I wrote this essay in 2007, on the cusp of 2008, for Mere Orthodoxy.com. However, the reflections are relevant in this present context, so I re-post them here. The essay reflects my interests at that time – I was three years into meditation and just joining the Orthodox Church – but also, I believe, still captures some timeless wisdom: we must be obedient to Jesus, live the life of the mind, and unlimited optimism that comes from hope and faith.
There are two ways to see the future. One is to receive a vision of all time and all reality. The other is to study the past for patterns that are timeless. The first is granted to only a tiny percentage of the population for only the most specific of purposes; the second is open to anyone for the general purposes of edification and wisdom… Recipients of the first include John the Beloved on Patmos Island so he could write the Apocalypse for the Christian Church; Dante Alighieri of Italy so he could complete his moral, political, spiritual and (eventually) his artistic journey; Julian of Norwhich so she could write the Shewings and minister the love of God to humanity. The first is for great saints with great callings. The second is available to any mediocre sinner like myself, who cares to put in some work. The first is given to sometimes unwilling prophets and fore-runners. The second is available to any willing person with some free time and ten bucks for good books at Borders. (Heck, these days, you don’t even need to pay!)
As the year begins, we look forward with many questions, with some anticipation, and some fear. As we sail into the new year, what timeless patterns can we discern in the annals of history, to give us insight, comfort, conviction, and hope?
1. The final victory belongs to Jesus Christ and his Bride.
To quote John Mark Reynolds, “Christianity is always losing… But it’s always losing to someone new.” The tides of modernism are swelling to a final pitch. Individualism in philosophy and morality is universal; the only agreement that is politically correct to have with another person is to the insane notion that each of us can (and should) disagree about notions of truth and goodness. The only common ground we have is that we both want to independently come up with our own notions of truth and goodness without discussing them with each other or the ancient thinkers. We are not foolish enough to try this in areas of medicine and biology, nor even car mechanics, but when it comes to matters of life and death of the self, we throw reason to the wind.
The blind faith in evolution has clouded the intellects but sparked the imaginations and fervent emotions of scientists and other entrepreneurial thinkers who more and more look to technology as the cure for whatever ills beset us as a race. But whatever alternatives to the life of Christ, He remains a faithful germ of sanity inside our latest and insanest innovative “cures.” Likewise, whatever the developing opposition to the life of Christ, he remains invincible and unflappable above the melee, and his people, the New Isreal, experience safety under the shadow of his wings. If killing the master did not even stop him, then why would resisting and slandering and oppressing his followers work? The maxim that “as science advances, religion decreases,” has achieved such a level of acceptance that critically evaluating it would seem un-trusting and heretical. The modern technological project with its novel inventions has hopeful solutions for practical problems such as travel, communication, energy, housing, food, and clothing. Whether it will succeed in accomplishing our spiritual and personal and relational problems is, for many, only a question of time.
But the vision of John reminds us that our deepest and most vexing problems our not our bodily needs or bio-mechanical limits. Our most vexing problem include our ignorance, our lack of self-control, and, to use a very old word with a very venerable history, our sins. As our primary bodily needs are provided for on a global level (and I hope to God they are), and as poverty, homelessness, and starvation slowly become trials of the past, if John’s vision as understood by most Christians in most places at most times is accurate, then these blessed generations will not find that their spiritual and relational problems are “next in line” to be knocked down by technological power. Exactly to the opposite, these generations, freed from mere bodily, physical necessities will discover to their horror that their greatest enemies are still at hand; indeed they are within our very selves. And without contact with the creator, the Word by whom all things were made, we do not have the techne to destroy these enemies and restore relational peace.
With bodily needs under control, bodily desires may become so overwhelming as to destroy us. Without the “need” to exert any physical movement to get from A to B, obesity becomes my inevitable destination. Without the “need” to contact another person to talk to them, my loneliness and isolation reaches frightening pitch. Without the “need” to provide plenty of healthy food for myself and my family, I may just end up buying all processed, sugar-laden, bleached-enriched artificial “foodstuffs” and damaging my body.
I can confidently say that it is not my lack of money that makes me unhappy. It is my lack of self-control and virtue. For if I were rich, I would spend it on wine and women and foolish living. Perhaps these blessed future generations, relieved of physical needs, will even realize that these bygone physical disabilities were severe mercies to keep us from destroying ourselves with selfishness, lack of control, disobedience to our creator, and monstrous hubris. The solution to these problems, is, surprisingly, no different than they have always been: Knowledge, self-discipline, and obedience.
To quote CS Lewis:
“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”
The contents of John’s vision either already happened, or are yet to happen, or show forth an Archetype of events that have happened and will again. However one interprets the revelation of John, it communicates the sovereignty not only of God but of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, one in essence with the Father. At his feet “every knee shall bow,” not only Christians, not only back-slidden and schismatic Christians, not only Jewish and Muslim branches of the Abrahamic tradition, not only the ancient Eastern religions, not only the religions of town and city nor of village and forest, but every city, nation, and land will confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord. Every tongue and tribe and nation, if need be, even the rocks and trees and the stars will praise the Lord. Religion may be one of many features of human society, along with culture, language and the arts, but the Christian religion represents the one Creator of our universe, the one Providential sustainer of it, and the one and only ultimate Judge who will parse the good from the evil, the trusting from the distrusting, the praiseworthy from the blameworthy, and will do so without prejudice or blinded eye.
2. Scientific/Intellectual inquiry is a moral obligation.
Philosophical and scientific inquiry are not (as is commonly thought) antithetical to religious devotion. Rather, all three fall under a third and greater pursuit: Obedience. The pursuit of wisdom (philosophy) and the understanding of the workings of nature (science) and the practice of ethical behavior, civil responsibility, love for family, and ultimately, acceptance and conformity to the specific features of the historic Christian religion all find their root in something as simple and human as obedience to our father. Obeying our parents and paternal caregiver is as familiar and inescapable as breathing. Depending on them, trusting their greater wisdom and experience, faithfully (or begrudgingly) following their example and instruction is the lifeblood of familial life, of personal psychology, of civil order. Obedience to our heavenly father is indeed the binding force of all these and more, for he commands us to follow him in all ways and at all times, and gives us the help we need (and the forgiveness we require) to do so.
Obedience to an authority entails whatever specific commands that authority might deliver. I obey my boss at Torrey Academy because she is my superior and leader. She asks me to be somewhere at a time and I do not say, “But you did not give me this command when I was hired!” I say, “Yes ma’am,” and I show up on time. It is not merely a formal code or a generic Natural Law that keeps me in right relationship to my boss (though it is this too!), it is a living and dynamic relationship to her, including whatever hitherto unforeseen directions she might provide along the way. Intellectually, if she corrects some method in my teaching, my obedience to her is no less immediate and thorough, but here obedience takes the form of asking her what she means, listening to her instructions, considering them in extended conversation, and experimenting with ways of applying them. This is “loving my boss with my mind.” Obedience to God is not a matter of ritualistic obedience… but how few are susceptible to this error! It is more surprising and refreshingly true to say that obedience to God is not merely a matter of personal ethical obedience. It is intellectual, moral, sentimental, artistic, and civil obedience. No, it is a matter of ‘taking every thought captive to the Lordship of Christ,” and submitting the whole of my self to the whole of God’s Self.
Dante ascended into the third heaven (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know!). What he saw, after being purified and illumined, was “how love held bound / into one volume all the leaves whose flight / is scattered through the universe around, how substance, accident, and mode unite.” In this deep unity he saw that “everything the will has ever sought / is gathered there, and there is every quest / made perfect, which apart from it falls short.”
Take note, O Modern Man! Pay attention, my fellow fragmented brothers and sisters! Dante’s deepest philosophical yearnings for knowledge of the created world, were satisfied in his empirical relationship with the Uncreated. His desires for natural scientific knowledge, for psychological insight, and spiritual union were one with his desire to be in perfect subjegation and intimacy with his Father. His worship and his inquiry were one; his private mysticism and political duty were one. He could not naively forsake his religious life in hopes of pursuing social justice and familial responsibility; he did not mindlessly compartmentalize the movement of his lips in daily prayers apart from his movement of his mind in the pursuit of scientific wisdom and philosophical insight.
Reason is not God. Modern man distrusting and rejecting that which is above reason is like a tree distrusting and rejecting rain. It is certainly possible for the lower to distrust and reject the higher — but the death of the lower is then inevitable. Just as emotions are terrible masters but great servants (of logic), so logic is a terrible master but a great servant (of the Logos). Locke feared that the King would take away his land, and so invented an unprecedented political theory that made personal consent of the ruled more powerful than the ruler. In the end he did not buy himself the freedom and preservation he so desired, for if the new sovereignty (the consenting majority) agrees to take away his land, then he has even less of a recourse. At least the king is a rational soul and could be convicted of his immoral ways; a “majority” cannot, because a “majorities” cannot be convinced or unconvinced of anything; only people can. But even the king and the people and the civil law, even the “Natural Law, which is reason,” is subject in a greater kingdom. The ground of natural law is supernatural law, and ought not to be feared anymore than the foundation of a house ought to be feared by the house. Nietzsche feared that no one was his equal and that weak and resentful pale-faced Jews and Christians would overturn morality and destroy the strong. But the least in the kingdom is the greatest, and those who are the servant of all are the greatest of all. In deed the Jews and Christians were coming for him, with menacing looks and the strength of numbers; but their purpose was not eradication, but conversion; not death, but re-birth. If he had the inestimable comfort and infinite joy of knowing that, however much I know, God knows more, (and wants to teach me!) perhaps he could have relaxed his mind and avoided the darkness of insanity that eventually received him into her treacherous embrace.
Darwin feared to admit a divine origin of the world, for the moral and spiritual obligations that might come tracking in like dirt on well-worn shoes. Yet can denying the truth remove those obligations? Or does their denial simply lead to a depression and emptiness and hopelessness, ever more removed in time and association from that which caused it? No, we must reject Darwin and embrace what Darwin feared: the submission of reason and (what used to be called) natural philosophy to the creator of nature, therein finding (to our surprise!) not only the joy and peace of harmonious relationship with our Father but the fulfillment of our desire to deeply penetrate the mysteries of nature. To know the invention, get to know the inventor. What a happy thing if the inventor happens to be your dad and he demands that you learn the invention. Our desire happens to be His Will. “Come, let us reason together.”
3. We must “keep our minds in hell and despair not.”
Julian of Norwich is most famous for her succinct summary of the final truths of theology and philosophy, captured in the most elegant of phrases:
“All is well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
One modern translator updated the (beautiful) old saying in a somewhat less attractive but nonetheless helpful phrase: “Everything is all right, everything will turn out all right, every kind of thing will turn out right.” If you haven’t made it all the way through the political and philosophical poetry of the Divine Comedy, fear not: this is Dante for Dummies. This is the Revelation of Julian which echoes the Revelation of John.
Is this philosophical? It is as philosophical as “What is justice?” (And as practical as a cell phone). In the end, Camus was right that “the only truly serious philosophical question is suicide.” If we can discover all truth, what is the use if we are still unhappy? What if the sum total of all power (through technology) and all knowledge (through philosophy and science) is available to some foreseeable generation of humans, and yet there is nothing good and true and beautiful to live for? Life is as good as death. No, if all is not well, then in Solomen’s words, the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.
How is it theological? Julian’s phrase is in three clauses, a present clause, a future clause, and a clause concerning mode; a substance clause, an accident clause, and a mode clause. This triple-affirmation is an elucidation of the sovereignty, goodness, and comprehensiveness of God, his omnipotence, omni benevolence, and omniscience. These attributes of God place us in the unique position of being free to be happy, while simultaneously being clear-sighted enough to call bad ‘bad’ and wickedness ‘wicked.’ With Silouan of Athos we can notice the reality of suffering and evil without ignoring the reality of pleasure and goodness, or vice versa. We can simultaneously look at Darfur and Compton and Neo-Naziism and call them hell and look at Rome, Mount Athos, and the distant yet certainly-promised New Jerusalem, and call them heaven. Neither is obscured by being juxtaposed. Rather, each burns brighter in their sphere. We can love our families and enjoy our jobs and laugh and enjoy the pilgrim-pleasures of earth without having to build alters to them and serve them as a god. We can accept the pain and tribulation in our lives and the lives our loved ones without falling into the blackness of despair, for all is well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
So as we enter this new year we may — indeed, we must — examine the past to see the future. We must turn to our Father in reverence and admit of our dependence upon Him; we must turn to his Son in gratitude and admit that we have wandered far and wasted our time and energy on foolish pursuits of wealth and earthly-wisdom; we must turn to His Spirit in humility and joyfulness and ask for the burning-eyed clarity both to see and hate the spiritual infection of sin and selfishness where it enslaves the sick, and to see and love the presence of God in all things. As we thus turn to God in silence and solitude, we confess our idolatry of the gods of self, progress, and despair which are rooted in our deep self-loathing and personal emptiness, we may forsake our folly and pray in Christ to find what every generation has found anew, and what every generation will continue to find until Jesus returns: that it is only in obedience of the whole self to the one true God wherein lies our happiness, life, success, and hope.