Ecce Homo

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I’m pretty sure I’m psycho
The world’s a game like Tyco
Everybody playin
But we lackin sight tho’
All I do is stay still
Wait on the divine will
Patience is the right skill
Sight coming like the light bill
But maybe I’m just psycho
If I’m not, I might go
I ask the Lord for peace, but I’m down to fight tho’
I’m takin life in slow-mo
With my major Domo
Beholding all the beauty of the Son—
It’s Ecce Homo.

(Dwayne Polk)

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Getting to the Hart of St. John of the Cross

giphy

This is becoming one of my favorite Hart pieces. Inasmuch as it deals with the processes and strategies of the soul’s transformation it’s one of the most, or (if we take him at his word that there is “not a pastoral bone in my body”) perhaps the only, pastoral of his essays. Either way, it’s a wonderful reflection upon St. John’s theology of human transformation, especially the dark nights (plural!) of the soul. Here’s a portion:

The mystical quest after God must begin with the active and arduous labors of ascetic mediation, but must culminate in the passive purification of the soul by grace. According to John, the soul goes on its way to God in darkness for three reasons: firstly, purgation is darkness because it denudes the soul of all its appetites for worldly things; secondly—and most importantly at this point—the way of illumination is a road of faith, not of the intellect, and the frail light of one’s wits cannot guide one through it; and, lastly, God is night to humankind in this world: even in union with the soul, his presence is inscrutable and his being incomprehensible (a sentiment expressed, if anything, even more strongly by Palamas, and by the entire Eastern tradition before him). To become passive before and in attendance upon the power of God is to experience how far the light of God’s wisdom exceeds human knowing; one cannot but be blinded by it; one’s first exposure to it is of necessity an affliction to all the soul’s faculties. And it is a night dark with pain, at times with torment, because in the first encounter with divine grace, with the fire of God’s love, the soul’s last impurities—the last residue of self-absorption—are burned away. The initial experience of God’s presence is shattering, seeming to destroy rather than heal the soul, to portend ultimate annihilation rather than salvation, because it obliterates the last vestiges of one’s dearly cherished illusion that one gives oneself unity, that one is sufficient for oneself, that one has any wholeness, freedom, or reality apart from God…

This is the awful extreme of self-knowledge, given to one only in a consuming intimacy with the divine: so frail, finite, and sinful is the soul that union with the divine must at first seem a condition of utter dereliction, of Godforsakeness; God’s love cannot be distinguished from his wrath. But the bitterness of this night is necessary if illusion and false comfort—even religious comfort—are to be put away, so that the life of the spirit may be reduced to one act of faith and longing. It is the night of surrender, wherein one must allow everything to be accomplished by God…

…God’s action in refining the soul is not a means by which he obtains satisfaction for sins, but is rather the necessary means by which the lover of God is made equal to the object of his love….

Bright Morning of the Soul

Make up your mind

atlas-multiverse

I’ve been enjoying conversations with a brilliant young scholar in Classics (from Berkeley) who came to faith a few years ago. Somehow questions of meaning led to questions of personal identity and that led to Scyfy (right?) and eventually the question of many-worlds theory (MWI) of cosmology came up. My understanding is fairly rudimentary. Basically, MWI (an interpretation of quantum mechanics) asserts the objective reality of all possible alternative histories. Each possibility (of the wave function) represents an actual world or universe. Hence, there are an infinite number of universes. In some I don’t exist at all. But in those worlds in which I exist, every possible path my life could have taken is taken. When I chose A over B in this world, in another universe I chose B, and so forth.

What theological implications might such a view yield? It seems to me that once you posit an undivided God whose experience embraces all possible and actual worlds, this effectively reduces many worlds to a single integrated world, and their integration in God implicates their truth and identity in the truth and identity of all else that exists. St. Paul is explicit; God’s purposes are unitive, i.e., “to unite all things together in himself.” (Eph 1.10) But here the many-worlds view runs into theological/philosophical problems, for in God all my identities (all of which are actual throughout many worlds but inaccessible to each other) achieve their deepest truth and meaning in and through the truth of all other things in God who relates all things to each other within himself, and wouldn’t that integration reduce all my identities to a single integrated identity before God? The many-worlds theory seems to account for the meaning of each actual world through the exclusion of all other actual worlds; inaccessibility between worlds becomes the truth of identity within any world. But this seems an existential nightmare. It grounds the unity of personal identity (and I don’t at all propose identity in simple Cartesian fashion) in infinite fragmentation. The truth of who I am in any world would be an infinitely act of exclusion. Who would accept it who truly longs for personal identity at all? Presumably the truest form of personal uniqueness is unrepeatable, but unrepeatability within the truth of all things, not excluding the truth of virtually all things.

Opera of the phantom

Tehom-570x505The pages of my copy of Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite are like the layers of a Monet landscape, comments on top of comments scribbled in various mediums (pink and yellow highlighter, pencil, black ink, blue ink – whatever was nearby) from multiple visits made to re-read its wonderful reflections. Just today I happened upon this particular sobriety (BOI, p. 399-400; the brackets are mine, just to help):

Hell is with us at all times, a phantom kingdom perpetuating itself in the wastes of sinful hearts, but only becomes visible to us as hell because he true kingdom has shed its light upon history. In theological tradition, most particularly in the East, there is that school of thought that wisely makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement. Hell is the experience (a possibility in each moment) of divine glory not as beauty, but as a formless sublimity; it is the rejection of all analogical vulnerability, the sealing off of the “self” (or the cosmos) in univocal singularity, the “misreading” of creation as an aboriginal violence. The “fire” of hell is that same infinite display of semeia [signs] by which God is always declaring his love, misconstrued (though rejection) as the chaotic sublime rather than the beautiful, not susceptible of analogical appropriation, of charity; it is the soul’s refusal to become (as Gregory says) the expanding vessel into which the beauty of God endlessly flows. For exile is possible within the beauty of the infinite only by way of an exilic interiority, a fictive inwardness, where the creature can grasp itself as an isolated essence. Hell is, one might almost say, a perfectly “Kantian” place, where the twin sublimities of the star-strewn firmament above and the lofty moral “law’ within remain separated by the thin tissue of subjective moral autonomy: where this tissue has become impervious to glory, the analogy of the heavens is not the transforming voice of God but only a mute simile, an inassimilable exteriority, and so a torment. Hell is the perfect concretization of ethical freedom, perfect justice without delight, the soul’s work of legislation for itself, where ethics has achieved its final independence from aesthetics. Absolute subjective liberty is known only in hell, where the fire of divine beauty is held at by, where the divine apeiron [limitlessness] miraculously divests itself at the peras [boundary, end, extremity] that, in Christ it has already transgressed and broken open, and humbly permits the self to “create” itself. True, though hell is the purest interiority, it is also by contagion a shared interiority, a palpable fiction and common space superimposed upon creation, with a history of its own; but still, it is a turning in, a fabrication of an inward depth, a shadow, a privation, a loss of the whole outer world, a refusal of the surface. For Eastern Christian thought, in particular, it makes no difference here whether one speaks of death, sin, or hell: in each case on speaks of the same privation, the same estranging history, the same limit shattered by Easter; and hence there can be no aesthetic explanation of hell (something that few of the Fathers occasionally foolishly attempted) that would make of it a positive moment in the exposition of divine beauty, a part of the universe’s harmonious ordering of light and darkness. Hell cannot serve as an objective elements of the beautiful—as source of delight—because it is an absolute privation of form and quantity; it has no surface, nor even a shadow’s substance; its aesthetic “place” is the sealed outside of an inside.

Coffee is black

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Black men enter, white people get fearful;
911 call – now more mothers get tearful.
Want me to be quiet? Hell naw, here’s an earful
Spillin’ thoughts over the top like I got my beer full.

Shout out my brothers and sisters, watchin the PoPo,
Predators roamin’ the streets like they hobo
Against people of color; it’s a war on the low-low
While the indifferent sip latte in Starbucks up in SoHo.

How many more brothers gotta give up they rights
Just to make sure that they live till the end of the night?
How many more sisters should we allow you to kill?
Maybe if we put the heat to you, that’ll allow you to chill?

Naw. But tensions continue to rise,
Anger is seethin’, we so damn tired of the lies;
I know the system, not the victims, is the thing I despise,
But sometimes the vision gets blurry from the tears in my eyes.

(Dwayne Polk)

Seeing all things in Christ

StFrancisJohnAugustSwansonWIt is common for Christians to speak of our being “in Christ” but also of all things being in him. I was recently asked what I have in mind when I speak of seeing all things in Christ. I thought I’d reflect on it some.

When I speak of all things being “in Christ” I’m talking primarily how the contemplation of anything can become the occasion for a transformational encounter with God. I don’t just mean that contemplating the existence of contingent things can lead one logically to conclude there is a God and then withdrawing from being fully present to thing and travel off and search for God in some argument. I mean to say that the things we contemplate are where God is met, that God is inseparably present in the being of things without being reducible to them so there is a immediacy of divine presence coterminous with the proper contemplation of things (contemplated as created, as good, as beautiful, as sustained by God, etc.). God’s presence and the presence of created things become convertible with each other.

This includes experiencing myself within the contemplation of things. The contemplation of things becomes the contemplation of oneself. It really is an experience of self-transcendence, because the beauty and goodness of your own existence is irreducible to the things you contemplate. This is opened up through perhaps the most important discipline of spiritual insight there is – silence. “Be still” says the Psalmist, “and know that I’m God.” That’s where I integrate the deepest truth of things into how I view the world and myself in it. The structure of it emerges precisely as St. Paul describes: “I, not I, but Christ.” (Gal 2.20)

This self-transcending approach to the contemplation of things is where one experiences not the abstract truth of God’s existence given the contingency of all things. You’re not contemplating a syllogism at this point, but the living presence of Christ as the ever-speaking Word of the Father. It’s what the contemplatives all report – when one quiets oneself and attends to the irreducible goodness and beauty of things, and when one listens there, one will find oneself (as Sarah Coakley says) being caught up in a conversation and eventually being addressed within that conversation.

Christ is ‘in’ things (sustaining them, reflected in them, etc.), and so are all things in him (sustained and held together). That’s something one can contemplate third person as it were, as a philosophical or theological construct. But you can also experience this as one’s own truth, the deepest and truest thing about you. At some point – and there’s no easy way to say this – Christ is not just ‘in’ things but ‘as’ things, ‘as’ them in the sense that however deep you go into the constitution of things, that conversation that addressed you is already there – as if Christ just is the being of things. How then do you peel apart “I” and “Christ” in St. Paul’s “I, not I, but Christ”? How do you put distance between yourself and Christ when deepest truth of who you are is (inside) the deepest truth of who he is. What else does Paul mean when he says we are given the Son’s own eternal cry of “Abba, Father!”? Who we are is on the inside of who he is. One sees “from” Christ (where one is) “to” Christ in all things. This is how one comes to see oneself in all things (again, language strains), because if I am in Christ, and Christ is in all things. I am in all things. It’s not “I” who embrace all things. Rather, I am embraced by the One who embraces all things. And the act by which he embraces all things in himself cannot be dissembled into discrete acts. There’s no distance between you and I because there’s no distance in Christ in whom you and I are.

There’s a truth to “Christ in all things” that can be apprehended on a philosophical level. That’s helpful. But the heart longs for more. There is an encounter with the reality to which such truths point. The transition from one to the other travels along the path of the persistent contemplation of the goodness, beauty and giftedness of things, the truth of the gospel as the unity of all things in Christ. This may be why Paul is careful in 1Cor 15 to say that in the end “God becomes all in all.” Not just “in all” — which is already true — but “all in all.” Might this suggest our perceiving God in all as the explicit truth of things? It’s one thing for God to see you. That’s always true. It’s another thing to know God sees you. But it’s transformational finally to see God seeing you. That, is seems to me, is of the same species of God’s being all in all.

Battling to the end

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The only Christians who still talk about the apocalypse are fundamentalists, but they have a completely mythological conception of it. They think that the violence of the end of time will come from God himself. They cannot do without a cruel God. Strangely, they do not see that the violence we ourselves are in the process of amassing and that is looming over our own heads is entirely sufficient to trigger the worst. They have no sense of humor.

(From Battling to the End by (2010; Achever Clausewitz, 2007) by Rene Girard, in which he turns the focus of his mimetic insights from the history of human culture and religion to the future of humankind and the crucial importance of Christianity’s apocalyptic vision. You can find Girard’s own summary of it at First Things.)