Stumbling blocks and telling the truth

At one point in his letter, Paul tells the Galatians:

Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? (Gal 4:16).

His experience is not unfamiliar to many of us. The one thing that a person ought to hear is exactly that which she finds most repulsive, most objectionable, and she transfers all of her aversion on to you for being the unwelcome messenger of an unfavorable truth. For this reason, it takes a certain strength of character to be willing to tell another the truth in spite of the potential backlash and unfavorable consequences. It demonstrates strength and rectitude of character, since no friendship is, strictly speaking, worth more than the truth. (On the contrary,  I should think that a genuine friendship would be one in which the truth is held in highest regard.)

Why is it that sometimes we do not want to hear the truth? Perhaps it is because we are not fundamentally aligned with reality; we do not care about what’s true, about what’s really good, but only about what seems good to us, about what desires we already have. Alasdair MacIntyre discusses two opposed perspectives on the good in his seminal work Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988). The problem can perhaps be formulated in the following way. Are there certain things which are good for us regardless of the whether we desire them, and likewise certain things which are bad for us regardless of whether we find them desirable? Or are goodness and badness simply a matter of desire and aversion, so that a thing is only good for me if I desire it? In other words, are there some objective axiological realities “out there” in the world, to which my desires must be conformed, or do I take my desires, whatever they might be, as a starting point and construct my life around them?

(Incidentally, I think it is obvious enough that things are good for us regardless of whether we desire them, and the mere fact of my desiring a thing does not make it good. If I desire to live underwater, that would not make it good for me to do so. Indeed, it is not good for me to live underwater because it is not compatible with the sort of thing I am as a human being. My nature as a human defines my being and establishes my axiological horizons, so that not just everything will be good or bad for me. There is a fact of the matter about what is good for me, something that is connected intimately with my definition as a human being, and I ought to put my desires into conformity with that fact of the matter — at least, if I care about being rational.

If a person doesn’t think there are facts about what is good or bad for us that are grounded in our nature, then I suggest she live underwater or only ever eat grass. She will refuse if she is not stupid, and that shows that she realizes there are limits to the sorts of things we can reasonably and rationally desire as human beings. Certain forms of life are not going to be good for us, regardless of whether we desire them or not, because our nature as humans rules them out.)

When we don’t want to hear the truth, I suppose that we are embodying something like the second picture. We take our desires and preferences and the rest to be our proper starting points; the world must conform to them or else we will be upset. But a person who is willing to speak even an unwelcome truth instead opts for the view that our desires must be conformed to reality, that we ought to ask the question of what is really good, so that we can learn to desire the right things.

Christ is the greatest lover of truth who is willing to tell sinners what they do not want to hear. The things they desire are bad, regardless of the fact that they desire them with their whole hearts, and so Christ steps in their way. In this way, as Origen says in Commentary on Romans 7, 19, 8-9, Christ is a “stumbling block” to people — because He trips them up as they walk on the path to destruction by His admonitions and warnings, trying to stop them and motivate them to turn around.

Of course, the Christian life means becoming like Christ. We can do this not only by becoming wise, just as Christ is wisdom, and by becoming loving, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, but also by becoming stumbling blocks to sinners. You can do this by preferring the truth to lies, by upholding even the uncomfortable truths which are scandals to sinners, and by becoming their “enemy” through telling them the truth out of true friendship. And the Church cannot be the Bride of Christ unless she similarly loves truth and does not compromise, even if this should lose her friendship with the world.

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Teaching and learning in Origen

The relation between Christians and God/Christ is one of student to teacher. How do teaching and learning take place?

Origen notes the “incarnational” methodology of teaching in his Commentary on Romans VII, 6, 5 while discussing the problem of not knowing how pray, which Paul brings up in Romans 8. Here he describes the method of Holy Spirit in teaching us how to pray:

And [the Spirit] is like a teacher who accepts a student who is both a raw recruit and completely ignorant of the alphabet. In order to be able to teach and instruct him, he is forced to stoop down to the elementary attempts of the student and he himself first pronounces the name of each letter so the student learns by repeating. And in a way, the teacher himself becomes like the beginning student, saying and practicing the things that the beginner needs to say and practice. In this way as well then, when the Holy Spirit sees that our spirit is being harassed by the struggles of the flesh and does not know what or how it ought to pray, he, like the teacher, first says the prayer that our spirit, if it longs to be a pupil of the Holy Spirit, should imitate.

Teaching, then, is to some extent “incarnational,” insofar as the teacher has to become like the student and do the things the student ought to do. The teacher condescends and meets the student at the point at which she finds herself, in order to teach her in a way that will be intelligible to her. Otherwise, the lesson will go over her head.

Looking at the matter from another angle, however, in order for the student to delve deeper into the teacher’s mysteries and to grasp her teachings more profoundly, she must also become like the teacher. The “incarnation” of the teacher leads to the “deification” of the student, in other words. For this matter, see what Origen says must be true about the person who would rightly interpret the profound mysteries of the Gospel according to John:

We might dare say, then, that the Gospels are the firstfruits of all Scriptures, but that the firstfruits of the Gospels is that according to John, whose meaning no one can understand who has not leaned on Jesus’ breast nor received Mary from Jesus to be his mother also. But he who would be another John must also become such as John, to be shown to be Jesus, so to speak. For if Mary had no son except Jesus, in accordance with those who hold a sound opinion of her, and Jesus says to his mother, “Behold your son,” and not, “Behold, this man also is your son,” he has said equally, “Behold, this is Jesus whom you bore.” For indeed everyone who has been perfected “no longer lives, but Christ lives in him,” and since “Christ lives” in him, it is said of him to Mary, “Behold your son,” the Christ. How great, then, must be our understanding, that we may be able to understand in a worthy manner the word which is stored up in the earthen treasures of paltry language, whose written character is read by all who happen upon it, and whose sound is heard by all who present their physical ears? What also must we say? For he who will understand these matters accurately must say truthfully, “But we have the mind of Christ, that we may know the graces that have been given us by God” (Commentary on John I, 23-4).

Whoever would understand what John has written has to become another John. And since John is communicating profound things of God, he has, in some sense, become another Jesus, who is the Word and Wisdom of God. The Word became flesh so as to teach us, speaking at our level, but He wishes to bring us up into higher and higher understanding, making us no longer flesh but also sons of God.

The dialog between the Word of God and the person who wants to learn from Him, therefore, has this dual character — incarnation for the sake of deification, condescension and humiliation for the sake of exaltation.

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Despre învățăturile și îndrumările părinților

Vreau să comentez puțin următorul gând din Pildele lui Solomon:

Ascultă, fiul meu, învăţătura tatălui tău şi nu lepăda îndrumările maicii tale. Căci ele sunt ca o cunună pe capul tău și ca o salbă împrejurul gâtului tău (1, 8-9).

În primul rând, observăm că învățătura sănătoasă servește de bijuterie omului care o pune în practică, care o prețuiește și o împlinește în viața lui. Cununa și salba au de-a face cu înfrumusețarea și noblețea omului. Acestea îl fac pe un om să fie frumos, să se distingă de ceilalți muritori într-un mod public și evident. Iar Biblia întotdeauna pune accentul pe frumusețea interiorului și nu pe cea a exterioriului. „Podoaba voastră să nu fie exterioară — le spunea Apostolul Petru nevestelor — ci interiorul inimii, cu podoaba nepieritoare a unui suflet blând şi liniştit care este plăcut lui Dumnezeu” (1 Pet 3, 3-4). Aceeași învățătură o primesc toți fiii lui Solomon, toți aceia care și-au propus să învețe ceva de la Înțeleptul lui Dumnezeu: dacă vom asculta învățătura tatălui nostru și nu vom lepăda îndrumările maicii noastre, atunci vom fi și noi frumoși prin ele.

Dar cine ne este tată și cine, mamă? Cristos i-a învățăt pe discipoli că „unul este Tatăl vostru, cel ceresc” (Mt 23, 9). Iar Dumnezeu nu este Tatăl decât al celui ce face voința lui Dumnezeu, întrucât aceștia fac parte din familia lui Cristos, unicul născut al lui Dumnezeu (Mc 4, 31-35). Și cine să ne fie mamă? Să luăm în considerare acel episod relatat în Evanghelia după Ioan, în care Isus îi spune Mariei că Ioan, care a stat lângă Cristos la răstignirea Lui, îi este fiu, iar lui Ioan, că Maria îi este mamă (In 19, 25-27). Dacă și noi vom sta lângă crucea lui Cristos, dacă ne vom hotărî să nu știm altceva decât pe Isus Cristos și pe acesta răstignit (1 Cor 2, 2), atunci o vom avea pe Maria ca pe mamă a noastră, de asemenea.

Într-adevăr, Pavel ne învață că noi toți care credem și ne-am botezat facem parte din trupul lui Cristos, astfel încât păcătuind unii împotriva altora păcătuim împotriva lui Cristos (1 Cor 8, 12). Dar dacă suntem uniți în felul acesta cu Cristos, dacă ne-am îmbrăcat în Cristos atunci când am fost botezați (Gal 3, 27), atunci ne este dat să înțelegem că mama Lui a devenit și mama noastră. Așadar, este corect și duhovnicesc să spunem că Maria ne este mamă.

Deci părinții noștri sunt Dumnezeu Tatăl și Maica lui Dumnezeu, Fecioara Maria. Ce învățătură să luăm de la ei? Acești părinți spirituali ce ne învață? Mirabile dictu, învățătura acestei familii este una și aceeași: să ascultăm de Cristos! Căci la Schimbarea la față Dumnezeu a rostit aceste cuvinte despre Cristos: „Acesta este Fiul meu cel iubit, ascultați de El!” (Mc 9, 7). Iar singura și cea mai simplă învățătură a lui Maria pe care ne-o relatează Scripturile este aceeași: „Faceți tot ce vă va spune” (In 2, 5). (Să facem o mică și scurtă digresiune: Cred că aceste două învățături ne pot servi drept sumar al învățăturii religiei creștine. Ce ne propune, în esență, religia creștină? Să ascultăm de Cristos!)

Ce trebuie să faci, așadar, ca să devii un om frumos? Cum te vei putea înfrumuseța, astfel încât să te deosebești de toți oamenii? Lucru simplu, trebuie să asculți de Cristos, să faci tot ce-ți va spune. Astfel se înfrumusețează omul, astfel strălucește mai clar chipul și asemănarea lui Dumnezeu din el, atunci când suntem noi în lumea aceasta așa cum este El, care este chipul Dumnezeului celui nevăzut (1 In 4, 17; Col 1, 15).

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Some reflections on tradition

There are two senses of the word “tradition.” Understood in an active sense, tradition is the process of transmission of some intelligible content and customs from one person to another, from the knowledgeable to the ignorant. Understood in an objective sense, tradition is that particular intelligible content or custom which is communicated, the object of the transmission. Thus, the Tradition of the Church in the active sense refers to that process of teaching which takes place within the Church over the course of the years, in which those who know teach those who do not know. The teachings which they hand over are the objective Tradition of the Church, such as the teaching that God is Trinity or that Jesus Christ is both human and divine.

In order for an association of persons with a common vision to survive over time, there is need of active tradition. That vision which defines the gathering has to be transmitted to others who would join the group. Of course, this further implies the necessity of distinguishing persons who are capable of transmitting that objective tradition from those who are not, establishing offices specifically designed to that end. Thus, within the early Church we have the apostles and the elders, who are uniquely authorized to teach the message of the Gospel and to make decisions about matters of faith and morals (cf. Acts 15), who are a distinct class from laymen. Of course, this isn’t to say that laymen do not have any kerygmatic function at all, but only that they are not specially set apart for this in the way that teachers are. Not all are teachers, as St. Paul implies (1 Cor 12:29), nor should many desire to be teachers, as St. James tells us (Jas 3:1).

Active tradition is a particular means of acquiring knowledge which is distinct from investigation. The active tradition presents us with some well-defined intelligible content, which we are expected to accept on the basis of the authority of the persons who is offering us the message. Thus, learning by means of active tradition presupposes a faith or trust in the reliability of that active tradition; learning in this way has a fundamentally passive aspect. Investigation differs from active tradition in that it is an active attempt to discern a truth which is initially unclear and uncertain. In this way, investigation implies a fundamental trust in the acuity of your natural powers of discernment and discovery. Of course, it is possible for a person to come to the same conclusion both by investigation and by active tradition, but the way there is not the same: learning by means of the active tradition implies passivity on the learner’s part, it is knowledge received, whereas investigation requires activity, knowledge acquired. And the objects of both modes of knowledge are different, as I said: active tradition gives us something definite and clear, whereas investigation tries to clarify something which is unclear and uncertain.

What is the relationship between tradition and texts? In one sense, a text is a part of the active tradition: it serves the function of a mediator of the active tradition, capable of performing this function without requiring the personal presence of the author. A text is also related to the objective tradition insofar as that is what it attempts to communicate. Importantly, however, a text is always an artifact of a community with a specific tradition, and like all artifacts, one has to be taught how to “use” it properly. The persons within the community that produce the text have to be authorized participants in its active tradition so that the text can be taken as reliably communicating the objective tradition. Moreover, they have to be present in some way so as to comment on the text they’ve produced and make sure that others are reading it appropriately. If they cannot remain present to the community in perpetuity because of death, they have to appoint persons to replace them who demonstrate a good understanding of the community’s tradition and can perform their interpretive function in the future. In this way, a community’s texts are always bound up with the community itself and especially with its hierarchy.

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Freedom and providence

One of the most important elements of our self-understanding as persons is that of freedom. There are a lot of different elements to our freedom, some of which I will try to describe in this post. I want to propose this analysis with reference to the theological problem of predestination and providence. One important complaint that I have with predestinarian theological systems such as Augustinianism and Calvinism is that they negate human freedom.

Freedom is essentially connected to personhood. The difference between a person and an object is the way in which I must interact with it: for instance, an object presents no will of its own and makes no active efforts to resist my attempt to make use of it, limiting my use only by its own intrinsic constitution (e.g., a piece of wood may be sturdy or weak); on the other hand, a person presents herself to me as a special kind of being with a will of her own, with a goal for her life and a desire to be able to realize that goal apart from the interventions of others. In the same way, we object to being used or considered objects because this does away with our essential freedom as persons.

Moreover, there is a kind of essential spontaneity in our interactions with other persons that does not arise in our interactions with objects. We try to make use of objects for various ends, and to that extent we want to master them entirely so that we are not surprised by what happens when we attempt to make use of them for some purpose. The masterful use of an object implies a total knowledge of all its potentialities, all its capabilities, so as to make for its easy utilization and manipulation in as many circumstances as possible. Our relationships with other persons, however, so long as we relate to them as persons, remain essentially spontaneous. We want to be surprised, we want to experience something new, we want to have something to learn about the other person. If we made an effort to accumulate complete and total knowledge of the other person, so that we would know every way she would react under every conceivable circumstance and could then approach her on that basis, our interaction would no longer rise to the level of personal; it would be mechanical, an interaction with a machine.

Another important aspect of freedom in interactions among persons is that the will of one person is not prior to the will of the other in explaining some action. For instance, if I were capable of taking complete control of the being of another person, so that I could make her form various intentions and make choices and respond to things I say in various ways, this would eliminate the personal aspect of our interactions. The other would no longer be a person in such an interaction, perhaps because the element of spontaneity — which implies a lack of total control on my part over the actions of the other — has been done away with altogether. Conversely, if I perceive that another person’s will explains my actions completely or to a great extent, then I also sense that I am not acting freely. If a person presses me repeatedly to perform some action — say, to go to a basketball game — and I do it more out of the pressure she applies on me than out of an initiative of my own, I sense that I am not acting freely. And if I were to find out that she had, by some mysterious means imperceptible to me, even been able to cause this assent in me, I would consider my action even less free than before. At least in the previous case, where I assent under pressure, I can at least attribute this assent ultimately to me and not to her, since I might have remained obdurate; but if she even causes this assent in such a way that I sense no coercion, then my freedom is done away with altogether.

Freedom, then, which is essentially connected to personhood per se, consists in there being some element of an action which is explained only by the person who performs the action. Thus, if our interactions with other persons do not retain some element of spontaneity and a lack of control over the other, they lose their quality as personal interactions because the freedom of the one person is negated or nullified by the other.

The problem with predestinarian theologies such as Augustinianism and Calvinism is that this element of spontaneity and lack of control is entirely done away with in the case of our relationship with God. God not only knows everything that I will do; He knows it because He is the one who ultimately explains what it is I will do and why. I will do such and such a thing because He has determined it, just as the characters in a story perform their various actions because they have been planned to do so by their author. God’s will, on these schemes, has a certain logical priority to mine which eliminates all spontaneity and gives Him complete control over what I (and any other person) will do. This is contrary to freedom and it negates our personhood, in keeping with what I’ve written above.

There is, of course, no denying that our relationship with God is different than our relationship with other persons. Certainly I think that God foreknows our actions, and I think that His providence is organized according to His knowledge of what we will or would do in various circumstances, but it seems to me that if we are to be free, our life choices, even being known by God, have at least to be givens, they have to be facts He finds Himself with, rather than ones that He creates ex nihilo. Certainly this is difficult to explain, perhaps it will remain a mystery how there can be any such facts, but the alternative seems to me to be much more problematic.

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Reflections on beauty

It is peculiar that there should be any beautiful things in the world at all. A reflection the nature and value of beauty may yield interesting theological results.

Beauty is essentially connected to personhood in the following sense: only a person, in the fullness of this term, cares for beauty and can value it appropriately; more than that, beauty is essential to a good life for a person. An animal, for instance, does not know that a sunset or a flower is beautiful. Neither does it make any difference to the life of an animal whether its surroundings are beautiful or not, since animals get along just fine even in the most squalid and repulsive conditions — rats in sewers, for instance. A person cannot live in an impenetrably gloomy environment, however, without suffering to some extent because of it. We have need of beauty in our lives to make them worth living; a life bereft of beauty is not worth living.

Moreover, beauty is something that we value for its own sake, rather than for the sake of something else. A beautiful work of art is worth keeping merely for its  own sake. The environment, in all of its beauty, is worth preserving and caring for precisely on the basis that it is beautiful. Once a person perceives beauty in some thing, to that extent she is willing to care for it for its own sake. A beautiful thing is not the same as a useful thing; the latter we use for the sake of something else, whereas the former we enjoy for its own sake.

Given, then, that beauty is something of value that can only be appreciated by persons, what can explain the reality of beauty in the world? Why is the world beautiful, and why is it possible for us to create beautiful things? The question might be sharpened if we were to consider the view shared by atheist philosophers of our day, a view which holds the absolute origins of everything to lie in the impersonal. On this conception of things, human personhood is a result of various fortuitous causal chains that ultimately have an impersonal beginning. If the starting point of everything is impersonal, why should there be beauty at all? But we discover there to be beautiful things in the world — note, we discover beauty in the world, we find it already there, rather than merely inventing or creating it. This makes far more sense if the origins of the world lie in a kind of transcendent Person, who, like us, appreciates beauty and loves it for its own sake and creates it.

Listen to this track by Pat Metheny and thank God every day for beauty in the world:

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The faithful as the medium of the Holy Spirit

How does a person come to faith in Christ, through the Holy Spirit? Both Origen and Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae emphasize the role that the ordinary believer can play in communicating the Holy Spirit to a person. Here I will cite passages from them both, leaving a more detailed analysis for another day…

Yet, do you want to know that it is not only when Jesus speaks that he bestows his Spirit to his hearers, but that anyone who speaks of the word of God in his name also bestows God’s Spirit to those who hear? Consider how, in the Acts of the Apostles where Peter is speaking to Cornelius, Cornelius himself is filled with the Holy Spirit along with those who were with him. Therefore, you as well, when you speak the word of God and speak it faithfully with a pure conscience, not being convicted yourself by your own words, as one who would teach one thing but practice something else, it can come to pass that while you are speaking the fire of the Holy Spirit may inflame the hearts of your hearers. They may at once begin to glow and burn to carry out everything that you are teaching, so that they would fulfill in deeds what they have learned in words and they may “seek the things above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God; they may set their minds on what is above, not on what is on the earth” (Origen, Commentary on Romans VI: 13, 8).

The Spirit of Christ sensitizes us to Christ and unites us with Him in the Church, because the fire of the Spirit which is communicated by Christ cannot be separated from a common human sensitivity to Christ. He manifests Himself as operating through the fire of  an operative faith. This fire is the life of communion with Christ, which is continually being perfected. The Spirit brings life because He realizes communion with Christ. Through the Spirit, believers are connected to Christ not in isolation, but together. The one who arrives at faith in Christ arrives through the faith or sensitivity of another. The interpersonal sensitivity of faith, in which the Holy Spirit manifests Himself, ties believers together in the community of faith, or in the Church. The sensitivity of joy to communion with the absolute Person of Christ is extended in the joy of communion and acts of communion with others, in the participation of others in the absolute Person of God, which comes at the level of communion with them in Christ (Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae, Teologia Dogmatică Ortodoxă vol. 1, p. 52)

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