I continue to reflect a bit on the subject of transience and mortality.  It is by now an atheism truism that the absence of an afterlife, our finitude and transience, is precisely what gives meaning and significance to this life.  Surely, this is all the inspiration we need, all the impetus necessary for us to go out and live well.  Perhaps it is-it seems to be, at least for some.  And yet, I am not quite convinced by it.

For one, the view seems to be a very recent one in history.  I previously noted that for the Buddha, grasping at transience is the source of all misery, and true liberation only comes when we stop grasping.  This isn’t-really-the same thing as the rather casual and blithe assertions we hear today.  Other cultures-such as the Japanese-find sorrow upon reflecting on the transience of the world.  Clearly, an awareness of transience does not inevitably affirm the bourgeois American understanding of the pursuit of happiness.

Reflecting on this subject, Fr. Ron Rolheiser wrote (The Restless Heart):

 All of us experience within ourselves a certain restlessness and insatiability. Our hearts and minds are so fashioned that they are never satisfied, always restless; never quiet, always wanting more of everything. Throughout history various persons have given different names to this restlessness. Religious thinkers have often called it “the spark of the divine to us”; philosophers sometimes referred to it as “the desire of the part to return to the whole”; the Greeks had two names for it, Nostos, a certain homesickness within the human heart, and Eros, a relentless erotic pull toward whatever we perceive as good; the Vikings called it “wanderlust,” the constant urge to explore beyond all known horizons; the biblical writer Qoheleth called it “timelessness” (Ha olam), the congenital inability to bring ourselves into peaceful harmony with the world around us; St. Augustine called it “restlessness”: “You have made us for Yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Most of us simply call it “loneliness.”

He quotes Ecclesiastes:

God has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put timelessness into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

One can dismiss this longing as an evolutionary hangover, but it does seem that the roiling, transient nature of the world isn’t enough to make us happy (neuroscience might just be confirming this unpleasant existential conundrum-namely that existence doesn’t seem to be enough).

Nor, of course, is it true that only those who do not believe in an afterlife have a monopoly on reflecting on death.  This is a venerable Christian tradition as well.  Frederica Mathewes-Green’s son has launched a Facebook community with the apt name of “Brother We are Going to Die“.  St. Thomas a Kempis famously wrote:

If it is dreadful to die, it is perhaps more dangerous to live long. Blessed is the man who keeps the hour of his death always in mind and daily prepares himself to die. If you have ever seen anyone die, remember that you, too, must travel the same road. Each morning remember that you may not live until evening; and in the evening, do not presume to promise yourself another day. Be ready at all times, and so live that death may never find you unprepared. Happy and wise is he who endeavors to be during his life as he wishes to be found at his death.

Compline (Night Prayer) has long been regarded by the Christian Tradition as a “daily exercise in the art of dying.”  The approach of Classical Christianity to the reality of death is not to use the afterlife to sweep away the importance of this life, nor does it minimize death.  If anything, it heights it.

In the end, I do not know the correct answer to this apparent dilemma regarding transience.  Different people seem to approach the question from vastly different angles (surprise, surprise).  Too often, I think, Catholics and other Christians have tended to assume that others have the same expectations of life and death as they.  Too often we assume that everyone conceives of-and more importantly desires-life after death as personal survival, complete with reunion with dead relatives.  Yet, there are many who do not desire such things.  I worked with a gentleman who told me eternity with his relatives would be hell-and that his real hope was to become “undifferentiated energy” after death.  I do not say this to mock his view, if anything I greatly respect his honesty.

The truth of the matter is, we know very little about what awaits us after death.  We greatly exaggerate the significance of our own innate immortality.  The Church tells our souls are immortal, but Thomistic philosophy, the Old Testament, the ancient Greeks, and more than a few Native ‘religions’ all concur that, in the words of Olivier Clement that the human

soul, after death, survives in a phantom half-life, the Bible knows nothing of any poetry of the ‘immortality of the soul.’

Note carefully-I am not denying that the human soul is immortal in a sense.  Too many Catholics have blithely denied the Church’s teaching on this subject.  I agree that the philosophical case for the immortality of the soul, at least when set in Aristotelian-Thomist terms (c.f. Ed Feser) may not persuade everyone.  Nonetheless, the Church affirms that our soul is immortal.  What we need to understand is that this does not mean what we think it means.  The soul’s “natural” survival after death is nothing to write home about, certainly nothing to yearn for or celebrate.

True eternal life requires union with God, and re-embodiment.  Only this can save us from the bondage of transience and the half-life that follows.  We know very little of what this entails.  We know that theosis offers us release from the vagaries of time and space.  In the words of Clement:

Thus will come about the completion of all things, when the Spirit of life, through the communion of saints, will manifest the whole universe as the glorified Body of Christ.  Then each person, in giving his face to the transfigured universe, will rediscover his flesh; flesh vibrant with all its natural sensitivity, our earthly flesh, but bathed in the life and fullness of God, who will be ‘all in all’, abolishing the separations of time and space, making possible among the rise a communion beyond anything we can now imagine.

Christianity can only preach the message we have been given.  We have been given the theological virtue of Hope.  In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1817 Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”84 “The Holy Spirit . . . he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”85

1818 The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.

This is the Gospel, our Good News.  It is what we have to offer.  I will give the final word to Clement:

Yet man at all times, of all races and ages, has rejected death with all his being.  Through love and beauty, but also through eroticism and drugs, h seeks life.  Searching for it, but not knowing where, seeking life but not finding it, he hates the very fact of existence, in himself and in others.  Then comes the temptation to kill others, and self-suicide, the ultimate and absurd form of self-adoration!  Yet it is precisely in the bitter heart of our nihilistic civilization that we must witness to the Resurrected One.  To witness is to believe in life touched by eternity.  Nicholas Fedorov, a 19th century Russian religious philosopher…said that there is only one crime: consenting to die.  In the resurrected Christ, we no longer agree to die, we no longer agree to kill others and ourselves.

The anguish [of death] becomes the persuasion that we risk being swallowed up by “this world” in a web of illusions, platitudes, and emptiness.  The anguish becomes a fear of God, preserving us from identifying with the deadly game of “this world.”  And we discover, at a still deeper level, the presence of Christ.  Despair no longer leads to nothingness; someone stands between us and the abyss.

Eternity has touched life, Timelesness has spoke to the transient.  Together with our brethren who do not believe, we can celebrate and rejoice in life-and reject the allure of Death in all its forms.  This is Hope.

Liberty against equality, Christianity to the rescue

A helpful reminder from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

We find, throughout the rabbinic literature, a profound wrestling with two conflicting values: truth and peace. The sages recognized, as Greek philosophy did not, that values can conflict. They do not coexist harmoniously in a Platonic heaven. Equality and freedom are both values, but if you pursue equality, as in the case of Soviet communism, you sacrifice freedom, and if you pursue freedom, through free market capitalism, you lose equality. A tradition is what it is, not only in virtue of the ideals it espouses, but also how it resolves conflicts between those values.

Don’t get tripped up on the reference to virtues in a “Platonic heaven” vs. in real life by the way.  In the words of David Bentley Hart:

In creatures, inasmuch as they are finite, composite, limited, and mutable, the act of being is realized in a plurality of attributes; in human beings, for instance, wisdom and power are distinct from one another, with frequently tragic consequences (though, arguably, the more purely they are expressed by human beings, the more indistinguishable from one another they become). God, however, at least as classically conceived, is that boundless fullness of all actuality in which no such distinctions hold; he is the one infinite source in whom that power is always perfectly realized in its true unity, and from whom that power is poured forth in finite things. We, of course, on account of our limitations, have to think about him under a plurality of concepts, like absolute being, omniscience, omnipotence, perfect beatitude, and so forth; but in himself he transcends all plurality, all limitations, in one perfectly replete act of being.

Nonetheless, in our political systems “here below” our values can-and very frequently do-conflict with one another.  This has been a recurring theme in the works of John Gray, who notes that human values and myths frequently conflict with one another (see a critical commentary of Gray’s views for more).

Christianity, in a very real sense, offers a genuine “third way” forward.  Olivier Clement, in his Conversations with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, writes:

In the Gospel, justice consists of the resurrection communicated to others.  While continuing to combat social and cultural inequity, it contagiously spreads respect and friendship in the ongoing life of the communion of saints.  Christians, together will all persons of good will, must develop a new way.  This is not the path of communism, which denies the freedom of the spirit, nor of liberalism, which scoffs at the suffering of bodies and souls.  It is the path to communion.  The patriarch cites Henri Bergson, the 19th century French philosopher, who affirmed that liberty and equality are contradictory, and that this contradiction can be overcome only through a large infusion of fraternity, which can come only through Christianity.  [This is a direct allusion to the French national motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”]

Definitely something to meditate on there.

Implicit Bias and Disbelief

Yesterday I attended a session at work on unconscious bias (otherwise known as implicit bias).  This is an important topic.  Setting aside how the term is thrown around in ideologically-charged political debates, the science (psychology and neuroscience) that underwrites the concept is rather difficult to argue with.  In its essence, implicit bias is a reminder that a great deal of how we act and what we think is not conscious, but occurs at a much deeper level.  Some of the basic points worth noting include:

  • Implicit biases are pervasive.  Everyone possesses them, even people with avowed commitments to impartiality such as judges.

  • Implicit and explicit biases are related but distinct mental constructs.  They are not mutually exclusive and may even reinforce each other.

  • The implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs or even reflect stances we would explicitly endorse.

  • We generally tend to hold implicit biases that favor our own ingroup, though research has shown that we can still hold implicit biases against our ingroup.

  • Implicit biases are malleable.  Our brains are incredibly complex, and the implicit associations that we have formed can be gradually unlearned through a variety of debiasing techniques.


None of this should really be controversial, though, of course, it is.  A friend of mine, who has declared himself a “man of science,” has frequently told me “All I know is what I see.”  The irony here, obviously, is that no one who rejects data in favor of anecdotes is a man of science (as the old saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not evidence).  When I tried to point out to my friend that reliance on intuition and gut instinct is problematic, I was greeted with a blank stare and “Well, I don’t know…” (famous last words).  I decided a discussion of the infamous confirmation and hindsight biases would not have been helpful.

The fact of the matter, though, is that our impressions often are wrong, which is why absolutizing one’s perspective is such a dangerous thing.  The location of one’s social coordinates do affect one’s perception.  These should be controversial or dangerous statements, they are simply statements of fact.  Granted, they can be co-opted for ideological ends, and I have noted before that I do not believe the admission of this reality entails the acceptance of postmodern relativism.  In fact, to the contrary, these insights can help elucidate basic insights of Classical Christianity.

The Scriptures affirm that we are mysteries even to ourselves, as St. Paul wrote in Romans 7:15-24.  Eastern Christianity has long stressed the importance of spiritual disciplines-practices and prayer-to overcome the power of the passions.  In no small sense this spiritual path is one of strengthening the conscious mind, which entails a growth in free will and, when done right, changes to the brain itself.  It is a form of therapy.  In the words of Frederica Mathewes-Green:

Perseverance in prayer, cultivating a mental habit of being attentive to God’s presence, gradually creates a steady place inside.  It is a place where we can stand beside the Lord and see all that comes and goes.  We become able to recognize harmful thoughts when they are approaching and deflect them, instead of collapsing and letting them carry us away.

You already have some ability to do this; there is a part of your mind that watches your mind and evaluates your ideas.  (Saying, for example, “That’s a stupid idea.”)  What happens in prayer, is that that island of thought-observation gets bigger.  It gets more stable and more reliable.  As you grow in confidence, getting more attuned to the Lord’s presence and guidance, you can become quite dexterous in deflecting the thoughts that come to wound you.

See also Father Freeman’s latest.

The point is that contemporary insights on overcoming implicit bias, when properly understood, dovetail with the insights of our Tradition.  Moreover, the need for continual self-knowledge, self-examination, is deeply ingrained in Catholicism.  We are all called to stand athwart self-deception, a human capacity that-whether conscious or unconscious-knows almost no limits.  As Nietzsche once put it:

‘I have done that,’ says my memory.  ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains inexorable.  Eventually memory yields.

The dangerous unreliability of human memory is another matter altogether, one that has to be set aside for the moment.  The importance of Nietzsche’s insight is that our consciousness, while not in “full control,” can stoke the fires of implicit biases in both directions.  Commenting on Nietzsche’s insight, Miroslav Volf write:

What is at stake in the question about truth is not just our pride, however, but our power.  In recounting the past we are jockeying for a position.  The fiercer the struggle the less willing we will be to accept any statement that calls into question our power.  It is not only that our human knowledge is inescapably limited, because we are finite beings or that what we know is culturally tinted.  The little knowledge we have is skewed because we suppress truth through desire to overcome others and protect ourselves.  As we seek to know we are caught in the field of powers that distort our vision.

The Pope Emeritus adds:

Memory is not a mechanical accumulator for store information like a computer.  It is that, but much more than that.  Within memory, what has been accumulated encounters what is new, and thus light reaches the past as well, and in that light things that previously were not visible at all are now discovered and knowable in memory.

Man’s ability to deal with the future is dependent upon what sort of roots he has, how capable he is of assimilating the past, and consequently of forming standards of conduct and of judgment.  memory can be poisoned by hatred, by disappointment, by false hopes, by deep-seated lies.  Then a proper future cannot develop.  Memory can be superficial or short-sighted, and in that case, too, it is susceptible to lies and duplicity, and again the future is endangered.

That is why there will always be a need for purifying the memory, so that, like clear water, in makes the bottom of the lake visible and can admit the rays of the sun above.

Offering a Jewish perspective, Jonathan Sacks adds:

One of the most remarkable of all the Torah’s narrative devices [is] the power of the future to transform our understanding of the past.  This is the essence of midrash.  New situations retrospectively disclose new meanings in the text.  The present is never fully determined by the present.  Sometimes it is only later that we understand now.

The future affects our understanding of the past.  We live our lives toward the future, but we understand our lives only in retrospect.  Only looking back can we see whether we took the right road, whether a certain decision was justified, whether our dreams were intimations or illusions.

By the way, Sacks-and Ratzinger above-provide helpful insight here on the Judeo-Christian Tradition’s ability to see different senses of Scripture.  It is not necessarily irrational and desperate for later generations to see deeper meanings in texts that were not seen in the past-perhaps even by the author.  Anyway, one more provocative thought from Rabbi Sacks:

By a change of heart we can redeem the past.

This still sounds paradoxical, for we tend to take for granted the idea of the asymmetry of time.  The future is open but the past is closed.

What had happened (the past as past) did not change, but its significance (the past as part of a narrative of transformation) did.

By your repentance…you have changed the story of which you are a part.  The harm you intended to do ultimately brought about good.

Time then becomes an arena of change in which the future redeems the past.

This, folks, is why all of this matters.  There is much gain by striving to overcome ourselves, for in doing so we can take part in the redemption of our past, individual and so collective.  And so, of course, I welcome the insights from the science of implicit bias.  There is much congenial to our own Tradition, to our own Way.

A final thought.  The title of this post also mentions unbelief.  Is it possible that the rabid dismissal of God’s existence, the staunch belief in atheism, could be due more implicit bias than careful reflection?  Obviously, that is a rhetorical question, its quite clear what I think the answer is.  I readily grant, by the way, that the reverse is also quite frequently true.  Belief, no less than nonbelief, can be predicated upon deeply-set psychological/neural predicates.  Nonetheless, our Tradition supplies the tools and practices for us to strengthen our consciousness, examine ourselves, grow in freedom, and to take responsibility.  We should use them, for they are of infinite value to us on every level-what and why we believe, how we behave, and so on.

Consider this my call to do so.

Divine Office: 10/27

Not sure that I will be doing reflections on the Divine Office everyday, but today’s Office of Readings was thought-provoking.  First, Wisdom 7:15-30:

Now God grant I speak suitably
and value these endowments at their worth:
For he is the guide of Wisdom
and the director of the wise.
For both we and our words are in his hand,
as well as all prudence and knowledge of crafts.
For he gave me sound knowledge of existing things,
that I might know the organization of the universe and the force of its elements,
The beginning and the end and the midpoint of times,
the changes in the sun’s course and the variations of the seasons.
Cycles of years, positions of the stars,
natures of animals, tempers of beasts,
Powers of the winds and thoughts of men,
uses of plants and virtues of roots-
Such things as are hidden I learned and such as are plain;
for Wisdom, the artificer of all, taught me.

For in her is a spirit
intelligent, holy, unique,
Manifold, subtle, agile,
clear, unstained, certain,
Not baneful, loving the good, keen,
unhampered, beneficent, kindly,
Firm, secure, tranquil,
all-powerful, all-seeing,
And pervading all spirits,
though they be intelligent, pure and very subtle.
For Wisdom is mobile beyond all motion,
and she penetrates and pervades all things by reason of her purity.

For she is an aura of the might of God
and a pure effusion of the glory of the Almighty;
therefore nought that is sullied enters into her.
For she is the refulgence of eternal light,
the spotless mirror of the power of God,
the image of his goodness.
And she, who is one, can do all things,
and renews everything while herself perduring;
And passing into holy souls from age to age,
she produces friends of God and prophets.
For there is nought God loves, be it not one who dwells with Wisdom.
For she is fairer than the sun
and surpasses every constellation of the stars.
Compared to light, she takes precedence;
for that, indeed, night supplants,
but wickedness prevails not over Wisdom.

Followed by  a discourse Against the Arians by Saint Athanasius:

An impress of Wisdom has been created in us and in all his works. Therefore, the true Wisdom which shaped the world claims for himself all that bears his image, and rightly says: The Lord created me in his works. These words are really spoken by the wisdom that is in us, but the Lord himself here adopts them as his own. Wisdom himself is not created, because he is the Creator, but by reason of the created image of himself found in his works, he speaks thus as though he were speaking of himself. Our Lord said: He who receives you receives me, and he could say this because the impress of himself is in us. In the same way, although Wisdom is not to be numbered among created things, yet because his form and likeness is in his works, he speaks as if he were a creature, and says: The Lord created me in his works, when his purpose first unfolded.

The likeness of Wisdom has been stamped upon creatures in order that the world may recognize in it the Word who was its maker and through the Word come to know the Father. This is Paul’s teaching: What can be known about God is clear to them, for God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature has been there for the mind to perceive in things that have been made. Accordingly the Word is not a creature, for the passage that begins: The Lord created me… is to be understood as referring to that wisdom which is truly in us and is said to be so.

But if this fails to persuade our opponents, let them tell us whether there is any wisdom in created things. If there is none, why does the apostle Paul allege as the cause of men’s sins: By God’s wisdom, the world failed to come to a knowledge of God through wisdom? And if there is no created wisdom, how is it that the expression a multitude of wise men is found in Scripture? And again, Scripture testifies that the wise man is wary and turns away from evil, and by wisdom is a house built. Further, Ecclesiastes says: A wise man’s wisdom will light up his face. He also rebukes presumptuous persons with the warning: Do not say, “How is it that former days were better than these?” For it is not in wisdom that you ask this.

So there is a wisdom in created things, as the son of Sirach too bears witness: The Lord has poured it out upon all his works, to be with men as his gift, and with wisdom he has abundantly equipped those who love him. This quality of being “poured out” belongs not to the essence of that self-existent Wisdom who is the Only-begotten, but to that wisdom which reflects the only begotten one in the world. Why then is it beyond belief if the creative and archetypal Wisdom, whose likeness is the wisdom and understanding poured out in the world, should say, as though speaking directly of himself: The Lord created me in his works? For the wisdom in the world is not creative, but is itself created in God’s works, and in the light of this wisdom the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands.

Then the responsory:

In wisdom dwells a spirit,
intelligent, holy, unique, manifold,
subtle, active, loving all that is good, and irrestistible.
— This is an all-powerful spirit, surveying all and pervading all spirits.

The Spirit penetrates the depths of all that is,
even the depths of God.
— This is an all-powerful spirit, surveying all and pervading all spirits.

There is a “response,” of sorts, in the OOR to the view expressed by Jim Al-Khalili in the previous post.  The Scriptures brazenly endorse the view that the universe is pervaded by Wisdom-which is to say that it is intelligible, structured, bearing the imprint of the Transcendent Mind that-we are told-pervades the whole creation.  Moreover, along with the universe and this Transcendent Mind, we too possess a share in this Wisdom.  In the words of the Pope Emeritus:

The meaning of monotheism is further elucidated, and associated with an attempt to understand the world in rational fashion, it becomes more rationally persuasive.  It is the concept of wisdom that enables the idea of God and the interpretation of the world to be bracketed together.  The rationality that is to be seen in the structure of the world is understand as a reflection of the creative wisdom which has produced it…the view which links God and the world through the idea of wisdom and conceives of the world as reflecting the rationality of the Creator, also then permits the association of cosmology with anthropology, that of understanding the world with morality, because wisdom, which builds up matter and the world, is at the same time a moral wisdom, which expresses essential guidelines for living.

St. Athanasius then brings everything full circle, identifying Wisdom with the Word, which is to say Christ.  In the greatest possible “association of cosmology and anthropology” the Reason of the world becomes human.  Indeed, we learn that Wisdom is, in fact, a Person after all.

There is some vocational inspiration here too.  In the words of N.T. Wright (Surprised by Scripture):

Jesus is lord of the world, so all truth is his truth; let’s go and explore it with reverence and delight. Whether you look through the telescope or the microscope, whether you study texts or traditions, whether it’s oceanography or paleography, you are thinking Jesus’s thoughts after him.

But when we adopt the biblical perspective of the cosmic temple, it is no longer possible to look at the world (or space) in secular terms. It is not ours to exploit. We do not have natural resources, we have sacred resources. Obviously this view is far removed from a view that sees nature as divine: As sacred space the cosmos is his place. It is therefore not his person. The cosmos is his place, and our privileged place in it is his gift to us. The blessing he granted was that he gave us the permission and the ability to subdue and rule. We are stewards.

Amen to that.

After God

An article from The New Statesman (from July 2014) called “After God” popped up on my Facebook newsfeed this AM.  The question before the house:

Religion used to define our seasons and our days. But now that it’s in decline in the west, what rituals can take its place?

Rowan Williams responded:

The Christianity I was originally formed in was not very ritual-minded: it was both intellectually alert and emotionally intense – the best of a style of Welsh Nonconformity now almost extinct – but tended to look down on physical expression of belief (other than singing, which I suspect was regarded as not really physical). Only when the family joined the Anglican Church when I was in my early teens, after we’d moved to another town, did I discover a sense of worship as a physical art, involving gesture, movement and colour. I still have a vivid memory of my first experience of a solemn Mass with procession at Easter, when I was, I suppose, about 12 – the awareness of a deliberate strategy of involving the senses at many levels.

The mild High Church atmosphere of those years was, for me, an environment that made strong imaginative and emotional sense, and indeed is still the kind of setting where I feel most instinctively at home, rather than in more simply word-oriented styles, or in the heated atmosphere of “charismatic” worship, repetitive song and unstructured prayer – although I’ve learned to be nourished by that, too, in many circumstances. But the ritual that is most significant for me apart from the routines of public worship and the daily recitation of the fixed words of morning and evening prayer owes more to non-Anglican sources.

Readers of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey will recall the somewhat unexpected appearance there of an account of the traditional Greek and Russian discipline of meditative repetition of the “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner”). Practically every Eastern Orthodox writer on prayer will describe this, and many in the tradition also describe some of the physical disciplines that may be used to support it – being aware of your breathing, sitting in a certain way, focusing attention on your chest: “bringing the mind into the heart”, as the books characterise it.

The interest in uniting words with posture and breath is, of course, typical of non-Christian practices also; and over the years increasing exposure to and engagement with the Buddhist world in particular has made me aware of practices not unlike the “Jesus Prayer” and introduced me to disciplines that further enforce the stillness and physical focus that the prayer entails. Walking meditation, pacing very slowly and co-ordinating each step with an out-breath, is something I have found increasingly important as a preparation for a longer time of silence.

So: the regular ritual to begin the day when I’m in the house is a matter of an early rise and a brief walking meditation or sometimes a few slow prostrations, before squatting for 30 or 40 minutes (a low stool to support the thighs and reduce the weight on the lower legs) with the “Jesus Prayer”: repeating (usually silently) the words as I breathe out, leaving a moment between repetitions to notice the beating of the heart, which will slow down steadily over the period.

The prayer isn’t any kind of magical invo­cation or auto-suggestion – simply a vehicle to detach you slowly from distracted, wandering images and thoughts. These will happen, but you simply go on repeating the words and gently bringing attention back to them. If it is proceeding as it should, there is something like an indistinct picture or sensation of the inside of the body as a sort of hollow, a cave, in which breath comes and goes, with an underlying pulse. If you want to speak theologically about it, it’s a time when you are aware of your body as simply a place where life happens and where, therefore, God “happens”: a life lived in you.

So the day begins with a physically concrete and specific reminder that your own individual existence is breathed through by a life that isn’t your possession; and at moments of tension or anxiety during the day, deliberately breathing in and out a few times with the words of the prayer in mind connects you with this life that isn’t yours, immersing the anxiety and dispersing the tension – even if it doesn’t simply take away pain or doubt, solve problems or create some kind of spiritual bliss. The point is just to be connected again.

The mature practitioner (not me) will discover a steady clarity in the vision of self and world, and, in “advanced” states, an awareness of unbroken inner light, with the strong sense of an action going on within that is quite independent of your individual will – the prayer “praying itself”, not just human words but a connection between God transcendent and God present and within. Ritual anchors, ritual aligns, harmonises, relates. And what happens in the “Jesus Prayer” is just the way an individual can make real what is constantly going on in the larger-scale worship of the sacraments. The pity is that a lot of western Christianity these days finds all this increasingly alien. But I don’t think any one of us can begin to discover again what religion might mean unless we are prepared to expose ourselves to new ways of being in our bodies. But that’s a long story.

Very good and worth mulling over.

The other responses are rather interesting to.  Atheist Julian Baggini, who I have quoted before, writes:

I don’t miss the major rituals of Christian life. Weddings, births, deaths and remembrances are no less moving for the loss of a man in a dress and a little incense. Indeed, some secular equivalents can be even more powerful. The United States demonstrated this with its first-anniversary commemoration of 9/11, in which a Ground Zero ceremony consisting almost entirely of the recitation of the names of those lost had a profound, understated emotional resonance that no church service could match.

Where I think we atheists can be at a disadvantage is in the loss of the small, everyday rituals of prayer. When this is understood as intercession, I take it to be a kind of pure nonsense we are better off without. But prayer at its best is much more than this. Prayer offers an opportunity to reflect on our quotidian weaknesses, frequent failings, large and small. This should not be a prompt to self-flagellation, but an encouragement to do better tomorrow, humbly accepting that “better” will never be more than barely good enough.

Prayer also provides an opportunity to cultivate appropriate gratitude. We are not always lucky, and there is a kind of religious mania that leads people to thank God for whatever happens in their lives, no matter how horrendous. Nevertheless, most of us would do better to think more of what we do have than to dwell on what we don’t. Even if the grass really is greener on the other side, looking longingly at it too much just makes our own perfectly adequate fields look browner than they are.

Ignoring the characteristically snide remarks about self-flagellation and religious mania, I don’t find Baggini’s perspective all that far off from ours.  He talks, for instance, of the need to cultivate awareness (mindfulness).  So does Christianity (and all the great religions)-see the aforementioned Archbishop Williams.  Interestingly, he writes:

A more promising alternative is to replace prayer with a regular period of quiet re­flection. But without the religious imperative to maintaining the habit, this, too, is something that few of us, I think, are likely to sustain.

The cultivation of proper awareness does not come easy, and whether it can be sustained in the absence of some kind of ritual, some kind of imperative, seems to me to be very much an open question.  Baggini dismisses the idea of finding of a “secular surrogate” for religion, and contends that

The immanent world can be the source of as much deep feeling as the transcendent.

Maybe-although its worth noting that (it seems to me) Baggini diverges from Buddhism here.  Up until now his thinking has had several parallels with the wisdom of Siddhartha, but whereas the Buddha saw the source of misery in the world’s impermanence and recommended detachment from it, Baggini counsels that reflection in impermanence fosters a true sense of gratitude and impetus for living.  This is an oft-repeated assertion in atheist circles, but it has never seemed to me to be self-evidently true.  If nothing else, it is at odds with the fact that human beings yearn for meaning beyond themselves-a fact that appears to have been confirmed by evolutionary psychology.

Anyway, all the perspectives are worth a read-check it out.

BONUS – What can atheists learn from believers?

Another New Statesman article, from a year earlier and with the same title, raised this question.  The focus is on the aforementioned concept of “secular surrogates” for religion.  Here’s some snippets:

Atheists should learn to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true. What is good within the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be reabsorbed selectively by the supernatural’s greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.

The proposals include what are often flippantly referred to as “atheist churches.”  Yes, that apparently is a thing.

One other thing worth noting.  Jim Al-Khalili writes:

As a scientist, I have an unshakeable rationalist conviction that our universe is comprehensible; that mysteries are mysteries only because we have yet to figure them out.

Believing in a god is fine by me, if it is important to you. If you firmly believe this as an ontological truth, then it is rather pointless having a theological debate about it.

What is disappointing about this is that Al-Khalili does not seemed interested in the question as to why the universe is comprehensible.  This is usually taken simply as a given in many circles-the question is often dismissed as meaningless-and hence no one asks about (much less debates) ontology.  To reject the “god-of-the-gaps” is one thing, to dismiss completely the ontological possibility that (to paraphrase Aquinas) there is a Reason behind the reasonableness of the universe that all “call God” is another matter.  Granted, this Reason may or may not have anything to do with religion-but at the least it is a question worth raising.

(As an aside, Al-Khalili-who describes himself as a cuddly atheist-really is a delight.  Many of his reflections-such as this one on free will-are worth reading.)

Divine Office: 10/26

Having finally (belatedly) discovered how to work the USB adaptor for my car, I have started using my phone to listen to the Divine Office (via My goal is to listen to, and pray, the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer driving in, and then Evening Prayer and Night Prayer on the way home (I have a commute slightly over an hour and drive by myself).  In addition, I will try to pray Daytime Prayer at the office.

Today’s first OOR reading (Wisdom 6:1-25) jumped out sharply at me.  See the bolded parts below:

Hear, therefore, kings, and understand;
learn, you magistrates of the earth’s expanse!
Hearken, you who are in power over the multitude
and Lord it over throngs of peoples!
Because authority was given you by the Lord
and sovereignty by the Most High,
who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels!

Because, though you were ministers of his kingdom, you judged not rightly,
and did not keep the law,
nor walk according to the will of God,
Terribly and swiftly shall he come against you,
because judgment is stern for the exalted—
For the lowly may be pardoned out of mercy
but the mighty shall be mightily put to the test.
For the Lord of all shows no partiality,
nor does he fear greatness,
Because he himself made the great as well as the small,
and he provides for all alike;
but for those in power a rigorous scrutiny impends.

To you, therefore, O princes, are my words addressed
that you may learn wisdom and that you may not sin.
For those who keep the holy precepts hallowed shall be found holy,
and those learned in them will have ready a response.
Desire therefore my words;
long for them and you shall be instructed.

Resplendent and unfading is Wisdom,
and she is readily perceived by those who love her,
and found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of men’s desire;
he who watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed,
for he shall find her sitting by his gate.
For taking thought of her is the perfection of prudence,
and he who for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care;

Because she makes her own rounds, seeking those worthy of her,
and graciously appears to them in the ways,
and meets them with all solicitude.

For the first step toward discipline is a very earnest desire for her;
then, care for discipline is love of her;
love means the keeping of her laws;
To observe her laws is the basis for incorruptibility;
and incorruptibility makes one close to God;
thus the desire for Wisdom leads up to a kingdom.
If, then, you find pleasure in throne and scepter, you princes of the peoples,
honor Wisdom, that you may reign as kings forever.

Now what wisdom is, and how she came to be I shall relate;
and I shall hide no secrets from you,
But from the very beginning I shall search out
and bring to light knowledge of her,
nor shall I diverge from the truth.
Neither shall I admit consuming jealousy to my company,
because that can have no fellowship with Wisdom.

A great number of wise men is the safety of the world,
and a prudent king, the stability of his people;
so take instruction from my words, to your profit.

Now, this particular reading is directed at “princes”-and I do not fall into that category in any sense.  I could muse on how this reading could be taken to heart by politicians, but I’ve already begged off from further political commentary.  Instead, I’ll point out that this particular reading spoke to me personally.  The Scripture tells us that a “great number of wise men (and women) is the safety of the world.”  And before this we are told that the growth of wisdom demands both rightly-ordered desire and discipline.

Like King Solomon, it is important above all else to desire wisdom, prudence, rightness.  This is the “first step” towards discipline.  The discipline itself is the “care for” wisdom, the love of wisdom in action-the observance of which is critical.  There’s a nod towards asceticism and the importance of practices, those things that I find so difficult.  Yet, the Scripture also suggest that discipline is hopeless if we do not first have a “very earnest desire” for wisdom.  We are told to “take thought” and then “to keep vigil” (guarding of the mind).  Absent these steps, there can be no discipline, no incorruptibility, and we remain estranged from God.  The Scripture assures us that Wisdom is readily perceived by s/he who loves her, but love requires a sincere desire put into disciplined action.

This has had me thinking.  Do I desire Wisdom?  Do I have a “very earnest” desire for her?  Am I cultivating this desire properly?  I am not sure I am.  Certainly I cannot rest in complacency.

Consider the second OOR reading, a letter to the Corinthians by Saint Clement:

Let us put on unity of mind, thinking humble thoughts, exercising self-control, keeping ourselves far from all backbiting and slander, being righteous in deed, and not in word only. Scripture says: He who says much hears much in his own turn. Or does the easy talker think that he is righteous?

It is our duty then to be eager to do good, for everything is from God. He warns us: See, the Lord is coming, and the reward he brings is before him, for paying each according to his work. He urges us, who believe in him with all our heart, not to be idle or careless in any good work. Our boasting and our confidence must rest on him. Let us be subject to his will. Let us look carefully at the whole host of his angels; they stand ready and serve his will. Scripture says: Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him, and a thousand thousand served him, and cried out: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole creation is full of his glory.

We, too, dutifully gathered together in unity of mind, should cry out to him continuously as with one voice, so as to share in his great and glorious promises. It is written: Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, man’s heart has not conceived, what great things have been prepared for those who wait for him.

Beloved, how blessed, how wonderful, are God’s gifts! Life with immortality, glory with righteousness, truth with confidence, self-control with holiness: all these are the gifts that fall within our understanding. What then are those gifts that are in store for those who wait for him? Only the most holy Creator and Father of the ages knows their greatness and their splendor.

We should then strive with the greatest zeal to be found among the number of those who await him, so that we may share in the promised gifts. How will this be, beloved? If our mind is fixed on God through faith, if we are diligent in seeking what is pleasing and acceptable to him, if we fulfill what is according to his blameless will and follow the way of truth, casting away from ourselves all that is unholy.

Much to consider here as well.  The Way of the Lord is one of unity of mind, through humility, through self-control.  St. Clement warns against “easy talk,” lest we barricade ourselves into our own minds.  Talk is cheap-and dangerous.  Better to do good, be kind, and not be too confident in ourselves.  This makes me wonder about whether blogging really is a ‘healthy’ thing for the soul.  There’s a thought worth some serious consideration.

In any case, today’s OOR was a sharp reminder that we are asked to commit our whole self to the Lord, and this kind of commitment cannot be done with the right orientation of desire, nor it cannot be done alone.  More to the point, one can’t even cultivate the right desire alone.  I hear in today’s OOR a reminder of that being gathered in unity of mind is critical for cultivating wisdom.  The Church is essential, not optional.

So much to consider…

A Basic Point from Basic Christianity

Stephen Prothero, Professor of Religious Studies at Boston University, has written:

Any claim of revelation is preposterous.  It presumes that God exists, that God speaks, and that all is not lost when human beings translate that speech into ordinary language.

Rev. Fleming Rutledge responded:

Now this is a remarkable statement for at least three reasons.  First of all, it is obviously an in-your-face challenge to classical Christianity.  Second, it’s a perfect definition of biblical revelation-although I’m not sure the author meant it that way.  And third, it expresses the doubts of lots of people who sit in pews in mainline churches today.  There are people who come to church-some of you are here today-holding various religious views but not really believing that God speaks and certainly not believing that human beings have translated God’s speech into ordinary language.

There is a very, very basic point, and it lies at the foundation of Christianity.  This point was made eloquently by the late evangelical giant John Stott, of Blessed Memory.  In his aptly titled Basic Christianity Stott laid it out this way:

Human beings are insatiably inquisitive creatures.  Our minds cannot rest.  We are always prying into the unknown.  We pursue knowledge with restless energy.  Our lives are a voyage of discovery.  We are always asking questions, exploring, investigating, researching.  We never grow out of the child’s constant cry of ‘Why?’

When our minds begin to think about God, however, they are bewildered.  We grope around in the dark.  We flounder helplessly out of our depth. But this should come as no surprise.  For surely, whatever or whoever he may be, is infinite, while we are finite creatures.  He is altogether beyond our understanding.  Therefore our minds, wonderfully effective instruments though they are when it comes to scientific investigation, cannot immediately help us here.  They cannot reach up into the infinite mind of God.  There is no ladder to climb, only a vast, unmeasured gulf.  Job, a character in the Bible, is challenged with the question, ‘Can you find out the deep things of God?’  The only answer is ‘No’.  It is impossible.

And that is how we would have stayed, had God not taken up the initiative to help us.  We would have remained forever agnostic, asking-just like Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus-‘What is truth?’ but never staying for an answer, never daring to hope that we would receive one.  We would be those who worship, for it is part of human nature to worship someone or something, but all our altars would be like the one the apostle Paul found in Athens, dedicated ‘To an unknown god’.

But God has spoken.  He has taken the initiative to make himself known.  The Christian concept of revelation is essentially reasonable.  The idea is that God has ‘unveiled’ to our minds what would otherwise have been hidden from them.

The way in which the Bible explains and descries this revelation is simply to say that God has ‘spoken’.  Speech is what we ourselves use where we can in order to communicate with one another most straightforwardly.  It is by our words that we let others know what is in our minds.  This is even more true of God in his desire to reveal his infinite mind to our finite minds.

One may or may accept the claim that God has spoken, one may bristle at the “audacity of answers“, but one needs to at least grasp the claim.  And, pace Professor Prothero, I don’t see belief in revelation as obviously unreasonable.  As Keith Ward put it:

If God creates, presumably God does so for a reason, or with some purpose.  It is natural to think that this purpose will become a moral goal for humans and other intelligent beings.

Of course, if you are a dogmatic materialist all alleged revelations and miracle stories are bound to be false, because there are no spiritual realities at all.  But if you are more open-minded, you will not dismiss out of hand the many claims that are made that there is a spiritual dimension, which sometimes makes itself known to human minds.  As a matter of fact, it would be very odd if there was a spiritual dimension, and nobody ever experienced it at all.  It would be even more odd if there was a personal God with a purpose for human lives, who never revealed, in what would probably be very striking and special experiences, what this purpose was.

Sometimes it is helpful to go back to the basics.