Monday, June 7, 2010

Gurdjieff and Augustine

For today, just a few "technical" notes that occurred to me after reading McCulloch's commentary on Augustine.

Readers who are familiar with Christian history will know that St. Augustine's ideas had an inordinate and perhaps pernicious influence on the church.

Above all, his doctrine of "original sin" -- the idea that all men are, in their essential nature, "fallen"-- penetrated the church to the bone and left us with a decidedly pessimistic view of human existence. We are all "bad."

He believed, furthermore, that a man's destiny was predetermined -- because God, in his view, knows all, sees all, and controls all, God already knows who will be "saved" and who will not.

He presumes, of course, a theology where not everyone will be saved -- hardly a hopeful point of view.

All of this shares a peculiar kinship with much of what Gurdjieff said. Anyone who reads "Beelzebub's Tales" will come away with the distinct impression that the way the universe was created, no matter how carefully and thoroughly a Being perfects his or herself, there is always an essential or fundamental flaw that prevents final reunion with the divine.

Hence the holy planet Purgatory, a place of repose for those anguished souls who have done everything they can to recombine with the divine source, and yet retain those essential imperfections that are inherent to the nature of the material and spiritual universe.

One might argue that Augustine's conception of sin and the conception of imperfections contained in Beelzebub are in fact different qualities, but I think they bear enough of a relationship to one another to argue that they stem from a similar worldview: more precisely, to argue that Gurdjieff's views on the subject are distinctly colored by church doctrine. This supports my ongoing contention that the Gurdjieff practice is much closer to traditional, formal Christianity than many would like to admit to themselves.

Taking it one step further, Gurdjieff argued that the way the universe is arranged, it is essentially deterministic, that is, everything that happens must happen, because, as he says "for one thing to be different, everything would have to be different." This is true down to the atomic level. Without dragging us into the quagmire of quantum arguments, I think we can admit that at the level of ordinary reality, once quantum dilemmas have resolved themselves, one thing does beget another in a maddeningly consistent manner.

The argument is hardly unique to Christianity. Zen Master Dogen repeatedly presented arguments about this causality that suggest it is inescapable (see the Shobogenzo) , despite wishes to the contrary on the part of some Buddhists; in Gurdjieff's cosmological causality, events will always take place in the only way they can; destiny is inescapable, and only attitude in regard to it can be changed.

This bears a distinct resemblance, once again, to Augustine's arguments that the universe is deterministic and that everything has, in a sense, already been decided.

I think we can agree that Gurdjieff brought more optimism to the matter, because he presumes that a man's actions can affect things, whereas Augustine seems decidedly more pessimistic on the question. Nonetheless, it appears that they are pondering the same subject, and from similar directions. Not only that, Gurdjieff parades a deep enough streak of pessimism vis a vis mankind for us to suspect he may have quaffed rather more than a single jar of Augustine's brew.

If there is any explanation for the divergences that do exist, it once again lies in the history of the church. Augustine's overt pessimism and his belief in a basically arbitrary dispensation of Grace by God never sat well with Eastern Christianity, as Diarmaid McCulloch points out in his in his recent history of the church. Gurdjieff, born and raised in Eastern Orthodoxy, would have naturally sought an alternative interpretation.

All in all, a man cannot be separated from his influences. All through the intricate tapestries woven by Gurdjieff in his active years as a teacher, we find threads directly colored not just by Christian traditions in general, but by the specific Christian traditions he was raised with. Even some of his prayers, such as "Lord have Mercy," bear unmistakable relationships to some of the earliest prayers in the Christian church. No amount of obfuscation or sterilization can change these simple facts.

Of course, rebel to the core, it would be unfair to say that Gurdjieff found himself limited in any way by the relatively narrow confines of Orthodox Christian practice. A healthy streak of Sufism runs through his work, and Buddhist ideologies are far from alien.

Perhaps the important point is that his work speaks from the heart of each of these religions, the center of the practice which circulates the blood to the periphery.

And in my own view, all the world's great religions share the same heart... even though each one of them may represent a different limb.

May the living Light of Christ discover us.

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