Sunday, November 13, 2011

Two books recently read

This weekend marks a milestone in our career as adults: we got the internet. I mean, we got it, like we called the company and they came out and now we have to pay for it each month and we have our own password, which Matt set up so I have no idea what it is.

I think such a momentous occasion deserves a blog post.

This is what I'm reading and have recently read.

On the Divine Incarnation by St. Athanasius
I don't know how I snuck through an Orthodox catechism (albeit a hasty one) without being handed this little book. Oddly enough, I had read the introduction in another anthology; I had previously snorted at C.S. Lewis' essay on reading "old books," not because I disliked it, but because it goes so obviously unheeded by C.S. Lewis aficianados. If you read Plato you could have interesting thoughts too! He was clearly a brilliant man and a fine writer with a sensitive yet manful moral and aesthetic sense, and God knows how many times I've quivered in ecstasy thanks to the Chronicles of Narnia, but as the juxtaposition of Lewis' essay with St. Athanasius' treatise shows (and as "Jacksie" would leap to affirm,) he ain't Athanasius. In fact I had completely forgotten that he introduced the treatise until I started writing this post. That's how powerful, clear, and thrilling is St. Athanasius' defense of the necessity of the Incarnation of Christ. I was particularly struck by his formulation of "The Divine Dilemma:"

It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption... You might ... argue that, as through the Transgression [men] became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; al that it does is to make them cease from sinning... [Christ's] part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. [On The Divine Incarnation, Chapter II, Section 7]

What error did it correct in my thinking? I think I was afflicted more with laziness than outright error on this doctrinal point. I suppose I had asked myself, rather cautiously, "Why did Jesus have to die? Why did not God show his usual mercy to us and forgive us?" Being basically convinced that it was somehow necessary, and important, that Christ was Incarnate of a Virgin, was crucified for us by Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried, and on the third day rose again according to the Scriptures, because I affirm that this is what happened, I did not sit long with the uncertainty as to why all this was necessary. I did not seek to replace my vague Bible study answers ("We could never repay our debt to God, so Christ did, because He had more... something!") with more muscular Patristic proofs, probably because I was busy freaking out about Kierkegaard and/or drinking.

Well, now it's clear. We were in a qualitative, not quantitative quandary, in that we had descended into corruption. As God promised, "we must surely die." If He simply waved a divine wand and bestowed life to us again, restoring us to Paradise, He would have contradicted Himself. However, His great love for us would not allow us to languish in the darkness as blind worms for long; the Word became flesh, submitted to crucifixion as the Word in flesh, and overthrew Death as the Word in flesh. The problem consisted in our corruption, God's consistency, and His desire for communion with us; in his Incarnation, Death and Resurrection, Christ maintained God's consistency while restoring us to incorruption.

That was the most basic and crucial lesson which St. Athanasius taught me; however the rest of the treatise, exploring the details of the Incarnation and defending its absolute doctrinal necessity and truth to both Jews and Greek philosophers, was also fascinating, and I'm sure I'll be returning to it to shore up my understanding of this great mystery.

More Spirited Than Lions by Sarah Cowie

There are about seven different women to whom I want to make a gift of this book. The author, an Orthodox woman who was once a committed feminist, bookends her work with the story of marvelous Nuns of Shamordino who humbly and resolutely refused to "work for Satan" in a Soviet camp. She gives a fairly detailed history of the feminist movement and a brief "Feminist Catechism." She then systematically dissembles the major feminist arguments on a merely logical level before outlining the Orthodox ideal for the role of the woman in the familial, social and religious order, supported by the Fathers and Scripture.

I have always wrinkled my nose at the Sexual Revolution, felt physically nauseated by the idea of abortion, and made to feel anywhere from vaguely to explicitly uncomfortable while perusing Ms. in the nurse's waiting room in college. I had never attempted a systematic critique of feminism for myself, because it seemed too loose a phrase, and because most of my friends self-identify as feminists. More Spirited Than Lions helped me to clarify and solidify my understanding of and opposition to the feminist "movement." Without quoting large chunks of text (because I devoured this book too quickly to pick up a pen and mark my favourite passages,) here are two of the ideas that I have been mulling over since my reading of MSTL:

  • Feminism (specifically second and third wave) depends on a Marxist abstraction of individuals into an aggregate; thus one can claim that women are and always have been categorically and systematically oppressed by men. This doesn't exactly equate to saying "Each and every individual woman has been oppressed by individual men or a man," or "Each and every individual man oppresses individual women." If I remembered my Marx better, I'd be able to say what it exactly equates to, but it's something more vaguely Hegelian, like "The Master (Man) seeks to determinately negate The Bondsman (Woman)." The result is that any individual woman who timidly raises her hand and says "I don't feel like I am systematically and categorically oppressed by men," is assumed to be stupid, or brainwashed by The Man. "You think you aren't being oppressed, but that's what he wants you to think!" Presumption is an inherent attitude of Marxism/feminism.
  • Adam and Eve both sinned when presented with temptation, but each of them sinned in a different way. Eve ate the forbidden fruit because she wanted to be like God. Her sin, or disease, was Pride. Adam ate the fruit to go along with Eve, perhaps because he was not interested in thinking the problem through, or because he did not want to make things uncomfortable. His disease was Sloth. Therefore, God prescribed different cures for the two infirm sinners. The cure for Adam's Sloth was to pour his sweat and blood into the ground in order to survive. The cure for Eve's Pride was to bear children and to submit to her husband, as she had failed to submit to God. Every man and woman is afflicted with the same disease as his or her respective Parent, and each of us must submit to the same treatment if we hope to be cured. (How clearly I manifest symptoms of this specifically feminine disease! It runs in the family; my mother and all my sisters have it too. We certainly do not suffer from that boyish affliction of Sloth; but this itself is a point of Pride. Quickly false-martyr-Martha rises up to protest other people's laziness; but "only one thing is needful.")
Okay, that's enough for now; my husband wants me to make him some food.

In the future maybe I'll post about:
  • Middlemarch
  • Father Arseny
  • Being As Communion
  • Brideshead Revisited