Darwin and the Rabbi  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, has an interesting essay in Timesonline on a strong Darwinian argument for religion. Darwin noticed that all cultures value altruism; people generally hold those who make sacrifices for others in high regard. However, in strictly Darwinian terms, if evolution is nothing but a struggle to survive, then ruthlessness should prevail across the board. How to explain this paradox?

In The Descent of Man Darwin hypothesized that cultures with many altruistic individuals would have a selective advantage over societies in which everyone was looking out for Number One. However, for Darwin the precise mechanism for accomplishing this was "at present much too difficult to be solved".

But, as Rabbi Sacks states:

...that of course is precisely the function of religion. God is the voice of the other within the self. It is God who taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to welcome the stranger, care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, heed the unheeded, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, and temper justice with compassion. Nietzsche, Darwin's younger contemporary, saw most clearly how unnatural these things are. Nature is the will to power. Faith, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is care for the powerless.

Without fully realizing what he had done, Darwin was pointing us to the central drama of civilization. Biological evolution favors individuals, but cultural evolution favors groups. So, as Judaism and Christianity both knew, there is a war within each of us as to which will prevail: self-regard or concern for others, egoism or altruism. Selfishness is advantageous to individuals, but disastrous to groups, and it is only as members of a group that we can survive at all. As Darwin himself put it, "Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected".

Bishop Hilarion on Prayer and Silence  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Hilarion Alfeyev (b 1966) is a bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church. He serves in Vienna and is also the representative of the Russian church to the European Union. He attended Oxford--his dissertation supervisor was Kallistos Ware--and he completed his doctorate in the obscenely short time of two years. Bp Hilarion is the author of The Mystery of Faith (Darton, Longman & Todd, London 2002), a very fine introduction to Orthodoxy. To top things off, he is also a composer. His website is available here.

I recently came across an article of his titled "Prayer and Silence" which is especially appropriate Lenten reading. The excerpts below are particularly relevant.

...one should remember that prayer is not just a request for something; it is first of all an encounter with Someone, a dialogue with the living God...In prayer we encounter the personal God who hears us and responds to us, Who is always ready to come to our assistance, Who never betrays us even if we betray Him many times. In prayer we communicate with the sublime Reality which is the only true Life; compared to it, every other reality is partial and imperfect. Life without communion with God, without prayer, is but a long pathway towards death, a gradual dying. We live insofar as we participate in God, and we participate in God through prayer...

An experience of stillness is essential for every person who wants to learn the art of prayer. to achieve this experience, one should not necessarily withdraw into the desert. But one has to put aside some minutes every day, go into one's room, "shut the door and pray to God Who is in secret". Our usual temptation, or deception, is that we are always very busy and forever rush to do something extremely important: we believe that if we spend too much time in prayer, we will not have the opportunity to do these important things. The experience of many people shows that half an hour spent in prayer seldom effects our "business" negatively, in spite of our initial concerns. On the contrary, prayer teaches one to concentrate more, to make one's mind more disciplined: as a result time is won rather than lost.

The lack of taste for solitude and silence is one of the most common illnesses of the modern person. Many are even scared of remaining in stillness, being alone or having free time; they feel more comfortable being constantly occupied; they need words, impressions; they always hasten in order to have the illusion of an abundant and saturated life. But life in God begins when words and thoughts fall silent, when worldly cares are forgotten, and when a place within the human soul is freed to be filled by Him.

St Padraig's Creed  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

A day late--I'm only half Irish, after all--but here's a small tribute to Patrick (or Padraig, as he was known to his Irish converts, or Patricius, as he was known to his Romano-British family of origin). The icon beautifully melds Celtic and Eastern imagery (Patrick is widely venerated as a saint in the Orthodox church) and his paraphrase of the Nicene Creed will perhaps be a jolt to some of the trendy types who are into Celtic spirituality lite. Two respective tips of the hokey green leprechaun hat to GetReligion and Episcopal Cafe. The creed is found in Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbrian Community (New York, HarperOne 2002).

There is no other God,
there never was and never will be,
than God the Father,
unbegotten and without beginning,
the Word of the Universe,
as we have been taught,
and His Son Jesus Christ
whom we declare to have always been with the Father
in a way that baffles description,
before the beginning of the world,
before all beginning;
and by Him are made all things
visible and invisible.

He was made man, defeated death
and was received into heaven by the Father,
who has given Him power over all names
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth;
and every tongue will acknowledge to Him
that Jesus Christ is the Lord God.
We believe in Him
and we look for His coming soon
as judge of the living and the dead
who will treat everyone according to their deeds.

He has poured out the Holy Spirit upon us in abundance:
the gift and guarantee of eternal life,
who makes those who believe and obey
children of God and joint heirs with Christ.

We acknowledge and adore Him as one God
in the Trinity of the Holy Name.

Welcome to Anamchara  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Anamchara (aka The Website of Unknowing) is a project of Carl McColman, who teaches at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. I'm adding it to the blogroll because it's a very rich site with loads of hyperlinks to a wide range of topics dealing with mysticism and contemplative spirituality. It's a work in progress but well worth repeat visits.

Carl started out as a Roman Catholic, drifted away from the church for a number of years (this included an affiliation with Wicca), but eventually returned to the practice of Catholicism and is now a lay-oblate of the Trappist monastery in Conyers, Ga. (a foundation of Gethsemani). If the Wicca connection presses anyone's buttons--as well it might--please give the site a good checking out and make an informed decision based on the quality of the material.

Spiritual Joke of the Day  

Posted by Joe Rawls

What better time than the middle of Lent to begin an occasional series of religiously-inspired jokes? The following is a reworking of something that appeared on Ben Witherington's excellent blog. A big hat-tip to Dr Witherington, who of course is not responsible for what I've done with his material.

A small Southern town has three churches, all of which are infested with rats. The Presbyterians figure that the rats are predestined to be there and that trying to get rid of them would be an affront to God's almighty sovereignty. So they do nothing.

The Baptists notice that the rats are clustered in the baptismal pool, so they slam the pool cover on and fill it with water in an effort to drown the rats. However, the rats manage to escape somehow and next Sunday there are twice as many of them.

The Episcopalians have the best luck. First they form an Inclusion Committee to engage in social outreach to the rats. Then they reserve a seat on the vestry for a rat. Then they tell the rats that they can receive communion even if they are not baptized. Finally, they begin to talk incessantly to the rats about the importance of stewardship and contributing to the Capital Campaign. After a month of this, the rats go away and only come back for Christmas and Easter.

Three Faces of CS Lewis  

Posted by Joe Rawls

When I was a grad student at UCLA I liked to browse at Logos bookstore in Westwood Village. There was an entire section devoted to books by and about CS Lewis. The latter were mostly by evangelical writers who tended to assume that Lewis' "Mere Christianity" was a fairly straightforward expression of evangelical Protestantism. The less critical of these folks transformed Lewis into a sort of born-again saint. This hagiographical attitude extends even to Lewis' physical memorabilia. The Wheaton College library has a Lewis Room which contains, among other artifacts, Lewis' writing table from his college rooms at Magdalen, and, most significantly, the free-standing closet or wardrobe from Little Lea, his childhood home in Belfast. This was almost certainly the prototype for the magical closet in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. A similar piece of Lewisian furniture has migrated to Westmont College, another evangelical institution located in Montecito, California, not too far from where I live. One cannot help thinking of the late medieval cult of relics and of the largely cyclical nature of church history.

Be that as it may, Lewis occupies a well-deserved place in the evangelical canon. However, a quest for the historical Lewis reveals other, more exotic, facets of his spiritual personality. AN Wilson's occasionally problematic CS Lewis: A Biography (Norton, 1990) nonetheless clearly documents that Lewis' Anglicanism had a distinctly high-church, even Catholic cast. Each Sunday he attended the early Eucharist at his parish church in Headington, which was run by the Cowley Fathers, an Anglican religious order. One of these priests served as his spiritual director for a number of years. Lewis also engaged in the definitely unevangelical practice of regularly making a private confession to this same priest.

Stretching the envelope even more is an article by Orthodox author Chris Jensen which appears in Road to Emmaus, an Orthodox journal. "Shine as the Sun" presents in convincing detail Lewis' support of the Eastern Christian doctrine of theosis. As defined by Jensen, theosis is

...the summit of a gradual process by which human beings are reintegrated into the life of God, beginning with the restoration of God's image through baptism and continuing with purification of the heart and illumination by divine grace....theosis...is the ineffable union of the soul with God. Even at this lofty summit, we're told that the state of perfection is relative and not absolute; it is dynamic not static, forever ascending 'from glory to glory' (2Cor 3:18). In the words of St Gregory of Nissa, "True perfection never stands still but ever grows toward the better". This notion of epektasis, of eternal life as unending infinite progress, is found in Church Fathers like St Irenaeus and St Maximos the Confessor and is echoed memorably by Lewis himself in the final passage of The Last Battle.

I cannot do full justice to Jensen's meaty essay in this small space, but will close with a couple of quotes from Mere Christianity which he cites in claiming Lewis as an "anonymous Orthodox":

God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unscriptural. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it (p 65).

You must realize from the outset that the goal towards which [God] is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal...if we let Him--for we can prevent Him, if we choose--He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love such as we cannot now imagine (pp 174, 176).