Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

Symbol, Doubt, History, Faith

[This is a more obviously theological post than many of mine.]

Father Stephen Freeman reminds us that the way we ask questions regarding "what really happened," underpinning skepticism and fundamentalism alike, is a side-effect of a tremendous shift in consciousness. (Some will remember that I reviewed Fr. Freeman's blog Glory to God for All Things last year in my set of Brief Blog Reviews.) He sets the stage with way the problem is usually looked at today:
The question of faith in contemporary society is a matter of fact – "do I think this event actually happened?" It is around this single point that believers seem to arrange themselves.
Fr. Freeman traces this to the birth of historical consciousness in the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation.
The assault on the authority of the Church required (and still requires) a substitute. By what authority is the Church to be judged defective? .... Scripture is one obvious answer – with the lingering question of authoritative interpretation. And it was at this point that history, as something of a rational science, had its foundations.... The meaning of Scripture had to be loosed from its place within tradition, and sheltered under the guise of an independent fact. This is the birth of history as a collection of facts.... In our time this factualized sense of history has become the sole locus of reality, authority, etc. We have become thoroughly “historicized.”
Fr. Freeman's first illustrations of the contrast between the previous mindset and our own, however, do not concern the difference between an event "literally happening" and a story told for some other reason. It isn't a matter of saying, Oh, the Feeding of the Five Thousand -- that's just a parable; or with a shake of the head, "Creation in Seven Days -- don't you see, the Bible isn't a cosmology textbook?" Rather, Fr. Freeman's examples have to do with allegory:
The frequent assertion of images and types within the Scriptures runs deeply counter to the modern mind. That the Mother of God is also the Ark, the Candlestand, the Jar of Manna, the Rod of Aaron, etc. is not a mere exercise in literary games. The Fathers (and the hymns of the Church) treat such assertions in a manner that carries as much weight as our modern sense of historical facts. They feel about such things the way we feel about our beloved concrete, provable, verifiable events. And that such assertions cannot be provable, or verifiable in a manner that would satisfy us, troubles them not in the least.
In short:
The Fathers simply do not think or feel in the manner in which we most commonly think or feel. Their perception of things is not the same as ours.
This complex of questions is so close to the heart of spiritual malaise that engaging with it in a dispassionate manner is extremely challenging. To enter into the consciousness that can understand things this way -- the ease of allegory and symbol without opposing them to the literal, without giving implicit veto power to a false dichotomy -- is part of what is meant by the frequent injunction in Christian spiritual writings to "put on the mind of the Fathers." But on the other hand, this "mind" can only be cultivated if we somehow already can relax our anxiety and step into faith in a different way than is assumed by the default definitions of our era.

This means that this world view is in one sense a prerequisite, and in another sense a result. This creates a paradox, which can be felt to varying degrees. At worst, it seems a sort of double-bind: if you have to ask, you'll never know; or, it's all grace, and without grace you can't understand... Pressed through to it's ultimate "logical" conclusion, this creates an impasse: there is no passage, however narrow, between the mind of the believer and an unbeliever, but only a discontinuity. This sort of guillotine-slice between two "ways of thinking' is often associated -- not entirely correctly -- with a certain thread in reformed theology, of which the work of Cornelius Van Til is a fair representative:
There can be no appeasement between those who presuppose in all their thought the sovereign God and those who presuppose in all their thought the would-be sovereign man. There can be no other point of contact between them than that of head-on collision.
--Van Til, The Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel, p. 19
Elsewhere Van Til nuanced this stark contrast -- a little:
the natural man, using his principles and working on his assumptions, must be hostile in principle at every point to the Christian philosophy of life....all men have all things in common metaphysically and psychologically, was definitely asserted, [but] the natural man has epistemologically nothing in common with the Christian. ...this latter assertion [must be] qualified by saying that this is so only in principle.... So far then as men self-consciously work from this principle [of sin, or autonomy], they have no notion in common with the believer. Their epistemology is informed by their ethical hostility to God.
--Van Til, The Defense of the Faith pp. 189-190
Although Van Til seems to restrict the ravages of depravity to unbeliever's epistemology, the effect here is much the same, since the whole question is, ostensibly, How Do I Know?

At this point,let us note, I have moved far from the Orthodox ambit of Fr. Freeman. We'll circle back.

It may surprise some (or maybe not) to read this, but I actually don't think that Van Til's sort of language is always out of place. I take my cue from Wittgenstein. Thus:
Any man who is half-way decent will think himself extremely imperfect, but a religious man thinks himself wretched.
Wittgenstein, Culture and Value p 45, circa 1944
Wittgenstein was quite comfortable with using religious language -- usually Christian language -- in a way that was not about corresponding with facts:
Predestination: It is only permissible to write like this out of the most dreadful suffering - and then it means something quite different. But for the same reason it is not permissible for someone to assert it as a truth, unless he himself says it in torment. - It simply isn’t a theory. - Or, to put it another way: If this is truth, it is not truth that seems at first sight to be expressed by these words. It’s less a theory than a sigh, or a cry.
ibid, 1937
But Wittgenstein also knew that it was very possible to take such words in an utterly wrong, and indeed harmful, sense; and he had very specific examples in mind, from his own experience:
In religion it must be the case that corresponding to every level of devoutness there is a form of expression that has no sense at a lower level. For those still at the lower level, this doctrine, which means something at the higher level, is null and void; it can only be understood wrongly, and so these words are not valid for such a person. Paul's doctrine of election by grace, for instance, is at my level irreligious and ugly nonsense. So it is not meant for me since I can only apply wrongly the picture offered me." If it is a holy and good picture, then it is so for a quite different level, where it must be applied in life quite differently than I could apply it.
ibid, 1937
The sort of language Van Til employs (and I am only using him as an example) is disastrous until you are ready for it. Press this too soon and all you get is, "oh, so I've got a 'spirit of rebellion,' do I, because I ask questions?" and then, what do you know, you actually do feel kinda rebellious!

However, the disjunction, the "head-on collision" Van Til mentions, can also, in specific circumstances -- at the "right level," Wittgenstein might say -- be exactly the right move. Such a paradox can have a salvific effect for some when the crisis is broken through. Suddenly, in a hitting-rock-bottom sort of way, utterly cornered by the Hound of Heaven, such a one can see the whole dilemma just snap open. For a brief moment, the nature of grace becomes obviously inescapable, and this experience, modulated into the key of "belief," is quite accurately rendered in the language of I-once-was-lost-but-now-am-found.

As a way of "putting on the mind of the Fathers," though, it's pretty undependable.

Another way, much more reliable, is ordinary practice: the everyday use of language and music and full-immersion liturgical discipline, which after long exposure can suddenly appear in retrospect (and sometimes even if it has seemed "rote" or merely antiquarian) as an ascetic training in seeing the world otherwise. It is slow, and of course also requires intentionality; but it has the advantage of going deep into a person.

From the outside -- the modern, "historicized" outside -- of course, both of these "methods," if I may use the word, look suspicious. The latter looks like simple acculturation ("brainwashing," I hear some of my atheist friends mutter); the former looks sort of like Stockholm Syndrome.

Fortunately, there is also a third way (and in fact, a "modern", even a "historicized" way): to see that there remain commonalities between us and this ancient world: and this in two directions -- for the ancients not as indifferent to fact as we may think in our caricatures (Origen for instance is perfectly calm about calling the account in Genesis 1 "not true in a bodily fashion," but he's also quite comfortable with the Empty Tomb being, well, really Empty -- and very recently vacated); nor are we indifferent to symbol, even though we may have a skewed relation to it now. (E.g.: money.) This is where philosophy as propaedeutic comes in, for taking this route is partly a matter of scholarship, partly of philosophy proper; curiously it hinges upon the very historical discipline which has encouraged the spiritual narrowing of which Fr Freeman speaks. This is part of what I mean when I speak, as I often do, of philosophy as a kind of Salvage Ops -- philosophy characteristically grants a critique and then presses it far enough to discern and rescue the essential experience in what is critiqued. The fact that even this is becoming very difficult is part of the poison of historicism, which at first advertises itself as "awareness of history," but eventually becomes an erasure of historical memory. (Compare, obviously, the Phaedrus.)

All these three ways can be put together; practice and study and crisis trading off; there is an important sense in which for any of us in the modern world this is almost essential. But a question arises: are we saying that this is what Christianity thinks is important? Being able to inhabit this allegorical landscape with perfect Keatsean negative capability, no "irritable reaching after fact and reason"? Being able to see the Virgin Mary as the Jar of Manna and the Ark of the Covenant? Is this ancient way of thinking and feeling differently, constitutive of salvation? Or is it, as it were, a kind of prerequisite?

Trick question. Everyone's "False dichotomy" buzzer should be going off. In the course of a (very informative) conversation in the comments, Fr. Freeman refers to the etymology of "symbol" ("putting together") and, pertinently, its antonym -- diabole. He cites Alexander Schmemann (one of the theologians of the 20th century, a man who was crucial in letting Christianity speak to our age), to wit:
in the common theological language as it takes shape between the Carolingian renaissance and the Reformation, and in spite of all controversies between rival theological schools, the “incompatibility between symbol and reality,” between “figura et veritas” is consistently affirmed and accepted. “To the ‘mystice, non vere’ corresponds not less exclusively ‘vere, non mystice.’” The Fathers and the whole early tradition, however—and we reach here the crux of the matter—not only do not know this distinction and opposition, but to them symbolism is the essential dimension of the sacrament, the proper key to its understanding. St. Maximus the Confessor, the sacramental theologian par excellence of the patristic age, calls the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist symbols (“symbola”), images (“apeikonismata”) and mysteries (“mysteria”). “Symbolical” here is not only not opposed to “real,” but embodies it as its very expression and mode of manifestation.
--Schmemann, For the Life of the World, pp. 138-139
After all, any sacramental Christian ought to be thinking, when you really receive the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ, this is salvation.

And yet. While Scripture speaks of "putting on the mind of Christ," it does not have much to say about the capacity to be sanguine about icons or not uptight about whether such and such a miracle-story "really happened;" so urging us to cultivate such a mentality, while perhaps apposite, is still not quite obviously the same as relating to the truth of the miracle, or worshipping the God shown forth in the icon.

Thus the need not to substitute this "ancient way," the "Mind of the Fathers", for what is apprehended in this way, by this mind. I am very wary of phrasing the matter this way, and almost certainly have got it wrong. It may be that in really undergoing this noetic purification, one finds that there is no such difference -- but that is only the case at the end, not at the beginning: a matter of "level." One sets out not to "experience symbols" in a particularly penetrating mode, but to encounter God. It is, one might hazard, a question of form and content. This question may at some point become irrelevant -- and perhaps this point is even the most important point -- but it does not start out as irrelevant.

But surely this is too pat: "Set out to encounter God," indeed. As if God were a destination. Or as if I wanted to encounter Him! When I spend nearly every moment of every day running away. And no doubt, cultivating a different way of navigating facts and historicity, allowing them to become translucent, can itself be clever way of avoiding the real work of ascesis. But one may also suspect that -- even under such circumstances -- it may serve. If there is (as the Psalmist says) nowhere one can flee, not in the depths of the sea, not in Sheol, then even our ways of avoiding God must lead us to God. (Such, says C.S. Lewis, is "the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms.") By grace one may find that even such ill-motivated or rote "practice" may still have been the occasion by which one trains oneself (or rather is trained by tradition) to be ready for the moment which will come -- the moment when there is no place left to hide. To see this moment and welcome it instead of panicking; to meet it with love and not fear.

There were indeed many "who had seen, and yet did not believe." They had had some experience of a kind of "content," but absent a certain "form," it turned out to not be the same content after all. And that is indeed, at least a point of the story -- whether or not it "really happened" in exactly that way.

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