h1

Marilynne Robinson’s “Absence of Mind”

July 22, 2010

I recommend you check out David Bentley Hart’s review of Marilynne Robinson’s book “Absence of Mind”. The literary talent behind Gilead, and Home (among others), and the keen mind behind The Death of Adam offers a published version of last years’ Terry Lectures given at Yale University. With her discerning eye and broad scope — encompassing culture, science, history, and philosophy — she takes on the modern “parascientific” myths about the human mind that are popularly shopped to us. Trust me, philosophy of mind is a high stakes hurt locker of questions and literature; and often the questions and the literature don’t match. According to Hart (whom I trust), Robinson (who I respect) has handled this important topic responsibly, deftly, and insightfuly.

If you’re not immediately interested because of DBH’s endorsement or because, well, it’s Marilynne Robinson, here’s a taste of what Hart has to say.

What Robinson’s book shows perhaps most clearly is that reductionism is not a philosophy honestly distilled from experience, but a dogma imposed upon it. For roughly a century and a half, Western culture has been falling ever more thoroughly under the sway of the prejudice that modern empirical science is not only the sole model of genuine truth but also capable of explaining all things. It is a strange belief, but to those who hold it sincerely, nothing is more intolerable than the thought that anything might lie beyond the probative reach of their “mechanical philosophy.” And so the exclusion of interiority, and of the self’s consciousness of itself, from their understanding of our humanity is simply inevitable, no matter how irrational or arbitrary that exclusion may be. “Subjectivity,” writes Robinson, “is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.”

Even his criticism is a compliment:

If, though, I had to come up with some complaint to make against the book, I suppose I could fret for a few moments that its rhetorical power might possibly distract many readers from the cogency of its arguments. Ours is the age of “bullet” headings, after all, and expository prose is expected to come in bland, easily digestible fragments, composed entirely of short, often repetitious declamatory sentences. There is some danger, consequently, that Robinson’s literary grace — the expressive force of her language, the dense economy of her sentences, the fluidity with which she moves from point to point — will be mistaken by some as willful obscurity, or resented as a cruel tax upon their patience.

It would, however, be a dark day for civilization if writers of Robinson’s gifts could be swayed by complaints of that sort. In point of fact, much of the joy of reading Robinson comes from her ability to translate complex ideas into words suited to their subtleties. Beginning with her remarkable debut novel Housekeeping (1980), all of her work, fiction and essays alike, has been marked by a luminous intelligence and a rather attractive intellectual severity, communicated in a language that wastes no words and that demands attentiveness. Absence of Mind is a short book, but also an intensely reflective and penetrating one, and it offers considerable rewards for anyone willing to read it carefully, and to think along with it. For all its brevity, it makes its case with surprising comprehensiveness.

If you haven’t read Robinson before, consider this your call to duty.  I haven’t read Absence of Mind yet, but it has just rocketed up on my list.

 

h1

St. Silouan on Nietzsche

July 20, 2010

From Blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov’s book St. Silouan the Athonite. (“Staretz” is a Russian term for a spiritual elder, and the term is used affectionately by Elder Sophrony for his mentor and spiritual father.)

I remarked to the Staretz that there are people who interpret freedom from passion, not as love for God but as a particular kind of contemplation of being, ranking higher than distinguishing good from evil, and they rank such contemplation above Christian love. To this, the Staretz replied,

‘That comes from the devil. The Holy Spirit teaches otherwise.’

And listening to the Staretz, I could not help thinking to so-called ‘supermen’ who ascend ‘on the other side of good and evil’.

The Staretz used to say,

‘The Holy Spirit is love, and He gives the sould strength to love her enemies. And he who does not love his enemies does not know God.’

This last criterion occupied an absolutelyexclusive and incontestable place in the Staretz soul. He would say,

‘The Lord is a merciful Creator, having compassion for all. The Lord pities all sinners as a mother is compassionate with her children even when they take the wrong path. where there is no love for enemies and sinners, the Spirit of the Lord is missing.’ (104-5)

What follows is one of my favorite stories from  St. Silouan’s life that illustrates his exceeding love.

I remember a conversation between him and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction,

‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’

Obviously upset, the Staretz said,

‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire — would you feel happpy?

‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.

The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance:

‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.’

And he did, indeed, pray for all. It became unnatural for him to pray for himself alone. All men are subject to sin, all ‘come short of the glory of God’. The mere thought of this was enough to distress him — in the measure given to him he had already seen the glory of God and known what it was to fall short of it. His soul was stricken by the realization that people lived in ignorance of God and His love, and with all his strength he prayed that the Lord in His inscrutable love might suffer them to know Him. (48-49)

h1

The Purpose of Lent

March 29, 2010

This is a fantastic sermon by Fr. Pat Reardon.  Though it was given at the beginning of Lent this year, it serves to put the Great Fast into perspective and to call us to repentance.  For that reason, it’s particularly apt for Holy Week. May we all prepare in anticipation of the victory of our Lord.

h1

The Ethics of Avatar

March 12, 2010

I recently remembered that I meant to write something about Avatar.  The reason I forgot?  Well, its Avatar, how much time can you really spend thinking about it?

When I saw the film I pretty much had the reaction I thought I would.  I was entertained, impressed by the special effects, annoyed by the stale dialog, bored by the plot, and rather embarrassed by the moments it started channeling Pocahontas and Fern Gully. Unlike many other Christians I have very little venom towards the film’s goofy pantheism, maybe I would if I felt it was nefarious or compelling.  But it was about as seductive as a spell cast in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, minus the cool 90’s appeal. I think our kids will be OK. Is it a sign of the times that such values are considered “stock” and fit for mass consumption.  Sure, but that’s not really news.

What I thought was most interesting and avant garde about the film, was the means by which it sought to compel you to root for the Na’vi and the divine energy upholding Pandora: Beauty. All you have to do is go on Cameron’s magical mystery tour of the forests of Pandora and the right thing becomes self-apparent.  There’s no argument, just jaw dropping grandeur. Sure the human scientist types may flap their gums about the precious opportunity they have to study the Na’vi culture, but the science and PC agenda sounds (as I believe it’s meant to) hollow and naive.  Platitudes and platforms are dismissed– just come and see.

It’s about beauty, not diversity.

Once the viewer has sat awash in sci-fi splendor of Cameron’s wood, the right way is not wholly lost and gone, but clear as a Pandorian river.  How should we then live?  In a way that loves the Beautiful and participates with it.  David Hume torqued philosophers for centuries by claiming that the state of things has no bearing on how things ought to be: that you cannot move from is to ought.  Sure if I don’t feed my pets they will die, so?  That is the case, but how does it follow that I ought to feed my pets, or myself for that reason? At a time when people are allergic to oughts Cameron proves Hume wrong by showing us something beautiful.

If only he hadn’t cluttered it up with the rest of the film.

h1

“Vintage Church” vs. “Pagan Christianity”

March 6, 2010

The Emerging church movement (if you want to call it by that name) raises some good questions, and give the question “What is the Church?” new life.  For this I really appreciate the Emerging movement. Though it suffers from the unfortunate problem of being wrong, it has — much like the Reformation — the virtue of reacting against something that deserving of reaction.  While the reaction is against  the standard Ol’ Megachurches in particular, at its root the reaction is against Protestant ecclesiology.

Observe the battle between Reformed Protestant Megachurch leader (though in some ways “Emergent” himself) Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill church (author of “Vintage Church”) and Frank Viola and Co. and their recently published “Pagan Christianity”.  A fun, quick read of this is a review that Driscoll commissioned.

The aforementioned review refers early and often to Methodist NT scholar Ben Witherington’s responses, which are certainly worth the read.  He aptly takes on many of the falacious and provocative claims of the book, and replaces them with (gasp!) the historical truth that the ancient Church was a kind of institution.  As an Orthodox Christian, I have nothing else really to argue for; Witherington has done the heavy lifting for me.  Viola and Barnes have stirred up the curiosity, and to those who do their homework the question is posed: What do I do next?

…in an effort to bait you into reading Witherinton’s responses…

My point in the above critique is simply this— calling more high church worship ‘pagan’ is not only a tragedy which impoverishes the soul. It’s a travesty. And saying over and over again that there is not a shred of Biblical evidence for sacred buildings, particularly church buildings reflects both historical myopia and bad theological analysis of a theology of holiness and worship. Such a view is narrow where the Bible is not narrow, and it fails to grasp the great breadth of ways in which God can be truly, and Biblically worshipped and served, and is indeed worshipped and served around the world every single week. We do not need to be liberated from holy worship—we need to be liberated in and by it, in whatever form it may legitimately take. And that’s the Biblical truth.

h1

You Might be a Calvinist if…

March 2, 2010

…You name your dog Tulip.

A co-worker of mine actually did this.  I wonder if she calls her “Totally Depraved” for short.

Such a name must be fated.

h1

Ruthie

February 24, 2010

There are few blogs I read regularly.  After moving to Dallas and meeting Rod Dreher I started reading his blog regularly, and read his book. Rod and I have a lot in common (facility with words aside).  His blog, which is an eclectic commentary on politics, culture, Church, and food,  is often thoughtful and interesting. (Again, not something we have in common.) More valuable however, are his more personal entries; helped no doubt by the fact that he is a dear friend. I found him to be honest, observant, and relate-able.  His personal insight aided my own.

In January Rod moved from Dallas to Philadelphia.  My wife and I have been mourning the move since Rod first mentioned the possibility to us this summer.  Indeed our entire parish family was hit very hard by the Dreher’s departure, but we knew that we’d still have them as family.

So when Lent started last week, and my spiritual family started enduring the things come with Lent, I counted Rod’s trials among them. Our parish suffered car troubles, a priest breaking his leg, sickness, and Rod’s only sibling — his sister Ruthie — being diagnosed with Stage Four cancer in her lungs and brain.

And so Rod boarded an airplane to be with his sister, suspending his regularly blogging schedule to write about Ruthie.  What came out was something special.

In his usual frank and honest manner Dreher invited his readers to experience along with him pain, struggle, and lurking despair. Do yourself a favor: read all the posts in which he tagged his sister. Because pain, struggle, and lurking despair is not what this story is about.

Shortly after arriving at his sister’s bedside, Rod shares his exasperation with the silence of God and the sense of futility.

I am finding it hard to maintain my prayers right now. I know in my head that just because my sister has not experienced a miraculous recovery and jumped out of bed to second-line out of the hospital, that does not mean my prayers have been in vain. I’ve got enough sense to know that’s not how it works. But emotionally, this is difficult. All the praying, the begging, the anguishing, the fasting — and there has been no miracle. She’s still very sick indeed. I realized tonight that in my frenzy to call the attention of God to my sister’s plight and to convince him to heal her, I’ve been playing a kind of saints roulette, trying to hit on the right saint to ask prayers of, as if somehow my placing a bet on the right saint’s name would make an electric connection with heaven, and divine energy would course right down to my sister’s hospital room and save her, bam, just like that.

I know it doesn’t work that way. Believe me, I do. But I don’t know what else to say to God, or the saints, on my sister’s behalf. I know this isn’t like a courtroom, in which I need to come up with the cleverest argument to convince the judge that my sister’s life is worth saving. I know that magical thinking is a fallacy. I know that the communion of saints is not like a cocktail party in which I’m the wild-eyed stranger who’s walked in off the street and is annoying partygoers by interrupting their conversations to see who can spare the time to come out and help me get my car unstuck from the snowbank on the curb.

But I don’t know what else to do. And it’s not working.

Reading this went straight to my heart; and not because I judge Rod for feeling this way, but because I too have found myself Dark Night of the Soul. The Dark Night is difficult to be sure, but it is not bad.  When we’re lost in the dark woods, with the right road wholly lost and gone, God provides. As Rod points out, Lent is a time for sorrow, but by God’s grace, we may have “bright sadness”. The brightness is God’s, shining through Ruthie.

I wish I had the words to express how brave my sister is. I write this through tears tonight — tears not of sadness for her, though God knows that’s there, but tears of admiration. Who among us could get such news today, and react with such evenness? Not me. She apologized to her husband, saying softly, “I’m sorry, I was hoping for better news.” Later in the day, I spoke with Dr. Tim Lindsey, her GP, and we talked about how astonishingly courageous she’s been throughout this short, terrible ordeal. He went on about how she’s not wanted to hide from anything, and how she’s withstood horrific blows without bowing. Dr. Tim and I agreed that there is something miraculous about the witness she’s showing to the rest of us, in how to suffer. He said that however long she has to live, whether it’s weeks or years or decades, her children will always remember the courage under fire — Hemingway’s definition of grace — that their mother showed in these days.

And the story gets better, sweeter, and more powerful. Our God is a good God, and Ruthie a good person.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.