Friday, June 06, 2008

Polemics, Zeal and St Isaac the Syrian

Isaac the Syrian is probably the most eloquent patristic witness for the position I have been sketching out (you can read that post here). The saint writes that "Someone who has actually tasted truth is not contentious for truth. Someone who is considered by people to be zealous for truth has not yet learnt what truth is really like; once he has truly learnt it, he will cease from zealousness on its behalf." [Kephalaia IV.77; The Wisdom
of Saint Isaac the Syrian, translated by Sebastian Brock, (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press Convent of the Incarnation, 1997), p15.]

Commenting on this passage, David Goa, writes that like relativism, the zealousness that informs our polemical attitude "fail to discern aright what stands under the desire we have for that which is true." Both relativism and zeal, deform our desire for the truth "into an appetite." Once the pursuit of truth becomes an appetite, a passion in patristic terminology,

Whatever we come to look at and care about is then forced into conformity with the idea, image, or ritual that we have erected as absolute. We begin to hang all our hopes and dreams on the truth of our chosen framework, our precious absolutes (including the relativists' precious absolute that there is nothing of ultimate value). Our longing is captured by an absolute of our own making. It follows, almost without saying, that once we hang all our hopes and dreams on something that we claim as absolute, it is a short step to hanging all our fears on it as well. In this moment the holy longing of the human heart and mind that lies behind the search for absolutes becomes polluted. Zealousness for the truth frames how we see and understand and reshapes our response to the fragility of the life of the world.

Goa continues by observing that the symptom our passionate pursuit of the truth is a need for enemies. My passion (pathos) for the truth can only be sustained insofar as I stand in opposition to someone or something. But this approach is one "that reduces complexity and purpose to frame [my assumed] conclusions." But for the Christian "this is a false start for it begins neither at the heart of human nature or in the presence of God's love" but in fear. Again, Goa:  "For St. Isaac, zeal for truth is itself a symptom of a spiritual disease. Or, perhaps, it is a condition that tends to develop at a certain stage in the spiritual life and is itself simply a marker of that stage. It is the spiritual equivalent of adolescence where the young try out all sorts of ideas and actions with the conviction that no one else has ever had these thoughts or feelings and they are exploring them for the first time. How can it be that no one else has ever seen just how important and ultimate these thoughts and feelings are?"

There is a sense in which our zealous pursuit of truth "is part of the process of maturation." So when as a spiritual father I see the "zealousness for truth" spoken of by St. Isaac, I understand that it is "a stage in the spiritual development of the person. But just as with adolescence, if the condition persists, spiritual growth is arrested. One is stuck in the adolescent stage of the spiritual life."

Christ however calls us to wholeness of being. Part and parcel of this wholeness means that by God's grace and our own efforts "we are freed from the habit of taking refuge in abstract notions of truth. If we taste of truth at every Eucharist we know better. If we taste of truth every time we, like the disciples, find ourselves in Emmaus breaking bread with someone we didn't know we knew, we know better. We know better every time our hearts are moved with compassion."

But as I mentioned earlier, polemics, a zealous approach to the truth has a strangle hold on us because 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. We are, as I said earlier, neurotic

At the risk of misapplying the theory, I will in the next essay explore the different neurotic styles that seem favored by Eastern and Western Christians. To anticipate, Eastern Christians tend to see themselves as standing "against" others, even as Western Christians tend to move "toward."

But that for another day.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Tradition and the Passions

In an earlier post, I argued that a tradition exists, enhypostatically, that is only by way of the person. What might this mean for East/West conversations?

Let me suggest that if the tradition only exists by way of the person, then tradition is not simply, or even primarily, an objective content. Rather tradition is a virtue and virtues wax and wane. In other words, a tradition is only more or less revealed by how I live my life. Complicating this further, is that I do not live or embody only one tradition. Rather each human life is lived as the intersection of multiple traditions.

So yes, I am an Orthodox Christian, but my experience of that tradition has been co-formed (as van Kaam would argue) by the variety of other traditions in which I live. For example, I am an Orthodox Christian, but I am also an American. Currently my wife and I live in Ohio (yet another tradition), though we have lived in Pennsylvania, California and Texas. My wife grew up in Oregon, I grew up in Connecticut—so there are two more traditions that form our lives.

Complicating this further, my understanding of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian is strongly influenced by my becoming Orthodox as an adult, by being a psychologist, my service as a mission priest and a college chaplain. All of these are central to me and so to how I come to embody the Tradition of the Orthodox Church. And this is all before we look at my own unique genetic and psychological characteristics.

And if this is true for me, it is also true for my Catholic partner in a theological conversation.

Add to this outside observers, each of whom live at the confluence of multiple traditions and with their own unique backgrounds, who may "eavesdrop" on our conversation and how complex the conversation between us becomes!

Does this mean that we should not engage in theological conversations across traditions? No. It does mean however that we need to attentive to how these other traditions influence us personally, our perception of both our own theological tradition and that our partner in conversation, and really the whole of our encounter with each other.

Given the complexity of the situation it might at first seem that a theological conversation is pointless. It isn't. BUT, and this is an important point, each of these traditions carries with it what van Kaam called life directives or "oughts." We may agree or disagree with these directives, but they influence us in either case. To the degree that we are unaware of these directives they rob us of our freedom to respond in charity.

All of this is to say that even if the content of our conversation with each other is lofty, we are still under the sway of the passions. We are motivated by a desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain—and unless we are well formed in the spiritual life, and psychologically sound, what we are mostly likely to give voice to is not the tradition of the Orthodox Church or the tradition of the Catholic Church, but our own passions. And this, I would suggest, is true regardless of the objective validity of any given statement that we might make.

The example I use with my own spiritual children is this, it may in fact be objectively the case that I am stupid and my mother dresses me funny, but it is unlikely that telling me this truth is sufficient to change my life. Still less is telling me this likely to encourage me to trust you and give you a place of authority in my life. And let us make no mistake here, in any conversation I have, I only listen to the views of those who I see as authoritative—I might or might not trust they authority, but I still must see them as an authority for me.

As I said earlier, far too often and 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 that van Kaam does such a effective job of delineating for us. Often we embody this refusal in our polemic attitude and conversation with others.

Whatever the reason, sharp disagreements are inevitable when we are looking together at what divides us. Polemics, however, seem to me to begin with that sharp disagreement. In so doing, they are intellectually unchaste embodying as they do an underlying lack of respect for the limitations of both self and others. In our polemical attitude we are freed from any consideration of our own passions in the pursuit of the Truth. The fact that we often say things which are true does not remove from us the burden of intellectual dishonesty.