Notes from Undergrad Halls: On Nihilism, Mysticism and Genuine Christianity

I was pleasantly surprised - if not startled - on my first day back to XU for the Fall semester this past Monday. As I approached my classroom, a student actually approached me with the greeting, “Hello, Fr. Kostoff.” He then went on to introduce himself and tell me that he is in my class for the upcoming semester and so forth. The pleasant surprise was the simple fact that a student actually greeted me in the hallway. As I have commented before, it seems as if every single student roaming or standing in the hallway has his/her face buried in their smartphones, more-or-less oblivious to the world around them, including fellow human beings such as myself. So I am programmed not to disturb this intense concentration and I simply stand aside as an observer of the student traffic as I await my turn to enter the designated classroom.

This semester I am teaching my course on Christian Mysticism. This, in turn, allows me to essentially teach a course on Orthodox Spirituality. After the preliminary introductions and class description that I have prepared, my students are always asked to answer four questions before we depart from this opening session. The primary question is: “What is Christian Mysticism?” These initial answers are not at all promising. Past experience has braced me to maintain a level of modest expectations as related to this question. Most students simply write: “I do not know,” thus economizing on their time and brain energy. Some take a stab at it. One answer read as follows:  “Christian mysticism is a disbelief or skepticism of some aspect of Christianity.” This one I had to address in the next class session, so as to minimize that particular student’s misunderstanding of the content of the class that he (or his parents) are paying for. Yet, one young woman struck a good chord with the following response: “Christian mysticism is the study of the deeper parts of Christianity that are not evident in the outer rites and rituals.” Not the whole picture, but a solid starting point from which to begin. A fourth and final question is simply: “What is your religious background?” This serves to give me some context as to where my students “are coming from.”  This usually yields a round of “Roman Catholic, though no longer practicing;” “Haven’t figured it out yet;” and the occasional odd one, such as “non-denominational, non-congregational.” What was quite interesting here, though, was the response of the respectful student from our earlier pleasant hallway conversation. He wrote: “Existential nihilist/Buddhist!” That would not have been my first guess. Hope he understands what he is in for in this class!

On further reflection I would say that it is not that difficult to label oneself a “nihilist” when only twenty years old. Especially if life has not posed too many challenges as of yet. Mortality is a distant and perhaps abstract fear and the real existential dread of living in a meaningless universe may not just “kick in” until somewhat later in life. And then it all gets a bit more serious. In a strange way, there is a certain romanticism connected with the notion of nihilism. Or perhaps there is something “heroic” about staring into the abyss. (Also probably a good deal of posturing involved). Recent studies show that one’s brain does not fully develop until about the age of twenty-five. So, hope remains. As to combining nihilism and Buddhism, a good case could be made for the compatibility of the two. Many Buddhist scholars would loosely define - or liken - Nirvana to extinguishing a candle. All suffering and reincarnation are over - but is there then “nothing?” Buddhism may just be the world’s noble form of nihilism. Be that as it may, I am sure that my student and I will enjoy each other’s company this semester. He seems very bright and serious. Haven’t seen him on his smartphone yet.

The primary text that I assign for the course is The Roots of Christian Mysticism written and edited by Olivier Clement. This has already been accorded the status of a “classic” in Orthodox circles, and deservedly so. On the parish level, we recently read this book together in one of our education classes. In this book, Clement has amassed a collection of the classic spiritual texts from the great Fathers up to the eighth century, something of the “golden age” of patristic theology. He has arranged them thematically, taking the reader through the rigors of asceticism to the riches of contemplation. Clement has included wonderful texts about Baptism and Eucharist, and of course about prayer. The Preface of the book, written by a certain French writer by the name of Jean-Claude Barreau, has some deeply challenging thoughts that any “nihilist” or “skeptic” should also ponder. Yet, his first round of challenging thoughts are directed to the Christian churches, and we need to hear this also:
While are our consumer society has lost all feeling for mysticism, on the fringes there are thousands of people thirsting for it. When we see the shallow syncretism, the sentimental fascinations with anything Eastern, and the bogus “gurus” crowding round for the pickings, it is easy to sneer. But instead of laughing the Churches ought to be examining their consciences. Whose fault is it that so many have to resort to Tao or Zen in order to rediscover truths which were actually part of the Christian heritage right from the beginning? Who has hidden from them the fact that of all Oriental religions Christianity is the best and most complete; that mysticism is as necessary to humanity as science, if not more so?  Intellectual research may be exciting, but it will not lead us to the secret of life. Nor will the truth be found through consumerism, though of course we must eat. (Roots of Christian Mysticism, Preface, p. 7)

Fr. Schmemann always like to quote I Peter 4:17, “For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God.” Barreau then unapologetically makes a short but compelling case for the deeper truths of our human nature only revealed in their fulness through the Christian revelation:

The human being is a craftsman - faber - and rational - sapiens - qualities which we share with the higher animals (the difference between us being one of degree and not of kind), but more importantly than that, we are mystical. In other words our roots are in fact religious and artistic, and therefore non-rational, or rather supra-rational. As soon as our material needs are satisfied, deeper needs assert themselves. It is now twenty centuries since Jesus declared that ‘man does not live by bread alone,’ and we know today that not even the most effective psychoanalytical treatment can cure us of a deep sense of disquiet within us. There is not a superman or revolutionary who is not beset by unappeased desires. The Fathers of the Christian Church, for whom prayer was as natural as breathing, discovered this truth before we did, saying, ‘Birds fly, fishes swim and man prays.’ ... For mysticism is an existential attitude, a way of living at a greater depth. (p. 7-8)

Olivier Clement himself begins his Introduction with equally challenging and compelling thought: “Not only is Christianity something strange to people today, but it cannot even attract by its strangeness, because people are familiar with the distortions and caricatures of it which are constantly being hawked about.” (p. 9)

I find that statement by Clement to ring loud and clear in today’s contemporary climate here in America. For the simple reason that so many “distortions and caricatures” of genuine Christianity are obscuring the real thing. How can we expect our “younger generation” to be even slightly attracted to the current politicized, moralizing and, frankly, judgmental Christianity that is loudly proclaiming itself? Christianity is being used to support one’s political party or platform in order to bolster this or that party or platform with a kind of divine mandate or blessing, without taking into account the relative truths mingled with dubious truths in any party or platform today. There is a good deal of talk about God and Jesus, but there is no real theological depth or Christ-centered spirituality that lifts our minds and hearts above the mundane concerns of what essentially becomes an ideology. The thirst spoken of by Jean-Claude Barreau and the genuine Christianity alluded to by Clement - and powerfully expressed by the Fathers of the Church in their mystical writings - are neglected as many Christians are content with the Gospel serving a given ideology, rather than each and every ideology being assessed by the truth of the Gospel. I would even say that the ultimate “sell-out” is found right here when the Truth of Christ is distorted, truncated or manipulated to serve an end other than the fullness of the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Christ. Many young people can intuitively see right through this. And then their “religion” can become anything but God - from science to nihilism. There is thus plenty of blame to go around when our churches become devoid of “young people.” Now is the time to remain as vigilant as possible. We need to manifest a genuinely theological, mystical, liturgical, charitable and honest Christianity and leave the rest up to God and human self-determination.