I Heart Huckabees (2004)

We had a lovely Thanksgiving meal, yesterday. There were lots of leftovers so we all stayed home and watched “I Heart Huckabees”, tonight. (My daughter wanted to see it.) I don’t remember the last time I saw this movie, but it has been on my list of all-time favorites since it first came out. I am quite certain I understood it far better this viewing than I have previously, however.


Albert goes to the Existentialist detectives to make sense of a series of coincidences.  It can’t just be a coincidence that he’s bumped into the same man three times in three different places, can it?  The Existentialist detectives (played by Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) keep telling him that everything is connected. I took this too literally on my previous viewings.  What I now think they mean by this is that Albert has made all of these connections in his mind.  So what the detectives do is help him work through his constructed meanings.  It is not as though coincidences are necessarily meaningful in themselves (as if God or the universe or whatever is trying to send him a special message).  Their meaning is dependent upon the meaning that has been constructed by the person experiencing the coincidence.

You have to be honest about your thoughts and actions if you are going to deconstruct the meaning you have created.  Albert continually lies to the detectives about various circumstances.  He even lies to them about what he claims to be coincidence.  They claim he is betraying himself.  That’s pretty much how it goes, isn’t it?  We deny certain aspects of our being because we are too ashamed to reveal them, and then that denial gets projected outward onto others. In Albert’s case, he projects it on to Brad.

The French nihilist claims nothing means anything.  The world is chaotic, full of anger and suffering, and ultimately meaningless.  The Jaffe’s are constantly countering this view, but in the end it is clear that they are actually in cahoots with the nihilist.  And this makes sense!  Yes, everything is meaningless.  But that doesn’t mean everything is meaningless!!

For centuries, we’ve been under the assumption that meaning exists outside of ourselves.  So when we discover that there is no meaning being imposed by God or the universe, the automatic assumption is that the world is meaningless.  But the only reason this idea would make someone nihilistic is if they were still wishing that an external source provided meaning for them. They would rather have meaning imposed upon them than take responsibility for it.  So when they discover it isn’t imposed upon them, they default to “nothing means anything, it’s all meaningless”.

I think you sort of have to go to that dark space of meaninglessness in order to discover that just because there is no externally imposed meaning, that doesn’t mean everything is meaningless.  You have created that meaninglessness.  It hasn’t been imposed upon you by some external source.

It made sense for Albert and Tommy to “defect” to the “other side” and work with the nihilist who says the world is nothing more than a chaotic mess of anger and suffering.  I think in my own development, that’s kind of how it has worked for me.  I started with a sort of superstitious belief in God that I finally had to let go.  I turned to A Course in Miracles, but I didn’t really understand it because I had managed to take my belief in a personal God with me into my studies of ACIM.  Lots of ACIM students do this.  You see it all the time.  It becomes nothing more than a shallow New Age religion that you use to keep suffering at bay.  But despite my efforts, life happened and there were many difficult things that put me into a seriously dark place for a while.  That’s when I started reading the existentialists (Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Hesse, Conrad..)

The main thing I got out of reading the existentialists was the idea that we need to stop denying the darker sides of our natures – that it is the attempt to rid ourselves of what we see as our more animalistic side (the Karamazov side in The Brothers Karamazov, the wolf in Steppenwolfe, the “savages” in Heart of Darkness, etc.) that has created the horrors of the current age.  For centuries we have been assigning “sinful” to our animal nature thanks to Augustine’s fallen man theory (or more likely, a misinterpretation of Augustine’s fallen man theory), but this assignment has not served us.  It has hurt us.  And now that the Enlightenment has killed off the traditional worldview of God, we are destined for nihilism if we don’t also finally let go of the idea that meaning is somehow externally begotten.  The rationalists and empiricists may adamantly claim they don’t believe in God, but they still hold on to the idea that there is some sort of external meaning giver.  There is an external absolute Truth just waiting to be discovered by science.

As Nietzsche said, faith is constantly placed in a future world, not in this world.  This is why he said nihilism was unavoidable.  The Christians put their faith in getting to a perfect future place called Heaven.  In order to get there, they have to deny this world and their animalistic urges.  Empiricists place their faith in a future world made perfect by science and technology.  Perfect nature, perfect the human being, and the world will be better in the future.  Either way, the faith is in something otherworldly and external and promises a world free of suffering.  This world must be denied in order to “achieve” this otherworldly, pain-free futuristic place.  The denial of this world is what concerned Nietzsche and why he said we were headed toward nihilism.  These days, there are Christians who have reason to destroy the environment because they see it as bringing on Armageddon which will get them to Heaven faster.   Others (like Brad) distract themselves with the material pleasures provided by science and technology and turn a blind eye to what is happening to themselves and their environment in the pursuit of this material success.

Buddhists talk about the middle way and I think that is what Tommy and Albert discover and what the Existential Detectives and the Nihilist want them to discover.  The Existential detectives gloss over human suffering, but the Nihilist goes straight to the heart of it, even creates suffering in order to help Tommy and Albert understand.  Yes, everything is ultimately meaningless and the world is full of senseless suffering, but that doesn’t mean life is not meaningful.  Brad and Albert are very different people, but they are the same in their suffering.  Albert and Tommy describe this interconnection as absolutely fantastic, but also nothing special because “it grows from the manure of human trouble… No manure, no magic.”

There is also the existential issue of authenticity.  Brad’s dismantling finally starts to occur when the existential detectives point out repetitive behavior Brad uses as propaganda to promote himself.  He repeatedly tells a story about Shania Twain and tricking her into eating a chicken salad sandwich with mayo.  The story helps to project a certain image he likes to portray.  But when he does this, is he being himself?  The question is repeated over and over again – “How am I not myself?”

How can you be anything other than yourself?  You are who you are, there is no one else you can be.  And yet, we all engage in behavior attempting to be someone we are not.

The Schizophrenic Split

I commented to Carl that I am more suspicious of Western Orthodoxy than traditional Eastern Orthodoxy because Western Orthodoxy has attempted to merge the abstract values of Greek rationalism with the Hebrew God. I’m with the Existentialists as far as this goes – the absolute values associated with Greek rationalism are completely incompatible with the individuality inherent in the ancient Hebrew notion of “God”.

Carl asked:

Do you think the eastern church does not attempt to integrate Greek philosophy with the Christian revelation? Do you think Christians should have nothing to do with the thought of Plotinus and the other Neoplatonists? I’m not trying to bait you, I’m genuinely curious as to where you’re coming from. Brian McLaren, in his most recent book, A New Kind of Christianity, makes a similar argument that we need to deconstruct the unwieldy integration of Greco-Roman philosophy and New Testament spirituality that accrued over the early years of Christianity. Are you familiar with his argument, and is that pretty much where you’re coming from?

My response:

Karen Armstrong said that when the Eastern Orthodox Church split off from the Roman Catholic Church early on, it opted not to attempt to merge Greek rationalism with Christian theology. Armstrong said that the Eastern Church (which was a large part Greek) had “been there, done that” for centuries already and was fully aware of the flaws. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand was just coming into contact with Greek rationalist thought and couldn’t get enough of it. Almost all of the theology of the Middle Ages was an attempt to merge Greek philosophy into Christian thought. Of course, there were elements of this already with Paul since he was a Helenized Jew. But essentially, the Eastern Orthodox church developed very differently than the Roman Catholic Church over the years because it didn’t have the same enthusiasm for Greek rationalism that the Roman Catholic Church had.

Dostoevsky, (whom I consider to be a Christian mystic), was one of the first to recognize the unresolvable nature of the merger. By his lifetime, it wasn’t just affecting the Western world, it was affecting the entire world and making its way into Russian Orthodoxy, too. Dostoevsky was very concerned about this. He felt the way out of the problem was through the traditional Russian/Eastern Orthodox Church. (This conflict and the potential way out of it is the theme of The Brothers Karamazov. Existentialism is largely about the unresolvable nature of this conflict, too.)

I’m not a philosopher, so I’m not sure if Neoplatinism is the primary target of concern or not. The specific problem, as I understand it, is this: the Hebrew faith was focused on maintaining Hebrew individuality in the face of diversity. Therefore, the God of the Hebrews stressed a value system based on individuality. The Greek rationalists created an abstract value system that was supposedly attainable by all human beings. The two exist independently just fine. But when you assign this abstract value system to the individual value system of the Hebrew God, you’ve got an incompatibility. The Western world has been trying to solve this incompatibility for centuries, but there is essentially no way out of it. It doesn’t just affect Christianity, it affects all of Western society and pretty much the entire world because western thought has had such a heavy influence globally.

What you end up with is lots of religious hubris (and anti-religious hubris), holier than thou problems, my way is right for me and is right for you, a lack of concern for the environment, and existential malaise (doomsday Christians looking forward to the rapture and doomsday environmentalists, for instance.) We have trouble fully living in the world because we’ve been trying to reconcile a “schizophrenic split” that cannot be reconciled.

I’m not familiar with Brian McLaren, so am not familiar with his argument. It is my feeling that this is something we can transcend, but it is not something we can go back and undo.

Mystical Musings

For about a half hour every night, after I’ve completed an outline of what needs to be covered during studies with my daughter for the following day, I pick up Carl McColman’s The Big Book of Christian Mysticism and settle in for a very enjoyable and informative read.

I’ve kept up with Carl’s blog off and on for over 5 years and can’t say I always agree with his views, but I certainly respect and appreciate them.  That’s been true of The Big Book of Mysticism, too.  Carl’s writing style is easy to follow, organized, informative and gracious.  I always feel like I am reading the thoughts of an extremely kind, gentle soul when I read his writing.  I appreciate his spiritual perspectives, but I do not agree with his view of mysticism.  It seems to me as though he is trying to define it in order to “sell” it and that makes me uncomfortable because I don’t think mysticism is something that can be bought and sold.  It is certainly an experience that can be shared with others, but not in a coercive, manipulative marketing sort of way.

Robert Bly was once asked if he hoped to make poetry mainstream.  He said that was not at all his goal because once something becomes mainstream, it loses its power.  Professional marketers are aware of this.  Once you discover that cutting edge thing that resonates “cool” and market it to the masses, it almost immediately loses its “cool” so you have to go off looking for the next cutting edge thing to market.   Bringing something into the mainstream does not give it power, it takes it away because the mainstream always demands that the ineffable be made concrete.

The way I see it, mysticism is to religion what poetry is to literature.  In order to sell it to the masses, you have to reduce it to labels and catch phrases that turn it into something far less significant than what it actually is.

Granted, I’m only 75 pages into the book and my intellectual understanding of Christian mysticism is admittedly somewhat limited.  It’s not non-existent, but I know I don’t have Carl’s knowledge.  I had a significant mystical experience in my youth that has provided my primary understanding of mysticism.  Everything gets checked against that experience which is what made me interested in Christian mysticism in the first place.  It resonated with my experience.  Beyond that, I attended a dozen or so Franciscan and Jesuit retreats and conferences during the 8 years I was Catholic.  Most of these were silent retreats and a few were specifically based upon a study of the Christian mystics.  More recently, I’ve made a fairly extensive study of The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and a few others.  But my knowledge of Christian mysticism, in general, is somewhat lacking.  I know very little about the Celtic influence on Christian wisdom, for example.  I’ve made an in depth study of Church history, but I have not made an in depth study of many of the Christian thinkers themselves.  So undoubtedly Carl has far more knowledge than me.  But I’m still uncomfortable about his desire to nail mysticism down so concretely.  What is the point of doing this?  To gain converts?

Carl says that he can’t guarantee that he will win anyone over to his point of view.  Fair enough.  But doesn’t mysticism have more to do with helping people enlarge their perspective from their own point of view rather than trying to get them to adopt someone elses’ point of view?  Carl very clearly says that his goal is to inspire and encourage us to make Christian mysticism a part of our lives.  His selling point is that Christian mysticism “promises” to make our lives better.  This is also the standard selling point of Christianity which has all but become a “brand” these days.  (Well, maybe it IS a “brand”!!)

Carl says that a central “goal” of Christian mysticism is experiencing the ineffable splendors of the mutual indwelling of the soul in Christ.  This doesn’t seem right to me.  I think it would be more accurate to say that mysticism is the experience of the ineffable splendors of the mutual indwelling of the soul in Christ.  To claim mysticism has “goals” makes me cringe.  Perhaps it was Paul’s goal, but that doesn’t mean Christian mysticism has goals.

Carl writes:

Paul promises that the mystery of Christ leads to a glorious end that so many mystics since have described – union with God, beatific vision, communion with the Holy Trinity, deification, to be filled with the utter fullness of God.

I have a problem with the word choice here, specifically the word “end”.  Is union with God, etc. an end result?  If so, an end result of what?  Doing what Christian mysticism says we should do?  Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems highly problematic to assign “end results” to mysticism.  Goals that create end results have a lot to do with the modern striving for achievement and marketing tactics (as in growing a church), but very little to do with mysticism as I understand it.

Carl writes, “For example, many forms of non-Christian mysticism are anchored in the idea that human beings are (or can become) identical with God.  Christianity denies this and Christian mysticism concurs.” Mysticism concurs? With what exactly?  I wish Carl had provided specific examples here, because these sorts of blanket statements made by Christians are what I find to be the most detrimental of all.

God is a metaphor and means very different things within different religions.  Mystical Jainism is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of a non-Christian religion that believes human beings can become “identical” to God.  But to compare the God of the Jains with the God of the Christians is completely inappropriate.  The Jains do not believe that there is a beginning or end as far as the universe goes so they do not believe in a creator God.  For the Jains, God is perfect Being.  When Jains say that human beings have the ability to become identical with God, they do not mean that they have the ability to become identical with a creator God.  What they mean is that human beings have the the potential to achieve perfect Being. Of the Christian mystics I’m familiar with, I’m fairly certain that this idea would not pose a problem.  Some may not agree with it, but at worst, it would be a non-issue.  (Note: We’ve warped Augustine’s “Original Sin” beyond all recognition since Descartes!!)  Buddhists don’t maintain a belief in God at all.  There are something like 330 million gods in Hinduism.  All of these gods represent the one Supreme absolute called Brahman.  Each god is an aspect of Brahman who is formless and beyond human conception – human beings do not become “identical” to Brahman.

Carl says that the Christian idea of God as a Trinity is a unique idea.  That’s not necessarily true.  Hinduism is far older than Christianity and maintains a triumverage -Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva.  Brahman (Creator) is “Being”; Vishnu (Preserver) is “Thatness”; and Shiva (Destroyer) is the holy word or holy spirit.  The Christian trinity is Father (God), Son and Holy Spirit.  I don’t see a huge difference here. God is “the Ground of Being”, Son is “Thatness” (God on earth; the Word made Flesh); and the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit.  Each aspect of the Christian trinity, like the Hindu trinity, contains and includes the others.

In Wicca, the Goddess is understood as a trinity: Mother (preserver), Maiden (creator), Crone (destroyer).  Look at it this way…

  • Maiden (Creator) – innocence, continual new beginnings, the youthful enthusiasm of infinite potential.  In Hinduism, Brahman is the Creator and is also known as “Being”. Paul Tillich called God (the Father) the “Ground of Being”.  Dostoevsky said God was “a field of infinite potential”.
  • Mother (Nurturer and Sustainer) –  fertility, sexuality, fulfillment, stability, life.  In Hinduism, Vishnu is the Preserver and also “Thatness”.  Thatness is the ineffable thingness of stuff.  Human sensual experience.  Thisness/Isness is Brahman/God.  Thatness is based on human experience.  This is the individual experience of infinite potential.  God made flesh.  The Son.  God’s way of experiencing Himself. (In Christianity in the form of Jesus who represents all of humanity.)
  • Crone (Destroyer) – wisdom, repose, death, endings.  In Hinduism, Shiva is the Destroyer.  Shiva is also considered to be the holy word/spirit.  In Christianity, it is the Holy Spirit that leads us to new perspectives which means the death of old ones.  It is the Holy Spirit that undoes the ego so that we can hear God.  It is the communication mechanism between Isness and Thatness.

I think Carl was a Celtic Pagan before becoming Christian. There is a trinity within Celtic paganism, too.  The Trinity exists everywhere.  It is NOT unique to Christianity.  Why would it be?

Also, Christian pantheism is not unknown.  Paul said, “For in him we live, move and have our being”.  What is that if not pantheistic??  Carl writes:

A corollary of this principle is the Christian insistence that mysticism does not lead to a pantheistic merging of you and God, but rather culminates in a loving communion, where mystical unity with God occurs as a loving embrace.

Mystical unity?  To me, there is ultimately very little difference between pantheism and panentheism.  Personally, I think panentheism is a pantheism because the definition of pantheism is broad enough to embrace it.  Perhaps some pantheists insist upon a merging of “you and God”.  But come on!!  God is a metaphor.  We don’t understand metaphor anymore!  If we did, the idea of merging “you and God” wouldn’t make any sense at all!  It’s total nonsense, not pantheism.

I don’t mean to imply that I dislike everything about Carl’s book.  My discomfort with his view of mysticism is nothing new, I have voiced it several times on his blog and he is always very gracious.  I always enjoy reading his blog despite my discomfort and look forward to having time to read his book.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll change my mind as I make my way deeper into it.

Eternal Life: A New Vision

John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark until his retirement in 2000 and he has been an outspoken critic of Christianity (while remaining one) for many years.  His book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die was somewhat life changing for me in that it confirmed my discomfort with Christianity.  I resonated with Spong’s term, “Christians in Exile”.

I left the church right after I read Spong’s book.  It gave me permission, I suppose.  But for whatever reason, after 10 years of being “out”, my husband and I just joined a mainstream United Methodist Church in November of 2009.   I’m not yet sure exactly why it is I’m back at church. The idea of a personal God no longer works for me nor do I believe any church is an authority on God. Both ideas seem absolutely ridiculous to me, now.  As far as I can tell, however, the United Methodist Church continues to insist upon the existence of a personal God and continues to describe itself as an authority on God. But since I’ve never heard of excommunication in the Methodist Church, I suppose it’s OK I’m there even if I disagree with some of its fundamental precepts.  Several of the people I most admire, who sit very far outside mainstream Christianity, continue to be a part of their Methodist communities.  I’m just not exactly sure why it is I’m back, yet.  I read an excerpt from Spong’s Eternal Life: A New Vision, which seemed like the book might actually provide some insight into my return.  I checked it out and read it cover to cover.  But it didn’t help at all.  Guess I’ll just have to figure that one out on my own.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of Spong’s book. Spong says we have to be able to probe religion as an outsider in order to see through it.  I’ve been on the outside of religion for over a decade, and personally, I wonder if its ever possible to truly be on the outside of it once heavily immersed within it?  All of Western society has been immersed in religious ideology for thousands of years, so none of us can exactly claim to be immune to religious immersion, no matter how many generations of atheists our family can boast.  The Enlightenment itself came out of a religious world view.  To this day, there are elements of original sin (via St. Augustine) that remain within the scientific world view that are very difficult to tease out. Plus, the idea that there is some sort of absolute truth that can be discovered through scientific inquiry is directly related to the Western religious view that meaning can be “found”.

Spong asks:

Does religion, as it has been practiced in human history, actually make us more human or less human?  Is it possible that religion, rather than transforming reality, enables us to hide from reality, a reality which we are not emotionally equipped to embrace?  Is religion in all its forms, as Marx suggested, an opiate for the people?  Is the very function of religion calculated to provide us with a believable denial of the angst that accompanies self-consciousness?  Beyond those questions is the deeper probe into religion’s origins.  Was the development of the various religions a human inevitability?  Is the anxiety of self-consciousness so great that only the belief in the existence of an external supernatural deity, who has the power to come to our aid, will ever quiet our fears?  Is God, or is religion now revealed as little more than a human creation?  These are the tough questions which we must now pursue.

I think Spong is right.  It is time we pursue these questions. When I started asking such questions 10 years ago, I started with my minister friends and one of them has never talked to me again.  It was too threatening.  But it’s ten years later.  We’ve lived through 9/11 and all of the questions and divisions that created, and I think we have potentially grown up, at least a little bit, since then.  Maybe we are more ready to face these questions now than we were 10 years ago?  Sometimes I wonder if my desire to return to a church setting (besides the bizarre loyalty I feel toward Methodism) has to do with easing the transition? I know how difficult and isolating it is to face these sorts of questions.  But face them we must!  And if we could face them as a community, all the better!

What I’m not convinced of, however, is Spong’s idea that the only reason religion was created was to provide a means to hide from reality.  I think it is definitely true of the failed attempt to merge abstract Greek rationalism and Jewish individualism.  Nietzsche said (through the madman in Zarathustra) that  God is dead and that it is we who killed him.  But alas, the madman realized he had come too soon, and he prophesied that it would take 300 years for people to finally realize that God is dead.  Nietzsche was including the atheistic rationalists in this prophecy, not just those who still maintained a belief in God.  Mankind attempted, long ago, to merge the Jewish God with the idea of an abstract absolute from Greek rationalism.  That which cannot be named became a Greek value (an idea/noun) rather than the integral part of life (a process/verb) that YHWH had been for the Jews.   Nietzsche saw that God, understood as an abstract value, is not sustainable because it inevitably creates narcissism, division, and eventually nihilism.  (Think of literalist fundies who look forward to end of world times so they can go to heaven.)  God is dead, and it is we who killed Him.  And we cannot go back and fix it.  That understanding, however faulty, is now and forever a part of our heritage.   It is part of what makes us us – whether or not it was a “necessary” idea in the first place.

But much of religion is more art than belief, isn’t it?  As Joseph Campbell said, it is the final mask before reality.  As art, it doesn’t so much provide security as it provides inspiration through the imaginative imitation of life.  In this sense, it provides the strength and courage necessary to face reality.  And it also adds to the enjoyment of life.

Spong says that truth is not religion’s ultimate agenda; security is.  When religion is considered to be under the authority of “church” or a literal interpretation of a sacred text, then security is definitely the name of the game.  But out of religion have come practices like meditation, contemplative prayer, and other practices that help us face reality, rather than hide from it.  There seems to be some proof that communal meditation is more effective than individual meditation in keeping people engaged in the practice.   And there is the artistic representation within religion that helps us move out of our ego and into the fuller experience of “oneness”.

My daughter and I just recently finished watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos which does a beautiful job of showing how incredulous it is that humanity should exist at all. The belief that I was intentionally created by a creator God doesn’t make me feel near as grateful as knowing that my existence occurred by mere chance. What a wonderful gift life is when you know it happened because all of the right elements just happened to be in place at the right time!  So I entirely agree with Spong that science has opened our eyes to how unique the human experience is and that it helps us realize how horrific it is to take such a chance event for granted.  But hasn’t art (and artistic religious expression) been doing the same thing, in a different way, for much longer?

I agree with Spong that dogmatic religion has come out of political need.  No argument with me there.  Religion is an excellent way to control the masses.   Whenever one religion claims to have a monopoly on God, you can be assured that religion is making the claim for political gain.  But do Eastern religions make this claim in the same way western religions do?  I have yet to meet a Buddhist who claims to believe in God.  In fact, it was through Buddhism that I was able to realize that the question, “Do you believe in God?” is itself a faulty question because it’s based on circular reasoning.  Whichever way you answer (“yes” or “no”) can only point back to the question itself – not to any sort of reality. That’s why, I am told, Buddhists don’t “believe in” God.   The answer is based on a nonsensical question.

Spong says that we have to stop searching for meaning within religion.  Fair enough. But not all religion is about searching for meaning, is it?  I remember hearing the Dali Lama say that if we are all evolving from pre-Cambrian sludge, then we might as well affect that evolution in the most beneficial way possible and that religious discipline can help us do this because it helps us acquire awareness.  We create all the meaning there is so we might as well create what is beneficial rather than what is harmful.  In that sense, it’s not about seeking.  It’s about creating.   Spong’s correct, however: the typical Western idea of religion is definitely about finding some truth “out there”.   But that’s often the basic premise behind many atheistic rationalistic perspectives, too, isn’t it?

Surely we don’t seek meaning so much as we seek the experience of being alive.  And perhaps that is Spong’s point?  If so, right on! Live the questions!!

But does the use of artistic and religious imagination keep us from living or does it help us live more fully?  Maybe the answer depends on the person/society and not an absolute “truth”.

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage

My daughter and I just finished the entire series of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  It’s one of those series available at the library that you have to wait forever to get.  And no wonder!  It’s excellent.

For high school transcript purposes, we have to come up with various courses so my daughter and I decided to create a course called “The History of Science”. The Cosmos series kicked it off and was a better choice than either of us had imagined. The series covered a multitude of scientific topics along with their historic origins.

I can see why people who watched this series became atheists. Sagan has an obvious love of the earth and believes strongly that had science been allowed to continue without interruption from religion back in the Middle Ages, we’d have a much better world today.  He says that, through science, “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”

He’s got a point.  The Christian religion tends to be focused on that which is otherwordly rather than the world we inhabit.  Do the right thing and you get to go to heaven, wherever that is.  So why care about this world?  Now we have all of this technological capability thanks to science, but we still don’t have much regard for the Earth. Things are absolutely crazy!  We eat an apple, but are we eating an apple, or a notion of an apple?  And what does that notion of an apple do to us? Is genetically modifying our food a way for the Cosmos to know itself?  It seems to me it’s just the opposite!

Sagan’s main concern was nuclear war, because this show was filmed during the Cold War. But he was also very concerned about Global Warming.  What I think he wanted his series to do was to put people in awe of the world around them, and to recognize how unique life on our planet is. If we could just understand how amazing and irreplaceable humanity is, perhaps we wouldn’t be so hell bent on self-destruction.

I wonder, have things gotten better or worse since Cosmos was first filmed?  Most of us see ourselves as a global community, now.  But there are still a lot of bumper stickers on the road that say something along the lines of “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned”.  Original sin via St. Augustine is still built into the fabric of our understanding, be we religious or not.  And despite the consensus among scientists, the media and general public still resist the claims that the world is warming.  Or if they agree that it is warming, they excuse our bad habits and blame it on nature.

Anyway, excellent series.  My daughter really liked Carl Sagan and his approach to science.  The other night, she was having trouble sleeping and said she wanted to watch another episode of Cosmos!  (No – not because it would put her to sleep, but because she genuinely enjoyed the series.)  We both got a lot of out of it.

Russian Spirituality with Fr. Thomas Hopko

My husband and I signed up for the third year of a Christian mysticism survey in San Antonio sponsored by the Oblate School of Theology.  We didn’t know about the first two years and I actually heard about the series through Carl McColman in Atlanta, of all people! It was kind of fun telling the people who asked that we had driven in from Austin because we had learned about the series from a guy in Atlanta.

Not so sure what I thought about the first lecture, however. It was given by Fr. Thomas Hopko who is Dean Emeritus at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox School of Theology.  He was a lively, engaging speaker and fun to listen to, but he didn’t cover what I thought he was going to cover. He was also extremely opinionated so it was difficult to know if we were getting a balanced perspective on Russian Orthodoxy or just his. He was just way to Orthodox for me!

I was looking forward to learning more about the mystics within Russian Orthodoxy and he barely touched on them.  Instead, he offered a general overview of Russian Orthodox spirituality which was probably really difficult to do in the short amount of time he had.

I took a few notes…

Did you know that Christianity is not a religion? No. It’s not. It’s the fulfillment of all of the religions and also the end of them all.  (Did I mention that Hopko is extremely biased toward his religious point of view?  ) Also Catholic means full/whole. It doesn’t mean universal.

What is called the dark ages in the Western world was actually the golden age in the Russian Orthodox tradition.

In the early days of Christianity, Eastern Christians were completely independent of the Western Christians.  In fact, the Eastern Christians had never even heard of St. Augustine. When he was finally known in the Eastern Christian world many years later when the Eastern Christians finally interacted with the Western Christians, he wasn’t well-liked. This interaction eventually produced a  huge schism around 1054 (the symbolic date). It started as a spiritual and theological split, but ended up political and military. 

What happened was that Rome added the Filioque to the Nicene Creed  (“and the Son” was added to “… who proceeds from the father”).  This caused a scandal because 1) it changes what is said in the Bible; 2) no one is to change the creed, but it was changed; and 3) it’s NOT TRUE!  It distorted the Godhead.  

At first it was just miscellaneous churches adding it to the creed, but then it was sung in Rome which was considered hugely problematic. When the Pope officially added the Filioque to the creed, both churches symbolically excommunicated the other and Western theologians began defending the Filioque. What finally sealed the deal, however, was when the Crusaders from the west, who came to free the Christians from Islamic rule, sacked the Eastern Christians and destroyed Churches that had stood for centuries. For Eastern Christians (Greeks, Slavs, Arabs), it’s like this happened to them yesterday. The feeling is still very strong. They hate Roman Catholicism more than Islam.

Eastern Orthodoxy ended up under Islam for 500 years. The only part that was free of Islam rule was Russian Orthodoxy, which was free from rule until Marxism (which produced 7 million Russian Orthodox corpses). In the 17th century, the Eastern Church became westernized, but the Russian Orthodoxy remained unbroken from the schism until Marxism.

In the West, theology became separate from worship and Christian life which turned worship into nothing more than piety.  In the East, the church is what it prays. You cannot separate individual spirit from the communal spirit (including the spiritual ascension of saints). Hopko said the Russian Orthodox religion is like playing with fire. If you aren’t careful , you end up myst, i, and cysm – spiritual delusion. You end up completely mad. It’s like playing with the devil.

He made a joke:  When a Protestant loses his faith, he becomes a gentleman. When a Roman Catholic loses his faith, he becomes a social, liberal radical. When a Russian Orthodox loses his faith, he becomes a demon and a monster.  (Think Lenin who was Russian Orthodox and Stalin who attended a Georgian Orthodox Theology School.)

Hopko says there are 8 realities of Russian Orthodoxy:

  • Father
  • Son
  • Holy Spirit
  • Scriptures
  • Sacraments
  • Services
  • Saints
  • Each other

Self-centeredness is the big evil.  What God does is sort of akin to a rock tumbler.  We’re like dirty, uneven rocks and he bashes us all together until the dirt starts falling off and our edges smooth out and we are rounded and fit nicely with one another.  The Biblical God of love smashes us to clean us. (Lovely imagery, isn’t it??) Hopko says the relaxation response has nothing to do with the Jesus Prayer. Every Demon in Hell attacks you when you recite the Jesus prayer.   (He didn’t go into what the Jesus prayer is.)

Hopko says prayer is a shedding of blood. Theology is not studied, it is suffered. And the center of Christianity is the crucified Christ.  You have to have a conviction about a bloody Jewish corpse on a cross hanging between two thieves.   Theology is Christ centered and Christ is God centered.  The Biblical problem is not atheism. The Biblical problem is idolatry. You either worship the real God or the God you make up.  And Hopko says, get real (well, he said something like that). Everybody is for love. But what is love? For Christians, it is revealed in the bloody corpse hanging on the cross.

We are called to BE God through grace. We are not simply imitators of Christ.  We are called to BECOME God.  But this is impossible. So God gives us grace through the Holy Spirit and this makes it possible. In the bible, the term “to know” means to have sexual intercourse. “To know God” doesn’t mean to know about God. It means to have sexual intercourse with God. (Metaphorically, at least.)

What makes life, life? Delight in God. The knowledge of God. God is interacting with us and we are always changing.  God is a living God. In order to experience this God, we have to acquire the scriptural mind, the Lectio Devina. If this is going to be real for us, then there are three things we have to do:

  1. Go to church. In the Russian Orthodoxy, the liturgy is the same for everyone in every single Russian Orthodox Church.  You don’t make it up, you enter into it.  It’s not like going to Church in the West.  This liturgy is organic because there are always new saints being canonized and the liturgies, I assume, are dedicated to the saints.
  2. Say your prayers.  You have to have a rule of prayer.  The Lord’s prayer, for instance.  But the English translation is a terrible mistranslation, so get a good translation.   Also, meditate.  But never evaluate your progress.  You also must have a spiritual director to report to.   Prayer is to help us keep the commandments.  It’s not about hearing voices or having strong emotions or feeling good.    We are just looking to be faithful to God.
  3. Ceaseless prayer.   Rejoice always in everyting.  Give thanks.  Pray without ceasing.    Our problems are not resolved, they are dissolved.  (They no longer feel like problems to us.)

There was a little makeshift bookstore in the lobby so I purchased The Way of a Pilgrim, an anonymously penned book about the devout practice of the Jesus Prayer:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  I got the translation by R.M. French with a forward by Huston Smith. There was a different translation by Olga Salvin with a forward by Hopko but I thought I’d probably be better off with a translation forwarded by Smith because Smith’s definitely not too orthodox for me. Also, French’s translation came highly recommended. I’m reading about 11 books at the moment, what’s one more??

Science and Religion: Lectures 1-4

Science and Religion is a Great Courses lecture series taught by Professor Lawrence M. Principe of John Hopkins University.

He takes a historical (and also somewhat philosophical) approach to the subject which is surprisingly a much different approach than I have previously encountered. He says that science and religion are the two most important influences on human civilization. His course specifically sticks to the interaction of science and religion in the Latin West and descendants (Western Europe and North America) so the specific religion of his focus is Western Christianity.

Prof. Principe defines science as both a body of knowledge claims and a practice; it deals with the knowledge and study of the natural world. He says it is more difficult to define religion so breaks it into three parts: religious practice, theology and faith. He says that when we compare science and religion, what we are actually comparing is science and theology. Theology, like science, is both a body of knowledge claims and a practice of generating them. The comparison of science to theology is the only proper comparison because it doesn’t make sense to compare science to faith or science to religious practice. However, faith and reason are a useful pair of terms and it isn’t true that science works by reason and theology by faith. Science often must depend on faith statements and theology likewise relies on reason.

Proposed Models

There are various models referring to the historical relationship between science and religion that have been presented over the years. One very popular model is the warfare model which is also known as the conflict model which became especially popular in the 19th century. This says that science and religion have been opposed and that religion has stifled the advances of science. No serious historian maintains this theory today because the original proponents based their arguments on shoddy historical research and the divisions it creates between religion and science are not transhistorical because they are based on modern categories that do not apply to pre-modern thinkers. Pre-modern thinkers are called scientists now, but were not known as scientists in pre-modern times. They believed that theology was relevant to their work and vice versa. What is most troubling is that despite the shoddy scholarship, the model continues to be influential because it successfully created a myth of science as religion which was readily accepted by science advocates. Principe cited Carl Sagan as an example.

Other models that have been proposed are the separate realms model which argues that science and religion address different domains so any conflict is a result of boundary transgressions. But this model doesn’t hold up because it is based on a priori, modern and sometimes idiosyncratic definitions of science and religion. Another model is the complexity thesis which refer to the diverse and complex interactions of science and religion.

Faith and Reason/Scripture and Nature

Faith and Reason are the methods.  Scripture and Nature are the sources.  We consider Scripture and Nature to be two very different sources but this wasn’t always the case.

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430)  is fundamental to western culture. Augustine originally rejected Christianity because the form that was presented to him was faith based which he found illogical. He preferred the Manichees which was a North African sect that rejected reliance on faith in favor of what could be proven by argument.  It also presented the world as in constant battle between good and evil/light and darkness (dualism). When Augustine was presented with an intellectual approach to Christianity through neo-Platonism, he no longer found the need to reject it and he got baptized. He made four points that became fundamental to Christian theology and are foundational to the science-religion interaction.

  • There is a unity of truth.  There is not one philosophy for science, one truth for philosophy, one truth for theology.  This is a single truth.  If there is a disagreement, the disagreement has to be resolved. But it’s really difficult for fallible human beings to get the truth right.
  • Nature and Scripture are two ways in which God reveals himself to man. They cannot contradict each other.
  • Both of the “Books” (nature and scripture) require careful interpretation; apparent contradictions arise from incorrect interpretations. He realized that even though the senses transfer to our minds exactly what it is they are sensing, our minds can misinterpret what comes to us through the senses. Things aren’t always what they seem.  Reading the book of nature requires rational analysis. Augustine said that the interpretation of Scripture, however, was even more difficult. Augustine said the literal meaning was the most difficult to interpret. Literal did not mean the surface meaning as it often does today. It was not a naive literalism.
  • Religion has primacy, but scientific knowledge is a key ancilla which assists true religion. Biblical interpretation must be informed by the current state of demonstrable knowledge.

It was knowledge of the natural world that turned Augustine away from the Manichees and led him to the “true faith”.

Credo ut intellegam: “I believe so that I may understand.” vs. Intellego ut credam: “I understand so that I may believe.”    Augustine concluded that faith increases by understanding. Faith and reason could not be separated and one could not be separated from the other. They always work together.  Understand so that you believe and believe so that you understand.  Both faith and reason are prone to error, but used together, they can be self-correcting.

Even in 1998, Pope John Paul II presented an encyclical called Faith and Reason which presents the two as inseperable and interelated and shows an optimism for human potential through the inseparability of both. It rejected blind faith over reason and reliance on biblical texts alone. The faith statements in the document are not Christian dogma, but that human life has meaning and that there exists an eternal and transcendant truth. Concepts like radical relativism, nihilism, pragmatism, and scientism are rejected because they are viewed as maintaining a negative faith rather than a positive faith. The loss of faith in an ultimate truth toward which we can strive (even if we cannot attain it) is a negative faith. So is the rejection of transcendent ideals which are worth striving for.

[I don’t know what I think of this. On the one hand, I agree that faith and reason are inseparable and I definitely have  "faith" in transcendent truth. But I don’t think this truth is something we need "strive" for because this sounds more to me like an abstract truth than a transcendent truth. The idea that we can "strive" for transcendent ideals doesn’t make any sense to me at all.  What does that mean and who gets to decide what those ideals are if they are transcendent?   Obviously, no one can determine by reason if there is a transcendent truth and I do agree that those who claim there is not a transcendent truth are making a faith based claim that there is not. And I definitely don’t think that just because it is unknowable, it is irrelevant. But it likewise doesn’t make sense to me to tell people to place their faith in the transcendent truth so that you can have something toward which to strive.  That seems to me to place the focus on the finger pointing at the moon rather than at the moon itself and makes the encyclical seem somewhat suspect. I suppose in a mystical sense, it could be said that the church is the transcendent truth. I understand this. Honestly, I get it. But the church is also a finger which purports to point at transcendent truth and in that sense is not transcendent truth. So is the purpose of the encyclical to encourage us to put our faith in that which is transcendent or is it really encouraging us to put our faith in that which purports to point us toward transcendence? The difference is huge and I think the reality all depends upon individual experience. The church can’t make the claim that it is transcendent separate from the individual who personally experiences it as transcendent. Therefore, to claim that we should place our faith in transcendent truth so that we have something to strive toward seems to me hugely problematic.]

God and Nature/Miracles and Demons

What causes the natural world is the fundamental question of science. It is also a question of theology because it is understood that God provides a basis for science because God implies a regularity of action underlying the natural world. Science endeavors to uncover this regularity.

Supernaturalism says that God directly effects everything in the world; all causation comes from a power outside of nature rather than within nature. There is naive supernaturalism that is anti-intellectual. But there is also a more sophisticated version called occasionalism which links what we witness between cause and effect are merely consequences of our perceptions. One thing doesn’t cause another, it only marks the occasion at which God acts.   Some supernaturalists believe that God naturally creates by his direct action.

Another view is naturalism. God created the world and then rested. Everything since creation flows from natural things.

Medieval philosphers identified two levels of causation: primary (directly from God) and secondary (from created things). If they have inherent powers of causation, they are secondary causes. Supernaturalists, on the other hand, rely on primary causation. The direct cause is always God.  Naturalists invoke secondary causation.

Counter to popular belief, theologians from the middle ages primarily sided with naturalism (albeit not radically). This has been true of all mainstream Christianity.  Some theologians said that there were two kinds of divine power:  God’s omnipotence: potentia Dei absoluta (the absolute power of God) and the powers that God actually chooses to exercise given the creation the way he made it: potentia Dei ordinata (God’s ordained power).  God could be capricious and could change the laws of nature, he chooses not to. It might have been true that medieval peasants believed in the constant interferance of God, but it wasn’t true of the medieval theologians. Medieval theologians sided with naturalism. For instance, in the Parting of the Red Sea (Reed Sea), medieval theologians argued that it was the wind that parted the sea, not God. God who had initially created wind worked through secondary causes, not primary causes.

[Just a quick thought – and I’m not exactly sure this has to do with anything – the Dalai Lama says the unique philosophy of Buddha is that everything comes because of some cause. That is the only law.]

If a large group of people are able to seek their freedom because of this strange phenomenon of wind creating dry land for them to cross, is it a miracle or not? In the 13th century, miracles were defined as:

  • special events outside the cursus communis naturae
  • might be worked by God intervening directly
  • or by his applying existing secondary causes in a special way


  • An event that displays a naturally inexplicable disproportion between the power of the evident cause and the effect is likely to be miraculous.

Therefore, miracles must be carefully identified so the need to identify miracles lead directly to the need for scientific knowledge which can show us the limits of natural actions. Miracles, because they are improbable, ultimately must be based on faith.

Miracles became especially problematic in the 17th century because Protestants widely adopted the doctrine of the cessation of miracles which said that “the age of miracles” was over; it ended with the death of the apostolic generation.  A consequence of this doctrine was an intense interest in demonic activity. Demons were understood not to have supernatural ability, but were thought to know natural properties perfecty and could apply natural agents in an instant. This makes demon appear miraculous, but it’s nothing more than an application of natural agents to subjects.  The dangerous part of discerning a miracle became the fear that if you ascented to the wrong part of a miracle, it might put you in the power of demons. Another consequence was the belief that if human beings could become as knowledgable of the natural world (through science) as the demons, humans could produce what seems to be miraculous but is merely a marvel (technology).

Today, there are many sects that fall far outside the historical mainstream Christian thought. These sects enhance the importance of miracles which diminishes the importance of natural causation. They also attribute far greater power to Satanic forces than does mainstream Christianity.  Such attribution resembles Manicheasm more than it does Christianity. Unlike orthodox Christianity, these sects have a lack of faith in the order that constitute science and so they are consistently opposed to scientific inquiry, explanation and education while orthodox Christianity fully upholds scientific inquiry, explanation and education.