“It is impossible for the infinite to exist on the same level of being as finite things, and no argument will ever be capable of demonstrating that being and what is beyond being are the same, nor that the measured and immeasurable can be put in the same class, nor that the absolute can be ranked with that which exists in relation to other things, nor that that which has nothing predicated of it and that which is constituted by predication belong together. For all created things are defined, in their essence and in their way of developing, by their own logoi and by the logoi of the beings that provide their external context. Through these logoi they find their defining limits. We are speechless before the sublime teaching about the Logos, for He cannot be expressed in words or conceived in thought.” – St. Maximus the Confessor
Growing up in a devout Christian family I heard the stories of the great biblical heroes numerous times and could recite most of them by heart. It wasn’t until I was twelve, however, that I dedicated time to personally studying Sacred Scripture. Naturally, I was immediately drawn to the more exotic, and often overlooked, books; the “black sheep” of the canon. The first to grab my attention was Ecclesiastes, in which, to my great dismay, I read the following passage for the first time:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.
I had never read anything so dismal, despairing, and disturbing in my life. Don’t get me wrong, it was not as if this passage introduced me to concepts entirely foreign to my experience. To the contrary, I found the words of the Teacher disturbing precisely because they resonated with intuitions buried in the far reaches of my soul. They conjured impressions of reality I had held since my childhood but never wanted to face. They rekindled the sense of dread and futility engendered by the swamp; feelings which seemed incongruent with the cheerful Christian worldview so tenderly nurtured by my parents.
“I don’t understand this,” I thought, “Perhaps it’ll make more sense as I continue reading . . .” I pressed on through several more chapters hoping for better results but to no avail. In fact, things got worse: “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals,” proclaims the Teacher, “the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” This was the last straw! I slammed my bible shut and stormed downstairs to my father who sat unawares in the den. “What’s his problem?” I exclaimed in frustration, “why is this even in the Bible?”
Somewhat taken aback by my outburst, my father responded: “Josh . . . what are you talking about?” Realizing he hadn’t the faintest clue what I was ranting about, I took a deep breath and proceeded to voice my dissatisfaction with the Teacher. He listened patiently for several minutes and when, at last, I finished my diatribe he asked, “Have you finished reading it?” Sheepishly I responded, “Well . . . no.” “Read the whole thing,” he said, “then you’ll understand.”
This was not the answer I was looking for. Begrudgingly I walked back upstairs, picked up my Bible, and pressed forward. After reading the book all the way through . . . I still didn’t understand. The Teacher left too many questions unanswered. The resolution at the end, to “fear God and obey His commandments,” offered no consolation. I needed things to be black and white—clear and simple. The Teacher’s ideas were too discordant; too nebulous; too real. I wasn’t prepared to accept an existence devoid of meaning—yet, this is the world presented by the Teacher; a cold, fleeting, impersonal, purposeless, unjust, world, full of uncertainty.
As most of us do, however, I set these troubling thoughts aside and retreated back into the world of fantasy. I played video games, read Star War’s novels, and watched endless hours of T.V. But, one can only drown the nihilism out for so long . . .
An Encounter With Death
The one thing we can be absolutely sure of in this life is that everything living will die. Death surrounds us–it haunts us every second of every day–relentlessly pursuing us into the grave. At the very moment of our conception we begin our slow decent into dissolution and, in spite of all our efforts, there is nothing we can do to stop this from taking place. We have tried and shall continue to try—but to no avail. There is no escape from our temporality; from our profound limitedness.
Nevertheless, to dwell upon our finitude and impermanence – which death so robustly exemplifies – leads us quickly into the abyss of despair. And, despair, true despair, is incredibly unpopular in the West. This is one of the reasons we desensitize ourselves, by means of video games, movies, and other such contrivances, from the reality of death. We do this by transforming it into entertainment; by inoculating ourselves from the absurdity and pointlessness it engenders. We, as a society, are enamored by the mere “shadow” of death – to borrow from Plato’s famous analogy of the cave – which seems less frightening and, at times, even pleasurable. We dare not turn our gaze and face the reality which would be too much to bear. Our obsession with the mere idea of death allows us to transform it into something enjoyable or thrilling (e.g., Mortal Combat) or even sexually arousing (e.g.,Twilight). Hence, as a matter of profound irony, death has become the ideal distraction from death. That is, until the real thing is unwillingly thrust upon us.
I entertained mere phantasms of death until it slowly took my friend Travis . . .
Originally posted on The Christian Watershed:
What is Don Juanism? It is, perhaps, most easily expressed by this simple Latin phrase made famous by the film Dead Poets Society: “carpe diem!” or “seize the day!” Loosely defined, it describes a certain disposition or attitude toward life which is explained by the French existentialist Albert Camus in his influential book The Myth of Sisyphus.
According to Camus, Don Juanism is not a system or a formula but a general outline suggesting a way in which the “absurd man” might proceed in a world devoid of intrinsic meaning or value. Who is the “absurd man” you ask? The man who acknowledges the world is meaningless—and, that there is no hope of a life after death—yet, seeks to ascribe or, at least, search for meaning anyway. The absurd man, when faced with the dilemma of nihilism, may choose (following the manner of that famous…
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Originally posted on The Christian Watershed:
Why did God become man? Was this simply a reaction to Adam and Eve’s fall into sin? Is the Incarnation merely contingent upon this event? Or is there more to this story?
When I was a Protestant I often focused exclusively on one aspect of the Incarnation–namely its leading to the death of Christ and the atonement for sins. While this is obviously of central importance (Christ most certainly did come to lay down his life for the world) it can lead to some misconceived and even detrimental notions. One of them being that the Incarnation was simply an “accident”; namely, that it was not absolutely essential for the redemption of creation. For many Protestants (not all) the Incarnation is viewed as merely a reaction to a particular event – the Fall of man into sin – rather than part of the cosmic destiny of creation itself.
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Here’s another “sneak peak” of the autobiographical piece, The Diary of a Despairing . . . I Mean, Aspiring Author, I’m working on. Last week I posted the forward which can be read here. I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please keep in mind this is only the first draft.
My earliest memories are of the swamp. Viewed through the lens of a child the swamp is at once magical and terrifying; filled with beauty, wonder, darkness and terror. In this way, swamps are a microcosm of the universe. For our cosmos is both majestic and frightful—awe inspiring and unnerving. The swamp is beautiful in its own way, full of unexpected pleasures, yet, also leaves one with a sense of dread. Like the rest of existence, it is a paradox; an unlikely combination of darkness and light. It is in this setting, surrounded by thick mud, honeysuckle, toadstools, crawfish holes, sugar cane fields, snakes and alligators, that I formed my first coherent impressions of reality.
I remember hunting for pecans in the back yard, digging elaborate tunnels in the mud for baby frogs to navigate, and watching doodle bugs roll up into defensive positions at the touch of a finger. I can still taste the cream soda my mother purchased from the convenience store at the entrance of our neighborhood on hot summer days. I also remember countless fishing trips with my father: “Before you put your hands in the water,” he used to remind me, “Check for snakes. When you see a long streak in the water it is most likely a water moccasin . . . so, don’t put your hands in.” Instructions I was all too happy to follow.
One of our greatest adventures occurred the day we stumbled upon an eleven foot alligator. I’ll forever remember its terrible presence. It floated near the surface of the water, perfectly still, its lifeless eyes staring uncaringly at our boat. I could see its massive form beneath the haze of the muddy water and was aghast when I noticed several jagged teeth protruding from the sides of its gigantic mouth. Naturally, my father paddled us right along side the creature. “Keep quite son, don’t make a sound,” he said as he slowly picked up his fishing rod.
I watched in horror as he carefully lowered the tip of the rod above the monsters hideous head. Sweat ran down my face as my mind raced with images of the creature suddenly jumping out of the water and chomping my father’s arm off! After a moment of hesitation, he gently tapped the top of the alligators head with the rod. In a split second the motionless behemoth disappeared in a gigantic splash; diving with surprising speed and agility. The shockwaves from the creature’s sudden departure gently rocked the tiny boat. I sat gripping the edge of my seat as my heart pounded with excitement. My father looked back and our eyes locked—we could read each others mind: “Mom must never be told about this.”
I have many fond memories of the swamp but all of them are tinged with a sense of dread; and anyone who has taken time to reflect upon nature will share this feeling. The same world that shocks us with its complexity and beauty is also cold, heartless, and destructive. The same tranquil bayou, with its flowers and lily pads and calming aura, will, given the chance, destroy you. The alligator, a truly marvelous and intriguing creature, will rip you in half without giving it a second thought (or a first, if you consider the size of its brain). Most of us experience this feeling of dread, which comes from pondering nature, at an early age. At some point we look at the world and see underneath its brilliant and mysterious exterior; recognizing something sinister is at work. If only for a fleeting moment, we become acutely aware of the harshness of reality and of our fragility and this makes us apprehensive.
Originally posted on The Christian Watershed:
Once I wallowed in the darkness of the void
That darkness darker than the night
Ever searching, ever groping, ever longing
My hands clutching shadows that slipped through my fingers.
Lost in a maze without meaning, without purpose, without destination
I wandered in a dry and waterless land
My soul aching for something or someone to give me hope
An experience to justify this pitiful existence.
How I yearned to escape the absurdity
I clung to my individuality, my uniqueness, but in vain
Having rejected You I acknowledged that all was One – ever turning, all encompassing
And within this Monolith “I” was an illusion.
How I longed to communicate – to understand and to be understood
How I longed to reciprocate – to love and to be loved
How I longed to impose my will – to create and to be created
But how could I escape the Monolith?
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I’ve never successfully completed an entire book–although I’ve enthusiastically outlined and written introductions to at least five! This, of course, fails to include the vast number of book ideas that seem to enter my head every week (sometimes every day). With the coming of the new year I resolved to narrow this list down to three projects. I then made the decision to focus all of my efforts on completing one of these projects by this summer. It was extremely difficult but, after much deliberation, I settled on a little book I’ve tentatively entitled The Diary of A Despairing . . . I Mean, Aspiring Author.
In the coming months as I slave away writing, and re-writing, I intend to share “snapshots” of my progress. I would very much like your feedback. To get things started, I’m pleased to share the forward of this unusual little book:
The Diary of A Despairing . . . I Mean, Aspiring Author
How does one find meaning in a world that is meaningless? This question has lingered in my sub-consciousness for many years. When I was a boy I didn’t understand the problem because I didn’t understand the words of the Preacher: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!” . . . I was naively optimistic. It took time for me to recognize life’s futility; time and real encounters with gratuitous evil. For in the midst of true anguish and despair it is impossible to avoid the hopelessness of our plight. Outside of these experiences, however, it is all too easy to drown the nihilism out. We’ve become experts at this in our culture. At any given moment there are a plethora of vain distractions at our disposal. Nevertheless, in times of intense suffering, though we are unwilling, the existential crisis is thrust upon us and we come face to face with the reality that our lives lack intrinsic value.
This book is about my encounter with meaninglessness. It chronicles the defining moments in my life, when suffering was unwillingly thrust upon me, and the internal spiritual crisis these events caused. Don’t get me wrong; compared to most, my experience of evil is more akin to a walk in the park. In essence, my plight is not terribly different from that of the average middle class Westerner. But this is precisely the problem I wish to highlight. We accept nihilism with such ease in the West because the majority of us live a life of ease.
The wretched soul sleeping in the gutter in Calcutta will, therefore, have no use for this book; he understands, far better than I, the futility of life. This book is for those of us who live in wealth, and comfort, and privilege (i.e., the majority of the West . . . even the “poor”). For those who are naively optimistic and or, simply, too frightened to face the void . . .
Hello friends! Im excited to relate some of the projects I’ll be involved in this year. As many of you already know, I’m the co-author of The Christian Watershed – a blog established by my long time friend and subversive writer Joel Borofsky. I’m proud to announce that Joel and I have acquired ownership of two other exciting websites: Hipsterdox and Orthodox Ruminations. We are in the process of re-imaginging how these sites will look in the future and in recruiting additional writers. In the mean time, we shall continue to post regularly on both blogs. Joel is a member of the Orthodox Church and I recently converted to Eastern Catholicism; so, we do have an ecumenical vision and are excited about the chance to promote Christian unity. Please check them out and show your support!
Additionally, I currently have three books well underway. In no particular order, the titles are:
1. How I Killed Nietzsche and Became the New Übermensch
2. People are Essentially Good: Why I Don’t Believe in Total Depravity
3. The Diary of a Despairing . . . I Mean, Aspiring Author
I’ve been working on these projects for quite some time. Sadly, I don’t write for a living, so things have been slow going. Nevertheless, I’m pushing through, and I have made it a personal goal to release at least one of the books in 2014. Please keep me in your prayers as I work toward this goal.
It occurred to me the other day that Nietzsche is right. The only thing I could possibly have faith in, if God is dead, is me. This thought, I must confess, is rather unsettling (namely, because I know myself far too well). But, if there are no transcendent values, if there is no meaning, what else is there to put my faith in?
I suppose I could put my faith in “science” or in some abstract notion like “humanity” or “the universe”—but these things are only meaningful, in a world devoid of intrinsic value, if I consider them meaningful. In such a world, I, the subjective knower, am the arbiter of truth, meaning, and value. It is clear, therefore, that, in actuality, “I” (and not some objective reality outside of myself) am what I truly have faith in. I have faith in my beliefs, my intentions, and my desires (e.g., my affection for science is the source of my trust in science; for science in and of itself has no objective meaning or value).
This, however, is truly a miserable, and hopeless, state of affairs. I am finite; I am mortal; I can be (and will be) destroyed. My existence is a temporary blip—a shifting shadow like the shadows on Plato’s cave wall. I am merely the byproduct of cold, impersonal, meaningless, physical processes which blindly, and uncaringly, march on without direction until the final death and collapse of the universe. In such a world, I am not a subject; but, merely, an object—a passive object. All of my thoughts, longings, desires, and emotions, as well as my ability to reason, are merely physical happenings—unimportant, undirected, predetermined, events. Thus we see the sickening irony of the situation: there is no “I”—at least, not in any traditional sense of the term.
To make matters worse, I am unreliable. I fail to understand or to comprehend or to communicate effectively. I am forgetful and can easily be deceived. I fail to keep my promises. I tell lies and cheat and steal and have pity parties. I lack self confidence and lack the power to change anything about the laws of nature which completely hold sway over my fate.
As I ponder these things I realize that, in the absence of God, there is no hope; because I am my only hope . . . and I have no delusions of grandeur.
When we recognize that placing total faith in ourselves is utterly useless and ultimately futile, we are finally in a position to understand the paradox that Truth presents us with: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).
“I” is an absurdity—a meaningless illusory object—operating under the delusion that the world has value. Life is hopeless; the universe is impersonal; I will end; I can’t save myself. This is because I live in a fallen world disconnected from Truth and estranged from the Giver of Life. I remain in this despairing state so long as I worship “self”; so long as I pin my hopes on a temporal, finite, feeble, dying blip in the universe. This is why Truth tells us to deny ourselves and to follow Him. Only He can give us life; only He can restore meaning and value. Apart from Him, we remain in the void, in the darkness, and held captive by death.
As most of you already know, my family and I recently joined the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church! I come from a devout Protestant family: my father has been a pastor for over thirty years, my sister is a missionary in Southeast Asia, and I, too, pastored for several years. As you can imagine, our decision to join the Church was not easy. Our journey was filled with years of angst, hours upon hours of discussion and introspection, mountains of books, and, intensive prayer. While all of these activities played a role in our conversion it was our first hand experience of the Church that had the most lasting impact on us. The great Russian philosopher Pavel Florensky once said, “Only by relying on immediate experience can one survey the spiritual treasures of the Church and come to see their value.” This was certainly true in our case.
I still remember the first night my wife Rosie and I secretly attended vespers at an Eastern church near my parents house. Up to that point, we had only rationalized about “the Church.” We had loads of objective information, from piles of books, rattling around our heads–but no subjective experience. We were like blind beggars crying out on the side of the road–our first encounter with eastern liturgy was like the miracle of experiencing sight for the first time.
One day I will share the whole story with you; until then, please enjoy these beautiful photos. Perhaps they will give you a taste of the beauty and richness of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; perhaps they will stir your soul and fill you with an intense desire to experience ecclesiality for yourself . . .