Wednesday, August 9, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Orthodox Psychotherapy by Hierotheos S Vlachos

There is a recurring problem with attempting to evaluate, particularly in an academic context but also in whatever ‘neutral’ position one might convince themselves they represent, the claims of experiential religion. There is no more obvious example of this problem than the attempt to evaluate, and even to some degree to understand, the tradition of spiritual exercises of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Here we cannot apply the Crowleyan “try it and you’ll see what happens” as a fix, for the Orthodox commentators clearly reject any instrumentalist or technical interpretation of hesychia. What is missing for them in these interpretations is grace and the keeping of Christ’s commandments; it is not as if these dogmatic points will come of their own accord when one is far enough along on the path of stillness and asceticism. To even set out on the path recommended by Hierotheos S Vlachos and others, one must already accept not only the tradition but the Church itself, as an institution.

This is not a criticism of the method (if it can even be called a method!). It is only to express the difficulty an outsider feels when engaging with the text Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers, even if that outsider is highly sympathetic to ascetic and mystical practices.

A good example of the well-nigh infinite chasm between the ‘external’ and the ‘internal’ interpretations of the activities, as we might term them, comes towards the end of the book, with the question of faith and its relation to knowledge of human origin. Externally, faith is a kind of fidelity, a belief. If we are sympathetic to the tradition, we can extend ‘belief’ to include not only propositions (which are ‘unprovable’ to the secular amongst us) but a way of life; so ‘fidelity’ really is a preferred term. But internally, for the Orthodox hesychast, faith is “that light by which grace dawns in the soul and fortifies the heart by the testimony of the mind, making it undoubting through the assurance of hope” (St. Isaac the Syrian, qtd. 340). The very terms of the explanation, and perhaps even of the experience itself insofar as concepts or words can be ascribed to experience, cannot even be expressed externally. For the secular reader, these are so much nonsense.

This is where it becomes difficult. For the various sorts of mystical universalism, the problem is soluble via the route of experience. What works works, and there may be different ways to interpret it but fundamentally enlightenment is untouchable by interpretation; this is the route of the ‘pure consciousness event’. But for institutional religion, this route has been foreclosed. This leads, or can lead, to two results: first, all other claims of mystical experience in other traditions and contexts can be ascribed to, say, the devil, or otherwise denigrated as incomplete or not truly salvific; or second, all other claims of mystical experience in other traditions can be chalked up to lies.

With the overwhelming evidence of similar experiences across vast epochs and differing dogmas, the institutional approach to mystical experience as expressed in Orthodox Psychotherapy is put in this very difficult position. The non-mystical religions or approaches to institutional religion (say, your typical Roman Catholicism or exoteric Protestantism) are themselves in a difficult position, but quite a different one. For them, there is no necessary tension between experience and dogma, only that between dogma and reason. The Eastern Orthodox Church effectively destroyed this conflict at the Ecumenical Council of 1351 with the triumph of hesychasm as championed by St. Gregory Palamas (despite the lamentations in Orthodox Psychotherapy with regard to the contemporary loss of the culture of hesychasm among the people and even the monks). Now the question – and the same goes for mysticism in the Roman church – is what to do with mystical experience when it does not match the accepted dogma.

This is the tension: God is ineffable, and yet we have a very clear list of what He doesn’t like, which includes fornication, bodily comfort, and so on. Whence comes the list from out of the, ineffability? How can such a translation be effected? Surely, we find no theory here aside from appeal to revelation, which is all well and good so far as it goes.

This is where I would want to claim the superiority (in this restricted sense) of certain Eastern religions over Christianity, for mystical experience and further revelation need not be silenced or cause for heresy. Thelema, the religion founded by Aleister Crowley, also fits into this category. There, it is not that God has a particular list of likes and dislikes, but that, for particular people to find God, they need to take particular measures that fit their personality, life situation, and general place in the cosmos. Here, the path to divinity is relativized by the actuality of the Absolute rather than absolutized thereby, as it is in Orthodox Psychotherapy, despite the appeals to the individuality of the aspirant with regard to the recommendations of the spiritual director.

For God to be Absolute, one must, at least potentially, be able to find Him in all things. Now, whether the strict and externally-given morality of the Orthodox tradition works, at least for some, is, I think, obvious – it certainly does, but it suffers from dogmatism despite its best efforts at flexibility.

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