Thursday, February 28, 2013

Homily Magnus: A Wild and Wonderful Romp (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"If any man loves God, he is known by Him." I Cor. 8:3

"Enlightenment" (aside from being a particular historical movement) is considered by almost all cultures to be the ultimate goal of humanity. It is an arrival at truth, the truth, the truth that unlocks all the mysteries of existence. In non-Christian circles, this is a kind of salvation: once enlightened, one finds peace with themselves and the world. This enlightening can come in many forms, but the two most common are also the most non-Christian.

One is a purely secular method. The scientific advancement of our understanding (and even our senses) can lead us to grasp the fundamental forces that unite the universe. The other (found in the Platonism of the west and the religions of the east) is a spiritual/intellectual ascension whereby the mind grasps the transcendent truth in its purest form, an ascension acquired by dialectic or meditation. In either case, the end result is a state of serenity: the mind has grasped ultimate truth, the solution to all problems, and we need fight and fret no more.

Non-Christian enlightenment, even if it is "spiritual," is still primarily intellectual: passions and desires must be purged so that the mind can dwell in a calm objectivity and thus grasp the truth. But Christianity makes one very important difference. Desire is not purged from the soul, but instead purged of its deficiencies. Our desires are not evil distractions but crooked affections, affections that must be set straight. Your desires must not be abandoned but perfected. Your "loves" must be put in order, for love is the key to Christian enlightenment.

It is true that there is an intellectual ascent towards God. After all, one must know Him as a true fact as well as understand the facts about Himself that He has revealed to us. Simply put, you cannot even begin to know Him unless you (1) know that He exists and (2) know, in part, who and what He is. That is not heavy philosophy but common sense. If you want to know anything (from parking meters to persons), then they must be both real and knowable. It is an existential "no duh".

But there is something else that is common sense, at least to the Christian: mere facts are not good enough. There is one step more that must be taken, a step that Bonaventure called "synderesis," which is a fancy Greek word meaning that you desire what you know. The object of enlightenment must not only be understood factually but also loved intimately, loved because of what you know about it. In other words, if the facts of a thing do not lead you to love that thing, then you do not really understand it at all. Hence comes the chasmic Christian distinction: true enlightenment only comes through love, viz., love of the highest truth.

This can all sound a bit ivory-towerish, but it's not. We know it is not; we know it is a practical truth of everyday life. The facts just aren't good enough to know something. It is not good enough to only know facts about your spouse (or significant other): their favorite color or music, the food they hate the most. These can create a helpful understanding of them, but it cannot stop there. If it does, then you will never truly know them until those facts move you in love for them. Then true knowledge begins.

I took piano lessons when I was younger. Took them for over ten years. I went to lessons weekly and had multiple recitals. I was (if I do say so myself) very good. I learned all the facts quite well: chord progression, reading sheet music, understanding all the different symbols, etc. I could play any piece put before me, and to this day I can enjoy music as good as any professional. But as soon as other things got in my way (college, work, writing and drawing), I dropped it almost too easily. Why? Because I only knew the facts about it. I didn't love it. I had no passion for it at all.

Of course, the reason I took piano lessons at all was because of my mother, and the reason she had me take them was because she loved the piano. She certainly knew all the facts: she was a college-trained church pianist. But she had something more, something I didn't have, and that was love for the thing itself. I knew this whenever I watched her play. There was a magic in her fingers that I just did not possess. Listening to me was like listening to a machine. Listening to her was like listening to a love affair. Naturally, of course, for the facts aren't good enough, and a thing is never really known until it is loved. As C.S. Lewis put it, "He who loves, sees."

This practical truth is the very heartbeat of Christianity. Our "enlightenment" is to know God, but that knowledge is not in facts alone but in launching from those facts into love. This is the constant theme of the Christian tradition, from Irenaeus to Maximus and Symeon. It is the point of Aquinas' Summa and Dante's Commedia. And (most importantly) it is the truth of the Bible: the highest goal is to love God (Matt. 22:37-38), which means to know God and His Christ in a manner intimate and total (John 17:3; Phil. 3:8-11) and reciprocal (I Cor. 3:23, 8:3, 13:12; Gal. 4:8-9). It is not a truth that we love but rather a Person who is true, and that is the distinction that makes all the difference, marking an insurmountable watershed between Christian enlightenment and the "enlightenment" of others, for ours is truly an ascent while theirs is more of a descent.

Enlightenment is not to fall deeper and deeper into an isolated intellectualism, one whose "peace" is only the silence of its own loneliness. On the contrary, that is the very essence of Hell. I answer that true enlightenment is to go higher and higher into an Other who is love: to know Him is to know love (I John 4:7-8) and to be love (I John 3:2). It is a joyous, rather than abstract, occasion. Our enlightenment, our salvation, of which we are presently part of, is not a study but a marriage, a wild and wonderful romp deeper into desire, for desire is the final door.

If you would know God, then love God. Love what you know about Him. If you know nothing, then go and learn something, anything that captures your mind, and then let it capture your heart, and then let that knowledge and love grow, taking you further up and further in to the God who made you to know and be known, to love and be loved. Amen.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013


  1. Great post and a great reminder that we need to love God with all our HEARTsoulmindstrength. This is something He's been talking to me about a lot lately, as I tend to be overly focused on the mind aspect.

  2. You? Overly focused on the mind?

    Naw. No way.

  3. BTW, thanks for commenting. It's nice to know I'm being read. 8^)