Saturday, October 11, 2008

October Festivities

I picked my six year up from school on Friday. We are sharing the weekend together, since my four year old is presently with his grandmother. My son informed me immediately that he wanted to have a face painting that evening at the school carnival, so we hung out together in Lawrence for a few hours.

We went to the park, and he dutifully played alone on the equipment, racing along the bars, sliding down the slides with such a serious intent it seemed to approach reverie. I glanced at the old man sitting on the bench beside me reading, The Philokalia. We both watched the kids play, and said nothing.

After a while, he left, and my son and I gathered what was left of our wits, and made our way to the school carnival. He seemed to enjoy himself, taking a turn at various booths, saying hello to schoolmates, eating cotton candy and later pizza. A shy kid, he rolled his shoulders and danced during the cakewalk, which I thought was rather funny.

In line for a long inflatable trampoline obstacle course with final wall and slide to the bottom, a little girl in an adjacent line sought his attention by repeatedly calling his name. She said, "I'm going to race you!"

He just glanced at her, ignored her.

I bent low and asked him, "is that little girl in your class?"

He said, "no, she's in the classroom next to mine. She's in second grade."

I said, "Ah, I see."

She kept glancing at him, trying to position herself to race him, glancing his way, not allowing anyone to cut in line, and he was oblivious.

When we reached the front, the woman taking the tickets asked him, "are you by yourself, or racing someone?"

He said, "by myself."

It wasn't a rejection, I'm sure, but the little girl looked exasperated.

Today we went to the Kemper Museum of Art, and upon gazing at our first canvas, my six year old son said, "I could do that! That looks like something I did!" And it did, a fingerpainting.

Later at Crown Center we passed through the pumpkin patch and the larger, more expensive Fall carnival being hosted there, and made it unintentionally just in time for a marionette show. he ran and sat down up front, and since there wasn't room for me, I sat at a table some distance from him. My view of the stage was obscured by a pillar, so I watched audience reaction, comprised mostly of adults with their children attendant on the floor in front or on their laps; I watched, and it was not all that different as an experience as watching the children play the previous day.

For all the celebration, it was not an autumnal day. I am in any case, having grown up in central California, not all that used to such a marked expression of seasonal fervor. I didn't grow up ever having much of an Autumn in the first place, but it seems like October festivities occurred much closer to the end of the month to coincide with Halloween.

The days, however, are sweet, filled with new light and vague expectation.

The Monk and Philosopher

The father is a secular humanist who writes stringent critiques of religious piety. The son, once a promising scientist, is a Tibetan Buddhist and translator for the Dalai Lama. Contrary to some popular reports, they are not estranged; rather, the father,a famous western philosopher, is curious about the son’s eastern religious beliefs, and allows him space and opportunity to present them in the extended conversation which comprises the tome, The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life.

Combined within the binding of this work is not only a conversation between father (Jean-Francois Revel) and son (Matthieu Ricard), but also a sort of dialogue between east and west, an agreeable disagreement between two athiesms, the Western secular denial of a transcendent personal Creator (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) and the Eastern philosophical denial of the religious Hindu traditions which comprises the sophisticated Buddhist system of thought.

Throughout the course of the discussion we see, more than anything, the west’s embrace of eastern values through the father’s curiousity about the son, as well as the west’s secular ignorance and stupidity about its own religious traditions. Many of Revel’s statements, for instance, regarding Christian traditions and mystery are unfounded and struck me as odd and obtuse; while many of Ricard’s statements about Buddhist beliefs, while seeming more in line with my own understanding of religious tradition, often struck me as self-contradictory and confusing.

For instance, on several occasions Revel makes broad sweeping statements in critcism of Tibetan Buddhist peity, using almost archaic Reformation language, levelling the argument of "empty superstition" in an uninformed manner, sort of like trying to cut butter with a chainsaw. For one instance of many, Revel falsely claims, "In Catholicism, to light a candle in a church implies the very superstitious idea that the candle can earn us either the grace of a saint, of the holy Virgin, or even of God himself, and grant our wishes."

One might wonder how Revel defines "superstition" or whom he queried about the practice of candle-lighting, which certainly can become a superstitious act, but is not necessarily so. Rather, it is most often a symbolic act, representing steadfastness and veneration for those whom one honors, as well as symbolizing the light that enlightens the heart darkened throough cosmic ruin and personal sin, and is therefore imbued with inherent meaning and beauty. Revel too easily grasps the potential denigration of an act, and fallaciously represents it as the act itself, revealing basic misunderstandings and flaws in his critique of his own western heritage. Revel constantly repeats similar genetic fallacies throughout the discussion, which his son sometimes eloquently refutes.

In this instance, Ricard offers: "Such customs are useful outer supports allowing believers to communicate with an inner truth. I know from experience that when ordinary Tibetans offer thousands of butter lamps (the equivalent of candles) they’re well aware that the light they’re offering symbolizes wisdom dispelling darkness. The prayer they’d be making as they offered lamps would go something like, ‘May the light of wisdom arise in myself and all living beings, both in this life and in lives to come.’ Even very simple people are aware of the symbolism."

Father and son continue to discuss metaphyics, compassion and love, reincarnation, karma, politics, meditation and the differences between western secular philosophy and eastern spirituality.

Unfortunately, Revel’s secular view is a bit dated and rigorous; he would fit in more with the perishing scientism of the last century (and the one previous to it) than with the current philosophical debates surrounding, for instance, the nature of mind, computationalism, and other, less discursive or empircal models. Like Nietszche, Revel is unaware of the nature of the mysteries of his own religious traditions, and in rejecting degradations, commits fallacious steps of logic without, perhaps, realizing the manner in which his own secular assumptions are more like blinding faith than are the very traditions he attempts to refute. In other words, he is a fundamentalist for atheism, owning all the negative connotations that may be attached.

If this were a book by Revel himself, I would have thrown it across the room (such as when, again, he defines "free-will" as the unlimited ability to do anything one wishes, which is not the definition any advocate of free-will would agree with--even Kierkegaard admitted that free-will is limited by necessity). Revel represents well, then, perhaps, a dying or even dead secularist scientism in the west, (which in recent years has sought to revive itself through various popular books that basically regurgitated well-refuted 18th and 19th century arguments for atheism).

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Orthodox Christian

I have been an Orthodox Christian for fifteen years, and am still becoming one. (The Orthodox Church is the ancient Church of the east, which divided from the Roman see over a long period of time, culminating in 1054.)

I started out as a vaguely religious secularist, and lived that way up until I was eighteen years old, when I experienced a dramatic conversion. I felt immediately at the time that I was called to ministry, and many friends and acquaintances started to attend church -- several were baptized by my Protestant pastor in the swimming pool in my back yard.

So I left and became a missionary for Youth With A Mission for a short while. In reaction to what I deemed to be an over-emphasis on experience to an exclusion of love for truth, I left and worked in a sawmill for several months, saving money to attend Bible College. There, I went to the other extreme and became a staunch five-point Calvinist. I bought and read all the contemporary Reformed books, the Puritans, Edwards, Warfield, Van Til and others. After becoming disillusioned with this, yet still strongly believing in it, I discovered the Orthodox Church through correspondence with a famous Protestant who had converted.

Two years later, after memorizing the inquirer's class of an excellent priest and teacher that I had on video tape, reading Bp Kallistos Ware's books and the books of others, I knew I wanted to become Orthodox. I entered into the life of a local parish in California, and after attending a catechism class and going to church regularly for a couple of years, experiencing the dogma (and having the living dogma as passed down through the centuries as the context of my experience), I was received into the Orthodox Church through baptism.

This initiated a journey of the spirit, one of vital life, which is ever changing and transformative, both a struggle and a joy, one that exposes my wickedness but also reveals the true good nature, the humanity that underlies the stain of sin. Christianity in the Orthodox Church for me no longer consists solely of either a series of varying experiences meant to bless or edify me, nor does it remain an abstract and academic series of discursive ideas that I am to strictly adhere to and then apply to my life. Rather, it is personal, living, often distressing and difficult, but always rich and fertile with the possibility of and often unexpected manifestations of joy, even in suffering, which has as its goal the actual, real, in space-and-time as well as timeless reality of personal change.

One gradually becomes not super-righteous or judgmental or puritanical, nor sappy and witless and ineffectual, but more real, intoxicated by sobriety, more deeply in tune with intrinsic meaning, closer to one's own unsoiled nature, alive and fully human.

I haven't arrived at any serious penultimate fulfillment of humanity in union with Christ, riddled with addictions as I am, but I am grateful to be on this path of being a Christian and constantly still becoming one.