Credo: Patrem Omnipotentem

In a recent thread at the Orthosphere, Rusty bravely shared his doubts about the Incarnation – and, ipso facto, Christianity (as distinct from mere theism). Rusty is not hostile to the Faith. On the contrary, he has lost his former faith, misses it terribly, and wishes there were some way he could regain it. His comments are truly heartrending to read.

Rusty, first: Thanks for your candor. I am praying for you.

Second, I would like to address the nub of your difficulty, because it is something I have often seen troubling thoughtful people. You say that even given an omnipotent God – a notion you seem to credit –  you cannot help thinking that the Incarnation, and by extension the Redemption of the world, are simply unlikely.

You write:

 [The Incarnation is not] impossible, [just] unlikely. It doesn’t make any logical sense that it would happen. But that’s supposed to be the reason that it is likely. Here’s the leap I have trouble making anymore.

You are in pretty good company. In one of the essays collected for his famous book, Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell made the same argument, although unlike you he employed acid sarcasm. Russell asked how likely it was that God would trouble himself with little Earth’s affairs, when He had billions of galaxies to run.

The question relies upon our natural approach to the notion of omnipotence. We naturally tend to think of God’s omnipotence by extrapolation from our own span of control, our own capacity. We naturally think of God as powerful in the same we are, but to a superlative degree. In other words – and this is key – we tend to think of God as having an inconceivably large, but nonetheless limited “budget” of ontological capacity, that He has to allocate among His various creatures.

But it won’t do. This natural way of thinking is radically inadequate to its subject. God’s power is without limit. He could create a trillion trillion universes, and His infinite power would not be exhausted even one little bit. Note also that His omniscience – a department of His omnipotence – is likewise infinite, so that without straining at all He can feel everything that each of His creatures feel, in all of those trillions upon trillions of universes, with even more attention and acuity than any of those creatures can bring to bear. Not only does He know your suffering, He knows it infinitely better than you do.

The way I made sense of this was to think of it in terms of economics. Say that you were the richest man in the world, 100 times richer than all the rest of the Forbes 400 put together. Say that God came to you and said, “Rusty, if you will sacrifice one penny of your wealth, I will ensure that everyone who ever lived on Earth, or ever will, has a chance to get into Heaven. Whether or not they take that chance is up to them. If you are not willing to pay that penny, they’ll all go to Hell. What do you say?” What would you do? You’d fork over the penny, right? Of course you would. Even a man who was a million times more miserly than Scrooge would take that deal in a heartbeat.

That’s what God does, in redeeming every world that ever Fell, or ever will Fall. It is infinitely easier for God to recreate limitless numbers of worlds – worlds as far as the eye can see, worlds without end – than it would be for you to fork over that penny. And because He feels all the feelings of each of His creatures, His will toward their good, and thus toward the overall beauty of His creation – i.e., His love – is also without limit. So, His motivation to redeem all Fallen creatures is without limit.

Thus from a mathematical point of view, the likelihood that God would not redeem this world is 1/∞: infinitely small.

I hope this helps you. Do please keep writing to us about your courageous struggle. You are not alone, however much it feels that way.


NB that for believers, the cost/benefit ratio of personal righteousness is likewise some finite quantity x of ascetic discomfort over everlasting glory: x/∞. It’s like, one penny in exchange for endless perfect bliss. Yet we hold back from that deal.

Sinfulness is just dreadfully irrational.

40 thoughts on “Credo: Patrem Omnipotentem

  1. Much more difficult than the incarnation, at least for me, was always the Trinity. Three persons and one person, God and Man and Spirit, One God in Three Persons–it still hardly makes a lick of sense to me, though I’m a believer.

    • Three Persons, one Essence. The Father is God, and He begets the Son (who shares His Essence) and proceeds the Holy Spirit (who also shares His Essence).

      It doesn’t make sense in a rational fashion. But also– and we Eastern Orthodox make this distinction– that God is three persons in once essence is not something we affirm as if we understand. We didn’t reason our way to it. It is simply some thing we *cannot deny*. It has been revealed to us. We don’t understand it, so we acknowledge this divinely-revealed truth about God. (Back when I was a catechumen, I thought it made excellent sense in a roundabout way. If there were actually a incomprehensible Being, wouldn’t there be aspects of that Being that were beyond human intellect, full stop?)

    • Sage: me, too. There are about four explanations of the Trinity that make some sense to me (those of Philo, Plotinus, Augustine and Aquinas), but I can’t integrate them in my mind, and no one of them seems quite satisfactory. There is no map adequate to that territory, it seems.

      I think the Trinity is a koan.

      • I have read some of this work by Dorothy Sayer’s I remember is being interesting and I think the first time I read anything about trinitarian analogies. There are many out there.
        The Sun: Globe, Ray, Warmth
        Communication: Thought, Word, Breath
        Clover: three leaves joined
        And many others.
        My Favorite is still the Sun.
        I think the key is to think of them as analogies not as explanations because Christians proclaim a uncircumscribed God.

  2. Kristor, your post still doesn’t seem to quite answer Rusty’s objection — i.e. it doesn’t answer why the Incarnation was necessary.

    I think St Athanasius is very helpful here. In his On The Incarnation, he explains that part of the fallen human condition is the very real possibility that mankind will cease to exist:

    because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing… The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape… it was [monstrous] that beings which once shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption.

    The issue here isn’t simply bodily death. Given the immortality of the soul, the soul will continue to exist after physical death. Thus, the real problem for St Athanasius is the degeneration of the soul. The Fall brought death and corruption into the world, and this death and corruption not only affected man’s physical nature, but his spiritual nature. Sin corrupts man’s soul, first and foremost; it breaks it apart, it sunders it. Thus for human nature to be saved from this inescapable corruption and annihilation, the divine Word had to be united to human nature and grant it immortality from within:

    Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all… He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held us in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.

    Christ is thus united to all men through His indwelling of human nature. Human nature is no longer corruptible. St Athanasius is obviously not talking about the impossibility of physical death or the corruption of a person’s character post-Incarnation — people still die and still do evil things. Rather, human nature has been secured in permanent existence, and the postmortem survival of the soul is guaranteed.

    But if God is omnipotent, why was this necessary? Couldn’t He have just willed us into permanent existence? St Athanasius says that

    the corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it. The need, therefore, was that life should cleave to it in corruption’s place, so that, just as death was brought into being in the body, life also might be engendered in it… if death was within the body, woven into its very substance and dominating it as though completely one with it, the need was for Life to be woven into it instead, so that the body by thus enduing itself with life might cast corruption off… the Savior assumed a body for Himself, in order that the body, being interwoven as it were with life, should no longer remain a mortal thing, in thrall to death, but as endued with immortality and risen from death, should thenceforth remain immortal.

    Therefore life had to be intrinsically established within us if we were to survive annihilation, and this intrinsic life had to be accomplished by God’s own enfleshment.

    Even given all this, couldn’t God simply have willed that immortality be established intrinsically within us without the Incarnation? I am assuming, I I think correctly, that human beings have free will — i.e. the power to act according to nature or against it, according to the human telos or against it. God could offer divine power or grace from without, but this could still be rejected, thus leaving open the possibility of annihilation. With the Incarnation of the Son of God, humanity is healed from within.

    • Andrew: I wasn’t trying to explain the necessity of the Incarnation, only the extreme unlikelihood that God would have decided not to save us. I don’t think Athanasius explained the absolute necessity of the Incarnation, either. I mean, I agree with Athanasius’ account, but it explains only why, given our nature and circumstances, the Incarnation was necessary to save us *provided God had decided to save us,* not the necessity that bound God to that decision. I don’t think God was thus bound; His act is perfectly free. That’s why Grace is gratuitous. So, I think there is no way – no way *metaphysically* – to show that the Incarnation was something God necessarily had to do.

      But my mind is open. I’m sure I’ve missed something.

      • My apologies. I misunderstood you. You’re right, God was not metaphysically bound to save us. His grace is entirely gratuitous, as you say.
        My point (which I think is representative of the Christian tradition) was to say that once God freely willed to save us, the Incarnation was necessary.

        Tangentially, some theologians have postulated that the Incarnation would have occurred even if the Fall had not happened. This is speculative, surely, but it’s interesting to ponder nonetheless.

  3. I also have a problem with a literal Incarnation. Or actually just the Bible itself as God’s specific revelation.

    I have no problem accepting that God exists. But I guess its all mental or theoretical for me. Like Rusty, I have no problem understanding the Incarnation in a metaphorical sense, but the idea that it really and truly happened…I don’t think I believe it the way a Christian is supposed to.

    I came to religion via Perrennial Philosophy writers like Rene Guenon, and Evola to a certain extent. I get so frustrated because I see a great need for religion in the world, and within myself.

    I want the ritual, the sense of order, transcendence, hierarchy. I want to feel connected to the countless centuries that have come before me. But I can’t make myself accept the Gospel story as literal.

    I have been praying on a regular basis, under the suggestion of an Orthodox priest. I feel I have been making progress, and it has shown me that this really has nothing to do with logic and reason or whatever. Faith requires something within the human heart that modern man is severely lacking, or at least I feel that I’m severely lacking.

    • It seems fitting to follow on Bob’s statement above through an articulation of the Incarnation – and Redemption – in the light of what might be broadly termed ‘Christian metaphysics’, itself a particularization of the ‘philosophia perennis’ in Christian terms. In this understanding, the Incarnation, far from being impossible or unlikely, is found to be intrinsically necessary, given the relationship between the Absolute and contingency, for ‘we have come from God and are returning unto Him’: the Incarnation is the means by which this return – this Redemption – is made possible. From Schuon:

      “If we start from the incontestable idea that the essence of all religions is the truth of the Absolute with its human consequences, mystical as well as social, the question may be asked how the Christian religion satisfies this definition; for its central content seems to be not God as such, but Christ—that is, not so much the nature of the divine Being as its human manifestation. Thus a Patristic voice [St. Athanasius] aptly proclaimed: ‘God became man that man might become God’. … Unquestionably, once we are aware of the existence of contingency or relativity, we must know that the Absolute is interested in it in one way or another, and this means first of all that contingency must be prefigured in the Absolute, and then that the Absolute must be reflected in contingency; this is the ontological foundation of the mysteries of Incarnation and Redemption.”

      – Frithjof Schuon, “Outline of the Christic Message” in “The Fullness of God”, p.1

      “‘God became man that man might become God.’ The first mystery is the Incarnation; the second is the Redemption. However, just as the Word, in assuming flesh, was already in a sense crucified, so too man, in returning to God, must participate in both mysteries: the ego is crucified to the world, but the grace of salvation is made incarnate in the heart; sanctity is the birth and life of Christ in us. This mystery of the Incarnation has two aspects: the Word, on the one hand, and its human receptacle, on the other: Christ and the Virgin-Mother. To be able to realize in itself this mystery, the soul must be like the Virgin; for just as the sun can be reflected in water only when it is calm, so the soul can receive Christ only in virginal purity, in original simplicity, and not in sin, which is turmoil and disequilibrium.”

      – Frithjof Schuon, “Christic and Virginal Mysteries” in “The Fullness of God”, p.155

      “If the Incarnation has the significance of a ‘descent’ of God, Christ is thus equated with the whole of creation. He contains it, as it were; he is a second creation, which purifies and redeems the first. He assumes, with the cross, the evil of Existence; to be able to assume this evil, it was necessary that God should become Existence. The cross is everywhere because creation is of necessity separated from God; Existence affirms itself and blossoms out through enjoyment, but enjoyment becomes sin to the extent that God is not its object, although all enjoyment contains a metaphysical excuse in the fact that it is directed to God by its existential nature; every sin is broken at the foot of the cross. But man is not made solely of blind desire; he has received intelligence that he may know God; he must become conscious of the divine end in everything, and at the same time he must ‘take up the cross’ and ‘offer the other cheek’, that is, he must rise even above the internal logic of the prison of existence; his logic, which is ‘foolishness’ in the eyes of the world, must transcend the plane of this prison: it must be ‘vertical’ or celestial, not ‘horizontal’ or terrestrial. … We can no more escape the cross than we can escape Existence. At the root of all that exists, there is the cross. The ego is a downward path drawing man away from God; the cross is a halting of that path. If Existence is ‘something of God’, it is also something ‘which is not God’, and it is this which the ego embodies. The cross brings the latter back to the former and in so doing permits us to overcome Existence.”

      – Frithjof Schuon, “The Cross” in “The Fullness of God”, pp.161-2

      • Schuon’s idea of the transcendental unity of religions tempts Christians to a subtle form of idolatry. In fact, you don’t have to be an orthodox Christian to see this — although any orthodox Christian should see that.

        Here is Robert Irwin in Memoirs of a Sufi:

        “Although Schuon was a convert to Islam, he had gone on to teach a Perennialist doctrine that, at their highest [!] level, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Vedanta are the same religion and embody an ancient wisdom, but that this can only be appreciated by a Gnostic elite. As a student I used to take Schuon seriously. I now think that his writings are pernicious rubbish and that the tradition his disciples claim to represent is an invented one” (p. 27).

        R. C. Zaehner, author of Mysticism Sacred and Profane, was one of Irwin’s Oxford teachers. “He believed that the alleged transcendent unity of the great faiths was a piece of dangerous nonsense, based on careless analogies and identifications of very different types of religious experiences and dogmas,” etc. (p. 36).

        Sedgwick’s account of Schuon’s “Indian Days” as a spiritual leader in India is quite revealing, with Schuon’s bikini’d young ladies, the interest taken by the police in sexual contact involving underage girls, and so on.

        Schuon’s really no friend to sound reaction. He purveyed a form of decadent modernity.

        That’s about all I propose to say on the matter. Interested persons can investigate further. I’d really find another spiritual father if I were you.

      • Sorry, I slipped — Irwin’s book is Memoirs of a Dervish, not memoirs of a Sufi.

        As long as I’m commenting on my comment, I’ll mention that Martin Lings gave C. S. Lewis “three long books” by Guenon, of whom Lewis said he was “as obvious a quack as ever I smelled out.” (letter 14 Sept. 1936, in Collected Letters of CSL v.2)

      • The suggestion that the philosophia perennis “tempts Christians to a subtle form of idolatry” is, in its own way perfectly understandable: as I have stated previously, there are both rights and duties inherent in religious exclusivism that both are in the nature of things and not to be denied.

        With that said, the more relevant consideration, however, is whether the philosophia perennis is defensibly true: in this regard – and as I have stated elsewhere – I would suggest close study of the exhaustive structured anthology by Whitall Perry, “A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom” (republished as “The Spiritual Ascent”); Aldous Huxley’s “The Perennial Philosophy”, while better known, is somewhat less valuable although still well worth perusal. Such a demonstration will, of course, not convince all comers – nor should it, for it is not for all takers – but the comprehensive understanding laid out in such a demonstration is simply not subject to trivial exclusivist denial.

        A key point in conclusion, however, is that the philosophia perennis is not itself a religious tradition or spiritual path; rather, it is precisely a valid, orthodox, traditional religion – with its accompanying possibility of a spiritual path – that one stands in need of if one is to work out one’s salvation – and possible sanctification – “with fear and trembling”.

        Yes, I have looked at Robert Irwin’s work, a kind of 60’s hodgepodge spiritual travelogue. It is perfectly evident from his writing that his encounter with Schuon and the philosophia perennis was as an outsider and largely in passing, was intrinsically biased by his own presuppositions and marked by numerous errors; further, he never gives evidence of having entered in any significant depth of understanding of the intellectual universe of either Schuon or other writers in sympathy with him.

        Regarding R.C. Zaehner, yes, it is well known that Zaehner was opposed to the doctrine of the philosophia perennis. What of it? Zaehner’s is but one voice, and his views seem largely reflective of tensions within his own situation. In contrast, numerous scholars have been strongly supportive of the doctrine of the philosophia perennis. [cf. S.H. Nasr, “Knowledge and the Sacred”, pp.109-10; S.H. Nasr, “The Essential Writings of Frithjof Schuon”, pp.55-6; K. Oldmeadow, “Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy”, pp.44-55] As for Zaehner, the following pair of quotes offer a perspective from the other side of that particular argument:

        “R.C. Zaehner, who changed his perspective several times during his writing career, at one point opposed the theses of Schuon completely and wrote, ‘Mr. Frithjof Schuon, in his Transcendent Unity of Religions, has tried to show that there is a fundamental unity underlying all the great religions. The attempt was worth making if only to show that no such unity can, in fact, be discovered.’ ‘The Comparison of Religions’ (Boston, 1958), p.169. To this assertion of Zaehner we would only add the phrase ‘by those who have no intellectual intuition of the supra-formal essence and who therefore should not be legitimately concerned with trying to understand or discern the supra-formal unity of which Schuon speaks.’ In his preface to the American edition of ‘The Transcendent Unity of Religions’ another eminent scholar of religion, H. Smith, has presented extensive arguments to show why the method of Schuon and other traditional authors is in fact the only possible way of realizing the inner truth of religions and bringing about harmony among them without sacrificing a single form, doctrine, or rite of a divine origin.”

        – S.H. Nasr, “Knowledge and the Sacred”, p.125,f.34

        “A case in point is the criticism of the late R.C. Zaehner against the writings of F. Schuon in his ‘The Comparison of Religions’ (Boston,1958), p.169. Zaehner’s uneasiness with Schuon’s theses and in fact with gnosis or sapiential wisdom in general, a concern which is found also in Zaehner’s study of Sufism, reflects more than anything else his own religious life and the inner fear he had of losing his faith in exoteric religion through the attraction of the esoteric, to which he was drawn by an inner sympathy and which he nevertheless sought to avoid because of the history of his own inner religious struggles and the fear of recurring skepticism.”

        – S.H. Nasr, “The Need for a Sacred Science”, p.66,f.7

        As for Sedgwick, his work on Schuon and other proponents of the philosophia perennis has been roundly critiqued by numerous reviewers. I would simply add that, among its many failings, apart from various factual errors, are a thinly veiled hostility to its subject matter, a disinterest and seeming incapacity to understand the intellective content of the figures studied, a deliberate ignoring of much of the primary and secondary literature associated with these figures, and a false imputation and conflation of political categories and figures that have no resonance with the figures under study.

        Regarding C.S. Lewis, yes, he did not care for Guénon. But again, what of it? As rightly honored a figure as Lewis is, no one has ever claimed that Guénon’s writings were to all tastes. As James Cutsinger describes:

        “You are right, of course, that C S. Lewis was introduced to Guénon by his student Martin Lings, but according to Lings Lewis was very much put off by what he found—especially by Guénon’s apparent disparagement of the ancient Greeks (excepting Plato), whom Lewis dearly loved—and his response to the books was severely negative, though I do admit (and have sometimes argued) that ‘That Hideous Strength’ reflects an appreciative reading of ‘The Reign of Quantity’. Nonetheless I think it highly improbable that Lewis would have mentioned, or certainly recommended, Guénon to Tolkien, and I can’t imagine how otherwise Tolkien would have become aware of the Traditionalist School. I suspect the parallels you rightly note are owing simply to his being steeped in medieval language and literature.”


        Martin Lings, who – as indicated above – was a student of Lewis at Oxford and who introduced Lewis to Guénon, recalled:

        “I knew [Lewis] well … between 1930 and 1936. It was in the middle thirties that I began to read Guénon, who, as it were, came between me and Lewis. I had already acquired from Lewis a respect for the Middle Ages, and in particular he had impressed on me the traditional distinction between ‘intellectus’ and ‘ratio’, which, since Boethius, had dominated the pre-Renaissance European outlook. But Guénon’s writings on Hinduism and, by extension, on Sufism, Taoism, and Christian mysticism were like a revelation to me. Quite overwhelmed but relatively young and ingenuous, I expected others to be overwhelmed…. But Lewis was not. He appreciated some things here and there; but whereas I had extracted the essential and was prepared to overlook the short-comings, insofar as I noticed them, Lewis came into head-on collision with these. For example, Guénon’s failure to do justice to the Greeks was a great stumbling-block for C.S.L. …As to Schuon’s books, they would certainly have appealed to Lewis more than Guénon’s.”


        I will leave the matter there.

      • Peter,

        I would like to contact you privately by email. If you are willing and able, please shoot me an email at andrew[dot]harrah[at]gmail[dot]com.

      • God save us from the idea of “the inner truth of religions.”

        There is, properly speaking, no Christian esoterism. It is all divine publicity. This thing was not done in a corner.

        This great fact is notably celebrated by the Church in the Epiphany season. Salvation has appeared. What the angels longed to look into has been made known. The Church declares it in every generation. “Go ye into all the world and make disciples of all men, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them whatsoever things I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

        Christianity has no secrets with the allure of which to tickle the appetites of the natural man.

        This fact does not contradict the idea of the disciplina arcani or of “reserve” (see the Tracts for the Times on this topic, by Isaac Williams — Nos. 80 and 87).

        The Holy Spirit is given in Baptism — for all believers. Holy Church knows no secret endowment beyond this, something for a Gnostic few. By that Spirit, the believer confesses that Jesus is Lord, only Jesus. For no one is Krishna or any other rightly called “lord.” “When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man but Jesus only” (St. Matthew 17:8).

        As St. Germanus wrote, “Now idol forms shall perish, Now error shall decay, And Christ shall wield His sceptre, Our God and Lord for aye.” What is true in the “world religions” is at best a preparation for Christian faith — to appropriate which, natural appetites, including the passion for secrets and the passion for a man-wrought “reconciliation” of religions, must be denied.

      • On the allure of the esoteric, see the cautionary tale of Mark Studdock in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.

        The desire to be one of the Inner Circle is one of the traps that are laid for us.

      • “There is, properly speaking, no Christian esoterism.” In one sense, this statement is perfectly correct, as there is, for instance, no esoteric initiation or rite in Christianity apart from the sacraments observed by the entire body of Christians generally. This is somewhat distinct from other religious traditions, where the ‘esoteric’ and ‘exoteric’ are more clearly delineated, and has, for instance, led Schuon to term Christianity in consequence an eso-exoterism, in which the two domains are largely fused. Another way of noting this is that, for Christianity, the initiatory rites are ‘simply’ baptism and confirmation.

        In another sense, however, the original statement is rather misleading, as there certainly is, within Christianity, that aspect of contemplative inwardness that is representative of the general character of esoterism as found in other traditions. This has, perhaps, manifested most fully in the Christian East, not excepting similar manifestations in Catholicism, most notably bound up with monasticism and the third orders. Specifically, this ‘esoterism’ in question is characterized by: a doctrine – the theology of the ‘uncreated light’ and the participation in the ‘Divine energies’; a method – Hesychasm, as particularly codified in such sources as the “Philokalia”; a spiritual lineage – as found preeminently at Mt. Athos, but also in such noteworthy examples as the Optina Elders or ‘startsi’; a spiritual attainment – that of ‘theosis’ or deification, in which man becomes a ‘partaker of Divine nature’. This ‘esoterism’ is accessible in principle to (Eastern) Christians generally, but fact is restricted by various conditions of opportunity, temperament and calling – in that sense, it might be said to be ‘obscure’ without thereby being ‘secret’.

        It is, unfortunately, not the case that such a contemplative ‘esoterism’ is available generally or uniformly throughout Christendom. One looks in vain, for instance, for the Lutheran “Philokalia”, for the Lutheran “Mt. Athos” or for Lutheran spiritual fathers who have direct experience of the ‘uncreated light’ or of ‘theosis’. This is not to ignore such an outstanding marginal exception as Jacob Boehme, but such a figure cannot be said to be representative of the spiritual possibilities of Lutheranism per se. Now, there are certainly those Christians – temperamentally disinclined toward contemplative inwardness – who will look askance and with suspicion at any aspect within Christianity so directed. What of it?

        “Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.” (KJV: Luke 11:52)

    • Bob,

      May I suggest a book to you? It’s the biography of Eugene Rose, who became Fr Seraphim Rose, a true reactionary of our times. I remember reading in that biography that Guenon’s writings were formative in his eventual conversion to (Orthodox) Christianity. Perhaps it might be helpful to you.

      • Thanks. This biography has been on my reading list. I need to definitely order it. I have read Nihilism by Fr. Seraphim Rose, and it solidified my belief in God and the necessity of absolute truth.

        As I understand it, what converted Fr. Seraphim was an experience of the divine. I have been looking and praying for an experience, because I am tired of reading philosophy and arguments. I feel like I am trapped in a world of abstract reasoning, yet when I talk to Christians and read about faith, it is an intensely personal and present reality. I feel that if I had such an experience, then all the doubts and objections my brain can come up with would be of no consequence.

    • To follow on Andrew’s suggestion, since you are of an Orthodox formation, let me also suggest three books that give a remarkable savor of both the continuity and life of Orthodox sanctity and faith that you might find spiritually nourishing:

      I.M. Kontzevich, “The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia” (out of print)
      Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, “A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain”
      Julia De Beausobre, “Flame in the Snow: A Life of St. Serafim of Sarov”

      The autobiography of Fr. Seraphim Rose is quite remarkable, and in good company with the books just mentioned.

      The contemporary world presents to us a mundane, secular conception, which we too readily live from within; an essential task of the spiritual life is to gradually move from this to an interiority rooted in the sacred. This may be accomplished in part by a reeducation of the intellect through theological or metaphysical study, but perhaps more critically by a reeducation of the sentiment through prayer and through close study of those – the saints – already living from and through the sacred. One gradually acquires a ‘taste’ or a ‘nose’ for the sacred and learns to seek it out, to cherish it, and, however haltingly, to begin to conform to it.

      • “I feel like I am trapped in a world of abstract reasoning, yet when I talk to Christians and read about faith, it is an intensely personal and present reality. I feel that if I had such an experience, then all the doubts and objections my brain can come up with would be of no consequence.”

        For many Christian intellectuals, this comes after becoming a Christian – as for C.S Lewis – who became a Christian by logic, began to live and worship as a Christian, and then had many personal revelations and experiences of mysteries.

        This could be a prayer answered. It could be the experience of Holy Communion. It could be speaking the Agnus Dei. Who knows – it would be irresistable.

    • Bob: allow me to suggest that you take the opportunity of this very Lenten season to study and prepare yourself for a really intense involvement with the Passion on Good Friday. Nothing will make the Incarnation more concrete. Let yourself be there in Jerusalem in that Passover season, immerse yourself in it and feel it the way you felt the reality of the most gripping scenes of the most gripping novel you ever read.

      Allow yourself to believe that it all really happened; that, as Lewis says, this is the one myth that is also just history. See where that gets you.

      To prepare adequately, best if you spend a lot of time in the liturgies leading up to Good Friday. There is an order and structure to them, that is very ancient, and that is designed to work upon the open heart in just the right way. Let it happen.

    • Like Rusty, I have no problem understanding the Incarnation in a metaphorical sense, but the idea that it really and truly happened…I don’t think I believe it the way a Christian is supposed to.

      Sounds like the scandal of particularity. I’m not sure of the work-around for that. But if the incarnation is a metaphor, then what it is a metaphor for? Human self-giving? If so, it seems at least as likely as not that the metaphor would really be the other way around. And if so, then the primordial incarnation must have happened somewhere, sometime.

    • Bob,

      I feel like I am trapped in a world of abstract reasoning, yet when I talk to Christians and read about faith, it is an intensely personal and present reality. I feel that if I had such an experience, then all the doubts and objections my brain can come up with would be of no consequence.

      To add to what Dr Charlton said, Fr Seraphim’s experience of Christ came subsequent to his conversion to Christianity, through much ascetic struggle against his own passions. In good reactionary fashion, he first came to grips with the perversity of modernity:

      “Allison [a friend of his from college] has said that ‘Eugene recognized the existence of evil and error before he recognized the existence of good and truth.’ Through Nietzsche he had felt the infernal spirit of Antichrist and had known its power. Through Guenon he had seen this power at work in the modern world, preventing man from attaining to a higher reality by subverting the traditions by which he can attain it, keeping him ensnared in materialism and ‘psychism’ which masquerade as spirituality. He saw modern man — in the midst of political tension and spiritual famine — expecting the coming of the ‘problem-solver’. For Eugene the Antichrist was a reality. And from this he came to an inevitable conclusion. ‘When I knew the Antichrist must exist’, he once said, ‘I knew that He Whom the Antichrist opposes also must exist. I knew that Christ must exist.'”

    • Peter, are you acquainted with Johann Gerhard’s Sacred Meditations or other works of spirituality by Lutherans? With tongue in cheek a bit, someone has referred to the Sacred Meditations as the “Lutheran Philokalia.” This book and certainly the chorales, cantatas* and Passions of J. S. Bach are touchstones for us.

      A good discussion of these matters is Adolf Koberle’s The Quest for Holiness.

      A right understanding of how and where we find God’s forgiveness was at stake in the Conservative/Lutheran Reformation era. I believe it is, in fact, widely recognized in Roman circles that there was much need for, and much truth in, the Lutheran rediscovery of the Gospel at that time. The more seriously one takes one’s sin, the more welcome the so-called “Lutheran” teaching. Until that time comes, though, it’s not very appealing — although Lutherans get some recognition thanks to Bach.

      From what I have seen, Perennialists generally have not arrived at the point of despair of themselves, anxiety before the holiness of a righteous God, etc. They are typically shoppers and disputants in the modern marketplace of religions. “A new book from World(ly) Wisdom — let’s buy it!” This is not how someone feels when God’s Law has cut through his defenses and exposed him to wrath and hell. At that point, the natural man’s love of religion will not suffice.

      When, like Seraphim Rose, Perennially-minded people become more awake to their desperate condition, they may be ready for the good news about the one and only Savior, Jesus, Who said, “All that ever came before me were thieves and robbers.” (St John 10:8)

      And then one continues to live… by mercy… in penitence…. in hope and prayer… a cruciform life.

      *Seraphim Rose was especially fond of the Candlemas cantata Ich habe genug.

      • PPS Despite my poke at “World(ly) Wisdom” Books, I like e.g. Lord Northbourne’s “Flowers” essay (in Of the Land and the Spirit, or the earlier Looking Back on Progress, from Sophia Perrennis et Universalis). There is a natural revelation of God (see the opening of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, etc.) and I think this essay speaks to that topic. Genuine beauty is a category of reality, not simply a matter of personal preference or of the idiosyncrasies of a tribe or time. Indeed, if it were not so, the Psalmist could not well speak of the “fairy beauty of the Lord.” Beauty is manifest in various non-exhaustive ways in this our experience of time and place. If I may refer to woman’s beauty, a woman cannot simultaneously possess the limpid clarity of blue eyes and the warm tenderness of dark eyes. A writer who gives thanks for beauty and who would encourage us to see it as pointing to a beauty beyond, not limited by its forms of manifestation in our time and space, can do good, speaking against the ugly thoughts and the dullness of our time.

        But attunement to the natural revelation of God doesn’t mean we have salvation. Indeed this knowledge, e.g. of the reality of beauty, can be made an obstacle interposing itself between us and the knowledge of our condemnation for sin and of our desperate need for the unique Savior. Sin, I suppose one could say, is that in us and in the evil one by which we turn the good gifts of God into death. We need the Deliverer, and He is Jesus.

        So you can see how, from one starting point, I can hold that there is indeed an attunement to divine truth — i.e. the natural knowledge of God — found in many places and spoken of by many teachers (and often this is knowledge is something from which modernity turns, or which it even despises); and yet say that this knowledge is not “the one thing needful” — the one thing absolutely necessary — (St. Luke 10:42), which we receive when the Holy Spirit creates faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer.

      • I certainly do not deny the existence of Lutheran spirituality and am perfectly happy to be informed of spiritual depths within Lutheranism of which I may not be fully apprised. It may please you to note that Schuon held a generally positive view with respect to Lutheranism and its spiritual possibilities (cf. “The Question of Evangelicalism”) – a point on which Catholics and Orthodox would generally differ – even if he viewed Orthodoxy as the most ‘complete’ expression of Christianity, a view that generally accords with my own study in the matter. As he has expressed, “Only the Eastern Church maintains the Christic message in perfect equilibrium”, and elsewhere, informally and with some humor, “The Orthodox are right about everything, except for their interminable liturgies!”

        With respect to Lutheran spirituality, I have been particularly impressed with Angelus Silesius and his “Cherubic Wanderer” (‘Cherubinischer Wandersmann’) – admittedly not the best example, as he found himself sufficiently unwelcome by the Lutheran establishment to propel his conversion to Catholicism. He stands, in my estimation, with such other remarkable figures as Meister Eckhart and Dionysios the Areopagite. Of course, as Luther himself famously criticized, with respect to Dionysios, he “Platonizes more than he Christianizes”.

        With respect to your comment regarding the necessity of “anxiety before the holiness of a righteous God”, anyone who has read, for instance – apart from, say, the Book of Revelation – the Book of Deuteronomy or the later, apocalyptic chapters of the Koran with attentiveness cannot fail to be sensitive to this: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” [KJV: Psalm 111:10 (& elsewhere)] Schuon, and others in sympathy with him are hardly insensitive to this, but their understanding tends to be rooted in the perspective of knowledge rather than of fear. This is a legitimate orientation, one well represented in the Christian spiritual figures referenced in the previous paragraph, and for which they need make no apologies.

        Regarding Bach, his sacred works, and particularly his cycle of cantatas, I share your enthusiasm and listen to them frequently, being particularly partial to the recordings of Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan. Perhaps you know of a ‘proof’ of God offered only partially tongue-in-cheek by the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft? The ‘Argument from Aesthetic Experience’:

        There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
        Therefore there must be a God.
        You either see this one or you don’t.

        He adds further: “I know three people who overcame temptations to atheism through the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.”

    • PS If this blog had a monthly Book Club and I were allowed to nominate a book, I would choose Evening in the Palace of Reason, by Gaines. This is about Bach, as a representative of the spirit of the age of Faith, vs. Frederick the Great, the Enlightened monarch.

      I am certain that many people who read this blog would greatly enjoy this book. I wish I could give you all a copy…. along with a nice selection of Bach cantatas, etc.

      • “[A] world without a sense of the transcendent and mysterious, a universe ultimately discoverable through reason alone, can only be a barren place; … the music sounding forth from such a world might be very pretty, but it can never be beautiful.” — Gaines, Evening in the Palace of Reason, p. 12

        To be contrasted with this music is that of Bach; see, for example, Gaines on the Actus Tragicus or Gottes Zeit (BWV 106), on pp. 92ff. “[T]he greatness of great music is in its ability to express the unutterable” (p. 94). Gaines has interesting things to say about counterpoint and alchemy, Pythagoras, etc. Of the Goldberg Variations: “We have listened to an extravagantly various set of variations on a simple series of notes that represents a stunning demonstration of the idea of identity in variety, analogue of the invisible presence of God in the manifold, phenomenal world, a feat that was only possibly in counterpoint” (p. 216).

        Sometimes people new to Bach might benefit from listening to a small work, such as the Actus, rather than beginning with the St. Matthew Passion, etc. I recommend the Bach Collegium Japan recording (Bis label, CD 781) of the Actus.

      • A fine point of entry into Bach’s sacred choral music is the Bach Collegium Japan recording “A Choral Year with Bach”, which offers highlights from their cantata recordings and which concludes with the final movement from the ‘B Minor Mass’, ‘dona nobis pacem’ (“grant us peace”), perhaps the most transcendent moment in all of Bach’s vast repertoire.

  4. With Andrew, I thought that perhaps Rusty’s objection had something to do with the fittingness of Christ’s incarnation. We might say that God can do all sorts of things, but it is appropriate to maintain that all of God’s works manifest his perfection and that nothing of providence is in vain.

    I would like to offer some ideas that may be persuasive to Rusty though they fail to be demonstratively true. It seems to me that God is the great unifier of reality. For everything that is has its source in God. God creates from nothing, and his act of creation does not add to him because he is the source of being and the world is his image, not a fellow occupier of some metaphysical space. Still, creation entails an opposition between creator and created, and God is the great bridge builder that transcends oppositions. I am no Hegelian, but perhaps the incarnation is God’s ultimate triumph in unifying oppositions. For the creator becomes a creature in a weird, cosmically mind bending act that shocks us. We cannot understand the incarnation as it defies all our normal categories. Yet, it appears to fit God’s unifying ways.

    The other idea is much simpler. If God creates a rational being whom to love and with whom to commune, then God intends that rational being to worship him. As Lewis notes, God does not need our worship, but worship is the appropriate orientation that we must have toward God. Love, friendship, and adoption are divine gifts, but we cannot help but worship God if we attend to the nature of the relationship. Noting such, and noting the necessary limitations and needs of imperfect created beings endowed with intelligence, God knows that our worship is necessarily idolatrous without the incarnation. As beings, we need an object for our intentions, and the God beyond being cannot truly be an object, discussions of supernatural grace aside. Therefore, God provides a way for men to overcome idolatry by becoming, in some mysterious way, a being for them to see, know, and adore.

    If these suggestions are heresy, I surely recant. They are just theologoumena that make sense to me.

    • Joseph,

      I am no Hegelian, but perhaps the incarnation is God’s ultimate triumph in unifying oppositions.

      This is the central thought in the theology of St Maximus the Confessor, arguably the greatest theologian of the patristic period. The dialectic of opposition is broken down in Christ, where we see the uncreated and the created distinct but not opposed.

  5. Thank you all, I am deeply touched. Just when you think no one cares.

    Thank you for your suggestions and kindness. I will read them all again and pray on them.

    To Sage McLaughlin, the trinity made sense to me when I realized it is similar to me being a father and son at the same time, as well as the spirit which is in and shared by each of my persons.

    • Rusty,

      In the post that elicited Kristor’s post here, you said

      It doesn’t make any logical sense that [the Incarnation] would happen.

      Here are two brief reasons why it makes sense that it would happen: One, only God in human form could live a sinless life and therefore be an acceptable offering to atone for the sins of the world. To quote the Heidelberg Catechism:

      Question 16. Why must he be very man, and also perfectly righteous?
      Answer. Because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which hath sinned, should likewise make satisfaction for sin; and one, who is himself a sinner, cannot satisfy for others.

      Two, only God could withstand the weight of the wrath of God against all the sins of the world. The Heidelberg Catechism again:

      Question 17. Why must he in one person be also very God?
      Answer. That he might, by the power of his Godhead sustain in his human nature, the burden of God’s wrath; and might obtain for, and restore to us, righteousness and life.

    • Thank you all, I am deeply touched. Just when you think no one cares.

      Kudos to you, Rusty, for being part the 1% (of non-believers who are *not* spiteful and angry).

  6. I am not sure the Incarnation was necessary. I think the discussion is backwards. Somehow the argument sounds like: “If God loves us infinitely, then the Incarnation is necessary.” I am not confident of that statement. I am not sure that the Incarnation was the only way God could have shown his love. I think more that “given that the Incarnation is true, then God’s love is infinite”.
    Thus, I believe (correct me Rusty here), that the problem is whether the Incarnation happened at all. I sometimes have my doubts as well. I don’t know any honest person who has never had them.
    To me, however, it makes sense. I could go into the whole archeological evidence, testimonies, etc. that are explained quite well by better historians and theologians than I could ever dream to be. They also sometimes give me the feeling that it is a contrived way to find meaning in something that has none. What has slowly has made it for me (because I do relapse), has been the amazing foreknowledge of Christianity regarding the true enemy: materialism. I say foreknowledge because they were able to condemn it long before its triumph, when belief in magic and superstition were the rules, not the exception. In every way, Christianity has seemed to be able to properly describe the problems of modernity, centuries before modernity existed. When I combine that with its amazing growth of the Church right after Jesus’ death, and its early history, it’s hard for me not to believe something really extraordinary happened then. For the rest, I just keep searching and praying, hoping that the Lord will strengthen my faith; as the alternative is senseless anihilation.

    • That God loves us infinitely follows from considerations of his omnipotence and omniscience, and from the additional reflection that, whatever he is, he must value and enjoy his being and knowledge (or there would be no way any subsidiary being could do such things; for, ex nihilo nihil). Given his infinite love for us, his saving act is, not necessary, but infinitely likely. The Incarnation, then, or some other equally efficacious salvific event, is infinitely likely. Athanasius and the Heidelberg Catechism explain why, given our nature and ontologico-moral situation, God’s salutary act took the form of the Incarnation. There may have been other sorts of acts that would have been equally efficacious; indeed, it could be argued that God’s provision to us of each new moment is effectually another saving act, since each such moment offers us the opportunity of accepting his will and turning from sin. In a sense, too, the Holy Spirit is incarnate in us, as inspiring the very being of each such moment, in just the same way it inspired each moment in the life of Jesus, and was incarnate in him. Not that we are begotten Sons of God, as Jesus is; for in Jesus the Holy Spirit inspired the Incarnation of the Logos, whereas in each of us he inspires the Incarnation of Rusty or Alan or Peter, as the case may be, providing us the option of being ourselves adopted Sons of God.

      Not to disagree, of course, with your statement that the fact of the Incarnation does indeed show us that God’s love is infinite, or at least sufficient to motivate his sacrifice for us.

  7. To add my two cents in this conversation, the only convincing “proof” I can even think of that is helpful (personally).

    Van Til proposed the transcendental argument- that “reason” can only exist if God exists. God gives “reason” existential context and actuality. Monism or pantheism cannot handle differentiation because it denies differentiation because “all is one”, literally.

  8. @Peter S “Specifically, this ‘esoterism’ in question is characterized by: a doctrine – the theology of the ‘uncreated light’ and the participation in the ‘Divine energies’; a method – Hesychasm, as particularly codified in such sources as the “Philokalia”; a spiritual lineage – as found preeminently at Mt. Athos, but also in such noteworthy examples as the Optina Elders or ‘startsi’; a spiritual attainment – that of ‘theosis’ or deification, in which man becomes a ‘partaker of Divine nature’.”

    It has never before crossed my mind that the Eastern Orthodox mystical tradition was ‘esoteric’ – surely it is simply a maximum commitment to attain the highest level of Holiness while on earth, by the ascetic path which has been found the most effective.

    I suspect that your misinterpretation (as it seems to me) may arise from regarding the Hesychast tradition as if it were a search for mystical sources of enlightenment and advanced spiritual experience – yet it is almost the opposite.

    The Eastern Orthodox tradition regards mysticism as easy -*all too easy* – but as strongly tending towards demonic and not divine influence.

    As fallen men in a corrupt world, most people will go into a search for spirituality and religious experiences with mixed motivations, or frankly bad motivations – from spiritual pride, sensation-seeking, or seeking knowledge to use for power.

    (Like Faust or Paracelsus or Renaissance magicians generally – people who seek to use spiritual knowledge/ magic to manipulate the world, especially other people.)

    And the Orthodox belief is that in this world the mystic will quite possibly be given what he seeks – spiritual experiences, knowledge, signs, powers – but arising from encounters with demons (fallen angels) rather than God and therefore tending towards damnation and working against the Good.

    So the elaborate structures of monasteries, elders, startsi, Saints and so on is more a method of *supervision* (rather than apprenticeship) – to try and prevent the ascetic mystic from being corrupted by spiritual experiences (rather than training people to attain such experiences).

    • Re: Dr. Charlton,

      Our talking past one another here can, I believe, be almost entirely accommodated by a clarification of the term ‘esoterism’ as, on the one hand, you use it here, and, on the other, the manner in which it is characteristically used by Schuon and other authors in sympathy with him. The misunderstanding is perfectly understandable, as the word, in English, carries different connotations, with their respective valences of attached judgment. For you, it seems the term is almost wholly Faustian in connotation: “spiritual pride, sensation-seeking, or seeking knowledge to use for power.”

      To the contrary, the manner in which Schuon consistently intends the term, and the manner in which I, in consistency, intend it above, is bound up with – as you have quite solidly represented – “a maximum commitment to attain the highest level of Holiness while on earth, by the ascetic path which has been found the most effective.” Put more pointedly, ‘esoterism’ is at once characterized by ascesis and gnosis and, as such, is wholly concerned with the return of man to God. It is, to give a concise definition, discernment between the unreal and the Real, and concentration upon and attachment to the Real.

      If, to quote once again from St. Athanasius, “God became man that man might become God,” the question is left hanging how this second movement – the return of man to God, his deiformity in God’s ‘likeness’ [cf. Genesis 1:26-7] and his ‘partaking of the Divine nature’ – is to be accomplished. One might say that – in Schuon’s understanding and in a specifically Christian context – this is precisely the work of ‘esoterism’. In this sense, there is nothing ‘optional’ or ‘misdirected’ about ‘esoterism’; to the contrary, it is at once wholly necessary and bound up with the very structure and orientation of existence.


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