Original article by acientfaith.com
So I’m going to start with a hypothesis. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about religious symbolism and archetypes, but there’s a problem with that, and the problem is it lacks concretization. To think about the ultimate ideal as only something that’s symbolic, it moves away from the real world, and it’s partly for this reason that there’s an insistence in Christianity that the Logos is two things at once. It took me a long time to figure this out.
I was guided in my attempts to understand it by Carl Jung, who was a truly remarkable person, and probably Orthodox in his fundamental convictions, I would say. He talked about the Logos as the thing that existed at the beginning of time, and this is a very particular way of looking at things. So the idea is essentially that, as Jonathan pointed out, that there’s something about consciousness that calls forth being from chaotic potential. You all understand what this means, because if you look at the future or if you look at yourselves, you know that what you confront is a field of potential, and everyone tells you that. They tell you, “You’re not living up to your potential,” and potential is a very strange thing, because it doesn’t yet exist, so by the canons of modern science, it’s not something that has any reality whatsoever, but everyone knows precisely what it means. And everything around you is full of potential, because you can interact with it and bring forth new things.
And you know that and you can be called for your failure to do it, and you call out yourself for your failure to do it, because you wake up at three in the morning and you torture yourself with your inability to bring forth the potential that’s within you, and it haunts your soul. It’s hellish, and the reason it’s hellish is because it is hellish. And if you don’t call forth the potential that’s within you and outside of you, then the world does transform into hell, because that’s its tendency anyways. We’ve had no shortage of evidence of that in the last 100 years.
It’s part of the Christian doctrine that at the beginning of time the Logos of Yahweh operated on potential and brought forth the habitable world, ordered, and it was perfect. In some strange sense it was the paradise in which Adam and Eve were placed, and the paradise was a walled garden, a well-watered place. The walled garden is a place of order and chaos, culture and nature, and that’s because people inhabit a garden of culture and nature. That’s our environment. If those two properties are properly balanced, then inside that garden everyone can flourish.
And human beings are in principle made in image of that Logos, and that’s why we can speak things into being, and we do. When you speak truth, then you speak paradise into being, and when you speak falsely, you speak hell into being, and that’s the truth. What that means is that, with every decision that you make, you decide for yourself and for everyone else whether you’re going to tilt the world a little bit more towards hell or a little bit more towards heaven. And that’s the burden you bear for your existence, and the choices that you make as you pass through life, and it’s the fleeing from that that’s at the bottom of the nihilism of post-modernism and the escape into the totalitarian certainties of idol worship.
None of this is fictional, because we’ve seen the consequences. Jonathan said, quoting—I don’t remember the source—that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, but that’s wrong—but the poetry has to be about Auschwitz. The lesson from Auschwitz was “never again.” And, fair enough, but you can’t decide not to repeat something terrible unless you understand it. And the way to understand it is that the small sins of each individual culminate in the great sins of the state. When you ask why terrible things happen in the world, the answer’s quite simple. The answer is it’s because you’re not good enough. And it’s because you don’t tell the truth, and you know it.
Jonathan said something I thought was very interesting. It’s something I’ve thought about, but I haven’t talked to him about it at all. What happens as you move towards the truth, and the answer is everything comes together. That really is the answer. Everything comes together. There’s even a sexual element to that, because of course the highest element of sexual ecstasy is to come together. Around someone who’s telling the truth, everything comes together, and that’s the potential destiny of the world. It’s something that you can partake in. It’s the call to the greatest adventure that there is. You can bring forth something akin to paradise by speaking the truth. And you can start in your own life and you can start in the life of your own families, and your families are people that, in principle, that you love, so why would you do anything but speak the truth to them? To protect them from reality? There’s no protecting anyone from reality. Reality just is. You interact with it on its terms, and you do that by facing it forthrightly, and you do that by not shying away from the challenge.
I spent a lot of time trying to understand the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a very strange document. I’m going to tell you what I think it means. It means: conceptualize the highest good that you can. So you might think that would be the highest good for you, and it would be the highest good for the family around you that you love, and it would be the highest good for that family in the state, and it would be the highest good for the state in the world. And that would be the highest possible good. Aim at that, even though you don’t know how. Aim at that. Make that what you want. And then tell the truth.
It’s an adventure, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You have no idea, because if you treat things instrumentally, if you treat people instrumentally, you use them as tools for your own desire, and the problem with that is: What do you know about what you desire? Many things that you chase will turn out to be empty. Well, what happens if you just tell the truth? The world will unfold around you in very strange and mysterious ways, and there isn’t anything that’s more exciting than that, and it’s perhaps something exciting enough that the suffering that’s attendant on being would redeem itself by that adventure. And that’s the call, that’s the Western call to the individual: the suffering of being can redeem itself through truth. And it’s not a rule, it’s not a proposition that you need to adhere to like a good citizen; it’s the proper way of wending your way through the terrible world without making it worse than it already is and with the possibility perhaps of making it better. There’s no more exciting possibility than that, and no higher moral demand.
The thing is is that everyone knows it. You know when you lie according to your own conception of the truth that there’s something shameful and demeaning about that, and you know that it hurts people. You think, well, why do you do it despite all that, and partly that you do it because it’s easy, and partly you do it because there’s a crooked, horrible, hellish part of your soul that’s more than happy if part of what you do is make everything worse to pay for the sin of its existence. I would say that we should stop doing that and see what we can do if we got ourselves together, because human beings are remarkable creatures.
We put together an amazing civilization, working at it half-time. It’s like 55% of humanity, on a good day, is working to make things better, and 45% is working to make it worse. You wonder what would happen if we all just decided that we were going to make things better. As simple as that: start where you are, make things around you better. Where would we be? What would the world turn into around a civilization of people who are genuinely trying to make things better? I can tell you we’d better find out soon, because if we don’t try electively to make things better, given the current state of affairs, they are going to get a lot worse.
I’ve thought for a long time; I’ve wondered why people find themselves adrift in meaninglessness. There’s a lot of answers to that. There’s the classical criticisms of traditional faith that have been put forth by brilliant people like Friedrich Nietzsche. There’s the idea that there were fairy tales that people lived by prior to the modern age, and we’ve outgrown those and that’s left us in a cosmos that’s bereft of meaning. So it’s a consequence of the inevitable unfolding of a kind of cutting rationality, and some of that’s true, but there’s a lot of it that isn’t true, because I’ve also come to understand that the reason that so many of us proclaim that life is meaningless is because we would actually rather have it be meaningless than to take responsibility for it.
Because you can imagine this scenario: Imagine you were offered a choice—and this is because you are offered this choice—you could say, well, absolutely nothing you do matters and who the hell’s going to know anyways in a million years, so you can do whatever you want moment to moment. Right? That’s the payoff for that perspective, is you can do whatever you want moment to moment, and you’ll not be held responsible by anyone including yourself for pursuing your petty impulse of immoral, foolish, destructive, genocidal tendencies.
Or the alternative is that you can assume that everything you do is meaningful and that everything you do as an impact on the way the world unfolds and take responsibility for that. It’s something that—you’ll have your meaning all right, that’s for sure, because you have an infinite amount of responsibility that you make under those circumstances. Perhaps, as a medicament for that, the knowledge that when you’re on the path properly that you’re helping the world unfold in the best direction that it possibly could. Well, there isn’t anything better than that. If you want something to set against the inevitable suffering of life, that’s what you set against it: the endless adventure of trying to make things better in every possible way. And God only knows where we could get if we did that.
Around the perfect man, everything comes together. I don’t believe that… that’s where the infinite Logos, that stretches across time and space, comes together in a single individual. That’s the Christian story. The reason for that is that every single person is embedded in a specific time and place. That’s you as an individual, but at the same point you’re also the embodiment of this thing that has acted across forever to call chaos into habitable being. You’re both this divine, eternal, transcendent essence and the finite shell that you inhabit.
It’s like the genie, right? A genie is genius, and the genie is something that can grant three magical wishes, but it has to inhabit this tiny little space. It’s the same idea. Well, you can act that out in your life, and you can transcend it. As you do that, things come together around you, and everything becomes musical. That’s the right way to think about it. And everything becomes alive. You shy away from that, because you’re resentful about the fundamental structure of being, and you don’t want the responsibility. It’s no bloody wonder, because the responsibility is the responsibility for everything.
That’s why it’s part of the Christian story that Christ took the sins of the world upon himself, because that’s what you have to do in order to put yourself together. It’s your fault. Everything that isn’t going right is because you’re not good enough. Well, who wants that, right? Welcome the post-modernists, because the light and the burden, the consequences that nothing has any meaning, but that’s a small price to pay to get rid of that particular burden. Well, maybe not! Maybe the meaning of life is to be found in your voluntary willingness to take on that burden and carry it. Well, that’s the notion that’s embedded in the idea of the cross, to pick up the full conscious knowledge of your own vulnerability, your subjugation to betrayal, your slavery at the hands of the state, your insanity and your mortality, and to say: I’ll bear that voluntarily. It’s okay. I can handle it.
It seems to me that we’re at a kind of crossroads. I don’t know exactly why. You always meet the devil at the crossroads, by the way, and the reason for that is because every crossroads is a choice, and it’s always a choice between good and evil. We’re at a crossroads and I don’t know why. I guess it’s because the terrible 20th century has spent its energy and now we have something new in the aftermath of that. It’s time for everyone to pick up the chaotic pieces and to carry them voluntarily and to make their way through the world and to try to speak their truth and to see what happens. It will heal yourself, it will heal your body, it will heal your soul, it will heal your family, it will heal your family, it’ll heal the nation. That’s what truth does, and how could it be any other way? The reality is the truth, and how are you going to adapt to it without using the truth? Well, the problem is that reality is the terrible truth, but it’s certainly possible that the terrible truth is its own medicine.
With regards to my connection to Orthodoxy, I have kind of a funny story to tell you about that. About 15 years ago, a student of mine whom I’ve maintained a relationship with since I’ve taught at Harvard, I’d helped him through a difficult period. His family had been at the center of a real storm of publicity, like a front-page story for a number of months. Recently he returned the favor with me. But he proposed at one point that I fly down to Los Angeles and act as the officiant at his marriage. I thought, “Well, that’s pretty interesting. I never expected that to happen.” So I thought, “Well, if I’m going to do that, I’d better get ordained, because that’s obviously the logical thing to do.” And I thought, “Well, how do you get ordained on short notice?” Obviously, the answer to that is you go online. [Laughter]
So I went online, and I signed up. I could name my church, so I did. I have this church. I’m the only member. [Laughter] It’s called the Church of the Spirit of St. Joachim of Florence, which, you know, isn’t necessarily the name that you would expect. I like St. Joachim for what I knew of him, because he had this idea that there were three epochs, there would be three epochs in Western civilization, and one would be the epoch of the Father, and that’s roughly the Old Testament epoch and Old Testament morality that has to do with following rules; and then there was the epoch of the Son, and that was of course the epoch, the Christian epoch of the last 2,000 years; and he believed that what would come after that would be the epoch of the Holy Ghost, and the Holy Ghost is this weird spirit-thing that hypothetically Christ left behind that could inhabit people and guide them on their path. It seems to me that that’s very much in keeping with the Orthodox idea that the proper moral pathway for each individual to take is to attempt to bear the burden of the perfect individual, to become christ, so to speak, to transcend mortality and finitude, and to unite with God. I thought, well, that was kind of a cool idea, so I thought, “Well, I might as well have that as a church.”
Then I thought, “Well, who should I be in this church?” And I thought Pope was probably a little bit on the narcissistic side, let’s say. So I thought, “I’ll be Metropolitan,” because I thought that was kind of archaic enough, and sort of out of the way enough so that it was a good joke, so I’m my own metropolitan of my own church. It only has one rule, and so you can join it if you want. The rule is that if you’re a member of my church, you can’t follow stupid rules. [Laughter] Yeah, so that’s a good rule, because actually it’s an anti-rule rule, which is really funny, as far as I’m concerned.
Anyways, I went down to LA, and I did marry these two, and they’re still married, so that’s good. [Laughter] Yeah, yeah. So I know that’s a bit rambly, but it’s been a long day. I talked to Sam Harris today again, for those of you who… It went great, ha ha ha! [Laughter] Yeah, it did. It went great. Anyways, so look. The idea’s pretty straightforward, you know, as far as I can tell. There’s this tremendous idea that’s at the bottom of Western culture that’s taken the human race millennia and perhaps an endless amount of time before then, an eternal amount of time before then, to formulate.
The idea is that our conscienceness—and that’s the center of us, the soul, whatever that happens to be—partakes in the process by which creation comes into being, and we do that through the Logos, which is our capacity to think and to utter words and to engage in dialogue, but more importantly to do that truthfully, and to the degree that we’re able to do that truthfully, we bring paradise into being rather than hell. It seems to me that that’s as close to objective reality… Although it’s not precisely objective, it’s more than objective reality; it’s a kind of meta-reality. It’s the most profound truth that you’ll ever encounter.
The thing that’s cool about it is you can even put it to the test if you want. You know, you start deciding that you’re not going to lie, because how the hell are you going to tell the truth; what do you know; you don’t know what the truth is, but you certainly know when you’re lying, and you know how to stop doing that. So I would say to just try to stop lying and see what happens. Try it for like a year. You don’t get to lie about anything any more.
And that also means that you can’t do things that you would be afraid to talk about, because if you’re going to tell the truth, you have to tell the truth about what you did, and if you do reprehensible things, then you can’t just run around telling everybody about them, so it also means that you have to not act in a way that you wouldn’t speak truthfully about. Try it! You’ll find out, first of all, that you’re so full of lies and deceit that you just bloody well can’t believe it.
When I started doing this 30 years ago, it really just about drove me crazy, because I divided into two people in some sense. One person was talking, and the other person was watching the person that was talking. The talking person was a puppet, and the watching person was the right person. And every time the talking person said something, the watching person would go: “You don’t believe that. That isn’t true. That isn’t your idea.” And I thought: Wow, that’s really not good, because it looks like 95% of what I’m saying isn’t mine or I’m saying it for show or I’m saying it to be dominant primate or I’m saying it so that I can use my language instrumentally and get what I want, or I swiped it from a book and I really don’t deserve it, but I’m saying it. It was horrible! It was 95%, seriously.
So then I learned, at least in part, to only say things that made me feel like I was together, and that’s part of that coming-together: you can feel that, physically. If you say something deceitful, you shrink and you cower from it. It makes you embarrassed, and it makes you weak. You can feel the weakness. It’s like: Stop saying things that make you weak, if you don’t want to be weak, then. If you want to be strong, stop saying things that make you feel weak. Try it! Try it; see what happens. You can test this out. In a year, things will be way different for you. In five years, you won’t even be the same person. God only knows what’ll happen in a decade. So it’s really worth it. Besides, you don’t have anything better to do anyways, because here you are, suffering stupidly away. You might as well do something useful with your time while you’re waiting to die. [Laughter] And there isn’t anything more interesting to do than that.
It’s so cool, because… What I decided to do last September, when I made these crazy videos which really had more of an effect than I thought they would… Well, I thought, “I’ve got some things to say. Why don’t I say them and see what happens?” So that’s sort of: That’s an excellent way to live. Why don’t I say the things that I think and see what happens. [Laughter] Well, this is one of the things that’s happened, so that’s kind of cool. I mean, how unlikely is this? It’s completely absurd and ridiculous that here I’m with Jonathan, this crazy French-Canadian carver, and these two guys in dresses here, I mean. [Laughter] That’s exactly what you’d expect, given what I’ve been talking about recently.
This is very unlikely, and all this has been very unlikely, and life is very unlikely. Maybe it could be absolutely magnificent and wonderful. We could make everything into a holy temple in which we could live forever peacefully, only searching for more remarkable and spectacular things to do next, and that’s what people do in paradise. They sit around, dreaming about how the paradise they already had could give rise to a paradise that’s yet greater than the one that’s there, and with the collective imagination that we pursue, that could be a never-ending thing, and we could bring it into being. That’s what we should do, because the alternative is to let everything degenerate into chaos and hell. How about we don’t do that? Well, that’s good enough. [Applause]