Friday, January 26, 2018

Clash of Worldviews: Eastern and Western Christianity

MODERATOR: Welcome to Clash of Worldviews. This evening our topic is Eastern Orthodox Christianity and how it stands apart from the Western church. To discuss this matter, we welcome conservative Catholic Lindsey Rowe, postmodern cynic and skeptic Heather Fogarty, and philosopher and Eastern Orthodox theologian David Rolls-Royce Spleen. Welcome to the panel. Lindsey, perhaps you’d like to start us off by telling us briefly what you think the chief difference is between the Eastern and Western churches.

LINDSEY: Well, in a nutshell, the main difference is that Catholicism is authentic Christianity, its traditions deriving from Jesus and the apostles, whereas the more mystical, Gnostic, and individualistic flavours of East Orthodox Christianity are heretical.   

SPLEEN: Those “flavours” are actually shared with the early Church fathers, before Christianity became tainted by its connection to the Roman Empire. The main difference, then, is that the Eastern Church is for Christian insiders, while Catholicism represents exoteric Christianity, the religion for less-serious Christians.

LINDSEY: Need I remind you that the Western Roman Empire ended long before the Eastern one, so if anything, the secular empire tainted the Eastern Church, not Catholicism.

SPLEEN: Not so. Precisely because the prosperous Eastern Empire lasted until 1453, it provided the stability for sophisticated theological thinking in the Eastern Church. Moreover, the Eastern Empire was, of course, the Byzantine Empire, which was culturally more Greek than Roman. Christianity was enriched by Greek philosophy, but poisoned by Roman pragmatism, and so although the Western Roman Empire ended in 476 CE, Emperors Constantine and Theodosius I had already identified Christianity with that empire, leaving Catholicism with the burden of having to deal with Rome’s collapse. The Holy Roman Empire, therefore, had to debase itself to appeal to a lower class of believer, to the unwashed, illiterate peasant.

LINDSEY: Did Jesus lower himself by tending to the prostitute and the leper?

SPLEEN: No, but Catholics aren’t divine, so they typically haven’t withstood secular temptations with Christ-like resoluteness. Instead, they were typically corrupted by the power they held over the helpless masses of medieval Europeans, and that power infected their version of the gospel message.

MODERATOR: And what are the differences, then, between the two creeds?

David Bentley Hart,
inspiration for David Spleen
SPLEEN: Catholics submit to the institutions and traditions of their Church, because the Catholic Church had to divinize itself to maintain social order in its Dark Age. That would have been fine had the Catholics retained an institutional memory of the practices of the Church fathers. But that memory was lost and yet the masses needed something to look up to, a light at the end of the tunnel, and so that light became the very Church hierarchy that failed them, since the Catholic leaders grew arrogant and complacent instead of seeking wisdom from Christianity’s founding fathers. That wisdom was preserved mainly in the East. The Catholic corruption prompted the Protestant Reformation, but Protestants’ emphasis on faith and the unenlightened individual’s right to his or her interpretation of the Bible meant that their sect would depart even further from the early Church practices and thus from Jesus.

LINDSEY: The Catholic Church, that is, the Western communion of believers rather than the material institution, is divine in so far as it’s informed by the Holy Spirit and it upholds the traditions passed from Jesus to Saint Peter.

SPLEEN: But that Spirit evidently came and long ago went from the West, because Western Christians often lacked saving gnosis. The Catholic hierarchy took advantage of the weakness of those living in the ashes of the Western Roman Empire, and that’s reflected in the Catholic view of Jesus’s purpose on earth. Both Catholics and the Protestants who splintered from them say that Jesus came to offer his life as a sacrifice to pay the penalty for everyone’s sins, which is supposed to be good news because it leaves Christians with little spiritual work to do. On the contrary, Christ was supposedly the only one who could satisfy God, because he was perfect and God himself, and so Christians merely need to submit to Christ to enable him to live eventually in their hearts. Unfortunately, this is only a garbled, exoteric rendition of the true Christian message.

LINDSEY: Nonsense! It’s the authentic one. We’re condemned by our original sin of choosing to be fallible rebels against God, but Christ’s crucifixion opened the door to our redemption. By grace God died for us because he loves us, but he’s also holy and just and couldn’t overlook our sins. Christ’s sacrificial death was the ingenious method by which God revealed to us his transcendent nature, his love and his justice. We deserve to be punished forever in hell, but thanks to God’s mercy he was willing to die in our place. We’re still unworthy of God’s love, but once we identify Jesus as our lord and saviour and commit to follow the traditions of the Catholic Church, God overlooks our imperfections and chooses to see Christ, that is, himself in us.

SPLEEN: No, that’s monstrous theology concocted by Dark Age pseudo-Christians, a nightmare that reflected the brutality of that time and place. The deeper truth was uncovered by the synthesis of Greek philosophy and the offshoot of Judaism that was early Christianity. Catholics, for example, belittle God by personifying him. The Trinity is meant to be paradoxical, not cartoonish. The forms of God aren’t persons but hypostases or substances. God is metaphysically simple and beyond our comprehension. We shouldn’t take our religious symbols and metaphors literally. Instead, as in the philosophical religions of the East such as Hinduism and Buddhism, our task is to meditate upon our symbols to become Christ-like, indeed to become divine, that is, one with God.

That was the mission of the Mystery Religions of ancient Greece, but the pagans were lost because God hadn’t shown them how to deify themselves. Asceticism and selfless morality are necessary but insufficient. What was missing from Greek philosophy and from the ancient Eastern religions was the figure of Christ. Jesus came to die not for the absurdity of God’s venting his wrath on himself, as though justice could be served by punishing the wrong person. No, Jesus died to conquer Satan and the earthly forces that hold us prison and blind us to our divine potential. And Jesus accomplished that simply by revealing to us what God is like, by presenting us with a model of how to be divine. The best Christians don’t abase themselves before Jesus, but welcome the Christian instructions on how to become like him. We don’t become Christ-like or “saved” by using Jesus’s work on the cross as an excuse for us to keep sinning, but by accepting our moral and existential responsibilities as creatures that belong with God.

LINDSEY: That’s just Gnosticism; again, heretical.     

SPLEEN: It’s not Gnosticism, because the Eastern Church doesn’t identify the creator of this world with a demiurge. But that’s the Dark Age Roman Catholic standard of argument: guilt by association and name-calling.

LINDSEY: It’s practically Gnosticism, since you say Jesus came from beyond to defeat the powers of darkness that imprison us and rule over nature, the Powers, Principalities, and Thrones.

SPLEEN: That’s the message of Paul the Apostle and of the Gospel of John. Gnostics were advanced in certain respects, but they were also bitter and world-weary. We share with them the conviction that knowledge saves us—not just philosophical learning, but experiential knowledge of God through contemplation of certain symbols and mysteries.

MODERATOR: Heather, what’s your take on this?

HEATHER: It’s a pox on both their houses, I’m afraid. I agree with David Spleen that Catholicism was corrupted by Rome, but the Eastern Church was in turn corrupted or rather secularized by its love of ancient philosophy. Take, for example, the Trinity Doctrine: if the three-in-one God isn’t composed of persons but of impersonal substances, how is that incompatible with atheism? Why not consider God a force like the Daoists or like George Lucas?

SPLEEN: Daoists wallow in natural processes like animals, whereas Christ revealed a spiritual condition beyond this fallen realm and we, too, belong in that higher state known as the kingdom of God.

HEATHER: But if Christ’s being the only begotten Son of the Father is just a metaphor, what makes you a theist in the first place? Hasn’t the Jewish God of Greek Orthodox Christianity been overtaken by the God of the philosophers, by the Absolute or Ground of Being or the First Cause of Parmenides, Aristotle, or Thomas Aquinas? Philosophers tend to be naturalists, because that’s where the rational search for knowledge takes them, to objectify things by way of understanding them. Your Trinity doctrine looks like a pseudoscientific analysis of natural forces and substrates.

SPLEEN: It’s just the opposite. The Eastern Church fulfilled the promises both of Judaism and of the whole pagan world. Jesus was the ultimate Jewish prophet, and his selfless life and moral teachings demolished the flawed naturalism of Greek philosophy and of the Eastern religions. The ancients saw the world much as modern scientists see it, as consisting of mindless cycles, and our role was to participate by offering sacrifices to keep the cycles going in our favour. Jesus’s revelation was that we weren’t supposed to be part of that world; on the contrary, with Jesus as our model, we can shatter nature’s hold over us, by adhering to higher, spiritual ideals rather than succumbing to animal instincts. Just as the Church destroyed paganism, plundering the demonic temples and converting the heathens to the true faith, the individual Christian defeats the demons that spin the natural cycles to ensnare us, by renouncing base pleasures and contemplating spiritual mysteries. And because Christianity made paganism obsolete, modernists are faced with the stark choice between Christ and nihilism, between the true God and nothingness. No wonder late-modern secularists suffer so much from angst and apathy!

HEATHER: That strikes me as arguably the most obnoxious thesis available in English, that even as you concede the philosophical sophistication of Eastern Orthodoxy, you boast that Christianity triumphed over paganism. This is the converse of the Post Hoc fallacy: you confuse that which follows something with that which falsifies the prior thing. Christianity has never once refuted naturalism or demonstrated the transcendence of morality! On the contrary, natural cycles are evident even in what you called the corruption of the Catholic Church by its Roman imperial office. If God’s church can be corrupted by politics, what does that say about the power and thus the reality of this God? Or if, according to mystical insight, your Holy Trinity is impersonal, isn’t Eastern Christianity likewise reduced to atheistic naturalism? The Church conquered paganism not by refuting secular philosophy, but by appropriating pagan myths and temples, co-opting the teachings of other religions to trick pagans into thinking that Christianity had comparable authority. Thus, as you implied, the Gnostics and the early Church fathers borrowed their notion of apotheosis from the Mystery Religions and ultimately from Hinduism. And like a chameleon the Catholic Church cloaked itself in the garb of foreign religions, avoiding out of cowardice precisely the confrontation that would have annihilated Western Christianity. After all, Christianity was nothing new: the heart of the gospel narrative was taken line by line from Isaiah’s passage on the suffering servant, in chapter 53. And the Church’s power came from Constantine’s accidental support for the budding Jewish sect. True, Christianity was popular at the time, but that’s because your religion rode the wave of Eastern spirituality, from Hinduism and Zoroastrianism to Buddhism and Jainism, which opened up to the West via Alexander the Great’s bridging of Eastern and Western cultures.

SPLEEN: No, Christianity did refute paganism by recognizing Jesus’s demonstration of the power of selfless love.

HEATHER: Where was the selfless love in the persecution of heretics, the crusades, the inquisition, and the witch hunts? Where was the love in the early Christians’ siding with the Roman imperium at the first opportunity, with the very empire that had crushed Jesus? Where was the love in their demonizing of Jews in their gospel narratives after the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, to run for cover, desperate to prolong their earthly years instead of staying true to any supernatural spirit? When the Second Coming never came and Christians realized they were stuck in this natural world, they evidently compromised their moral principles and opted to pursue secular success in politics or in philosophy. Nature conquered Christianity and thus so did the ancient naturalistic worldviews.

LINDSEY: Enough of this! A personal God rules nature, for Christ’s sake! Christians worship that God. Jesus showed that God loves us, and to be with God forever we only have to accept what Jesus did for us on the cross. Is that too much for God to ask? That’s the heart of the Christian message; it’s a call for us to accept this last-ditch divine effort to save us from our vain resistance to our creator.

HEATHER: Save your slogans for the rest of your Dark Age flock. You’re in the presence of at least one enlightened individual here, so I’m not about to buy into the disgraceful religion of a phony spiritualist who’s used to selling things because his day job is wholly secular. Your God, your Jesus, your Bible, your Church history are laughingstocks—now more than ever, thanks to American evangelicals’ capitulation to the grotesque idol, President Trump.

LINDSEY: So you’ll be damned for eternity because of your pride. What a waste.

HEATHER: Blame your god for giving me a healthy brain.

SPLEEN: But that is a waste, because philosophy has the power to unite us in the understanding of truth. Heather, don’t you see the radical implications of Jesus’s statement that the last will be first and the first will be last? Jesus’s egalitarian message was otherworldly. His morality was unnatural, which indicates a transcendent power behind the scenes of natural processes. Do you believe in nothing beyond the pagan notion that might makes right?

HEATHER: First of all, given your mystical notion of God, you’re just as much an atheistic naturalist as am I. We both reject the cartoon personifications of ultimate powers which entrance the tens of millions of bogus Christians. Second, who said paganism amounts to social Darwinism? If you’re including the Eastern religions, their practitioners have nothing to learn from Christianity when it comes to asceticism and selflessness. Their gurus and itinerant monks were renouncing nature long before Jesus was supposedly born. Jains who take a vow of ahimsa are loathe even to squash insects, let alone harm another person. So you’re setting up a strawman when you allege that Christianity bested paganism by holding out the option of altruism.

SPLEEN: You’re avoiding my point. Regardless of where altruism originated, do you agree that this morality is otherworldly and that it shows us how to be divine?

HEATHER: No, that was your earlier, obnoxious point that the other ancient religions were all about selfish sacrifices to maintain natural cycles, and that Christianity’s triumph over them leaves modern secularists with nihilism. Anyway, universal morality, as opposed to just doing favours for favours is relatively unnatural, because it derives from human independence, which is due in turn to our capacities for self-consciousness and rational self-control. But in nature, that morality makes us suckers, not divine. If anything, science makes us godlike by empowering us with technology. Thus, once again naturalism conquered Christianity and not the other way around, since Christian corruption paved the way for the early-modern backlash which led to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. And now we rebel against nature with greater sophistication, by controlling natural processes with scientific understanding and technologies. What does the Christian mystic have to teach the scientist or the engineer when it comes to learning how to be godlike? Who has demonstrated more power over nature, the mystic who forgoes sex or the genetic engineer who conquers natural selection and produces fetuses by artificial insemination? Who has overpowered the world like a god, the petty Christian theocrats or the philosophical Eastern Christians who demonstrate the truth of naturalism in spite of themselves? Or the industrialists who conquer the wilderness in the Anthropocene, likewise using modern myths as tools to enslave consumers?

SPLEEN: You’re identifying godhood with the power to dominate, but that’s only a beastly misconception. Those who attempt to overpower nature will themselves be overpowered. That was Christ’s message. There’s no point trying to win at nature’s game. The divine trick is to bypass nature altogether, to adopt otherworldly ideals. 

HEATHER: Morality is no more otherworldly or supernatural than any other human artifact. You can mystify human freedom all you like, but a truly enlightened person will agree with the Buddhist who says that if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him. In other words, don’t fall for your hype.

LINDSEY: Well, another reason not to pretend to be God by lording it over nature, like Satan who was the first would-be usurper, is that God will have the last laugh on Judgment Day.

HEATHER: Ugh, are you still here, Lindsey? We’re trying to have an enlightened conversation. The kiddie’s table is down the hall.

LINDSEY: And where did you modern secularists get your notion of enlightenment? Jesus was the light who shone in the darkness of this world. Without the ancient religions, you wouldn’t have even the metaphor for your vacuous and vain form of self-flattery.

HEATHER: Nice try, little boy. Where do you think spiritualists got the idea of identifying God with light? Obviously, from the life-giving sun. And who told us what the sun really is, ancient navel-gazers or naturalistic scientists?

LINDSEY: But why should we mistake cynicism and misanthropy for secular enlightenment? What has enlightenment to do with your snarkiness?

HEATHER: Well, that’s somewhat off-topic, isn’t it? But I suppose it might be worthwhile comparing Eastern Orthodoxy with, say, secular humanism, since they’re both supposed to be philosophically enlightened.

SPLEEN: The difference is that the modern secularist is stuck with scientism and social Darwinism, while the Orthodox Church found the way out.

HEATHER: What’s the way out? Mystagoguery and obfuscation?

SPLEEN: No, it’s the humility to admit that we can’t understand everything and must therefore resort at some point to poetry and imperfect metaphors. Yours is the scientismist’s arrogance of presuming that we can conquer the world by scientific analysis and capitalistic rapacity, whereas we’re only destroying ourselves in the process like foolish monkeys or empty-headed viruses.

HEATHER: But that’s ultimately what we are, and I have the courage to live with that fact. We are little better than monkeys and viruses in certain respects. Scientism is a red herring, though, because I think philosophy can teach us unscientific truths. In particular, philosophy teaches us that there’s an atheistic form of religious experience. For thousands of years, religious folks co-opted or misunderstood it, ever since the shamans dazzled laypeople with their arts. There is, after all, the experience of the numinous, of the sublime, of that which surpasses our limited cognitive powers. The existential philosophers would have agreed with Rudolph Otto who spoke of holiness as a terrible fascination, as the ultimate horror we can’t look away from. All of nature is thusly horrific, like a giant train wreck we’re slowly driving past as our days tick by, and we’re both repulsed by and drawn to the blood and guts and the palpable injustices of natural life. The Eastern Orthodox, the Gnostics, and even the Hindus and some Buddhists think they’re enlightened because they revel in the myths that celebrate the experience of transcendent, inhuman reality. The most enlightened mystics know, however, that their myths are just tools. They certainly don’t venerate them as holy dogmas like the Dark Age Western Christians. As for me, the science is horrifying enough without poetic glosses. The natural universe has always been the divine horror.

And I don’t suffer fools gladly, Lindsey. Those adults who haven’t put away childish things I treat as children. It’s you deluded conservative Christians in the United States who are largely responsible for destroying the ecosystem, because you’re the ones who have been duped by the Republican Party which serves only the plutocratic class that could fend for itself even in a real-life apocalypse.

LINDSEY: So you’re supposed to be enlightened because you’re arrogant enough to think you can get away with sneering at God’s creation? The horror you’re experiencing when you look out at nature is the anxiety of realizing that you’re all alone without God. You have no hope, not from science, philosophy, or technology. Your only hope is in Christ.

HEATHER: Or in Zeus or Coca Cola or any other bit of a salesman’s balderdash, I suppose.

SPLEEN: But you do think an enlightened person is necessarily horrified by the world, don’t you?

HEATHER: I think that calling a spade a spade, when what you really wanted is a different suit, is honourable.

SPLEEN: So it’s as I said: Christianity or nihilism; Christian bliss or the anxiety of facing godless nature that has no redeeming features.

HEATHER: The world is just as horrific to the Eastern Church as it is to me. You Christian lot invented a sky god from beyond to save you from the wages of original sin, which are the wages simply of being a species of animal. The world is horrific to all ascetics, which is why they renounce nature as an illusion. It’s just that I don’t obfuscate the problem like you do, with your three-gods-in-one dogma and your miracle-working Jew who defeated invisible devils. The Orthodox Church may be more intellectually sophisticated than the Western one, but that isn’t saying much, is it? Compared to science-centered philosophical naturalists, you’re all still closer to children fooling around with mental projections.

And again, Christianity came after many pagan, naturalistic cultures, but didn’t overcome them in any philosophically respectable way. In any case, that’s a false choice between Christianity and nihilism. For example, I value horror as the prime motivator of art and thus of the experience of the numinous which needn’t get mixed up with babyish theistic metaphors or with metaphysical obscurities. 

MODERATOR: Unfortunately, we have time left this evening only for brief closing statements. Lindsey, would you like to go first?

LINDSEY: Heather’s hubris speaks for itself and it will be her downfall. But she compares Christians to children without realizing that we take that as a compliment, since Christ told us that those who come to heaven are childlike in their trust in God.

SPLEEN: Well, that message might have been meant exoterically, for those Christians who aren’t fully prepared for the mature business of actively attempting to be Christ-like. Jesus might have been childlike in some ways, but that doesn’t mean we should make it easy for us to fall for the lies of demagogues like Donald Trump, for example, who claim to care about Christianity. Faith is dangerous because it’s easy to trust in the wrong thing, in which case our trust can be exploited. That’s why the Eastern Church encourages us to take up the cross and follow Jesus, with mystical knowledge and spiritual exercises that purify the self, not with blind faith.

HEATHER: I applaud the Eastern Church’s dark, Gnostic view of nature, but I have little patience for the Christian myths unless they’re treated explicitly as literary works of fiction. Fictions can be helpful, but not if they mislead us into making pompous declarations such as that Christianity conquered the planet, forcing everyone now to choose between Christianity and nothing. Nature inevitably conquered both Western and Eastern Christianity just as all artistic movements look wrongheaded in hindsight. Nature conquers all, because nature is the true, horrific god we inhabit, regardless of our degree of intellectual sophistication.

MODERATOR: On that unsettling note we must conclude this episode of Clash of Worldviews. Until next time, children or enlightened ones, be humbled by the horrors unveiled by philosophy!

2 comments:

  1. In Eastern Orthodoxy, "God is not an impersonal essence or mere "higher power," but rather each of the divine persons relates to mankind personally." https://orthodoxwiki.org/Holy_Trinity

    Just wanted to point this out, because I recall reading from one of your fictional commentators the claim that the Trinity in Orthodoxy is composed not of Persons but impersonal substances.

    Theosis (deification) in the Orthodox tradition claims that humans can access the "divine energies" of God as Light (in science, these could be forms of electromagnetic forces, invisible to the naked eye). The essence of God, however, cannot be accessed - which is impersonal. So, the distinction between Orthodox communion with the divine compared to that of other spiritual traditions is one of preserving human personality in the presence of the projection of the deity's essence. So, in Orthodoxy, there is the Impersonal which cannot be accessed by humanity, but there is also simultaneously the Personal which can be accessed through communication with "higher" biological forces (such as electromagnetic or "quantum" forces).

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    1. Is this different from saying that God's essence is impersonal, but that we relate to God as though God were personal, that we relate to images of God we project on the underlying Force, because we wish that Force were different? That's what I think the Eastern Church's story would reduce to.

      We can bring in substances, attributes, hypostases, or other medieval terms to obfuscate the fact that if the essence of God were impersonal, the religion in which that "God" is worshiped would ultimately be atheistic. We can disguise that also with a retreat to agnosticism or to mysticism, since God would be beyond our comprehension and to the extent that we can understand God, or rather to the extent we're indulging our preferences in dealing with the First Cause, we personify the unknown.

      I detect a contradiction between your quote from the Wiki article, "God is not an impersonal essence," and your statement that, "The essence of God, however, cannot be accessed--which is impersonal." But when we're dealing with a more philosophical and mystical religion, we're bound to contradict ourselves, because the rational analysis will conflict with the childlike notions of God which are at the forefront of exoteric theology.

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