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Book Review: A New Face on an Old Ecumenism (The Orthodox Dilemma Second Edition : Personal Reflections on Global Pan-Orthodox Christian Concilliar Unity)

I write with some sadness as provided a courtesy review copy, and as having my consent to include a quote. (Normally, when another author asks my permission to include a quote, I don’t judge on basis of concluding agreement or disagreement; I am thankful for the publicity, and in particular thankful for the other author’s good manners, especially in a case like this where the quote in question falls well within limits of fair use.)

I wanted to read the book through, since beside the author’s generosity, I’d want to be very sure before questioning a book that gets consistent five star reviews, but at least in the first quarter or so of the text I have yet to find any intimation that there is any legitimate anathema, or legitimate barrier to intercommunion, between the Orthodox Churches as presented for the sake of the text: Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Old Believer, various autonomous churches, and so on. And no distinction is made between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Autonomous church, besides a basic position that only confusion and perhaps past sins or historical accident that stops the Russian Orthodox Church from recognizing the Russian Orthodox Autonomous church as equal jurisdictions that should be in full communion without any of the Orthodox Church’s proper reconciliation of heretics and schismatics.

The author mentions a number of unfortunate experiences; I’ve had some unfortunate experiences, too. I, to, have been educated at a Roman Catholic university, or at least an academic environment that continued to draw inspiration from its Jesuit heritage. And there at least seems to be one difference between East and West; I had one Professor in formal communion with Rome say that she believed in Tradition, but she explicitly placed Arius alongside St. Athanasius as equal and proper representatives of Tradition. While the Roman communion has its own fractured communities of traditionalists, the live threat in Rome is their Left Coast which involves churches of Jesus, Buddha, and Socrates, and at times can be difficult to distinguish from New Age; it is my experience that when Romans wax eloquent about “the spirit of Vatican II” it is provocative to say “The spirit of Vatican II is in the letter” (Avery Cardinal Dulles, class session), and the best thing to do is run for the hills.

With Orthodoxy it is different. Orthodoxy does have a left, and it has confused Orthodox Christians into believing that contraception is fine as long as you follow a few ground rules. However, the real concern in Orthodoxy is the Orthodox Right Coast, which has Fr. Seraphim (Rose)’s quite astonishing following→check out the one-star reviews, which are unlike anything else I’ve received as an author. (When someone speaks of “Blessed Seraphim Rose” I’ve had real trouble telling whether the other person is a member of the canonical Orthodox Church.) To clarify regarding Mr. Alexander’s treatment of the matter, I do not lump all the communities he mentions as being under the Right Coast, but only some of them. I have no reason to believe, and this book gives me no reason to believe, that non-Ephesians and non-Chalcedonians are particularly given to legalism, nor Right Coast passions that despise oikonomia and mercy, nor regard themselves as much too Orthodox to be in communion with the canonical Church. The Orthodox Church’s table is piled high, and there has always been room at the table: for True and Autonomous “Orthodox”, for Old Believers (some of whom are already in), for Oriental Orthodox, for Western Christians and for people not Christian in pretension: there is room for all those who will be reconciled, individually or in groups, as schismatics or as heretics, if only they will be received as full members of the Orthodox Church only, and on the Church’s terms.

With all that stated, let me begin with what I thought would be my point of departure.

There is a Utopia on earth, I have been there or at least within walking distance of this Utopia, and come to think of it, seeing Utopia wasn’t a memorable experience at all.

If you wish to pull up Google Maps, and search for “Utopia, IL”, you will find Utopia pinpointed in a Chicago suburb (Oakbrook Terrace), and Google helpfully shows an uninspired picture of the Jiffy Lube at Utopia. I haven’t had the time to research the matter, but there are on present-day U.S. soil the graveyards of a number of attempts of a Nordic country (if memory corrects me, Sweden), to colonize North America and resurrect timeless, ancient Nordic values. There were some things that were remarkably consistent across attempts. There was the reconstruction effort, and there was the daunting endeavor of actually going to New World soil and making a live colony. However, the actual timeless values the whole enterprise hinged on were highly inconsistent. Varying somewhat by the decade, the overall impression of scholarship that may not have reached beyond a Wikipedia article is that these timeless, pristine values were something like an ink blot test in a proverbial Freudian counseling session (note that I have no idea if inkblot tests are practiced any more). The point of asking a patient what was seen in quintessentially ambiguous “pictures” was understood as informing the psychologist of nothing about the “pictures” and everything about the patient. I had not heard of these Utopian movements, nor known that the house I grew up in was such a short drive from Utopia (if in fact this Utopia was of Nordic origin), when I wrote “Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony With Nature: Anatomy of a Passion” in “The Best of Jonathan’s Corner”, but it would have fit naturally enough. The key downwind effect of the inkblot attempt that, in an attempt to reconstruct past glory, the effect is to sever ties to the recent past and the further-back past as well.

A second case in point, studied in “Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony With Nature: Anatomy of a Passion” in “The Best of Jonathan’s Corner”, has to do with the plain meaning of Scripture in the Protestant Reformation. Now Protestants never invented the idea that Scripture is foundational to the point of being bedrock. Whether in Luther’s Sola Scripture, or Roman discussions of Scripture and Tradition, or Vladyka KALLISTOS writing that Scripture is not separate from Tradition but the greatest thing in Tradition (I don’t know exactly where non-Ephesians or non-Chalcedonians stand but I would be astonished to find either tradition holding Scripture to be anything less than cardinally important), you can’t escape a sense that the Bible is important, except for the lukewarm and the Left Coasts. However, if it is not decisively interpret by a Tradition (whether non-Left-Coast Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, or for that matter Orthodoxy’s Right Coast), seeing for yourself the plain sense of Scripture is the bedrock to there being myriads of Protestant denominations. Even in the Reformation’s better moments, people who were devoted to Christianity as guided by the plain sense of Scripture found time and time again that they could not stay under the same doctrinal house. As a Protestant then (now chrismated Orthodox and received under the rubric of receiving a reconciled heretic, a route I endorse for others as well), my Political Science professor at Calvin, who was Protestant enough, said that “Every man his own Pope” doesn’t work. The Bible may invaluable and it may have layers more to it than the Reformation would have liked, and if I may delicately say so, the Orthodox Church keeps a great more of even the 66 book Protestant canon than the “plain sense” Reformation exegetes will acknowledge in Scripture. But the plain sense of Scripture, denuded of protecting Tradition, is halfway to being an inkblot.

The proof of this, if anything, is in Reformation ecclesiology and the Invisible Church, a doctrine I found myself totally unable to derive from the Bible when I was Protestant (and remain unable as Orthodox to do the same). The Invisible Church is essentially a doctrine that once the Reformation logic’s practical effects work out and there are innumerable schisms (“denomination” being a neutral-sounding euphemism for something the Reformers themselves knew was entirely abhorrent), God placed some sort of invisible duct tape across true Christians regardless of fracture, and that duct-taped, invisible retcon was in fact what had been hitherto understood by the visible Church, an understanding shared by Romans, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox, and for that matter by the first Reformers until the claim of “My little fragment is the true Church” claimed by dozens of voices could no longer really be taken seriously.

That set the scene for ecumenism as we now know it. I know relatively little of the history of ecumenism, and I have read one scholarly work suggesting that Protestant missionaries in other lands than their own interacted with each other and realized they were separated without clearly understanding why, but in any case that was the reality that defined a great deal of the contours of the category we now know of ecumenism. Originally, ecumenism did not address Romans, let alone Eastern or Oriental Orthodox; the metaphor of a virtual supercomputer composed of numerous coordinated individual personal computers is obviously of more recent vintage than ecumenism itself, but it is faithful to the nature of ecumenism. It is an alternative to saying, “Being in schism like this is sin,” and bespeaks an ecclesiology that does not condemn the Reformation collection of schisms, or tries to transcend them while keeping them in place. (Note that this explanation leaves out a good deal.) It also might be pointed out, less delicately, that this doctrine is a Tradition which has priority over Scripture and simply trumps its plain sense on at least one point. Perhaps it is not the most interesting such Tradition: but it is one.

I grew up Protestant, and ecumenism was to me like mother’s milk. It was, for that matter, ecumenism that helped lead me to the Orthodox Church (and yes, the Lord does work in mysterious ways). It was bedrock to me that if you cared about Christian unity, ecumenism was the clay you should be shaping. And I encountered the claim, strange to me as it seemed, that Rome was not one more denomination and her claim was in fact something more to being one more division lumped into the duct tape.

But what was stranger was what I encountered as Roman ecumenism years later, having repented of my ecumenism as my priest and sponsor slowly worked with stubborn me over time. At first I assumed that Roman ecumenism was simply Rome saying, “You’re right; I agree” to Protestant ecumenism. But that was not in fact the case. Roman ecumenism really and truly is an ecumenism and an incorporation deriving from Protestant ecclesiology. But it is adapted, if disturbingly superficially. I haven’t heard the term “Invisible Church” in Roman usage, but the basic idea is there are several more-or-less equivalent communions (“particular Churches”, a phrase which seems to change meaning with each Pope, but basically conveying true Church status while being wounded by failure to participate in Roman communions), so that the “Invisible Church” (or whatever they call or refrain from calling it) is not out of Baptists, Mennonites, or Lutherans, but is out of “historic Churches”, meaning not only Rome but Eastern Orthodox, non-Chalcedonians, non-Ephesians, and any other continuing ancient community I’ve missed. These have more or less de facto the status of individual Protestant denominations under the original Protestant ecclesiology, and I remember the flame I got when a Roman priest made an ecumenical overture that he claimed to be “sensitive to Orthodox concerns” (with zero recognition that ecumenism is a sensitive concern to some Orthodox; he used pretty strong language and implied that he was closer to the heart of Orthodoxy than I was). “An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism” in “The Best of Jonathan’s Corner” had been my reply. Roman ecumenism may have Protestantism somewhere in its sights, but the basic framing is that historic Churches are insiders who should restore communion without reconciliation, on the terms Protestant ecumenism would have it, while inclusion of Protestants may be desirable but they are outsiders to the family of historic Churches.

(I might comment briefly that I do not think it is right to regard Oriental Orthodox communions as being like Protestant denominations. There are a small number of primary non-Eastern Orthodox communions, and in fact some of them like Novatians are treated with some sympathy in canon law. After the original break over a millennium ago, I am not aware of further fractures within the communities then established or having most adherents belong to a splinter. However, I do not accord this status to the Orthodox Right Coast or various groups that want to call themselves Orthodox without submitting to canonical communion.)

Having looked at the original ecumenism as invented by Protestants, and its alien transplantation into Rome, I would now like to look at this book’s transplantation of ecumenism into Oriental Orthodoxy and proposed to Eastern Orthodox to make our own as well. The book’s basic proposition is essentially that all the communities claiming to be Orthodox should restore intercommunion without, as understood by Rome’s historic Churches, a full and proper reconciliation. (And on the “There’s room at the table” theme, I might remind you that the Evangelical Orthodox Church was received into the Orthodox Church as reconciled to become canonical. And I’d love to see other groups join them as well.) The only ecclesiastical body with “Orthodox” in its name that I am aware of that Mr. Alexander does not seek to include in Orthodox intercommunion is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which was formed after one Presbyterian denomination (Politically Correct, USA?) knowingly ordained a candidate who did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and my uncle and other pastors split off so they could still be named Presbyterian while considering the deity of Christ to remain absolutely beyond question.. (I answered an Orthodox Presbyterian DMin graduate from an Orthodox seminary in “An Orthodox Looks at a Calvinist Looking at Orthodoxy”, in “The Best of Jonathan’s Corner”.) The Orthodox Presbyterian claim is to be able to say the Creed without crossing one’s fingers (or at least not translating anything except for the line about the Church), not any sort of claim to be of Eastern provenance. But Mr. Alexander does want to include others who call themselves Orthodox and put Orthodox in their name but do not seek to submit to Orthodox communion, including the (Anglican-based) African Orthodox Church as much as the Russian Orthodox Church or the Russian Orthodox Autonomous church.

The Eastern Orthodox Church can and in every sense should show welcome and hospitality to visitors of any confession and no confession at all, and baptize / chrismate and include in full communion those who (like my respected second advisor at Cambridge) are Copts and want to become members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, there is a wide consensus among many Orthodox I respect, not only that good fences make good neighbors, but that ecumenism, of which Mr. Alexander offers a new permutation, is the ecclesiological heresy of our age.

I’m not sure if Mr. Alexander dealt with the Orthodox Right Coast; even his hardships suggest innocence as to how the Right Coast can and often does treat outsiders to it. But I remember years back, when I was trying to get some basic bearings, asked a sharp friend why people who separate themselves from the Orthodox Church in schism develop legalistic passion. He gently suggested I had the order reversed: first comes the passion, then comes the separation. In terms of how passion goes, there are limited options for how the Right Coast can act in anger against the canonical Church and still preserve the self-illusion of being purer. None of the Left Coast axes appear adequate; you can attack the Orthodox Church for not having women priests, but that doesn’t cut it. The same goes for advocating for sexual libertinism. You can wield either Left Coast axe but it won’t give you the illusion of being super-Orthodox.

Pretty much your only live option with the hand Orthodoxy has dealt you is to be super-Orthodox by indicting the Orthodox Church is indicting the Church for overly lax observation of canons. Now ancient canons are all there for a reason, but proper application of canons employs both akgravia (the principle of strict excellence) and oikonomia (the principle of love). Any good bishop, or possibly priest, will govern out of understanding canon law as a whole and trying to strike the right balance between the two principles. As a consequence, any good priest or bishop will show a great deal of laxity in at least some part of the overall picture of applying ancient canons. All the canons are there for a reason, and there are consequences when a canon is too loosely interpreted. And the one option to appear super-Orthodox, at least to yourself, is to blast the Church for overly lax observation of canon X in situation Y. That defines the contour for your sins.

My suspicion, strange as it may sound, is that the Russian Orthodox Autonomous church would bristle much more at instant and artificial intercommunion with the Russian Orthodox Church than the Russian Orthodox Church would.

One parish friend made a comment that he would like to have an anathema service, a particular service in which propositions the Orthodox Church has anathematized are in fact answered with one word: “Anathema!” I do not mean to state that no anathema or broken communion could ever arise from misunderstanding or, more pointedly, sin. For me to make that claim across all Church history would be quite a claim and it would be in excess of my authority as nothing more than a layman. However, the opposite error of assuming that every anathema or breach in communion should simply be stepped over is equally and stunning of an assertion. In the part I read before I really gave up, I did not see a single analysis reaching a responsible conclusion that even one single anathema or breach in communion may safely be brushed aside. The argument, such as it went, was not to go over any of the fences in detail, but make brief assertions out of a presupposition that anathemas and closed communion (at least between what Rome calls “historic Churches”) are insubstantial, not really speaking to us today, and resulting from confusion or sin rather than anything binding.

The author has put his heart in this, a point which is evident on almost every page. His sincerity is not up for grabs, nor his goodwill, and I wince at the pain he will have reading this. None the less, I say that ecumenism is the Left Coast ecclesiological heresy of our age, I have seen two and now three basic permutations, and its chief audience among canonical Orthodox should be those concerned with Orthodoxy and heterodoxy.

With Much Regret,
C.J.S. Hayward
Author, The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts, The Best of Jonathan’s Corner