Theosis in White Harlem

November 04, 2007

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Columbus Avenue and One Hundred Seventh Street. An Albanian restaurant serves red snapper with pineapple-mango salsa on a thirty dollar prix fixe. White Harlem, in the notable phrase of America’s Greatest Living Philosopher, who grew up here. George Carlin, I mean, who was awarded the AGLP title by the late Robert Anton Wilson, who should know. It was Wilson whom the Heff anointed with the mission of crafting a Playboy Philosophy, which he did, out of little bits of Aleister Crowley, Ayn Rand, and Alfred Korzybsky stuck together with the glue of certain chemical agents then well known.


  

This was pretty much a Mexican neighborhood back in the days, infested by druggies and dealers, but the Mexicans would watch your back once they got used to seeing you around, especially if you were a young woman, as a high school friend of mine was. Not the sort of neighborhood you would expect a Russian Orthodox church, then or now, much less a new one. But it is here that Father Yakov Ryklin, chaplain at Columbia University a half a mile uptown, moved his little flock from a chapel at Union Theological Seminary. Just as well, I think; a seminarian who moonlighted for the Board of Education confided that the Satanists in the dorms were using it at night. The new church, which occupies the ground floor and basement of a residential building, is, despite the profusion of icons, almost Quakerly austere. Father is doing the carpentry himself, and it is well done and artful. The great icons have been commissioned, and he urges us to keep coming by over the years to see how it is getting on.


  

This evening Father Yakov is hosting the hopefully named First Annual Alexandr Men Memorial Lecture, in honor of the charismatic Russian priest murdered, presumably by the KGB, in 1990. (The death threats did not object to the fact that a minister of the Gospel was exercising ever greater influence in what was still the Soviet Union, but to the scandal that the man was a Jew.) The meeting has been organized by Bishop Seraphim Sigrist, a child of the Old Left whose own personal pilgrimage led him from the Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Orthodox See of Sendai in the North of Japan, who supports himself here as a college librarian. (Seraphim’s druglessly psychedelic Theology of Wonder begins at the site of Batushka Alexandr’s assassination, and brings together Kaballa, Charles Williams’ Arthurian Torso, and Arthur Machen’s wonderful story “The Great Return.” Among other things. Many other things.)


  

The speaker is Dr. Michael Christensen, head of Drew University’s D. Min. program, and his topic is Theosis, a central theme of Orthodox life and thought, and one dear to the heart of Father Men. The idea is that through the incarnation of the Word of God we ourselves become, as the Prince of the Apostles put it, partakers of the divine nature, the title of a scholarly collection edited by Christensen. Saint Paul goes even further than Saint Peter, writing over and over again that through the incarnation as it manifests in our own human lives all of creation is eventually taken up into the divine Mystery, what some have called the Cosmic Christ and others, following Teilhard de Chardin, the Omega Point. Theosis isn’t just a Catholic and Orthodox thing; it is central to the Wesleyan tradition in which Drew remains rooted, as John Wesley himself was a deep student of the Greek Fathers. In the audience is Michael Allison, planetary scientist at the Goddard Space Center with an office above the real Tom’s Restaurant from Seinfeld, who spoke to a few of us on retreat last weekend on the exploration of space and the terraforming and settlement of other planets as the cosmic destiny God has called us to, in which (he hopes) Jews and Christians will find their reconciliation. And others as well, I might add; with the unbounded universe as our inheritance, need we kill each other over a few acres of Palestine, when the whole Earth is to be the Holy Land of a myriad galaxies?


  

There are still those who would deride Theosis as New Age moonshine, asserting dourly that God became man, not to raise us to the Godhead, much less to take the universe into this incarnation, but merely to die a miserable death to appease his own anger and save a few from the general damnation of the species. Evangelicals they call themselves—absurdly, because, Scripture is against them. I shouldn’t throw stones, as I was raised Roman Catholic and learned this late medieval nonsense in Sunday schools taught by people who should have known better. After all, the Catholic Church has never denied the tradition of the Fathers, though Augustine (in moments he later repented) and especially Anselm of Canterbury (though his thought was more nuanced than might appear) teetered on the slippery slope that led to… well, to Calvin and Knox and two presidents of Princeton, Jonathan Edwards and T. Woodrow Wilson.


  

What a God! The thing about religion, that makes it of ultimate concern to all of us, believers, or not, is that we, and I mean all of us, we grow to resemble what we worship. Beware the man or woman who does not honor a Creator or Redeemer, but bows down before the Accuser, whose Hebrew name is Satan. Satan in the White House is not just a late night horror movie, but a nightmare that has haunted at least one pope of Rome. The last stretch of the road to Abu Ghraib runs from the streets of iconoclastic Geneva through the pleasant meadows of Princeton, where Kuyper preached the corrosive gospel of neo-Calvinism, whence Wilson set out to make the world safe for neoconnery.


  

I keep returning to the words of the great and greatly neglected Edwin Muir:


  

The Word made flesh here is made word again A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook. See there King Calvin with his iron pen, And God three angry letters in a book, And there the logical hook On which the Mystery is impaled and bent Into an ideological argument.


  

Perhaps you will see some trace of Muir’s greatness even in these few lines, and even more the cause of his neglect:


  

The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down, Pagan and Christian man alike will fall, The auguries say, the white and black and brown, The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all Invisibly will fall: Abstract calamity, save for those who can Build their cold empire on the abstract man.


  

There is no abstract man here in White Harlem tonight, and no mirthless myrmidons of the cold empire. Tyranny, torture, and terror are on the march to Armageddon, and those who resist will be assimilated because resistance itself, if it is resistance merely, is already assimilation. But here we see the futility of empire itself in the face of Theosis. The power that scatters the universes like seed into the vastness of space here begs humbly for permission to incarnate in the most fleeting thought, the most seemingly inconsequential act of the most obscure of mankind.


  

We are all fools—only the wise know it—the unholy fools the secret agents of the holy ones. The George to believe is not Bush but Carlin. T. Woodrow Wilson? Better Robert or Colin or Peter! Let us make the world safe for greater and holier follies. Should an Alexandr Men appear here we would no doubt do away with him as expeditiously as did our Russian friends, and with as little or as much to show for it. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is history. The Project for the New American Century isn’t even that and never will be. The Middle East is dying to become American, but only in the most depressingly literal of senses. More to the point, we are all dying to become human, but we are not dying alone. That is the folly of the Cross, which this little storefront church is here to witness to –the all but unbelievable message that it is God who dies, with us and in us and for us so that we ourselves might be raised from the dead with God, in God, for God, and, yes, as God—and as gods.


  

No doubt the gangs of addicts and pushers will go on torturing, tyrannizing, and terrorizing this small neighborhood of the universe. That’s what they do. It’s called history. But there are poems to be written, songs to be sung, space elevators to be built, galaxies to be explored and planets brought under the plough. Government will not do these things. We will do them. God will do them. It can start as small as you like, with a seed of mustard, or a warm smile for a surly waitress.

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