Part III: To Believe & to Know: Intellectual Formation & Joy

HighPriest21The Presence of Joy. Other projects have distracted me and kept me from continuing with my earlier series of posts on formation (you can read them here, here and here). I want now to pick up where I left off in July and look briefly with you at the intellectual formation of clergy (and by implication, of the laity).

Recently there has been a series of essays on natural law. What makes these essays especially interesting to me is that the series was inspired by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart‘s rejection of natural law in an article in First Things (here, with follow-up pieces here and here). While I admire the beauty and elegance of Hart’s language, I find myself agreeing with his critics. There are to be sure various theories of natural law but the Christian (and after reading Levinas’s (1969, 1987) work, I would say the biblical) understanding of natural law is rooted in a careful attention to human experience. Hart, like the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras (1984), rejects natural law as such but a natural law rooted in ontological abstraction. Natural law in the biblical sense does not seek to draw ethical conclusions from abstract ontology speculation but from human experience.

Attending to my experience I realize that I only want to be happy. Looking a bit more closely at myself I realize that some things make me happier than other but that sometimes even the best things can leave me feeling empty. I also realize some things bring me only a temporary feeling of happiness—they make me happy for the  moment—while other things have the ability to bring me a lasting happiness. The Christian tradition calls this latter, lasting happiness, joy. So my experience tells me that not only can I be happy I can be joyful. There are thoughts and actions that bring me a kind of happiness that is not dependent on circumstances event. The paradox of joy is that it transcends the very circumstances that revealed it  to me. My thoughts and actions embody what Paul Ricoeur calls a “surplus of meaning” (1976). Sensitivity to this surplus of meaning, to the transcendent dimension of human experience, is essential to a wholesome human life and especially to the Christian life.

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Kind Words on Natural Law and Objective Morality

A friend sent me John Finnis’s thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the German Parliament (here) For the rest of the interview with Finnis, go here.

. . . I would say that true human freedom (as St Thomas says on the first page of his great treatment of morality) is the freedom of an image of God – one who has freedom of choice and exercises it in line with goods that are truly fulfilling – fulfilling for individuals and for the friendships and wider societies in which they find so much of their fulfilment. As Augustine says, just before the passage the Pope quoted – and here the saint is transmitting the philosophical tradition established by Plato and carried forward by Aristotle – the life of an individual who gives in to cupiditas is a life of enslavement to anxiety, insecurity, unslakeable lusts, and so forth. No true freedom that way. Nor by any “existentialist” “self-determination” by which one might seek to recreate oneself as a quasi-Nietzschean master, free from the constraints of human equality and justice.  Perhaps also related to the Pope’s thought in these sentences is this: any manipulation of human nature, for example, by non-therapeutic genetic modification, makes the products of that manipulation the slaves of the manipulators, even if the latter were benevolently motivated.

Reading this I can’t help wonder how substantively close this is to the argument made by Christos Yannaras in  The Freedom of Morality. Yannaras in the forward to this works writes:

In the book’s title, The Freedom of Morality, the Greek word translated as “morality” is ithos, a term signifying “ethics,” but also meaning “ethos,” distinctive character, the “thusness” or the “Ah!’ of a person or thing. When using ithos, the author has in view both these senses. Morality, “theics” is nothing more or less than the expression of the person’s proper “ethos.” It is not to obey external rules but to become as person that which one truly is. By the same token, sin is not the transgression of some impersonal law, but “missing the mark,” the failure to become oneself.

While I agree with Yanaras that “sin is not the transgression of some impersonal law, but “missing the mark,” I think he and other Orthodox thinkers are simply wrong when they dismiss out of hand an objective morality in general and natural law theory in particular.  Both, as Finnis I think argues in the interview quoted about, are simply another way of saying that sin is “the failure to become oneself.” Or, as Finnis has it, “true human freedom … is the freedom of an image of God – one who has freedom of choice and exercises it in line with goods that are truly fulfilling – fulfilling for individuals and for the friendships and wider societies in which they find so much of their fulfilment.” Continue reading

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The Church & the Civil Society

Be they Orthodox or not, readers of Christos Yannaras’ The Freedom of Morality should be forgiven in assuming that he see the Church as somehow hermetically sealed off from the larger society.  He doesn’t even if his polemic against the West suggests otherwise.  While he would not have us “overlook the great personal trail faced by each Christian within the framework of our modern consumer way of life” it is not “the passage from a rural society to a technological one or the particular way in which modern ‘developed’ societies are structured” that accounts for our general personal and communal failure to realize a way of life that is free and distinctively human.

Again contrary to his anti-Western, and specifically anti-Catholic polemics, our failure reflects nothing more or less than human sinfulness.  It is personal human sinfulness, that is, our own personal refusal “to realize [our own] personal distinctiveness and freedom” that has caused “the Christian churches today” to remain “mute in the realm of social affairs” (p. 226).  So what then should we do? Continue reading

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Law & God’s Frenzied Love

Other projects have kept me from getting to the blog until late this afternoon.  But while I have a few minutes between phone calls and emails, I wanted to offer a few thoughts about law, civil society and what Christos Yannaras (quoting one of the fathers I assume) in The Freedom of Morality calls “God‘s ‘frenzied eros‘” for us (p. 175).

In a chapter entitled “The Church Canons and the Limits Set to Life,” Yannras begins his discussion with a summary of the Pauline understanding of the Law  (Torah) that he draws primarily from Romans.   Like St Paul, Yannaras ascribes a primarily pedagogical value to the Law of the Old Testament. He writes

We must not, however, fail to notice that Paul does not react [the 'Judaizers' who wanted  to reserve the Law  in the Church's life] by rejecting the Law and its educative character; he only opposes the precedence of law over faith and the legal interpretation of faith, of the new relationship between God and man in Christ (p. 174).

By no means is it a criticism to say that these words could have been written by any American Evangelical Christian.  Here Yannaras simply summarizes Paul’s discussion of Law that we can trace through his epistles. Continue reading

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Objective Moral Analysis? – Part 2

Christos Yannaras
Image via Wikipedia

On Friday I posted the first of a two-part series defending objective moral norms as an essential, if insufficient, part of Orthodox moral theology.   In this post I am returning to this theme.  To make my point, I’ve entered into an informal analysis of the work of the Greek Orthodox ethicist and political theologian, Christos Yannaras, a thinker whose work has played a central role in my work and, more importantly, understanding of what it is to be a Christian and a priest.

Re-reading Yannaras’ critique of authoritarian and conventional ethics in his work The Freedom of Morality it is hard for me to escape the voice of Holden Caulfield.  We are all of us phonies  but unlike Caulfield, this is not for Yannaras the whole of the human story. Continue reading

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More than Fasting

Within the life of the Church asceticism is not, and never has been, limited to fasting.  Rather fasting typifies for us a eucharistic way of life, that is a life of personal love.  Yannaras describes this love in frankly sexual and erotic terms since

as the true sexual relationship and intercourse is a complete participation in body and soul, and an offering of oneself, so also the eros of God, the true relationship and “intercourse” or communion with Him, the knowledge of His person, presupposes bodily participation by man, the bodily asceticism of self-offering (p. 116).

So what are these other forms of self-offering that are “analogous to the example of fasting”? Continue reading

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Asceticism and the Eucharist

Asceticism as such is not uniquely Christian.  Much less is it unique to the tradition of the Orthodox Church.  Off the top of my head I cannot think of a major world religion whose adherents do not practice some form of asceticism. What is unique about Christian asceticism is its connection to the Eucharist. Continue reading

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