Friday, July 04, 2008

“For I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6.6)

With this post, I am bringing to an end my thoughts on the psychology of polemics. You can find the other posts in this series here, here, here, here, here , here, here, and (finally!) here. As I mentioned, in these reflections I am writing as much, if not more, to myself than to anyone else. What little self-knowledge I have rather clear tells me that reconciliation and forgiveness are not necessarily what I desire. Power, authority, prestige, yes certainly. But humility and a life of being merciful and compassionate—being myself not simply an agent of reconciliation but a man of forgiveness—well this I don't desire nearly as I should.

In my last post, I suggested that hidden within our polemics is a desire for reconciliation. That desire is obscured, however, because we often live not by desire (as Levinas uses the term) but by need and need is grounded in our physical nature. David Joplin in his essay "Levinas on Desire, Dialogue and the Other" writes that because "needs are satiable, they mark out a kind of 'restricted economy,' or system seeking a homeostatic balance." While we always seek to satisfy our needs, our desires have a different focus, for desire "is an aspiration that the Desirable--the absolutely Other—animates." Need tends to be self-referential, desire, transcendent. Likewise, polemics tend to be restrictive, reconciliation expansive.

Bishop Hilarion of the Moscow Patriarchate in an insightful paper, "The Patristic Heritage and Modernity," asks "But why should faith be 'patristic'?" And having asked he proceeds to answer his own question. "Might this imply that Orthodoxy must be necessarily styled as in the 'patriarchal days of old'? Or is it that, as Christians, we should always be turned towards the past instead of living in the present or working for the future? Should perhaps some "golden age" in which the great Fathers of the church lived, the 4th century for instance, be our ideal, a bearing to guide us? Or, finally, could this imply that the formation of our theological and ecclesial tradition has been completed during the "patristic era", and that, subsequently, nothing new may take place in Orthodox theology and Orthodox church life in general?"

He continues by saying that "If this were so – there are many who think exactly this - it would mean that our principal task is to watch over what remains of the Byzantine and Russian heritage, and vigilantly guard Orthodoxy against the infectious trends of modern times. Some act in precisely this way: fearfully rejecting the challenges of modernity, they dedicate all their time to preserving what they perceive as the traditional teaching of the Orthodox Church, explaining that in the present times of 'universal apostasy' no creative understanding of Tradition is needed, since everything already has been understood and demonstrated by the fathers centuries earlier. Such supporters of "protective Orthodoxy" like, as a rule, to refer to the 'teachings of the holy fathers'. Yet in reality they do not know patristic doctrine: they make use of isolated patristic notions to justify their own theories and ideas without studying patristic theology in all its pluriformity and totality."

While his Grace argues for the need to preserve the inheritance of the fathers, he also argues for the need to "invest the talent of the patristic heritage." If we seek to invest the treasures of the fathers, "we find ourselves confronted by a tremendous task indeed, comprising not only the study of the works of the Fathers, but also their interpretation in the light of contemporary experience; it similarly requires an interpretation of our contemporary experience in the light of the teaching of the Fathers. This not only means studying the Fathers; the task before us is also to think patristically and to live patristically. For we will not be able to understand the fathers, if we have not shared their experience and endeavours, at least to a certain degree."

As a theological matter, at best polemics tend to be concerned with preservation, reconciliation (or so I would assert) with investment—in drawing new, as yet undisclosed, riches from our tradition. But as his Grace suggests, this is not an easy task and given the risk requires not only faith in God but also a fair amount of courage.

Where might we find that courage?

Earlier I argued that the intellect serves the heart as its guardian—the intellect is essential in helping keep from the heart images that would corrupt us from within. While guarding the heart is essential, it is insufficient, the heart must be purified by prayer and fasting so that, purified by grace and our own efforts, we can see God. Under no circumstances, however, can we allow the intellect to lead the heart.

Guarded by the intellect, and purified by pray and fasting, mercy emerges in the heart. Though I am far from it, my thinking on the psychology of polemics has reminded me that I need to have a merciful heart. As St Isaac the Syrian says.

What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person's heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.

What so concerns me about polemics is the ease with which even the very best of intentions are used to justify an indifference, and even hostility, to mercy.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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