Apathy in the darkness

People say that the two biggest problems facing western civilization these days are ignorance and apathy. How can we confront these two concerns? Frankly, I don’t know, and I don’t care.

In ancient Greece and Rome, a group of philosophers who called themselves Stoics sang the praises of apathy. They insisted that a virtuous person will not love anything in this world too much, not even a family member or a friend. The world, to Stoics, is a bad place, and everything in it is bad. They recalled the words of Socrates, who pictured the death of his body and the release of his soul as a bird flying free from its cage. So, for the Stoics, should be the attitude of every wise man and woman. We should be unencumbered by the things of this world. We should be seeking freedom from the physical world, freedom to become purely spirit, freedom not to care about food and drink, about clothing and shelter, about health and safety, or about any other matter than pertains only to our physical existence in this world.

Already two thousand years ago, a trade network linked the Mediterranean world with Persia, India, and China. Possibly Buddhist teachings traveled along this network, suggesting thoughts to the Stoic philosophers in the West. For Buddhists also seek to be unattached to the things of this world. Desire, or craving, leads to suffering. Learning to live without desire promotes life without suffering. Buddhists do not completely withdraw from the world—they consider proper vocation as important as proper beliefs and proper meditation. But behind all that is proper lies unattachment—freedom from desire for anything in this world, with the expectation of nirvana—complete freedom from suffering and from the burden of maintaining a self-identity.

In the Star Trek world, Vulcans practice the same apathy and non-attachment as Stoics and Buddhists. Vulcans seek to be guided by logic and reason, not by emotion. Scriptwriters could not resist toying with this philosophy, forcing Mr. Spock in one way or another to confront human emotion. Spock struggled to remain faithful to Vulcan values, to be apathetic and unattached, to be guided by logic unclouded by emotion. Doctor McCoy found Spock’s apathy to be cold and unappealing, but Captain Kirk often found Spock’s Vulcan ways to be helpful to the crew and the mission of the Enterprise.

This winter I am starting with a new therapist, hoping to overcome the burden of apathy. My own depression, combined with the challenges of the past year, have left me feeling burnt out and uncaring. The virus crisis, the year’s political chaos, and threats to my own job and income have exhausted my inner strength. Moreover, I have for years been taking medicine to help control my feelings of anxiety and depression. Christmas season was an ongoing struggle—I did not want to celebrate the holiday, and I did not want to spend time with family. I stopped caring about my health and well-being; I was uninterested in taking care of myself. My writing lagged. My personal space became increasingly cluttered and untidy. Even my decision to seek therapy comes, not from any desire of mine to recover, but from the insistence of family members that I need help.

Christians are not meant to be unattached. We are to love God whole-heartedly, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christians are not meant to be apathetic. We are to hunger and thirst for righteousness; we are to mourn our sins and the world’s evil—then we can be comforted and satisfied. Christians do not seek a spiritual existence untouched by the physical world. When God created the world, what he made was good. When the world became corrupted by sin and rebellion and evil, God became a physical being, as human as we are, to redeem the world. He defeated death by dying and by rising to life again—rising with a body that could be touched, that could eat and drink with his disciples, that remained physical and human. He promises his people a resurrection to a new and perfect world where we will eat and drink together at his table and enjoy everything that was good in the first creation.

Not caring is a problem. The loss of emotion means fading into darkness, not walking in the light. Right now, I honestly don’t care, but with help I expect to start caring again. With that change, other parts of my life might also start falling into place, aligning in a way that is right for me and for those around me. J.

You can’t get there from here

A man, on vacation, flies up into the mountains. At the airport in the big city he rents a car. He looks at maps, programs his destination into his phone, and sets off for his cabin. Although he doesn’t feel lost, the surroundings do not seem to be matching what his phone describes. The man sees another man sitting on a porch and stops the car to talk with him. He describes where he is trying to go. The man on the porch shakes his head and says, “You can’t get there from here.”

In our world made smaller by rapid communication and rapid transportation, it seems unlikely that two places might be inaccessible to each other. Practically speaking, it still happens. The only way for our man to reach his destination is to head back to the city and take a different road. There are no shortcuts up in the mountains. “You can’t get there from here.”

I use those words in the classroom to describe Pure Land Buddhism. Most North Americans are at least slightly familiar with Zen Buddhism, but in Asia the Pure Land version is far more common. To give a simple explanation (for which I apologize, because simple explanations are always misleading), Zen Buddhists believe that under proper discipline and meditation, a person can achieve enlightenment in this world. One can end craving and therefore escape suffering by realizing the illusionary nature of all things—especially of an individual’s sense of self. Pure Land Buddhists are trying to achieve the same enlightenment, but they understand that “you can’t get there from here.” This world is too full of distractions and enticements to make full enlightenment possible. However, by proper living, proper meditation, and devotion to the Amitabha Buddha, a Buddhist can be assured of rebirth in the Pure Land. In the Pure Land are no distractions or enticements. Meditation is easy, and enlightenment is possible. The path is harder, but the destination is finally possible.

Is there any time that a Christian must say, “You can’t get there from here”? Consider one person who joined the church looking for peace of heart, inward joy, and a sense of God’s presence. The Bible promises these gifts to believers, but sometimes “you can’t get there from here.” The problem is not merely one’s own sins or lack of faith; the problem includes attacks from evil and distractions from a sinful world. The best of the saints suffered at times: David, Job, Paul, even Christ. Peace and joy are promised, but sometimes they are achieved only after a journey through the dark night of the soul.

Another wants to be a better man. He knows that his life is not fully pleasing to God, and he does not wish to join the church until he knows that he is worthy of God’s kingdom. To such a man, one can only say, “You can’t get there from here.” It is noble to want to be better, and every Christian should strive for that goal. But none of us can make ourselves good enough to belong in God’s Kingdom. None of us can work our way to holiness for God. Holiness lies in the future for all of God’s people. Even so, “you can’t get there from here.”

Jesus wants us to have joy and peace. He wants us to live holy lives. Because we can’t get there from here, Jesus accomplishes the impossible work for us. He pays the debt for our sins, a price we could never pay. He lives a sinless life and bestows on us his righteousness. He fights and defeats all our enemies—sin, the devil, and death itself. He promises to carry us to the Pure Land, a perfect creation, remade from this present sin-stained creation. We will live there forever with him, with no suffering or pain or death, and he will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Pure Land Buddhists believe that they must please the Amitabha Buddha to earn a place in the Pure Land. Jesus still says, “No, you can’t get there from here.” Instead, he promises to be with us in this world. He promises to give us the gift of faith, to strengthen that faith, and to keep us in that faith. He promises to lead us. Even in the dark valley of the shadow of death we do not fear, for he is with us. By his death and resurrection he has blazed a trail across that valley. He will lead us safely through that valley, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

We want to be there now. We want to be enjoying the fullness of his promised blessings now. “You can’t get there from here.” The only way to get there is to stay close to the Shepherd, for he is leading us on paths today. With his guidance, we will get there. Only our Shepherd knows how to get there from here. J.


Christian mindfulness

In the last few weeks, I have become aware of an approach to life called Mindfulness. I first learned about it from another blog, then did some internet research about Mindfulness, and then was loaned a book about Mindfulness. I am only beginning to learn; I am by no means an expert in this field. Yet my early reaction consists of mixed feelings and mixed opinions about Mindfulness.

This way of life comes from the Buddhist religion or philosophy. Buddhists acknowledge the reality of suffering and of problems, and with that Christians agree. Buddhists see the origin of suffering as desire, and to a certain extent Christians agree with that teaching as well. Buddhists propose that it is possible to stop desiring and so to bring an end to suffering. They speak of an eightfold path that leads to an end of desire and of suffering. Christians find it hard to agree with those teachings. Christians are told to love God above everything else and to love their neighbors as themselves. Perhaps it is possible to love without desire, but that idea is hard to comprehend. More important, Christians are told that they are rescued from suffering and from all evil, not by their efforts, but by the grace of God and by the rescue mission of Jesus Christ.

That being said, I am not prepared to discard Mindfulness because of its Buddhist origins. Buddhism is arguably a philosophy that can be pursued by polytheists, monotheists, and even atheists. As such, it is similar to other philosophies that arose in the world around the same time, including Confucianism and Daoism in China and the Greek philosophers who culminated with Plato and Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle were polytheists, but Augustine was able to blend the philosophy of Plato with Christian teachings, and Thomas Aquinas succeeded at wedding the philosophy of Aristotle with Christian doctrine. Of the five, I see the best possible blend involving Daoism with Christian teachings, but I am not prepared to reject the possibility that one could pursue Mindfulness while remaining faithfully Christian.

In fact, my biggest concern about pursuing Mindfulness is not that it fails to be truly Christian, but that it may fail to be truly Buddhist. In that respect, I have the same concern about Mindfulness that I have about yoga. Yoga as practiced in the United States of America is generally thought to bring peace of mind, better health, and other kinds of self-improvement. In India, the purpose of yoga is not self-improvement. The purpose of yoga is escape from the self. Hindus practice yoga so that, through control of the body, they can remember that the body is merely an illusion, and that the mind or soul likewise is merely an illusion. The entire point of Hindu practices is to escape self-awareness, to become one with the universe. Reading about Mindfulness, I am concerned about a similar departure from the original purpose of the discipline into an American, self-centered, “it’s all about me” exercise that is meant to feed the ego rather than to escape the ego.

Of course many Americans practice Christianity for the same reasons, yet the origins of Christianity are not concerned with self-improvement. Jesus told his followers to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him. He said that those who tried to claim themselves would lose themselves, but those who lost themselves for the sake of Christ and the gospel would gain themselves. The focus of a genuine Christian is upon Jesus, not upon oneself. As John the Baptist said about Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

I am prepared to practice—or, if necessary, to invent—a Christian Mindfulness, one which keeps Jesus Christ front and center and seeks service to him rather than to the self. Many Christians in the past have pursued such a path: Meister Eckhardt and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing in western Christianity, and a great number of teachers in Greek and Russian Christianity. The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”) is used as the basis for meditation in some Russian Christian groups. As an experiment, I have tried using the words of Psalm 46:10 (“Be still and know that I am God.”) as an exercise in meditation. I breathe in with the first four words, pause with the word “know,” breathe out with the last four words, and pause again. It is too soon to say if this sort of meditation is accomplishing anything in my life, but I would be content if it did no more than remind me that God is in control and I am not.

I intend to try to continue this sort of Christian Mindfulness for the rest of the summer and the fall. Over the coming weeks, I expect to post more thoughts about Christian Mindfulness, about Christ and the self, and about the difference between meditation and prayer. God bless.