Dispassion: Jesus & Superman (also John Climacus)

Dispassion (Gk apatheia) is one of the harder aspects of traditional Christian spirituality to sell today. I know that I have a hard time with it, and when I first heard John Michael Talbot sing, ‘Prayer is the state of dispassion’, I was greatly concerned.

At first glance, this term, whether applied to humans striving for perfection or to the already perfect Jesus/God, seems to be promoting not feeling anything, living life with a lack of emotion. And, certainly, there are times when spiritual writers sound like that’s just what they want — no laughter, no tears, no swellings of emotional feeling of any type at any point.

This past Sunday morning, my friend Cory was preaching about Matthew 8:23-27, where Jesus calms the storm:

Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (NIV)

Having just finished John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent, whose second-last step is ‘Dispassion’, I couldn’t help but be struck that Jesus here is, in fact, an example of dispassion. The wind stirs, the waves rise, the rain batters from above. ‘But Jesus was sleeping.’

Jesus knows where true power lies. He can command the wind and waves to stop at any time. Therefore, he can sleep through a storm because he is not afraid of its power. One greater than the storm is here.

Jesus is chill. In it’s earliest meaning, this is what is meant to be ‘cool’ — that bad stuff doesn’t faze you, that you can handle it and be level. When great stuff comes, you don’t get too wound up, either, because you know that the great things in this temporal existence are fleeting, anyway.

A similar point was recently made about Superman, in this article by Joshua Rivera for Business Insider article a friend posted on Facebook, ‘Why Is It So Hard to Get Superman Right in Movies?‘ The quotation that sprang to mind as I mulled on Jesus in the boat this past Sunday is this one:

There’s a great anecdote that legendary comics writer Grant Morrison — the man responsible for one of the best Superman stories in recent memory, 2005’s “All-Star Superman” — tells about Superman in his memoir “Supergods.” In the memoir, he mentions the inspiration for his story — he was at a convention, and he saw a handsome man in a Superman costume just sitting down and relaxing on a stoop.

That was Morrison’s epiphany: The most powerful man alive wouldn’t be tortured but instead would be the friendliest, most relaxed person you ever saw.

Now, Superman is fictional, and none of us is ever going to be as big as Jesus. Superman can fly, shoot lasers out of his eyes, use X-ray vision, lift really heavy stuff, and is impervious to bullets. Jesus is God in the flesh; in His time on earth, He walked on water, turned water into wine, rose people from the dead, healed the sick, cast out demons, calms storms with a word, and then rose from the dead Himself.

None of us is likely ever to do the sorts of things Superman does in Action Comics, although by the grace of God I think some may do the sorts of things Jesus does in the Gospels. Either way, we are not as likely to be as chill as either Jesus or Morrison’s Superman.

John Climacus’ descriptions of dispassion and how we attain it are not exactly encouraging — unless you want to spend your whole life seeking to purified of all sin and become immersed in virtues. He writes:

If complete enslavement to passion is indicated by the fact that one quickly submits to whatever the demons have sown in us, I take it then that a mark of holy dispassion is to be able to say unambiguously: “I did not recognize the evil one as he slipped away from me” (Ps. 100:4), nor did I know the time of his coming, the reasons for it, nor how he went. I am completely unaware of such matters because I am and will ever be wholly united with God. (Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 29, trans. Luibheid & Russell, p. 284)

I’ve blogged about the passions before, so I won’t detain us long on them. But it is freedom from the disordered desires of human life that dispassion refers to. The dispassionate person is not a soulless shell with no emotion. Rather, freed (by the grace of God) from being battered all day by his or her passions, the dispassionate can see clearly, can know truly what truth and good are, what falsehood and evil are. And can live accordingly.

All of this, as the best of the spiritual guides remind us (Climacus, Cassian, Theophan the Recluse among others), is by God’s grace alone. But, typically, God brings us to such a place only through the experiences and activities of life. As G. K. Chesterton said, ‘One cannot grow a beard in a fit of passion.’ I’ve a feeling that dispassion — or, as Cassian circumlocutes is, purity of heart — is the same way.

Freedom from the Passions: New Old Ways of Talking about $!n in Public

From left to right: Evagrius Ponticus, John Climacus, and some other dude. The first two are well-known guides to the passions of the human heart. Who knows about the other guy.

Apologies for not having blogged here a bit more of late. I’m in Paris, and the blog where I publicly disclose my name has been getting more attention (I have a slight paranoia about the religious nature of these postings and my future). But today, I had a thought worthy of the pocket scroll. So here it is.

One of the images/concepts of human salvation that is part of the older Christian tradition, and has been continually popular in Eastern Christianity, is the image of salvation as healing. Christ is our Physician, and he cleans and heals our wounds. Each of us wounded in spirit, in soul, in mind.

Part of this disorder of the human heart is misdirected and misguided desire. The Fathers, especially the desert ascetics, (and Aquinas) call this concupiscence. Rather than seeking first things first, we seek second things first, thus losing both (as CS Lewis once famously noted). Concupiscence reveals itself in the pleasures of the senses — in gluttony, in fornication, in other sensuous excesses that can lead us down the dangerous road of addiction, of alcoholism and sexual compulsivity.

Our concupiscible part exists to direct us towards goods that are there both for our survival and our pleasure. Food and booze are tasty on purpose. Sexual intercourse is supposed to feel that way. However, we must allow these pleasures to be enjoyed according the rules of God’s law and natural law. Concupiscence drives us away from that aspect.

Another aspect of our human disorder is irascibility. When ordered rightly, this produces righteous indignation, when we see the poor downtrodden, the alien shunned, the planet raped of her resources. When disordered, it produces selfish and proud rage, ire, and flares of temper that do not lead us to righteousness.

Irascibility and concupiscence are traditionally termed ‘passions’ in those parts of Christian moral and ascetic theology that treat of them, places where our similarities to Aristotle, Plato, and the Stoics are clearly visible. A passion is something that you yourself undergo, something that acts on you, that moves you (hence its relation to passive verbs, patience, and patients).

The passions are not themselves sinful. Some people have claimed that they are, but these people are wrong. The passions are part of our human makeup. And, just as we can grow fat or our bones can become brittle in the physical realm, so our passions can go wrong in the metaphysical.

What the ascetic fathers, such as the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, John Cassian, and Maximus the Confessor, recommend is that we control our passions. In your anger do not sin, as the Psalmist says.

The question for the straight, young, red-blooded, Christian male is not, ‘Do you find hot chicks hot?’ or, ‘Do you like boobs?’ Rather, it is, ‘What do you do about the fact that you are attracted to hot chicks and boobs?’ If the answer is honestly, ‘I choose not to lust,’ then one has gone a looooooong way to overcoming a certain aspect of concupiscibility.

We could repeat this process. Not, ‘Do you like wine/beer/coffee/chocolate?’ but, ‘Do you consume wine/beer/coffee/chocolate in moderation?’ Not, ‘Do people who jump the queue anger you?’ but, ‘Will you treat queue-jumpers with love and respect?’* And so forth.

And thus we come to a point I’ve avoided very carefully on this blog. When people ask Christians who are traditionally-minded about homosexuality, the question seems often to be, ‘Do you think homosexuality is a sin?’

This is an inane question.

Homosexuality is a passion, not a sin.

What the traditionally-minded Christian would have to say, to follow what seems to be both a biblically-faithful and tradition-adhering approach, is, ‘The question is not, “Do you find other men/women attractive?” but, “Do you have sex with them?”‘ That is, sin is in the action, not the desire.

This draws us now closer to the inevitable question of overcoming these desires, of reordering our passions as we were meant to, to be able to live lives of fullness and wholeness in the arms of our Bridegroom and Lover, Jesus Christ.

And that, my friends, is a subject for another time. But it a path as hard for each person as any other. If conservatives seek to lay the burden of celibacy upon homosexuals, they should also consider which of their own many disordered passions need treatment from the great Physician.

People Who Wrote on the Passions

The Desert Fathers. A band of ascetics living in Egypt-Syria-Palestine in the fourth through sixth centuries. Most famously quoted in the compendiums of sayings: The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. B. Ward. There is also a short collection at OrthodoxWiki. My page about them here.

Evagrius Ponticus. Try his Chapters on Prayer, online here — there’s also a translation from Cistercian that I couldn’t find on amazon at a reasonable price; mindblowing and awesome is the Kephalaia Gnostica.

John Cassian. People who endured with me for the few long years of this blog will know Cassian, subject of my first MA thesis. Books 5-end of his Institutes treat of the eight ‘thoughts’, beginning here.

*’There are no queues in France.’ Real quotation.