Life after Epiphany

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Excluded Middles: Quitting Facebook

I really think there is a great point to be made here about the way we experience things. The Facebook phenomenon is that so many people have forgotten what it is to live an experience and drink it in, enjoying it for what it is, living in the present moment. Now, experiences are lived with the future in mind – experiences seem to be lived for bragging rights. I think John Mayer made a similar point pre-Facebook, in his song “3 x 5” from his 2001 Room for Squares album…

Good Things Run Wild

Originally published as “The Sosyal Network” in the Manila Bulletin, October 26, 2011

I recently shut down my Facebook account. This is partly for pragmatic reasons: doing so has saved me a lot more time for work and leisure reading. It is partly for security reasons: like most people, I live with an exaggerated sense of self-importance, and am in constant fear of creepy strangers looking at my bikini photos.

I do not regret it. Getting rid of my Facebook account has liberated me from the bondage of constantly keeping up with my peers. I no longer know where everyone else is going and with whom and what they are doing there, and I no longer feel bad or uncool about not being there too. It has also saved me the trouble of trying to find good photos of myself to post, and evaluating my self-worth on the number of…

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Benedict XVI: For the record

This post, on a blog I stumbled across this morning for the first time, is a wonderful tribute to the Pope Emeritus. None of this detracts from Pope Francis, whom I believe may just prove to be as saintly a Pope as his more recent predecessors. But the media ought to be ashamed of themselves for failing to report the real story. The real story here is the CONTINUITY of humility, the CONTINUITY of holiness in the Papacy. Slightly different styles, slightly different emphases… but CONTINUITY where it counts. Fidelity to Truth. Fidelity to Love. Fidelity to God.

I believe that all of the media circus about Pope Francis is an attempt by the media to gain some kind of leverage in shaping the direction of the messages that come out from Rome. I kind of almost get the feel that, due to Pope Francis’ country of origin being in Latin America, they are trying put an insidiously subtle liberation theology spin on everything he does…

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on poetry

brief musings, most –
but half expressed;
their potency in the reception.

a glance at all the words address,
good food for deep reflection.

and is it art?
for those that study – aye.

yet not for we
the faithful scribes,
notating thought and feel in shorthand

the talent lies not in telling;
artistry resides in receiving.

– – – – –

(A dusty sketch from 28 Nov 2009)

this piece is not intended to proffer the view that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. I believe that beauty is a transcendental, an objective reality, and the extent to which beauty can be apprehended is in the extent to which one’s perception corresponds with that objective reality. What this poem intends to convey is best encapsulated in the last couplet, written after the pattern of a Hebraic Parallelism, if you will. Most of the skill is required and applied at the level of receiving/beholding/interpreting. In this world of ours, groaning under the oppression of modernist ideology, it is a notable achievement to be able to perceive truth, to be able to apprehend reality. I suppose my need to include this addendum attests to my belief that our ability to identify truth is under attack and needs all the help it can get.

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attributing motives to others: just another way we fool ourselves

imageI was reading a blog that I follow (and generally enjoy) and the blogger was speaking about trolling, and how anytime a particular angle was used with respect to the topic in which he was interested, it must surely be a troll post. As someone who, once upon a time when I had much less life experience, held the very position to which he objected, I know that the expression of this (however misguided I now know it to have been) was never intended as trolling. Perhaps it LOOKED that way, but it was not.

This got me to thinking about how easy it is to fall into the trap of assuming we know another’s purpose for a given word or deed. Happens all the time… In business (e.g. “He can’t change that term in the contract at the 11th hour, he’s dragged his feet up until now… He’s trying to sabotage this deal!!”) or in personal life (e.g. “She said that after all I’ve done for her? She must still be after revenge for xyz..”)

When I was a Novice, my Novice Mistress quoted an older Sister in the Community with the following wisdom:

Always give others the benefit of the doubt in assuming good intentions… if not good judgement!

It is so easy to get worked up on an interior level about a fabricated imitation of reality that reflects to us our fears in a situation far more than it reflects the objective reality. Psychologists such as Reeder have done studies that show how the tendency to do this arises with bias because of opposing views… His research is interesting and HE is an expert whereas I am not, but I’d hazard the suggestion that fear is truly what causes this behaviour. Fear would be the substance to which the opposing view was an accident, or at least, a trigger.

If you look at the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, you will see in annotation 22 an exhortation to extend the benefit of the doubt to others as a benchmark of basic civility. That this is included in this work, however, demonstrates that it is about more than playing nice with others… It is a crucial part of spiritual theology and has a direct bearing on our interior peace and the quality of our relationship with God.

Imagine a tightly wound ball made from rubber bands… when we get caught up in others’ motives and what they might think of us, something inside of us gets wound up just like that ball… But instead of rubber bands, it’s a complicated entanglement of pride and fear. This image is another piece of wisdom I owe to my old Novice Mistress.

Truth needs to enter in. Really, if we allow ourselves to get worked up about imagined motives on the part of another, well, we’re fooling ourselves. We allow our reasoning to become compromised by the fallacy “ad hominem” and as such allow our view of the other to become poisoned. This is how relationships degenerate toward discord. Surely if we are going to hold an unfavorable opinion of someone we want it to be informed by truth, by what can be apprehended from objective reality, as opposed to emotional supposition, self-lie and the tangled mess of pride and fear?

If there is not enough fact to go upon then integrity is required to be able to admit to ourselves that we just don’t know why that person did or said what she did. And from there? Trust. We need to trust in the good intentions of others until their intentions are proven to be otherwise. The jaded person who employs cynicism about others as a defense mechanism doesn’t protect himself from deceit.

Perhaps he won’t be fooled by others. But he’ll be fooled by himself and he’ll have cheated himself of happiness.

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‘saving’ Kierkegaard… looking for truth in his dialectical approach to freedom

Some time ago, when I first read Søren Kierkegaard in anything more than a passing way, I have to admit I got pretty worked up on his behalf. His personal story was somewhat tragic, and the confusion in his texts did little to comfort me that he ever found peace or fulfilment. Not surprising, really, that he writes so extensively on despair. As I explored some of his work, it struck me that he really seemed so sincere… in a Kantian duty-driven kind of way.

My grand plan was to pray for the repose of his soul, freed now from his “sickness unto death”, not so much “in fear and trembling” as in the hope that he could finally rest in peace. I proceeded to look for an opportunity for a plenary indulgence to be offered for him. I got all excited and was encouraging those with whom I lived to adopt for themselves a messed-up philosopher and to gain a plenary indulgence to be applied to him. My reasoning was this: these people who have done so much damage to the world through their contribution to Western thought – if they got to Heaven, could you imagine how fervently they would be interceding for us in an effort to mitigate the disaster their work could have caused?! Perhaps it all sounds a little silly, but that’s just where my mind went.

I have to admit my genuine (yet surprising) sympathy for this confused man motivates me to attempt to find SOME truth, however little of it exists, amidst the mess of fear and insecurity and lovelessness by which his work is characterised.

Something that really climbed inside my head and asked me to explore it was Kierkegaard’s dialectical notion of ‘self.’ Kierkegaard defines self most deliberately at the commencement of his work The Sickness Unto Death:

The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation relating itself to itself in the relation. The self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is… in short, a synthesis.

What seems at first glance like confused rambling is really a sophisticated presentation of a reflexive locus of self-relating between self as it is (S1) and self as it will be (S2) which is synthesized in the very process of becoming. (No, don’t get excited Whitehead. Heel, Hartshorne! I am NOT a proponent for process philosophy… not indiscriminately, anyway, and certainly NOT applied to God. Now THERE is something to post about at a later date!!) So let us consider moving from S1 to S2, where at the next point in time S2 becomes S1a seeking to move to S2a which then in turn becomes S1b, etc.

Among the several different lenses through which Kierkegaard explores this notion of self, one in particular really took hold of my interest; Kierkegaard proposes the dialectic of thesis: possibility and antithesis: necessity, arriving at the synthesis freedom. If we substitute these values into Kierkegaard’s “formula” for self (above), we see movement from necessityS1 to possibilityS2, which having been exercised, becomes necessityS1a, that is, the necessity of the self at the next given moment. Freedom within this scheme, therefore, constitutes this continuous movement through time from necessity to possibility.

Before jumping in and exploring his views on necessity and possibility in any depth, its helpful perhaps to establish a benchmark against which we can test what Kierkegaard tells us. A slightly Thomistic vein of thought is helpful here. A true conception of freedom is ordered toward the ultimate good of the self. The ultimate good of self surely consists in the attainment of its final cause, which is to be itself in the presence of God. In the process of attaining this final cause, freedom is the ability to exercise the will, informed by a judgment of the will and with the agreement of the appetite (c.f. Summa Theologiae Ia Q.83 a.3) An obvious impediment to freedom would be coercion; a less obvious impediment may be ignorance of the good – how can one choose what one does not know?

Now Kierkegaard astutely observes that to be spoiled for choice is not freedom. This overemphasis on possibility – to be able to arbitrarily choose anything without any sense of necessity, is actually an impediment to freedom. It causes stagnation on the cusp of decision, and the movement from possibility to necessity ceases. (Incidentally it is interesting to note the similarity between what I have called here “stagnation on the cusp of decision” and what Camus calls “living life at the crossroads”… is the existentialist ever truly free?) At any rate, I feel compelled to interpret Kierkegaard’s position here as a claim that to operate on this plane is to abuse one’s imagination. The use of the imagination involves drawing self out of self in most cases to be another self for a period of time. From an opportunity cost perspective, excesses of this can be dangerous – all that time in possibility is unable to then be spent in actuality. Living thus in the imagination rather than in reality is an impediment to the attainment of the ultimate good for it represents ignorance of the good.

Likewise, “our hero” realizes that to overemphasize necessity results in either determinism or fatalism… ultimately, in the absence of hope. The trajectory of the determinist is fixed upon necessity and never moves back to possibility. The fatalist has no God, or perhaps more accurately, necessity itself functions as the god of the fatalist. There is no room for possibility here – therefore no room for choice and no context for freedom. Kierkegaard asserts that such people are “bereft of imagination” and as such are unable to engage in the activity described above that Kierkegaard calls “healthy functioning of self”. Essentially this exaggeration of necessity constitutes a subtle form of coercion and as such is clearly an impediment to freedom.

Testing against the benchmark established earlier, we can see that both of these discussions of what Kierkegaard claims freedom is not are, in themselves, accurate. His negative doctrine of freedom appears sound.

The positive claims Kierkegaard makes concerning what freedom is are more complicated to test, and I’ve run out of time for now. I am glad, however, that I was able to find some truth in amidst the confusion, even if it resides only in his negative doctrine!!

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the saga is unfinished but the battle is already won: Ephesians 6:11-19 and what the Greek tells us

Some Context

This passage in Ephesians is St. Paul’s answer to Isaiah. Isaiah 59 speaks of the alienation between man and God caused by sins such as dishonesty, injustice, violence, contrivance, denial of the Lord… the picture he paints as a result of the alienation is one of the blind stumbling in the dark (Is 59:9-10) at which time the Lord will come and will

put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation upon his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as a mantle.

Is 59:17

Isaiah speaks of how the Lord will come and bring justice to those who have done evil, and they shall fear Him, and they shall see His glory. He tells us:

And he will come to Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who turn from their transgression, says the Lord. And as for me, my covenant with them , says the Lord: my spirit which is upon you, and my words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your children, or out of the mouth of your children’s children, says the Lord, from this time forth and for evermore.

Is 59:20-21

Isaiah illustrates the victory of the Lord over the darkness he describes in verses 9 and 10 when he describes the Lord’s coming as the rising of the sun (Is 59:19) and it is this total victory that makes the covenant described above possible.

Paul’s Answer

11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.  14 Stand, therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,  15 and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; 16 besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.  17  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,  19  and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel

Paul challenges the people of Ephesus to put on the armor worn by the Lord in Is 59. Paul frames his text within a battle against principalities, powers, the world rulers of this present darkness (referencing Is 59:9). He asks each Christian to equip himself for battle and to fight with these tools in order to withstand the wiles of the devil, and to quench his evil darts. He shows his reader that this is the way for him to begin living the covenant that Isaiah records the Lord making in chapter 59, where the Spirit is upon him and that the words of the Lord are being given him.

Where the Greek gets interesting

Verse 11 is enough to give me chills, and here’s why.

11 Put on the πανοπλιαν of God, that you may be able to stand against the μεθοδειας of the devil.

The two words of interest are πανοπλιαν (transliteration: panoplian) which literally means “whole armor” and εθοδειας (transliteration: methodeias) which means wiles/tricks. So far, so good… so what? At this point its all about the word selection Paul has made, and the word he chose NOT to use.

The pan prefix at the beginning of the word for “whole armor” is the part of the word that translates to “whole” (think panorama, pantheism, etc.)
In biblical Greek, there are two words for wiles/tricks. One of the words is the one that Paul chose to use in this text, i.e. methodeias. The other word with the same basic meaning is πανουργια (panourgia.) Notice the inclusion of the prefix pan in the word that Paul chose not to use.

Why is this important? Paul is trying to illustrate that the battle is uneven… no, that its already won! God provides whole armor, complete protection. The devil doesn’t have a complete arsenal of tricks to throw at us, the kind of tricks that would match up to whole armor. This is highly encouraging!

Put on, then, the whole armor of God. Christ came, the Dawn of Compassion that broke among us, the Rising Sun that vanquished the rulers of this present darkness. He came, He fought and He won. We who follow Him are still playing our part, we are still fighting in the name of His victory as the saga of time and space plays out to its conclusion. If we fulfil our part of the covenant of the Lord by wearing His armor, quenching the darts of the evil one, praying at all times in the Spirit, keeping alert, persevering and making supplication for each other… so too will the Lord keep His promise to us – the Spirit will be upon us and His Word will always be with us. We will abide in Him and He will abide in us, participating in the Trinitarian Life that is the birthright of those adopted sons of God who were born to new life in baptism.