Wednesday, June 27, 2007

St Maximos believed the cycle of suffering could not be broken by us

For a Christian such as myself interested in Comparative Theology, an important theological work could be done by offering an analysis of the Four Noble Truths and showing how they can be adapted for Christian thought. Sunday, October 15, 2006 The Well At The World's End
The law of karma is something Christians can engage. Certainly there are many questions a Christian should raise about it, like how does one deal with the concept of reincarnation. Yet these questions should not stop us from learning from the concept of karma. Christians gained quite a bit from Greek thought and thinkers, despite Hellenistic acceptance of reincarnation. While the question of reincarnation is not our concern here, perhaps one could look further at the Buddhist concept of anatman, and consider whether or not it might offer a way reincarnation could be reinterpreted in a way which follows the fundamental Christian belief of the uniqueness of each human life.
It is Siddhartha’s emphasis on suffering, and its causation, that is the central concern of this essay. Perhaps it is from his similar monastic background, but St Maximos the Confessor’s writings seem to raise the same questions about suffering and its origin that are behind the Four Noble Truths. His answers, moreover, have much in common with Siddhartha’s analysis, and offer a place where the two religious traditions can have a fruitful dialogue with one another. Moreover, he takes his answer and uses it to create an interesting Christological point, offering us a new way to understand the incarnation of Jesus.
First, we find him stating the origin of pain and death lies in our inordinate use of pleasure. “Because of the meaningless pleasure which invaded human nature, a purposive pain, in the form of multiple sufferings, also gained entrance. It is in and from these sufferings that death takes its origin.” St Maximos the Confessor, “Fourth Century of Various Texts” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Two. Trans. by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London, Faber and Faber: 1990), p.244.
We were meant to long for God, who transcended all earthly things, but instead, we transferred this longing to the created world, idolizing it. “But on his creation the first man, through an initial movement towards sensible objects, transferred this longing to his senses, and through them began to experience pleasure in a way which is contrary to nature. Whereupon God in His providential care for our salvation implanted pain in us as a kind of chastising force; and so through pain the law of death was wisely rooted in the body, thus setting limits to the intellect’s manic longing, directed, in a manner contrary to nature, towards sensible objects.” Ibid, p.243.
We might want to explore what is being said here a bit further. We were meant for communion with God, and only that communion provides for satisfaction. God is unchanging, transcendent, eternal, and therefore, communion with God can fully provide for that which we long for, it can provide that happiness which we seek. However, in our ignorance, we turned from God and to the senses, to the delights of the world, raising them above their proper place (they are indeed good, they are indeed beautiful, but by placing our longing into them, we try to make them something they are not. When we do not get what we are seeking out of them, pain is the reminder that what we seek can only be found in something greater. That is, it is a reminder that we seek God).
Pleasure for Maximos is the acquisition of what we desire. He does not say pleasure of itself is bad, only inappropriate ones are. In our inordinate pursuit for pleasures, we will have to face the consequence of our action. “All suffering has as its cause some pleasure which preceded it. Hence all suffering is a debt which those who share in human nature pay naturally in return for pleasure.” Ibid., p. 244.
Both Siddhartha and St Maximos see suffering rooted in inappropriate desire. Siddhartha points out that whether or not we acquire it, we will suffer. Yet, St Maximos would point out that there is some pleasure we acquire through our desire, so I do not see he would disagree with Siddhartha’s point...
One fundamental difference is that Siddhartha offers the way out through our own effort, while St Maximos believed the cycle of suffering could not be broken by us. While an examination of their common analysis of suffering could enrich both traditions, a thorough examination of this fundamental difference might be a better place for dialogue between the two religions. It would provide a better understanding of what differences there really are between the two religious faiths, preventing the kind of injustice a synchronistic vision of the two would create. Labels: , posted by Henry Karlson @ 9:03 AM

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