Friday, August 27, 2010


The State of the Epistemological Debate

I want to address my epistemology here directly in response to the ongoing comment debate on my last few blog posts. Those posts weren't meant to be polemical or argumentative. I was talking out my own spiritual situation and proposing a response -- a personal program for my own spiritual growth. My friend Robert, in an effort to help me be rigorous in my thought and to communicate with people sharing a different perspective, was pushing me to clarify on several issues.

But the real issue of the debate in the comments is epistemology. How do we know what we assert? I should say from the outset that I hope to keep this post as impersonal as possible. It will necessarily be personal insofar as I draw on my own experience, but I'm primarily talking about epistemological frameworks. They are held by people -- and people identify very deeply with their epistemologies. But hopefully there's a fundamental way in which people who hold very different views can respect one another, even if they believe the other person to be dead wrong.

Robert has been asking repeatedly that I give a description of the effects of my proposed spiritual program in practical, "real-life" terms. He has asked that I give empirical evidence for my assertion that a spiritual life based on orthodox theology is "life-giving". And he has pressed me to provide a a demonstrable hypothesis and some account of what the things I'm discussing would "look like."

I should apologize because I have, in a way, been evading all these questions. And that's because I can't answer them. And that's not because I'm not intelligent or just a neophyte or because I haven't thought all this through with sufficient rigor. It's because I believe that these are questions which should not be answered.

So I don't intend to answer those questions here, but I do intend to lay out why I think they shouldn't be answered and to give a fundamental overview of my epistemology, in the interest of full disclosure and intellectual honesty. And also because I think that if I come out and clearly state my epistemology, then it might be more possible that I be granted certain courtesies. That is, if I am clear about what I think are the fundamental criteria for truth, then I won't be pressed to give answers to questions founded on criteria for truth that I have rejected.

The Epistemology I Reject

Probably to the same extent that my friend (and anyone else who shares his epistemological framework) believes the exposition of my thought to be vague, thin and untenable, I believe his criterion for judgment and the questions he is asking to be misguided and spiritually questionable. I'm not saying he's stupid or a bad person; I'm saying we're working with entirely different criteria of truth.

As I understand it (and I'm completely willing to be corrected if I'm reading this wrong), my critic's epistemology involves or requires the following:

1) things which have an experiential or tangible nature or consequence (this may be emotional and interior, not necessarily physical, but it will always be mediated through the physical embodiment of the subject)
2) a foreseeable practical effect of any proposed cause, something which happens in the world of the tangible which we can experience and which therefore can be empirically observed to proceed from that cause

3) a full description in experiential/tangible/practical terms of anything proposed prior to acceptance of its reality and existence

4) a position of skepticism towards the reality of anything which does not meet the requirements outlined above and therefore an effective denial of its existence for all practical intents and purposes (e.g. an abstract thing might exist, but cannot be definitively proven or disproven, because it does not effect life in any unmistakably causative and experientially perceptible way, therefore it has no impact on life and can be treated as non-existent without having an impact on life)

My problem with this framework is that I believe it to be utterly inadequate for any consideration of God. Furthermore, it seems to eliminate all possibility of faith. It seems to stand in contradiction to most of the teachings of Christianity (granted, this is "Christianity as I understand it"). And it also seems to reveal a certain (in my opinion) lack of respect toward God and a usurpation or underestimation of God's position vis-à-vis the created order.

Reasons I Reject this Epistemology

Here are the specifics of my objections, in as much detail as I can provide. I have extensive recourse to "unproven assertions" in this section, which I am not attempting to prove. I will more fully lay out my epistemology in the last section of this post.

1) God is utterly sovereign and transcendent. And also God created the universe, which is not transcendent. Therefore, if we attempt to judge God by standards we develop from within the created world which are independent of a confession of God and not rather derived from a confession of God, then we are proposing to elevate the mundane over the transcendent and stand in judgment over God solely on the basis of our own limited existence, which is the sort of thing God doesn't like.

2) If we presume to judge God/dogma/spirituality by our own interests (some practical difference it makes for me, something which will help me make the decisions I need to make), then we are again usurping what I believe is the authority which belongs to God -- that is, the right to will and decide what our interests should be and what we, as created human beings, are supposed to do and care about. Because I believe that God made us for God's own purposes, I think that unless we allow God to shape and transform and direct our interests from the "practical" ones that we can understand and describe from within our own empirical and embodied experience, then we are going to get our purpose wrong.

3) Therefore, the "goal" of our living a Christian life is to let God shape us, shape our epistemology, our goals, our character, our understanding, and everything. And because those goals are those of a transcendent God and we are not transcendent, we cannot know them going in. We can't know exactly what it will look like because it is totally other. If we could describe an "end goal" in practical, tangible, and human terms, it would not be a divine end.

4) We have, in fact, seen perfect human life. Perfect human life will look like Jesus, but we cannot look at Jesus as a "how-to" guide and describe discrete, practically applicable Jesus principles. We cannot apply "principles" lived out by Jesus from within our own limited and creaturely understanding. Because what makes Jesus the example of perfect human life is his full and perfect divinity. Jesus is not living out discrete principles that can be abstracted from the ineffable and transcendent "personality" and being of God. The incarnation does not "reveal God" in the sense of showing God doing human-ness properly and then just say, "OK. Now just do that." The incarnation reveals within the context of a fully human life that God is Other and that humanity needs the right sort of relationship with the living and transcendent God to have life and to live human life well. And that relationship is not purely or even primarily about what we do "practically" (although it has "practical" results). The focus and purpose of that relationship is God -- our purpose is to satisfy our desire for God, to attain fellowship with God, to be renewed in God's image. Because in the end, that is what it means to "do human life well". It will result in better decision making and some nice practical results. But those are the natural by-product of being in harmony with God's will by being in thrall to the transcendent God.

5) I can't describe these practical things or how my decision-making will be helped, exactly, by this relationship with God. I don't know. I don't really care. The thing that makes faith count as "faith" is that it is not knowledge. It has no objective or empirical predictive power. You don't go through all the proofs and make a 5-year projection and develop a criteria for judging your progress and then decide to submit to God, if it seems like a good deal with some practical benefits that appear beneficial to your "before-submitting-to-God" perspective. You simply submit to God.

6) Faith is the core of Christianity, faith as a set of assertions about who God is and who Jesus was/is and how the universe stands in relationship to God and how God revealed God's self to the universe. (CT 32 preview: this is fides quae creditur -- the faith which is believed). But faith is also at the same time the activity of casting onself in full surrender by the grace of God upon the mercy of that mysterious and ultimately incomprehensible God, faith as an existential leap into those assertions, expecting there to be something real behind them to catch you (fides qua creditur -- the faith by which one believes).

7) Therefore, nothing about Christianity is provable, demonstrable or adequatedly described in terms that are tangible, practical, or accessible to human beings outside of faith in the God of Christianity -- which includes faith that the God who exists is really who Christianity says God is. [Note: God is much more than is or can be described, but Biblical and orthodox statements about God are still really who God is, even if they are incomplete and do not fully express the transcendent identity of God.]

8) And finally, if any claim about God made by Christianity were provable, demonstrable and fully knowable by any old person whatever, then Christianity would be logically self-contradictory (insofar as it claims belief in a transcendent and infinite God).

What I Believe and Why

I believe that God is transcendent and the creator of the world and that God is Triune and that the three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) aren't just a way of saying "God likes being in relationship" but are three distinct hypostases of the same "substance (which isn't material) which are united in their operation. I believe that the Son was begotten by the Father eternally and not created and that the Spirit proceeds from the Father eternally (and maybe from the Son, but I'm not sure about that). I believe that this Triune God is the One who revealed Himself to Moses and the Prophets. I believe that the second person of the Trinity was incarnated as a man, Jesus of Nazareth -- the God-man, theanthropos, not losing His full Divinity nor taking on less than full humanity, not acting as a conjunction of two separate subjects but as a single subject to whom can be attributed all of Jesus' actions (and passions, although His Divinity remained ontologically immutable), neither mingling these natures into a new hybrid being nor possessing a single will, but with His human will freely acting in service and deference to His Divine will. I believe he was the Messiah whom the Jews had been promised. I believe he was killed and truly died and that he rose from death, bodily and fully, and appeared to his disciples. I believe that he ascended into heaven and dwells with the Godhead in its fullness and that he will come again to judge the living and the dead and that all those who trust in Him (that is, in Him Himself and in the transcendent God whom He revealed when He was incarnate, not in some ethic or idea that He represented by His life) will be resurrected bodily to an incorruptible and everlasting life.

I believe in a lot of other stuff the Church says. And in things the Bible says. I have gone through this in detail because I'm attempting to be as precise as possible, although certainly much of it will sound "abstract".

But the question really is "why?" -- So I have come up with what I imagine are the questions which would be posed by the experiential/empirical epistemology and how I would answer them. I include this here in the form of a Platonic dialogue. Once a classicist, always a classicist.

How do I know to trust the Church and its dogma? -- Because I trust the God who shows up in the Church and in orthodox dogma.
How do I know they aren't wrong? -- I don't. I believe that they aren't wrong.
But couldn't I be wrong about that? -- I can't prove I'm not wrong, but I am sure that I'm not.
So what makes me sure that I'm not? -- Because God has shown up in my life within those very doctrines of the faith.
How do I know it's God? What's the epistemological criterion? -- Because the beauty of the God that showed up in the creeds brought me to my knees and enslaved my heart and because I long for him with greater passion than I have ever known.
Beauty? That's the epistemological criterion? -- Not quite: Truth. That's the criterion. It just so happens that Truth is soul-compellingly beautiful.
So how does one know if one has found soul-compelling beauty? -- Easy: one's soul is compelled.
So any time anyone feels some soul-compelling beauty, are they right? Have they found Truth? -- Not necessarily. I don't know if anyone else has actually experienced the soul-compelling beauty of truth just because they claim to have experienced it. But if they claim to have experienced this and proclaim what the Church proclaims, then I believe they are right.
But then we're right back to the Church again! -- Seems so, doesn't it?
So let's say my soul feels compelled. What does the soul-compelling beauty of God look like as opposed to some counterfeit soul-compelling beauty? -- It looks like the Triune God that the Church proclaims.
But what does that look like? -- Like nothing else. What does chocolate taste like? It just tastes like chocolate, doesn't it? No one who has tasted chocolate ever asks a question like that.
But where's the perceptible difference that it makes in a person's life to know this abstract dogma-God? How does it affect, say, decision making? -- One now tries to make decisions out of an ardent and awestruck devotion to the utter beauty of the Goodness of God's being.
And what do these decisions look like? -- Why do you want to know? To judge whether the effects are to your liking? On what basis do you judge the effects to be good or bad? If it's on the basis of your passionate relationship with the God proclaimed by the Church, then why ask the question? And if there's another basis you're operating from, how do you know it is true? Or do you want a laundry list of things to do, principles to follow to avoid the whole business of submission and surrender to a God who wants to transform you in relationship? You want to make sure it's really God first? You can't. You want to make sure that the Church is right before you trust them? You can't.

I tried to do this for years. I was hip with post-modern epistemology. I went to college and got all my critical analysis skills trained up really well. I started looking at people like Gandhi and the "Buddha" and thought they were doing it right. And I wanted to believe God was universally accessible to anyone and everyone because that seemed to me to be the right thing for God to do. As a Quaker, my eschatology was basically a world without violence where everyone lived in harmony with one another and with the environment and just incarnated principles of love and honesty and simplicity and non-objectification of one another. That was something worth hoping for, dying for, praying for, living for and into.

Except that eventually, the utopia got really stale. It was like vitamin-water eschatology -- presumably good for you but practically flavorless. It was an anemic, insipid, lifeless and unlivable eschatology. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. Everything was great. Who's going to argue with universal love among human beings? What was I finding wrong? -- There was no God there. Sure, there was "that of God in everyone" and there was the Spirit moving in the special Spirit way (which in my experience felt a lot like a hybrid of Marianne Williamson, Jiminy Cricket, and a glass of brandy that gave people things to share with the meeting like "When you love other people, that's heaven; but when you're trapped in yourself and armed against other people, that's hell" or "I don't know what God is -- but God is like electricity: I flip the switch, and God is there" or "Love means never having to say you're sorry" which the Spirit evidently also inspired when Erich Segal penned Love Story)

What makes the difference between what I expect now and what I expected then? -- A transcendent God. Sure, I think the eschaton will include lots of harmony between people and creation. Sure, I think we'll all love each other. And yes, it's good to be nonviolent now and to work for those who are poor, outcast, hungry and oppressed. But the key is: while that is good, it's not of primary importance. God is what is matters; it's only through God that the rest of it matters to the extent that it does. And God's not a laundry-list of pragmatic concerns. God has a unified and ultimately ineffable nature which we can only hint at through abstract language. God's being is the source of God's will. And while we follow what we know to be God's will through the Church and the Scripture, we still need to do the "work" of showing up for grace -- of yearning to be transformed into the likeness of God, of contemplating and adoring that God. As that happens, we become more likely to make the sort of decisions that are in accord with God's will because we have internalized God's word and because God (not us) has transformed our hearts and minds.

And the other key difference between the robust and theologically driven eschatology I have now and the one I was promised by Quakers and the generically "spiritual" and by non-orthodox liberal Protestants and "social justice Christians" is that God's not boring. If the end-goal were simply us incarnating perfectly this whole Jesus principle of love and equality in God and "power through humility" or "victory through loss" or whatever and petting animals and eating lots of fruit and nut roasts, it would just be stale. It's barely a step up from playing harps on clouds with halos. (Or a step down -- I rather like the harp). Why I really care about a transcendent God who is beyond human comprehension is that the endeavor to know such a God is a source of infinite delight.

That's the reason that I have named my blog "epectasy". And my life has been like that: God is heart-rendingly, breath-takingly beautiful. The Trinity is beautiful -- not the mere "idea" of Trinity, but the God who comes and inhabits the idea when you contemplate it. It leaves me with my heart trying to burst from my chest and tears in my eyes and a desperate longing for more -- to know more fully, to look longer. And yet, it's not a cranky desperate longing, like an addict who needs a fix. It's a desire born of lack that stands in the midst of utter bliss.

I'm not pretending to be perfectly transformed and oh-so-spiritually mature now. I grew up very much in the church and have considered myself a Christian since I was 5 years old. There was a only short period of about 3 years where I wasn't actively involved in seeking God. I was never complacent and uncritical within my faith; I did a lot of theological thinking from the time I was 4. Still, I'm a total neophyte. My time wasn't totally wasted before, but I haven't been squarely on the right path until now (it was a graced path, but it had some potholes). And there is an eternity stretched out ahead of me in which I will never come to the end of knowing God, never come to the end of the process of being perfected. So, given all this, is there any reason that anyone can give me that would be compelling enough for me to hold off on seeking the face of God until I can come up with some "empirical evidence" that pertains to the "practical world" of decision making and -- I don't know -- dirt and machines and flow charts and whatever else is presumably inhabting this strange world that is so much more "practical" than mine?

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.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What I Did on my Summer Vacation: Had a Spiritual Crisis

School is almost back in session and I haven't managed to slough off the spiritual ick of this summer. I would love to make my spiritual issues sound noble, but they aren't really. Basically, I've been in reaction to some very insidious spiritual disease infecting the Church on a universal scale (and even penetrating the blessed but imperfect community of Duke Divinity). I still believe that the crisis of the Church is bad and real, but I haven't been taking it well. And it's personal to me because I feel a vocation to do Patristics. And hopefully I'll be employed at a seminary. So a main part of my work will probably be doing a core class on Early Church History (whatever is the equivalent to Duke's CH 13). So this will be my primary means of ministry to the future leadership of the Church.

This is something which I have come increasingly to feel as a clear vocation and this work has become like an inseparable part of me very quickly. I grew up Christian, but had a long period of discontentment and seeking. The exquisite abundance of the Church Fathers' and Mothers' thought, the vibrancy and richness of orthodox dogma, the absolute and astounding beauty of the life of virtue and holiness to which early theologians aspired -- these are the things I was seeking. Finding patristics at this point feels like traveling halfway across the world only to discover that finally you feel at home.

Fall 2009: No Crisis

I was almost ecstatically happy in the Fall. I felt like I was eating, sleeping, and breathing God. I couldn't stop saying prayers of gratitude for the Fathers, for my advisor, for Duke Divinity, for my life, for the leading to this place, for God being just so utterly, deliciously wonderful and for the chance to spend all my time thinking deeply about that wonderfulness. And most of this was because of CH 13. Twice a week, I got regaled with the stories of this wonderful group of people who are the Church Fathers -- these men and women who put themselves totally at the disposal of God to pursue God's goodness, to seek ever deeper and closer fellowship with God, to help others in the Church to draw closer and not be led away from true communion with God, to demonstrate to emperors that God is greater than human rulers and that God will not condone atrocities, to speak all around and right up to the edge of the dark-bright mystery of God's ineffable being, to give voice to the narrative of the economy of salvation again and again, each time enriching the picture with more imaginative, evocative, and illustrative words, themes, and Biblical allusions.

For the record, I was rather anti-orthodox when I came here; I was much more about social justice and Moltmann and Kierkegaard and Tillich and existentialism and universalism and quasi-unitarianism and feminism. Oh -- and I had a fairly well-considered and totally heretical Christology. I also sort of the thought the resurrection was a really unimportant bit of doctrine. I was kind of bummed about Duke, afraid it would be too conservative. What I really wanted to do was go to Drew and work with Catherine Keller on process theology. [Yes, I am serious: process theology. I was all jazzed when I got her latest book in Fall of 2008, when I was doing my applications for Divinity School. I still have the book and I can show you if you don't believe me.]

Spring 2010: Crisis Brewing

So CH 13 was the instrumental means of grace for me. Yay. So what's my crisis?

The crisis is that ever since the end of the Fall semester I've been realizing that meeting the Fathers didn't "work" for everyone. Hence the existence of the discipline of "Early Christianity." OK, but there are bound to be non-Christians looking at Christian stuff with their secular humanist methodologies. That's fine. I can deal.

Of course, I also met Christians who were all into the social-historical "Early Christianity" thing. But not everyone got to take CH 13 with J. Warren Smith. Maybe they didn't get the special dispensation of grace. OK; that makes sense.

But then I noticed that there were people in the Divinity School who took CH 13 who still seemed to be lacking some grace! In fact, some of them were kind of hating on the Fathers. But maybe they didn't come to class enough and just swatted up the material with study guides for the final. It really does make a difference when you let it sink deep into you meditatively and reflectively over the course of a semester....

But then I discovered there exist persons in the Div School who did CH 13, who took further patristics courses with Warren Smith, and who actively dislike orthodoxy. And there are also some real serious CH 13-haters who somehow came away thinking that it's all about white people trying to write off "the black experience" or that the entire Early Church was about vilifying sex and/or oppressing women.

Brief Moment of Horrible Un-Christian Arrogance

I know there are a lot of people going into ministry (even at Duke) who aren't um... well... "intellectual powerhouses." They have other gifts and other gifts are good. Other gifts are important. I celebrate other gifts. Yay. Celebrate. Woo-hoo.

But at a certain point I stop celebrating and I start thinking, "WHAT?!?! Did you miss the bit in the very first class where he said it's NOT about White European Males and that we weren't even going to meet a European until Irenaeus and the next one would Anselm in the 11th-12th century? Are you really saying that your main take-away message from an entire semester was "Early Church hated sex"? Very odd that they managed to make it to the Middle Ages with growing numbers, considering the whole "anti-sex" thing.... Did you just not even read the Life of Macrina? Or did you just decide that said oppressive things before you even read it? Did you just figure that because it's an ancient text by a man and is about someone female that of course it must be just chock full of patriarchal bias and unabashed sexism? This raises a very critical question: How dumb can you be, exactly, without getting kicked out for crappy grades after the first semester?"

Summer 2010: Super Crisis Maelstrom

I'm having a crisis not because I'm doubting the value of orthodoxy, but because I know how important orthodoxy is. I know that it is a very important part -- perhaps the most important part -- of a good spiritual life and relationship with God and of effective ministry. I know that orthodox theology IS life-giving; you can't have full fellowship with God without it. And yet I see how "untrendy" it is. Even in the Church, there are a lot of people who want other things to be more important than orthodox theology. And, after much reflection (both logically and in light of my own experience as a erstwhile heretic) I have come to the conclusion that this trend against orthodoxy is very, very bad. Ironically, it amounts to "putting God in a box" (although this is often used by the heretical types to describe orthodox dogma); heretical Christianity becomes not about the rich and paradoxical statements of the creeds and councils, but about a decision to utterly ignore God's being and instead to make God say what we want to hear. And this applies to both liberals and conservatives.

I believe that the Church and her future leaders need more orthodoxy. Not for some airy-fairy theoretical reason, so that we can all be "right" for the sake of being "right." And not for some reason born of historical toadyism, as if anything old and traditional is automatically good and to be preserved uncritically. And not because I'm one of those "propositional Protestants" who thinks that proper formulation equals salvation or that God can't work with us if we're not really smart and abstract and totally right about who God is. The reason we need orthodoxy is utterly spiritual and pretty darned practical. Because without orthodoxy, the Christian life becomes deeply unfulfilling and won't sustain us to do anything good. We won't be producing fruits -- we'll be laboring to try to manufacture fruits that are composed mostly of corn syrup, preservatives, artificial flavor and Red #40. It's harder to try to make fruit than to let fruit just grow; we might manage to crib something together that vaguely resembles spiritual fruit, but it won't look or taste quite right.

And my problem is that I'm out to give the Church what it needs and what it doesn't want. And I'm angry that it doesn't want it. I've been wanting to kick the world for most of the summer. So, my real problem is that I'm angry. I vented and prayed and thought and prayed some more. I made a desperate cry for help. Got no answer. So I vented again, prayed, thought.

A pretty good proverb: "If you're angry, you're wrong." Maybe not totally right, but a good check to perform if you have anger issues. So I asked very honestly if I was perhaps wrong about the whole orthodoxy thing. Pretty sure that's not it. So there's something wrong happening that is making me want to kick people. I think I'm finally starting to get a handle on my problem.

1) It's easier and feels better to be angry at people for not liking orthodoxy than to be sad. Anger is kind of an ego-boost: it stirs up energy and makes you feel like you can fix things, right the wrong. The point is, I can't. I can't argue anyone into good doctrine. I hope that God will move in people's hearts to draw them closer, but I know from my own experience that God's grace is not an irresistible Calvinist caveman who wacks people over the head and drags them to faith. I am little. I can't fight this fight. This is a major trend of badness that has infiltrated the Church. I'm trying to do the same thing as the ministerial nuts who notice that there is poverty and disease and war and oppression and forget that Jesus already saved the world and think they've got to go do it all themselves. So, partly I need to deal with being sad that things are how they are and that people are cutting themselves off from truth.

2) I'm also being kind of lazy. I managed to get spoon-fed orthodoxy-based spiritual practice on a regular basis during the year by being in numerous patristics courses. This summer, I read one good scholarly book on patristics which was faithful -- and then followed that with a bunch of secondary literature which is not orthodox and not life-giving. No primary texts. And my asceticism has slipped; now that I'm not pressed by classes and deadlines, it's easy to feel like eating, sleeping late, watching TV. I'm all angry and fruitless because I'm not practicing what I preach. I've been so caught up in my reaction against heresy that I haven't spent enough time sinking deep into orthodoxy, thinking about God and being and letting that truth sustain me.

A Spiritual Practice for Me

I realize that I don't know how to do patristic spirituality by myself. It just happened when things were brought up in my patristics classes. I'd think about the arguments against the Eunomians or about allegorical interpretation or Christology or Nyssen's anthropology and then I'd just sort of -- turn to God. It just kind of happened. I've kept listening to the recorded CH 13 lectures. It sort of helps. Except that I listen while driving and almost ran a stop-sign the last time I got too into it. Also, it's the 5th or 6th time I've listened to the whole set now. It'd be nice if there were some *little* surprises every now and again...

So currently, my spiritual practice is rather non-existent because what I used to do before I came to Duke was based on a very wishy-washy theology. It is pretty directionless and vapid -- and it also feels icky because it reminds me of the sad time when I my dogma was bad. And also, I think I might be spiritually "remedial" -- I have special needs because of my severe social anxiety, my sensory processing problems, and my ADD. If I'm around other people, I'm generally overwhelmed and am going to be manic and hyperactive or else hyper-vigilent or else totally glazed and shut down -- very hard to think about God in the midst of that kind of brain chemistry. So I need some practices I can do while I'm alone.

There are plenty of practices in lots of Christian traditions. I'm sure I could try a bunch and see what works. But how would I know what "works"? I don't want to make the mistake of thinking that some sort of subjective emotional experience actually constitutes effective spirituality. So, I've decided that I'm going to interrogate whole subject of spirituality from an orthodox perspective and then figure out what sort of practices support the ends of "spirituality" and fix something up to be a nice, doctrinally sound spiritual discipline for me. And I want to get this going before classes start up and things get crazy -- especially because I only have one patristics-type class this semester and it's only partly about patristics. And I really don't want to just hang around CH 13 spooking out the first-years....

So I am hoping to blog through my investigation of "spirituality" and my figuring out a happy little orthodox spiritual practice that socially awkward Christian Platonists can do. I will do so in the coming days before classes start, unless my advisor magically gets all his work for the new semester done at warp speed and notices the email I sent that said I'm having a spiritual crisis and tells me some spiritual practice stuff to do, which would probably be quicker, easier, and more effective than me trying to figure it out myself.