Monday, June 30, 2008

Toil (Thinking about Entropy)

Genesis 3:17-19 And to Adam he said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you,`You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you;and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Colossians 1:28-29 Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me.

I've heard it said that God selects the patron Saint at Confirmation whose help you will need the most, even if you don't know it yet. I chose St. Joseph as my patron in honor of my father and my late father-in-law, but I had little cause to think that the patron of workers would be the one I would always need most and call on repeatedly in times of trouble. He has been faithful in giving assistance to me, many times when I had not been nearly so faithful in my own devotion. And I need his help often, because work is always a struggle for me.

When I say work is a struggle for me, I don't mean that I have difficulty doing it. Indeed, my problem tends rather to be the opposite in clinging to a problem with such ferocity that I will suffer burnout and exhaustion long before releasing it. Currently, my frustration level is high because I am on a forced vacation because of a company shutdown; I would rather take my vacation in a more efficient way at a time more sensible for my workload. That's my personality; I'm actually irritated when I don't get the chance to work when I want to work.

But here's my problem. It's not that I like working so much; what I like is getting things done. The exasperating part is that somewhere things are not getting done, and that is why the curse of toil really feels like a curse to me. That's because the curse of work isn't just that you work, but that your work is meaningless and unproductive. Per the theme of this series, things are falling into disorder all around you, and the vast majority of what you do is just maintaining some semblance of structure in the fall into chaos. But the real illusion here is just that you are actually getting anything done, even in those rare instances when you perceive yourself as making progress.

So Ecclesiastes says:
Eccles. 2:18-26 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me; and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation; even in the night his mind does not rest. This also is vanity.

There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Now, I do very much enjoy being with my family, sharing the company of friends, taking food and drink, and benefiting from the fruits of labor, and I firmly believe that these are the sorts of things for which one ought to be working, rather than simply working for the sake of doing so. I have to thank St. Joseph for numerous not-so-subtle reminders to keep me on the straight and narrow in that regard. St. Joseph has a reputation for having a rather literal way of granting requests, even unstated ones. I once read a story of nuns at a convent placing a torn picture of a handyman in front of a statue of St. Joseph in a prayer for someone to perform sorely needed repairs, only to have a handyman show up the next day with one arm missing, the very same one that had been torn from the picture.

My recent reminder for spending too many hours working was one of the worst illnesses I've ever had, a flu-like bug that left me barely able to walk from bed to bathroom for three days. What I've learned from this is that toil itself is a lesson in entropy and our fundamental inability to create except as co-partners with God. It is exactly when our powers fail, when we have nothing left to give and nothing to keep, that we gain the greatest benefits. With my personality, that's a hard lesson, but it's being beaten into me slowly and surely.

I've started weightlifting again for the first time since college, something I had been putting off in favor of "intellectual hypertrophy" (a term appropriated from Bill Vallicella) for many a year. I think I had been resisting that move for exactly the same sense of frustration and exasperation I mentioned above. It just doesn't seem right that you should have to spend TIME just maintaining your body in that way, that it doesn't just fix itself and work perfectly. But that isn't the nature of the world anymore, where one's labor is perfectly purposeful and physical exertion clearly fits into the picture. Instead, exercise works like everything else. It's not those reps where you're throwing up the weight that matter; instead, you're going for that magic point aptly termed "failure." That's the last set, the one where the weight is going up and suddenly your muscles just stop and all of your will and focus and everything else can't get that stupid piece of iron to move one more millimeter. That's the one that makes all the difference.

To reach one last facet of this notion of toil, this entry deals more with my reasons for blogging than anything I've ever written before. Having had occasion to think about this particular theme of work the last several months, what with the forced bedrest and struggling to control the arc of dumbbells that didn't seem so heavy when I first picked them up, I finally figured out what blogging had done for me. See, I started posting on the Internet and later blogging as an attempt to actually do something productive in an attempt to replace the utter lack of purpose I experienced doing legal work. Nothing against corporations or law firms generally for those people who like that sort of thing, but the disconnection from actual human beings left me completely cold and unmotivated toward a career in which I had invested three years and six figures of debt.

Being "on fire" after Confirmation in a way I never had before, I used that energy to study and spread the faith. And this served as a kind of emotional crutch to keep me going when I was sinking into despair. But what I have finally realized, years after the fact, was that this was St. Joseph teaching me another lesson. As much as I felt that blogging was for some purpose, that I was solving some problems or making some things clearer, it was really when I was most incapable of bringing people around to my way of thinking that I was learning the most. So when I was pushing against someone who was completely intractable, not moving them an inch, someone else would benefit completely beside my intention with respect to my dialogue partner. What I wanted to do was to advance the dialogue on a number of points, but I've almost invariably found the dialogue to be in the same place as when I entered it, yet it seemed somehow that I found greater peace in the fact. I think that is probably what the best apologists understand, in that they recognize that they are in some ways simply providing resistance in a kind of passive way, letting God do his work rather than being in the business of compelling belief (Dave Armstrong and Mark Shea in particular seem to be those sorts of guys), but it takes a while to absorb that sensibility.

Having reached something of a plateau that regard, I wonder what I will do. In weightlifting, you switch your exercises around to work new muscle groups in new ways to attain balance in your training. I feel like I am at the point of needing to do something different, since I appear to have been drawn to apologetics, metaphysics, and the science of theology in some sense to learn that they cannot do what I first set out naively to accomplish with them. My sense is that I need to preach even more than teach, but I'm not sure exactly how I will go about doing that. But for the first time in a long time, I feel at peace with both the uncertainty and the freedom, and having learned my lesson to some extent, I believe that I will simply enjoy it. Thus ends the series, and I believe that I will take an indefinite break from blogging while I ponder these things.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A filioque footnote

I interrupt my soon-to-be-completed series to provide this footnote to Mike Liccione's filioque VIII post. Fr. Giulio Maspero is one of the foremost experts on Gregory of Nyssa among contemporary scholars, and he first came to my attention as one of those rare priests having a scientific background equally formidable with his theological learning (he has a Ph.D. in quantum physics, and his work was in an area of personal interest: stochastic quantum mechanics).
At any rate, I think he has the best take I have encountered in the scholarship re: Gregory's use of dia tou yiou, and I reproduce a brief excerpt from one of his works here with the hope that it will entice people interested in this subject to read the entire work. I've transliterated Greek text in what I hope to be an understandable way; footnote citations are omitted, and bolding is mine.

The conclusion is that one cannot understand the significance of the dia tou yiou
if one does not pay attention to the personal characteristic of the Spirit: the one who united the Father and Son and who leads to unity. For, with a beautiful expression of B. Forte, the Spirit is the "us in person of the divine communion." Thus, one can affirm that, in the context of Nyssian thought, the Spirit as syndetikon is the exegesis of the dia tou yiou, from which it can never be separated. This should be the most original contribution of the present study: this connection is almost totally passed over in the literature, which is principally dedicated to the study of the divinity of the third Person and, in the few cases in which his procession is treated, one gets often sidetracked in polemics of verbal Byzantinism.

Thus it was seen, that the base of the whole Nyssian construction is the continuity between economy and immanence: the sending of the Holy Spirit by the Son cannot be solely limited to the economic sphere.

It is probable that this development of Gregory's Trinitarian doctrine is due to the great value that he places in creation and to the purification of the remnants of Origenistic intellectualism that still slowed down Basil's pneumatology. For the Spirit is, at the same time, the One who brings to completion the dynamic of intra-Trinitarian union and who attracts and unites man and the world to the Triune God, inserting them in his vortex of life and love.

The summit of Gregory's pneumatology is then, precisely the recognition of the personal characteristic of the Third Person: he who leads to union, in immanence as in the economy. He is the syndetikon, the bond. His mode of being God, his mode of containing the unique divine essence, is the holos einai: that is, to carry to unity, to constitute a whole. This syn- of syndetikon recalls immediately the syn- in the syneklamponta of the Son with the Father: in this way it is shown that the fundamental category is intra-Trinitarian koinonia. B. Forte cites 2 Cor. 13.13 and auspiciously notes that, precisely due to his personal characteristic, in the greeting use by the primitive Church koinonia was attributed to the Holy Spirit.

In this sense, the accent moves to the Trinity as union of love. In the communion of the Father and the Son, which point one to the other, on the real level as on the logical level, the Spirit is not a complement, a simple extension toward the economy, fruit of an almost subordinating conjoined spiration. The Spirit rather unites the Father and the Son in as much as Spirit of the Father and of the Son.

Trinity and Man: Gregory of Nyssa's Ad Ablabium (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae series, vol. 86, Brill: Leiden and Boston, 2007), p. 184-85.

Fr. Maspero goes on to make the explicit connection to Latin theology on pp. 185-87:

So, in the Nyssian dia tou yiou the accent is placed on the tou yiou, on the communion of the Father and the Son, and not on the pure passivity of the dia. The same phenomena will be reproduced in Latin theology, where the nexus amoris eliminates the danger of dialectically and logistically opposing the Son to the Father, in generation as well as in spiration. The nexus amoris shows, in fact, that in the Filioque the accent is on the Filio and not on the que. With the same operation the dangers of "theological filioqueism" are eliminated, which, with an almost rationalistic coldness, dissects the Trinity, separating Paternity and Filiation from Spiration and Procession.

Such a deformation would lead to negate the Trinitarian reciprocity of the Spirit in relation to the Father and the Son. In fact, from a purely logical viewpoint, only the Father and the Son are in relative opposition. The temptation is then born to move from the logical level to the real one, affirming that, while the Spirit is relative to the Father and the Son, united in the unique spiration, one cannot say however that the Father and the Son are, in their turn, relative to the Spirit.

In synthesis, in Latin terms, l'unus Spirator is unus precisely by the Person of the Spirit, who is the union, the syndetikon, of the duo spirantes, united and distinct in their proper Paternity and Filiation by their mutual Spirit. Spiratio is, in fact, the unique respiration of love of the Father and Son: to be Son does not only mean to receive all from the Father -- to be his perfect Image but also to give to the Father perfect glory, to give everything back to the Father. It is in this manner that the Son manifests the Spirit in his Filiation to the Father, who is in this way fully Father, receiving his own glory from his own Son. This is the circular dynamic of glory seen in the [Adversus Macedonianos, De Spiritu Sancto]. But, at the same time, since it is proper of the Son to give to the Father all glory, it is the Son who sends the Spirit in the economy, extending into time the eternal movement that characterizes him as Person, to attract all to the Father. The Spirit is then like the eternal 'regard' of the Son to the Father, which for love of the Father himself reposes on creation and is extended as the gaze of the Crucified Christ, that fascinates and conquers. Gregory's equilibrium is, thus, perfect.

Therefore, while confronting Nyssian pneumatology with Latin doctrine, two considerations are necessary: on one side Gregory purifies the category of 'cause' of the temporal dimension and of substantial inferiority, transforming it into a notion that signifies fundamentally 'origin'. Thus the Nyssian aitia is notably closer to the Latin principium. On the other hand, it is also necessary to consider that Occidental pneumatology does not intend, with the Filioque, to introduce a second cause in the Trinity. The key point is the consideration of the Spirit as bond of union in the Blessed Trinity.
In my opinion, Fr. Maspero closes some important gaps in the pioneering work of Fr. David Balas, and Fr. Maspero does a great deal to correct the misinterpretations of Latin theology and Gregory's work as a result of the "verbal Byzantinism" described above. Upon reading his work, one will not doubt that he supports his position with close textual analysis, and I must again commend the study of this excellent work for those who wish to grasp the complicated issue of the Spirit's procession from the Son.