Mar 11, 2011

Reflections on Repentance, Psalms, and Philosophy

Wednesday was one particularly important days of the liturgical year, involving a ritual often viewed as distinctively or exclusively "Catholic," often to the dismay of Protestants belonging to denominations which retained enough from the Catholic church for their more radical Protestant brethren to criticize them as remaining still far too "popeish" -- Lutherans, Anglicans (including Episcopalians), Methodists (who after all were at one time Anglicans themselves). . .  really anyone who recognizes some sense or value to a liturgical year might find themselves marked by an ashy cross smudged on their forehead.  This includes those Evangelicals who, regretting losses which occurred through ever more radical waves of Reformation, are now finding value in cautiously reappropriating rituals, notions, actions, lines of thought, ways of life formerly considered far too Romish.  My partner texted to tell me how startled she was at the sight of a drive-through where one could be marked with the sign of repentance. For me, that is Evangelicals doing things as they tend to do them best, enthusiastically, exploiting aspects we Christians less experimental and settled in our ways of doing things would never think of,  sometimes introducing a bit of unintentional comedy.

Ash Wednesday introduces the season of repentance -- with prayer, alms-giving, fasting as the traditional pillars.  Every religious tradition I have studied -- and I've not only been researching religions since I was a teenager, but had the opportunity to teach a Religious Studies curriculum for 6 years at a former job, so I've covered quite a few -- every religious community has some way of marking time, of structuring the cycles and patterns of life, something akin to a liturgical year, in which narrative intersects with and is enacted within calendar, where feasts or fasts for some at least are prescribed or proscribed, where space and time, and even silence for self-reflection is opened, where the theme of sin, distance from God and from neighbor, from the persons we ought to be (and study of actual world religions, in their practice, in their scriptures, will tell you that the notion of sin is a lot more widespread than some polemically maintain), becomes a focus.  Sin is multiform and multifaceted, and may be grasped by numerous holds, some of them intellectual, some of them much more affective, some more global, involving universal experiences and conflicts, others so personal that the one holding them within may doubt whether anyone else has ever felt, suffered, done, and regretted what -- or like --  they have.  And all of those complexities and stances, realizations, and progressions and degenerations of moral life are rolled up, implicitly, into the ordering of Ash Wednesday, and Lent, and the Passion, and Easter and . . . .

I pray the Liturgy of the Hours (these days using iBreviary) -- at some times of my life diligently, at others desultorily -- or better put, since I hardly feel as if I'm praying them, I read them, I speak them, or I sing them.  This is another one of those complex intersections of text, ritual, daily practice, tradition of whose depths and fertility some Evangelicals, among others, are becoming aware and enamored.  The Liturgy consists in arranged prayers, many of them Psalms, read at given points in the day. There is a cycle to it, where canticles and verses, Scripture readings and commentaries (in the Office of Readings) bob and weave, dance and chant their ways in and out of the weeks and months.  The Liturgy of the Hours is a complex pattern woven largely out of Scripture, and if one desires or aims to know Scripture better, particularly the Psalms, it is highly recommendable.

My reasons for the practice were at first less laudably wise, in a way more utilitarian:  I love the thought of Saint Anselm -- a great theologian and philosopher -- and to better understand him, it seemed to me that participating in the round of ritual, both intellectual and affective, through which he was daily formed and reformed, might be a good, even (for me) necessary means.  At any rate, it could not hurt.  And of course, I found much more in this set of practices than what I originally sought, but that is a story for another time.  What struck me, as I read my way through the Liturgy of the Hours at several points and pauses yesterday, was the full nature, the depth, the scope of the reform God proffers and asks for from the person repenting.

One of the perils of reading and thinking through Scripture -- one to which the most open-minded (supposedly ) non-dogmatic liberal is just as prone to as is the hard-shell, proof-text citing, inerrancy-obsessed literalist -- is picking up on what one rejoices to read, responds to, finds support and reinforcement for one's views in, rather than reading on to the harder sayings, the whole context, the verses that illuminate and clarify the others.  When it comes to the topic of repentance, metanoia, literally "altering one's mind," anyone can be subject to this temptation of selective reading.

Something else has often struck me while I read through the Liturgy of the Hours, particularly as I recite the selected Psalms.  The writers of this liturgical ancient poetry are confronted by many of the same situations as we are today -- and granted this is why any classic literature remains classic, because it continues to speak helpfully, relevantly, opening unthought-out horizons -- but in ways anticipating and replicating entire complex lines of thinking and experience.  It is not for nothing that the Psalms are included in the Wisdom literature, for often one finds profoundly philosophical arguments, distinctions, discussions -- albeit framed and often developed in non-philosophical manners -- contained in their verses. 

An area of research that has exercised an almost obsessive fascination upon me, and upon which I've written, presented, puzzled, translated --  until I (with help of many others) brought forth a book that admittedly, considered from one side, does advance and aid scholarship, considered from another, tells only a chapter of an epic story -- is the notion and the many shapes of "Christian philosophy."  I've discussed that briefly elsewhere in Orexis Dianoētikē, and intend to explore it at greater length later, so I'll just point out three things, not commenting, but setting them down simply to lend context.

First, one finds the monastic life itself, with its radical reprioritization of goods, its appropriation of sacred and secular literature, its experiential theology, its structuring by the Liturgy of the Hours, called in a number of places and as a matter of course (until the dominance of Scholasticism in the High Middle Ages) "Christian philosophy."  Second, as a number of Christian philosophers have pointed out (for comparative study, including Von Hildebrand's views, see this), Christian philosophy often takes form and impulse through new experiences which then call to be made sense of through rational reflection. Third, it will often not fit strictures (some) philosophers retrospectively insist upon anything termed philosophy must comply with; many instances will fit Leon Brunschvicg's characterization of Pascal's thought as "a way of philosophizing that is not that of philosophers."

One also finds similarly philosophical sections in the prophetic literature.  It is often difficult to recognize this, since one already knows the ascribed source, inhabits a culture in which boundary lines between philosophy and theology, (often puritanically) secular reason and reason informed by faith are deeply (though often irrationally) engraved, and assumes that any reference to a personal relationship with or narrative of the divine necessarily casts any discourse far outside of philosophy.

Interestingly, if you reframed passages just slightly, the cultured despisers of religion of our own times would embrace them eagerly and with easy conscience, under the guise of moral philosophy.  For instance, Isaiah's refiguring, both spiritualizing and rendering more practical, of the practice of fasting:
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly,untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.
Those that self-describe their motivation as "social justice," whether religious or secular -- and actually the rest of us who recognize that social justice is not the summit but only one of many interpenetrating forms of justice -- can grasp in this something consonant with the demands of any schools of moral philosophy.  Adding to it the requirement not only to alleviate oppression and want, but also to remove, in one's own practice and those of others "false accusation and malicious speech," and we are dealing with a highly elevated moral code.

What sort, what level, of behavior is being set forth as a model here?  What does genuine repentance require?  Can one say:  Oh, I was wrong and I did bad things!  I won't do those.  I'm pretty much a good person already, but I just need to fix a few things here and there.  Can one make a few gestures, settle on a good intention, and then be in the clear?  Also from Isaiah, part of the responsory in one of the first prayers of the day, the Office of Readings:
Let the evil man give up his way of life, and the sinful man his thoughts.
Real repentance involves a change of heart, all the way down, not just stripping off a few exterior blemishes.  If one does wrong, enough to merit being called "evil" -- a word of which too many are too afraid these days, ostensibly because they don't trust others to use it right, but secretly I suspect because they know in their guts its they themselves that can't be trusted with it -- where it is stained into one's being, one's character, then the call is to change what needs to be changed:  one's way of life, one's ordering of goods, one's patterns of behavior and relationships. Another dimension as well, the inward one -- one has to change the way one thinks about things.  One has to shift the courses of one's train of associations. One has to replace bad, harmful, too tempting objects of thought -- cognitions, images, affections, emotions -- with those that are better, more appropriate, at least not as harmful.

What do the various Psalms forming the cycle of the Liturgy of the Hours -- the Office of Readings, Morning prayer, Mid-day Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer -- what complex narrative, what set of possibilities for being met with vindication or disappointment, what patterns of choice, emotion, thought and behavior, what gardens of forking paths do they comprise?

One central theme is the need to return to the Lord.  But, what does that mean? That is precisely where adages and commands bearing on one's moral condition, the state not only of one's individual actions and volitions, but one's habit, one's way of life, one's fabric of relationships, the ways in which one rightly or wrongly conceives of one's own rightness or wrongness, the thoughts of one's heart (and the human heart, the core of the person, is not portrayed in simplistic ways by Scripture). To anyone who has seriously studied the genre of moral philosophy we call virtue ethics -- not just having read a few sections from writings of "representative thinkers" in an Ethics class, from a textbook or an Ethics for Dummies, or having parsed a few arguments stripped of their context (the unfortunate way so many are taught and conceive of philosophy) -- to anyone who has spent time getting to know, thinking along with, virtue ethicists, these concerns are intimately familiar.  Read Plato, read Aristotle, read Epictetus -- set aside all the great Christian virtue ethicists if you like -- and you will see the same focus, the same realization that the good life does not come cheap or easy, that it requires self-assessment very likely to painfully reveal one's faults and their roots, and the ever-renewed decision to replace them, to supplant the only apparent good, with what is genuinely good.

The Psalmist realizes, and communicates that realization, that this requires grasping the true human condition.
As for man, his days are like grass; he flowers like the flower of the field; the wind blows and he is gone and his place never sees him again. 
The Lord knows the thoughts of men. He knows they are no more than a breath.
It also requires reasoning one's way to what is most real, reliable, trustworthy, and setting its roots within one's very being, to sustain oneself in the right actions, the right way, progressing in developing a fuller understanding both intellectual and affective, one that can be, however imperfectly, however vulnerable to being lost, passed on to those others with whom one shares relationships.
But the love of the Lord is everlasting upon those who hold him in fear; his justice reaches out to children’s children when they keep his covenant in truth, when they keep his will in their mind.
There is no sense in the Psalms, particularly those in the Liturgy of the Hours for Ash Wednesday, that all or any of this will be easy.  In one of them, the Psalmist raises issues, addresses God, with what aggrieves, even risks scandalizing him -- the problematic disconnect not just between virtue or vice and reward or punishment, but even more importantly between the grasp of what is fundamentally good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust.  The triumph of the wicked is problematic precisely because their wills are so badly turned that they even consider what they do, on some level, all right, even good -- and they represent this in speech to each other and to the community upon which they prey, boasting, bragging, justifying themselves and their actions. 
How long, O Lord, shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph? They bluster with arrogant speech; the evil-doers boast to each other. They crush your people, Lord, they afflict the ones you have chosen. They kill the widow and the stranger and murder the fatherless child. And they say: “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed.”
Christianity sometimes, in individuals, in communities, devolves to the level of Pollyanna platitudes -- at least if what is meant by the term is identifying oneself as Christian, employing some of its vocabulary, taking the portions of it that suit  and lay the lightest demands on oneself.  But, this plaint, and the ever-recurring reality it depicts, is at the heart of th Jewish Wisdom literature, at the heart of the Prophetic literature, at the heart of the Law, and at the core, the deciding moment of the Gospel.

What struck me especially as I read through this Psalm, however, was the reasoning the writer addressed -- to the unjust, to those tempted to succumb to their world-view and its implications, to himself as well -- reasoning that reminded me of a line of thought Saint Anselm pursued in his Proslogion (and which I've had on the brain now for years, intending to write an article on it when I can spare the time):
Mark this, most senseless of people; fools, when will you understand? Can he who made the ear, not hear? Can he who formed the eye, not see? Will he who corrects nations, not punish? Will he who teaches men, not have knowledge?
This is a line of rational reflection well worth exploring through further meditation, and later on Ash Wednesday, when one gets to Evening Prayer, the mysterious nature of God's knowledge -- and for Christian thinkers mystery does not mean a stopping point for reason, a limit beyond which intelligibility ceases, but rather a reality so eminently rational, intelligible that our capacities cannot fully encompass or exhaust it -- comes to the fore, is explored and celebrated.
O Lord, you search me and you know me, you know my resting and my rising, you discern my purpose from afar. You mark when I walk or lie down, all my ways lie open to you. Before ever a word is on my tongue you know it, O Lord, through and through. Behind and before you besiege me, your hand ever laid upon me. Too wonderful for me, this knowledge, too high, beyond my reach.
It is a very liberating realization -- one that might in fact be in some way necessary for genuine repentance -- that one's self-knowledge, one's self-portrayal, the ego-image one relies upon does not coincide with one's actual self, and that there is some vantage point towards which one can progress, by which one's full self is better known and situated.

The reliance that this leads to, the "personal relationship with God" that to many signals the end or impossiblity of philosophy, is from the perspective of the Psalmist and that of countless Christian philosophers, the minds and thoughts of many of whom thoughts were shaped by the round of liturgical verses -- as the ebb and flow of waves do remold stones a needed, offered, and accepted aid to doing moral philosophy well, to knowing oneself, the human condition, choosing and acting in it as one ought, as will be productive of better, more adequate perspectives and more fulfilling projects.  The realization of one's own limitations, both moral and gnoseological, and of the implications of God's mysterious knowledge leads to embracing being known, even being judged and corrected by a God, who knows one's own heart better than oneself.
O search me, God, and know my heart. O test me and know my thoughts. See that I follow not the wrong path and lead me in the path of life eternal.
As Lent continues, you may perhaps see more such reflections stemming from the Liturgy of the Hours, a discipline to which I've recommitted myself in the season.  More likely, I'll just write somewhat less so as to spend more time in quiet reading, publishing two posts per week instead of my typical three, and since so many topics already crowd the writing docket  -- the CLA and responsible assessment, my recent Ethics in Business Education project workshop, the meaning of democracy in the continuing Middle East revolution, and my continuing explorations of theories on anger -- more likely I will keep such Lenten reflections off the page, as personal ruminations.  Any replies or reflections from readers are welcome, and I'll be happy to continue any of the lines of this conversation in the comments section.