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The Problem with Problems and the Goal of Movement “from Glory to Glory”

February 13, 2013

rublev_15cThe Christian life is about movement, “from death to life and from earth to heaven.” But when real, constructive movement is blocked, we wander in our stymied state in the trackless desert of our own imaginings. It’s not enough just to stare at our problems; we need to look for solutions that can be found only by looking elsewhere. We have to see beyond the problem or through the problem, and for that, we need to move. And if our movement is to be purposeful and meaningful, we must also have a goal. For this reason, the ancient fathers and cognitive therapists both consider the aim of their work as the transformation of problems into realistic goals.  Both consider the way one approaches a particular issue as paramount in this transformation.

“According to the church fathers, to find a solution for a difficult situation, the problem-solver needs to believe that it can be solved in the first place.  Second, he should be knowledgeable about the wider context in which the problem is embedded in order to speak with precision.  This contextual knowledge entails gathering more data about matters related to the difficulty.  The individual can then make use of this information to determine and articulate the pivotal issues at stake.  As a rule, if someone coherently lays out a problem or lucidly formulates a question, the solution will also appear with clarity.  Third, the problem-solver needs to be thoroughly awake and alert in order to pay close attention to detail.  Fourth, he should make accurate distinctions, use neutral language, be consistent, and consider possibilities that are manifest and clear.  Finally, if more than one solution has been generated, he should try to select the very best by considering what brings him the most benefit and makes his soul feel at peace.”

Similarly, the cognitive therapist approaches problems by teaching the patient “four basic skills for approaching them as efficiently as a scientist would.  The patient learns (1) how to clearly define a problem by gathering relevant information about it and its causes, (2) how to generate a large variety of potential solutions, (3) how to select the best choice on the basis of a rational cost-benefit analysis of the overall utility of each option, and (4) how to devise and experiment as a potential solution, to implement that experiment, and to revise if it does not prove to be satisfactory.  As scientists do much of their work with pen and paper, so the patient is expected to keep a written record of the entire problem-solving process.”

While the ascetic fathers and cognitive therapists have much in common in terms of defining and diagnosing problems, there is a significant difference concerning the inner logic governing each approach. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note, “In a patristic context, faith in a loving God enables the believer to view problems as opportunities to grow in virtue, wisdom, and strength.  In a psychotherapeutic context, empiricism and rationalism empower the patient to consider problems to be challenges that can be overcome with effort and planning.” Both approaches promise movement, but in the one case it is with carefree freedom of a child of light leaping over the problem while progressing towards the embrace of the Heavenly Father, whereas in other case, it is with the measured and laborious movements of a mountain climber attempting to ascend an unconquered peak. In other words, the Spirit animating the movement is quite different.

Although the atmosphere of patristic goal setting is optimistic, trusting, and full of hope, the setting of goals is every bit as present as it is in the more uncertain setting of experimentation.  Again in Ancient Christian Wisdom, I remark, “when ancient ascetics guided the faithful in the spiritual life, they effortlessly and automatically translated the problem of a particular passion into the goal of the virtue that opposes it.  For example, Saint John of Sinai orients readers of The Ladder to the goal of freedom from anger (aorgesia) when he discusses the problem of irascibility, to the goal of abstinence when he examines the problem of gluttony, and to the goal of purity when he considers the problem of fleshly desires.  Although the church fathers many not have explicitly spoken about the need to transform problems into goals, they did so in practice, because they realized that without spiritual goals people are doomed to wander endlessly in the trackless maze of human passions.”

This is an important point to consider when reflecting upon goals and working with a spiritual father.  For instance, one whose goal is to be a “good person” has set a vague goal that can hardly be measured. Even worse, it’s not really an appropriate goal for someone interested in the spiritual life, for the spiritual life cannot be reduced to ethics. Father John Romanides in fact wrote, “There is no metaphysical criterion for distinguishing between good and bad people. It is much more correct to distinguish between ill and more healthy persons. The sick ones are those whose noetic faculty is either not functioning, or functioning poorly, and the healthier ones are those whose noetic faculty is being cleansed and illumined.”  The ultimate goal of the spiritual life is union with God by becoming Christ-like in everyway. And that most sublime goal can be broken down into the smaller goals of purification, illumination, and perfection, which can in turn be broken down into even smaller sub goals with respect to the specific virtues, with respect to prayer, and with respect for self-less love. With such goals in mind, we refuse to look solely at our problems, but instead strive to move as God desires, “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).

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