There was one time when I was sitting in Danada Convenient Care, waiting for a blood draw. A mother led in a little girl who was bawling, sat her down in the waiting area, and began to attend to all the little details: sign in on a clipboard, speak with the office staff, sign a waiver, present an insurance card. The girl was bawling because she had apparently slammed her thumbnail in a door. After a little while I came over and began talking with her. I asked her what her favorite color was. I asked, “What kind of musical instrument does a dog play?” (answer: a trombone). I tried to get her talking, but most of what I said went over her head. After a while, I realized two things. First, I was failing rather miserably to engage her in conversation; I literally could not think of many things to say that a child of that age could respond to. And second, she stopped crying. Completely. I was struck by the near-total lack of pain in her face as she looked at me.
Eventually, I was called in for my blood draw. When I came out, things were totally different. The mother was sitting next to her daughter, and paying attention to her. The daughter was drawn into her mother’s attention. I said goodbye and left.
On another occasion, I was at a dinner at someone’s house, and my eyes were drawn to a goldfish in a fishbowl. I asked the hostess how old the goldfish was, and her answer was followed shortly by my asking how she managed to keep a goldfish for that long. And I remember vividly her answer. She said, “I talk to it,” and then stooped down and began talking to the fish like it was a small child. The fish began eagerly swimming towards her, as if it were trying to swim through the glass to meet her.
Love is a spiritual force, and I thought her answer was looney then because I didn’t understand that there are more than material forces that can affect whether a fish is healthy. I thought that the idea of love or hate affecting how a plant grows made a great exotic feature in fantasy, but in the real world science accounts for all the factors in how long a fish lives. Of course it matters that the hostess fed the goldfish and kept the fishbowl clean, but the reason the fish was alive and healthy was because she loved it. (And she’s a woman with a big heart.) And it matters, no doubt, that I made eye contact with the little girl and squatted to try to be at eye level. But the reason I was able to draw her out of intense pain was the power that love has. I can count on my fingers the times I’ve been in worse pain than smashing my thumbnails as a child; her pain was atrocious. What was strong enough to pull her out of that pain wasn’t my posture, or anything suave at my clumsy failures to say things that were age-appropriate. What pulled her out of her deep pain was love, and I was delighted to see her mother, who had been so busy with a thousand necessary details, giving her attention and love to her now comforted daughter. The mother told me as I said goodbye, “You have a very gentle way about you,” and I hold that story in my heart as one of my triumphs.
It’s hard to pick out a theme more foundational to feminist ethics, and perhaps the whole of feminism, than caring. Many feminists understand feminism as trying to move from a world dominated by male aggression to a world nurtured through motherly love and caring. And I would like to talk about love in Orthodoxy after talking about aggression.
The term “male aggression” is used a lot. The word “aggression” has a double meaning. Narrowly, “aggression” means “unprovoked violence,” a violence that is evil. But there is another meaning to “aggressive,” when a doctor pursues an “aggressive” treatment, for instance. Here “aggressive” does not literally mean violence and need not be at all evil… but there is a connection between the two. There is a real reason why we speak of an “aggressive” business plan as well as an “aggressive” assault. Why does “aggressive” sometimes mean “energetically active,” something that can be good, when the “main” usage is for something despicable?
Men are more likely to be aggressive than women. In which sense? Actually, both, and there’s a link between the two senses that offers insight into what it means to be a man. Talking about “male aggression” is not simply man-bashing, even if it is often done in exactly that fashion. There is something spirited and something fiery that is part of manhood, something that can be very destructive, but something that can be channeled. I don’t think any of us need to be told that masculine aggressiveness can be destructive. But that is not the full story of masculine energy. Channeled properly, male aggressive energy means projects. It means adventures and exploration. It means building buildings, questing after discoveries, giving vision to a community. The same thing that can be very destructive can also energize a man’s gifts to society. It can be transformed.
I would pose the question: If masculine aggression can be transformed in this manner, what about feminine and motherly caring?
Love is big in Orthodoxy. God is love. God is light, and other things can also be said, but he is love. The entirety of ethics and moral law is about loving God and one’s neighbor. The entirety of spiritual discipline, which Orthodoxy as well as feminist spirituality recognize as important for sustained growth, is a spiritual support not simply to one’s salvation, but to love. If my spiritual discipline does not turn me in love towards you, it is fundamentally incomplete. Spiritual discipline without love for others is self-contradictory as a friendship without another person.
What’s the relationship between love and caring? Are they synonyms? There is a deep connection, but I believe that an important difference shows up in the question of abortion.
“My body, my choice!” makes a powerful and easy-to-remember political slogan. But nobody believes it, or at least people who have abortions don’t believe it. Post-abortion is not about assuring women that it was just a surgery that removed something unwanted, but quite to the contrary is about helping women grieve the loss of a child. You may be able to make a legal argument that the child is part of the mother’s body, or say it’s just a potential life that was stopped. But trying to use that in post-abortion counseling is like telling someone who’s drinking milk that has gone bad that the milk is really quite fresh. You might be able to convince other people that the milk is really quite fresh, but not the person who’s actually drinking it. And women who have abortions are the ones who are drinking the rancid milk. In coffee table discussions you can deny that the death of a child is involved and say it’s just unwanted tissue. If you’re not drinking the milk, you can be conned into believing it’s still fresh. But if you’re drinking it? Post-abortion counseling helps women grieve the loss of a child, and for that reason cannot say “It was just a potential life!”
If women who have abortions don’t believe the rhetoric, then why does abortion take place? Quite often, these women feel stuck between a rock and a hard place in which there seem to simply be no good options. This is part of why the pro-life movement has made a major shift to offering compassion and practical help to people in that position. It’s a difficult position, and feminists will often argue that abortion is the most caring way out. It is not caring, the line goes, to bring a child into a situation where it will not be cared for, and women should be caring to themselves by not saddling themselves with too much responsibility. And so the ethics of caring sometimes finds abortion the appropriate choice.
In many ethical frameworks you can get away with saying that a mother’s love is one love among others. That simply doesn’t fly here. In feminism, a mother’s love is considered the most intimate love and a mother’s caring is meant to be the foundation of a better way of living. It is feminists who have given motherly caring the greatest emphasis and the most central place, and feminists who most fervently defend what any woman who’s had an abortion knows and grieves as the loss of a child. It’s almost as if a coalition of historians and archivists were the ones most fervently defending the practice of burning old documents.
My reason for mentioning this is not simply irony. My reason for pointing this out is to suggest that something’s wrong, and maybe motherly caring isn’t strong enough to support the weight feminism asks it to bear. Part of this odd picture is surely rationalization: part of what feminists want is the freedom to live a certain way but not deal with its consequences: be sexually active and not deal with children when they don’t want to, and if killing, or in today’s carefully chosen terms, “reproductive choice,” is the necessary price for freedom on those terms, they accept that price. Part of this is rationalization, but not all. Part of this is the weakness of caring when it is asked to do what feminists hope it will do. Asking motherly caring to do what feminists want is kind of like trying to drive a top-notch car engine to work. It may be a very good engine, and an engine may be indispensible to any functioning car, but things go much better if we have the whole car. I’m not just saying that abortion is wrong. I’m saying that if the people who bear the banner of “mother’s love” as the healing balm for society’s ills are the ones who defend that practice, we have a red flag that may point to another problem: maybe caring might not do what feminists think it does. Maybe it’s not enough.
So what would a whole car look like?
I’d like to quote a passage that has one teacher’s take on love:
Then a Jewish law scholar stood up to test Jesus, and said “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus answered him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
He said to him, “You must love the Lord your God out of your whole heart, with your whole soul, with your whole strength, and with your whole mind, and love your neighbor even as you love yourself.”
He said, “That’s right; do this and you will live.”
But the scholar wanted to be proved righteous before Jesus. He said, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus answered and said, “Someone was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and brigands assaulted him, stripping him and leaving him half dead. And by providence a priest was going down that way and saw him and passed by, giving him a wide berth. Likewise, a Levite was travelling the same way, saw him, and gave him a wide berth. Then a travelling Samaritan came across him and was moved with mercy, in the depths of his bowels, and came over, and dressed his wounds with oil and wine, mounted him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and nurtured him. And the next day he gave a good chunk of his wealth to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him, and if he needs anything more, I will repay you when I come back.’ Now which one of these three do you suppose showed himself a neighbor to the man who was assaulted by brigands?”
He said, “The one who showed mercy to him.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and live that way.”
(Luke 10:25-37, my translation) Cloud and Townsend’s appropriately titled Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life argues that this story is a good illustration of their version of boundaries, and that was when I started listening to some nagging doubts about their theory. They said this was a good example of a measured response: the Samaritan made a moderate and limited response, got the Jew to safety and paid some expenses, and left. Cloud and Townsend ask us to imagine the wounded Jew saying “I need you to stay here,” and the moderate Samaritan drawing a their-version-of-appropriate-boundary and saying “I’ve made a moderate response and need to move on.” and saying “No,” the way their version of boundaries draws a line and says, “No.” And I have not heard a treatment of this story that is further from the truth.
The route from Jerusalem to Jericho was up until the eighteenth century a dangerous place with bandits, and one well-known ruse was to have one bandit lying in the way, apparently grievously wounded, and if someone stopped, the bandits would take advantage of that mercy to assault and rob him. Jesus was saying that the Samaritan stopped in a bad part of Chicago in the middle of the night because a voice in a dark alley said, “Help me.” And the Jews and Samaritans hated each other; they didn’t have, like today, a setup where people want not to be racist. For that Samaritan to help that Jew was for one gang member to stick his neck out pretty far for a stranger who was from a hostile gang. This is near the top of stupid things you absolutely don’t do. Was Jesus exaggerating? He was making a quite ludicrous exaggeration to make the point that your neighbor is every person you meet and every person you do not meet, every person who you like, every person who bothers you, every person who is unkind, every enemy and every pest you loathe. Jesus was exaggerating, in fact, to respond to someone who was trying to be too comfortable and make him pointedly uncomfortable. I believe the other person was expecting Jesus to draw a reasonable line of reasonable boundaries to his love, and Jesus was quite blunt about setting an impossible and unreasonable standard.
If we try hard enough, we can shut our eyes and neutralize this story. We can neutralize how uncomfortable it makes us; we can neutralize any way this story might contradict today’s psychological dogma of boundaries… and we can neutralize the priceless pearl that this story is meant to help us find. And this story does hold a priceless pearl for us.
The point is not that if someone asks you into a situation that makes you uncomfortable, you must go. I don’t really think the point is to set much of any kind of literal prescription for how far your love must go. The point is that what is being asked is impossible. Simply impossible, and beyond your power, and beyond my power. It’s a command of, “You must be strong enough to lift a mountain.” If someone said, “You must be strong enough to lift four hundred pounds off the ground,” that would be possible for some people with dedicated training. But the most powerfully built athlete who goes through the most disciplined training cannot lift a medium-sized boulder, let alone a mountain. Jesus isn’t saying, “You must be strong enough to lift four hundred pounds,” which is something that some of us could achieve through a gargantuan effort. He’s saying, “You must be strong enough to lift a mountain,” and he’s exaggerating, but the whole point is that he’s asking something impossible. Only the divine can love that way.
The whole secret hinges on that. The divine became human that the human might become divine. The Creator entered into the creation that the creation might enter into the Creator. Orthodoxy is not a set of rules, however good, to safeguard purely human love. The point of Orthodoxy is to be transformed by the divine love so we can live the life that God lives and love with the love that God loves. It is to live the life of Heaven, beginning here and now. It is to transfigure every human love so that it becomes divine love. Out of love, God became as we are, that out of love we might become as he is. And what feminism seeks in caring grows to its full stature in Orthodoxy.
There is something fundamental that is missed about Orthodoxy if it is understood as a set of practices organized around love, or a set of ideas in which love is prominent, or a movement which tries to help people be more loving. That has some truth, but the truth is more than that. The human cannot be understood without the divine; to be human is to participate, however imperfectly, in God. Orthodoxy can no longer be understood as a movement or a system of ideas and practices than a campfire can be understood as a collection of sticks. The sticks are not just arranged a certain way in a campfire; they burn, and you cannot understand even the arrangement of the sticks unless you are aware of the fire that is the reason they are arranged. Not only to be Orthodox but to be human is to be made in the image of God, which in Orthodoxy has always meant that we are not separate miniatures of God, but manifestations of his glory. God is not merely a First Cause who started things off; he is the blazing Sun whose light shines on everything that daylight illuminates.
Orthodoxy is the fulfillment of feminism. If feminism is a deep question, Orthodoxy is a deep answer that responds to the depths of motherly love with the limitless depths of divine love. This is not just with love. More spiritual feminists tend to like the idea of synchronicity, the idea that materialist causation isn’t the whole picture. Synchronicity is the idea that they’re not just isolated domino chains with one domino knocking another domino down; the chains are linked in ways that go beyond dominos bumping into each other. There is a richer picture. And Orthodoxy believes all this and more. Orthodoxy has never been through the Enlightenment, when people tried to argue that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind of knowledge and that the kind of cause-and-effect science studies is not only valid but the only way things come about. People used to believe something richer, and in Orthodoxy we still do: that there can be reasons why things happen; there is an explanation for “Why?” and not just a mechanism that answers “How?” Dominoes do fall, but you will never understand the picture if you only think there are isolated chains of dominoes. All of this is part of the Orthodox understanding of divine providence. Yet providence is deeper than synchronicity. Synchronicity is a jailbreak; providence is a voyage home. Less flatteringly, synchronicity is providence with its head cut off. Synchronicity recognizes interesting designs in the events of our lives. Providence turns from those interesting designs to an interesting designer, and to some Orthodox, the idea of trying to be spiritual by delving into synchronicity and other themes of Jungian psychology is like inviting people over for wine and cheese and serving Velveeta. We have Camembert, we have Brie, we have goat cheese, and when Orthodox see how often “being spiritual” to a feminist means “digging into Jungian psychology,” we want to tell you that Velveeta isn’t your only choice! Jesus said, “You will know a tree by its fruits:” people’s lives can offer a serious red flag about whether you should trust them and trust what they say. Orthodoxy has saints with better lives than a psychiatrist widely known to have slept with his patients in a relationship that was far more problematic than a mere case of raging hormones. Velveeta’s the easiest cheese to find at most stores, but it’s possible to find better. Orthodoxy deeply engaged the pillars of Jungian psychology far earlier than Jung did, and the reason we reach for something better is that there is something better to reach for.
Feminism senses that there is something wrong with Western culture, and is searching for healing. One of the strange things about Orthodoxy is that you realize you were right all along. Becoming Orthodox has been a confirmation of things I’ve sensed, and this is not because I was a particular type of Christian or because I am a man, but because I’m human. I believe that becoming Orthodox, to a feminist, will mean much more than an affirmation of what feminism yearns for. But that’s not the only strange thing. One Calvin and Hobbes strip shows the two characters walking through a wood. Calvin asks, “Do you believe in evolution? You know, do you believe that humans evolved from monkeys?” Hobbes’ answer is simple: “I can’t tell any difference.” The strip ends with Calvin chasing Hobbes. Orthodoxy might answer the question, “Do you believe evolution is the right answer to the question, ‘Why is there life as we know it?'” by saying:
No, evolution is absolutely not the right answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” For that matter, it is not even a wrong answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” It is not an answer to any “Why?” question at all. It is an answer to a “How?” question, and even if evolution were the whole truth and didn’t have any problems answering, “How is there life as we know it?” it is a mechanism to tell how things happen and not an explanation of why things happened. To say, “Why is there life as we know it? Because life evolved just like the theory of evolution says,” is a bit like saying, “Why is the dining room light on? Because the switch is in the ‘on’ position, causing electricity to flow so that the light glows brightly.” That’s how the light is on, but the reason why the light on is that someone decided, “I want light.”
The theory of evolution doesn’t answer that question. It might answer a different question, but the theory of evolution is not so much false as a distraction, if you are interested in the great and terrible question, “Why?” Instead of figuring out whether evolution is the correct mechanism, you might realize that it answers a different question, and start to ask the question, “Why is there life as we know it?”
“Why is there life as we know it?” is a meaty question, a you can grow into, and if you grow into it, you can learn about a creation that reflects God’s glory. You can learn about layers of symbol, and a physical world that is tied up with the spiritual and manifests its glory. You can learn about many layers of existence, and the body that has humanity as its head. You can learn that the mysteries in a woman’s heart resonate with the mysteries of life, and begin to see how a woman in particular is an image of the earth. You can learn about all sorts of spiritual qualities that the theory of evolution will never lead you to ask about. And you might learn that there are other questions, deeper questions to grow into, and start to grow into something even deeper than trying to answer questions.
So no, the theory of evolution is not the right way to answer the question, “Why is there life as we know it?”
And most of the time it happens without any philosophy or need to wrap your mind around some dense or subtle idea. Part of Orthodoxy is being caught off-guard by God again and again. It’s being informed, “I can’t tell any difference.” It’s asking how to pursue a great goal and learning that you shouldn’t have been pursuing that goal in the first place. It’s trying to find the best way to get all your ducks lined up, and asking the Lord’s help, and realizing that the Lord is calling for you to trust him and let him worry about the ducks. If he wants to. These are two sides of a paradox, and Orthodoxy presents them both to everyone.
And both are part of coming home.