Freedom and Suffering

St. John the Forerunner

Dostoevsky shows that suffering lies in the very nature of man as a free and morally responsible being, that nothing can eliminate it as long as man remains what he is, and that the purpose of human evolution is not to abolish suffering, but to explain its meaning, for only those who are not afraid of pain are matured and truly free people.”  (Nicholas Zernov, Three Russian Prophets, p. 93)

Love: The Power of Christian Leadership

popeIn Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” from his book, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, we encounter contrasting and conflicting images of religious power.  There is Archbishop who is the Grand Inquisitor, with his majestic robes which inspire terror  in the population.  He and his entourage armed with all the legal power of the state cause the people to cower and kowtow before him because they know he has power over their lives – to rule and to even take life from them.

On the other hand, Jesus comes humbly and unassuming, no threatening retinue around him.  He is almost unrecognizable (at least as God the Lord) and blends into the crowd of the poor and powerless.  He raises to life a little girl who has died.  His power is love and life.  Yet, He submits to the authority of the Inquisitor who casts Him into prison.    There it is the Inquisitor who does all the talking to explain and justify his power on earth.  Jesus remains totally silent in the face of all accusations but reveals His power – that of love.

This contrast played out in Jesus’ own lifetime, as Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor where Pilate seems to be the one who is trapped and forced to act, while Jesus the condemned man seems to speak with power.

The Jews answered Pilate, “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard these words, he was the more afraid; he entered the praetorium again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.” Upon this Pilate sought to release him…”  (John 19:7-12)

Christian leadership involves power, but it should be the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit, not that of Pilate or the Grand Inquisitor.  The Church’s power is not that of an empire’s army or police, but of love.  Henri J.M. Nouwen says:

“I am speaking of a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love. It is a true spiritual leadership. Powerless and humility in the spiritual life do not refer to people who have no spine and who let everyone else make decisions for them. They refer to people who are so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever he guides them, always trusting that, with him, they will find life and find it abundantly.”

(In the Name of Jesus , pp 63-64)


Humans: Flesh and Body (III)

This is the 21st blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Humans: Flesh and Body (II).

As I noted at the beginning of this blog series, what I am producing is a collection of quotes from books I’ve read over the past 30 years or so.  I ‘tagged’ these particular quotes with the notation “being human” and have brought them together in this blog series.  The question of what it is to be human and what it means to be human has intrigued me since I was in high school more than 40 years ago.  These quotes are not brought together because they represent one point of view, but rather when I read them I marked them as worth further consideration.  They informed my thinking about humanity.    Their significance to me is how they inform the mystery of what it is to be human and deepen our understanding of being human.

St. John of Kronstadt  (d. 1908AD) states boldly that a human is far more important than all of the things that humans value and desire.

“We are – one body of love.  Food, drink, money, dress, houses, all earthly attributes are – nothing, whilst man is everything; nothing is so precious as man.  Man, by his soul, is immortal, whilst everything material is perishable and ephemeral; everything material is like dust.  Everything is God’s, nothing is ours.  Man!  Esteem the dignity of man, as the image of God and in the time of his need, do not grudge him any material help.”    (MY LIFE IN CHRIST Part 1, p 256)

His point is that each and every human is valuable, even the poor or downtrodden.  While he contrasts the human to all things humans’ value and desire, he makes it clear that those things, though “perishable and ephemeral”, are needed, and we should not deprive our fellow human beings of those things needed for life and survival.   His thinking reminds me of a saying I heard many years ago as a criticism of our own culture and times:  “It used to be that we loved people and used things, now it is the reverse – we love things and use people.”

As Jesus teaches us in Luke 12:15 –    “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  One can gain the whole world and lose one’s soul (Mark 8:36).

The Russian Orthodox author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (d. 1881AD), deploring the atheistic materialism of his day, warned the goodness and beauty of humanity will be lost when the image and likeness of God in each human is no longer recognized.

“You who would deny God and Christ have not even considered that without Christ, everything in the world would be impure and corrupt. . . .  By eliminating Christ, you remove from humanity the epitome of beauty and goodness, you make Him inaccessible.  For Christ came precisely for this reason: that humanity might know and recognize that a true human spirit can appear in this heavenly condition, in the flesh and not merely in a dream or in theory—that is indeed both natural and possible.  Christ’s disciples proclaimed his radiant flesh to be divine.  Through the cruelest of tortures they confessed the blessing of bearing this flesh within themselves, of imitating His perfection, and of believing in Christ in the flesh.”  (in Michael Quenot, THE RESURRECTION AND THE ICON,  p 229)

Humanity is able to aspire to greatness, even to divinity.   This, so Christians believe, will bring out the nobility in all human beings.  Theosis is achieved in the body, not apart from it.  We are not trying to escape the world or our bodies, but rather live to transfigure and transform our bodies and the world so that all can become a means of communion with the Holy Trinity.

Alexander Schmemann (d. 1983AD) writes:

Schmemann“In essence, my body is my relationship to the world, to others; it is my life as communion and as mutual relationship.  Without exception, everything in the body, in the human organism, is created for this relationship, for this communion, for this coming out of oneself.  It is not an accident, of course, that love, the highest form of communion, finds its incarnation in the body; the body is that which sees, hears, feels, and thereby leads me out of the isolation of my I . . . [T]he body is not the darkness of the soul, but rather the body is its freedom, for the body is the soul as love, the soul as communion, the soul as life, the soul as movement.  And this is why, when the soul loses the body, when it is separated from the body, it loses life; it dies, even if this dying of the soul is not a complete annihilation, but a dormition, or sleep.”    (O DEATH, WHERE IS THY STING?,  pp 42-43).

Death is by definition the separation of the soul from the body.  Salvation is the restoration of all things including our souls with our bodies.  Salvation is spiritual because our bodies are capable of being spiritual.

“”It is only in and through the flesh that the soul can accomplish its salvation, because it is only in and through the flesh that the soul becomes linked to God by means of the grace mediated through the flesh’s participation in both sacraments and sacramental.  So while it is true that the flesh is the servant and handmaid of the soul in its role as mediator of grace to the soul, the flesh is nonetheless its spouse and, with it, heir to the resurrection.”  (Benedict Guevin, “Liturgical Ethics”, SVTQ V51  N2-3  2007, p 281)

Next:   Humans: Flesh and Body (IV)

The Grace of Aging

“It’s the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet, tender joy.  The mild serenity of age takes the place of the riotous blood of youth.  I bless the rising sun each day, and as before, my heart sings to meet it, but now I love even more its setting, its long slanting rays and the soft, tender, gentle memories that come with them, the dear images from the whole of my long happy life – and over all the Divine Truth,  softening, reconciling, forgiving!

My life is ending, I know that well, but every day that is left me I feel how my earthly life is in touch  with a new, infinite, unknown, but approaching life, the nearness of which sets my soul quivering with rapture, my mind glowing and my heart weeping with joy.” (Fr. Zossima in Dostoyevsky’s THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV)

Combat by Humble Love

“At some thoughts one stands perplexed, above all at the sight of human sin, and wonders whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide ‘I will combat it by humble love.’  If you resolve on that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force: it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.”

(Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, “Conversations And Exhortations of Father Zosima”)

Images of Power in the Church

Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, offers an interesting contrast in understanding ‘power’ in the church and how it is displayed by church leaders.  Within the book there is a parable told by Ivan Karamazov, a rationalist atheist, to his younger brother Alyosha, an innocent believer in God.  The parable is known as “The Grand Inquisitor.”  While it is set in an earlier age in Roman Catholic Spain during the time of the inquisition, one has to wonder to what extent Dostoyevsky also meant the story to be a cryptic critique of his own Russian Orthodox Church.  Certainly Dostoyevsky saw the unbridled power of the imperial Russian Church in his life time.  Dostoyevsky had been taken to the gallows as an enemy of the state, only to be pardoned at the last minute.  So he knew better than to directly criticize the state Church.  It was safe and even sanctioned, however, to lambast the Roman Church of which most Russians would have had a negative view anyway.

In “the Grand Inquisitor”, Christ has returned to earth during the Spanish Inquisition, a time in Dostoyevsky’s thinking when the Church had absolute power over everything.   Dostoyevsky first introduces Christ in the story:

“He came softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him. . . . The people are irresistibly drawn to Him, they surround Him, they flock about Him, follow Him. He moves silently in their midst with a gentle smile of infinite compassion. The sun of love burns in His heart, light and power shine from His eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love. He holds out His hands to them, blesses them, and a healing virtue comes from contact with Him, even with His garments.”  (Kindle Loc. 5031-35)

The power possessed by Christ is love and compassion, to which the people respond with the recognition of rational sheep seeing their trusted shepherd.  As the story unfolds the unnamed Jesus by His divine life-giving power lovingly raises a child from the dead.  This is the power of Christ – to defeat death, and to love all.  It isn’t a matter of merited reward, but graceful and unconditional love of God.

Dostoyevsky then introduces the Cardinal – the Grand Inquisitor – who like Jesus possesses power as can be seen by the crowd’s reaction, and yet he is the antithesis of Christ:

“… at that moment the cardinal himself, the Grand Inquisitor, passes by the cathedral. He is an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes, in which there is still a gleam of light. He is not dressed in his gorgeous cardinal’s robes, as he was the day before, when he was burning the enemies of the Roman Church—at this moment he is wearing his coarse, old, monk’s cassock. At a distance behind him come his gloomy assistants and slaves and the ‘holy guard.’ He stops at the sight of the crowd and watches it from a distance. He sees everything; he sees them set the coffin down at His feet, sees the child rise up, and his face darkens. He knits his thick gray brows and his eyes gleam with a sinister fire. He holds out his finger and bids the guards take Him. And such is his power, so completely are the people cowed into submission and trembling obedience to him, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and in the midst of deathlike silence they lay hands on Him and lead Him away. The crowd instantly bows down to the earth, like one man, before the old Inquisitor. He blesses the people in silence and passes on.”   (Kindle Loc. 5044-52)

The Grand Inquisitor though vested with all the authority of the Church,  in contradistinction to Christ the Life  Giver has only the power of death.  His power is limited to this world and the signs of his power are worldly – imperial and despotic.   Those gloomy souls who side with him are even described as slaves.

The crowd does fear him and they part, moving away from him.  Yes indeed, the people submissively cower before the dark power of the Inquisitor.  He has power over them, but only in this world.  His powers are not eternal though he believes them to be so.

Majesty of Law and the Power of Government

The real power of the Church is the love of Christ, and to love others as he loved us.  The dissimilarity and incongruity in the images of power which Dostoyevsky so brilliantly puts in the text could not be more stark.   The Son of God enters the world in a lowly cave meant to be a shelter for animals and is placed in their feeding trough.  There is no palace for Him.  The King of kings rejects all the power of the world’s kingdoms when offered them by Satan.    God the Son rides humbly on a donkey into Jerusalem so that He can be recognized as king.  Christ is glorified by being hung on the cross.  Christ’s power is His humility and His love.  These are the only images of power which belong to the church and its leaders.  It is how church leadership imitates Christ.  It is not imperial vestments which make a man recognizable as an image of Christ, but rather the humble willingness to set aside all trappings of power and to gird oneself with a towel and to serve the disciples by washing their feet as did Christ the Lord.

The Word, The Information, The Bit (III)

This is the 3rd blog in this essay series reflecting on James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.   The first blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (1) and the immediately preceding blog is The Word,  The Information, The Bit (II).

The 20th Century saw in science an increased understanding of the importance of entropy and randomness in physics.  The concept of randomness had implications for other fields as well including biology and the emerging science of encryption and information theory.  It became clear that the standard for science – Newtonian physics – did not accurately describe the atomic and sub-atomic worlds.   At the atomic level the universe did not function like a predictable machine, but rather there existed a randomness in motion, and a tendency for all things to move toward entropy – a total randomness.

Living things actually survive by undoing the randomness apparent in the atomic world.  “In other words, the organism sucks orderliness from it surroundings.”  Or, as Erwin Schroedinger (d. 1961) described it:  “To put it less paradoxically, the essential thing in metabolism is that the organism succeeds in freeing itself from all the entropy it cannot help producing while alive.” (p 283)  In many ways, living things are computing information from their surroundings, turning randomness into life with its ordered cells.

The world of physics and mathematics and the study of biology and even human language was becoming more clearly the same study, all of it having a measurable mathematical and logical basis.  Randomness it was realized may not mean blind chance, since it to contained measurable information.

“’Chance is only the measure of our ignorance,’ Henri Poincare famously said. ‘Fortuitous phenomena are by definition those whose laws we do not know.’ … such phenomena as the scattering of raindrops, their causes physically determined but so numerous and complex as to be unpredictable.  In physics—or whatever natural processes seem unpredictable—apparent randomness maybe noise or may arise from deeply complex dynamics.”   (p 326)

It reminds me a great deal of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s  (d. 1881) argument that the apparent randomness of world events which caused some to disbelieve in God caused him to think that there is an orderliness to the world and a logic which is beyond human rationality.  It thus spoke to him that there was a God whose logic and rational is simply beyond our capacity to comprehend.    We think we can know all there is to know and thus can understand everything.  Even modern science says this is not true.  That there is mystery in the universe is not merely a mystical thought of religion.

Modern information theory and quantum physics emerge from this history of information – from the spoken word, to the printed word, to the electronic word.  All of the inventions related to the word – from writing to printing thus have shaped the very way we understand the universe.  That is why it is somewhat amazing to me that Gleick only gives honorable mention to Gutenberg’s printing press.  Johannes Gutenberg (d 1468) doesn’t even make the index though he does acknowledge that Elizabeth Eisenstein in her two volume THE PRINTING PRESS AS AN AGENT OF CHANGE places “Gutenberg’s invention at center stage: the shift from script to print.”  (p 399)  (And many know already that the state of Ohio no longer requires the teaching of script writing for students – typing has totally replaced the use of script.  Will we soon be meeting literate people who no longer can sign their name?)

“As a duplicating machine, the printing press not only made texts cheaper and more accessible; its real power was to make them stable.  ‘Scribal culture,’ Eisenstein wrote, was ‘constantly enfeebled by erosion, corruption, and loss.’  … Before print, scripture was not truly fixed.”  (p 400)

“Scribal error” which is thought to have introduced into the text of Scriptures the variations which modern scholar’s debate can possibly be eliminated by the printing press which produces many exact same copies.   Now as never before people around the world can read the exact same text without variation.  But it has introduced into biblical scholarship an anachronistic thinking – we now read the text as if it has always been exactly like the one we are reading.  It makes us rethink the text as if the physical words are sacred rather than the ideas which they simply and symbolically mimic, reflect or capture.  We create (not re-create!) what we think is the most perfect text of Scripture only to realize that no ancient interpreter of Scripture had the exact text we have since ours is now a hybridization of all the “best texts” available to us.

Next:  The Word, The Information, The Bit (IV)