Wednesday, December 28, 2011
This book tells the story of one woman’s movement from the traditional Roman Catholicism of her youth, through various New Age and Eastern spiritual and religious movements, and finally to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Throughout the course of the narrative, the reader is not only told the events that occurred but also let into the emotional, mental, and spiritual world of the author, getting a glimpse of the movements of heart and spirit that eventually lead to embrace Christ and his Church.
Her story is one that many, including myself, who have converted to Orthodoxy in America over the least several decades will be able to identify with, as many of us found ourselves disillusioned with the spiritual barrenness and harshness of Western religion, as embodied in Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity, and so headed East to religions and philosophies like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, only to turn again to Christianity as it is embodied in the Orthodox Faith, its fullest and truest expression.
I recommend this book both for those who have come or are coming to Orthodoxy from such a background in Eastern and New Age religion, as well as for those who have close friends and family interested or involved in such movements. I think this book can act as an excellent bridge book and a gateway for those who have fled from the typical Western understandings of Christ to return to Christ, the real Christ.
Sunday, December 25, 2011
Hesychasm was more than an exchange between theologians, more even than the articulation of a vital truth. It involved imperial politics, international and ecumenical relations, art, and the very direction of the Orthodox Church in a world and era where the approaching end of the ancient empire and the Christians' eventual servitude under the Ottoman Turks were becoming more and more clear to all concerned. It was a "reawakening of Byzantine spirituality" which had "effects far beyond the shrinking boundaries of the ... Empire ... It lit up the whole Orthodox world." Remarkable leaders, including several Patriarchs of Constantinople, rose out of the monastic and especially Athonite milieu of hesychasm and led the way toward the forging of "a new solidarity of ... religious and ideological nature ... tying together the Eastern Christian ecumene," and influencing events as far off and significant as the formation of modern Russia. In certain respects it would be no exaggeration to say that hesychasm -- and thus Mount Athos -- saved the Orthodox Church, providing her with a new dynamism and unity on the very verge of Byzantium's collapse and the centuries-long captivity of its people under Muslim rule.
Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin), The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain: Contemporary Voices from Mount Athos, p. 7
Saturday, December 24, 2011
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
This is an excellent book. It serves as both a source of insight into numerous specific aspects and phenomena of popular culture as well as a good general introduction to a more informed and philosophical approach to popular culture as a category. The various short essays each provide a glimpse below the surface, giving us the opportunity to meditate on the deeper meanings and subtle messages that run throughout the “everyday.” The music we hear on the radio, the places we visit and why we visit them, the turns-of-phrase we hear and use on a daily basis, and the movies we watch are more than mere entertainment, sidebar, and distraction. They are a means by which people like ourselves express their ideas, their perspectives, and their selves, sometimes without even realizing it – and, similarly, they are a means by which even the “consumer” or “audience” finds expression, meaning, and fulfillment, almost always without realizing it. This book makes the observations and ideas of the greatest minds of the modern and postmodern world, such as Marx, Derrida, and Camus, intimate, immediate, and practical. I highly recommend this book for anyone seeing a new appreciation of the “common” and for a deeper insight into the “everyday.”
Monday, December 19, 2011
Sunday, December 18, 2011
Storey gives a very interesting look at the developments in cultural theory regarding popular culture over the past century, from early movements like Leavisism through to modern Marxist and post-Marxist, feminist, and other postmodernist theories. This book is very helpful for its application of cultural theory and sociological concepts to popular culture and for the numerous references to excellent books for further reading on each subject encountered. I was somewhat disappointed, however, with its assumption of radical left politics as standard. I'm well aware of a left slant among cultural and sociological academics and I'm fine with authors with biases (purely natural, of course), but the assumption that all readers share these same biases is a bit irritating. It would have been interesting to see Matthew Arnold given a more thorough and fair treatment, and to see those who have followed in his footsteps today mentioned at all.
Saturday, December 17, 2011
One of the most remarkable features of Medieval philosophy is the centrality of this question when compared with the apparent nonexistence of any separate class of nonbelievers. Not only are there no surviving writings by or about any person espousing outright unbelief during the Middle Ages, but according to Sarah Stroumsa, “in the discussions of God's existence the actual opponents” of the philosophers examining the question “are not identified as individuals. As a group they are sometimes referred to as heretics, unbelievers, materialists, or skeptics.”3
Some of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages, then, dedicated large portions of their work to arguing against an entirely theoretical unbelief. When Anselm of Canterbury formulated his ontological argument4 and Thomas Aquinas formulated his famous “five ways” to prove the existence of God,5 they themselves assumed doubt in their writings in order to strengthen faith through reason and to demonstrate that faith and reason are compatible and complimentary.
Later, in the fifteenth century, however, William of Occam set about undoing the synthesis which had been accomplished by Anselm, Aquinas, and others like them. Occam believed that “logic and theory of knowledge had become dependent on metaphysics and theology” as a result of their work and that they had made reason subservient to faith.6 He “set to work to separate them again.”7 As a result of his work to separate faith and reason, according to Richard Tarnas,
there arose the psychological necessity of a double-truth universe. Reason and faith came to be seen as pertaining to different realms, with Christian philosophers and scientists, and the larger educated Christian public, perceiving no genuine integration between the scientific reality and the religious reality.8Deism and Its Clockwork Universe
As scientific knowledge in Europe continued to increase exponentially, the gap between faith and reason continued to widen. Faith had grown detached from reason in ever more literal interpretations of the Bible and the sola fide, or “faith alone,” dogma of Protestantism, whereas reason increasingly freed itself from reference to faith and instead found its abode in the empirical sciences and “natural theology,” an approach to religion based on reason and experience rather than speculation and appeal to revelation, of Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes.9
Traditional Christianity, with its miracles and saints, came increasingly to be viewed as outdated and superstitious.10 This was especially true in the light of Newtonian physics. A mechanistic universe which operated consistently according to a standard set of laws did not allow for “alleged miracles and faith healings, self-proclaimed religious revelations and spiritual ecstasies, prophecies, symbolic interpretations of natural phenomena, encounters with God or the devil” and so on and so these ideas increasingly came to be viewed “as the effects of madness, charlatanry, or both.”11 According to Jacques Barzun, “religion as such [was] not attacked; it [was] redefined into simplicity.”12 In the light of this new scientific knowledge and the new views of religion it engendered, a new religious movement was needed.
The new religious movement that emerged from this situation was deism. Deism allowed that “one may well be overawed by the Great Archetict and His handiwork;”13 after all, “Newton's cosmic architecture demanded a cosmic architect.”14 However, “the attributes of such a God could be properly derived only from the empirical examination of his creation, not from the extravagant pronouncements of revelation.”15 The deists also prescribed that religion include much emphasis on “good morals,” as they, like the belief in a creator, “are universal” as well.16
This rather tenuous set of beliefs, however, could not hold for long. Samuel Clarke, an early English Enlightenment philosopher, noted in a letter to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz that
The notion of the world's being a great machine, going on without the interposition of God as a clock continues to go without the assistance of a clockmaker, is the notion of materialism and fate and tends (under pretense of making God a supramundane intelligence) to exclude providence and God's government in reality out of the world. And by the same reason that a philosopher can represent all things going on from the beginning of the creation without any government or interposition of providence, a skeptic will easily argue still further backward and suppose that things have from eternity gone on (as they now do) without any true creation or original author at all but only what such arguers call all-wise and eternal nature.17As more thinkers began to realize this, “the rationalist God … soon began to lose philosophical support.”18
The Advent of Athéisme
While “most of these empiricists of the first generation acknowledged God as the Creator, the Great Watchmaker, who set the cosmos in motion and then let it run on its own,” writes Barzun,
the thought then occurred that sensations imply the existence of matter; therefore ideas, feelings, knowledge – life itself – are but the interplay of bits of stuff. Matter in motion acts as cause, and the effect is another part of matter in some other motion. God has no point of entry into the relation; very likely He does not exist. There is in truth no need for Him.19From this line of reasoning arose the first adherents to athéisme, the denial of the existence of any God at all.
The first known person to claim this position for himself was Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach. In his book The System of Nature or, the Laws of the Moral and Physical World, originally published in 1770, d'Holbach became the first Western thinker to explicitly deny the existence of God and apply the term “atheism” to his belief system.20 In the same book, he expounded a view of the universe which was very similar to that of the deists. He posited an universe which functioned entirely according to mechanical laws and free of any divine or otherwise spiritual outside intervention, holding to such a strict materialistic determinism as to rule out free will entirely. In it, d'Holbach, like the deists, also argues that religious beliefs like miracles are superstitions from a more ignorant age and the product of misunderstanding and fear. He goes a step farther than the deists, however, and includes the idea of God in his list of religious concepts in this category.
Denis Diderot, who edited and annotated d'Holbach's volume, also came to espouse similar beliefs. Throughout his lifetime, he made “the gradual transformation … from religious belief to Deism, then to skepticism, and finally to a materialism ambiguously joined with a deistic ethics.”21 In his life and even on this latter point, ethics, Diderot passed “from critical effort based on Reason to a conception of man and society in which impulse and instinct are seen as stronger than Reason.”22
The physician and philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie was willing to go a step further, drawing out the logical conclusions of atheism and a determinist and materialist worldview, in his book Man a Machine, first published in 1748.23 As the title implies, La Mettrie asserted that, as man is a part of the universe and its mechanical laws, man must himself be mechanical, “an organic machine whose illusion of possessing an independent soul or mind was produced simply by the interplay of its physical components.”24 A human being was, in short, nothing more than “a chemical, glandular, and electrical machine.”25 As Richard Tarnas points out, the ethical implications of this were obvious: “hedonism was the ethical consequence of such a philosophy, which La Mettrie did not fail to advocate.”26 Atheism had grown from deism, which, in turn, had grown out of Medieval Christianity; with his rejection of Christian ethics, La Mettrie had severed the last tie between the unbelief of Enlightenment thinkers and their roots in the Western Christian tradition.
The Death of God
Disbelief was no longer just the doubt and needs for “proofs” that had been present in Medieval thought. It was no longer theoretical and it was no longer subservient to the needs of religious thinkers in their attempts to strengthen the case for faith. Disbelief had become a new and distinct religious category in its own right. Later generations of Western thinkers, drawing on the thought of the Enlightenment in religious matters just as they did in political and economic matters, carried on the Enlightenment's new movement of disbelief. According to Richard Tarnas,
It would be the nineteenth century that would bring the Enlightenment's secular progression to its logical conclusion as Comte, Mill, Feuerbach, Marx, Haeckel, Spencer, Huxley, and, in a somewhat different spirit, Nietzsche all sounded the death knell of traditional religion. The Judaeo-Christian God was man's own creation, and the need for that creation had necessarily dwindled with man's modern maturation.27Most Western philosophy after the Enlightenment, in fact, no longer felt the need to even argue for or against the existence of God. Rather, philosophers like those named by Tarnas as well as many others simply assumed the nonexistence of God as a fact and formulated their philosophy without regard to the existence of a deity. Ludwig Feuerbach, one of these nineteenth century philosophers who built on the work of the Enlightenment philosophers, stated explicitly that
The question as to the existence or non-existence of God, the opposition between theism and atheism, belongs to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but not to the nineteenth. I deny God. But that mans for me that I deny the negation of man. In place of the illusory, fantastic, heavenly position of man which in actual life necessarily leads to the degradation of man, I substitute the tangible, actual and consequently also the political and social position of mankind. The question concerning the existence or non-existence of God is not important but the question concerning the existence or non-existence of man is.28For the philosophers of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and even the Enlightenment, “the question concerning the existence or non-existence of God” had, of course, been seen as being of the utmost importance. Only a philosopher who lived in the wake of the Enlightenment and accepted its presuppositions in materialism and determinism would have been able to make such a statement as Feuerbach's; his words are demonstrative of how influential the atheism of the Enlightenment had become. Though his words about himself can only fairly be applied specifically to Feuerbach and do play an important role in his unique philosophy, much the same sentiments can with confidence be assigned to the vast majority of other great philosophers who followed the Enlightenment.
The disbelief of the Enlightenment has also had a major effect on popular philosophy and religion, especially in Europe. According to the 2005 Eurobarometer Poll, approximately 18% of the citizens of countries in the European Union report that they “don't believe there is any kind of spirit, God or life force.”29 This is a significant change, of course, from the situation in Europe during the Middle Ages, when Anselm, Aquinas, and others like them directed their arguments for the existence of God against vague, theoretical, and unnamed “skeptics” and “heretics.”
The new prominence and popularity of disbelief also had a major effect within Christianity for much the same reason. Unbelievers were now real and unbelief itself now a viable alternative to religious faith; as a result, many believers felt a need to go on the defensive. Doubt, and even any application of reason to Christianity and to issues of faith, came to be viewed as insidious enemies, not as the means to the strengthening and further understanding of faith as in previous generations.30 In removing a rational element from faith, faith came to be ever more irrational and, occasionally in later Western history, even anti-rational, as is evidenced by the growth and influence of Christian and semi-Christian sects focused on otherworldly mysticism, ecstatic experience, and emotionalism to the exclusion of logical thought and scientific knowledge in America and Europe during and following the Enlightenment. Christian apologetic also took on a more forceful character, as Christian apologists found it necessary to concede as little as possible to the unbelievers, such as defending extremely literal interpretations of the six-day creation and worldwide flood described in the biblical book of Genesis, whereas earlier generations of Christians had generally interpreted these events in allegorical and mystical terms.31 Christian apologists also found it necessary to attack their unbelieving opponents with a new zeal, labeling them as “missionaries of evil” and focusing the bulk of their apologetic efforts on disbelief rather than on other religions or Christian heresies.32 The attempts to reconcile faith and reason and the use of doubt as a faith-building tool had become things of the past.
Doubt has been implicit within and an aspect of religious belief for as long as religious ideas have existed. This is especially true of the Christian religious tradition, whose most intellectual adherents found reasonable arguments for the existence of God to be necessary in the course of their attempts to reconcile the inheritances they had received from both ancient Judaism and ancient Athens. The eventual reconciliation of faith with reason, though accomplished during the Middle Ages, fell apart as the Middle Ages ended, largely under the influence of William of Occam. With the dawn of the Enlightenment in Europe and especially the new scientific knowledge which it brought with it, the separation that had been wrought between faith and reason widened continually and ever more deeply. Deism originally rose from the “reason” side of this split as a supposedly reasonable alternative to religious superstition; it attempted to formulate a set of religious beliefs that was pared down to the basics of the existence of a creator God and a moral system he had ordained alongside the laws of the universe. As the universe and human beings themselves came to be viewed increasingly as natural machines, however, there was less and less need for the existence of a God or the plausibility of holding to a moral system based on one. With d'Holbach, athéisme found its first outspoken spokesman, extolling a worldview in which there was no God and everything that existed was part of the material world. As with much Enlightenment philosophy, this view subsequently gained such popularity and influence among philosophers that it became the assumed standpoint of later generations of philosophers. As with any great new idea, the effects became tremendous once atheism reached the ears of the people at large, reshaping the nature of both religious belief and disbelief throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and continuing through to today.
1 Hans Küng, Great Christian Thinkers (New York: Continuum, 1994), 108-9.
2 William Raeper and Linda Smith, A Brief Guide to Ideas (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1997), 55.
3 Sarah Stroumsa, Freethinkers of Medieval Islam: Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu Bakr al-Razi and their Impact on Islamic Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 122-3.
4 Raeper, A Brief Guide, 59.
5 Nils Ch. Rauhut, ed., Readings on the Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, Second Edition (New York: Penguin Academics, 2007), 380-3.
6 Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 472.
8 Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 302.
10 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 5: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 66.
11 Tarnas, The Passion, 303.
12 Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 years of Western Cultural Life (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 361.
14 Tarnas, The Passion, 308.
16 Barzun, From Dawn, 361.
17 Samuel Clarke, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters: A Selection, ed. Leroy E. Loemaker (Norwell: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989), 677.
18 Tarnas, The Passion, 308.
19 Barzun, From Dawn, 365.
20 Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach, The System of Nature or, the Laws of the Moral and Physical World, tr. H.D. Robinson (New York: G.W. and A.J. Matsell, 1835).
21 Tarnas, The Passion, 310.
22 Barzun, From Dawn, 373.
23 Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Machine Man and Other Writings, ed. Ann Thomson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
24 Tarnas, The Passion, 310.
25 Barzun, From Dawn, 367.
26 Tarnas, The Passion, 310.
28 Ludwig Feuerbach, quoted in Raeper, Brief Guide, 122.
29 European Commission, Directorate General Press and Communication, Eurobarometer: Social values, Science, and Technology (June 2005) http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf (accessed 19 November 2011).
30 James C. Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 144.
31 Turner, Without God, 143-4.
32 Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 181.
Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, 500 years of Western Cultural Life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.
d'Holbach, Paul Henri Thiry, Baron. The System of Nature or, the Laws of the Moral and Physical World. Translator H.D. Robinson. New York: G.W. and A.J. Matsell, 1835.
European Commission, Directorate General Press and Communication. Eurobarometer: Social values, Science, and Technology. June 2005. http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf (accessed 19 November 2011).
Küng, Hans. Great Christian Thinkers. New York: Continuum, 1994.
La Mettrie, Julien Offray de. Machine Man and Other Writings. Editor Ann Thomson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Loemaker, Leroy E., editor. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters: A Selection. Norwell: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition, A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 5: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Raeper, William and Linda Smith. A Brief Guide to Ideas. Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1997.
Rauhut, Nils Ch., editor. Readings on the Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, Second Edition. New York: Penguin Academics, 2007.
Russell, Bertrand. The History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
Stroumsa, Sarah. Freethinkers of Medieval Islam: Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu Bakr al-Razi and their Impact on Islamic Thought. Leiden: Brill, 1999.
Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.
Turner, James C. Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
Friday, December 9, 2011
Monday, December 5, 2011
Sunday, December 4, 2011
Book review: The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education by Robert Maynard Hutchins
As I read this book, there were many times that I went to the computer, ready to share a gem of a sentence or a passage with my friends on Facebook or with my readers on my website. Each time I did so, however, I had to stop myself – fight myself even – and walk away from the computer. If I had shared every sentence and every passage I wanted to share, I would have ended up quoting the entire book! From beginning to end, this short book is a giant, shining gem.
Robert Hutchins, playing the part of the great social doctor of Western Civilization, diagnoses the ailment that has come to pervade nearly every aspect of our culture and offers the prescription that could cure us of this otherwise fatal illness. We ourselves have been and now educate our children as, essentially, automatons. Drunk under the influence of Dewey and decline, and at the wheel of the greatest military-economic-political-cultural bloc the world has ever seen, we are a threat to ourselves and others. Hutchins wrote this book over 50 years ago, and the situation has only gotten worse since then. We live in a nation – the United States – and, in the bigger picture, a culture – Western – and a even world, in which the masses have been given ever more leisure time, more political power, and more say in their own lives and in the lives of others through democratic and republican forms of government. And yet these same masses, as anyone can plainly see by watching the evening news or just having a conversation with the man behind the counter at the gas station, are pitifully undereducated, miseducated, and uneducated. The average person has spent 13 years (if they have a high school degree) or perhaps 17 years (if they have a bachelor's degree) on what amounts to perhaps an 8th grade education! In short, we've given the car keys to a 12 year old!
And how do we set about remedying this situation before it destroys us and the world with us? Hutchins provides the answer: a good classical, liberal education. Modern Westerners are asked to elect their leaders, to make important decisions about economics, law, and war; how can they possibly be prepared to do so without having read Plato, Adam Smith, and James Madison? Modern Westerners are asked to digest new and amazing scientific discoveries and technological advances; how can they possibly be expected to do so without some familiarity with Newton, Kepler, and Aristotle? They cannot and they will not be able to fully function in the roles the modern world demands of them until they have thoroughly familiarized themselves with the ideas and thinkers that came before them and built the world they live in.
More than that, and of more importance by far, is the exercise and attainment of the fullness of humanity. Modern man, in addition to the increased authority and responsibility already mentioned, also has more leisure time and circumstances more conducive to the production of intellectual capital than his ancestors of any previous time. The question now is: is modern man to waste his existence as a sad, pitiful half animal-half machine, working, eating, sleeping, passing the time in video games and cheap entertainment, or is he to reach for the fullness of his own humanity, to contemplate the universe and his place in it, the origin and destiny of humanity, the possibilities of what is beyond him? The answer to that question is one that each of us must make for himself and for his children.
I recommend this book to anyone with children of schooling age, to anyone who places value on education and intelligence, and to anyone who wants to be a human being in the fullest sense of the word – in other words, I recommend this book for everyone.
Saturday, December 3, 2011
The present life is a sleep, and the things in it are in no way different from dreams. And as they that are asleep often speak and see things other than healthful, so do we also, or rather we see much worse even. For he that doeth anything disgraceful or says the like in a dream, when he is rid of his sleep, is rid of his disgrace, also, and is not to be punished. But in this case it is not so, but the shame, and also the punishment, are immortal. Again, they that grow rich in a dream, when it is day are convicted of having been rich to no purpose. But in this case even before the day the conviction comes upon them, and before they depart to the other life, those dreams have flown away.
St. John Chrysostom, Homily 24 on the Epistle to the Romans