How do you feel [about this]?

I attended a conference earlier this week and at the conclusion was asked, “So, how do you feel?” I stared blankly at the individual and managed to awkwardly muster, “I don’t.” This wasn’t a very helpful reply. The individual was attempting to gauge my thoughts on attending an academic program after sitting through a related academic conference, but all at once a recent article rushed into my brain. This is not to say that I had been practicing the guidance of this article in an exemplary way, just that it made me stop and think. Here are some quotes from the article:

Christians consume their religion (how do you like your church/priest/congregation, etc.?). We also consume one another and the ideas that float through our world. The 24/7 news cycle shuttles hours of “talking-heads” (and arguing panels) on any subject that can hold our attention. And as soon as one topic fades, another is found to take its place. “How do you feel about…” has become the word of the moment.

 

The message which is not so subtle, is that we should feel something about everything. An informed person (thus an “intelligent, discerning person”) will have an informed opinion (feeling) about any topic at hand. We are being trained to feel.

 

What journalists call “feelings,” the faith calls “passions.”

 

The passions are not matters of sexual desire per se (“he was filled with passion…”), but are the energies of the soul and body wrongly directed and in an unruly state. Both body and soul are created with desires—desires are necessary to our well-being. But the desire to eat in no way tells us what to eat, when to eat or how much. When “what,” “when” and “how much” tell us what we are doing, the desire has been high-jacked and becomes a passion. We are enslaved. Any desire can be taken captive (and most are). A primary goal of spiritual struggle (ascesis) is freedom from high-jacked desires (passions), a return to sanity and a properly ordered existence….

 

The fact that we can use the word “feeling” for an “opinion” does much to explain its passionate character. The thoughts that are saving thoughts—thoughts that are of benefit to the soul and its salvation—generally need no level of feeling in order to bolster their value. But our culture, driven by consumerism, majors in the means of motivation. Advertisers and politicians, the shapers of public opinion, learned long ago that reasoning based on the facts is the least reliable motivator. Getting someone to feel that they are reasoning based on the facts is much better—but getting them to feel is the key.

 

These feeling/thoughts, regardless of how noble or innocuous, are simply noise in the soul.1

 

The individual who asked my thoughts/feelings about the conference had no ill intent (quite the contrary, in fact), and I probably should have simply indicated my level of readiness for the program (which I did, after the question was clarified). But the question made me think about the above-quoted article, and I wanted to share it with you.


1 Fr. Stephen Freeman. “There Are No Opinions In This Article”. Retrieved March 28, 2014 from Glory to God for All Things blog.

A Modern Lent

From Fr. Stephen Freeman:

Few things are as difficult in the modern world as fasting. It is not simply the action of changing our eating habits that we find problematic—it’s the whole concept of fasting and what it truly entails. It comes from another world….

 

Our modern self-understanding sees people primarily as individual centers of choice and decision. A person is seen as the product of their choices and decisions—our lives are self-authenticated. As such, we are managers.

 

Of course there are many problems with this world-view from the perspective of Classical Christianity. Though we are free to make choices and decisions, our freedom is not unlimited. The largest part of our lives is not self-determined. Much of the rhetoric of modernity is aimed towards those with wealth and power. It privileges their stories and mocks the weakness of those without power with promises that are rarely, if ever, fulfilled….

 

When a modern Christian confronts the season of Lent—the question often becomes: “What do I want to give up for Lent?” The intention is good, but the question is wrong. Lent quickly becomes yet another life-choice, a consumer’s fast….

 

Does any of this matter? Why should Christians in the modern world concern themselves with a traditional practice?

 

What is at stake in the modern world is our humanity. The notion that we are self-authenticating individuals is simply false. We obviously do not bring ourselves in existence—it is a gift. And the larger part of what constitutes our lives is simply a given—a gift. It is not always a gift that someone is happy with—they would like themselves to be other than they are. But the myth of the modern world is that we, in fact, do create ourselves and our lives—our identities are imagined to be of our own making. We are only who we choose to be. It is a myth that is extremely well-suited for undergirding a culture built on consumption. Identity can be had at a price. The wealthy have a far greater range of identities available to them—the poor are largely stuck with being who they really are.

 

But the only truly authentic human life is the one we receive as a gift from God. The spirituality of choice and consumption under the guise of freedom is an emptiness. The identity we create is an ephemera, a product of imagination and the market. The habits of the marketplace serve to enslave us—Lent is a call to freedom.1


1 Fr. Stephen Freeman. “A Modern Lent”. Retrieved March 28, 2014 from Glory to God for All Things blog, emphasis mine.

A Myopic View of Freedom in Western Soteriology?

The Western soteriological spectrum generally has Arminianism on one end and Calvinism on the other. Underlying these polemics are views on freedom. For the (intellectually honest) Calvinist, freedom is compatibilist. For the Arminian, freedom is libertarian. Perhaps the entire spectrum is invalid because both views of freedom are flawed.

In antiquity, free will was generally seen either through the lenses of fatalism (or determinism) or libertarianism. However, Greek philosophy didn’t use the language of a ‘free’ will (while Latin did: liberum arbitrium / libera voluntas). The discussion was in terms of responsibility, i.e. what ‘depends on us’ (ἐφ ἡμῖν). To truly be free was to choose well. Having freedom to choose was not seen as an end in and of itself (i.e. freedom was not teleological for purposes of intrinsic finality), but consequentialist and the ethics of virtue / excellence (ἀρετή) influenced whether choices were truly seen as being ‘free.’

Perhaps the modern Western myopic view of ‘freedom’ has tainted our discussion of soteriology (not even to mention the emphasis on the individual over the communal / wholative aspects of salvation). I posit that discussion of soteriology in the West has been clouded ever since the rise of theological voluntarism in the medieval West, but another ‘start date’ could certainly be posited. Thoughts?

The evolution of a theologian’s vocation

During the years 100 to 600, most theologians were bishops; from 600 to 1500 in the West, they were monks; since 1500, they have been university professors.1

The theologian’s vocation has evolved significantly in the history of the Christian Church, and this progression reflects a shift in epistemology. A significant difference developed between Eastern (Byzantine) and Western (Roman) Christianity.

Among Byzantine Christians, it was commonly affirmed that the part of the theologian was to pray, not to explain; put another way, he should remain silent in contemplation of God and his ways rather than open his lips and speak error.
 
This highlights a notable difference between what was to develop in the Christian West and what was to be found in the Christian East. Along with the later medieval Western European renewal of government, the Christianization of its inhabitants and the call to erect a God-glorifying civilization, there arose a determination to develop an educational system that would serve God’s glory and that civilization. The monastic variety of education, which had continued in the centuries since the fall of Rome, could not well serve the needs of the new civilization. About the time that the needs for education were becoming evident—during the eleventh century—the works of Aristotle became much more widely known in the Christian West. . . . The initial hesitation among Western Christian scholars about relying on the works of a pagan for instruction was answered by respected Christian theologians, and the resultant enthusiasm for Aristotle’s works knew few limits over the next four centuries. . . . Western confidence in the ability of the Christian mind to explain truth and account for the ways of God with humanity came to recognize almost no bounds. The difference in perspective and expectation between the Western Christian attitude toward human reason and that which marked Eastern Christianity can hardly be overstated.
 
However, the Eastern Christian attitude toward reason did not preclude the development of considerable doctrinal sophistication; during the Byzantine period, Eastern Christianity benefited from the insightful teaching of many gifted theologians. However, in Byzantium, speaking of God—what ‘theology’ means—could only arise out of intimate communion with him, a communion nurtured in meditation rather than intellection. . . .
 
Eastern Christianity refused to follow pagan Greek thought in its fixation on definitions and static categories of analysis. Instead, Eastern Orthodoxy stressed that everything was created by God for development and could not be understood or spoken of correctly apart from that dynamic process.2

This epistemological shift from an emphasis on a mystical encounter with God through prayer and meditation to ‘knowing’ God primarily through intellection had a profound impact on the development of the notion of the ‘secular’ worldview in the West. The elevation of human reason set the stage for the eventual (nonsensical) distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’, and now the secular worldview is seeking transcendence—a holy nihilism.

Can secular theologians offer us anything that is truly meta-secular? Perhaps we must look to Eastern monastics and Western mystics once again. We must return to ancient wisdom:

If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.3


1 Jaroslav Pelikan. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 5.

2 James R. Payton, Jr. Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 30-31.

3 Evagrius Ponticus. Treatise on Prayer (Περὶ προσευχῆς ἢ Λόγος εἰς ρνγʹ κεφαλαῖα διειλημμένος), 61.

“. . . the task of philosophy is not to provide answers . . .”

I think that the task of philosophy is not to provide answers, but to show the way we perceive a problem can be itself part of a problem, mystifying it instead of enabling us to solve it. There are not only wrong answers, there are also wrong questions. These wrong questions are what we call ideology.

Slavoj Žižek, “Year of Distraction” (speech, July 5, 2011), YouTube (1:07), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChWXYNxUFdc&feature=youtu.be&t=1m7s.

“. . . vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance . . .”

. . . I can honestly say that there are many forms of atheism that I find more admirable than many forms of Christianity or of religion in general. But atheism that consists entirely in vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism. And it is sometimes difficult, frankly, to be perfectly generous in one’s response to the sort of invective currently fashionable among the devoutly undevout, or to the sort of historical misrepresentations it typically involves.

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 4.