Weekly Miscellany IV: Spiritual Seeking

Weekly Miscellany IV: December 30, 2013–January 5, 2014

 

Readings

John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880) FINISHED

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (1837) FINISHED

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972)

Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain (1997)

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (1961)

Jose Manuel Prieto, Rex: A Novel (2009)

Robert C. Solomon, The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy (2002)

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (2001) FINISHED

Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall (1928) FINISHED

Discussion

What do I really want? What am I really seeking?

Over time, the minute complexity of the problems that afflict one’s intellect and spirit begins to break down, and the entire region of the “unsolved” blurs into confusion. In this confusion, the answers grow more complex, but the questions begin to manifest in startling simplicity. If it feels at times that the edges of one’s map have begun to disintegrate, that the borders of ignorance where be only dragons draw ever closer to the heart of one’s philosophy, this contraction of knowledge is followed by a seeming expansion of spirit to incorporate not only those dragon-infested lands but the dragons themselves.

More prosaically, one is drawn from fearful awareness to acceptance. This acceptance is not passive. It does not incline one to stop questioning and seeking, but it is a happy and active embrace of mystery. I have realized the limitations of my intellect, the essential arrogance of ready pronouncements of understanding, and the importance of quiet, receptive contemplation. Macarius wrote, famously, “The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there…. There also is God.” Rather than merely the best system of doctrine, I seek a living theology, whereby I might descend into the heart, discern Christ, and sanctify it for his purposes. I do not claim to possess the whole map, or claim that the distant mountains are no different from the molehills on either side; I rejoice in the shade of the trees around me, in the shadow of the dim majestic shapes that falls on me every morning, until I am able to ascend to those mountains.

Given the near coextensivity of the sum of truth and my ignorance, it is necessary for me to intellectually reduce my spiritual questing to its essentials. Rather than fracturing my attention on hundreds of questions and conflicts, without knowing what end I have in mind; rather than wandering through the regions of a thousand philosophies, arbitrarily choosing between this table or that at which to sit and eat; it is necessary that I propose a fundamental question to direct my conduct. That question is, “What do I seek?”

My answer to this primal question is “Christ.” All else must be ordered that I may best discern him, follow after him, and become like to him.

My own trajectory has removed me almost completely from the sphere of inherited, unprocessed beliefs. I look back on childhood and see mere hints and rumors of the world I now inhabit; I look forward to the realities to which they pointed, which I still seek. If asked, I would still label myself Evangelical, taking advantage of the term’s ability to encapsulate more-or-less-orthodox Protestantism between the extremes of Fundamentalism and Liberalism. However, I am highly critical of a variety of influences significant in what we may call mainstream Evangelicalism, not least those around which I grew up.

The shallow monotony of adolescent church I only recognized retrospectively, after a period of passive disaffection followed by healthy contrast. I now struggle not to despise the dangerous naïveté of Dispensationalism and the “cheap grace” spiritual complacency of the Baptist churches I attended growing up. I am deeply grateful to the example of my mother’s Scriptural instruction and my father’s theological interests, but church worship and teaching were empty for me.

Emerging from this in college placed me between the evangelical antipodes, the Reformed (mostly “New Calvinists”) and the Charismatics. Both had a strong presence among Belhaven University’s devout, the former in philosophy and Bible and some of the arts, the latter most notably in the dance department. Aware of the stereotypical recklessness of Charismatic theology and practice, despite my father’s often-raised objections to rigid Calvinist theology, despite having a number of Charismatic-leaning friends and acquaintances, I gravitated toward the intellectual and above all Bible-loving New Calvinists.

A strong contingent of Belhaven’s most active Christian population, including the better part of the professors I respect, adheres to the general characteristics of this latest wave of evangelical Calvinism, which rides on the rhetorical prowess of men like John Piper and now amounts to a distinct youth subculture. I liked the intellectual avidity of these people. I also appreciated the way the exalted, sovereign Creator they so liked to describe raised my vision beyond the vague, friendly God represented to my childhood. I attended Redeemer Presbyterian almost entirely for the preaching, and assuaged my reluctance to embrace TULIP with the confidence that I was hearing Biblical teaching on a level above anything I had received before. This was helped by the fact that I rarely heard actual Calvinism preached from the pulpit; at Redeemer and in the New Calvinist circles at school, Calvinist soteriology was a theological incidental that, it was assumed, all earnestly-seeking and right-thinking Evangelicals would embrace as they matured. Most important and distinctly Calvinist was the incessant re-assertion of a fundamental polarity, man’s absolute depravity and God’s absolute sovereignty. Unmerited forensic justification was emphasized almost to the exclusion of sanctification. I was unable to decide whether or not I could actually read Calvinism in the Bible (I heard the arguments and counterarguments many times), but the subculture I embraced at Belhaven was overhung with the cultural and intellectual trappings of the conservative Neo-Calvinism of American evangelicalism. While never identifying myself firmly with that group, I fed on all the crumbs of insight I could find to inform my growing but intransigently non-Calvinist picture of God. I was hardly an anomaly.

The Belhaven years ended, and though I emerged with essentially the same particularities of belief I had grown up with, my outlook was very different. Some things I held more loosely than before, and I had been exposed to a host of new ideas. I had somewhat wearied of the endless debates based on premises about the Bible whose rationale I did not completely understand, and between whose arguments I could not always judge. I extracted myself from this interminable squabbling over definitions and perspectives like I had from the overwrought eschatological debates I witnessed as a child: I concluded that the Bible was simply unclear on these and in fact many matters of doctrine; I concluded God must not care so much about issues beyond acceptance of Christ and good living. There was a right answer to this or that theological question that might be deduced from the Biblical witness, but it simply wasn’t as important as most people treated it. How could it be, if our individual interpretation of the Bible is all assurance we have of salvation? This conviction deepened with my study of history, as I saw the diverse face of Christianity in time and space lend credence to the idea that solving the Bible’s rich complexity was not as important as the simplicity of its central call to salvation in Christ.

It was aesthetics that truly broadened my theological horizons, allowing me to reconstruct a partial but definite framework rather than further pound convictions into pulpy “tentative acceptance.” Aesthetics called me to question the strict reliance on literal-historical readings of Scripture that characterized the tradition I grew up with, as I began to understand that there were other ways of real communication than factual discourse, and the problems of the text. Aesthetics started to break down the iconoclasm of my spiritual understanding. My aesthetic awakening also awakened a spiritual sensibility I had not known existed before, as primitive Sehnsucht was transmuted into desire to understand the relations of things on a level other than academic. My awareness that there might be more to learning about God than exercising the unaided intellect began to manifest at Belhaven and grew in my graduate school years.

Eventually I considered myself no longer on the fence about Calvinism; today, I would definitely not call myself Reformed, though it is conceivable that I could return to and embrace Reformed theology one day, if my thinking was radically shifted. I still believe the “New Calvinist” movement is a step above much Evangelical popular religion, in what it takes seriously and its emphasis on Biblical education. However, I would think it a pity if many youth were led by their “Calvinism conversion experience” to stop searching and growing in the wider world of theology, to stop listening to other voices and other interpretations. Young Calvinists have a reputation for arrogance, and often fail to understand that they cause this impression not because they act like they are holier than everyone else, but because of their overbearing dogmatism, evidenced in such statements as, “Calvinism is the Gospel” (Sproul), unconsciously demeaning the vast majority of Christians as less Biblical on essential matters. New Calvinism tends to be a closed system, suspicious, admitting few influences from the outside, clinging to a mere handful of great theologians (and some less great). In other words, it becomes a problem when it functions as a spiritual plateau—“You’ve been enlightened on grace, no need to question further.” This is an exaggeration, of course, but I have observed an unfortunate tendency to insularity and what I believe is unwarranted self-assurance.

What replaced the immature theology of my youth, if Calvinism did not? I soon realized that my studies were forcing me to choose between two opposite directions to look for a way out of my expanding uncertainty, as the borders of my map crumbled: either an individual pietism, or classic, high church theology. I opted to give the latter a chance before falling back to the former, as some friends have when disaffected with the church. This was partly influenced by new ideas and images that were being introduced to me and startling me with their coexistent freshness and antiquity. My interest in Eastern Orthodoxy and Patristic theology began here, as I found successive bridges to a strange new world that presented Christ in extraordinary fullness and beauty.

The music of Arvo Pärt was one such bridge to the mystery beyond. His music opened me to absorb his words about the importance of silence and contemplation. I watched a couple documentaries about him; he is devoutly Orthodox, grandfatherly and self-deprecating, with a large icon in his studio. I read a quote of his somewhere that the whole spiritual essence he attempted to capture in his music could be found in a book called St. Silouan the Athonite. Through interlibrary loan at George Mason I acquired an English translation.

What is it so captivating about the simple narrative of a man whose Christianity was about as foreign as possible from mine? Silouan was a Russian peasant turned Athonite monk, unacknowledged in his lifetime and sainted after death. He belonged to the exotic world of Orthodoxy, a branch of Christianity independent of theological and cultural developments in the West for the past millennium. Many of his statements, at face value, seem almost superstitious, and certainly offensive to the heirs of the Reformation. But there is a rich simplicity to his words. He made no attempt to justify what he wrote by Scriptural exegesis, or to claim any special prophetic authority. He simply wrote what he found in his communion with the Spirit of God, and the scattered notes he left behind are filled with a vision of God both ineffably perfect and invariably present. “Deep calls to deep.” Something within me recognized that if anyone on this earth is or ever was holy, this simple monk was. Though I did not understand or necessarily agree with everything written, I felt I witnessed Christ-in-man as I had not before.

When I started to read Orthodox blogs, I was struck by a similar beauty, not necessarily in the example of persons, but in theology. It had never occurred to me that theology could be so luminously beautiful. The best blog posts were not saying anything new; they were simply repeating what the Church Fathers wrote a millennium ago. They clarified or enriched my understanding of matters of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement; I had become accustomed to stale and shallow treatments of the first two in particular, in part because the Trinity and the hypostatic union were “givens” without much apparent bearing on ordinary life (the mantra of my childhood Sunday school class on such issues: “We don’t understand it, we just believe it”). I never heard sermons that more than mentioned them before, and knew that Protestants in general did not think much of the debates that raged through the first millennium on these issues. All that history belonged to the Catholics, and theology was practically nonexistent between Augustine and Luther (and mostly nonexistent between Paul and Augustine). I soon wondered why I had never heard all of this. The imagery was not only glorious but usually direct from the Bible, taking much the Bible says more seriously than Evangelicals I knew did.

It is also worth observing that my favorite writers were Catholics, from G. K. Chesterton to J. R. R. Tolkien to Flannery O’Connor to Shusaku Endo. C. S. Lewis, another major figure in my world of influences, was not Catholic, but he was steeped in ancient and medieval theology, and in general his attitudes far more resembled Catholicism or Orthodoxy than anything I had witnessed in contemporary Evangelicalism. These people, like the Church Fathers, believed in real presence, not in the gaudy, fantastic colors of the Charismatic movement, but soberly and joyfully finding it resound through creation. Everything pointed to the pattern of the Cross; the God Made Man illuminated the world of these Christians.

Part II, featuring further discourse on reading the Bible and spiritual seeking, coming soon.

Quotes

14. Lo! quiet waters are before you
holy and tranquil and pleasant
for they are not the waters of contention
that cast Joseph into the dungeon
nor yet are they the waters
those waters of strife
beside which the people strove
and gainsaid in the wilderness.
There are waters whereby
there is reconciliation made with Heaven….

16. In the beginning the Spirit that brooded
moved on the waters; they conceived and gave birth
to serpents and fishes and birds.
The Holy Spirit has brooded in Baptism,
and in mystery has given birth to eagles
Virgins and Prelates;
and in mystery has given birth to fishes
celibates and intercessors; and in mystery of serpents,
lo! The subtle have become simple as doves!

17. Lo! The sword of our Lord in the waters!
that which divides sons and fathers:
for it is the living sword that makes
division, lo! Of the living from the dying.
Lo! They are baptized and they become
Virgins and saints
who have gone down, been baptized, and put on
the One Only begotten.
Lo! Many have come boldly to Him!

18. For whoso have been baptized and put on Him
the Only begotten the Lord of the many
has filled thereby the place of many
for to him Christ has become a great treasure:
for He became in the wilderness
a table of good meats
and He became at the marriage feast
a fountain of choice wines.
He has become such to all in all things
by helps and healings and promises….

22. The Prophets have called the Most High a fire
a devouring fire, and who can dwell with it?
The People were not able to dwell in it
its might crushed the peoples and they were confounded.
In it, with the unction you have been anointed;
you have put Him on in the water
in the bread you have eaten Him
in the wine you have drunk Him
In the voice you have heard Him
and in the eye of the mind you have seen Him!
(St. Ephrem the Syrian, Epiphany Hymn 8)

* * *

“We read a good novel not in order to know more people, but in order to know fewer. Instead of the humming swarm of human beings, relatives, customers, servants, postmen, afternoon callers, tradesmen, strangers who tell us the time, strangers who remark on the weather, beggars, waiters, and telegraph-boys–instead of this bewildering human swarm which passes us every day, fiction asks us to follow one figure (say the postman) consistently through his ecstasies and agonies. That is what makes one impatient with that type of pessimistic rebel who is always complaining of the narrowness of his life and demanding a larger sphere. Life is too large for us as it is: we have all too many things to attend to. All true romance is an attempt to simplify it, to cut it down to plainer and more pictorial proportions. What dullness there is in our life arises mostly from its rapidity; people pass us too quickly to show us their interesting side. By the end of the week we have talked to a hundred bores; whereas, if we had stuck to one of them, we might have found ourselves talking to a new friend, or a humorist, or a murderer, or a man who had seen a ghost.”

(G.K. Chesterton, “The Inside of Life”)

* * *

“I take a grim and gloomy pleasure in reminding my fellow hacks and hired drudges in the dreadful trade of journalism that the Christmas which is now over ought to go on for the remainder of the twelve days. It ought to end on the Twelfth Night, on which occasion Shakespeare has himself assured us that we ought to be doing What we Will. But one of the queerest things about our own topsy-turvy time is that we all hear such a vast amount about Christmas just before it comes, and suddenly hear nothing at all about it afterwards. My own trade, the tragic guild to which I have already alluded, is trained to begin prophesying Christmas somewhere about the beginning of autumn; and the prophecies about it are like prophecies about the Golden Age and the Day of Judgment combined. Everybody writes about what a glorious Christmas we are going to have. Nobody, or next to nobody, ever writes about the Christmas we have just had. I am going to make myself an exasperating exception in this matter. I am going to plead for a longer period in which to find out what was really meant by Christmas; and a fuller consideration of what we have really found.”
(G.K. Chesterton: ‘Illustrated London News,’ Dec. 28, 1935)

* * *

“Gratitude, being nearly the greatest of human duties, is also nearly the most difficult. And as grown-up people hardly ever think of being grateful for the sun and moon and their own souls and bodies, it is easy to excuse the immature for finding it difficult to say thank you for a bag of sweets.”
(G.K. Chesterton: ‘Illustrated London News,’ Dec. 28, 1935)

* * *

“This world can be made beautiful again by beholding it as a battlefield. When we have defined and isolated the evil thing, the colours come back into everything else. When evil things have become evil, good things, in a blazing apocalypse, become good. There are some men who are dreary because they do not believe in God; but there are many others who are dreary because they do not believe in the devil.”
(G.K. Chesterton: ‘Charles Dickens,’ Ch. XI)

* * *

9. John cried, Who comes after me, He is before me:
I am the Voice but not the Word;
I am the torch but not the Light
the Star that rises before the Sun of Righteousness….

13. In the Height and the Depth the Son had two heralds.
The star of light proclaimed Him from above
John likewise preached Him from beneath:
two heralds, the earthly and the heavenly.

14. The star of light, contrary to nature, shone forth of a sudden
less than the sun yet greater than the sun.
Less was it than he in manifest light
and greater than he in secret might because of its mystery.

15. The star of light shed its rays among them that were in darkness
and guided them as though they were blind
so that they came and met the great Light:
they gave offerings and received life and adored and departed.

16. The herald from above showed His Nature to be from the Most High;
likewise he that was from beneath showed His Body to be from humankind, mighty marvel!
that His Godhead and His Manhood by them were proclaimed!

17. Thus whoso reckons Him as of earth, the star of light
will convince him that He is of Heaven: and whoso reckons Him as of spirit,
this John will convince him that He is also bodily.

18. John drew near with his parents and worshipped the Sun
and brightness rested on His Face.
He was not moved as when in the womb.
Mighty marvel! That here he worships and there he leaped!

19. The whole creation became for Him as one mouth and cried out concerning Him.
The Magi cry out in their gifts;
the barren cry out with their children
the star of light, lo! It cries out in the air, Behold the Son of the King!

(Ephrem the Syrian, Hymn of Epiphany 1)

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