Sunday, January 25, 2009

Contemplations in Theology: #7

This is the second excerpt from my seventh "Contemplation in Theology," posted on Facebook on January 25, 2009. This section summarizes some of the essential aspects of the Intelligence known to medieval philosophers as Mercury. Enjoy!
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Mercury is the first and lowest planet in medieval models, the furthest from the divine Empyreum (the immediate Presence of God, cf. 2 Cor. 12:2) but also the closest to Earth, and therefore the easiest for us to grasp. In classical polytheism, Mercury is the messenger god, fleet-footed and quick-witted. He is associated with a kind of swiftness, which you might identify with playfulness. The character of Mercury is the source of Mirth (the delight we find in doing) and Joy (the delight we find in being).

There is so much more to the character of Mercury, that full explication is impossible. I would sooner write a treatise describing one of my friends, than attempt such a task. But I do hope that the open letters of the Confession provide some glimpse into this personality, for I strongly associate myself with Mercury and those letters describe the foundations of who I am and who I have become.

There is one last thought I wish to close with. Mercury is more than manifested Joy; he is also the personification of articulated knowledge. John was referencing this fundamental component of God's personality when he wrote: "In the beginning was the Word." God is the Logos: the anchor of Truth, and the found of Wisdom. Praise be to Him!

Confessions: #1

This is an excerpt from my seventh "Contemplation in Theology," posted on Facebook on January 25, 2009. In that Contemplation, I hoped to explore the nature of the "Mercurial" temper. I identify strongly with this personality type, so I decided to write in a more personal epistolary mode that, I hoped, would shed more light on the personality than a more abstract contemplation. It seems appropriate to break this up into a personal "Confession" and a separate "Contemplation." I will probably follow this template with future notes with substantial personal content. Enjoy!
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An open letter to a girl from my church:

From my youth I have trained myself in the art of articulation, that I might do justice to words and ideas in expressing them. How strange for me, that at the time when I have the most to say, I have the least assurance that I will acquit myself.

I am your age. Emotionally, I deal with the same issues as you and all my age mates. But the simple fact is that I think faster than my peers. I can more quickly connect ideas, identify solutions, articulate my thoughts. Intellectually, I found a home with my elders--graduate students, professors, people who could engage me on issues and ideas I cared for.

When we spoke, I was both pleased and ashamed when you described me as thoroughly confident. I was pleased that my attempts to exude an aura of self-assurance had been successful; I was ashamed that these vanities so little reflected who I was inside. How can you begin to understand my insecurity? My heart was in one sphere; my mind in another. Up until quite recently, I never felt that I belonged to any of the clubs, cliques, or social circles around me. I still deal with it today, this sometimes despairing hope to feel peace, this desire to "belong."

You were the exception. When I was younger I could only find a handful of people who could even approach the rapidity of my mind. You were one of them, and--miracle of miracles--you were my age.

Whenever I lost hope of ever 'belonging,' whenever I was driven to despair, you were the strongest beacon of light. You gave me hope that, just perhaps, there were people 'out there' who might be able to relate to me. When everyone else was a stick, you were the carrot. And when others were the carrot--when I was getting along fine with others, when I felt I could finally connect--you were the stick. You personified that nagging doubt that, just perhaps, there were more and better things waiting somewhere 'out there.'

Do you begin to understand why I treated you differently from all the girls at our church? Naturally, it didn't help that I was an immature teenage boy, or that you are an exceptionally beautiful lady. You did not deserve any of what you endured because of me; forgive me for it.

But there is more than merely contrition I wish to express. I feel such gratitude, as you may scarcely comprehend. You have contributed more to my spiritual development than you can possibly imagine. You were a constant reminder of that foundational confession of St. Augustine: "O Lord, Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."

You were my nagging doubt. You were a persistence reminder of hope and despair. You were the constant thorn in my flesh, and God be praised for it. I could never be complacent in my faith, while you were present, as God paraded tantalizing glimpses of More in front of me.

You did not mean to show me this Truth. You gave not by intention, nor even by your actions, but by the simple fact of your existence. God speaks to others through our actions, to be sure, but often He is reflected most in the mere fact of our being. You were simply reflecting the glory of your King. But I will not soon forget my debt to you, nor easily abandon my appreciation of you. You were reflecting and serving God, and may God honor you for it!

Go in peace,
~Your brother in Christ

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An open letter to a lady from my college:

It would be an overstatement to call our acquaintance brief. I have hardly seen or spoken to you this quarter. But our fleeting interactions at the end of last quarter affected me profoundly, in ways I'm not sure you can understand. I began this series of notes largely because of you, due to the waves of thought that your presence inspired. You were the immediate cause of my spiritual rejuvenation over break; may God bless you in equal measure to how greatly you have blessed me!

From the previous letter you should have some idea of my insecurity and restlessness. I am a child of Mercury, the messenger god, fleet of foot and thought. My mind is constantly active. This is a blessing and a curse. As I have said, I think more quickly than most of my peers; unfortunately, I also over-analyze just about everything, including my friendships.

So when I invited you to a informal 'date' with others on my floor, I had certain expectations. I knew I would over-analyze everything you said or did; I was fairly sure I would worry about whether you were enjoying yourself, and whether you enjoyed my company; and I was dead certain that I would leave that evening more entrenched in my insecurity than before.

How wrong I was! Your smile evaporated my anxiety; your joy lifted my spirits; your openness gave me freedom from my over-analyzing mind. In short, I felt the full and unmitigated peace of God descend on me that evening. Perhaps it was not the first time I had felt peace, but it was certainly the first time I'd consciously recognized it as such. And that realization blew me away.

I am a child of Mercury, but the desire of my nature is for Jupiter, the persona reflecting the Kingship of God. I wish to be the delight of His eye; I desire to rest within the peace of His Majesty. This is the basis of my capacity for Joy--which I'd previously defined as "an obscured glimpse of God finding Joy in me."

From that moment on, my entire being had a new center. My thoughts had been reoriented. The desire of my heart was nothing less than to revel in, and reflect, the glory and peace which I had found in Jupiter. I shall expand on that in my next note, but I assure you, this realization ended in a comprehensive re-examination of my spiritual life, and a re-dedication of my soul to God. You had showed me what I'd been looking for, what I had been seeking my entire life.

You did not mean to display this aspect of God, but He spoke to me through your very nature, and showed me precisely what I needed to see.

To the church at Corinth, Paul wrote: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth" (1 Cor. 3:6). He exhorted the Corinthians to give the glory to God. Be that as it may, the Corinthians did not soon forget Paul or Apollos, nor shall I soon forget you.

God bless you,
~Your brother in Christ

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Contemplations in Theology: #6

I started this series of notes to explain in what sense I called myself a medievalist. This is the note I wanted to write from the beginning.

In my last note, I wrote that "behind every common noun, there is a proper noun; behind every ideal, there is an identity; behind every category, a personality." I did not go further, simply because the next step in the argument would have sunk my last note in a sea of words. Here goes.

We know Christianity descended from messianic Judaism. The Hebraic Law emphasized the unity of God and nature, and man as the pinnacle (James 1:18 "first fruits") of Creation. Such monotheism runs parallel (and against) the prevailing attitudes of the Ancient Near East to treat nature as fundamentally chaotic, no more centered around man than it might be centered around a particular species of beetle (though, admittedly, the beetle did find its place in Egyptian polytheism).

A synthesis arose out of classical Greece in the writings of Plato. His teachings quickly rose to become the dominant paradigm of the Hellenized world, foundational to any proper education. Platonism was first transmuted to early Christianity by the apostle Paul, a well-educated Pharisee from Hellenic Judea, and was later systematized by St. Augustine. Early Christians took the Platonic emphasis on order, on unity of purpose over complexity of operation, to reconcile the opposing tendencies of Judaism and Paganism.

Judaism, Paganism, and Platonism are foundational for Christian theology. The first and the last of these are well recognized, at least among theologians. Yet I challenge anyone to find one mainstream theologian who will recognize the effects of Paganism.

Its influence is particularly evident in the medieval world, as Christianity spread through a formerly Pagan continent. The medieval philosophers freely integrated Paganism (particularly pagan astrology) wholesale into their vision of the universe. The medievals believed the planets had souls, called "Intelligences," and were the noblest servants of the One God within the material universe.

Here is one of the most sublime ideas I have ever had the Joy of contemplating.

Medieval astronomers operated within a geocentric cosmology--a universe with the earth at the center--and had developed incredibly intricate geometrical models to explain planetary motion. I won't go into details--it involves regressive motion, eccentrics, equants, epicycles, deferents, and much confusion--but they had calculated that if you were to spin 56 spheres around the same center point, an observer from that centerpoint would see a precise approximation of real planetary motion.

This was their model. 56 crystalline spheres carrying seven planetary bodies, all rotating majestically through a sea of ether, the most perfect element that flowed from the Presence of God Himself. If man could enter this space, if he could traverse the moon and enter the heavens, he would hear the vibrations of these spheres, each sphere at a different frequency, as willed by their governing Intelligences.

This doctrine, called the Music of the Spheres, is inherited straight from classical (Neoplatonic) philosophy, and is foundational to the medieval era. Consider it: the medievals believed that man would hear the heavens literally "declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim the work of His hands" (Psalms 19)!

There is a harmony to the person of God--a unity of purpose, over an infinity of personalities.

In my first note, I wrote that "the truth of polytheism lies in the uncontainable, unexplainable, unendurable multiplicity and complexity of a unified God." But my argument goes beyond this. Fundamentally, I believe that polytheism recognized the truth that the qualities we associate with the divine are identified with a personality of God. The fundamental error of polytheism was irreverence: they could not fathom that all these personalities could reside in One God, any more than they could be fulfilled in one human. This error was expressed in the sin of idolatry: they invented many gods to fill the apparent void, and elevated these above the One God.

As a Christian, I do not need the security of polytheism. I accept (as mystery) the infinity of God, and can therefore contemplate (by reason) the magnitude of His being. Like the medievals, I utterly reject the idea that the planets were gods. But like them, I have no problem accepting that the gods were planets--that they directly reflect personalities of God.

Here is the crucial point. Infinity, like quantum mechanics, is so far removed from our experiences that we simply cannot understand or realize it by ordinary reason. Might we not find value, then, in paganism? C.S. Lewis once wrote that every myth consists of divine, human, and diabolical elements; if we purge the last two, would the remainder not give us a glimpse of the Divine?

If we purify pagan heresy in the fire of truth, if we treat polytheistic imagery as a prism for God's nature, would this not help us understand God better than abstract contemplation of His essence?

Is it easier to realize God's glory in the abstract, or to work by analogy, envisioning a king on his throne? How much more, then, might we learn when we witness the majesty of Jupiter? Likewise, in my family, we often spoke of "God's sense of humor." The reason why we are so easily able to understand the quality of mirth and playful mischief, is due to our cultural images of Pan and Mercury.

There is strange insight to the pronouncement in 1 John that "God is light", for there are many parallels. God is infinite, God is unvarying, God is the standard by which the universe moves. Like the speed of light, there is a constancy to His nature; like the wavelength, there is an infinite variety. And of the entire spectrum of light, only a portion is visible to the human eye--the wavelengths seen by us as colors.

The myths, the planets, the polytheistic gods: these are the colors of the One True God.

One final note before I close. The medieval philosophers rejected the determinism of the pagan astrologers. However, they could comfortably accept that the planets had 'influences' in earthly affairs. If we view the planets as prisms, we shall not be led astray: the personalities of God directly affect the way in which we live. And those personalities have names.

For the remainder of my notes, I will often use the names of the planets--Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn--to convey certain ideas. This is part of my medieval instincts. I think, I breathe, in these terms. They have given me greater insight into the attributes of God than I could have dreamed possible; these thoughts have revolutionized the life of my mind, and enlivened my faith in God. But my use of these terms is not an ultimatum; you need not think of them by these names to realize the ideas behind them (and please ask me to clarify if I am ever unclear). But I have found them so useful and so immediate that I express my thoughts in these terms.

Certainly there are dangers to this doctrine--that should be evident from even a cursory glance at the history of pagan religions. But if their sin was in idolatry, and we rebuke the sin, will we fall into a new error? If we cleanse the polytheistic gods and consider them not as objects of worship but simply as prisms of God, as perspectives into theological reflection, I believe we shall see God much more clearly, and learn of Him in new ways.

This does not comport easily with modern theology. But if it were original, I should trust it less. I can accept this, because I know that the great Christians of antiquity accepted this model without misgiving.

Go in joy, in love, in perseverance, in peace, and in all humility that is found in the Presence and Person of God. Glory be to Him!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Contemplations in Theology: #5

What better way to celebrate the passage of time, than a celebration of the Timeless One? So, glory to God and a Happy New Year to you all!

First, a story. On the first day of classes, at my first quarter at SPU, I was asked point-blank by my professor: "Are you an Aristotelian or a Platonist?" Not knowing what the heck this meant, I blathered. It took me another quarter, but by the middle of winter quarter I finally understood the difference. Now, I can answer with confidence: "Both."

The foundational discovery of philosophy has to be the formulation of common nouns. The whole contribution of Plato and Aristotle may be circumscribed by this single phrase. Common nouns are not objects; they do not operate on experience or sensation. Common nouns are categories, and operate in the sphere of abstract reason. Common nouns enable us to move from discrete experiences to common descriptions; it moves us from external to internal; it enables language, communication, action. It is between experience and common nouns that our skills of inductive and deductive reasoning operate.

Plato taught that all reality is a corruption from the Ideal, a derivation from the Form. These are common nouns. Have you ever sat in 'a chair'? No, you've sat in a variety of physical objects that resemble the Form of a chair.

Aristotle disagreed. He asserted that the Forms were not the highest level of reality but were intrinsic to reality, built in to the very nature of things. Physical properties of motion were caused by natural sympathies within the objects themselves--the desire for perfection led to circular motion in the heavens, the desire for rest led to downward motion on earth. Every object was defined by four 'causes,' which encompassed all of its being. These causes are material, formal, efficient, and final. It is the final cause--the purpose or end for which an object was made--that concerns us here.

Ancient polytheistic system had gods for nearly everything: each region had a god, each labor had a god, each occasion had a god, and heaven help you if you didn't do the proper sacrifices. In classical polytheism (after Plato), there was a distinct trend towards order and harmony. The gods were not so arbitrary and ubiquitous; they represented ideals, virtues... in a word, final causes.

My first inspiration for this note is admirably obscure: have you ever considered C.S. Lewis's unusual usage of capitalization? I was reading "Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold" at the time when I first discovered this.

I noticed that C.S. Lewis mostly used capital letters as he ought, for beginnings of sentences and for proper nouns. However, he also used them for certain words throughout the book: "Joy," "Beauty," "Truth," etc. C.S. Lewis was a consummate English professor, but his use of capital letters merely for emphasis seemed incorrect.

Then it struck me, what if Lewis's writing were following correct English usage? What if he capitalized these ideals because he thought they were proper nouns, because they were not merely the words for a category, but the name of an identity and personality?

In Aristotle, common nouns encompass every aspect of being; they provide a comprehensive hermeneutic of the universe; they are foundational to how we think and live. But this is the truth grasped by classical polytheism: categories are not enough.

Behind every common noun, there is a proper noun; behind every ideal, there is an identity; behind every category, a personality. And each of these personalities reflect a characteristic of God.

Philosophically, this is a staggering claim. I believe that the final cause of every objects reflects a quality of God. In other words, every object, every person, every thing we know and experience was created for, and is directed towards, the Person of God. This is straight from Psalm 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of His hands."

This whole series of ideas came to me on a car trip to Port Townsend. Once we arrived, I walked by myself to the pier and looked around--at the water, at the sky, at the cliffs on the other side of Puget Sound. Every time I looked, a word came into my head; every time I considered the common noun, I realized the personality that lay behind it. There is a phrase that C.S. Lewis used in "That Hideous Strength" that is particular apropos: he writes of entering the very furnace of language, where words are created in the fire of His Presence.

That was my experience. I had entered the furnace where words were born. I encountered them in an almost physical way; I met words, just as I would have met another person. The difference was, these personalities were nonphysical, and they were merely prisms of the True Person, the One Who Is, the Great "I Am."

For the first time in my life, I experienced nature not as merely beautiful but as sublime ("Sublime" = "sub-" "-limis" = "beneath the threshold," as close to the house of God as we may come without entering it bodily). This was the experience that led me to my second note, the "Aesthetics of Reason." The rational and the experiential are not distinct. They overlap, they intersect, they are unified in God.

It is for this reason, more than any other, that I call myself a medievalist, for it is in the medieval model of the universe (the medieval cosmology) that Christianity fully integrated the rational and experiential elements, that it incorporated the insights of Greek philosophy and polytheism. But I leave that for my next note.
May the God of lights give you the joy of His Word,
may the God of love reveal the beauty of His sacrifice,
may the God of strength manifest the power of His name,
may the God of glory instill the majesty and peace of His crown,
may the God of humility teach you the victory of His suffering,
that the God of Gods might dwell with His Creation.