11 December 2009

'Under Attack' or 'Being Confused'?—A Criticism of JMT

As one who has long taken a keen interest in the very phenomenon of what Plato calls ‘hymns to the gods and praises of good men’ (Republic 607a), I was struck some years ago by some lines (ll. 1-16) at the opening of Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Noble Friend, Mr Richard Lovelace, Upon His Poems’ (The Selected Poetry of Marvell, ed. Frank Kermode [NY: The New American Library, 1967], p. 148):

Our times are much degenerate from those
Which your sweet muse, which your fair fortune chose,
And as complexions alter with the climes,
Our wits have drawn th’infection of our times.
That candid age no other way could tell
To be ingenious, but by speaking well.
Who best could praise, had then the greatest praise,
’Twas more esteemed to give, than wear the bays;
Modest ambition studied only then
To honor not herself, but worthy men.
These virtues now are banished out of town;
Our Civil Wars have lost the civic crown.
He highest builds, who with most art destroys,
And against others’ fame his own employs.
I see the envious caterpillar sit
On the fair blossom of each growing wit.

Faithful readers of Logismoi will appreciate the degree to which I have taken Marvell’s words to heart. I try to spend a great deal of my efforts here giving the bays and honouring ‘worthy men’. It’s not because I don’t occasionally recognise flaws in some of my less saintly subjects, and it’s certainly not because I don’t frequently see things all around me by which I am quite bothered and which I would really enjoy thoroughly skewering. I really am more interested in giving praise where praise is due.

But Fr Heers’s comment (here) on my recent ‘Quo Vadis’ post has me thinking about this. Fr Heers says he would welcome my ‘comments on aspect[s] of the Faith that are under attack or being confused by the Orthodox themselves’. Almost anyone who knows Fr Heers—or even, I would imagine, anyone who listens to his AFR podcast series, ‘Postcards from Greece’—will agree, I believe, that he has a special calling to bring attention to such aspects of the Faith, and this is something for which I highly respect him (I would say the same, in their own areas of expertise, of Perry Robinson and Owen White). While I am not convinced that I am called to perform the same service to the same degree, I did promise him I would ‘keep my eyes peeled for appropriate opportunities to comment more frequently on such issues’.

So, in the course of fulfilling this promise I was glancing at one of my bookshelves last night, and my eye fell upon an interesting little volume entitled Meditations from Solitude: A Monastic Mystical Theology from the Christian East, by John Michael Talbot (Eureka Springs, AR: Troubadour for the Lord, 1994). Many no doubt will be familiar with John Michael Talbot’s (henceforth JMT) recording career (I suspect some Orthodox would describe his music as ‘effete’, but I’ve been known to enjoy it from time to time). Fewer still will know that he belongs to a RC religious order, modeled on the Franciscans but of his own founding. But I bet very few will be familiar with any of JMT’s books, and particularly this one. Much of it consists of extended quotations from the Philokalia, and to the extent that it could foster a greater awareness of the ascetic teachings of the Fathers, I think it could be a good thing. As the great Fr Placide (Deseille) has noted in his fascinating autobiographical essay (‘Stages of a Pilgrimage’, in Hieromonk Alexander [Golitzin], ed. and trans., The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain: Contemporary Voices from Mount Athos [South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon’s Seminary, 1999], pp. 66-8), these teachings have long been sadly neglected even in Latin monasticism, in favour of the later ‘spirituality’ of the Carmelites and Jesuits.

But among ‘spiritually inclined’ Catholics and Protestants today there is a disturbing trend toward seeking ‘mystical experiences’ and the like, and a tendency get excited about any new thing, the more exotic the better, that can contribute to such experiences. Although I’m sure JMT has the best of intentions, I’m afraid this book is going to be, at best, fuel to the fire of an already epidemic spiritual delusion. My fears are worsened after a careful look-through yields the following passages:

Later in Eastern Christian history with St Gregory of Palamas [sic] (14th Century) the development of Hesychasm, or the way of Stillness and Quiet, will be seen. In it we differentiate between God’s Energies and God’s Essence. God’s Energies involve His gifts and attributes, and rightly involve the Incensive and Reasonable Powers of the Soul in their perception and description. This is the realm of doctrine, sacraments, ecclesiology, or any of the charismatic gifts of the Spirit. God’s Essence can only be perceived by the human Intellect and rightly defy [sic] all description. It is the realm of Christian mysticism. It must build on true Christian doctrine, sacraments, ecclesiology and gifts of the Spirit in order to avoid deceptions by the devil, but it must surpass them by first going through them. It is known only by ‘unknowing’. It is light that can only be spoken of as ‘divine darkness’. Even these descriptions fall terribly short. (p. 262)

. . .

In the West God’s Energies and Essence are not seen as separated as much as in the East. God’s Essence is seen to permeate His Energies, and too strict a separation is said to erroneously separate the being of God. The West’s perceived emphasis on the Incarnation as contrasted with the East’s perceived emphasis on the Resurrection and Ascension could account for some of this difference [?]. But in the end, both say much the same thing when it comes to pure and contemplative prayer. It is simply beyond human conceptual knowledge and description. It involves pure union with God. (p. 263)

One of course hardly knows where to begin here, and I feel certain that for most of my readers it is not even necessary to start pointing out what has gone wrong. One begins to chuckle at seeing the silly reference to ‘St Gregory of Palamas’ (as though ‘Palamas’ was a Byzantine city where St Gregory happened to dwell!), but then with the muddled description of the essence/energies distinction things start to become very serious indeed. It is as though JMT is simply guessing at a question on an important test for which he failed to study. St Gregory Palamas taught that ‘God’s Essence can only be perceived by the human Intellect’?! All that is required to dispel this notion is to reach for one’s copy of Nicholas Gendle’s widely available translation of selections from St Gregory’s most famous work, The Triads, ed. Fr John Meyendorff (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1983), turn to the index, find the entry for ‘Essence: of God’, and turn to the first page number listed. There, in Triads I.iii.4, we read:

The human mind [Intellect] also, and not only the angelic, transcends itself, and by victory over the passions acquires an angelic form. It, too, will attain to that light and will become worthy of a supernatural vision of God, not seeing the divine essence [!], but seeing God by a revelation appropriate and analogous to Him. One sees, not in a negative way—for one does see something—but in a manner superior to negation. For God is not only beyond knowledge, but also beyond unknowing . . . (p. 32)

As for the claim that ‘God’s Energies and Essence’ are somehow ‘seen as separated . . . in the East’, the same method yields the same result. We quickly find that in Triads III.i.24 St Gregory tells us in passing, ‘we affirm that this energy [of God] is inseparable from the unique divine essence’ (p. 82). So what JMT means to say is that in the West, God’s essence and energies are not seen as distinct (if inseparable), as they are proclaimed to be by Orthodox theology, and it is for this reason that, as Fr Placide says (Ανατολική και Δυτική Χριστιανοσύνη [Eastern and Western Christendom], trans. Sotiris Gounelas [Athens: Armos, 2004], p. 80):

Nevertheless, the absence in the West of a distinction between the imparticipable divine essence and the uncreated energies, energies that are an eternal radiance of this essence and the divine life that is communicated to creatures, will always leave the Orthodox with the impression that Western Christianity is continually suspended between a pantheistic confusion between God and man on the one hand, and on the other a purely metaphorical interpretation of theosis, which deprives it of its real content and demotes the spiritual life to a life of lofty ethics.

Such a shoddy account of what is, for the ‘Eastern tradition’, an extremely crucial point, suggests to me that there are serious reasons for viewing JMT’s book as merely another ill-advised attempt to find an ‘exotic mysticism’ that appeals to our post-1960’s sensibilities, and can easily be served cafeteria-style onto our ‘spirituality tray’ without making any troubling theological or ecclesiological demands of us. That JMT finds it in the Christian East rather than, like many of his coreligionists, in the non-Christian East, is perhaps commendable. But it does not quite make up for the failure to respect, or even understand, the integrity of Orthodox teaching.


St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

His teaching is certainly muddled.

But based on the photo, he has a very fine beard!

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, much can be forgiven for the sake of a good beard. But he called St Gregory 'of Palamas'. For this he shall be thrown into the Lake of Fire.

aaronandbrighid said...

Btw, you may be interested to learn that that's his Facebook profile photo!

aaronandbrighid said...

And we all know that no one of any spiritual depth or theological acumen can be on Facebook!

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...


BTW, I've been quite startled of late to note that my FB friend Patriarch Pavle, now of blessed memory, continues to post his status.

Wonder of wonders!

aaronandbrighid said...

Fr Mark> I'd say it's just further evidence of Patriarch Pavle's sanctity!

Anonymous said...

I pray Fr John Behr does not see your comment (as he is my friend on Facebook) ;)


aaronandbrighid said...

Cyril> He's my friend on Facebook too!