Confession: Why This is Not an Apologetics Website (Part Five)

As I noted in the previous post, this series begins with Part 1, which outlined my main reasons for rejecting apologetics because at best it merely uses what is public for factional ends (it also shuts down conversations and does a host of other awful things). It also carries forward from Part 2, which adds some autobiographical notes to the themes brought out in Part 1.

Part 3 recalled several things said to me by a professor I had concerning the nature of Christian identity. Part 4 covered a conference held regarding the prospects of an Orthodox Great Books school (and the conflict involved in the tension between a Great Books education and a decidedly religious one), and further covered problems with what I’ve heard some call the “postmodern” approach to theology found in figures such as Fr. John Behr.

Here, I summarize my own view — or, at least, the view that I have for now, and why it is incompatible with selling other people a religious identity (and so, with apologetics). After a brief explanation of one small feature of classical “ontology” (the “philosophy of being”) of the ancient world in VI, I’ll start with the relatively short answer in VII.

Finally, for those with any interest, the next post shall move into a more detailed explanation about what exegetical considerations lie at the backend of the short answer of section VII. After the next post, I don’t expect I’ll be writing any more on this topic, except historical work, likely a year or more down the road, to show the relationship between the pagan Classical tradition of philosophy and the early Christological formulae and literature. 

VI

When we casually say that something does or does not exist, we usually mean by “exist” the popular understanding of it, which means something like “we can drop this on our foot”; namely, the thing is material. We would usually extend this to include something that is a force, such as gravity. That is, “to exist” is to be real, and only particles and forces are real. Pink unicorns, for example, are not. Neither is Harry Potter. As to whether the number four is real — this causes interesting debates, for we are all closet materialists (even if we are not overt materialists), although this usually tends to evaporate under scrutiny, or else, if one does not treat form (such as the number four) as being real and really determining the truth of material things, this materialism falls off into projective subjectivism and so unintelligibility.

So far as my reading can drum up, “to exist” in the classical world was usually taken in a sense in which Platonism was a major ingredient (the cocktail might include Stoic or Aristotelian elements, &c.). To be in this sense is to be intelligible, which means to have a boundary or limit and to have unity. The unity does not need to be any perfectly achieved thing, but is sufficient to bring many parts into a single form or whole.

Particular instances of any general form or type (that plant, her house, this person) will have flaws and defects that break down unity: break down the unity too much, and the existence of the thing falls apart. If the organs do not work together, the organism dies (another example: think: cancer); if consensus and a shared sense of identity break down, a civilization can collapse; if the Sun were to die and its many functions were to cease, there would be no unitary solar system: the parts would fail to hold together in the unity they had, by which they could be spoken of as one thing.

It is in the nature of things for them to spill out: the “overreaching” or πλεονεξία of Plato’s political philosophy, in which an individual loses justice and unity and causes a community to lose justice and unity, is analogue to a problem that is rampant throughout the world. Virtue, or excellence, involved the unification of the person according to the unity of our common nature: not the excellence of being a good baker or farmer or teacher, but the excellence of being a good human being. In their respective ways for Plato and for Aristotle, this has a mathematical and geometric dimension: it means balance, unity, harmony.

As all things are what they are by a kind of unity, harmony, and therefore symmetry, these things are taken as  holding sway over the world, as determining the being of beings. There are ways in which they are named: goodness, or simply “the Good”, is associated with this kind of unity and harmony and beauty, and was understood as the root of these things for reasons I don’t have the space here to go into. (“The Good” is usually held to be what determines everything in the being of things, even if not in the mode of things. There is no infinite regress of explanation here, as the Good, in itself, was not understood to be determinate, was understood to be boundless superabundance, limitless fullness: a true infinite.) The word “logos” (λόγος) is used to talk about order and the rational principles of order as much as it is used for speech or reason, especially in Stoicism; the many λόγοι were taken to inhere within the one Λόγος.

VII

The decisive moment of Christian identity consists in an event of recognition that is not public, even though it is tied-in to public things. I see and recognize my own face in the face of Christ, as something preveniently there; I am not given a face in that moment, rather, my face is released in the mirror of the face of this other person, and, in the recognition, a new horizon is opened for me, even if it were intimated before. In the event, I find myself unified according to my own native unity, the source of which I recognize in the reflection of this other person — even if only for a moment, or for as long as I remain in contemplation of the figure of Christ or in the acts of service to my “neighbor”, especially to the poor and suffering. Regardless of whether I remain in that event of recognition, however, the event itself already holds sway, just as a roll of film, once exposed to light, is changed. The contemplation of the figure and the activity towards the neighbor are inseparable: the activity flows from the contemplation.

This mirror of and about Jesus, in which I recognize him and my face in his, is fundamentally aesthetic. It can be an icon or a work of art (though not all artwork permits or facilitates the same encounter — thus Orthodoxy has a framework for how icons are to be drawn, even if the execution is so often poor or even wrong), a ritual act that’s form opens up an image of what is initiates into, the hearing or reading of a text that bears the locution of this form, or an encounter with a person who radiates with a light, splendor, power or even judgment that is somehow referred to Christ (or else it would not be an explicitly Christian moment of recognition, even though it would otherwise have importance, and value).

Many who are Christian do not have this moment personally, but trust the effects of this moment in other people. (In the Exodus story, only a small portion of the people of Israel ascend Mount Sinai at all, though all see the face of Moses shining behind his veil and receive this in trust.) The framework for registering this recognition is public, even if the event is not. (When one has such a moment of epiphany, one is able to talk about it, and, if one were to talk about it for long, and if one were to talk about its value in a strong sense that moves beyond naming and inventorying preferences and appetites, one would inevitably end up using language such as found in VI, above. I am not convinced that another can be found.)

When encountering this framework of images, not everyone has this vision of recognition, and through no clear fault of their own. Granted that not everyone makes contact with things that potentially facilitate such a vision, and some make contact with aesthetically inoculating language and imagery. I am persuaded that the vision requires real art, and not kitsch. (Everything that apologetics generates is necessarily kitsch and shlock –lower or higher schlock– that does not generate this moment, in my estimation.) Even if individuals did make contact with the canon of images that are meant to show the divine-humanity that Christians find in Jesus, however, the results would be the same: not everyone would find themselves discovering their own face within the face of Christ, and it would not be obvious that this would imply any kind of moral or character failing on their part. Character failings are simply character failings, not the name we give to an aesthetico-religious moment that fails to generate in response to certain encounters.

I am not interested in pushing this event of recognition on people, and I do not think that such a thing is even possible. One sees it, or else one does not. At this point I am more interested in exploring and establishing what I hold in common with others, in securing the awareness of what is public, in showing that there is a language for making value judgments that is not private and rooted in preference and appetite and habit; it is these things I am interested in pursuing, rather than in advancing the mirror of the evangel in a factional way (thereby corrupting the mirror that leads me to desire radically to love others; also, I am not clergy, and am not called to the role of heralding the beauty of the God-Man in rite and song and images and deeds and words).

The moment of recognition is not a political moment. The moment of recognition does not result in my own solidarity with a social group rallying around this person of Jesus against those who do not so rally. (If there is such a rallying that results, it is for the poor and the suffering.) It is true that I am part of this group, as this vision remains constitutive for its identity (I do feel a sense of kinship with others who have suffered this vision such as we can both recognize, but this is neither a political faction, nor a sect). However, in this vision, or to the degree I remain in this moment of recognition, I am not set at odds with those who do not rally with me and some alleged faction, but am rather released to love other people: I am released to love them because, in the moment of recognition, I register not only my own face but the faces of others within the face of Jesus, and so register his divinity insofar as I recognize that he determines my face, and holds all possible and actual faces in his own.

Philosophically speaking, or metaphysically speaking, all things are unified by the Good, recalled by recognizing the Good, and perfected by returning to the Good — and this is necessarily the case, even if they do not return to Christ. It seems clear that, if one were to confess that Christ is divine, one could only mean by this something like what we saw in VI, above (and something like what we shall see in the next paragraph). This being the case, if one were to affirm that Christ divine, is the Logos enfleshed, then one would need to say that all events of unification and harmonization such as are traditionally associated with the return to the Good, from which all being flows (and by which all beings are determined), are organically connected to the same events of unification and return that are involved in the specifically Christian event of recognizing oneself in the mirror of Christ. Otherwise, the Logos of the philosophers is not the Logos of the Church, which is absurdity. (I have struggled with this before, and it is clear that, even in cases such as Augustine of Hippo, what some casual post-Reformation readers might mistake as his departure from the Greek philosophical tradition is, in fact, a set of moves made within it.)

Traditionally, talk of divinity means talk of the “power” determining everything, without itself being determinate, that is, without itself being determined by anything. It is not clear what else the word “God” would refer to, and the philosophical tradition –Pagan and Christian– always meant this by the word “God”, or something nearly identical to this. Seeing, in a moment of recognition, the faces of all as held within the face of the God-Man, and loving what one beholds, and feeling loved in turn by the one seen in the vision, means to love all people, if one is authentic to the vision, faithful to it. It is also the grounds for affirming, or confessing, the divinity of Jesus. The humanity of Jesus was the big stumbling block for the ancient world. How could divinity take on a boundary in a strong sense? In what sense might the changeless be said to undergo change in time — does this reduce to magic, or does it mean something else? How can the changeless Good, which is universal, which holds sway over all, and determines all, also be a particular, a particular first-century Jewish man, and suffer? This is, in part, what the Christological controversies were about.

As I am unified in myself within this vision, I register that I cannot reproduce it, so I’m not interested in selling it, nor am I interested in confining my discourse to those who have had the vision. I am not clear about how apologetics could possibly aid or facilitate the vision, or why someone should be particularly anxious about arguing or otherwise manipulating another person into having it. The vision is simply an event that sometimes comes from looking into the mirror that produces it.

The “glory” beheld in the mirror commutatively affects those who suffer the vision seen in it; those who are changed by the vision seek to “make straight” (Mark 1) what is crooked and to care for what is (and who are) weak and broken, and, in this, they find themselves in public activity to help secure justice, mercy, and liberation from all forms of slavery. Those who have not seen the vision are perfectly capable of understanding and vetting the rightness of this project (ethics is its own domain, and is public, with its own principles, even if there is an abandon with which they are pursued in self-sacrifice by those gripped by the vision in the mirror of the crucified Jesus), and those who have seen the vision do not need others to see the vision in order to talk about the merits of their work, and to find allies in the pursuit of it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s