Sunday, June 12, 2016

Christ Became Sin: A Reflection

I've at time been puzzled at the notion that Christ became sin for us. For the longest time I thought it meant something that, in the sense of the scapegoat, that all the sins of Man were heaped upon Christ and He dumped them into the oblivion of the grace. I think that's true, but that's not what St. Paul seems to be talking about. Elsewhere, the Apostles describes Christ bearing the sins of the World or taking to the cross for the forgiveness of sins. But in this: He became sin.

One idea I had was that this has to do with Christ assuming Human flesh. Among Protestants, there's a heavy emphasis on the cross, even when discussions are given about the Incarnation. This is not completely incorrect. But what if we see that what Christ is doing is not necessarily something unique, but the nature of His person and office is what makes the event unique. Christ going to the cross isn't that important, but Christ going to the cross is the entire world. Let's explore this more.

The cross is a symbol that is not unique to Christianity. The four-points of the cross is a pretty important symbol throughout many astrological societies. It calls upon the number four, which denotes a completeness over all of creation. It also has a sub-divison, two and two, which implies parallel binaries. Then of course, the cross possesses dual axes, one going up-down, and the other side-side (or left-right if you will), overlapping with a center point.

The Early Church had no problem in thinking about the symbolic import of why God Incarnate died on such a death instrument. They didn't see it as a Pagan cross-reference, but that God's Wisdom was even present among those stumbling in the Dark ("He's not far from anyone"). Of course, the more wise of them realized this was a secondary issue beneath the primary symbolism of the Cross, as wood, being the very tree in the Garden (conveyed by the Apostles themselves). But the Fathers believed God was working within all details of Scripture, there were no accidents.

I don't plant to give a large exposition of this, since it's all speculation. But I think an important point to note is that Christ going to the cross was not God taking the punishment we were yet to take, but that God took the punishment we were already suffering. Adam and his race was already cursed since Genesis 3 (ending in death), and this is the curse/punishment that Christ sought to take upon Himself. Thus God redeemed Man by joining us in our curse. This makes more organic sense (and follows Scripture better) than the arbitrary notion that the cross is what we deserve. This is a Medieval invention that sounds awfully like the sadistic torture princes would afflict people with and call it justice.

But, given the above, why the cross? Well, what if Human life is summarized as a cross?

Perhaps, the horizontal axis represents our own temporal displacement between past and future. We are haunted by the past and tormented by the future. We've felt loss and expect the looming shadow of death. As Mankind hangs on the cross, we are torn between these two poles of pain as we dwell in the present. The nails represent the unchangeability in either direction. Our past is fixed and our future destined. We can't go back and fix our mistakes and we can't stop the oncoming of death.

Perhaps, the vertical axis represents our ontological or topological (spacial) displacement between Heaven and Earth. I'm talking about Heaven as a spiritual abode for spiritual beings (angels and demons). As Man we are tapped into two realms, and our disconnection leads us towards many perversions. On the one-hand, we lunge downwards and become like animals. On the other hand, we try to pull upwards and become demonic. Of course, perhaps its fitting that the feet are nailed, fixing us in our animality (we never can cease to eat or sleep). But our gaze upwards never can quite get there, and attempts to do so make demonic ascetics who are cruelly inhuman.

It's this that Christ joins, and in being crowned as King of Cursed Man (prophetically in the crown of thorns), He becomes truly Man for all Humans. It's this very fact that saves Humankind. It's who joins us in our place and takes up our cause. Christ has taken up our curse, in fact He has become our curse, cementing it into a horrifying and obscene act: crucifixion. It's an enacted allegory for the Human condition, described symbolically above.

So it might be strange to think about, but all of Human life is a kind of crucifixion. But instead of merely suffering our curse, there is redemption. We can take up our crosses and follow Christ instead. The suffering of Human life, the common pains of life, can be transformed and transcended. This is the great blessing of Christ. He became Sin, and now we might become righteousness.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Monk as Experimental Creativity

As per my interest in Eastern Orthodoxy, I have, over the past couple months, reassessed the idea of the "monk" in Christian tradition. In this post, I will first spend time on what I am not talking about. In this, there are still many bad forms of what is commonly known as monasticism. Then I will conclude with the proper role of the monk and how this is conducive, and healthy, for the Church as a whole.

When I say "monk" most people already have an idea of what I'm talking about. They imagine something from Medieval Europe. This is what, in Roman Catholicism, is called the "religious life" as per the "regular" clergy. These men and women live apart from general society in their own cloistered life. Sometimes this is for the purposes of being utterly alone. Most other times, the monks and nuns live in small communities.

Nothing wrong with this, per se, yet. But in certain streams of Roman theology, the monk is given a particular calling that revolves around the "council of perfection". In other words, the "religious" devote their lives to living out the Sermon on the Mount and the true Christian life. The rest, whether "secular" clergy or just regular lay people, are held to a different set of ethics. This is a particular kind of Augustinian logic. The original motive was a kind of understanding compassion. Most people can't live up to the heroic lives of the many saints, so, instead, there are different forms of obedience for common folk. If they listen to the ordained authorities, participate in Church, then they're on a good path.

Considering Jesus Christ never equivocated on such matters, one speculates that this particular compassion is really an impious compromise. In Dostoevksy's parable of the Grand Inquisitor, put in the mouth of the compassionate atheist Ivan, this sort of reasoning is unmasked in the Cardinal. The rule of the Church is liberative because God is a tyrant. People are too weak to live the life God asks, so the Church replaces the living God with a more responsible image and speak on behalf of it. Thus, people will be given bread, sex, and the decent pleasures of life until they tumble into the eternal sleep called death. The Grand Inquisitor curses God after a life of asceticism and devotion. He loves Humanity, and thus must subjugate them for their own good, and his love for God becomes bitter hatred. 

Now, this is a fictional composite and a part of a much more complex argument. This is a kind of slippery slope and psychoanalysis combined, and it is fallacious to apply to actual monks living the kind of life I described above. But it ought to raise one's eyes to the implications of such a world.

I am not contesting the existence of hierarchy, rather I am contesting the kind of hierarchy that is constructed. St. Paul talks about the immature and the mature. All of the Apostles speak of different gifts and the fact of ordained offices for leadership (diaconate, presbyterate, bishoprics), however one wants to understand it. Christ speaks of harvests bringing in different bounties (30, 60, 100). 

But this is never to commend lukewarmness and a social conformity for the sake of a created social order. In this way, Medieval Western Europe was an exercise in building Babel.

While Orthodoxy has tended to a better vision, there is still too sharp a divide and, functionally, the monks exist as better Christians. Groups like the Moravians, in their brief radical existence, contest the notions implicit in these static categories. In someways, they heralded the kind of life Christians are to live, inadvertently drawing together common life in towns and cities towards the life lived in the Desert. Many Moravians revealed that it is possible to keep both sets together. Unlike many radical groups among the Reformed, the Moravians brought about a life in the Spirit that was very different than the kind of moral reform promised by the former groups.

This may sound harsh, but the Puritan vision was pretty abysmal. I am aware of some benefits to living within Puritan communities in comparison to the times. However, Puritan New England was more akin to the Medieval experiment, especially its fall into worldliness and subsequent lax adjustments, than unleashing the Gospel. Perhaps the Moravians use of Luther saved a collapse of the Gospel into moralizing social formation. But I digress.

However, if we view the monk as a particular vocation towards creative experimentation, perhaps there's still something necessary and beautiful about it. There's a contingency towards the order and particular arrangement, but we might group them into anchorites and cenobites. The former are those who live in near isolation, and the latter who live in small communities separated from larger society. Both have purposes.

The monk is not one who pursues a kind of perfection distinct from other Christians. Instead, he/she is taking a particular, and usually peculiar, road towards the virtue that the gospel calls us into. 

Those monks who isolated in the desert were those who sought to seriously understand themselves and combat the demons that afflicted them. All Christians prosper from those battles, and the wisdom that was revealed through them. These particular Christians engaged in a brutal kind of self-examination, humility before God, and spiritual warfare. We all profit from this.

Those monks who lived in separate communities have purchased, through their time and work, greater understanding in building and sustaining community. The lessons learned among fellow Christians is translated for Christians living in cities on how to be peace-makers. These lessons also help us learn to navigate all our relational networks, whether at work or at home. We all gain from this.

So, perhaps the term "monk" is a stupid one. It connotes a kind of categorical difference between the "others". But, then again, those who engage in the above kinds of life have given themselves to something different. They are like the Scouts of Israel, telling all what they see in the Promise Land. Indeed, some return with absurd stories, but there are those (like Caleb) who bring the unadulterated truth. If there is a difference, it is only in that.

In this kind of definition, "monasticism" is a more wide term then many might expect. My last year in undergrad might be termed a particular kind of monastic living, as we lived communally (relatively) and the shared space brought about strange growth and challenges (8-9 of us lived in one large apartment). Like cenobitic communities of old, our living arrangement provided a kind of oasis from the alienation that can dominate college life.

Of course, this wider definition helpfully challenges the arrogance of prestige found within organizations that declare themselves "better". As per most arrangements in life, the monastic disciplines begin and end in contingent ways. They are not ontologically real in the same way that the Church is, but represent parts and fragments of such a catholic entity.

Hopefully this redeems the vision of the monk for those of you who are Protestant and/or wary of these kinds of things.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Rousseau is a Demon: The Radical Critique of Modernity as Heresy

I just recently perused Phillipp Blum's A Wicked Company which seeks to the oft forgotten tale of the radical edge of the Enlightenment. In particular he focuses on Denis Diderot, mostly known as Encylopedist and forgotten as a philosopher of high caliber, and Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach, an infamous atheist and materialist. Blum emphasizes these men's personal biographies and works to reveal that they offered an alternative Enlightenment that sought to create a godless, utilitarian society that lacked any utopian aspiration, but valued the happiness of all men, peasant to prince.

However, Blum contrasts Diderot and d'Holbach to Voltaire and Rousseau, the typical figures of the Enlightenment. While Blum lets Voltaire get away as a kind of craven social climber, and a well accustomed Frenchman of the Ancien Regime (the last mind of Old France ala. Nietzsche), he trashes Rousseau. Blum blames Rousseau for pretty much everything that went wrong in the French Revolution. He was paranoid, vindictive, and a corrupter of all goods that the Enlightenment sought to deliver.

But Blum's most damning critique is that Rousseau preserved theology and religion under the guise of secular philosophy. This taint is the fundamental root of our modern, secular, world. This manifests itself in many ways.

Instead of a Christendom that seeks to prepare people for the world-after, we have political utopias. Thus, Blum argues, Rousseau was perfectly understood by Robespierre for his particular brand of Terror. Lenin and Pol Pot contribute to the rogues gallery that read and treasured Rousseau for their own horror show called political transformation. In similar fashion, these secular princes/popes burned heretics of the new socio-religious order. Lenin purged the bourgeoisie and Pol Pot eviscerated "corrupt" westerners and urbanites. This is theology as politics (c.f. Agamben).

Instead of saints and the rites of the church that lead to purity, we have a new kind of glorification. Instead of fasts we have diets. Instead of saints we have celebrities. Our bodies are no longer temples to the Holy Spirit, but temples to a particular zeitgeist. Magazines like Men's Health provide inspirational ripped bodies and educational work-outs on how to achieve bodily perfection. The Tough Mudder has replaced men standing on pillars. People no longer flock to see the visiting holy man, but swarm to see the hottest artist or the most talented actor.

In Blum's estimation, this is the error of modernity. Whether it's Hegel's attempt to create a new Modern secular-theology to understand everything (a veritable systematics or Peri Archontes) or Kant's bracketing off metaphysics from the withering gaze of skepticism, both preserve a kind of secular Christianity. Blum damns this, through the personage of Rousseau, as the crippling zeitgeist of the Modern world.

I won't evaluate Blum's particular characterization of Rousseau  or whether his heroes really stand up to serious dialectical scrutiny. However, it's amazing that he sees through the veil of what so-called Secular society is. Indeed, it is "secular", because this is a different age. The moderate Revolution, pock-marked with bourgeois colonial exploitation and Terror regimes, is a fundamental shift that occurred through the long 18th century. However, the world is not less full of gods, rather they are gods of a different kind that, perhaps, are less overtly severe, but perhaps even more demanding.

Of course, I am not advocating a return to the Ancien Regime which was equally horrid in different ways. The God of the Early Modern nation-state was more ruthless, confessionally-minded, tyrant that validated the Divine Right of Kings that crushed so many peoples. There is no particular period or social formation that I look upon as some golden age.

Indeed, we might draw upon the thought of Ivan Illich here. In his telling, Illich argued that the history of Western Europe reveals an evolving corruption. The social formation, known as Constantinianism, emerged as a kind of heretical interpretation of Christianity. Indeed, Modernity has only developed the virus.

Some are surprised that many Western Europeans, even a majority, disclaim orthodox Christianity and yet believe in spirits. Some are surprised that the United States is so extraordinary religious. It's not strange if we see the Modern world as a kind of heretical Christianity. Kant and Hegel (and I guess Rousseau), these are the architects of a new Christian civilization, one that is fundamentally anti-Christ.

Blum's work offers a helpful criticism to awaken those that believe in the myth of progress and all other modern mythologies. While I do not agree with Diderot that man is just an intellectual, and morally conscious, ape, his withering eye reveals the secular theology of today. He possessed a certain kind of wisdom and, as the maxim goes, Christians ought to take this Egyptian gold on their way to Zion.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Mercy is Perfect Virtue

The favorable Christians in Dostoevksy's fiction tend toward committing an act that the unlearned has mistook for shaded Paganism. They will prostrate themselves, kiss the earth, and water it with their own tears. As the former Archbishop Rowan Williams has argued, Dostoevsky is drawing upon his own theological heritage as Russian Orthodox.

Eastern Christianity has had a stream running through, particularly through monastics, that severely emphasize the redemption of all creation. As St. Isaac the Syrian (of Nineveh) would metrically put it, he prayed for the birds and reptiles, asking forgiveness of them for his sins against them, and pray to God for them. Indeed, in what might be almost absurd, Isaac prayed for the Devil, that indeed evil the "god of this age" would be redeemed. Here is Isaac discussing the "merciful heart":
And what is a merciful heart? It is the heart burning for the sake of all creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and every created thing; and by the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. By the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and by his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God.
Perhaps this sounds weepy-eyed and sentimental and reflects the absurd temperament of a monk living mostly alone in the Syrian deserts. To the harsh critic, Isaac has lot his mind and engaged in the most childish game of make-believe, talking to his invisible friend in the sky and to all the animals around them.

Except children do not live in the desert. They do not restrict their diet and resist cravings, some normal and others devious, in order to discipline their body, mind, and spirit. If Isaac was a child in mind, he would merely be the village idiot, living upon the labors of the community. The brutality of the discipline reflects, rather, someone who is sharpened into a kind of weapon.

Of course, a weapon can be either good or evil, and there have been quite a few evil ascetics whose discipline and fortitude are put to reshaping the world. Robespierre was an unmarried bachelor with little interest in women and completely married to his absurd vision of a new French republic. Hitler was a teetotaler and a workaholic. These evil men reflect a kind of ascesis towards the work of the Devil. Indeed, the Devil is the greatest monk as he never eats or sleeps.

Through the resultant discipline, we see a man, Isaac, who weeps even for the creeping things of the Earth, even has compassion for the Adversary. Contrary to our so-called wise critics, perhaps this reflects someone who has reached a kind of maturity. Perhaps Isaac is beginning to scrape the life of virtue in his overwhelming flood of compassion.

Very easily we define virtue, perfection, ethics, morality, yea, the Good, in terms that fit whatever dominant culture we are connected to. Many times we justified our so-called values as "common-sense", "natural", or "biblically defined". American greed is constituted as thriftiness. American paternalism and arrogance is reconstituted as charity. American conquest and economic dominance is believed to be liberation and salvation. We obscure the Truth for our own good and ease of life. For it is easier to be as one was born than to conform to another pattern.

The Scriptures talk both about what was accomplished, through the person and work of Christ, but also the life we, His followers, ought to live in light of such. The Lutheran reaction, and subsequent law-gospel theology, was constructed in opposition to clear reading of the New Testament, but it was not designed for it. What I mean was that while Luther complicated a plain reading of the Apostles, he was resisting something equally damnable: works-righteousness.

Contrary to Luther's reading of the New Testament, the Medieval Sacramental Complex was not quite what the Pharisees had in mind. Luther was not a prophet of Christ overcoming his Pharisaic opponents who possessed all powers and riches in Rome. But he was attacking a confused and corrupted version of virtue and the path of life.

Of course, I'm exaggerating in some of this. Luther was not quite as Lutheran as some make him out to be, and he, of course, had his own expectations of people and hope for good works. In someways this makes him better, in other ways worse (c.f. His writings against the Peasant revolts). But either ways, there was a mistake that virtue was something other than what we might claim to see in Isaac's prayer.

Perhaps the excellency of virtue is the kind of mercy that feels the weight of all creation. Perhaps this virtue of mercy for all, reflected in the prostrate man kissing the Earth, is our vocation. That is, the vocation of Man to be priest, a sacerdotal conduit, for all creation. The greatest use of our voice is to intercede on behalf of an other.

These are just speculations, but, perhaps, it's a sentiment that the Lord's brother shared:

"So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgement." Jas. 2:12-13

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Holy Penis: The Full Humanity of Christ and European Scruples

My particular, professional, interest involves the Moravians, an oft overlooked group of radical Christian missionaries who transgressed many boundaries, considered sacrosanct by Anglo-Protestants, in the pursuit of mission. The Moravians came from the old proto-Protestant group known as the Unitas Fratrum, or the Unity, which spawned in the Hussite Wars of the 15th century. The Moravians were reconstituted and given a particular energy by the eccentric, and profound, Christian preacher and prince, Count von Zinzendorf. His theology, connections, and drive were apart of the Moravian evangelical zeal that took the world by storm in the 18th century.

Zinzendorf was a Pietist and a Lutheran, of sorts, but he differed significantly. This shift originally started with Zinzendorf's disagreement with the Pietist establishment at Halle over the nature of conversion. Unlike other Pietists, Zinzendorf did not believe one needed to feel despair and the conviction of sin. Instead, as he himself testified, one might be enclosed by grace before one recognizes sins. While some may feel despair before they are lifted up by grace, this was not universally applicable. One was a Christian whether or not one felt agony and pain over their state of abandon. What was more important was the force of grace, the knowledge that God, in Christ, was indeed the Savior of all mankind.

This break was furthered by other developments. Zinzendorf possessed a different kind of anthropology than most of the Protestant establishment at the time. In a kind of Eastern twist, Zinzendorf believed in a kind of recapitulation, where Christ restored the honor and health of all stations of life through His Incarnation. As per Gregory Nazianzen, what was not assumed was not healed, thus Christ took up all of Human nature. Zinzendorf rejected Original Guilt, as infants were restored to grace through the life of Christ in His own infancy.

What this produced was a more "fleshy" anthropology that valued the Human body and did not devalue it as hopelessly corrupt. Life in the flesh could be the conduit for life in the Spirit, and one did not deny one's Humanity in order to be a Christian. Thus, in Zinzendorf's interpretation of Christ's incarnation as a male and His circumcision, we ought to value the Human penis as something that is redeemed. Contrary to some Eastern fathers who thought sex organs were a concession to weakness (pace Gregory of Nyssa), Zinzendorf promulgated a fully sexed Humanity as part of God's good creation.

Before continuing with the theme of the title of this post, let me elaborate upon Zinzendorf's, and subsequent Moravian, theology. Zinzendorf argued for a sanctification of Humanity, which included our body. But he was no hedonist or one who argued for love of worldly pleasures. As per his theology, Moravians maintained sexual segregation as a means to stay focused on mission. The Moravians appreciated the full Humanness of God in the flesh, but did not mistake this as a means to indulge. The Moravians subjugated their bodies for the purposes of preaching the Gospel. Unlike most other Protestants at the time, the Moravians gave value to singleness, but, like other Protestants, also emphasized the good of marriage. In both cases, Moravian doctrine contextualized both as means for mission. Marriage was a kind of partnership in order to reach more peoples, both male and female. This empowered women as ministers to other women, where men would mostly keep to other men. This gendered segregation of mission was quite effective in the Americas.

Anyway, Zinzendorf promoted a kind of reverence of the maleness of Christ through His male organ. While this might sound disturbing or a like a phallus cult, that is only our own Anglo sensibilities speaking. What Zinzendorf did was only recover a most developed anthropology that we see burgeoning, in some ways, during the Renaissance. In that period, art and statuary of the crucifixion depicted Christ, naked, with an erection. This was not blasphemy or profanation. The point of the art was to proclaim that Christ possessed full control and full virility. Even in what might be considered His most humiliating moment, Christ was victorious. His erection was a sign that the powers of evil could not emasculate Him (as the cross could be construed as a phallic symbol). Rather, Christ was the conqueror of all the evils behind the Romans and Jewish elite, yea, even Death.

We ought to cultivate a kind of appreciation for the penis of Christ in the same way. It ought not shame us that our God took upon the fullness of Human nature, including our sexed identity. Too often, the Christ we are presented is a kind of de-sexed, ethereal individual. This is akin to how modern German theology described Christ as a kind of "beautiful soul", beyond the dirt and sweat of normal Human existence. To some this was a mark of praise, to others (Nietzsche) this was a mark of scorn. But the truth is beyond such.

While there are quite a few preachers who have emphasized, to an idiotic degree, Jesus' manliness by confusing it with cultural visions, they are not completely blameworthy. Rather, they are merely the resultant pendulum swing that made Jesus into some de-sexed, yea, even feminized, individual, reflecting a deficient piety that disinclined men towards kneeling before the King of Kings. Lest we be swept away by emasulated masculinity per our age, or be taken into the machismo of "punch you in the nose" UFC pseudo-piety, hopefully the very fact of our Lord's penis keeps us grounded. This is a strange thought, I admit as much, but it is necessary for us to preserve a healthy understanding of both the Incarnation of God and ourselves.

Yes, in Paradise, we will be as the angels, and we will no longer be given in marriage. Heaven will not be an orgy of any kind. However, nowhere in that passage does it say we cease to be the sexed beings that we are in the present. In the drama of the full Incarnation (which includes crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension), both men and women are redeemed. May we see as such as we continue our pilgrimage through this life.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Discipline of No: Free-Won't, Batman, and the Desert Fathers

As anyone knows, journalism likes to be sensational, particularly about things it knows little about. And of course, people with opinions to push like to take advantage of this. So, of course, the other week The Atlantic published an article on the non-existence of free-will. 

However, the article continues, our own perpetual state of puppetude can open up a multiplicity of responses. Some argue that accepting the demise of free-will creates channels necessary for compassion and rational response. In this schema, man is returned as a mere outcropping of the natural environment. Other argues that the illusion of free-will ought to be the deepest guarded lie, lest we embrace a fatalist that leads to immorality and slackness.

However, what the article fails to mention is what the scientist who originally conducted the experiments had concluded. Indeed, the neuroscience tests had revealed that man's physical brain triggers before conscious decision, thus our bodies do not respond to our conscious directives. However, a reversal occurred when one was asked to stop an action. In being told to act and then cancel the act, the conscious decision preceded physical response. In this, Benjamin Libet, the scientist who conducted the study, revealed the non-existence of "free-will", but, rather, the existence of what he coined "free-won't"

If this disturbs you,  it shouldn't. In fact, this experiment only confirmed the wisdom that quite a few early Christians discovered in the Desert. 

We refer to these men and women as the Desert Fathers and Mothers because they chose to live in the Egyptian and Syrian desert. While other monks saw themselves, at different times and places, as fleeing from a corrupt society, they did not. This is a perversion of the original Christian monk. Instead, these particular Christians saw going into the desert as engaging in spiritual warfare. This was not escape, but charging into battle. This was a life of extreme growth and challenge. It was about spiritual maturity and mastery over the demons, both within and without. They followed the life of their Lord, who entered the desert for 40 days in order to triumph over Satan. 

Not every Christian is called to enter a literal Desert, but most of us enter into a figurative Desert. Sometimes this ends in martyrdom, sometimes a painful season of loss and confusion, sometimes it's a reevaluation of one's life. It is about a life in the Spirit, and we're all enjoined to take their advice seriously. They, more than many others, saw life as it truly was, even if they were, at times, given to extremes. This is not to say everyone of these monks was holy (and the wisest of them warned such, for Satan is the greatest ascetic, not needing food or sleep, and yet he was the antithesis of holiness). There are plenty of examples of wisdom drawn from the failings of particular Christians. But such is why they are truly wise.

The Desert Christians perceived the Man is not some masterful arbiter over himself or the world by the fact of being Man. The rule of Sin, Death, and Devil was real and exacting and was only overcome through a life of the Spirit, obedience to Christ. Only through the indwelling of God's Spirit were the Tyrants overcome.

The tyranny over man that the Desert Fathers saw was particularly through what they called the "passions". While the passions were emotional responses, and the monks can sound like rank stoics, they do not devalue emotion in se, but rather place emotion in a place where it must be tamed and disciplined. Rage and anger must be channeled into zeal for righteousness and truth. Lust must be transformed into love for God and all of His creation.

Yet this transformation is hard fought because it is through the passions that the demonic takes hold of man. However, overcoming this is not through erasing the existence of these passions, it is in taming them. Thus, it's in the power of recognizing them for what they are and rejecting them. Christians do not become impervious to the wiles of the demons, but can overcome them through rejection.

In the same way, neuroscience confirms that such is the strength of man. Whether this is a product of the Fall or if it a part of Humanly creaturely functioning is a non-issue. Instead, it's in seeing the true growth is not when we cease to have evil urges, but being able to recognize them. It is being trained in discernment and discipline. It's being able to see the traps, and gain the strength to avoid them as they come.

A lot of pastoral counseling still remains mired in the optimism of the Reformation-Enlightenment about the functioning of the autonomous individual. 

I'm conflating a larger trajectory. This has nothing to do with the particular views of Luther, Calvin, Rousseau, Locke, or Kant. But the Calvinistic urge towards self-discipline provided a bad anthropology. I laud the Reformed (Anabaptist too!) emphasis on the power of a solitary Christian life, but they fail to provide a more complete understanding of what that looks like. I am speaking generally, I'm sure there were a few figures, here and there that speak otherwise. But it is from such a matrix that the common Evangelical psychology and anthropology emerge. 

This optimism will ultimately lead to a kind of despair or hypocrisy. It's from that sort of angst that reactionary movements have emerged, resulting in things like the Sexual Revolution and Counter-Culture. Of course, as I already said, I laud Evangelicalism for constructing a notion of the self who can overcome personal foibles. There is a universal call and access to the fullness of Christian life that is eclipsed in some other ecclesiological thinking. But, the vision of Christian life is unmoored from the depth of darkness in the created world. Thus, the Christian life becomes moralistic, shallow, and, ultimately, unsuccessful.

I know this is a sweeping claim, but so it is. I believe it comes from the high notion of free-will that is patently untrue. But lest we become fatalists, the wisdom of the "free-won't", preserved in the Desert Christians and demonstrated in even secularized neuroscience, can liberate us to seek a better life. For unlike Sam Harris, I see no good in devaluing free-will for a puppet like existence. A bleak "understanding" is no mercy. Instead, mercy is judgment deferred, or withheld, and such is what we must do in our inner-life. Such is richness and the gospel enacted. When we restrain our inner impulse towards judgement is when a real battle is won and we begin to be transformed as the impulses lose their power. Instead, the discipline of No triumphs over evil.

Funny enough, the comic world of DC confirms this in the character of Batman. He is the weakest of all the characters on the Justice League, yet he is the strongest. Unlike the other characters, Batman has overcome his fear and his fantasies. It's not that he does not fear or have delusions. Rather, he has gained the necessary wisdom in order to recognize them for what they are. In some ways, this makes him very suspicious. But regardless of this, he remains the most hopeful of all Justice League characters. He is the one who refuses to backdown from his principles, and continues to hope even as he faces some of the most twisted villains. I suppose that's why it is fitting that his love-affair with Catwoman is with a conflicted anti-heroine/villainess. Even a psychotic jewel thief can be redeemed in Batman's eyes, yea, even the Joker could turn.

Strangely, despite all the christological symbols attached to Superman, Batman is the most Christian character. And this is concluded in his own struggle to overcome the demons that plague his heart. And, of course, the hideousness of the Bat reflects the abject scandal of the Messiah crucified. In both cases, a symbol of terror is transformed into a symbol of hope. And yet, for those perishing, the sign possesses the smell of death.

Batman understands the power of the No, being able to turn himself off his desires towards what is real. In this way, Christians ought to follow Batman as he is, inadvertently, following Christ. When we understand what we are, through the Spirit of Christ given, we can tread down the snakes and scorpions of the soul, namely those things which poison us. Christ liberates us to practice the "free-won't", the discipline of No, that matures us into what we are destined to become.