Recently I heard Darren Brown on the radio promoting his new book ‘Happy’ . He has discovered Stoicism. I liked what he said about the flaw in self-help today insisting on cranking everything up to 11 with self-belief and going for your goals full tilt while ignoring the way life throws stuff at you. I did wonder at his blanket statement that ‘religion’ (Christianity?) had supplanted Stoicism’s wisdom. In simplest chronological terms, this is almost true.
But for me there is much in traditional Christianity, in the Greek and Latin Church Fathers and theologians who have followed in their footsteps, that helps us remember to reserve judgement of others’ actions and beliefs, to remember our own frailties, and to be honest about the way the world throws stuff at us.
For example, the desert ascetic Moses the Black offers strong words on withholding judgement of others: ‘The monk must die to his neighbour and never judge him at all in any way whatever.’ Rowan Williams comments ”If our life and our death are with the neighbour, this spells out something of what our ‘death’ to the neighbour might mean: it is to renounce the power of judgment over someone else – a task hard enough indeed to merit being described as death’ (Silence and Honey Cakes, p. 24).
And for me traditional Christianity also reminds us of a profound truth–the self is mystery. Augustine reflects on the open-endedness of emotional complexity ‘Man is a great mystery, Lord. You even keep count of the hairs on his head and not one of them escapes your reckoning. Yet his hairs are more easily counted than his feelings.’ The way in which our feelings are beyond counting shows how we are constantly changing. We are constantly in process. We are constantly in the middle of something. The something is our identity developing.
So we continually reflect, wait, look together with our fellow beings, our fellow animals. This seems to be what St Paul is getting at when he talks about ‘how now we see as through a mirror, in darkness, but then we shall see face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I also am known’.
We find a challenge to take us beyond our assumptions about Stoic ‘knowing yourself’. We are in the middle of story that is physical and metaphysical, communal and individual.
Dwelling in this perspective in 2016 also means seeing how there are different sorts of knowledge about different parts of reality. Different sorts of enquiry bring with them their own agendas, their own mirrors for viewing life. What we see in these mirrors of course includes us. Those promoting different sorts of knowledge do not stand outside those very processes of promoting and looking. This need not be a bad thing. We are in fact not just unavoidable participants but important components of knowledge we help construct. Keeping this in mind helps us see how supposedly-subjective enquiry into theology has much to say to supposedly-objective scientific enquiry and vice versa.
It may seem easy to dismiss such pondering as untestable or as disproven by physics or psychology. To me, however, one of the great gifts of traditional Christianity is its generosity, its capacity to converse with science and psychology, as well as to bring colour and shape out in all sorts of lives. I have been continually surprised by the ways in which people attending the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults with me live out the companioning that is full of the forbearance and open-heartedness we see in the renunciation of the power of judgement over someone else. We are more than the Stoic individual defined by self-knowing. As the Church we are continuously opened by the presence of Christ in our midst. This openness is an event. The person is open to others and even constituted by others because of the divine other beyond and yet among us.