Sunday 6 October 2013
The continuous necessity for spiritual discernment - and its relationship with metaphysics and revelation
The question of discernment - the ability to distinguish between Good and evil (virtue and vice; beauty and ugliness; truth and lies) - is an ever-more-crucial ability in the modern world.
Why so crucial? Because the modern world is more deceptive than any society has ever been in the history of the world - and ever-more-deceptive.
We swim in a sea of the denial not just of divine revelations, but of basic common sense - and not just denial but inversion, where pervasive propaganda simply assumes that all the polarities have been reversed.
And this situation of moral-, aesthetic- and truth-inversion encompasses most of the major Christian churches - as can be confirmed by looking at the focus of ethical concerns in charitable work, the architecture of new church buildings, the bureaucratic prose of church discourse.
As a generalization, Christian churches are part of the problem, not part of the solution.
So the problem of discernment starts, for the Christian, straight after conversion; because the fledgling Christian (feathers hardly dry!) needs to find a church or immediately evaluate the church into which he converted, and often needs to detach himself from it and seek a church which is not actively harmful.
Because the situation is that the individual cannot rely on the church for guidance with respect to the most crucial (litmus test) issues in modern society without violating what would seem to be basic Christian principles, as well as common sense understanding of realities.
All this throws a very heavy burden on individual discernment, and in a world where the level of spiritual development is usually very low -
The question is whether the individual can - even in principle - exercise this degree of discernment - especially given that modern people are generally so much more thoroughly and complexly corrupted than people were in the past.
The answer depends on metaphysics, theology and doctrine.
My initial understanding of the problem of discernment came from the Eastern Orthodox tradition via Fr Seraphim Rose, and my understanding is that from the perspective of this tradition - our modern situation is almost hopeless.
(Hopeless, at least, for the Western convert who must choose a church, and who has a choice of churches; but all vestigial, weak and scattered, and designed for other ethnicities.)
Orthodoxy has a very low estimate of individual discernment - since we are fallen Men and fatally prone to Pride, and regards spiritual guidance by a more spiritually advanced elder (himself having been guided by a chain of apprenticeship stretching back to the church Fathers, Saints and Apostles) as almost essential to spiritual progress (theosis) - or even to simply staying within the bounds of salvation.
Yet such spiritual Fathers are now extinctt, and the lineage has been broken (at least, in most of the world including the West). Furthermore the Orthodox Church is riven by controversies and schisms, and it is not at all clear to discernment where the truth lies, and which branch to join...
In sum, Orthodoxy regards discernment as vital, but emphasizes the high probability of error and self-deception and demonic deception - and yet the modern situation requires the individual to exercise one discernment after another before settling upon some person or group to whom obedience is to be accorded - and this seems to me a very un-Orthodox situation since it involves self-conscious individual choice piled-upon individual choice, at every level up to the final (hoped for) submission to the guidance of some chosen person or sub-institution.
This problem is essentially that for the 'catholic' spirituality, salvation and Good are within the church. But the question 'where is the church?' (i.e. the real, significant mystical church) is a matter for individual discernment - and there is no theological basis for assuming that Men can exercise the necessary discernment to establish where the church actually IS.
As far as I can determine this is a fundamental and insoluble weakness of the catholic tradition when it is not monolithic - on the one hand it denies the human capability for discernment; yet on the other hand there are situations where there is no alternative, a forced-choice - and discernment is non-optionally required. People are put into a position where they must choose, yet they are told that they are incapable of choosing.
In sum the catholic traditions - in conditions of conversion, schism, heresy, church weakness or diversity and corruption - seem to place adherents in a double bind.
(Any catholics who do not feel this double bind are fortunate and should just get on with things without reflecting on this matter - but there is no doubt of the reality of the double bind for many people in many situations.)
Why is discernment so difficult a process? Why would be humans made such that they are in an almost impossible predicament? - surrounded by error and lacking a reliable inner compass: indeed with an inner compass that is regarded as intrinsically corrupt and deceptive!
Ultimately the extreme difficulty of discernment is therefore a product of the theological perspective on the nature of Man.
If Man were regarded as wholly good then there would no problem of discernment - but no need for it either! This is perhaps a utopian version of the modern secular position.
If Man were wholly depraved, then he could not be trusted to make any decision but must simply obey - this is seen in non-Christian monotheism, and in 'Christian' denominations where the emphasis is strongly on the utter depravity of Man - that Man is completely helpless in sin, and must be rescued from this state without any decision or action from himself (because he is incapable of any correct decision or action).
(I put scare quotes around Christian in the above sentence because this perspective is incompatible with Christianity if it were actually to be implemented - but in practice it almost never is implemented even by those who most stridently insist upon it, such as some Calvinists. In theory, extreme predestinarian Calvinistic or similar views are not Christian, but in actual practice some of the very best Christians have been Calvinists or similar.)
The obvious answer is that Men must be, and indeed are, a mixture of Good and evil; neither capable of saving themselves unaided, nor utterly helpless - and in such a world discernment in necessary from the word go, at many levels, and without end.
The Christian life just is one discernment after another, and if we cannot trust anyone else to do the discernment for us, or we don't understand their advice - we must do it ourselves - or rather, more strongly, we will necessarily do the discernment ourselves, since choices are forced yet have consequences.
Discernment is not easy, but it is possible - any Christian must know that it is possible, because our loving God would not leave us without the necessary guidance - un-obvious as that guidance may seem to us in our world of illusions and deceptions.
Discernment is not like the decision flow chart of a bureaucrat, it is a series of suggestions for the Christian to try-out - titrating the results against the certainty of the heart.
The Christian must believe in the integrity of the heart in everyone; that everyone has an incorruptible core - even if it is a feeble and distorted residue. This reality of the heart is what enables discernment, and makes it rational to praise good and blame evil.
For many modern people theosis has very little to do with becoming a Saint - that is far, far beyond us; but mostly to do with developing clarity of discernment, the ability to monitor the evaluations of our inner and uncorrupted heart: bringing the ability to know Good from evil despite whatever confusions are placed in our path - to know this if not instantly and infallibly, then always sufficiently and following appropriate consideration.