15 March 2017

An imbalancing act

That’s probably a good phrase to describe what this blog attempts to attest. Its poor, befuddled author – too long an expat in various places in Asia and too long a critic of his own country’s material and ethical culture – has long occupied a tense space between the Confucian and Christian worldviews, and that tension certainly contributed to his decision to join the Orthodox Church.

Under the influence of my Anabaptist father and – more than likely – his Quaker forebears, I never bought into the legalist-Anselmian view of original sin or any of its later Lutheran and Calvinist penal permutations, all of which hold the human being in utter worthlessness and contempt before a disembodied, insatiable vengeance and thirst for blood. On the other hand, I could never bring myself to fully embrace the bland, unsuspended optimism about human potentials which characterises too much of the modern Confucian thought based in Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a result I was drawn to the more ‘realist’ classical views of Xunzi, Dong Zhongshu, He Xiu and the Bans – and thus more generally to the ‘institutional’ school of thought which had a stronger presence in the Han, Tang and Qing Dynasties. By never entirely embracing the unmediated idea of人之初,性本善, they managed to keep a firm hold of that paradoxical tension between ritual and reason, with neither prevailing wholly over the other, which characterised the true form of the Master’s thought.

(As an aside, I think that both Mencius and Blessed Augustine of Hippo each catch some undeserved flak for later intellectual developments which they could not have foreseen. True, there are troubling seeds of legalism to be found in Augustinian thought, but as Augustine’s devotional life shows, he never thought of God as a vengeful tyrant whose honour demands the torture and death of sinners. And when Mencius asserted that human nature was originally good, he was speaking truth. But far from using that truth to enable the toadying sycophancy, self-service and calcified moral complacency that would come to characterise the Song-Ming Confucianism which proudly bore the stamp of his influence, Mencius used that truth to critique princely and mercantile power, to the point of advocating revolt against tyrants. His insistence on the primæval goodness of human nature did not blind him to human evil.)

And later I was drawn toward the philosophy of Nikolai Berdyaev, and from there into Orthodoxy – which represents, not even a via media between the two extremes of optimism and pessimism, despair and presumption, but instead a theology of hope, which stands radically opposed to both. Yes, say the Church Fathers, the human being is fallen and his nature is darkened. Yes, say the Church Fathers, you must consider yourself among the worst of sinners. Yes, say the Church Fathers, you must make confession and fall down on your hands and knees before God. Yes, say the Church Fathers, you must turn the face of your heart – always, always, at every minute and every breath – back toward the person of Christ. But – yes – the Triune God made you to be holy and true and beautiful. And yes – that same God took on the entire life of fallen man except sin, for the sake of that holiness and truth and beauty. This is not so much a balancing act between legalism and permissiveness, between pessimism and optimism, as it is a thoroughgoing repudiation of both – and this is witnessed in the Incarnation.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was born as a defenceless baby. Christ spent the earliest days of his life in exile. Christ hungered and thirsted. Christ suffered poverty. Christ slept outside, in the wilderness, exposed to the elements. Christ exposed himself to the worst diseases and bodily infirmities – and healed them. Christ suffered betrayal. Christ suffered torture. Christ suffered gross legal injustice. Christ suffered the scorn of the crowds. Christ died, ignominiously, hung on a cross between two brigands. And after all of this, Christ rose bodily from the tomb. Mysteriously, Christ conquered death. And the Eastern Fathers in particular – Saints Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Cæsarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus – had profound insight into how this mystery of the Incarnation violently interrupted, even overturned, reality itself. Reality seemingly forbids the creature from sharing in the energies of her Creator by which she was created, but somehow theosis, overcoming death, is possible. This is not an act of balance or finding the mean; this is the world throwing itself with all its fury upon Christ, and being broken upon Him who broke His body for us.

The reality-disrupting nature of the Incarnation – ‘unto the Jews a stumbling-block, and unto the Greeks foolishness’ – has further radical implications. The idea that God Himself, the First Cause of all things, for our sakes became a hurting, hungering, bleeding, dying human man: this still should shock our sensibilities. If it’s not a scandal and a stumbling-block to us, it’s because we haven’t fully thought it through! If we do not begin – both individually and collectively! – to treat the hurting, the hungering, the bleeding and the dying among us in a different way, a gentler and kinder way, upon knowing that God was once (and still is!) among them, then we have not fully believed in the Creed.

It is charged by Western Christians, particularly in recent years, that Orthodoxy is a faith which stands aloof from social issues and that it is too close to and too cosy with worldly power. These charges, against the Church and her doctrines itself, are often misaimed, are borne of psychological projection and issues from within Western Christianity itself. But there is a level on which these charges strike home – and that is on the level of the Orthodox believer, the present author very much included. It is a judgement upon us, if we do not speak of and tend to the sick, the suffering, the sorrowing, the captives and the needy poor for whom we are encouraged to pray each and every morning. It is a dire judgement upon us if we allow sick and suffering people to fall through the cracks of our country’s healthcare and insurance systems (flawed though each may be). It is a dire judgement upon us if we allow inmates to be beaten and exploited for profit. It is a judgement upon us if we fail to honour our veterans with more than just words – or continue to use them as fodder in wars that never seem to end. It is a dread judgement upon us if we continue to allow children to be killed, by the hundreds of thousands per year, before they are born. If we do not imbalance the secular logic of the polity we inhabit, which favours the rich and mighty and cruelly mistreats the poor and powerless, we are falling short. As Saint John Chrysostom says: ‘You eat in excess; Christ [in the person of the poor man] eats not even what he needs… At the moment, you have taken possession of the resources that belong to Christ and you consume them aimlessly.

Among us believers as well, there is an imbalancing act to perform. The Church disorients us, every time we step through the doors. We are called to participate in a Liturgy that takes us out of secular space and time, and exposes us naked before the eternal. The focus of the Liturgy, the Eucharist, is itself a breach in reality: the body of the living God, which mystically unites us to Him and to each other, without reference to our physical condition, location, citizenship, sex, race or age. Before this breach, all other realities (and, let’s be clear, realities they are) are dissolved.

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