Re-enchantment of the World: The State of Amnesia, Part 3
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In the previous article, we talked about a higher form of memory as presence, or better said, as being in the presence of a higher, deeper perception of existence; of the certainty of things unseen, a certainty whose proper name is Faith. At the end, we mentioned something about forgetfulness as an act of falling back upon a debased state of being, a diminished perception of existence and one’s place in it.
In this article, we will tackle the topic of dogma and asceticism as indispensable remedies for this predicament. In doing so, and in trying to answer some questions, I will inevitably cause other questions to rise, no less difficult to answer. Actually, I would posit, it is impossible to answer the ultimate questions regarding Faith through the methods of discursive thought, as I explicitly warned in the first article in this series. The best one can do is to offer a sketch, a map pointing towards the direction one should take; the territory and its exploration can only be personal, in the highest understanding of “person”, as opposed to the mere individualist atomism of today’s understanding.
Dogma and asceticism (the latter being understood only in relation to Divine commandments) are not at all favorite topics for many who are otherwise interested in symbolism, mysticism and other such aspects of religion. Dogma is, many times, poorly understood as a concept and in today’s internet-based culture, even worlds removed from its proper meaning.
So let’s start by examining their meaning, purpose and unity with one-another, in the end also speaking about that which is the hardest to digest for the modern mind, trained into the deceiving habit of “critical thinking”: obedience to and acceptance of dogmas and their related practices regardless if they are dialectically understood or not.
Dogmas: implicit and explicit
We begin with this quote from St. Maximos the Confessor:
“Through the commandments, God liberates those who fulfill them from the rule of the passions; and through the divine dogmas, He grants to them illuminating knowledge”.
(Chapters on love, 1:77)
Taking the second part first: what does he mean by “illuminating knowledge” brought about by dogmas? Does he talk about sitting at your desk or in an arm-chair and reading a stack of books on dogmatic theology? Is the mental understanding of the contents of these books the illuminating knowledge spoken about here?
Were that the case, YouTube and social media would shine brighter than the Sun, set above the hosts of “theologians” of all confessions, always ready to wage a crusade on one-another. On the contrary, however, both in the history of the Church and even today in our everyday experience, we find people with no intellectual sophistication who, nonetheless, reach great degrees of wisdom and holiness, even though they may not be able to comprehend a complex dogmatic treatise as composed by the likes of saints Maximos, Athanasios or the Cappadocians.
So by dogmas, one should not understand solely the dogmas which have been formulated at the various ecumenical councils.
But what more than that is there, actually?
In the modern understanding of this subject, one thinks that one dogma or the other has been “invented” in a certain historical epoch, or that it was imposed as part of ecclesiastical power-struggles. Or that they represent hair-splitting on the part of theologians of various epochs, too fond of word-play and polemics.
I will attempt to briefly dispel these false ideas with a few remarks.
Let’s illustrate what I am about to say with something familiar. We can all agree, regardless of faith or lack thereof, that the world exists prior to us and will probably still be here long after we’re gone. As such, let’s call it a revelation in the widest possible sense, as something which is up to us to discover and understand (as it is actually understood in traditional worldview). Natural sciences study the laws of nature and formulate axioms that attempt to define, describe and explain these laws. We can agree that the laws themselves are one thing and the axioms formulated by scientists are another thing. The latter are approximations of the former, attempts to understand and explain through the human faculties of mind and speech that which we all participate in each day by virtue of having a body. Thus, apples fell to the ground before and independently of Newton’s (or Einstein’s) ability to explain this phenomenon and formulate their respective theories of gravitation. This is true of every phenomenon we experience in the world: their existence and their meaning are independent of us being able to offer a positive, explicit definition of them.
Now, if people are trying to reach the peak of a mountain and they all know the way up and are successful, all is fine. No one feels the need to put up signs on the path or to create maps. But if people start taking wrong turns at certain points and end up in the precipice and if, worst of all, there appear some who pose as experts and begin to direct people towards the precipice, even claiming that human beings have the ability to fly and so will undergo no harm, then things are no longer fine. In such a case, authorities will take proper measures, such as putting up signs at those forks in the road, signaling dead-end or dangerous paths and denouncing those who lead people into the precipice as dangerous and murderous. There is nothing arbitrary here, no human invention, it is all about the laws of physics and the limitation of our bodily abilities: we can’t fly, therefore falling off the edge of the mountain means crushing our bodies against the cliffs below and dying. Simple as that. What those warning signs express is only that which has been true since the beginning and will always be true. Had it not been for people taking wrong turns or others leading them astray, there would have been no need for them.
The same with dogmas. The explicitly formulated dogmas at the ecumenical councils are just discursive expressions of that which has always been true, of the implicit content of the Christian Revelation. As Eusebius of Cesarea says in his Church History, the Revelation brought by the Son of God at a point in time has its origins in eternity. God is who He is and the Truth does not at all depend on our ability to express it in language.
So dogmas, when properly understood, are revelations from God to created beings, which are delivered (one can say incarnated) in different modes and according to our various faculties of perception and understanding. The Church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, in his excellent work The Christian Tradition, in the first volume, describes how a council such as the first one, in Nicea, used as material for debate the different rites, liturgical formulae or gestures as well as forms of proto-creeds used even back then during Liturgy, as the Creed of Niceea and Constantinople is used today, all of them being so many expressions of the truth regarding the nature of Christ, as being co-essential with the Father. In other words, the sentences expressed by the Niceean Council represent the explicitly defined-in-words-version of the former. The same dogma is found in ritual forms within the Liturgy, in the various symbolic gestures during prayer, expressed in artistic forms through icons, all of these having one and the same origin: Christ Himself. The ultimate Truth is beyond all expressions. Its only vehicle of communication is Silence, within the deepest personal interiority. All the rest are the tools or means through which this Silence can be reached.
In other words, the illuminating knowledge spoken of by St Maximos the Confessor is a participatory knowledge which is addressed to the whole of our being, which also illuminates the whole of this being, from the spirit, found in the inner sanctum of the heart, down to the bones of our bodies. This participation is not conditioned by erudition or the ability to comprehend the dogmas in their verbal expression.
Regarding these verbal expressions, far from being fond of polemics, the Church Fathers were always cautious about formulating the highest theological mysteries in such fixed, dialectical expressions, due to the inability of human language to properly express such transcendental truths, the inherent loss of power once the word passes from the interior to the exterior (see also Branko’s podcast on this topic).
Especially in the first millennium, the overwhelming majority of dogmatic works or treatises were practical guides, direct responses to different challenges presented by various arising heresies. St. Gregory the Theologian especially warned about the attempt to find exhaustive explanations to the various Trinitarian expressions: such as the Father being unbegotten or the Son being eternally begotten of the Father. The positive dogmas were formulated with a special care accorded to paradox, to the supra-rational character of the dogmas illustrated, this being a way of formulating which, so to say, leaves the circle open instead of closing it. It points to the fact that the reality is beyond the words and it cannot be exhausted by them.
Here is one such example, from the hymns of St John of Damascus, still chanted in the Orthodox Church today:
How shall we not be amazed by your God-man birth, you of exceeding honor? For not knowing manly temptation, all-blameless one, you did give birth to the Son without a father, the One who before all ages was begotten of the Father, without mother. Who in no way endured change, mixture or separation, but kept intact the qualities of each of the two natures*.
(*Divine and human, that is. )
From the Vespers on Saturday evening, tone 3 (translation is my own, admittedly, it can be a little rusty)
The purpose has always been the placing of the faithful in the presence of the Mystery, expressions being only means, not ends in themselves. Reading and understanding at the mental level are important but, in themselves, they are only the preparation for the journey, not the journey itself, much less the purpose of the journey.
Asceticism. Logos and tropos. The indissoluble unity between dogma and the practical life
In order for a mirror to reflect an object properly, two elements are necessary: the first, the mirror needs to be oriented properly, towards the object to be reflected, the second, it needs to be clean, so that it properly reflects it.
Traditional symbolism always represents an effect as the reflection of its cause, in its ultimate meaning, this being understood as the creation reflecting the Creator, man being the mediator and having as his highest vocation to realize the Divine image within one’s self.
If dogmas are the means through which the proper orientation takes place, then asceticism corresponds to the cleansing of the mirror.
The divine commandments have the same Place of Origin as the dogmas and the different ascetical practices developed within the tradition of the Church along the centuries and millennia, which always needed to prove their concordance with the commandments and with the dogmas upheld by the Church, in order to earn their place as accepted practices.
What I said about dogmas is always true in regards to written laws: they multiply in times when the natural sense of truth, justice and proper action (allusion to the law written upon the heart, according to Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans) becomes weakened or darkened. The same Saint Paul, in such letters as the ones to the Galatians, Hebrews, Timothy, and in other places as well, specifically mentions that the explicit Old Testament law was necessary in order to keep the decline of morals and sense of truth in check. No written law would be necessary had we not been under the rule of passions, which darken our minds and drive us towards abuses. Christ Himself re-orients the Decalogue to first principles, showing that the ten commandments are emanations of just two: love of God and love of neighbor.
Just as there is nothing arbitrary about dogma, so there is nothing arbitrary about commandments or the ascetical practices springing from them.
Saint Maximos the Confessor, in accordance to other patristic writers, places much importance on the duality between the reason of being (logos physeos) of something and its mode of existence (tropos yparxeos). Logos describes the essence – understood as origin, reason of being and purpose. What a thing is determines its various modes of action, as well as the various modes of properly receiving the action of another. But tropos, or the mode of existence, is not only the natural way of action of a particular being, but also the direction imprinted on a particular action.
This direction can be according to nature, leading to the fulfillment of its essence and the consequent drawing closer to God and becoming more God-like or against nature, a betrayal of its purpose and the drawing further away from God and towards non-being, becoming more chaotic and debased in the process. As such, a further understanding of tropos would be the level of existence at which a particular faculty or natural capacity is manifested. As an example: desire can be manifested at the level of the spirit desiring a deeper mode of existence, or at the level of the body, desiring materiality.
Sin is described, by Saint Maximos, as the abuse, the wrong way of using a created thing or capacity, springing from a wrong orientation of being. Man, having a distorted purpose in his heart, will also use and abuse himself and everything around him according to this distorted purpose.
From this, it naturally follows that dogma and asceticism constitute a unity. A false dogma will lead to a false understanding of existence and purpose, leading to a false asceticism. But the reverse is also true: wrong practices lead to false dogmas, eventually. This last point may be a little more difficult to understand.
To give a simple illustration of these statements: on the one hand, considering the human body as an illusion or even evil, or a mere accident detached from the whole of the human person, will lead to very distorted practices when compared to its understand as real and an integral part of one’s being, able to partake in the Divine life. The history of gnostic and dualistic sects illustrates this quite well.
On the other hand, considering something like fasting as unimportant to one’s spiritual life and discarding it, already shows a wrong attitude which will, with time, develop explicitly false conceptions about human nature and what it means to be human. The history and development of religious life in the West proves this.
In conclusion: the two, dogma and asceticism, constitute a unity and the proper way to participate in dogma is to incarnate it into the correct practice. Fasting, keeping certain commandments, withholding from certain actions or, on the contrary, engaging in others don’t have the purpose of fulfilling some abstract, arbitrary law, but of properly directing our energies, according to our internal and external constitution, rendering us capable of receiving Divine grace.
One final word on the duality of logos and tropos; although it is not within the purpose of the present article to discuss this topic, the proper understanding of these concepts offers the possibility to clarify Tradition, what it is and how it acts. Tradition is not something stagnating or pertaining only to the past, but, as alluded to in my article on memory, it is something always present. Its fundamental truths are eternal, unchanging and perfect and are, as a consequence, always present, equally valid regardless of time or place. Their mode of action, their applications, are the ones dependent on circumstance. Tradition always adapts to the various challenges arising in different times and different places.
Obedience as the gateway to the new life
Perhaps there is nothing, no other principles more misunderstood and vilified by the modern world than the traditional requirement of obedience and submission to authority. Though in the Christian understanding this certainly has its limits when applied to earthly hierarchies (as illustrated in the life of Saint Maximos the Confessor himself), my purpose here is not to discuss these limits at this point, but to attempt to clarify what this obedience is.
For the modern, raised within the framework of critical thinking, no adherence of the individual to anything outside of himself is acceptable, unless he is able to examine, pass judgment and give his stamp of approval. For this reason, he considers the insistence on obedience as found within the Church to be nothing but obscurantism, an attempt to brainwash, to impose outside control on another person’s life. At no point does it occur to the modernist that if sometimes we hear about “blind obedience”, the reason for this blindness is the individual himself, because he himself is blind. Due to this blindness, some aspects or requirements which have been verified by centuries of experience cannot be understood by him at this stage and no amount of verbal explanation will do any good.
But is this as scandalous as it sounds?
First of all, I am very skeptical about those who claim that they converted to a certain confession through the reading of books and the study, comparison and analysis of different dogmas. I believe that where there is nothing but mental activity, without anything deeper than that, the conversion is only illusory and these are the types of people one sees changing religions and doctrines like clothes.
Where a real conversion has taken place, if one is attentive and observes one’s self closely, one will immediately see that beyond intellectual studies there is always a deeper level, a deeper calling to which one answers in the affirmative, before there is any mental understanding of reflection. This reality can usually be acknowledged especially in hindsight. In my early days of spiritual endeavors, I too was convinced that I was reaching conclusions independently based on my studies. Looking back now, those studies themselves were actually guided by the conclusions I have reached – actually accepted – at pre-discursive level. This will be discussed in the next article in more detail.
Secondly, as stated many times, one cannot hope to escape from the currently alienated and atomistic state of being by employing methods and attitudes pertaining to this state of being itself. On the plane of discursive thinking, of everyday psychology, of weighting and passing one’s individual judgement, we are at the surface of our identity. On this plane, we can only know our shallow desires and mental automatisms acquired from our immediate environment. To escape this claustrophobic state and to come to know our deeper identity we need to adhere to something greater than our egos and Christianity is unequivocal in this regard: Resurrection can only be reached through Crucifixion of the old being, the old man – and this includes our minds as well, no matter how proud we might be of their performance.
The adherence to dogmas and practices, regardless of likes or dislikes, understanding their purpose or not, is one such step in the transcending of one’s ego.
Thirdly, at no stage is this obedience devoid of liberty. This acceptance can only take place within the deepest recesses of one’s own heart, where no external interference can ever take place. Beyond this, at no point is it devoid of the witness of its ultimate goodness and its truth. Those rare moments of memory mentioned before, when hope is replaced by certainty, are the anchor, the guarantee which keeps one going when the psychological self – with its fears and anxieties – re-affirms itself and drowns in despair.
Next to personal experience, two thousand years of testimonies, of those who traveled the same paths before, some making the journey from murderer or prostitute to saint, are the fruits which act as proof for the credibility of these practices.
Fourthly – and lastly – this obedience is no different than other situations from everyday life. If you want to learn a foreign language, for example, you submit yourself to a teacher who has good testimonies from students who have become very fluent in that particular language. And even though you would like to get as quickly as possible to reading some classical works you would like in that language, you understand the need of having to start with small things, like boring grammar exercises. And although it sometime feels pointless and the obstacles seem impossible to overcome and you even begin to doubt the abilities of your teacher, you have the humbleness to admit that you are not in the position to judge the methods, because you are still at a stage of ignorance in relation to the subject you are studying. If you persist, after a dry and seemingly pointless period, a day will come when you will surprise yourself by the progress you have made.
Those who are humble and submit themselves to the discipline, based on the proof of other people’s success, will eventually reach their goal. Those who think they know better and will move from one teacher to the other and try one method after another will get nowhere and eventually abandon everything.
The same is even more true in regards to the spiritual life. One must start by admitting that we have not created ourselves; so the true knowledge of whom we are and our purpose, in the image of God in us, can only be revealed by God Himself. But this requires submitting our will and mind – and the whole of our existence – to Him, through the Church and its tradition.
With patience, the day will come when blind obedience is no longer blind, because one begins to see with his own eyes. If not to fully grasp why these practices are good, then at least to see without a shadow of a doubt, that they are indeed good and bring a transformation of one’s being that one couldn’t have imagined.
I have herby attempted to show the benefits and logic behind dogmatic thinking and adherence to a higher order which often transcends our limited mental abilities to fully grasp it. But what about the alternative to this? If one is not convinced by this traditional approach to life and existence, is the modern alternative to critical thinking actually a consistent way of living and can it deliver on its claims? Can it offer freedom and meaning to one’s life?
In the next article, I will argue that it is actually self-contradictory and illusory.
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