Saturday, December 31, 2011

Maximus the Confessor on pleasure and pain

From Ad Thalassium 61:
When God created human nature, he did not create sensible pleasure and pain along with it; rather, he furnished it with a certain spiritual capacity for pleasure, a pleasure whereby human beings would be able to enjoy God ineffably. But at the instant he was created, the first man, by use of his senses, squandered this spiritual capacity--the natural desire of the mind for God--on sensible things. In this, his very first movement, he activated an unnatural pleasure through the medium of the senses. Being, in his providence, concerned for our salvation, God therefore affixed pain alongside this sensible pleasure as a kind of punitive faculty, whereby the law of death was wisely implanted in our corporeal nature to curb the foolish mind in its desire to incline unnaturally toward sensible things.
(I am here using a translation given by Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken from On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, from the Popular Patristics Series.)

This dualism between desire for God and desire for "unnatural pleasure through the medium of the senses" seems to play a strong role in Christian thought. I hear it in sermons all the time. It always goes something like this: you look for satisfaction in all the things of the world, from money to sex to popularity to comfort and ease, but none of these things will ultimately satisfy; only God will satisfy you.

My complaint against this notion is that it is empirically false. In the first place, I don't see the biblical justification in it. We read in Genesis 2 that God gave us all the plants in the garden to eat. How can one argue that this didn't involve "pleasure through the medium of the senses"? When Eve was tempted to eat of the forbidden tree, she saw that it was "good for food." How could she have seen this unless she knew what "good for food" meant?

I also wonder how Maximus and similar thinkers would deal with the entire book of Ecclesiastes, but I'll let that pass for now.

In the second place, I wonder how Christian thought can possibly maintain this dualism in light of a modern understanding of the mind and its "bottom-up" construction. Rather than a sharp division between rational and sensory functions of the mind, modern science shows rational thought to emerge out of the highly complex "lower functions" of a physical mind. In particular, there is not nearly so heavy a distinction between humans and other animals as classical thought would like to maintain.

Personally, I can't help but see this dualism as a form of nihilism. You can't find your ultimate pleasure in food, sex, comfort, or even friendship--no, ultimate pleasure is found in God, you see. Which makes God sound like nothing. For once you remove everything which gives us a direct experience of pleasure, all that remains is a vacuum.

This was always my critique of Anselm's ontological argument. The greatest possible being might simply be a phantom, a nothing, a vacuum. You continue to think of really good things, and continue to reject them, saying there must be something even greater. Until you have nothing left but the idea of something really really good.

Ironically, Maximus spends much of his time countering Origenism, which imagined that the "fall" involved incorporeal beings rejecting God and thus being condemned to bodily existence. Against this, Maximus insisted that we were, in fact, created with bodies (which is the only possible way you can read Genesis 1 and 2, anyway). I wish he had gone further than this.

1 comment:

  1. In response, perhaps, the Bonhoeffer card?

    "I believe that we ought so to love and trust God in our lives, and in all the good things that he sends us, that when the time comes (but not before!) we may go to him with love, trust, and joy. But, to put it plainly, for a man in his wife’s arms to be hankering after the other world is, in mild terms, a piece of bad taste, and not God’s will. We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us; if it pleases him to allow us to enjoy some overwhelming earthly happiness, we mustn’t try to be more pious than God himself and allow our happiness to be corrupted by presumption and arrogance, and by unbridled religious fantasy which is never satisfied with what God gives… . Everything has its time, and the main thing is that we keep step with God, and do not keep pressing on a few steps ahead — nor keep dawdling a step behind. It’s presumptuous to want to have everything at once — matrimonial bliss, the cross, and the heavenly Jerusalem, where they neither marry not are given in marriage. “To everything there is a season."


I love to hear feedback!