Proper Names

The ancient Greeks distinguished human beings from the rest of the cosmos as having the capacity for articulation, having the capacity of language. But not merely the capacity for communication, because, broadly speaking, even some non-human animal species have some limited means of communication.

But human beings are able to communicate their own inner states and experiences such that other humans beings can both understand and can similarly articulate the same experiences. But finally, human beings do something else: they give names to the cosmos and that which moves and breathes, and even to give names to things that do not, strictly speaking, exist.

This is why, in our present society, so much power is given to naming. And when the civic agreement on which a society is bound together becomes tattered and frayed, the power of naming becomes distorted. While it purports to represent reality, in actual fact, it doesn’t matter whether the name has any basis in reality or fact. Where there is rumor and innuendo in a society in which shame is the cultural coin, all that matters is whether a name may take hold merely by repetition and tribal cohesion around such naming. If my tribe says that a member of our enemy tribe is evil, that coin is both valuable and powerful. If I wish to make exchange within the parameters of my tribe, I am bound to agree with, indeed, to believe in the naming. Even if I merely question the name, I risk the loss of my cultural purchasing ability, and perhaps exile.

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Let us be clear of one thing: suffering is evil, particularly the suffering of the innocent. No appeal to the instrumentality of suffering–it leads to this or that good–justifies it. I speak here not in philosophical terms, but from the standpoint of those who suffer.
But if suffering cannot be justified, neither is God to blame. This, too, is a falsehood, a series of false dichotomies. A good and loving and all-powerful God is neither to blame for the suffering, nor blame-worthy for not delivering each and every victim from every stab and pain of suffering. I speak here not from a framework of theodicy, but from the standpoint of those who experience God in suffering.
For this is the great and awful mystery of suffering, the deliverance in suffering is not always deliverance from the pain of suffering, but rather the deliverance to faith in the midst of suffering, the transfer of the soul to God.
I do not say this lightly. There are those who experience unrelenting, lifelong physical pain. There are those who experience unrelenting, lifelong mental and emotional pain. And it is quite clear how such pain can warp and embitter the soul. And no philosophical justification, no doctrinal theodicy, can straighten or sweeten such souls.
But the deliverance that can come in such suffering is the divine presence. This presence does not eliminate pain of body, heart or mind. It does something different. It enables the soul, that inward heart, that center of one’s being, to enlarge, to take in a certain divine darkness, which is dark only because it is absolute light, which goes beyond all sight, all reason, and speaks wordlessly, communicates a kind of infallible ignorance, which is sweeter than any bitterness, which straightens all things bent, and fills beyond all capacity.
These things cannot be expressed adequately, and most terrible of all, for us sinful ones, it is only seen from afar, with a kind of hopeful trust that in an unknown time, in a manner unlooked for, this deliverance into the divine embrace will come. It is hope for this deliverance which keeps the suffering soul circling around the cruciform axis. Where else could such a soul go? For here alone is the Bread of Life, the Medicine of Immortality.

Our culture focuses on self-discovery.  From our youngest years we are inculcated in the pursuit of “finding out who we are.”  In a psychological sense, we do, indeed, need a strong and healthy sense of Self, of a sense of being that is separate from and unique as compared to others.  Failure to develop a healthy sense of self can lead to all sorts of personality disorders, including narcissism and codependency.

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Modern citizens of Western democracies, children of the Enlightenment, profess to be devotees of the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, empirical and repeated processes to test hypotheses, followed by more observation, and leading, so it is affirmed, to a logical conclusion.  And yet, conversely, these same devotees of the scientific method insist on one empirically falsifiable notion: that with enough knowledge, technological know-how, and the scientific method, human nature is perfectable.  Coupled with this belief in the perfectibility of human nature, is its obverse twin: all of human history and society are progressing to ever-more enlightenment and perfectibility.  Thankfully, the ancient Greeks, and with them, all of Christian tradition, did and do not hold to such empirically false dogmas.

The evidence that human nature is both imperfect and wholly imperfectible is all around us.  Murders.  Theft.  Adultery.  Greed.  Let’s simply run through the list of seven deadly vices, or log on to social media.  Better yet: read a Twitter feed.

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An Incomplete Life

One day, I will die.  My life here will come to an end.  I say that not to be morbid, but to state the obvious.  Whatever I am doing in that final moment, wherever I am, when I die, I will leave my life in media res.  The relationships I have cultivated will still be in motion.  The consequences of the words and deeds I have said and done will still trail out behind me.  All the work of my life, all the love I have given, will finally end incomplete.  If I have any material goods to leave to my estate, they will dwindle away, parceled out here and there.  My legacy, whatever it may be, will pass out of my hands.  All that I have, all that I am, will end with much still left to do.

There is a fiction that we build a life to completion.  This is impossible for us.  We are taught to bless one another with the prayer, “God grant you many years.”  But this is a prayer asking that we may be given enough time to turn from the sins, mistakes and hurt we have done and caused others, to do instead those good works that heal and mend, to say those words that soothe and comfort.  Like a Kansas farmer tilling soil, we cultivate a life of good deeds and words, knowing full well not all the good deeds and words of a thousand lifetimes would be enough.  Our brief journey of perhaps seventy-five years will always fall far short, the gap between what should have been and what has been infinitely large.

We do not often consciously think about ourselves, our lives, as incomplete.  But we do so rush around as to fill the gap with so many things, with relationships, with experiences and feeling.  We turn our attentions, our hopes, our anger, outward.  We seek power and control to mold our lives and our circumstances, and other people, to fill this gap within.  But there is no, and never will be, satisfaction of that sort.  We must seek a different fulfillment.

If we have no belief in an after life, our finiteness is ever more presented in bold relief.  But even if we do, if we pause long enough to think it through, we realize entry to that after life will never be successfully predicated on what we do or say.  Even if we were, somehow, to avoid any ill deeds and words, it will be the failures to speak and act, the things we did not do or say, which will provide reason enough to bar our entry.  We might, as Job, wish ourselves never to have been born.

This is not, however, cause for despair.  In fact, it is a great mercy and a relief.  Imperfect creatures as we are, we offer up only that which is ours to offer, namely the imperfect works of love and prayer and mercy such as we are able to give.  We are dust, to be sure, and to dust we shall return.  But in the meantime, we love, we live, and we find joy in the midst of our imperfection.  A joy that is not created by us, but is rather given to us in mercy.

An incomplete life is, we must understand, a gift.  What we have, all that we have, is given.  The very breaths we take are a gift.  These same breaths we will surrender on the appointed day.  The breaths that have warmed the necks of our children as we embrace them at bedtime.  The breaths that have whispered private words in the ears of our beloved.  And when we surrender them, there will still be so much more to do.

This, then, is mercy and grace.  One day I will die.  My life here will come to an end.  And when I die, I will still be in the middle of things.  Things I have done and left undone.  Words I said or failed to say.  I will not be able even to offer these at the end.  In the end, it is the very fact of my incomplete life that I will only be able to offer.  It was given to me in the first place.  I will only be able to offer it back, in trust, asking mercy for my stewardship of it.

To Speak of the Sacred

It has been understood for millennia that what makes humans unique above all creatures is our power of speech, that is to say, our ability to communicate.  We certainly have the capacity for the most rudimentary forms of communication: “food,” “water,” “hungry,” “danger.”  But we also have a unique capacity to speak of immaterial realities: “love,” “spirit,” “god,” “heaven.”  In the preceding and most recent centuries, some have taken great pains to explain how alike we are to certain animal species.  But one glorious and irrefutable example suffices to emphasize our uniqueness: we can communicate about things we cannot see, and about those things that are not strictly necessary for material survival.  Monastics who never procreate can speak of the sublimities of divine love.  Yeoman farmers who will never study Kant or Descartes may nonetheless speak of existential angst; which speech does nothing to plant or harvest the crops.

Indeed, it is particularly the most obvious inutility of certain aspects of human speech that make us most unique and make us most human.  But perhaps such inutility is only obvious from a certain perspective.  For the power of articulation is precisely the ability to grasp the abstract realities from concrete particulars.  The observations of dozens of planting seasons yields the deduction of planetary motion.  That is to say, the uniquely human power of speech is the necessary comprehension of the realities underlying the perceived world.

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The Place of Reason and Science

If you’re looking to build a house, a hammer is an indispensable tool.  But it is not the only tool you’ll need.  To build a house, you’ll need a large array of tools and materials.  To insist that a hammer, and only a hammer, is the sort of tool you need to build a house is, at best, impractical.  It may also be delusional.

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