Under a slight breeze the red rivers come to life and silently flow through the fields toward the horizon where they tumble from the edge of the earth and empty their red into the setting sun.
Rivers of red poppies have begun to flow through the landscape surrounding my village. In some places, their delicate petals merely fleck the now verdant landscape, but in other spots they gather together and flood the fields with long, winding, fluvial lines.
Under a slight breeze the red rivers come to life and silently flow through the fields toward the horizon where they tumble from the edge of the earth and empty their red into the setting sun.
“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other, Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
Located most prominently in the Gospel of Matthew, this is perhaps one of Jesus’s most famous sayings. I am skeptical of many verses in the Gospel of Matthew, but consider the basic message contained in this expression to be vital. Many analyses and interpretations of this verse can be found in books and online, ranging from every possible perspective including straightforward discussion to detailed linguistic/etymological deconstructions.
Hence, my goal here will not be to provide a detailed and comprehensive overview of this verse, but rather to set down a few simple ideas presenting my own personal intuitive understanding of what serving two masters implies. None of what I offer in the following should be considered definitive in any sense of the world. These are my intuitions based on my own personal experiences and should be taken as such.
To me, two masters comes down to a matter of thinking. The verse challenges the limits of imagination. For example, serving a master implies anything but freedom and agency, yet serving the proper master is the epitome of freedom and agency itself.
To begin with, it is worth noting that this gospel verse has become a common idiom. As such, it has been mixed in with other vernacular idioms used in common speech. As a result, the sanctity of the original verse has been either severely distorted or entirely removed. Though likely ignorant of or indifferent to its source, most modern atheistic/materialistic people do use the phrase and can dimly acknowledge the wisdom contained in the warning against simultaneously serving two masters. However, when God is removed from the expression, the idiom is reduced to the mere level of divided loyalties, conflicting pursuits, and contradictory responsibilities.
Serving two masters means something entirely different to atheists/materialists. For positivistic, materialistic, reductionist types, the division between two masters never amounts to conflicting loyalties between God and mammon, but manifest more as a conflict between mammon and mammon or one of its various guises such as hedonism and mammon or sloth and mammon. As a result, what the non-religious perceive as a conflict between two masters is really more of an internal conflict between two aspects of the same single master – materialism. To their credit, people who serve mammon have at least made a decision, and they are unlikely to experience the same sorts of torments as those who attempt to serve both God and mammon simultaneously.
Christians, on the other hand, should be able to draw a clear distinction between the two masters Jesus mentions and also sense and understand why only one can truly exist as a master. At the most elementary level, I see this distinction as the difference between the spiritual and the material; and the metaphysical and the physical; as well the difference between subject and object; freedom and slavery.
Human beings are hybrid blends of the spiritual and the material. As such, we have metaphysical as well as physical needs. Voluntarily choosing to serve spiritual needs above material needs is not a matter of blindly nullifying, denying, or obstructing physical needs, but rather a matter of aligning our physical needs with our metaphysical needs by giving the spiritual precedence over the material. In this sense, the spiritual guides and controls the physical.
Ranking the spiritual over the material does not imply the material is unimportant, trivial, or unnecessary. Nor does it mean the material is inherently evil, mundane, or profane. Serving the spiritual rather than the material does not negate the material of its significance and necessity in this life.
Instead, serving the spiritual provides the proper framework through which one engages with and interacts with the material world by rendering the material to the position of something that serves the individual and God in this life rather than something the individual and God must serve in this life.
In this life is crucial here because our lives in this world mark the boundaries of the material world, whereas our lives outside this world know no such boundaries. The old saying, "You can't take it with you" takes on a significant level of profundity here because it reveals where your real focus should lie.
As I mentioned earlier, most modern people focus exclusively on physical needs because they are utterly oblivious to, willfully ignorant of, or purposefully opposed to their inherent metaphysical needs. Whatever the reason, mammon is the only master most modern people serve.
Modern Christians are sometimes no better than their secular/materialist counterparts. Many modern Christians claim to serve God, but in practice serve mammon. This stems from a lack of purpose or errant motivations, but I also feel many Christians consciously attempt to serve both mammon and God. I believe this happens because they misinterpret the wisdom Jesus reveals in the two masters saying and comprehend God in the same manner in which they comprehend mammon – as an external object.
Seen this way, God becomes a remote and ruthless ruler existing only to punish sin and prevent pleasure. Serving such a God becomes untenable and is tantamount to slavery. When confronted by such a God, it is little wonder Christians attempt to serve mammon as well.
Conversely, some Christians believe the two masters verse reveals the material world to be evil/fallen. If the material world is fallen/evil, then a Christian must shun and detest the material world by embracing God through some extreme form of asceticism. I am not averse to the notion of asceticism and believe it can be a valuable tool in spiritual growth, but I do not think the ultimate goal of Christianity is universal worldly asceticism. If our true purpose in this world amounted to nothing more denying or hating the world, we would not have come into the world at all.
The way I see it, our purpose in this world should provide the foundation for the wisdom contained in the two masters verse. True spiritual purpose emanates only from the Divine Self. The Divine Self is God within. Serving God does not entail perpetually bowing before altars and perpetual penance. Serving God entails serving your Divine Self. It is a matter of immanence as much as it is a matter of transcendence. Serving your Divine Self implies working with and being useful for in order to achieve, participate, and create.
Serving your Divine Self amounts to aligning yourself to God’s will in an effort to allow your purpose to manifest in the world. Seen in this light, God and the Divine Self exist in the realm of subjects (Beings) while mammon exists only in the realm of objects (things).
When you serve God, you create a situation where objects exist to serve subjects. For example, you use your physical body (this is not mammon in the strict sense of the word, but I interpret mammon to mean the material) to serve your Divine Self – to help it learn and experience, achieve its purpose, and, enter into a collaborative creative state with God. I would classify this as positive motivation.
When you serve mammon, you create a situation where subjects exist to serve objects. For example, you use your physical body solely to acquire money or seek pleasure without giving any thought to or willfully ignoring the purpose of your Divine Self. The Divine Self is obstructed, its purpose distorted, and collaborative creation with God becomes increasingly difficult, perhaps even impossible. I would classify this as negative motivation.
The same principle applies to money – literal mammon. If you serve God, you use money to serve your Divine Self and its true purpose. If you serve mammon, you use money to serve only your material self and distorted purpose. If you attempt to serve both God and mammon, you will create confusion and discord as subject and object compete and clash for dominance.
The principle of gain can also be applied here.
When you serve mammon, you rank material gains over spiritual ones and sacrifice the spiritual in favor of the material. The subject becomes enslaved to the object. Slavery ensues.
When you serve God, you use mammon to achieve spiritual gains. Depending on your purpose and circumstances, this may involve accumulating or sacrificing mammon. Either way, it never involves ranking material gains over spiritual ones. The object serves the subject. Freedom is maintained.
When you attempt to reconcile God and mammon by making them both masters, you create conditions for spiritual confusion and torment by laying the foundations for alienation and loathing. The Divine Self's impulse toward freedom is impeded by the dull force of object slavery. Those who attempt to serve two masters become acutely aware of the freedom they have surrendered and the slavery they must endure. To survive, they learn to hold to one and despise the other. It is a hellish state.
Unlike Jesus, who served God unfailingly throughout his entire life, we are flawed beings. As such, it is nearly impossible for us to be perfectly aligned with God (the Divine Self) all the time. We will make mistakes and attempt to serve two masters, or perhaps even abandon God to serve mammon exclusively from time to time. During these transgressions, it is our duty to repent, remember our true purpose, reset our motivations, and return to serving the one and only true master.
This is easier said than done, but done it must be. Through repentance, we can recover from these dips and plunges, learn what we need to learn from experience, and resume an upward trajectory.
Mihály Munkácsy (1844 – 1900) is still one of Hungary's most celebrated painters. Internationally, he is best known for his genre pictures and large scale biblical paintings. In Hungary, his name graces many streets, squares, and schools. At his peak, he enjoyed fame and success, but as is the case with many painters, Munkácsy's life followed a rather tragic arc, one plagued by severe depression which, coupled with the syphilis he had contracted as a young man, eventually drove him mad.
Though I respect Munkácsy, I do not rank him among my favorite Hungarian painters (I more or less put him in the same category as István Csok). Nevertheless, I have a high regard for Munkácsy's genre pictures, specifically for his Siralomház (often translated as The Last Day of a Condemened Man, though verbatim the Hungarian word translates to Lamentation House, which is more synonymous with the English concept of Death Row). The painting appears below.
This painting brought Munkácsy to the attention of the world and many consider it his first masterpiece. I consider it a masterpiece as well, but my high appraisal of the painting has nothing to do with any evaluation of Munkácsy's technical talent.
In my mind, what makes this painting so riveting is the scene it depicts and the unseen, unknown narratives it coaxes forth. When I look it, I am not looking at it from the perspective an art lover or even a common person, but from the viewpoint of a writer. From this viewpoint, I regard it to be as rich and complex as a Dostoevsky novel or as intricate and intertwining as a Dickens epic. In other words, the painting carries its own world as well as the whole world within its frame - it exists as a microcosm that is also a macrocosm.
Plot, setting, character, conflict, symbol, point of view, theme - all elements of fiction are there on the canvas. The only things needed are details. Who is the man? Why has he been condemned? What did he do? Who is the woman holding the child - the one glaring at him so sternly? Is the woman weeping in the corner the man's mother? Are the children his? What is going through the condemned man's mind at that very moment?
And so forth.
The Last Day of a Condemned Man can tell more than a single story, it possesses the power to tell a thousand stories, and that is what I love about it. The depicted scene could provide enough raw material for a dozen five-hundred page novels, each distinct from the other, and leave enough material for a dozen more. Simply put, the subject matter seems inexhaustible. I believe a mere cursory glance at a painting like this could cure even the most stubborn case of writer's block. The Last Day of a Condemned Man is like a never-ending story, which is probably why I like it so much.
When I moved to the United States, I was able to exchange my Canadian driver’s license for an American one with no strings attached and no questions asked. I did the same in reverse after I moved back to Canada from the United States. Shortly after moving to Hungary in 2015, I attempted to exchange my Canadian driver’s license for a Hungarian one and was swiftly informed that it could not be done because Canada had not signed some fiendish agreement known as 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic.
As a result, I was mandated to take both the theoretical and practical driving exams in Hungary if I wished to continue driving here in the long term. I was also told I had exactly one year to fulfil this requirement and that my Canadian license would be considered invalid after 365 days, regardless of its actually date of expiry.
Being the rational and prudent fellow that I am, I responded to this requirement by doing what any rational and prudent person would do in similar circumstances – I decided to delay the whole nightmare until the last possible moment and continue driving in Hungary with my Canadian driver’s license.
When the 365 days were nearly up, I mentioned my driver’s license dilemma to a neighbor, who happens to be a police officer. Following a loud guffaw, my neighbor told me not to worry as no Hungarian cop worth his or her salt would ever bother investigating the 365-day validity of any Hungarian citizen holding a foreign driver’s license.
I interpreted this as both a stroke of luck and a green light, and I surreptitiously pushed back obtaining a Hungarian driver’s license as far as I possibly could. Technically, this means I have been living a criminal life here since 2016, but I have been able to assuage any slight pangs of mild guild and neglected responsibility I have experienced since then by consoling myself with the thought that I am actually a tragic victim a soulless, international bureaucratic technicality.
Victim or not, unfortunately, my gig will soon be up. My Canadian driver’s license expires this summer, and I can only renew it in Canada, which would be both expensive and time-consuming. Thus, after three years of fugitive existence, I have surrendered to authorities here in Hungary and have begun preparing for the theoretical traffic code test as well as the practical driving exam.
Spending an hour or two every day reviewing road signs and driving regulations has been a nostalgic experience. At times, I feel like it’s 1987 again – I am sixteen years old, cramming away at the traffic code, motivated by a strong urge to succeed in what I at the time considered my most important rite of passage. I remember feeling rather anxious and apprehensive during the whole process leading up to test day back then. Oddly enough, I am experiencing similar feelings now despite having more than thirty years of driving experience under my belt.
Of course, at sixteen, my biggest motivating factor for getting a license was the opportunity to take girls out on “real” dates. At forty-seven, my biggest motivating factor is just getting done with it all. I passed my driving tests easily when I sixteen, and I do not anticipate any difficulties this second time around either, but every once in a while I get to wondering how I would respond if I happened to fail the tests now.
The mere thought of such humiliation strikes terror in my soul, and it motivates me to study harder, but there is only so much effort I can dedicate to such a mind-numbing process each day without succumbing to the temptation of taking up alcohol as a hobby. The whole thing has been rather surreal thus far, but I have been able to get a chuckle or two out of it all – and that’s something, I suppose.
Work continues to get in the way of my writing original posts. As compensation, I will offer some brief thoughts about some of the reading I have been doing lately.
I am currently rereading the three Berdyaev books I own - Slavery and Freedom, The Meaning of the Creative Act, and Freedom and the Spirit - and I have discovered that much of Berdyaev's thought aligns with Dr. Bruce Charlton's concept of Romantic Christianity.
As far as I know, Bruce has drawn much of his external inspiration for and understanding of Romantic Christianity from the Gospel of John, Owen Barfield, Rudolf Steiner, and William Arkle, among others. I have read the Gospel of John and William Arkle's A Geography of Consciousness, but I know practically nothing about Barfield and Steiner.
Nevertheless, based on what I have gleaned from Bruce's blog over the past year or two, I can with some confidence state that Berdyaev foresaw the need for the same sort of Romantic or Mystic Christianity thinkers like Steiner and Barfield addressed in their own works. The terminology likely differs, but from what I have been able to gather, the overarching themes overlap, as demonstrated by the passage below excerpted from Berdyaev's Freedom and Spirit:
We are entering upon a period of new spirituality, which will be the counterpart of the present materialism of our world. There will also be a new form of mysticism corresponding to this new period in Christian history. It will henceforth be impossible to oppose the conception of a higher life by pointing to the sinfulness of human nature which must be overcome.
There is no longer any room in the world for a merely external form of Christianity based upon custom. It is precisely the mystical and spiritual life which leads to victory over sin. The world is entering upon a new period of catastrophe and crisis when we are being forced to take sides and in which a higher and more intense kind of spiritual life will be demanded from Christians.
The sort of Christianity which is purely outward in character and never rises above the level of mediocrity is today on decline; while that which possesses eternal significance is growing more intense and stronger.
I consider this sort of overlap fascinating. All I need to now is get my hands on some Owen Barfield or Rudolf Steiner so I can experience the overlapping themes firsthand.
The more I engage with the work of Baron László Mednyansky, the more I am convinced that he was Hungary's best landscape painter - not just from the later nineteenth/early twentieth century, but from all centuries.
As I mentioned in my first post about The Wandering Baron, Mednyansky possessed an uncanny mastery of light, and this mastery provides his landscapes with a richness and vitality I have rarely encountered, not just in Hungarian painting, but in painting in general.
Landscape painting normally relies heavily on the quality of physical geography, which helps explain why most landscape painters choose to depict impressive, magnificent, or beautiful geographical features such as towering mountains, deep valleys, rolling hills, or lush forests. Mednyansky certainly has his share of these, but unlike most landscape painters, Mednyansky did not rely exclusively on impressive geographical features to bring beauty onto the canvas - The Wandering Baron could discover the sublime in even most mundane or nondescript landscapes.
Fishing on the Tisza (1880) is a good example of this. The Tisza is one of Hungary's main river courses, second only to the Danube. Though it flows through some of the country's most attractive landscape features, Mednyansky chose to ignore these and focused instead on a nondescript, marshy riverbank scene in this painting.
What makes this landscape painting fascinating for me is its seeming lack of landscape. A few bushes, some marshland, reed pockets, and three or four hazy windmills are the only features depicted on the canvas, yet Mednyansky is able to transform this rather mundane scene into something spectacular. Rather than mute what could be described as an already dull scene, Mednyansky's choice to limit the color spectrum to sepia-gray tones creates an ethereal atmosphere, made all the more ethereal by the "swale" of light puncturing the overcast sky above the fishermen.
In essence, Mednyansky is able to find beauty even in landscapes that appear to offer very little in the way of beauty. Capturing the beauty inherent in a breathtaking mountain scene is one thing - finding beauty in a marsh scene that could be described as anything but breathtaking is another matter entirely.
Our modern world feverishly yearns to get across and go beyond. Driven by an obsession with material individualism and human rights, modern people diligently work to create a limitless world.
Evidence of this can be seen in the impulses fueling our contemporary zeitgeist – transactions, transnationality, transfrontiers, transexuality, transgenderism, transhumanism.
But this transvaluation of values focuses exclusively on the material; the physical. As such, it leads to transgression resulting in transmogrification.
There is but one way to escape this – by setting our sights upward, on the impulse to go beyond dull physical need and distorted material reality.
Our trans obsessed world willfully neglects the trans it most needs – spiritual transcendence.
The misguided modern impulse to get across and go beyond lacks Spirit.
And without Spirit, all motivations to get across and go beyond inevitably devolve into travesties.
The liberal-democratic totalitarian system has indoctrinated us into valuing objects over subjects, external over internal, and quantity over quality.
This should come as no surprise. The liberal-democratic system is designed to objectify, externalize, and quantify. Much of its power resides in the cheapening everything via volume. Its totalitarianism rests upon making a spectacular show of crushing quality and the subject under an avalanche of objects.
A basic but effective form of resistance is the reversal of these dichotomies in our thinking. When you extol the subject over the object, you essentially extol beings over things. When you revere the internal over the external, you revere the spirit permeating the material. When you esteem quality over quantity, you esteem genius over mass.
This resistance, these shifts in thinking, may seem insignificant on the surface, but its impact certainly resounds in the depths, which is where meaningful change starts and true purpose begins.
I imagine most of my readers find their way to this blog via Bruce Charlton's Notions. Hence, I surmise most reading this have already read today's brilliant post "Some understanding that the individual is ultimate, is perhaps the major spiritual superiority of modern man" in which Bruce notes modern people possess one thing people living in previous earlier eras rarely possessed - a stringent sense of individuality.
This individuality, Bruce argues, suggests a latent spiritual strength, the likes of which the world has probably never seen. If you have not read the post, I strongly recommend you do. If you have, please take a moment to reread some of the key points Bruce made, which I have posted below:
Modern Man has one important superiority that may, in the end, prove crucial to his salvation and spiritual progression towards divinity.
That superiority is his sense of being an unique individual, who bears an ultimate responsibility for himself - as contrasted with being a person defined by a social role or social group (caste, class, profession etc).
Of course, this understanding is partial and distorted, and has been largely inverted in its significance (for example being diverted into the pseudo-identities of the hedonic sexual revolution; or diverted into the materialist and resentment politics of socialism, feminism, antiracism etc).
But (I believe) underlying such materialist distortions and inversions there is a solid but unconscious spiritual knowledge that we should only be satisfied when we are fulfilling our own and unique destiny.
These are brilliant observations. I firmly believe that what Bruce has expressed here is key to understanding our current circumstances and our spiritual possibilities moving forward.
By coincidence, I happened to finish reading Nikolai Berdyaev's Slavery and Freedom a day or two ago (at the expense of too many hours of missed sleep). When I read Bruce's post today, I was immediately reminded of a passage in Slavery and Freedom that outlines the value of the individual.
Nikolai Beryaev also insists the next spiritual progression would occur at the level of the individual, but Berdyaev draws a clear distinction between the individual and what he refers to as personality.
It is my hope that Berdyaev's ideas concerning the latent spiritual power of personality and the individual might add something useful to the topic Bruce addressed today. To avoid possible misinterpretations, I have chosen to forgo paraphrasing Berdyaev's ideas and have decided to publish an excerpt from Berdyaev's Slavery and Freedom instead. Bold has been added by me.
In order to understand what personality is, it is very important to establish the difference between personality and the individual. The French Thomists very justly insist upon this distinction, though they take a stand upon different philosophical ground from mine. The individual is a category of naturalism, biology, and sociology. The individual is indivisible in relation to some whole; he is an atom. He not only can be a member of a species or community, as well as part of the cosmos as a whole, but he is invariably thought of as part of a whole, and outside that whole he cannot be called an individual.
The individual is characterized alike, on the one hand as a subordinate part of the whole and on the other as a part which is self-affirming as an ego. Therefore, individualism, which is derived from the word individual, certainly does not signify independence in relation to the whole, that is to the cosmic biological and social process. It signifies only the isolation of the subordinate part in its feeble revolt against the whole.
The individual is closely linked with the material world; he is brought up to birth in a generic process. The individual is born of a mother and father; he has a biological origin, which is determined by family heredity and also by social heredity. There is no individual without the family and no family without the individual. The individual is found entirely within categories which distinguish what belongs to the species from what is of the individual.
The individual carries on a struggle for the existence of the family, the biological and social processes. Man certainly is an individual, but he is not only an individual. The individual is bound up with the material world, and is nourished by it; but he is not universal, as such, he has not a universal content.
Man is a microcosm, and a universe; but not of virtue of his being an individual. Man is also personality , the idea of man and his vocation in the world are bound up with his personality. And here everything is changed. Personality is not a naturalistic, but a spiritual category. Personality is not the indivisible or the atom in relation to any whole whatsoever, cosmic, family, or social.
Personality is freedom and independence of man in relation to nature, to society, and to the state; but not only is it not egoistic self-affirmation, it is the very opposite. Personalism does not mean, as individualism does, egocentric isolation. Personality in man is his independence in relation to the material world, which is the material for the work of the spirit. And at the same time, personality is a universe; it is filled with universal content. Personality is not born of the family and cosmic process, not born of a father and mother; it emanates from God; it makes its appearance from another world. It bears witness to the fact that man is the point of intersection between two worlds, that in him there takes place the conflict between spirit and nature, freedom and necessity, independence and dependence.
Espinas says that the real individual is a cell. But personality is most certainly not a cell and does not enter into organism as a part into a whole. It is the primary whole and unity, it is characterized by its relation to an other and to others, to the world, to society, to people, as a relation of creativeness, freedom, love, and not of determination.
Personality lies outside the co-relation of individually particular and that which is common to the species, outside the correlation of parts and whole, of organs and organism. Personality is not the living individual. Personality in man is not determined by heredity, the biological and the social; it is freedom in man, it is the possible victory over determination.
Everything that is personal in man is set in opposition to any kind of automatism, that automatism which plays such a part in human life, automatism both psychical and social. There are not two separate men, but one and the same man is both an individual and a personality. That is not two different beings, but two kinds of qualitativeness, two different forces in man. Péguy says that the individual is every man’s own bourgeois which he is called upon to conquer.
Man, as an individual, endures the experience of isolation, egocentrically engulfed in himself, and called upon to wage a tormenting struggle for life, as he defends himself against danger that lie in wait for him. He finds his way out of difficulties through conformism, through adaptation.
Man as a person, the same man, gains the mastery of the egocentric self-confinement, discloses a universe in himself, but insists upon his independence and dignity in relation to the surrounding world.
But it must always be remembered that our language often gets confused. We constantly make use of words which do not bear the meaning we assign to them. That which individual, individuality, denotes the unique within its kind, the original, distinguished from any other and from the rest, In this sense the individual is inherent in every person.
Personality has a higher degree of individuality than the individual. The individual also often denotes the irrational, in opposition to that which is common, to the universally binding, to the rational and normative. In this sense, personality is irrational; and the individual much more subject to binding law, since it is more determined.
It is interesting, in the history of the discovery of the meaning of personality, to notice that among the romantics individuality is distinguished from personality in our sense of the word. Among the romantics themselves individuality was clearly presented, but personality was often very weakly expressed.
The character of individuality is vital rather than spiritual and does not as yet indicate the victory of spirit and freedom. We see a reflection of a profound disintegration, of a dissociation of personality in the contemporary novel, for instance in Proust and among us, Andrei Byely.
Inward unity and integrality are inherent in personality; whereas the individual may be torn to pieces by the forces of the world. A person cannot be completely a citizen of the world and of the state, he is a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
For this reason personality is a revolutionary element in a profound sense of the word. This is bound up with the fact that man is a being who belongs not to one world, but to two.
Personalism is a dualistic not a monistic philosophy.
In his writings, Nikolai Berdyaev divided history into three great religious epochs: Old Testament law, New Testament redemption, and religious creativeness. According to Berdyaev, the religious epoch of Old Testament law was marked by obedience and the sin of disobedience. New Testament redemption saved Man from sin, revealed his god-like nature to him, and offered him the reality of everlasting life. The third epoch, religious creativeness – which Berdyaev defines as “a transition into another sphere of being” – has yet to begin.
Berdyaev values the first two religious epochs and insists upon their necessity in the development of human consciousness. In essence, he considers them stages on the spiritual road. Old Testament law is the moral realm of ‘thou shall’ and ‘thou shall not.’ The commandments come from above and Man’s chief occupation is obedience and adherence to the law. New Testament redemption is the realm of salvation whereby the moral element is mystically transfigured and love and grace shine forth. Man’s innate divinity is also revealed to him in this epoch.
Berdyaev notes that both of these religious epochs essentially “come from above.” The moral element is not as predominant in New Testament redemption as it is in Old Testament law, but the moral still apparently predominates over the aesthetic and perceptive. In other words, salvation or perdition is connected to Man’s moral perfection, but not with his aesthetic or perceptive perfection.
Berdyaev considers this to be a “tormenting problem to Christian consciousness.” If religious life is complete with redemption from sin, then higher creativity being is both unattainable and undesirable. Atonement for sin becomes the only meaningful focus, which reduces New Testament redemption to the level of Old Testament law. Life is diminished back to the imperative of perfect obedience. Berdyaev insists there is only one way out: “the religious acceptance of the truth that the religious meaning of life and being is not wholly a matter of redemption from sin, that life and being have positive, creative purposes.”
This religious acceptance of life and being having positive and creative purposes marks the beginning of what Berdyaev terms the third religious epoch. Though there have been a handful of individuals who have shown glimpses of these kinds of positive and creative religious purposes, the third religious epoch has yet to manifest in the world. The question is why hasn’t it? Why have we been unable to step over the threshold? Berdyaev’s answer to this question is rather surprising.
Old Testament law and New Testament redemption are grounded in contact from above and are based on Holy Scripture. To put it bluntly, instructions and examples are provided. Yet, Holy Scripture does not address human religious creativity. According to Berdyaev, God has provided Man very little information about religious creative activity. When it comes to creativeness, Man is, as it were, left to himself alone, and has no direct aid from God.
This of course may help explain why the creative religious upsurge has not yet taken place, but as far as Berdyaev is concerned, God’s refusal to reveal the mystery of creativeness to Man demonstrates great wisdom and love. On the one hand, it keeps creativeness from sinking to level of mere obedience. On the other hand, it reveals God’s faith in freedom and in Man.
Man lives in the Father and the Son, but Berdyaev defines religious creativeness as “living in Spirit.” He asserts that unlike the previous two religious epochs, religious creativeness is something we must figure out on our own. Rather than be daunted by the task, we should embrace this mystery as a sign of God’s inherent wisdom and love.
"The anthropological revelation which has its origins in Christ is finally completed in Spirit, in the free creative activity of man living in the Spirit. Creativeness is not yet revealed in either the law or the redemption; neither in the Old nor in the New Covenant of God with Man. The secret of creativeness is revealed in the Spirit; in the Spirit, man’s nature is known, without Scriptures, without commandments, or directives from above. In creativeness the divine in Man is revealed by man’s own free initiative, revealed from below rather than above.”
We certainly have our work cut out for us, don’t we?
Of all the stupid and evil practices plaguing our contemporary world, cryonics has to rank near the top, right up there with eyeball tattooing, fifty-year mortgages, and watching CNN regularly.
For those who might not know, cryonics refers to the practice of freezing a human corpse at extremely low temperatures immediately after clinical death using cryoprotectants to preserve the body and brain in the hope that advances in bioengineering and nanomedicine will resurrect the deceased into, hopefully, eternal physical life.
For the unfrozen life of me, I cannot think of a fouler reductionist, positivistic, and atheistic practice than cryonics. Cryonic proponents essentially want to be Lazaruses without the inconvenient metaphysical strings attached. Setting metaphysical, transcendent, and religious considerations aside and focusing purely on the material aspects of what cryonics purports to offer, I cannot conceive why anyone in their right mind would want to go into a deep freeze after death in the hope of physically returning to this world of ours. I admit, as a sci-fi/fantasy story, the premise is an intriguing one, but in real life?
What do these Popsicle Lazaruses hope to gain in the end? Immortality? And what would that amount to? More chances to eat at McDonalds and shop at Walmart (or their future equivalents)? Endless sexual encounters with hybrid space babes and future hunks? More opportunities to see Cirque du Soleil (this time with photon lasers and cyborgs)? A never-ending treadmill of sunrises and sunsets?
I have to admit, those who go in for cryonics are an optimistic bunch. They love life so much they simply refuse to let it go, even after death. The promise of a future material utopia beckons, one in which all pain, suffering, and death has been conquered leaving nothing but an endless chain of pleasure and joy. Even if this utopia comes to be, Popsicle People (assuming they can be reanimated at all) will wake up in a world where they will instantly be out of place, out of time, out of step, and out to lunch. It could take several lifetimes just to adjust to the new conditions that await them.
But what if the utopia they imagine does not materialize? What if the world resembles a dystopia – like something out of a Mad Max film? What if future humans incorporate cannibalism into their cultures and reanimate the Popsicle People for the sole purpose of consuming them as gourmet delicacies on special occasions like Trans-trans Day or The Night of the Thousand Orgasms? What if our technology regresses and the frozen corpses simply thaw and stink up the joint something awful once the power goes out forever? What if cryonically suspended corpses become nothing more than zombies once they are brought back to life?
I admit it; I don’t understand those who yearn for this kind of immortality. I have been on this planet for nearly half-a-century, and though my life has been a blessed one and I still have a great deal to live for, a part of me increasingly yearns for something more. Not more of the same, or more of the same with a different wrapping, or more of the same with all the negatives removed, but something else entirely. I can sympathize with the cryonic impulse to conquer death and achieve everlasting life, but I am averse to the kind of everlasting life cryonic proponents relish.
For me, cryonics is simply a matter of choosing the wrong after-death insurance policy.
Which makes me wonder – who is more pitiable? Cryonic enthusiasts who hope to conquer the void by extending their physical existence into perpetuity, or the hopeless nihilists who simply wish for annihilation without a trace of desire to continue at all, either physically or metaphysically?
I accept either if that is what a particular individual chooses, but both personally strike me as anathema.
Work has been getting in the way lately, leaving me little energy to compose original posts. Though I anticipate some reprieve in the coming days, I have used whatever spare time I have had in the past week or so to revisit the works of Nicolai Berdyaev (1874 - 1948).
I first read Berdyaev about a decade ago and was moved by his engaging and unorthodox ideas about creativity and Christianity. The overarching theme in much of Berdyaev's work centers upon the belief that "we are called to be collaborators with God in his continuing creation of the world."
Below are two excerpts from Berdyaev's seminal work The Meaning of the Creative Act. The excerpts provide good insights into Berdyaev's belief in human creativeness as complementary to God's creativeness - that is, Man as a creature who is a co-creator in God's work of creation.
(Bold added by me.)
But in God there is a passionate and anguished longing for man. In God there is a tragic deficiency which is satisfied by the great gain of man’s birth in Him. The mystics taught the mystery of God’s birth in man. But there is another mystery; that of man’s birth in God. There is a summons, a call in man, for God to be born in him. This is the mystery of Christianity, the mystery of Christ, which is unknown to the Hindu mystics, to Plotinus, or to any of the abstract monistic mystics. God and man are greater than God alone. The substantial multinomial being revealed in One is greater than a One undifferentiated. Only the myth of God’s longing for man and for man’s love can bring us near to the final mystery.
Without Christ, God is terrible and far-off and cannot be justified. Christ is the only theodicy. Non-Christian theism, without the Trinity and without Christ, is terrible, dead, and useless. We cannot believe in God if there is no Christ. But if Christ is, then God is not master, not lord, not an autocratic commander – God is near us. He is human. He is in us and we in Him. God Himself is Man – this is the supreme religious revelation of Christ. With Christ, God’s autocracy ceases, for man as the son of God is called to immediate participation in divine life. The management of the world become divine human.
In divine-human religion, God reveals his Will. But man’s will must be revealed by man himself. The divine-human religion predicates man’s activity. If God created man in His own image and likeness, and if the son of God is Absolute Man, this means that man as a son of God is predestined to be a free creator, like his Father-Creator. Christ the son of God, Savior and Redeemer, restores man’s creative powers, which had been undermined and weakened. The way of Christ is the true birth of man. According to God’s idea of man, a concept which cannot be revealed by God alone but must be revealed by man as well, man is called to continue God’s work of creation. The creation of the world was not finished in those seven days. What was finished in those seven days is the limited, Old Testament aspect of creation, for which the whole mystery of creation was not revealed. The stamp of sin’s oppression lies on the Old Testament cosmogonic consciousness. But the New Testament religion of Christ reveals a new aspect of creation. God’s work of creation is continued in the incarnation of Christ the Logos.
The appearance in the world of the God-man marks a new moment in the creativity of the world, a moment of cosmic significance. In the revelation of the God-man begins the revelation of the creative mystery of man. The world is being created not only in God the Father but in God the Son.
S.K. Orr has reviewed my novel The City of Earthly Desire on his blog Steeple Tea. Although the novel has received some reviews over the years, very few approach the quality of insight and observation S.K. records in his assessment of the narrative.
Naturally, I appreciate any and all reviews, but reviews of this quality serve to remind me that perhaps, just perhaps, writing fiction is worthwhile after all. It goes without saying that I appreciate the the time and effort Mr. Orr has invested into this review.
The following is an excerpt from S.K.'s review.
Part historical novel and part philosophical treatise, The City of Earthly Desire is a look at the lives of several people connected to post-Communist Hungary and their relationship to the concept of freedom, specifically the kind of “freedom” that can turn virtues into vices.
The novel follows a Hungarian artist, Reinhardt Drixler, and his son Bela through decades of personal and cultural turmoil. It is a vivid slice of Cold War-era history charged with an underlying mythic archetype.
Young Bela, the book’s protagonist, is an immature and mercurial fellow who strikes up a friendship with worldly Anthony Vergil while trying to find his way in the world. This friendship becomes Faustian in its undertones, with Verge playing a cavalier yet tragic Mephistopholes.
Berger’s layered descriptions of the grimy paths down which Verge leads Bela crackle with authenticity. Older readers like myself wince at the accuracy and poignancy of scenes where a character stands on the precipice of ruin and makes a choice with eternal consequences in an offhand way. It’s a testament to Berger’s power as a writer and his skills at character development that the reader can become so invested in the characters who populate this novel.
The City of Earthly Desire explores many themes, including the human penchant for drawing gossamer distinctions between art and pornography, between good and evil, between need and desire. But the main theme I identified was almost Dickensian in its scope and focus, a theme most easily described as a dilemma. In symbolic terms, here is the dilemma, in my own words:
I invite you to read the rest here.
I have not and have never intended to make “outrage du jour” posts the focus of this blog. Nonetheless, I have indulged in a few posts of this kind over the past few months. The classic “outrage du jour” post is a raw reactionary rant railing against some controversy or other that has flared up in the mainstream media. Rage and disgust (often justifiable) fuel these posts. More often than not, they aim to instill rage and disgust into the reader.
“Outrage du jour” posts serve a definite purpose – whether or not this purpose is beneficial or harmful depends on the topic addressed and the manner in which the writer has approached it. As with most things in life, outrage posts have their pros and cons.
On the pro side, outrage posts draw attention to abuses and evildoing. Posts of this kind can be quite informative. Depending on a writer’s perspective, they can also be rather entertaining, perhaps even humorous. On the con side, outrage posts can breed smoldering anger, paranoia, and resentment.
A cursory inspection of most “outrage du jour” posts, my own included, reveals they are reactions against mass media generated stories. This fact should make one pause and reflect for a moment. In most instances, mass media promulgated controversies are obviously manipulative. The outrage story often provides the spark while the reaction piece fuels the fire and fans the flames.
Once again, I am not claiming that writing in reaction to some issue is necessarily a bad thing, but most outrage pieces I have read or written myself were based on issues and stories that were likely printed solely to get a rise. This immediately makes one wonder what the underlying purposes behind these intentional anger generators might truly be. Bruce Charlton has referred them as “baited traps.” I believe he is on to something there.
Sometimes outrage du jour posts have a palpable (and positive) effect in the world; this can be a good thing. More often than not, reactions against the latest shock or indignation amount to nothing more than venting. Venting can be therapeutic, for both the writer and the reader, but venting aside, little more is accomplished.
As mentioned previously, outrage posts risk breeding resentment, and this very well could be the primary goal of the mass media’s outrage generation in the first place. Stories sparking disapproval can also serve as distractions, taking our attention away from more meaningful and primary matters.
In the end, many outrage posts against mass media generated controversy are little more than shaking your fist at a stormy sky. When I re-read my own outrage pieces, they often strike me as tales “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
This brings me to my larger point. I have been blogging consistently for nearly six months without giving much thought to matters such as purpose, motivation, or audience. When I began this blog in 2012, I treated it as a medium through which I could promote my fiction. That motivation proved short-lived. Up until a half-a-year ago, I inconsistently dabbled into the blog here and there without any clear sense of what I was doing or why I was doing it.
Last December, I felt inspired to begin blogging on a daily basis. I had no clear motivation or purpose and wrote about whatever interested me or happened to spring to mind, but over the past month or so, I have been thinking quite a bit about this blog, and I have been trying to discover my underlying motivations for writing it.
This reflection has led me to the conclusion that I should remove “outrage du jour” posts as menu items from this blog. I provide some reasons below:
As I mentioned above, I am trying to discover my underlying motivations for writing this blog. In all honesty, I do not know how to articulate these yet. Nevertheless, I am gaining a clearer perspective of what I would like my writing to accomplish here. I will return to the storm analogy for a moment to help explain (albeit, sloppily) what I mean.
We live in an era of seemingly perpetual foul weather. I write this blog not to deny the reality of the storms, but to remind myself and others of the reality above the clouds, where the sun still shines above it all.* In the meantime, I hope my writing here might serve as a raincoat or an umbrella – a small, but perhaps meaningful contribution that could help some ride out the storm.
Even if my work here does not help others, it certainly helps me. And that’s something. In fact, it may just be enough.
* I stole this wonderful image/analogy from a comment William Wildblood made in his post "Spirituality and the World."
The Divine does not want to rule over you. The Divine does not want you to tremble in fear. The Divine seeks neither submission nor endless praise and worship. The Divine does not want to be objectified or commodified. The Divine does not want you to regard yourself as a means to an end, but as an end.
The Divine seeks to commune with you. The Divine wants you to recognize and acknowledge the divine within. The Divine waits patiently for you to answer your Call, find your purpose, harness your creativity, and discover your freedom. The Divine inspires you to ascend; in turn, the Divine is inspired to descend.
A communion of love.
This, above all else, the Divine seeks.
The City of Earthly Desire.
Blog posts tend to be spontaneous, unpolished, first draft entries ranging from the insightful and periodically profound to the poorly-argued and occasionally disparaging.
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