. When the Israelites leave, they have plundered the treasures of Egypt, as Christ plundered the treasures of death, and they bring Joseph’s bones, for Christ has redeemed the dead and the living. Moreover, the firstborn, specially redeemed from death by blood, are now consecrated to God; they have not been merely “set free,” but they are bound and made holy. The descent to death has resulted in a glorious arising; the dying of the seed has yielded rich harvest.

Hans Urs von Balthasar equates orthopraxy with “theo-drama,” in which we are each called to play a unique part, but also one that follows the basic typological structure of redemption: “Death turns into life, and this is something that also takes place in our hearts so that, drawn into the action, they can look toward that center in which all things are transformed” (16-17). There is a certain narrative structure of descent and arising that characterizes redemption; it is the arc between creation and deification, between the activity of God and the union of the divine and the created, mediated most fully in the Godman, Christ, and consequently by the God-imaged priesthood of man. The destructive forces unleashed by Adam on the world are themselves destroyed in death, in the death of baptism, in the daily dying to self that takes place in regenerate man, and finally in the physical death that brings renewal.

Readings

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, I. Prolegomena (1973)

John Behr, lecture, “Death: The Final Frontier”

Found this on YouTube. Fr John Behr is a major Orthodox theologian, and he has a lot of really interesting points that transcend his particular branch of the faith. Have patience—he starts a very low level and gradually works up to several points of profundity about the nature of death and the work of Christ.

John R. Breck, “Allegory: Exegetical Method or Spiritual Vision?” FINISHED

An interesting introduction to allegory and typology in Patristic theology. (http://johnrbreck.com/allegory-exegetical-method-or-spiritual-vision)

John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (1980)

Andrew Louth, lecture series, “Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Personal Introduction” (2011)

This is a good, accessible introduction to the ground of Orthodox theology, but it is basic enough that it has a lot of applicability to broadly Christian theological tradition. Recommended. (http://avowofconversation.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/orthodox-theology-a-personal-introduction/)

Igor Sikorsky, “The Invisible Encounter: A Plea For Spiritual Rather Than Material Power as the Great Need of Our Day” (1947) FINISHED

Also free online. The famous Russian-American aviation engineer uses the temptation of Christ as an analogy for the plight of the contemporary western world. I skimmed through this pretty quickly; a product of post-war fears about totalitarianism and the direction of the world, it is interesting and occasionally insightful (I basically agree with his argument that personalism and spirituality are necessary for a healthy society), but Sikorsky is no great writer or theologian. Sikorsky has another book based on the Lord’s Prayer that I may pick up sometime.

Discussion

I’ve been pondering that quote from G. K. Chesterton criticizing certain moral philosophers for becoming so used to seeing shades of gray that they are unable to distinguish between black and white. This speaks truly to apprehension of life in general; everything really exists in relationship and degree, and although you can pick apart perceived points of intersection, at a certain level one must realize the continuity of all things. Unlike the postmoderns, however, as Christians we must continue to assert that there are in fact valid distinctions, both within the mental-organizing framework, and also without—realities that exist concretely beyond human imposition and construction, ones that cannot be either uncritically assumed or dismissed. In morality, we must assert that there are such absolute categories as right and wrong, despite the ambiguous plain lying between the two. We must, while admitting complexity and fluidity, realize that making distinctions within an undifferentiated mass is a necessary human activity, lest we confuse black for white and white for black and so go blithely to our own destruction. The mystery of human understanding relies both on receptive communion with “messy” reality and the activity of our ordering faculties.

I am two chapters or so into Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid; much of the mathematical stuff, however dumbed-down, is still above my head, but I’m picking up more and more of it as the author carries me along in interesting stories and mind-problems. The idea of “strange loops” is probably the most important concept of what I’ve read so far, but I was also led to contemplate his point about “jumping out of the system.” Hofstadter notes prior to this section that machines, unlike people, are capable of being totally unobservant—completely unaware of what they are doing or able to infer pattern. People, on the other hand, are capable of stepping away from the immediate task and observing, of noticing patterns and relationships. He uses the example of a man reading a book who, upon growing sleepy, simply “exits” the system of the book; he also describes a person (Person A) watching television, for whom exiting the system might mean changing channel, whereas Person B would transcend/exit even that system by turning the TV off. As he notes, our lives are made up of a vast network of interrelated (and sometimes contradictory) systems, and we stand in a variety of places (in or out or in-between) relative to those systems; nevertheless, in order to make observations about a system, one must to a certain extent stand outside of it, i.e., in a new system, thus guaranteeing that we will never be free from construct. The “bottomlessness” of logical systems is thus revealed; if pushed absolutely consistent with its internal system, Euclidean logic results in an endless string of propositions, each dependent on the provability of its hypothetical, ad infinitum. I think this is where Gödel’s incompleteness theorem is manifest, but I’m not entirely sure yet, because it’s difficult for me to understand.

This is relevant to epistemology and life in general, of course. I’ve previously been aware of the problems of potentially infinite self-consciousness, which is acutely problematic when trying to dissect one’s motives. Are one’s motives pure or is one doing a good thing out of pride and self-aggrandizement? Is one analyzing one’s motives or admitting one’s pride out of piety or the desire to impress? Is one then critiquing this analysis because one is self-centered and prideful or because one is actually humble and self-giving? Etc. You will never through this way get to observing the real self. You simply by definition cannot stand above yourself any more than you can stand outside a system. And that should be acceptable. It is a limitation, but a good and necessary one. There is a real sense in which direct experience, however filtered through a system, presents truths that cannot be gained by or translated through detached consideration.

Yet again I return to this whole idea of “escaping the system.” As we grow aware of the systems in which our minds are imprisoned (or located, to put it more favorably), we are allowed to step out of these systems. A simple example would be language; language shapes our thinking, and exposure to new languages makes us realize how much this is so, and allows us to explore new ways of ordering that were previously inaccessible. All of the humanities (at least) value this ability; for me, as a historian, it usually boils down to “narratives,” realizing that all narratives are causal descriptions contingent on limited human experience, that beginning and end are artificial delimiters, that there are many ways to organize data that do not necessarily exclude the usefulness of one another. This is liberating, for it allows us to step intellectually outside culturally-ingrained myths and look at alternate ways to organize data, ways which may be truer and more complete (though never absolute). For the arts this may be even more true, as the emphasis is even less on absolute knowing and more on communication of experience, which manifests most truly, not in rational, abstract arguments, but as pieces of the eclectic and diverse network of connections that make up genuine human interaction with the world.

Too many people are caught in one or the other fallacy: either that a given assumed system is clearly and unproblematically analogous to the nature of reality, or that they are capable of escaping all such systems for a place of neutrality. From what I have read, this is a particularly acute modern dilemma, where our understanding of knowledge and selfhood has been shaped by the optimistic rationalism that says we can know all and absolutely. Wendell Berry’s solution is to look not to data points for guidance, but to holistic life patterns, which then mold character inwardly and culture outwardly, without the presumption of hyperrationalism. The interest is in finding and maintaining the healthiest systems, ones that “fit” organically with experience of the world, rather than escaping all systems. In order for escaping the system to be more than mere intellectual exercise, it must be in order to settle into systems of harmony, where one is at peace not only with the earth and humanity, but with the fact of incomplete knowledge. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” We cannot live without these systems, but how shall we find rightness, truth—or discern that such things exist—if we are incapable of removing ourselves to loci of objective evaluation? Berry suggests receptive communion, participation in internal and external systems of harmony, will show the way: finding patterns in simple, whole experience. Perhaps this supports the idea that there is something inherently aesthetic about truth.

* * *

Monday in the library, Mr. Farrar and I discussed the idea of “right worship.” I commented on the fact that although some forms of worship clearly feel to me “right” or “whole” and others very “wrong” or “lacking,” it seemed difficult to criticize anyone else’s form of worship when that is what they claim works for them. Part of the difficulty is over terminology; we don’t have a clear, universal idea today what worship means, beyond its most basic element: that it involves focusing on God. In a real sense, all parts of life, all actions, should be worship, or consecrated activity. But there is also clearly a place for worship that involves discrete, focused, corporate participation in forms. What, then, are the right forms? Mr. Farrar’s comments to me were helpful. He pointed out that all worship, however unscheduled or pneumatic, is ultimately dependent on a kind of liturgy, or pattern of forms. The question then becomes whether anything is lacking or wrong with these forms—such as contrition. I had commented that I increasingly appreciated liturgical services because of their very completeness, because they constantly affirm scripture and true belief and one’s purpose and aim in worship, not to mention providing the holy gift of the Eucharist, rather than depending on vacuous phrases, dry sermonizing, and/or emotionally-hyped environment to offer one a brief, noisy “God time.” The fullest corporate worship, regardless of arguments over the merits of this or that peculiar form (such as whether there must be a formal liturgy), is participation in repentance, absolution, laudation, affirmation, contemplation, and finally mystical experience of a Divine imminence. Where worship falls short, for instance by severing content from form (as in consumer churches) or by shrouding truth in petty obsessions, we may offer a gentle but just critique.

I was struck recently by a statement from Fr Pavel Florensky’s Pillar and Ground of Truth which noted when dealing with the life of the church, the “most appropriate concepts” are biological (life) and aesthetic (beauty) rather than juridical and archaeological. One could easily pass over this sentence if it did not highlight, for me, what I see as a distinction between Protestant and sacramental (especially Eastern and Patristic) theology. Modern post-scholastic and Protestant theology tends to deal in systems of theology based primarily on juridical distinctions (notably justification) and on historical-literal forms of exegesis, which is not necessarily wrong, but may not be as direct, as immediate, as raw as the glorious ontological vision embodied in sacramental theology—theology that concerns itself primarily with life and beauty manifested in relationships Divine and human, theology than can be experienced rather than merely subject to speculation. It is about truly seeing the mystery rather than deconstructing it. Despite affirming the ultimate incomprehensibility of God, it is principally theocentric rather than anthropological or soteriological. Organic relationships surrounding the axial truth of Christ—shall I again introduce that word “aesthetic”?—precede issues of minute proof-texting or “data-point” theology, which tend to flatten the Bible and turn it into a document of scientific coherency, which it was never intended to be.

***

Tuesday I spent over an hour in Greenwood Cemetery. It was a beautiful clear day, and for a while I sat under what Kirsten calls a popcorn tree (a Chinese tallow), watching the orange leaves blow among the white stones. My wedding is coming up soon, and my twenty-third birthday after that. I am still very young, even when faced against this cemetery of but a couple centuries. Moments go quickly, like lives, like humankind before the universe, and one wonders if anything could be cosmically different when our race fades and the world tumbles into a great unconscious silence—will we merely have redistributed some of the dust on earth’s surface? Or is not this little bit of dust—these gravestones, these lives—meaningful in the most profound eschatological sense, wholly disproportionate to its mass in the universe due to the imprint of the Divine image? If we are the priests of the world, shall not our offerings be holy to God forever?

Doves flew up from the crape myrtles when we came near. If I ever go back to Israel (I have been thinking much of going back to Israel this week), I shall try to notice the trees and stones more, for what they are in the moment rather than merely what they were once. If I ever go back to Oregon, where I was born, I must take time to see its richness anew, for itself and not merely as the context of my earliest years. If I ever come back to this cemetery, I must know it by loving it. Graveyards are sacred, as All Hallow’s Eve reminds us.

That evening I went to Belhaven’s orchestra concert, which presented pieces by Wagner, Beethoven, student composer Libby Roberts, and another classical figure whose name I’ve forgotten. It was beautifully done, of course, but given the amount of thinking and reading I’ve been doing on aesthetics, I was led to ponder anew my typical response to such concerts. When a student, I attended artistic productions faithfully. I went (usually for free via the queue line) to every major concert and many smaller ones and recitals; during concert season I’d not infrequently go to the Center for the Arts two or three evenings a week. I attended every theater production as well, at least once, and almost every dance performance. I enjoyed many of them, but I often felt a certain amount of intransigent detachment. I came to appreciate music and theater and dance such that I could distinguish bad from good, sophisticated from simple, but I was almost never “moved,” and I wanted to be aesthetically “moved.” Sometimes I think the reason I am so interested in aesthetics is because I feel I am cut off from a part of ordinary human experience I wish deeply to access. That is probably why I settled into writing while I did not have the patience for music (though I practiced piano regularly for 12 years and violin for 4); at some level I got words. I loved to manipulate them and build sentences and narratives and study etymology and engage in inference. I did not, I admit, have the patience either for poetry, most of the time. I was too eager to explore relationships and networks thoroughly rather than imply them as sparely as poetry demands. And perhaps, in consequence, my love of words is not as purely aesthetic as appreciation of some of the arts must be (not that words and literature anyway are as raw in their sensory impact). I hope that I shall make strides in visual art in particular as I grow in understanding, and break through by theory or exposure, but so far there is a disconnect between my ability to understand the theoretical nature of art and my ability to be in any way satisfied aesthetically by my encounters with art. Or am I so obsessed because I see clear parallels in my spiritual life?

John Dewey’s Art as Experience has been helpful to me, as he argues that art is rooted in ordinary aesthetic experience. Art, which refines that experience, unifies our sensual lives and our inward selves—rather than something wholly transcendent, it in fact finds its basis in everyday commerce with the world, in a “harmony” (this resonates with Wendell Berry). Art also therefore becomes the glue of civilization and shared processing of experience. At one point he states that the moralist, suspicious of “sensuousness,” has in one respect a better perception of the aesthetic than the psychologist or philosopher, for he realizes that sensory experience is not merely “data points” which comprise knowledge, but participation in external meaning and value. This ties back to my recent readings of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Aidan Nichols, and the concept of art as both “pointing to the real” and “containing the presence of the real.” Dewey was no co-religionist, rather quite the opposite, but his naturalistic aesthetic theory is oddly compatible with Christian doctrines of imminence. For the Christian, the refining of ordinary aesthetic experiences points to Divine wholeness, infinite depths of beauty beyond the physical yet present within it. The fullness of natural revelation, a fullness that has converted some and given many others security in their faith, relies on perception of meaning through aesthetic encounters with creation. Finding ourselves in harmony with the rhythms of creation, as Dewey would have it, is also self-denial and communion with the Creator. We, by our interaction, are enabled to participate in the present energies of God and affirm or worship Christ, in whom is the perfect union of material and Divine.

Thus I am hopeful about art, and continue to appreciate it in my way despite feeling that I normally lack the fullness of aesthetic engagement. Thus, too, I am hopeful about religion, despite the fact that I normally feel spiritually dry and frustrated with church culture. I want to free myself to participate in the meaning I perceive from afar. It may be a long road, but I think the prize is worth finding.

Quotes

“Nothing of all that is created can see or hear Him but only what is His. What is created sees and hears what is created. Only what is begotten of Him can see Him. And only what is begotten of Him can hear Him. A painting cannot see the painter, but the son of a painter can see the painter. A bell cannot hear a bell-caster, but the daughter of a bell-caster can hear her father.

The eye cannot see Him because it was not created for the purpose of seeing Him. The ear cannot hear Him, because it was not created for the purpose of hearing Him. But vision can see Him, and hearing can hear Him.

My faith sees You, Lord, just as what is begotten sees its begetter. My faith hears You, Lord, just as what is begotten hears its begetter.

The God within me sees and hears the God in You. And God is not created but begotten.

My faith is like diving into the abyss of my soul and swimming out with You.

My faith is my only genuine knowledge. Everything else is like the children collecting motley pebbles by the lake.”

(St. Nikolai of Ochrid and Zika, from Prayers by the Lake XXXII)

* * *

“I consider poetry a source of innocence full of revolutionary forces. It is my mission to direct these forces against a world my conscience cannot accept, precisely so as to bring that world through continual metamorphoses more in harmony with my dreams. I am referring here to a contemporary kind of magic whose mechanism leads to the discovery of our true reality. It is for this reason that I believe, to the point of idealism, that I am moving in a direction which has never been attempted until now. In the hope of obtaining a freedom from all constraint and the justice which could be identified with absolute light, I am an idolater who, without wanting to do so, arrives at Christian sainthood.” (Odysseus Elytis)

* * *

“Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time. The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.” (Christopher Tolkien)

* * *

“Creative freedom is impossible without . . . self-renunciation. It is the law of the spiritual life: the seed is not quickened unless it dies. Renunciation implies an overcoming of one’s limitations and partiality, an absolute surrender to the Truth. It does not mean: first renunciation, then freedom. Humility is itself freedom. Ascetic renunciation unfetters the spirit, releases the soul.” (Fr. Georges Florovsky)

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