Friday, May 30, 2008

What Grace Doesn’t Do: Some Thoughts on Orthodox/Catholic Conversations

Now that my more academic research is finished (for the moment, I'll be starting a new project on the passions and levels of consciousness in S. Freud (psychoanalysis), A. Beck (cognitive psychology), and A. van Kaam (existential-phenomenological psychology) in the next few weeks), I have time to put in writing a talk I gave at the Society of St John Chrysostom. The talk discussed, rather poorly in my view, why conversations between Orthodox and Catholic Christians so often degenerated into polemics and ad hominem. As part of finishing up that work, I thought I would offer a few thoughts here and invite your comments.

What Grace Doesn't Do

One of my professors in graduate school, Fr Adrian van Kaam (to download a pdf that summarizes van Kaam's life and work, click here) pointed out on more than one occasion that though it was a great blessing for which we should be grateful an experience of God does not exempt us from the laws of human development or "an evident need for psychotherapy." In other words, not matter how profound my experience of God, it is ought not to be confused with either maturity or healthy psychological functioning.

And why would it?

For van Kaam, a cheerful and committed Thomist, the answer is that grace perfects, but does not replace, nature. While I don't disagree with my professor's explanation (which I have merely summarized in slogan form), I would add to it. To assume, as many seem to, that an experience of grace exempts me from the normal process of human growth and development is Christologically unsound. It to deny that in Christ the whole of human life is sanctified.

We read in the Scriptures, that "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man." (Lk 2.52) Taking Jesus Christ as our example, we can argue that the normal ebb and flow of human development is not necessarily opposed to sanctity and wisdom. Indeed, and again looking to Jesus as our example, it would seem that each stage of human developmental is capable of participating in the divine nature, even as in each developmental stage of His life, Jesus was Himself the Theanthropos . To borrow from Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution of Divine Revelation from the Second Vatican Council:

For this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. Moreover He confirmed with divine testimony what revelation proclaimed, that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to life eternal.

For Christians, Eastern or Western, Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant, is the whole of His life that is revelatory. His voluntary and life-giving death and glorious resurrection from the dead on the third day, together with Ascension into heaven and bestowal of the Holy Spirit, is the confirmation of what is true for the whole of His life. If this is true for Jesus Christ then it is (at least potentially) true for those of us who received His Name in Baptism.

This idea is probably not one that most of us would contest. Though I suspect that, in some cases at least, the agreement reflects more sentiment than rigorous anthropological reflection (but, as another of my professor's once asked, "Who am I to do things for the right reason? I know what's right and should simply do it. My thinking will, hopefully, catch up with by doing."). What is more controversial is the suggestion that an encounter with God does not bring with it mental health.

I need to be careful here. When I say "mental health" I do not mean this in a narrow, culturally bound, sense of the term. One of the most encouraging developments in the profession and science of psychology is the growing realization just how bound the notion of mental health is to the experience of one relatively small segment of contemporary American culture.

So when I say mental health I mean it in the broad sense, of the integrity of the person's cognitive, emotional and social functions. In classical philosophical and theological anthropology, this life of integral living is the life of virtue. By necessity virtue means for me that there is a certain degree of tension in any psychologically healthy life. Why? Well because, just to take one example, my social situation might be such that a virtuous response demands of me social isolation. Or virtue might even require of me that I live in a state of relative conflict with those around me.

Mental health then, reflects a convergence of internal and external factors. And like human development, it is dynamic. Within the limits of his/her life situation, the psychological healthy human being is flexible and adaptable in his or her thinking and behaving. Indeed though it is often (wrongly) conflated with political liberalism, a central characteristic of mental health is the ability to change, to become if you will, evermore who I am.

Mental illness, to return to the second of the two human realities that an experience of grace does not exempt us from, is the precisely the lack of this ability to change in a positive direction. Psychotherapy is concerned with those times in human life when we are unable to exercise our cognitive, emotional and social functions in the service of becoming more fully who we are. In a broad sense, psychotherapy serves the life of virtue.

Think for example of the alcoholic.

The problem with alcoholism is not that the alcoholic enjoys wine. The problem, the real sorrow of alcoholism, is that the person only enjoys wine—until of course his or her indifference to the other joys of life and his or her fixation on wine becomes so pervasive that even wine is no longer enjoyed and its consumption becomes a compulsion and what yesterday reflected human freedom, today is the sign and source of freedom's lack.

Returning now to the centrality of virtue to any anthropologically sound view of mental health what can we say? Virtue, as Aristotle and the Christian tradition, understands the term is about finding the mean between extremes. It is moderation that is the key to wholeness—and moderation is learned.

An experience of grace then does not allow us to leap frog over the typical stage of human growth and development. Just as we grow from child to adult, we also grow (ideally anyway) in virtue, in wholeness of being. To be human, to borrow from existentialism, is to live a life of dynamic openness to the future. But as Emmanuel Levinas and Gabriel Marcel remind us, the future, as future, is always unknown and unknowable. Or, to us van Kaam's phrase, to live a constant human life means that we remain open in awe, trust, and gratitude to the Mystery of Being (God) and becoming (human life as a life of dynamic openness).

So, what has this to do with the difficulties we often see in Catholic/Orthodox conversations?

Though it needs to be developed more fully, I would suggest this: We often talk as if the Catholic/Orthodox dialog is a conversation is between two different, even competing, traditions. In fact these conversations are always conversations between human beings who in their conversations with each other, make selective appeals to their own understanding of the past, both their own and the other's. Traditions, to state the painfully obvious, do not have conversations—only human beings can speak, can enter into a conversations. Tradition, as Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) has pointed out in Being in Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, only exist enhypostatically, that is, by way of the person.

Too often conversations between Eastern and Western Christians are not understood as human encounters. In fact, I would suggest that the reason that our conversations are so often polemical, is because we imagine that there is nothing of ourselves in our talks with each other. Let me go even further, we are so often polemical because we are striving not to encounter one another. We do not wish to know the other, because not only do we do not wish to be know by the other, we do not know, or even wish to know, ourselves personally. Any human encounter is necessarily one that demands from me both self-knowledge and change. To refuse one or the other of these is to refuse the encounter, the gift of the other person and so to refuse to receive my own life as a gift from God.

For too many of us, our attachment to our religious tradition is an escape, a refusal, of the dynamic and gratuitous quality of our own lives. We do not wish to grow, to change. Our conversations are polemical because more often than not, our thinking about ourselves is static and rigid. Catholic/Orthodox polemics—at least as we see them in contemporary practice—are only accidentally theological. In the main (and I will address this more in another post) our polemics reflect our own lack of wholeness, of balance, of our own lack of virtue. Or, to borrow from psychology, our encounters so often go wrong because of we are neurotic. And, to push things a bit further, Eastern and Western Christians tend to favor different neurotic styles.

As always, your questions, comments, and criticisms are not only welcome, they are desired.

More later.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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