Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Sacred Mundanity

On a whim I purchased a blue mylar balloon for my toddler.  Such balloons last a while, so it meandered around the house, following the whims of the child and of the air circulation system.  It ended up in a corner of the playroom one morning.  At that time my morning prayers were taking place right around sunrise, some time in a cloudy part of spring.  I was just beginning and it was time to venerate the icons.  When I arrived at the Theotokos, I found that the blue ball the child Jesus in her arms was overpoweringly bright and I could not look directly at it.
Our Lady of Valaam
Fortunately I was in the midst of prayer, so analyzing it was far from me.  I thanked her, and carried on.  Of course, the sun had just happened to come out from the clouds, the balloon had just happened to drift close to the window, and the brilliant shaft of blue light happened to illuminate the icon in just the right place.  It would be easy to follow a course of skepticism and attribute the whole thing to chance and to my own miracle-hungry state.  The rules of physics were all followed obediently in this case, leaving that dark hole of self destructive cynicism technically open to me such that I had to consciously choose not to climb into it.  But a much larger window was open at the same time, allowing me to accept the unexpected and undeserved gift.

Miracles of this sort are good practice for overcoming reductionist habits.  It's strange to reflect on how obvious God's presence is, yet this dark hole of denial remains irrationally present.  I call it strange because this denial has absolutely no way of winning a fair fight, intellectually, metaphysically or otherwise.  Yet it manages to crawl back and present itself over and over again.  Worse than its tenacity, I see myself glancing in its direction as if it were a real option, and having to recapitulate over and over again what I have learned.

The new ammunition that this dark outlook has purchased is that I am undeserving of anything like a miracle and therefore it is all prelest.  Of course I am undeserving, and of course I need to watch out for prelest, so this part of the argument draws me in.  But the hook is a rejection of God's goodness.  God grants us, even me, these "apparently mundane" miracles in abundance.  So frequently that the danger of prelest is sufficiently low for my state.  The danger becomes instead that I fail to recognize the free gift.

If an experience fills me with an appreciation and love for God, that can feel quite amazing, but I have to recognize that I'm only seeing a reflection of a reflection, and that's probably all I can handle in my present decrepit spiritual state.  Have I seen the uncreated light?  No, certainly not yet.  But have I participated indirectly in the energies of God?  Of course I have.  God's love is unescapable.  The form I'm referring to is somewhat like antidoron, in that you get some for free just by showing up.

There was a realization and re-assertion, some time many centuries ago, that Donatism was wrong, and that the grace in the sacraments does not depend on the sanctity of the officiant.  It's a surprising and non-intuitive conclusion that one is nonetheless drawn to over time, and one cannot get away from it.  God came to earth to save sinners; therefore His techniques are designed to work for sinners.  As long as you show up you get something.  Certainly you get more through diligence, resolve and ascesis.  But the Gifts are all out of proportion to the sacrifice we make on our end.

"If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets, they won't listen even if someone rises from the dead" - Luke 16:31

And they won't listen to miracles either.  These lesser miracles can appear to be created by our faith, because without faith we cannot see them.

A non-religious family member of mine came to a church service and I found myself wanting the experience to be profound for her.  Every time someone coughed or forgot a line, or sang off key I felt somehow that my dearly beloved family member would not be sufficiently impressed and would not grow closer to the faith with me.  I knew I was being silly.  After a while I remembered to pray about it.

I realized I was being a Donatist.  I was once talking to a freshly baptized person who was worried that she was not feeling anything.  The reply that jumped out of my mouth was that it was like getting married.  Even if you don't quite realize what you've signed up for right away, it will certainly come and find you.  There is a change of state that takes place which, even if not obvious from up close, is quite obvious from a distance.  The service doesn't have to be sparkly and filled with visible angelic light to be effective.

This mundane feeling is what clay feels like.  It is dull, and it goes about things in a clunky, mechanical way. But it has been given a real heart, that is real Breath, so it struggles in this awkward, lumpy way to climb up into the light, to imitate the goodness it sees.  When it recognizes its Maker, it's heart leaps and for a moment we forget our rather forgettable clay-ness.

"But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us." - 2Cor 4:7

We have to bear with clay-ness for a good long while and let these Gifts percolate.  Over time as I find myself asking God, 'Would it be possible for me to approach You a little faster?' I begin to understand more clearly that the hold-up is not on His end.

The god of the Godless

"[O]utside the ordered universe [is] that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes." - H.P. Lovecraft
"the mindless entity Azathoth, which rules all time and space from a curiously environed black throne at the centre of Chaos". - H.P. Lovecraft
"the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose center sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a demonic flute held in nameless paws" - H.P. Lovecraft

I don't know for certain whether H.P. Lovecraft meant it this way but I'm persuaded by the brilliance of the metaphor and thereby convinced it was his intention, even if accidental: his "Azathoth" depicts the god of the Godless.

What other god is conceived of as having absolute power over time and space, yet is completely indifferent (i.e. blind and idiotic), and we are spared from his chaotic vileness only because of that "demonic flute held in nameless paws", i.e. only because out of sheer random luck we are the right distance from the sun and have the right amount of atmosphere.

I suspect that most of the "godless" people I know would object and say that they do not worship such a god at all, and that they effectively incline in their lives toward ideals of goodness similar to my own.  I could even grant that they have access to "logos spermatikos", that they have some kind of intuitive affinity for the genuinely good. The point is not at all to judge others.  My firsthand experience tells me I am the first among sinners, so I cannot say anything at all to impute lesser character to non-believers.  But their high level view of reality is wrong, and rather than enabling mental illness, which is so popular these days, I think it is better to speak up when someone is heading toward an "amorphous blight of nethermost confusion".

People without an active effort underway to grow closer to God are not being properly nourished.  They are missing out on crucial vitamins and will eventually experience this deficiency in some form of spiritual un-health.  And it is very dangerous not to have such a relationship in place.  Not long ago at all I was in their shoes, claiming I was good enough and that God could add nothing to me.  But then I realized I was extremely wrong, that my life was utterly broken through my allegiance to self will, and that I was heading directly toward perdition.  Of course I am an extreme case but I think the principle is the same, and even for others far less sinful than myself it is still appropriate to recommend a conscious participation in what is most Real, most True and most Good, over a subconscious or intuitive meandering toward these most important of possible life goals.

I'm convinced that if you dig into the deepest causes of our behavior you will eventually reach a sort of bedrock which is comprised of our most deeply held allegiances. If we follow a cultural norm it is because we are bonded with it through participation. If we believe at this level of our being that an action is wrong we will not be able to make ourselves do it, and if we believe at this level that something is good we will not be able to stop ourselves from drawing closer to it.

Some words that describe this bedrock are "value", "meaning" and "purpose.  What has real, ultimate value for us, what not just fills us with a "sense" of purpose (as if anything would do as long as it motivates us), but rather convinces us that it is the genuinely right thing to do, so strongly that we could clear-headedly sacrifice lesser things for such a cause?  At this depth of meaning we start to approach other words, like "truth" and "goodness".  We cannot be convinced of powerfully deep value unless we are first convinced that it is both true and good.  And we will not be convinced if said truth or goodness are merely relative, subjective and personal.  Such goodness or truth is brittle and will not take us very far.  Once we move away from the abyss of subjectivism we can start moving toward words like "realness", and in the direction of adjectives like "ultimate".

When viewed in the context of actually caring about finding meaning, purpose and truth, these poetic depictions of Azathoth comes into clearer focus.  This image, of ultimate power combined with ultimate uncaring, could perhaps be describing what happens when we lose hope of finding these things which are of such central importance to us.

If you follow the slippery rabbit hole of subjectivism (or nominalism, or realism, or naturalism) you lose hope of believing there could ever be any kind of central organizing principle, any shared ultimate truth, any 'best for all' solutions, or any natural inclination of 'all that is' toward the good.  If you go too far you can no longer believe in goodness at all.

There is a position in our minds and hearts for an ultimate governing principle, for that "law" which is most causally central and around which everything else turns.  Scientific materialism, and several other "godless" philosophical positions place randomness on this pedestal.  I think they would claim, perhaps boisterously, that they worship exactly nothing, that there is no pedestal, that they have a rather inverted view from what I am accusing them, and that they do not place a single causal principle at the center of reality.  Rather, they believe there is no such center, that we are all more or less freely floating in a sea of coincidence.  Randomness is a way of saying there is no central causal principle.  Of course an extension of this assertion is that there is no meaning which could be considered real, only a temporary and perhaps "useful" sort of meaning which is completely subject to individual discretion.  And there is no reality to individual discretion either, because our very awareness and will are mere epiphenomenon; illusions, really.  If you keep going with this, you also have to conclude that love is not real, relationships are not real, nothing we value has real value.  Goodness has no value, life has no value.  The universe, as it were, cares not at all whether we all live happily or suffer horribly and die miserable. Any sort of goodness is reduced to a convenience, for the benefit of the species, a quirk of evolution, which would as soon have us eat our young to free up valuable resources, but as accident would have it, it currently has us nourishing them.  Any ideal, principle or value, no matter how deeply held, has no reality to it, no validity.  The only ground on which to base "goodness" is a mere personal whim, or the abstraction of collective survival.

Either we do, or we do not respect that other people are worth treating as we would be treated.  And this respect is fragile and temporary as long as we do not have a genuine conviction that the people we are treating well are real.

If we approach goodness without solid grounding in what goodness is, or rather Who it is, we are entering a battle without armor.  Materialistic philosophy offers no solid or convincing basis for goodness, and no recourse for us to resolve any ambiguities we might encounter.  Without a proper reference point, one's notion of goodness tends to dissolve into relativism or an extreme laissez-faire approach which is powerless to protect people from themselves, and which tends to only be capable of helping people on a superficial, material, outward level.  Without a powerful connection to interiority, we can't help people in any meaningful way that actually matters.

When fairly accused, "You are a mere sinful mortal and who are you to point the way to others?" I am obliged to respond that all any of us can do is struggle toward the Light, but in so doing if we only help ourselves we haven't made any progress at all.  We must point as best we can toward the highest truth we have experienced, preferably with our whole lives and not just our finger.  Pointing a weak, relativistic finger is not going to help anyone, it only reveals and helps to spread our own confusion.  We must point boldly toward the Truth as best we can, as much as we've experienced it.  Certainly many of us, even most of us, will not point in quite the right direction.  But a world where no one even tries to grow closer to Truth (and consequently no one is pointing toward it) is exactly the sort of world one would expect when so many people are unconsciously worshipping the blind idiot god Azathoth.

Fortunately for us, the Truth has a Finger of His own.  We only need to take a few steps toward Reality as the prodigal, and He will come running toward us as the Father.  We are indeed not equipped on our own to access the absolute, to perceive that which transcends the intellect. But we have been given the capacity to draw close to God through the renewal of our nature in Christ, and through the symbiosis of our participation in His Body we may draw closer in Truth.

I pray that we all may glimpse the Light and realize that Hope is very much alive and well and is in every respect a more rational, wholesome choice than the alternatives.  That the darkness of that 'amorphous blight of nethermost confusion', of godlessness and its metaphysical cohort, can pass out of our lives like a bad dream.

Sunday, December 16, 2018


"It is impossible for any procedure to lead to the isotherm T = 0 in a finite number of steps." - Nernst, 1912

When we say that God is infinite, I can't help but reflect back to mathematics and want to clear something up. In mathematics there is no concrete thing called infinity which happens to be larger than all other numbers. There is no such thing. Infinity is a formulation, a theoretical arrow pointing in a direction. There is no real number which you can divide into 1 and get 0. No real number, hear that? None at all. The entire, infinite world of numbers does not, itself, contain infinity. This is important.

Because God is bigger than the world, bigger than His creation. Bigger than math.

This implies something important about the manner God appears within the world, i.e. through Christ's human nature. It is... get ready for it... finite. Like us.

When we look out on the vast, apparently infinite universe, and wonder, "how can God care about us, we are so small?" I think it's important to remember that, besides the fact that He is everywhere present and filling all things, He also has deep, intimate familiarity with finitude. He made it, after all.

And, it's also important to remember that even finitude is infinite, so to speak. There are an infinite number of numbers, but every one of them is finite, bounded, limited, constrained in its essence. Jesus was (and is) God's expression into a finite canvas. An expression which completely embodies the fullness of the Father, yet is expressed in terms of the finite.

Does this mean that Jesus's human nature was bound to the constraints of finitude? By no means! There is a bridge at work here between the finite and the infinite. The finiteness of the finite is, in some respects, made illusory, or rather transcendable through Christ. We do not exchange our finiteness for infiniteness (in this life) but rather we are carried across this bridge through faith in Christ, being pulled along as it were, by the cords of relatedness, by His renewal of our nature through the Resurrection. Or, more simply put, God's Love, through Christ, transforms us as we enter into it, cleanses us of the corruption of finitude, and returns our nature to its original created state ("that ancient beauty"). No longer purely finite, mortal and corruptible, but now a finite expression of God's infinitude. No longer the muddied and turbulent water reflecting the image we become the reflection of the image in the pure, still water.

The opening quote is one I've always loved to hear. As I see it, in this quote, physics admits something elusive but very important. If the physical world does not contain zero (or, it requires an infinite amount of energy to reach zero, same thing), then physics is not describing the "ground of being". We can't see absolutes through physics. No, we can't just not see them, we can't experience them. We can't reach zero by forcing something in the world to look like zero. Long ago we agreed that we were not able to reach infinity through the world. But it took a while to acknowledge that we can't even reach zero.

One more bit of physics that pairs nicely with the third law of thermodynamics: scalar fields, namely the Higgs field. It is another example, an even more stark example, of our admission that the physical world is permeated by mysterious force. It is not built from nothing, it is built on mysterious forces. Nothingness (and therefore the ground of being, and the roots of something-ness) is therefore much deeper.

"... the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine" - James Jeans

Something is more fundamental than matter, energy, time and space. As a medium of expression, the 'universe' can only approximate truth, can only point to it. But the universe is at its core a creation of, i.e. an expression of truth. So it is in fact possible to genuinely express and point toward truth through this universe. Genuine truth that is symbolically represented 'in the world' points to real truth. When we pass over that bridge and enter into God's likeness, we do not exit the finite and enter the infinite. Rather, we become cognizant of the Theophany of uncreated light shining through us and sustaining us. The finite is renewed through contact with the infinite.

The point, I think, is that to the extent we think God is out of our reach because He is infinite, we are wrong. Any increase in our awareness of the size of the universe detracts not at all from God's accessibility. And to the extent we think that any expression, even of the infinite, within finitude is doomed to corruption and decay, we are also wrong. Truth, even Ultimate Truth can, has, and does express Itself in tangible ways. And, perhaps most importantly, our finitude does not bar us from the Kingdom. There is a Bridge, humbly and generously offered to us in loving self-sacrifice, by which we may pass.