Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Abstraction & cohesion v clarity & simplicity


Over the past few years I have read about 'time' and God in the 'Western' philosophy and theology of Boethius and Thomas Aquinas, and also some Eastern Orthodox theology.

It brought out for me a very general point about abstraction and the cohesion of philosophical ideas, and how they can only be attained at a cost.

Whenever we ask a philosophical, abstract question, and accept an answer; the process narrows our understanding even as it completes our understanding.


When reading about God and time in the Western tradition, there is a fascinating theme concerning eternity versus the transient world; the idea that God is outside of time; for God (being omnipotent, omniscient etc.) all time is necessarily present simultaneously; yet for humans on earth time is serial and linear - with a past, present and future.

And there are vital transitions between these states of eternity and time : for example the soul after death and Christ's incarnation: the soul moving from time to eternity, Christ moving from eternity to time.


By this account, prayer for the souls of the dead make (philosophical) sense, no matter when they are prayed in linear time, because prayer operates in divine eternity, which includes the past (and also the future).

Prayer on earth is arranged in a linear sequence but all prayers from all earthly times are simultaneously present in Heaven.


For me, these matters of abstract theory are at the outer limit of my comprehension, yet I can comprehend them; and so I find the answers of Boethius and Aquinas to be (pretty much) perfectly satisfying.

But for someone less intelligent than I, these explanations would no doubt be incomprehensible; and for someone of greater intelligence than mine, no doubt there would be further problems of inconsistency which I cannot perceive.

So, the philosophical explanation of time and eternity is not true for all humans, does not answer the questions of all humans; its truth has been attested by Saints and Martyrs (for example) so we can say it is true by revelation, really is true - not just a made-up stop-gap explanation.

And yet its truth seems incomplete and distorted somehow. Many great Saints did not know this, could not understand it; certainly did not explain things in this fashion in their teachings from revelation.


When, on the other hand, I read in Orthodox theology about Christ's incarnation, death and resurrection; and about what happens to the soul after death, I find that all are dealt with in 'common sense' fashion using earthly linear and serial time: for example that the soul after death is escorted by two angels, passes toll houses of temptation for 40 days, at which point there is a choice/ judgement of Heaven or Hell - hence on earth there is a 40 day programme of prayer for the immediately deceased, prayers which ought to be done on earth at proper times.

Now, this is apparently regarded by the advanced Orthodox as both true and/ but also very partial, metaphorical and limited an undestanding - because of the inevitable nature of human limitations of knowledge and understanding and sin.

So/ yet the advanced Orthodox will strictly adhere to the earthly linear time program of particular rituals in particular sequence; there seems to be the simultaneous awareness that this is a simplified view yet it is the best that can be managed or the best that we know - and therefore imperative.


But in Orthodoxy (so far as I see it, not far) there is not the same sense of trying to reach an intellectually coherent and satisfying answer as there is with Western Catholicism.

For the Orthodox there are these parable-like narrative theological explanations, mostly comprehensible to the common man - and beyond these simple explanations there is mystery.

If you want to go further, the path is spiritual not philosophical. The understanding aimed-at, therefore, is not more complex or logical, but (presumably) an understanding which comes directly by revelation, and is not (perhaps) communicable to those of lower levels of holiness.

Intellectuals who pick-holes in  common-sensical narrative explanations of theology are regarded as lacking in true understanding of their meaning, as having misplaced concerns; because deeper understanding can only be gained on the other side of a process of purification and sanctification.


The Orthodox idea is apparently that it is - in general - a mistake to strive for philosophical explanations beyond simply comprehensible linear narratives; and to seek ever more-complete intellectual understanding is slippery slope, a never-ending fool's errand by which we come to mistake the ever-more-abstract and ever-more-partial for the reality and the whole.

For the Orthodox tradition, truth becomes knowable only from greater holiness (and  holiness is achieved by monastic 'Hesychast' disciplines of incessant prayer and ascetic practices - fasting, vigils, endurance of hostile environments).


Therefore both Western and Eastern Catholic traditions are hierarchical and esoteric, holiness being stratified, and the fullest understanding being only available to a few.

But for the West (in general) the fullest understanding requires a high level of theological and philosophical education - this understanding is not communicable to the majority who are low in intelligence, those who lack diligence and concentration, those who are ignorant.

Whereas for the East the few may be relatively unintelligent; may indeed by simple-minded - Holy Fools. But understanding is only available to, communicable to, those of advanced spirituality.

From this, I believe that the Eastern Orthodox understanding is the higher, the more true - although I personally fail to live by this truth.


Taking this into account; it seems to me that one of the worst things that Western intellectuals have done over the centuries, and continue to do, is to mock and denigrate simple narrative theological explanations and understandings - debunk them for their lack of abstract logical coherence, for their child-like quality.

At root this incessant debunking displays merely the lack of holiness of intellectuals as a class; that instead of seeking to understand the simple explanations by striving further on the path of sanctity, they choose the easier and more deceptive path of increasing further and further the complexity of explanations.