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Archive for October, 2009

The Great Reversal

The Syrian army flees in the middle of the night from the besieged Samaria and its starving inhabitants. Job’s life, family and fortunes are restored. Lazarus is loosed from the tomb. On Holy Saturday, hell is plundered by our Lord. We are never so blind as when we lose hope in the great reversal.

There is, perhaps, no more desperate state than the one of hopelessness. And more bitter still when that hopelessness is built on doubt of the mercy and goodness of God. Those who sustain life in the face of such existential emptiness are truly the walking dead.

Such hopelessness however may have some chance of healing if it derives from simple blindness upon which it both feeds and gives. We are given a plurality of examples of such blindness and its resolution, but two recollections may suffice. Elisha’s servant is struck with fear at the sight of the approaching Syrian army. But Elisha assures him of a far greater army on the side of God’s people. And the prayer of enlightenment opened the servant’s eyes to chariots and horsemen of fire. The greater, example, however, is the Eucharistic journey to Emmaus, and the third Man who converses with the disciples and opens their eyes at the breaking of the bread.

Hypernikomen we are called, and such we are. Because of the one who loves us. The one who showers on us blessings and joy in the midst of suffering and pain. Who takes our questions of hopelessness and despair and answers them with his presence, the gentle warmth in the pained heart, the whisper for which we cover our face.

We may experience that great reversal of our days and sustenance, when our enemies suddenly flee and leave us the surfeit, when health and children and blessings are renewed. Our hearts may find again the peace and fellowship long sought. New days and new circumstances will dawn. That darkness in which sun and moon are extinguished will give way to the light in our hearts.

In our dark thoughts and moments, we may not see this. Our blindness may remain. We may not see those fiery messengers, the nail-scarred hands. But we may still trust. Others, too, have heard that whisper, felt the ache of the warmed heart. We can take courage in that. For we are more than conquerors. Because of the One Who loves us.

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Christian Philosophy? II

If one is going to talk of a “Christian philosophy” and if one is going to define such along the lines of which B N Tatakis has done, then one is going to have to offer definitions, or to at least delimit, one’s terms: Christian, philosophy, truth, faith, even, perhaps, reason. One is also going to have to speak to the sort of paradigm of dialectical opposition which antithesizes faith and reason/philosophy/truth.

First, let’s begin with some terminological clarifications. One may well assume that Dr. Tatakis’ sense of Christianity in his definition is grounded in and contextualized by specifically Orthodox Christianity. But I have not only already indicated that I am going to use Tatakis more as a jumping off point than a critical examination of his view per se, one might also rightly assume Dr. Tatakis was aware that there are other Christian groups than the Orthodox Church. One can certainly discern a specifically Orthodox content to his “Christian philosophy” but his definition is itself more broad, and our current context is much more pluralistic.

It is precisely because of this that defining a specifically “Christian” philosophy today is perhaps impossible if one takes all claims to the name Christian as on equal footing. One either has to accept as identical two groups with antithetical metaphysics (those who accept the essence/energies distinction and those who accept absolute/definitional divine simplicity), or those who, while accepting the same metaphyics, hold antithetical positions on aspects of it (the Calvinist/Arminian debate on freedom of the will, or those who accept a position of moral guilt being attached to original sin and those who do not).

In this context, then, “Christian philosophy” does not appear to be susceptible to a common enough reduction that all could accept the definition. It appears, at this point, then, that one may have an Orthodox philosophy, or a Calvinist philosophy, or any other label. But given the radical differences between the Christian groups that do not admit of resolution, it does not appear that one can have a generically labeled “Christian” philosophy.

I will return to this question shortly. Because depending upon how one describes or defines “philosophy” it does not appear to me that any of these more specific Christian designations (Orthodox, Calvinist, etc.) can be legitimately combined with “philosophy,” either. That is to say, if one defines philosophy in more of a Hadotan sense, then I could conceive that one might argue one cannot have a Calvinist (Christian) philosophy. I would not be prepared to say that such an argument would be valid let alone persuasive. I’m just saying I could conceive of the point.

But first, and perhaps more importantly for this question, we need to understand what might be best meant by “philosophy.”

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Faith and Fear

As near as I can tell, tharseo (take courage) is, in its occurrences in the New Testament, always a dominical imperative. When his disciples are frightened, Jesus exhorts them to courage. When a woman is healed, Christ bids her to courage. When an apostle might be tempted to discouragement, our Lord exhorts him to courage. Where fear enters and siphons off the joy and grace of faith, the Lord bids his friends to be courageous.

The antithesis between faith and fear can be deeply existential, and even paralyzing. The darkness of an imagined future—and for us all futures can only be imagined—impinges itself upon one’s imagination, the imagination gives birth to a multitude of thoughts, and thoughts generate all the variant emotions of fear. That fear then exercises its power over the will, shaping choices and acts, the movement of the soul in response to all these stimuli. And often those choices and actions are a retreat, even a retreat into the paralysis of inaction.

If one looks rationally at this process, which is to say if one were to contemplate this while not under the influence of fear, one can see that there are any number of points along the way in which one may stop this progression. If one consistently exercise his imagination upon the truths of the Gospel and the acts of God, one may well recognize the antithetical object of imagination. Resurrection has a different shape than death. But perhaps the stimulus to the imagination is strong. One may well then apply the opposing thought. The suffering daughter of Israel may say to herself that she is nothing else but an outcast and unclean, but she may also call to her mind that the Suffering Servant will bear all her stripes. And so it goes, in a process of the soul discipline for which I have no expertise to address.

It may be well to note that the longer we entertain the fearful thought, the benighted future, the stifling emotion, the harder is the release from these things obtained. Fear needs nothing more than prolonged attention to root itself most deeply in our heart and mind. The more quickly it is fronted and dealt with, the more easily it may be dismissed.

But while the science of the battle of these thoughts is the expertise of one’s spiritual father, there is, through it all, a very simple act that one may choose, indeed, one must choose, instant by instant. For faith is an act of trust, a personal movement of the will. Contrary to fear, the act of faith responds to this present moment, this now in which is salvation, this God who is here right now with me in this place. One need say or think nothing to oneself but only to reach out to that good God and lover of mankind who is always worthy of our every allegiance. Let the storms rage, let the isolation from our fellow man raise its walls, let our sense of unworthiness and the fear of betrayal wreak all its power on our hearts. We can always, at every moment, reach out to him who walks on the waters and calls to us “Take courage, it is I.”

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Christian Philosophy? I

I’m going to conduct an experiment of sorts here: I’m going to think out loud on my blog. I have recently begun reading a book by B. N. Tatakis entitled Christian Philosophy in the Patristic and Byzantine Tradition (tr George Dragas, Orthodox Research Institute 2007), in which, in the first chapter, Tatakis asks the question, “Is there a Christian philosophy?” There is no doubt that this question will be answered more fully as the book proceeds, but I find myself dissatisfied with what I take to be Tatakis’ answer. And yet I cannot get a grasp on my dissatisfaction.

First of all, let’s note that this work was published in the early 50s, and that Dr. Tatakis has an extensive ouerve on Hellenistic and Byzantine philosophy. There may well be other insights gained from his other writings.

But it seems to me that he gives the question something of short shrift. In a chapter that numbers only 14 pages in English translation, he spends nearly all of it offering the critical views of those opposed to the notion of a Christian philosophy (as distinguishable as a philosophy), and some oblique criticisms of those criticisms, teases out some Gilson, and then suddenly wraps up the chapter with his conclusion:

Since, therefore, there is a philosophy in the work of Christian philosophers and since Christianity continues to influence, even today and to inspire the thought of many philosophers, the notion of Christian philosophy, in spite of the objections of the rationalists, is not contradictory, but has a meaning which expresses a particular historical fact. As long as a faithful Christian establishes his conviction on the inner persuasion which is offered to him by the faith, he is a pure believer who has not yet entered into the sphere of philosophy, but from the moment when he can distinguish among his convictions truths, which can become the object of science, he becomes a philosopher. These new lights he owes to the Christian religion, and therefore, it is right that he is called a Christian philosopher. (pp 13-14)

And it’s on to Christian metaphysics in the next chapter.

But this seems a sleight of hand to me. While he offers some comments on the uniqueness of Christian convictions, I do not detect a definition of philosophy. He seems to simply accept what the “rationalists” (those who oppose the view that there is a Christian philosophy) understand philosophy is, and moves on. Philosophy, then, is something of a critical science, which elicits truths that are objects of inquiry.

I’m not sure this is even philosophy. And I have a very strong suspicion this is not even the Christian view of truth.

But I’ve still not yet got a handle on this question. At this point, I’m going to use Tatakis as a jumping off point (though I’ll refer back to the paragraph cited above), and worry the matter out from here. More to come as the inclination energizes a motivation for my thinking on the matter.

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St Demetrius of Thessalonica

StDemetrius

Troparion Tone 3

The world has found you to be a great defense against tribulation
and a vanquisher of heathens, O Passion-bearer.
As you bolstered the courage of Nestor,
who then humbled the arrogance of Lyaios in battle,
Holy Demetrius, entreat Christ God to grant us great mercy.

Kontakion Tone 2

God, who has given you invincible might,
has tinged the Church with streams of your blood, Demetrius!
He pre-serves your city from harm,
for you are its foundation!

From the OCA website:

The Great Martyr Demetrius the Myrrh-gusher of Thessalonica was the son of a Roman proconsul in Thessalonica. Three centuries had elapsed and Roman paganism, spiritually shattered and defeated by the multitude of martyrs and confessors of the Savior, intensified its persecutions. The parents of St Demetrius were secretly Christians, and he was baptized and raised in the Christian Faith in a secret church in his father’s home,

By the time Demetrius had reached maturity and his father had died, the emperor Galerius Maximian had ascended the throne (305). Maximian, confident in Demetrius’ education as well as his administrative and military abilities, appointed him to his father’s position as proconsul of the Thessalonica district. The main tasks of this young commander were to defend the city from barbarians and to eradicate Christianity. The emperor’s policy regarding Christians was expressed simply, “Put to death anyone who calls on the name of Christ.” The emperor did not suspect that by appointing Demetrius he had provided a way for him to lead many people to Christ.

(more…)

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Every Myers-Briggs I take there’s one unvarying result: I score strong in introvert. So when @celticwanderer and @anglobaptist both posted the link to this somewhat tongue-in-cheek article I felt validated after all these years. Introverts of the world, stay home!

From here:

Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone. They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression. Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially “on,” we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn’t antisocial. It isn’t a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: “I’m okay, you’re okay—in small doses.”

So what does one do in caring for an introvert?

How can I let the introvert in my life know that I support him and respect his choice? First, recognize that it’s not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s an orientation.

Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don’t say “What’s the matter?” or “Are you all right?”

Third, don’t say anything else, either.

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Almost There (And None Too Soon)

Well, I continue work on the presentation about the Orthodox Church that I’ll be giving in just a little over a week. I have greatly scaled back on the talk (trying to exercise rhetorical sensitivities to my audience as mostly first-timers in their exposure to Orthodoxy). So I pushed a lot into a “supplemental resources” packet (sorry, 89 pages in pdf–overkill?). The talk itself is going into PowerPoint format. I’m trying to nail down content, and then see what I can do about design. No lasers and dry-ice machines, but it needs to be more visually appealing.

This has been a good invitation/project for me. I’ve got to take the equivalent of five years (plus) of private research and learning, and put it into a format that is accessible to folks that I have to assume will have little to no exposure to the Orthodox Church. Further, this will be an audience who will likely have little to no exposure to some of the technical philsophical/theological terminology which I would otherwise be able to use as something of a shorthand. I am being forced to introduce concepts and histories for which I will have to find non-technical terminology and/or definitions. This is a good thing. But it is a hard thing. One advantage I have is that I was raised in this Christian milieu, so there are things about it that are very, very familiar to me. But this is also a disadvantage in a way: I will have to be very careful that my familiarity does not come off as a lack of deference. I owe a great deal to my heritage churches, and I want that to come off clearly–even though my reception into the Orthodox Church must no doubt be perceived as an implicit critique of my heritage churches.

I’m still somewhat flabbergasted at how all this sort of serendipitously worked itself out. It’s a unique opportunity I have never had before, and do not anticipate having again. May the Lord make this a blessing not only to my hearers but to me as well.

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