December 22, 2009

panentheist watch

Over at Crunchy Con, we have a sighting of pop-panentheism.

Dreher is right when he discusses the appeal pantheism has in our culture, but it was not popular as de Tocqueville had suggested; rather for the "spiritually" inclined mild intellectual sort in our culture, pantheism is a tempting sort of compromise religion. We can have God, but God has the same lack of positive meaning as metaphysical materialism, it is just that it gives us some warm feelings.

What baffles me is that Dreher could post this material and then rehash lazy claims that panentheism is some sort of Orthodox doctrine, and not a distinction without difference dreamed up in the 19th century German academy. And I mean, "without difference" because for the mass of persons, there is no difference, and even the distinguished definition does not hold well for the idea that the idea can somehow be saved for Orthodox usage. Journalistic skepticism should have suggested that the popularity of "panentheism" as a term describing Orthodox view on creation (often by non-Orthodox authors doing us no favors) is due to a need among mild intellectuals in our culture to envision "Eastern" Orthodoxy as being this sort of mysterious religion–those strange, chanting, hirsute folk–who have a religion that is just like they are.

To use some broad strokes, the distinction between pantheism and panentheism (when one is actually intended, and the latter is not simply used as a supposedly acceptable epithet for the former) is one between metaphysical monism and dualism. In the first case, there is one spiritual (or, rarely, material) substance, god. For the latter, there are two substances, god's mind/soul/etc. and his "body", i.e. everything with extension.

A professor of mine once called panentheism the lazy out for Christian philosophers of science. This sort of identification of the universe as just a body God is getting used to in some ways was a way to smooth over the philosophical road of reconciliation, despite its vacuousness. To be fair, these writers are almost all Protestants and Catholics, and the only Orthodox working in that neck of the woods I can think of who uses the term–Alexei V. Nesteruk–does try to bracket away many bad implications of the term, but the necessity of that makes you suspect either A) the utility of the term at all or B) the honesty of the writer in giving these caveats. (I do not claim to have enough of a grasp on Nesteruk to make a guess as to whether he is doing B. I've only read one work of his, Light from the East, and it wasn't particularly memorable and gets lost in my mind amongst the other reading I was doing at that time. I did go back to the underlines and notes I made on his use of panentheism, however.)

That said, I think that Nesteruk's sort of "yes, but" case for the term is probably the best that can be made for Orthodox use of it, but that brings up questions of what makes the use of terminology alien to the Church, valid.

I mentioned before wanting to write a more thorough post on the topic. I have come to admit my own current short-comings, and this will have to hold in its place for now.

December 15, 2009

false prophets

But more than this, it also gives rise to numerous outlandish attacks and far sweeping slanders against parishes, priests, and jurisdictions which preach and maintain an Orthodoxy which does not fully cohere with the easy-going, Protestantized ideas of Orthodoxy that some believe needs to be accepted as normative in order for the Church to “grow roots” and “develop” in the U.S. These people take issue with the P-word; they don’t care for its polemical character and that’s understandable. What they do in response is substitute the word “American” for “Protestant,” believing—as so many Evangelical Christians do—that the two concepts are and should forever be interchangeable. “American Orthodoxy” thus allows for Protestant concepts, forms, and ideologies to be imported into the Church and remain off the table for serious questioning.

I recently found a very cheap copy of the first collected volume of Marvel's comic adaptation of Orson Scott Card's Red Prophet. When I first read the book, I was amused at how remarkably Mormon the whole thing was, even as it deeply appealed to me on some level. Later, I would discover some deeper oddities about the whole thing–how a book that had involved some research on American folk magic had been written by a man who believed in a religion that, in some ways, grew out of those practices, or how the idealized "salvation" of American-Indian relations fits in with a Mormon counter-mythology which sees the temporary alliance (and some conversions) with Indian tribes in and around the Utah War as God's true plan for America.

I have long thought that Mormonism is the natural religion of the American people. The Latter-Day Saints teach authoritatively what many religious Americans already believe: that the US Constitution was divinely inspired, that the self-dependent atomic family is the core unit of civilization, that the Law is constantly under a process of revision and revelation, the bodily nature of all reality*, bourgeoise striving as a religious virtue (as long as you tithe, or intend to do so).… I could go on. Add onto that the appeal of a secret society (for such vanities are as far as elitism goes in a democracy), and you have a very appealing mix. I can only suppose that the relative weakness of Mormonism in the US has been due more to some of the stranger teachings and a popular memory that dwells more on plural marriage than the business-like sensibility of the Quorum. Mitt Romney's Mormon characteristics are the source of both appeal and fear for the American right.

So, I suppose, in some ways, it may even be unfair to label as "Protestant" much of those characteristics we pass off as "American" and therefore necessary for evangelism. "Inculturation" as a buzzword means to accept a culture whole-cloth and make weak edits; a Christian understanding would recognize that the good in non-Christian (or, perhaps in our case, un-catechized) cultures is probably around the ratio of volume of baby to bathwater. (Assuming one of those big old washtubs.)

I am not suggesting that Protestantism has played no role in the American religious consensus; that'd be foolish. So I really do not care if that is the rhetoric. It certainly is more true to say "Protestant" in the general case than "Evangelical". I was amused, in the sort of way I can be sometimes, when a commenter on the AFR kerfluffle said that converts from liberal Protestantism would disdain Evangelicals for the same reasons they did when they were liberal Protestants, while I–as someone who has never been an Evangelical or a liberal Protestant–was left wondering what the real difference between the two is on the basis of the assumptions they take with them into the Church. There is broad agreement on a praxis of "engagement" and marketing in American Protestantism; that holds for my mother-in-law's PCUSA church or "Affirming Catholics" as much as for Southern Baptists, "Non-Denoms", the Church of the Calvinist Scenester or Evangelical Episcopalians.

America's religious heritage is both frighteningly complex and stupidly simple. It always trends towards regional means, because of the pressures of both democratic conformity and marketing. If Methodism was the great compromise religion of the American frontier (it sucked in ancestors of mine who had variously been Jews, Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians and near-heathens), today's is the mega-church. It comes in flavors, sure, but but they come off to me as having the substantial difference of Urban Outfitters vs Abercrombie and Fitch. They're still in the same damn mall, after all.

A number of reviews of Red Prophet that I have read used something along the lines of "America gone right". Apparently that is an America where magic keeps us from exploiting the Indians, an accident of history keeps slavery outside of our borders and those nasty Puritans stay with England. Basically, nearly everything embarrassing and uncomfortable about American history is writ-out by fiat. I am not saying this makes the book a bad piece of fantastic fiction, but it does make the emotions it elicits curious.

There is a tendency–natural to everyone in a nation saturated with nationalist marketing–to see the "true" nation as only the good parts. This explains the pathos of so much writing on the Civil War. It needs to whitewash in one of three ways: Defending the CSA, Defending the USA or making it have the ethical content of Homer, which is not much. Shelby Foote wasn't right about the Civil War being America's Illiad and Odyssey until he made it so, I think. Similarly, when we say that the Church needs to let us be "Americans" that either comes with the "only the good parts" understood, or worse, a tendency to make the foul fair because it is "American". Even if nations were to have a true form in the eye of God, we cannot assume that there is anything about being American that excuses us from the harsher messages of the Gospel.

I am only really concerned with one major change to the Church in order to accommodate the American: I want to hear the Liturgy in beautiful, formal, poetic English. Not the everyday, but a language clearly meant for worship. That does not preclude the use of other languages as appropriate, but it is of a much bigger concern–evangelically–than any number of projects. (Secondly, good choirs, but let's do this one-at-a-time.)

*Contra Harold Bloom, I do not think that gnostic spiritualism is America's natural religion. There may be a narrow-band where that is true–the 19th century elite and their descendents–but American beliefs on the body and spirit have far more to do with material monism; we're angels in heaven because angels are bodily beings, too. Etc.

December 8, 2009


There is, of course, a person who is writing here, and that person is one. I am not a committee, even if one may appear to belong to me.

From a young age, I noted my inability to get over the awareness of having a self, and that self having some sort of beginning and (possibly) an ending. When I was seven, I recall my mother telling me that–if there were no afterlife–it hardly mattered as I would not even recall living at all. I already had thought of this, but the thought that anyone found such a thing comforting was repellant. Let there be some memory; and if not for the gods, then for men. I was first catechized a Christian, then, by temperament–I hated death, instinctively.

Never for me, then, were the old gods of my race. Like Lewis, I loved Balder before Christ, but his brethren repelled me. Better the gods of Olympus (trimmed in adolescence, like a good philosopher does, of their humanistic barbarities and turned into divine forms)–a Hellenist from the beginning–better the gods that nurtured Plato, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius.

This awareness had another curious side-effect I found when I got older. At those moments when most shed their normal personas for ones of relaxation, I would observe the others at a distance, and then the persona worn by the self who was navigating through those strange waters.

I would wonder (I do wonder) whether the persona was a creation of observation. Some strange quantum mechanics of the human being was at play, perhaps, or maybe even an uncertainty principle: I could no more be aware of myself and embrace my persona at the same time than I could measure position and momentum. My father would find such precision most arbitrary, and told me so, once.

It may be so.

Because of all this, I thrive in pseudonymity. It is not to say that the distance of pseudonym and author results in true authenticity. I am not even sure if that applies, in any case. The pseudonym is as likely to be ironic, obtuse or even facetious as its author, but it does these things as a pseudonym.

Except for a very few (and one or two others who may suspect), no one who encounters these writings has any real idea of the person behind them, other than what is stated by the pseudonym. Every reader becomes a sort of New Critic, and for him the authenticity of the personality matters far less than the words, themselves. This may be devilry, so I apologize.

If there is an authentic persona, please God, I pray thee that it be the person who seeks only to praise thy wisdom and none other. For if I am a philosopher, let it be as a true friend of wisdom, which can only be a friend of Christ ever since the Oracles went silent upon the death of the Son.

This is not to say that I am coming out as some sort of Orthodox Cartesian (at least, I hope not). It may be very true that I am post-Cartesian, but I am concerned more with the proposition that what I think about exists than the proposition that I exist because I am thinking. When I consider the self, perhaps things do get a bit confused, but I will have to allow that as being inevitable with the modern self.

I had considered, before beginning this blog (quite by accident, I should add, the whole purpose of this blog was to take to the advice of a friend that I should get a real blog to publish the thoughts I began this work with on McIntyre and Aquinas), writing under several pseudonyms at a single blog. Not, of course, to create any true image of multiplicity, but rather to abolish any sort of notions of a unitary persona. I have not abandoned the idea (the blog lies in wait for me to use it), but it is probably too ironic, even for me. (I have ever been boastful or ironic; I have never found that Aristotelean mean).

There is one final, important thing: As a pseudonym, I employ myself.

Post-Script: Before my unexpected hiatus, I had mentioned a post regarding the Orthodox use of the term "panentheism". That post was about half-completed, and has remained in limbo, because I was unsure I was giving the arguments of my opposition full-credit. That is not to say that I think the term is correct or proper, but it is to say that the rebuttal of the usage I had initially prepared was unfair. I lost momentum on thinking about that, but will likely return to it as soon as someone gets me going, again.