Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In a world full of people, only some want to fly, isn't THAT crazy?

Leah writes:
"Plenty of my Christian friends subscribe to theologies that strongly imply I will go to hell when I die, but they don't feel compelled to evangelize to me, and, if pressed on the point, tend to adopt a somewhat wishy-washy position ('I can't know what God will do') or just wave their hands and say 'I guess the Church teaches you're going to Hell, but I don't think I can do anything about it. It's up to God.'"
This, combined with Elizabeth Scalia's recent post about the relationship between faith and reason, have prompted me to delve more deeply into my crypto-fideism. Fair warning: Waits's "Lowside of the Road" is a pretty good picture of my mental landscape on this topic, so fasten your seatbelt.

Conversations about ethics bore me. Increasingly, I find them not only boring, but unilluminating, and often even counter-productive. This is because I think it is impossible to conceive of morality in terms of laws. I really liked Simcha Fisher's post on the difficulty of discerning when natural family planning is appropriate because I think it gets at why the hyper-legalistic approach is untenable, cruel, absurd, and even contrary to the Christian conception of man and his relationship to God: "But why doesn’t the Church give some specific examples of what qualifies as a just reason? Well, one problem is that my just reason is not necessarily the same as your just reason. ...if the Church seems distressingly vague, it’s because she doesn’t want to get in the way of the conversation you could be having with God. He doesn’t want to talk to The Church as a whole: He wants to talk to you."

This may strike some as getting perilously close to relativism, or at least some kind of very low church protestantism-- if you forget that Christianity is first and foremost about the Christian's relationship with Christ. He, not the Church, not the Ten Commandments, not the Golden Rule, is "the Way and the Truth and the Life". Every relationship man has is unique-- our love for each other in every instance manifests differently, and Christ, being human, is no different. I think this is because only in perfection is there true unity and oneness, and man while on earth is inescapably imperfect. Our imperfection necessarily fractures all of us in different ways, and the variety in magnitude and diversity of the fractures demand different bonds to repair us and bring us closer to one another and to Him.

We need a Church because we are so confused and broken that we cannot simply look upon Christ and know the Truth. The Church helps us to know those who are perhaps less fractured, or fractured differently, so that we can begin the infinite and difficult process of mending ourselves. I think seeking directly and radically to emulate Christ in all things is a fool's errand-- we cannot ignore His Divinity. It's sort of like the novice monk doing 500 prostrations a day, or trying to subsist on nothing but locusts and the rain. He hasn't worked his way up to that level of ascesis, he can't be trusted, or expected, to understand it, and in so trying he perverts the practice and ends up worse off than when he started. The first time I read The Brothers Karamazov it pushed me from agnosticism to atheism because I was 12 years old and clearly not ready for it. If you try to lift a hundred pound weight and in so doing injure yourself, you won't even be able to lift twenty.

So we have priests and bishops and patriarchs and monks and saints to help us along, because the sun blinds while the moon illuminates the contours of the desert in the night. Ethics as law make no sense to me because the ethical isn't a list of dos and don'ts, and morality exists nowhere in Big Book of Truth form. The function of ethics is to help me better know how to approach and understand myself.

The first example that comes to mind is when I read somewhere earlier that "God will do what seems repugnant to the world." This is a common sentiment in Christianity-- the Christian ought not be of the world, he ought reject the world, etc. But how much of the world am I? How do I discern what seems repugnant to me because I am fallen and what seems repugnant because of the grace given me by God? I can't bend my will and my desires to the Good-- to Him-- before I actually confront and examine what my will and my desires are.

His law may be written on my heart but I wasn't born literate. Put another way: you can show an American and a Russian the same movie poster, but the former sees "Coat" and the latter "Salt" because they're reading the same symbols as parts of their own alphabets-- and only one of them is reading it as intended.


It's easy to list the virtues and incredibly hard to know how to live them, even if one sincerely wants to (which, really, most of us don't, most of the time). I struggle to know what God wants or expects of me on a day to day basis, so how could I ever presume to know anything about His relationship with anyone else, especially His relationship with someone who doesn't yet acknowledge His existence?
"Thou, simple, ignorant, and humble Russia, stay faithful to the plain, naive gospel wherein eternal life is found, and not the phrase-mongering Aristotle or the obscurity of pagan sciences. Why set up Latin and Polish schools? We have not had them up to now and that has not kept us from being saved!" 
- Ivan Vyshensky, 17th century Ukrainian elder
A lot of the questions I get asked about Christianity seem to boil down to a bizarre kind of absolutism-- most of the conversations end with a "what happens if?" "What happens if the fast is broken?" "What happens if someone throws an icon away?" "What happens if you don't cross yourself?" Perhaps I'm misreading my friends, but they always seem to be looking for a line that, once crossed, will definitively send one to Hell, and if a particular behavior doesn't, they can't seem to understand why it's relevant. I chalk this up, too, to the inability to understand Christianity not as a system but as a relationship. What happens if I don't bum my friend a cigarette? What happens if I forget his birthday? What happens if I steal from him? A friendship can survive many transgressions. That doesn't mean we shouldn't avoid them.

That said the unending chorus of "why" and my own profound ignorance has pushed me into a corner. If I uncharitably interpret Tolstoy to a friend who's never read him, perhaps that friend never reads War and Peace. Uunfortunate, but not life threatening. If I mangle an aspect of theology, whether it's something minor, like why shrimp are acceptable Lenten fare, or something essential, like the role of the Eucharist in salvation, I may push someone farther away from conversion than if I'd said nothing at all.

Thus my crypto-fideism stemmed partly from fear, partly from cowardice (these are distinct), and partly from the sentiment voiced in the Vyshensky quote above. But now I see that sentiment as affirming a different sort of absolutism-- certainly many were saved before Aquinas and Augustine and Schmemann and Lossky and even Chrysostom and Irenaeus, but how are we in any way the worse for having them? If there is progress in history it is because of men such as they.
"There is a paradox at work, of course; we apply our reason to what is founded upon unreasonableness (and faith is utterly unreasonable; it is 'the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen) and then our understanding—slowly hatched open bit by bit, by our own Holy Spirit-prompted willingness to pursue the gift through the giftedness of all who came before—leads us to the point where we can say not only 'I believe this,' but 'I know this in a way that has passed through my intellect, and been absorbed within my tissue,' in the same way that you can say you know how to button your coat, or put a car into forward or reverse: not because you are mindless, but because you have fully absorbed that learning. 
And then you really can be fearless..."
That (from the Scalia post mentioned above), really, is the heart of it for me, and the strongest objection to fideism, crypto or otherwise, I see. Faith independent of reason I think is inextricably bound by fear, especially in the modern world so awash in skepticism and unbound inquiry. It may be true, as Don Colacho says, that "there are many things of which one cannot speak without automatically disfiguring them," and certainly the words of Saint Gregory Nazianzen are worth remembering when he says "not to every one, my friends, does it belong to philosophize about God; not to every one; the Subject is not so cheap and low; and I will add, not before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits," but the alternative can't be total silence.

I'm not suggesting theological inquiry or apologetics as a crutch to let us escape the bidding to "preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words," which is certainly a danger, but unwillingness to engage non-Christians on intellectual questions, and unwillingness to prepare for them, strikes me as unfair and even cruel.

So to return to Leah's paragraph above: no, I don't know what God will do, and yes, it is up to Him, and I think she knows that any Christian who says otherwise is probably at the very least confused. But Christianity is, I think, anything but fatalist. To quote the good Don yet again: "The true Christian should not resign himself to the inevitable: he should trust in the impertinence of a repeated prayer." Here again I really like the way Scalia puts it: "the prayer part is absolutely essential, because that is where what you are learning becomes bone-deep; it is the 'setting agent,' as it were."

"I don't know" is a terrifying admission because "on behalf of all and for all" is a terrifying prospect. It's also why every admission of ignorance must be turned from an end into a beginning.

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