Thursday, August 26, 2010

Prolegomena to a Spiritual Practice of Orthodoxy

I've had some input and book recommendations from friends, for which I am grateful. I haven't gotten my hands on the books yet, but I don't see any reason why I can't start out by thinking it out on my own and see what I am able to come up with provisionally. This is rather in the nature of reasoning out loud -- it won't be too polished, but I'll try not to ramble. To curtail my natural verbosity, I might skip over some rather basic stuff with a vague reference. Sorry about that. If anyone is actually reading or interested, ask and I'll explain. Obviously my theological method is sort of personalized; not everyone will think like I do because we're all so special and unique. Nevertheless, if there are professional theologian types who want to give me pointers on how to think things through, I'll be happy to take a note.

Spirituality -- Definition and Purpose

I always think that the key to figuring something out is to figure out the right questions. Answering questions is usually either easy or impossible, but getting the question right is the challenge. So here's some question brainstorming:

Why do we need some kind of practice in the first place? If we have a good orthodox theology, why is it then necessary to do something? What is it we're still lacking? What do we still need to achieve? For that matter, what are we trying to even get to in the first place? What is the goal of the Christian life?

Meaning of Life:

That has to do with theological anthropology, the point of a human life insofar as God made us and made us for a purpose. Therefore, the human telos is to do and be what God wanted it to do and be in the first place. I like Nyssa's approach of looking at creation, eschaton and the fallen present. So if we compare where we are now to the paradisal bit (edenic and eschatological) then we get a sense of the "distance" that needs to be crossed.

What are the elements or characteristics of human life in Eden and the eschaton?

Eden: made in the image of God, given life by breath of God, living on God's generosity and abundance ("garden"), talking with God "face-to-face", no sin yet, no death, etc.

Eschaton: "one in Christ", adoption of humanity through/in Christ, God is "all in all", seeing "not through a glass darkly but face-to-face", presumably no sin there either -- life different than here (no marriage, no death, etc.)

Common themes: 1) God as source of life and sustenance, 2) face-to-face knowledge and close relationship with God, 3) tension between our similarity to and difference from God, 4) formal similarity and/or inclusion in Christ key to relationship with God (using "similarity" here in a mathematical sense -- as opposed to "congruency", "identity" or "dissimilarity"), 5) stability of goodness (i.e. nothing bad going on -- no death, no decay, no fear, concord rather than conflict, unity in paradoxical coexistence with diversity, cosmos as ordered and eternally maintained whole).

So, the point of human life is to live out things 1-5 above. Why God made us to do this is another matter, one that would be fun to speculate about. Later. For now, we'll play parent and say, "Just because God likes it that way." But still. We've got five points summarizing the meaning of life. There you go. Surprisingly simple.

Upsetting the Apple Cart

Versus the good stuff that was/will be/ought to be, right now we've got sin. Not going to go through all the individual arguments here, but just take my word that we still have (1), (3), and (4) of the above. These are all fundamental principles of creation and of the nature of human beings; as they're inherent to the fundamental existence of creation and of people qua people, they don't get tossed out when sin comes in. God's still the source of everything, even if the situation is a bit more complicated than "take fruit, put feet up, be sustained."

The question of just how much similarity to God we have left is more vexed.... But similarity is key and will always be in tension with difference. And there's more difference given that the sin of the Fall consisted in turning away from God as the source of existence toward the privation of God which is evil (with the "fruit" understood as an experiential binary-knowledge which requires privation of good in order to name good as "good" vis-à-vis its opposite "evil" -- rather than the general Western understanding of the fruit as an object in an arbitrarily populated matrix of obedience-testing wherein the "commandment" is a complete cipher characterized only by the penalty of death for disobeying it).

[Yeah, that part about the Fall was condensed a bit. OK: it was condensed a lot. If anyone wants my whole theological interpretation of Genesis 3... oh, I'm just kidding myself here. Moving on.]

So it would seem that we've got to just get back to living points 1-5. Except that now there's sin. And the effects of sin. Which is to make us forget that 1-5 are what it's all about. So, we turn from the creator to creature. And even if we posit a creator and call it God, we do not actually know God. And that's a problem. And we've still got bad sin habits. And death. Disease. And leisure suits. Lots of bad things came from the Fall. I'm fairly sure that mosquitoes had a post-lapsarian evolution.

How do we fix this? Basically, we don't fix it. We cannot. Because even if we deduce from natural revelation that there is a God, even if we can figure out that God is good, we still basically don't know God from a hole in the ground. No one has seen the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son reveals the Father. Had God not elected the people of Israel to enter into relationship with him and had God not opened up membership in Israel to us goyim through the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of his pre-existent and consubstantial Son, then we'd be S.O.L. as far as God goes. We could, at best, be virtuous pagans -- a far cry from knowing and being in a face-to-face relationship with God.

So God provided a "fix" through the spiritual economy. We have Jesus and the Biblical witness and the orthodox formulations that explain what happened. So why isn't everything wonderful? Since God's the one who does all this, why do we have to do anything?

The Point of Spirituality

I'm not an "irresistible grace" Augustinian/Reformed type, but I want to underscore the importance of grace and God's activity and initiative here (not "initiative" the way Calvinists mean it - where God decides whose drink he's going to spike with roofies so he can drag their inert forms off to salvation and in so doing decides whose drink NOT to spike so that they can go on merrily to perdition where they belong -- *shudders*).

Basically, what goes on in spiritual practice is that we're showing up in a certain way and hoping God acts. Since I assume in the case of Christian spirituality that the practioner is already a Christian, there's a sense in which our practice will be like dancing with God: grace leads, but we're not rag-dolls getting dragged around the floor -- we know some steps, have a sense of rhythm and can follow God's lead. A big part of what our practice will accomplish is making us available to grace: we have to show up at the dance and get out on the floor. Oh -- and God's the music, too. And the dance. (Metaphors with God are always like this, haven't you noticed?)

So the point of our spiritual practice is to step into what God has already done and is doing. Basically, having the Logos take on human nature and die and get resurrected and heal people and feed people and cast out demons and preach doesn't actually do much good UNLESS you somehow get that important eschatological bit of being adopted "in Christ ." Jesus said he is the way, the truth and the life and no one gets to the Father except through him.

We're back to why orthodox theology and the tradition are so key here. Let me be incontrovertibly clear on this point: spirituality is NOT about being Christ-like by trying to do some stuff that Jesus did. It's NOT about mechanically following Jesus' example or taking Jesus' "advice" as if the Gospels were a self-help book called "Getting Along with the World the Jesus Way" (I'm sure if a book with such a title were written all about how to be friends with everyone with some little quotes from Jesus it would sell like hotcakes and lead millions to an anemic and insipid imitation of Christian life and faith). An unmitigatedly Christian and orthodox spiritual practice is about us doing what we can to be included in Christ and to turn/allow ourselves to be turned to God (and thus be transformed into greater Christlikeness). It is a practice that is unapologetically "impractical" -- at least, in the way most people define "practical" -- and yet, vitally important for every aspect of life, including all the practical ones).

In Conclusion

I think I've given myself a decent sense of what this spiritual discipline is attempting to do/cooperate in doing. And I'm beginning to see what sort of actual practices might play into this.
I have about three or four really more focused statements which could be sort of "defining characteristics" of my new spiritual discipline, but I think that I'll save them for the next post where I start outlining the program itself.


  1. Thanks for posting this. It's really interesting to see you working through this stuff from your basis.

    If a symptom of a successful spiritual practice is being "transformed into greater Christlikeness", what does that look like? How can that symptom detected, so as to provide confidence that a particular practice is indeed helping "to turn/allow ourselves to be turned to God"?

    BTW, I wanted to rock an "AMEN, SISTER! PREACH IT!" when I read, "spirituality is NOT about being Christ-like by trying to do some stuff that Jesus did". There's a whole generation of young Christians who are burning themselves out by trying to ground their spirituality in Christian communal living situations and Christian volunteerism, which strikes me as putting the cart before the horse.

  2. How do we know we're turning to God and being transformed? What does Christlikeness look like? A few answers here:

    When we are transformed, we manifest the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, meekness, and temperance. (The Greek gives you a better handle on this than the rather ambiguous connotations of the English).

    BUT that sort of begs the real question: Do we even know what *those* look like? How do we know what love is, for instance? What does that look like? Our culture calls lots of very unworthy things "love". God is the source of love and God should be the criterion by which we decide whether something is actually love or is rather lust (as often in our construal of romantic love), improper psychological dependency (many sorts of love fit here, from that "Ooh, I *need* you, baby" sort of romantic love to parents who live vicariously through children), unworthy loyalty (our idealization of the "love" of friends who don't care about your character and will help you commit or cover up crimes), greeting-card sentimentality, or the socially acceptable political partiality towards the Foucauldian underdog. Joy is almost always conceived of as a manic "high" or an ecstatic and fleeting emotion. And our cultural understanding of "peace" is more like Buddhist detachment or a feeling of spa-day relaxation with nice smelling candles -- not that that's a *bad* thing -- I love me a good spa-day -- but you get it from a massage, exfoliation, and some vanilla jasmine candles, not from God.

    So, I feel like you're driving at a nice robust description of "Christlikeness" which we can check ourselves against. But the spiritual neophyte can't trust himself or herself to judge this. Because the neophyte doesn't yet know God well enough to say "oh, this is more like God and that is less like God." So this is a really good point. What do we do?

    We can listen to the Holy Spirit. We've got the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to help us discern. But the problem comes up again, how do we know we're being receptive to the Spirit? The more we are in touch with the Spirit, the more we'll have fruit. But we don't know if we have fruit.

    Here's my REAL answer: submission in a confessional and orthodox community to those in authority over us. And here are the reasons I see this as the answer:

    - it must be an orthodox community of baptized believers. If they are not baptized, they are not Christian and do not have the Spirit indwelling them. If it is not a community which makes an orthodox confession, then it is not a community which is in continuity with the apostolic church and its faith is (at best) a hybrid of an experience of Christ and of something else that is not Christ and not God (and not something I want to follow or be conformed to).

    - God knows I know how compelling the Spirit can be on a personal and individual level, but the leading of the Spirit is especially perceptible in community. Now, certainly, there are churches which make an orthodox confession and aren't doing much that looks like "fruit" and at this point, we can bring in a personal leading and feeling of trust. I'm not going to member-up with the "God hates fags" church (which may not even be orthodox) and there are differences on smaller matters which provide demarcations between denominations.

    - The point of "authority" is that certain persons have been approved by the community (and its leaders -- like, by three bishops) to lead. And I believe that they are consecrated and blessed in their leadership by the Spirit. And that implies that they're ahead of the neophyte. Submission to these people is biblical.

    At bottom, one has to make a step of trust (remember the Rowan Williams book)?

  3. My question was a purely practical one. Presumably, one can make a mistake and adopt an ineffacatious (or even harmful) spiritual practice. Therefore, some retroactive analysis is warranted when adopting a spiritual practice. When the time comes for that analysis, how will you recognize if the spiritual practice truly has lead to some kind of spiritual advancement?

    Your answer—which seems very in alignment with your orthodox-patristic approach—ultimately boils down to "ask a higher-in-the-church-hierarchy (presumably more spiritually advanced) authority and go with what they say". Which is at least a very workable answer.

    The next interesting question to ask would be how *they* determine whether or not your spiritual practice is working. Repeat until you've hit the top of the mortal church hierarchy. But given that you're a neophyte, that's not the kind of answer you can be expected to answer.

  4. I can answer that question fine, neophyte or not. This isn't some kind of "passing the buck because I'm oh so low-down in the hierarchy and it's super-duper secret business I'm not supposed to know about." cop-out. It's not like it's the Masons. Or the Mormons. (We had one chat with the LDS missionaries in college and they answered every question with "you'll have to ask the elders about that" which makes one wonder what they heck they're supposed to be doing as missionaries...)

    When I talk about people being "in authority" it's not "authority" by means of a totalitarian exercise of power (by asserting things like "oh, you don't need to know any reasons; I make all the decisions and you just nod and obey"). Deferring to authority is more an admission that if we all started out by knowing how to recognize and adequately define/describe something like "Christian love", then we wouldn't much need to do any kind of spiritual practice in the first place. We'd just live almost perfectly -- with a few occasional slip-ups from bad habits of sin.

    Certainly these people are not perfect either, nor do I claim that they know God perfectly. They are liable to error. But they have been doing it longer. And there's a line of continuity -- those who are in authority and leadership were approved and authorized by those who were in authority over them and so on back through history. The idea is that Jesus taught the disciples and they taught others and so on down. The transmission is certainly not perfect. But the guidelines are more likely to be faithful to the actual reality of Christ as the Incarnate Logos than what you'd get if you go commune with God by yourself and root around in the Bible by yourself and make up some criteria by which to judge the "Christlikeness" of your life while you're still in a place of relative ignorance.

    It's sort of as if you were to take a biology textbook, go out in the woods and cut up a bunch of frogs for a few years and then -- based on how you evaluated how you did -- decide that you are now a fabulous surgeon and begin to offer your services to friends and neighbors. And, really, that's dangerous. We want our doctors to be taught by good people and to have to spend lots of hours in residency under the supervision of actual doctors before we let them cut us open. We like it even better if they're world-renowned surgeons, to be honest. You could, of course, argue that it's just a terrible hierarchical power-structure and that since medical skill is just universal it should be completely possible to just figure it out on your own and give yourself an MD and a license to practice. Actually, since medicine
    is a science confined to the natural (not super-natural) realm of existence, having a proficient self-taught surgeon is WAY more possible than having someone who is able to know God by just figuring it out themselves. Otherwise, God wouldn't have sent prophets or laws or His own Son. He would have just sent a quick email that said, "Oh, you're not trying hard enough" or maybe a little hint like, "You're on the right track, just keep at it!"

    The point is: you're not following up the ecclesial food chain in a synchronic way until you get to the bishop that eats all the other bishops (or has a direct line to God).*[see note] It's a diachronic and essentially historical church "hierarchy" that goes back to Jesus (i.e. God). That's not because those in positions of ecclesial power are more privileged than we are. It's because they are more transformed than we are. But, as I said, at the end, it's a question of deciding to trust.

  5. ***Note from last comment: I have lots of Roman Catholic friends who do believe that the highest authority is the Pope who has something of a "direct line to God" and can thus speak with infallible authority ex cathedra on matters of doctrine. I'm not making light of this by using the phrase. I sometimes wish I believed in the primacy of the Bishop of Rome because it offers a very nice solution to a lot of problems. I don't believe it personally, but I see the logic of the belief and the plausibility of the historical and hermeneutical arguments supporting the belief and I deeply respect those who do believe it.

  6. I get where your approach is coming from, but I'm still hanging out in the practical world, and from a purely practical standpoint, you seem to be missing something critical. You may simply have not said it, so the question may be one you've handled, but I want to make sure you've thought about it since you're trying to do this up right and be rigorous and all that jazz.

    Let's fast-forward a bit. Assume you've been doing a spiritual practice for a while. Take it as a given that some spiritual practices are better than others and some might be downright harmful—or at least possible to make harmful thanks to a subtly sinful bent of faculties. Given that, especially with the orthodox/patristic self-doubt you've laid out, you really need some way to assess the spiritual practice to see if there is growth.

    Now, you said, "I'll defer to someone else." That's fine as long as you're willing to trust that someone else. But now you're saying they're fallible. If they're fallible, presumably they could fail in assessing the value (or lack thereof) of your spiritual practice.

    So, to know if your spiritual practice is actually a good one, now you need to know if the person you are putting your trust in has failed to assess your spiritual practice. How are you going to do that? On what basis will you judge the judgement your superior gives you?