Thursday, June 13, 2013

Looking East.

For two months, I've been silent. I now embark on this entry in fear and trembling, praying for a humble spirit. This post will probably be shocking, but I'm writing it to disclose the journey on which I'm embarking for the benefit of family and friends, not for the sake of vanity.

As followers of this blog can tell, my entries prior to my break in posting had become pretty negative. This blog had become an unhealthy venting place where I wallowed in self-pity, giving expression to all the loathsome trials of new-parenthood. And you can't even see the unposted things in my draft history. :) A big part of my downness can be chalked up to what has been diagnosed as dysthymia, and I have greatly benefited from anti-depression meds since that diagnosis.

But there was more to it. I wasn't dissatisfied with anything about my life. I have a very blessed life. I couldn't possibly ask for a more excellent and loving wife, a cuter baby, a cozier home, better friends, a more loving (if distant) family, or cuddlier cats. I was dissatisfied with life itself. Every day, the same work had to be done. The same diversions kept me from losing my mind. And at the end of the day, the thought of the sun rising again was oppressive. It was like listening to an endless loop of Pachelbel's Canon: that cello just won't stop doing the same thing over and over and over and over. If something different happens, it's merely an ephemeral aberration. Then it's back to the relentless, monotonous drone that--while pretty--eventually makes you want to turn the cello into a lifetime supply of toothpicks.

Why did I feel this way? What changed? I've been pretty happy to just enjoy Pachelbel for a decade, relishing life and rolling along toward my imminent and hopefully pleasant end. But in a pretty short span of time, I came to a point where I wanted nothing more than to devilishly dance around a bonfire of cellos. A trifecta of things led me to this point: a philosopher, a fiction writer, and an emptiness.

I guess a good starting point is Hubert Dreyfus: a Berkeley professor of philosophy whose online courses convinced me that gods are worth believing in. That human beings aren't isolated, sensory-fueled islands of reason as the enlightenment tells us, but that the enlightenment got it sorely wrong. We aren't rational creatures at all, and we are most ourselves when we aren't trying to be. Moods, passions, obsessions, furies--these can just as easily and accurately be understood phenomenologically as external forces acting upon us as they can be understood rationally as internal mechanations of the subconscious. And understanding them as such leads to a fuller, richer, more heroic life. We don't fall asleep--sleep takes us and lets us go at its pleasure. We don't decide we are going to get furious--we are possessed by the spirit of Ares. We don't decide to fall in love--we are overtaken by the shining light of Aphrodite. 

Understood in modern terms, humans are the most human when we are "in the zone:" when we become so attuned to what we are doing that we become practically submissive to it. We're "wooshed up," as Dreyfus would say, into a state where the cosmos illicits a perfect response from us without us even having to try. And the best way to destroy that state is to rationalize it too much. You can't sing a song well and analyze your performance at the same time. 

Dreyfus advocates a sort of modernistic polytheism (which I tried for a while), but that is where I have come to part ways with him. He condemns Captain Ahab's monomaniacal focus on finding something in this slippery world to hold on to, but I think that something like that is necessary. We can't be subject to being whooshed up by just anything, lest we become modern-day Helens sparking Trojan wars. But we can't close ourselves off to the experience of being whooshed up, either, or else all we doom ourselves to a banal life, cynically critical of all things, in which nothing is sacred. We need a compass, a lighthouse, an anchor of some sort if we want to remain stable, consistent, and protected against being whooshed up into the insane. In a word: we need monotheism.

The second man to whom I owe thanks is Neal Stephenson, my favorite modern novelist. It is harder to explain this one, but his books contain a kernel of the religious that resonates with me. His characterization of Isaac Newton in The Baroque Cycle has become something of a personal hero. The depiction of the Mathic cloisters in Anathem come about as close to my idea of heaven on earth as possible. And his implied case in Snow Crash that religious systems are an evolved advantage serving the purpose of protecting our minds from malicious memes is extremely compelling. His stories have convinced me that religion (not to be confused with spirituality) is valuable.

Lastly, I'll say a little bit about emptiness. I don't want to go off in a tangential indictment of American culture, but I've lost all faith in it. I've kind of come to hate it. The materialistic, secular world holds almost nothing sacred. And even those things it does hold sacred, it doesn't hold sacred enough to be worth fighting for. We are a cult of material well-being, and we have become cowards in our dependence on that cult. We have elevated entrees and entertainment to the status of gods, and are literally eating and distracting ourselves to death while our republic devolves into a corporate police state and the world around us suffers. Any drive to actually hold something sacred--to love something selflessly, sacrificially, and wholly--is met with cynical gazes and accusations of naivety followed by the directive to not let it get in the way of being a good consumer. Principles, conviction, purpose: these have little place in the kingdom ruled by the pantheon of the market.

And so I found myself in a state of yearning. No amount of games, books, television, tasty beverages, or fancy food could satisfy it. I also found my mind softened to the idea of faith for the first time since my teenage years. And in the midst of this, impending fatherhood loomed.

Making babies changes everything. I don't think I can ever say anything more profound than that.

Having a child is an act of faith. Perhaps the biggest act of faith possible. I've begat a person who is separate from myself, consigning him--by no choice of his own--to exist. He will live and die. He has his own will, and he will use that will as he will. Sometimes he'll be an angel, sometimes a demon. He will never live up to all my expectations, nor I his. He'll experience pleasure and pain. He will suffer. And I am responsible. His pain is my pain, his joy is my joy. I love him, do my best to guide and help him, and hope for his love in return. We will never completely understand each other. We will always be separate. But my hope is that we will always be linked in love, and my greatest fear is that we will not. I must have faith that his life will be worth living... Oh God, if ever I had the right to judge thee, it is forfeit, for I am now complicit in creation.

I wouldn't say that I've ever completely given up in theology, but it has been a casual interest at best for a very long time. Playing the believing game with every idea I was presented in college and ending up disappointed with them all left me thinking that theology is a hopeless game with no real answers, something to be toyed with as a hobby rather than seriously considered as potential absolute truth. Of course, I was operating under the absurd assumption that in order for any faith system to work, it would have to fit me rather than the other way around. I've been looking for something to subscribe to rather than something to change me, because--like every good post-modern existentialist--I've long considered myself a reliable arbiter of truth. 

As a friend in college put it, "Of course you consider yourself a moral person. You create your own morality." And I was ok with that. What I wasn't ok with--what none of us can ultimately be ok with--is other people doing the same. But to give myself that privilege while denying it to another is the ultimate hubris. To give it to everyone is pure anarchy. We are all, in varying degrees, stupid, ignorant, and evil. If any Christian doctrine is absolutely unassailable, even to the rationalist, it is the depravity of man.

So from whence can authority come? To what can we be obedient to keep ourselves from falling into natural chaos? Kings, emperors, city-states, nation-states, philosophy, science, and every -ism under the sun have failed to provide an answer to that question. So where is truth? Where is the incorruptible to be found?

I'm not a spiritual person, but here I have to exercise my capacity of free will and reason and, to paraphrase Spock, go with what must be truth, no matter how improbable, once all other options have proven impossible. If anything is absolutely true, it has to be supra-rational. It has to be beyond what our finite and flawed minds perceive as fact. It has to be beyond category, beyond conception, even beyond metaphor. It has to be, in a word, divine. 

So... All of a sudden I am taking theism seriously because I see it is the only alternative to a meaningless existence of flux. But where does one find a god? We can't make our own--that's just deified pluralism. So I looked. And it was at this point that, by the grace of God, I discovered Orthodox Christianity.

... Ok. I've been plinking this out over the course of three days and I have family arriving from halfway across the country this afternoon. It is also interfering with my prayer life, so its gotta get done! Forgive me if it becomes disorganized or sloppy ...

It is hard to define what drew me into Orthodoxy at first. At the time, I would have called them peripheral issues, though now I realize that nothing about Orthodoxy is peripheral. Nevertheless, I'll try to list the things that compelled me:

-Historicity. Many churches claim to be the original apostolic church, but the Orthodox Church's claim is the only one that I find valid. It's the one. The Roman Catholics can also lay claim, but in the case of one patriarch vs. all the rest, I'm going with the rest. :)

-History. After the Great Schism, Western Christianity became highly imperialized, scholastic, and judicial. It became a dominant worldly force--something a church should never be. Orthodoxy never had that chance, mainly because most of its adherents fell under Islamic occupation. Then the rest fell under communist tyranny. The Orthodox Churches have certainly been through the meat grinder and come out the other side.

-Biblical Hermeneutics. There is no sola scriptura heresy in the Orthodox Church. Scripture shares human inspiration with divine inspiration. God, after all, has never possessed a scribe's hand and moved it against his will. Some is poetry, some is allegory, some is law, some is history, all of it carries the significance of its culture and time. It must be interpreted in the light of the traditions of the church. The church wrote it, after all.

-Theosis. Salvation is not a matter of saying a single magic prayer, holding a blind faith, or conning God with good deeds. It is a matter of becoming closer and closer to God himself through synergistic praxis. We strive to pray without ceasing, love unconditionally, humble ourselves, and for every step we take towards God, God takes a hundred toward us.

-God. The Orthodox conception of God is... Well, it is perfect because it is true. It is unpolluted. God is pure love and pure humility beyond comprehension, beyond space, and beyond time. The Father is supra-universal, yet present through his Logos and life-giving Spirit. I hesitate to say more about something beyond my understanding.

-Creation. Nothing about Orthodoxy rejects the natural sciences. It may be a mysterious faith, but it does not require one to run contrary to reason. We live in a creation ruled by natural laws, imbued with the ability to bring forth things out of itself. Or perhaps it is ruled by unnatural laws, since it is a fallen creation. The miraculous, therefore, isn't the breaking of the natural order. It is a revelation of what the natural order should have looked like to begin with when God gifted the homo genus with cognition.

-Heaven and Hell. It must be said that God is love. God is mercy. God does not, therefore, dole out everlasting punishments. But if God is everywhere, and humans do indeed have immortal souls, there is nowhere and no time when we can escape God's love. To those who accept it, it is wondrous. But for those who choose to eternally reject it, not so much.

-Christus Victor. The Orthodox view of Christ is no sacrificial body sent to earth for the sole purpose of being brutally mangled and murdered in order to appease his father's twisted sense of justice. Christ came to die, but to--by dying--conquer death. Death, in Orthodoxy, is unnatural. It is evil. It shares an equal place with the devil himself as mankind's adversary. It is the biggest flaw in corrupt creation that sin has created. Christ fixes it by dying with us, carrying his love down into Hades itself, splitting it open, and saving us.

-Praxis. Orthodox faith is rigorous. It is hard. The prayer rules are long--ideally perpetual. The fasting rules don't joke around. The liturgies are lengthy, and you don't get to sit down much. It is a discipline. Orthodoxy doesn't bend to make itself more comfortable and palatable.

-Liturgy. Liturgy is beautiful. It has remained largely unchanged for almost two millennia. The entirety of the faith can be found in liturgy. God can be found in liturgy. It isn't a show. There is no sing-along followed by a concert followed by a lecture followed by a campfire song. It is living, breathing, communal divine tradition.

So all of this is appealing. It makes a perfect mythical system of metaphors to provide peace to the human psyche. But here is where I now struggle, because Jesus's virgin conception and resurrection have to be mythical, right? Only the clinically insane believe in angels and demons, right? Back to the history books I went, and I discovered much more uncertainty than I had before. The realization that hit me in the face like ton of bricks is that all of the modern scholarship, all the hermeneutics, all the textual criticism that I've taken for unshakable truth suffers from a glaring rational flaw: its conclusions preclude its methods. Of course the Jesus Seminar and their like are going to conclude that Jesus's divinity is improbable because they didn't buy that it was possible in the first place. All the attempts to recreate the "historical Jesus" end up in the Jesus the scholar wants. As much as I love Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, the result of their quests for the true Jesus look an awful lot like Marcus Borg and John Domonic Crossan. When and if you can suspend your disbelief and remove the anti-divinity prejudice, it becomes by far the simplest explanation. 

When I ask myself what "proof" would honestly convince me, I realize that none would unless it were overwhelming and pervasive enough that I would lose my freedom of will not to be convinced. I can't doubt that a hamburger is a hamburger--I have no free will there. If Christ had been a biologically immortal, flying, 50-foot tall superman with glowing rainbow eyes who solved all the world's problems and handed us all knowledge, I'd have no free will there, either.

Also, this tradition I've so fallen in love with falls flat on its face without a risen Christ. Christ is the key, and without him everything else falls apart. So I'm trying to have faith though I've learned to do nothing but doubt and dismiss. So far, the shoe fits, but it is a struggle to walk in it. One learns how to walk slowly, though, and God's grace supposedly never passes over those seeking it. Borrowing words from a spiritual advisor, "If you don't have faith, fake it. Then, eventually, you will."

I don't think the church is perfect. It is, after all, an institution polluted by humanity. But I am finding hope there. And love. And God. And a life worth living and, hopefully, passing on to my son. If nothing else can be said for it, it certainly beats watching tv, surfing reddit, and playing games with the free time I'm able to steal.


Brianne Chason said...

"I don't want to go off in a tangential indictment of American culture, but I've lost all faith in it. I've kind of come to hate it. The materialistic, secular world holds almost nothing sacred. And even those things it does hold sacred, it doesn't hold sacred enough to be worth fighting for."

I want to talk with you about this post at length, but right now while I have the time I just want to say that the above quote is so very, very accurate, in my opinion. In other words, I agree with it 110%.

I will be praying for you, Justin. You've always been a fantastic friend to me and I will assist you in any way I can (which, at the moment, is simply through prayer).

Dylan said...

Yeah, I've had a lot of material thoughts ever since working a Black Friday a few years ago. My one job that night was literally to keep crowds of people from climbing on each other. Not people not from a strange material-starved place but people from my hometown. For seven hours. In the middle of the night. Huh, I thought. Maybe we are materialistically starved. Nothing like a good crap job to help that set in.

I recognize the feeling of creeping, senselessly repeating drudgery. I've beat that with my work at the shop, a job I am profoundly grateful for, which offers me a present and a future where I use my teaching and relationship-building skills to essentially facilitate other people's fun. It's so rewarding working to facilitate other people's learning and enjoyment that it's not only worth the crappy paycheck it's earning me at this stage, it's flat out worth living for.

Now to what you're talking about, I can't agree more that people aren't rational, even if some people are less obvious examples of that. And you're much better read on this and related subjects than I. But if I have to pick a lens or worldview to give credit to for the supra-rational truth, Orthodox Christianity isn't my first pick. Still, it may be for you. I'm not a dad.

I may not be a creature of reason, but I live in a world where reason is my ally, where I use it to draw so many basic conclusions (about all topics, rational and nonrational) that I have to have to give it credit for both my physical arrival and my mental arrival at this point on Earth. And that's what I can't give Orthodox Christianity, credit. It's too artificial. Like many belief systems, it's too obviously constructed around its own "logical" conclusions, conclusions that were once "logically" formed thoughts of its founders and are now, over time, no more than adopted group-think. If I had to choose, I'd much rather give credit to something humbler like Taoism, something that is ever pursuing something it admits ignorance of.

But I don't think I have to choose. Something about working at the shop keeps me from worrying about it that much. But you're a dad, an eloquent, intriguing communicator of your perspectives, and much more that I'm not, so I'm content to read your stories, and appreciate what I can, even if baby tales are a little uninteresting for a single male. :)

Jesse Robinson said...

Just found your blog via reddit. Great stuff! You have a new follower!

Anonymous said...

A friend directed me to your blog. I'm an Orthodox priest and a writer - I appreciate your thoughts here and your honesty. I'll be keeping you in my prayers and ask a good journey for you and your family. I was received into Orthodox 15 years ago along with my family (4 children). It is a serious form of life - but anything less is probably not worth living. My only regret is not living it better and more fully than I have. Glad to help any along the way. Just google my name and you'll find me.

Fr. Stephen Freeman

Jesse Robinson said...

You have a new follower! Nice work.

Stephanie said...

Thank you, Justin. This is beautiful. I do not know you, but as a fellow Orthodox Christian who often struggles to put into words the love I feel for Christ's Church, I appreciate your articulation of Her beauty. I hope that you do not mind, but I have linked your blog to my own. You can see it here:

I hope that I have given sufficient credit to your words here, and please let me know if you prefer that I do not re-post them.

May Christ bless all of us on our continued journey to Him.

Anonymous said...

Justin, continue in God's path and build a relationship with Him based on love and trust. When you are happy, let Him know, when you're upset with Him, talk to Him for He said come to me and I will give you rest. And remeber, if God brings you to it, He will guide you through it.

elissa bjeletich said...

What a powerful post. You don't know me, but I truly appreciate your post and I believe you are on the right track. May God bless you and help you in your journey! I wonder if you're familiar with Fr. Stephen Freeman's blog? I think you might enjoy him.