Love/eros for God: Contemplation beyond reason

ELEHSON ME KYRIEYesterday and the day before, I blogged about an encounter I had with some Mormon Missionaries and the reasons I gave for rejecting the Mormon position as well as some reasoned reflection on some Mormon beliefs. The main proclamation the young missionary had was, ‘I read The Book of Mormon and I felt the Holy Ghost telling me this is true.’

While not much of an argument, it is not a thought to be entirely ignored when we start discussing belief at any level — why one believes (or not), or how one believes (or not), or what one believes (or not), or how one acts in light of belief (or not).  Many of us, if we were to be honest, will admit that, whatever reasons we may marshal on behalf of our chosen worldview, there is always an element of the irrational in how/what/why we believe.

There are even atheists who admit this.

Besides these posts about reason and Mormonism, I have also discussed the reasoned study of Scripture and philosophy recently, specifically in the questions of providence and predestination. I think reason is a gift from God that enables us to interpret our world and the events in our lives and the Holy Scriptures and all sorts of things. There are even applications of reason to the philosophical question of God’s existence.

At the end of the day, though, all belief reaches beyond reason.

Love/eros for God, the deep-seated desire in the human soul, one of the basic facts of human life, is one area where Christian belief and human experience step beyond reason. This has also been a recent topic.*

When we start trying to reach for the invisible God, however, the non-rational aspects of how we live are to become entwined with our reason. We should seek a union of the mind in the heart (cf. Theophan the Recluse). We can reason that He exists, we can maybe ascertain some of his attributes from nature, we can reason truths about him from the Scriptures, we can formulate systematic theology about him, we can apply reason to the writings of the theologians and the history of the church.

And then we should step beyond that, into contemplation.

Here, I think, we will meet God’s love and start to love him.

Contemplation in the Christian tradition isn’t just thinking about stuff, like how sometimes I contemplate the terrible horror Captain Picard must have gone through as Locutus of Borg at the Battle of Wolf 359. It is seeking to apply the affective aspect of our spiritual self to the encounter with God. Sometimes it includes meditating on passages from and truths of Scripture — like thinking about Capt Picard only setting our minds on higher things. At the meditative stage, all those truths and aspects we have reasoned about can be avenues to God.

But contemplation also calls us beyond the rational. It involves a clearing of the clutter of the mind, an ignoring of the many dissonant, flapping thoughts (logismoi) that constantly plague the human mind. In this respect, it looks like Buddhism,** but it goes where Buddhism tends not to go. Thomas Merton considered the practices of Zen Buddhism as essentially psychological, as a way of calming the psyche; Merton, of course, is a slippery fish, and his ideas changed as his life went on, as discussed here.

But the Christian does not seek to empty the mind to stay empty (I understand that at least some Buddhists do, based upon conversations with a Buddhist).

The Christian wishes to fill him/herself with love of the Holy Trinity, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, with the love of Christ himself, experienced by clearing away the clutter, by entering into peace, into what Greeks call hesychia.

When we practise contemplation, all those things we have reasoned about go beyond mere thoughts we hold. God become more than an object of study — he becomes a subject to encounter. He becomes the Subject to encounter.

This is what those mediaeval mystics I’ve blogged about were seeking; what Carmelites like St John of Cross, St Teresa of Ávila, and Brother Lawrence found; what Theophan the Recluse and Elder Porphyrios are discussing in relation to the Jesus Prayer. Contemplation is a path to love of God.

Thus, through the mystics and their ways, we can enter into a life suffused with the greatest commandment — love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.

*Love/eros for God 1: Preliminary Thoughts; Love/eros for God 2: Beyond commandments; Love/eros for God: St John of the Cross; Love/eros for God: Elder St Porphyrios, ‘Christ is Our Love, Our Desire’.

**I am thinking here of the Jesuit Anthony de Mello in particular and his book Sadhana: A Way to God. De Mello argues that Greek philosophy gave ancient Christianity the intellectual apparatus to speak accurately of God, and that Buddhism can give modern Christianity the techniques to come nearer to him. I think the Christian tradition is self-sufficient in this regard, but the simple parallel with Buddhism may be helpful to some readers.

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Christianity and Eastern Religions

I just read an essay by the late Michael Spencer (the Internet Monk) about Thomas Merton and why Merton appeals to iMonk so much. Thomas Merton is one of the 20th century’s most popular spiritual/religious authors, a fact that probably immediately draws the ire and fire of fundamentalists and other likeminded folks (not to mention his being a Roman Catholic!).

One of the aspects of Merton’s writing that seems to draw a lot of fire, however, is neither his popularity nor his Roman Catholicism, but his interest in Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism (see here). Thomas Merton is not the only Christian writer to get in trouble for learning of and drawing from Eastern religions — CS Lewis has been accused of being a Taoist and a heretic here! I have no doubt others have suffered similar fates (Anthony de Mello would have if he were popular enough).

This branding of Christian thinkers who have an interest in Eastern religions and who are able to draw ideas from them as heretics or false Christians troubles me. It troubles me because Christians are bound to the Bible as the full revelation of God as far as we need to know, containing nothing superfluous and lacking nothing necessary (see Rick Dugan’s brief but illuminating post to that effect).

Yet to say that the Bible is all true is not to say that there is no true outside the Bible. What it means is that if we find truth elsewhere, it will not run counter to Scripture, nor will it be necessary for human salvation. It will not complete the picture of God we can find by faithfully searching the Scriptures. But Christians must surely be able to learn from Eastern religions.

We certainly learn from pagan Greeks — we are all fans of pagan logic-chopping. We tend to be pleased with readers of Plato’s Republic. I once saw a quotation from Marcus Aurelius — Stoic philosopher and Christian persecutor — in a calendar full of Christian quotations! It was there because it was wise. We like a certain type of pagan Stoic ethics, or a certain type of seeking happiness put forward by the likes of Aristotle.

It’s true that we spent a good long time after dear Origen delineating how closely we should dance with Neo-Platonism, and that aspects of mediaeval philosophy were hopelessly pagan and Platonic, while aspects of late mediaeval theology are heavily Aristotelian. And we have had to disentangle Christian truth from those pagan elements since then.

But what about the paganism of “Enlightenment” thought? Or the paganism of capitalism? Or the paganism of the Renaissance? Or the paganism of secularism? These are ways of thinking that are so bred into our culture that Christians often operate by their assumptions while claiming to be spiritual beings who are inseparably tied to the immortal God who transcends the rational world!

Let us return, then, to Eastern religions, to Taoism and Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

Is it necessarily wrong to read their writings and find wisdom there? I sure hope not! In The Inner Experience, his final work, Merton paints an expressly Christian mysticism, one rooted in the reality of the Incarnation, the Scriptures, and the tradition. He also mentions Zen Buddhism, but under the belief that Zen meditation is a form of psychological action that alone does not guarantee contact with God — yet it can help calm the mind and help the mind focus.

Is this so bad? I mean, this is what Christian mystics, Orthodox and Catholic, call for — the dispassionate focussing and, to a certain extent, emptying of the soul/nous/mind to be able to focus on the tangible Presence of God. If a Buddhist practice that is decidedly psychological can help us without denying the Scriptures or the tradition, is that so wrong?

If we are set free by the Scriptures and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we can read any pagan — ancient or modern, Greek or Indian — and be able to find the wisdom of God himself dwelling there. And we should expect this, actually. Justin Martyr discusses the fact that the Word (that Person of the Godhead who became incarnate as Christ) is the underlying principle of the cosmos, that he orders all things and is present to some extent in all human beings.

All human beings can catch a glimpse of God, of how to reach Him, of what His way of life is to be.

This practice is called spoiling the Egyptians. We read the unbelievers* and, using the twin lens of Scripture and Tradition, we can safely find the wisdom of God residing there. The practice is an ancient Christian practice certainly consciously practised by Origen and St. Clement of Alexandria; St. Justin Martyr became a Christian from having been a Platonist and considered himself a Christian philosopher. Its more recent pedigree includes Erasmus’  Handbook of the Militant Christian (where I first encountered it, though not under this name, if I remember aright).

The idea is set out in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses (I was going to quote for you, but I left my copy in Canada). Basically, if you’ll recall the Exodus story, when the Israelites go out of Egypt, the Egyptians give them a vast amount of wealth — gold, silver, jewels. The allegorical or spiritual reading of this passage is the teaching that, because of the general grace of God there is wisdom in the writings of pagans. This wisdom is their wealth, and it is open to spoliation by Christians — ie. any wisdom in the pagans may be taken by the Christian reader and applied to his’er own life and beliefs.

Such beliefs are never to be binding unless corroborated by Scripture,** but they can help make our lives fuller and richer. If you have a terrible job, the Stoic idea that freedom resides within you and you can be truly free whilst a slave can be liberating. Or if you have, say, anger problems, breathing practices from Eastern religions can help calm and focus your mind.

So, if you’re halfway through the Bhagavad Gita, keep reading. Just don’t forget to read the Bible while you’re at it!

*The secularists, atheists, agnostics, Greeks, Egyptians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists, Confucians, Native North Americans, Maori, Aborigines, African animists, Zoroastrians, Sumerians ……

**When we try to make them binding, we end up with embarrassing things like vociferous religious opposition to Copernicus and Galileo (although Galileo got into trouble because, even though correct, he had insufficient evidence and kept on teaching his ideas after promising not to until he had more evidence).