How shall we live this instant?

Quest: So your use of ‘orthodoxy’ is not, strictly speaking, ‘mere Christianity’ as defined by C.S. Lewis, or any of its close kin.

Targe: It is not.

Quest: Then what is it? You have already said that it was not Thomas Owen’s “postmodern paleo-Orthodox evangelical Christian.”

Targe: The failure is interesting.

Quest: How so?

Targe: Well, one definition proposed as coinciding with postmodern paleo-Orthodox evangelical Christians is, “someone who can say the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers.” And the politically correct “their” is significant; I’ll get to that in a moment. But what I would point out that Baptists in their version of the Creed add a footnote to “Catholic” stating that it means “universal,” which of course it does, but the Protestant who says that is crossing fingers, or what is much the same thing, using the same words to mean different things: hence ‘Church’ means a purely invisible Church, the entire conception of which is as foreign to the Bible as it has been to ages of Orthodoxy. For another example of crossing fingers by saying the same thing but meaning something different, a Mormon can say most or possibly all of the Creed, but they mean something different by it: hence their saying, “As the Father is, so shall we be; as we are, so the Father was.” Part of the Catholic-Orthodox understanding of the Creed, for instance, is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are absolute in perfection from before there was time. And it’s crossing fingers to say you believe in God, the Father Almighty, and mean that a limited being became what we now call God the Father Almighty. And the connection is questionable at least between Mormon and Orthodox understandings of ‘deification’; the same word has two different and what might as well be unrelated meanings.

Quest: So you would throw it out?

Targe: The Spirit Spirits where He wills. Some have said, “We can say where the Church is, but not where it isn’t,” and others have said, “Not even that.” In that sense there really is an invisible Church, and those who are most insistent on necessity of being a faithful members of the Orthodox Church must needs acknowledge that there are Hindus and ancient pagans who will be saved, and there are members of the Orthodox Church who will be damned. His Eminence KALLISTOS, perhaps of concern to some Orthodox as dancing too close to the edge, none the less has an “all-purpose anecdote” (as he calls it) that anybody not caught in the trap of “True” Orthodoxy must recognize, tells a story about a woman who was severe in her fasting and observance of spiritual practices:

Once there was an old woman and she died. And somewhat to her surprise, she woke to find herself in a lake of fire. Looking out she saw her guardian angel walking on the shore. And she called out, “There has been some mistake. I am a very respectable old lady and I should not be here in this lake of fire.”

“Oh,” said the guardian angel, “do you ever remember a time when you helped someone else?”

And the old woman thought for some time and she said, “Yes. Once I was gardening and a beggar came by and I gave her an onion.”

“Excellent,” said the angel, “I happen to have that very onion with me now.” And he reached into his robes and he produced it. And he said to her, “Let us see what the onion will do. You take the other end and I will pull.” Perhaps it was not an onion but a shallot.

Gradually then, the angel, with the help of the onion, began to pull the old woman out of the lake of fire. But she was not the only person there. When the others saw what was happening they crowded round her and hung on in the hope of being pulled out as well. This did not please the old woman at all. She began to kick and to cry out, “Let go! Let go! It’s not you who’s being pulled out it’s me! It’s not your onion, it’s mine!”

And when she said, “It’s mine!” the onion split in two and she fell back into the lake of fire and there, so I’m told, she still is.

And His Eminence KALLISTOS obtained the story from Dostoevsky, who recorded it from someone else.

Quest: But what does that have to do with “postmodern”?

Targe: Well, if we accept the usual definition of postmodern—which Oden is not exactly trying to subvert, but claim “We were here first” competition—it is misleading at best to say, “If you were born in these centuries, you are a modern; if you are born in these decades, you are a postmodern.” There are engineers, large number of engineers who are moderns and who are aware of postmodernism as something that is out there, but aware with the kind of awareness one holds of fashions in faroff countries. And they may understand it well or, more often, not so well. Quite possibly they do not know a postmodern (in the usual sense).

Quest: How does Oden’s usage of “postmodern” differ from the more run of the mill version?

Targe: We have more a coincidence of names. What is usually called post-modernism is really a further unfolding of the damned backswing in the inner logic of modernism. René DesCartes fills the classic sociological definition of a pariah among postmodern authors in that attacks on him do not need justification (just read refereed academic journals and books where an attack on DesCartes is rarely accompanied by a footnote), but he began a program of tearing things up that was a precursor to deconstructionism. And it is from his patronage and country that Derrida came, and I’ve tried a few things to understand Derrida in any constructive way. I fairly quickly tried reading Derrida in the original. (It didn’t help.) And Oden’s claim, rightly enough, is that this should really be called “hyper-modernism.” There are other things it could be called, like “modernism 2.0” or “modernism on steroids” or “the inner (il)logic of modernism further unfolding”, but Oden’s suggestion is appropriate enough. And what he means by “post-modernism”, when it does not mean “hyper-modernism,” is people who have tried the modernist project and rejected it, like an engineer with a T-shirt that says, “Been there, wrecked that.” And in that sense postmodernism regards modernism and hypermodism as a vacation from reality and, perhaps with some archaeological interest or perhaps not, sees something like ancient or medieval life as still open to us. It may be noted, perhaps with excitement, that the Orthodox Church does not view the Church Fathers as a closed canon; perhaps a Catholic might not be inclined to say that there are medieval theologians still writing, but there is much room for Orthodox to say that patristic writing has not stopped and will not stop until the Lord returns.

Quest: So there are people writing now you would identify as Church Fathers?

Targe: Probably.

Quest: You do not introduce someone as a living saint; some have ascended to the third heaven and still been damned. There is a story of a saint who at the end of life set one foot in Paradise, and the demons praised him, saying, “Glory to you; you have defeated us!” and the saint said, “Not yet, I haven’t!” and pulled the other foot into Paradise. There are saints whose relics are incorrupt but it is the general wisdom of the Orthodox Church to allow some time for the dust to settle on a saint’s tomb. And I believe there are future saints that are alive, and some that will be recognized as Church Fathers who delivered living patristic theology, but we should not seek them out. We have recognized saints and Church Fathers from ages before; let us sit at their feet and learn from their life.

Thomas Oden’s version of postmodernism is tangled though.

Targe: How do you mean?

It is an attempt to be part of the Orthodox Church without being part of the Orthodox Church. Now this endeavor has happened before; one could argue that the Reformation was an attempt at (paleo-)Orthodoxy. And more recent efforts like Radical Orthodoxy start by having Protestant authors greatly appreciate pre-Protestant theologians, and not just the Blessed St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and yet somehow Radical Orthodoxy ends up producing articles that speak of “the incestuous, homosexual union of the Father and the Son” and be as deliberately lewd as academic theology which has no pretensions to any Orthodox label. It’s a wasteland.

Quest: Do you believe all of Oden’s “postmodern paleo-Orthodox evangelical Christians” are judged by that standard?

Targe: God help us, no. People who try such things may be very virtuous indeed. But—no, I need to put that off again—but consider well the three-fold comparison of natural sciences, academic theology, and Orthodox theology in “Religion and Science Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution.” Something remarkably similar may be said of Oden’s hypermodern, Oden’s postmodern, and Orthodoxy’s patristic. That is, you can make a threefold comparison between hypermodern, postmodern, and patristic as you can with science, academic theology, and patristic theology. Let us look some at Wittgenstein’s forms of life: Wittgenstein as a philosopher was dead wrong about many things and the phrase “after Wittgenstein” is itself a warning label, but in patristic Orthodoxy across the centuries and millenia, there is a cycle of day and night and though candles may give a little light, you act during the day and wind down at night. For the hypermodern and the postmodern by contrast, things are very different from the Orthodox patristic norm, when the sun goes down you usually turn on lights, and though scrupulous Jews may leave by sunset to avoid work on the Sabbath, it is not the rule for offices or factories to close just because of a sunset. For those living before modern times, there existed such a thing as an “epistolary relationship,” in some arrangement of pen pals, but to the hypermodern and postmodern, it is more prevalent among the youth than among adults to have relationships increasingly mediated by shifting sands of computer technologies, by social networks and ten thousand other things. Overall it may be true that liberals use technology better than conservatives: “My Barack Obama” in Obama’s first campaigns used some of the best technology has to offer, and while Django is freely offered to conservatives too, the power base for conservatism is not suburban or urban middle class, and a great many Republican votes come from the kind of people torn up in Deer Hunting with Jesus. To that basic observation, I may respond that the way new technologies are adapted and used works more like a liberal process than a conservative conservation. In some sense conservatives who use technology skillfully might be considered “virtual liberals”: yes, their votes may be to the right, and yes, their views and voices may be to the right, but they are skilled at negotiating a liberal style of waters. If conservatives use technology a little more clumsily, this is because the inner workings continue in some sense to preserve their character. One translates between Italian and Spanish more easily than one translates between Italian and Russian: and here the relation between technology and liberalism is like that between Italian and Spanish, and the relation between technology and conservatism is like that between Italian and Russian. The mere incompetence of some conservatives with technology is a sign of a strength somewhere else. But compared to any previous century, a conservative or postmodern (Oden-style) looks remarkably more like a liberal or hypermodern (Oden-style), or the vast number of mostly liberal people who run TV and popular blogs. The Paleo movement, which has perhaps appropriately been called a lifestyle (although Paleo Hacks discusses lifestyle far less than diet or exercise), is remarkable because it is exceptional. It looks at one aspect of life, diet—or maybe two, diet and exercise, plus a few other details—and says that what we have done with food since the industrial revolution is morbid. And it looks at how best to recover the strengths of the basic human hunter-gatherer style of diet (and of life) with what we have in front of us. But diet and exercise are two out of a hundred aspects of human life and living, two out of very many layers, and if conservatives like Dorothy Sayers and C.S. Lewis complained about newfangled light available whenever you flick a switch, or cars that annihilated God-given space, or talked about refusing to eat tinned food, this was a blip even for conservatives. Neither C.S. Lewis nor Dorothy Sayers complained about the ease of putting pen to paper, easing the physical side of writing to be economically cheap and physically effortless compared to medieval standards C.S. Lewis would have known well, where writing was comparred to ploughing a furrow and unambiguously classified as a form of (strenuous) manual labor.

Today, rural adults volunteer to keep cinemas alive and providing movies to children and youth. In days past cautious Christians avoided movies; now it is a conservative move to keep cinemas alive as a piece of history not to be lost. Technology progresses along its own inner rules, and it unfolds and its damned backswing unfurls.

It is a common preference in the U.S. to choose retrieving information over owning it. The development of computers has followed this preference, and most of what you do that is most interesting is to retrieve new, fresh information. We live in digital dark ages where the cascade of technologies, one largely displacing another, will leave future archaeologists and historians thirsty for an understanding of what we have, and we have reached the point, and long passed it, that curators of computational museums have physical storage media that they believe to be mostly or completely intact, and to contain real information, but they are at a loss for how to read it. The Air Force started a program to purchase one of every type of storage device, printer, etc. so that they would be able to prevent this from happening. But there was a kink along the way; some of the printers they purchased, left to sit for months, had rubber parts turn to gum. The Air Force saw and specifically took countermeasures to curate and keep the means of reading any form of computer storage, and while a museum may have come out of it, the original goal is all but impossible. Perhaps they could have gotten farther by actively maintaining all of their inventory, but there comes a point when you cannot obtain what you need to maintain old equipment, no matter how skilled you are at making repairs or how much you can pay.

Those who understand such thing said that when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad, he toppled the first domino in a chain that will make netbooks, notebooks, and desktops go the way of the landline or horse: a rarity, at least. And when Microsoft revealed Windows 8, they basically said, “We agree. We’ll go further than you, Apple. You let Macs continue to run on MacOS, without any effort to convert them to iOS devices. We’ll make a version of Windows optimized for mobile users, and we’ll release that as the desktop version as well as the mobile version.” Whether that move was right or not, time will tell. But Microsoft and Apple have declared an agreement that the tablet is the wave of the future and the desktop, even the Mac, is the wave of the past.

There is a science fiction short story, from when computers first entered the public consciousness, of a monastery of some religion which was involved in writing down all of the names of God to bring about the end of the world. They purchased a computer to help them do this task much faster. The ending of the story had the salesman getting on an airplane, noting, “They should be reaching the end of their calculation now,” and looking out the window and seeing a star vanish. There is already a star that has vanished: Apple has not rolled out Retina display to 17″ MacBook Pros; instead, Apple has retired the top of the line, its 17″ MacBook Pros. If you don’t have a 17″ MacBook and you want one, time for creative internet shopping!

And the damned backswing unfurls economically. The 1950’s drew unprecedented levels of wealth and an ersatz civic virtue of keeping up with the Joneses; compare the appliances and possessions of a 1990’s house with a 1950’s house and some have said that we were no longer keeping up with the Joneses: we were keeping up with the Trumps. So the longer and longer we go, the richer we get? Um, not exactly; we are being cut by the damned backswing. We indeed possess luxuries and possessions never before available in the history or prehistory of the race of men. But these luxuries, which we may not be able to keep hold of, do not our dreams of riches all come true. To quote an investment billboard, “My wild dream of retirement? Actually retiring!” The damned backswing that gave us newfangled forms of luxury is now cutting and delivering poverty well below a 1950’s “keeping up with the Joneses” standard of living.

Quest: Guess things were better in the fifties?

Targe: I’d like to visit a point with G.K. Chesterton, whether or not Chesterton sees eye to eye with Orthodoxy on this point. In discussing Francis of Assisi’s aspirations as a soldier, Chesterton says that loving other people and fighting them is perfectly consistent. And in Orthodoxy, unlike Catholic theology, there is no real concept of a just war. Orthodox are allowed to be soldiers, and there are saints who were soldiers. But a soldier who has tried to kill cannot become a priest, and regardless of what might have been the cause of war, Orthodox soldiers are expected to do years of penitence after their combat. Orthodoxy may have soldiers as much as Catholicism, but the concept of a just war is foreign to it.

But I still wish to visit one of Chesterton’s points, besides his saying that Francis of Assisi was perfectly right to go to fight in war against a neighboring city-state. He commented that if two such city-states were to fight continually against each other for a century, it might come within some remote distance of the body count of one of our modern scientific wars. And here I would like to make a comment about firearms and the Iran-Iraq war.

Modern Western firearms did not create the Iran-Iraq war; but we have come to possess modern assault rifles at the end of a process of change and military obsolescence, where generals and military leaders have adapted and adopted new tactics for centuries. The development of weapons may be easier for an outsider to see than shifts in tactics and strategy but alongside one gamechanger of a weapon after another has been a shift in tactics to try and achieve victory with a minimum of losses from among one’s own troops, and really also an attempt to kill as few as the enemy as you reasonably can while achieving your objective. One World War II sailor talked about how his ship sunk an enemy ship, and then, with tears, explained that the smell of a certain oil burning wafted into their craft, and he and the other sailors were absolutely disgusted, not because what they were smelling was vile (but it was vile), but because they realized that meant that men from the other ship, their enemies, were dying with that obscene stench in their nostrils. And the soldier, crying, said, “You can’t hate him. He’s another sailor, just like yourself!”

It is possible for a soldier to love his enemies, and in Arab culture, before Western armaments were dropped in, men fought all the time, just like St. Francis, but there was something about their fighting that was almost like sparring or horseplay. Killing men outright was not the rule, and it was not desired. And then, without much precedent, 20th century weapons were dumped on, by Western standards, 12th or 13th century military strategy, and there were none of the West’s slow learning over the centuries how to handle increasingly more destructive weapons while trying to accomplish goals with less casualties on both sides.

Quest: It should seem then that you should welcome the fifties.

Targe: The fifties came after World War II. One of the definitions of a modern war is a war that ends at the exhaustion of one side’s resource: a war of attrition, such as when part of the U.S. made a second Declaration of Independence, another part decided it non-negotiable that the United States be a single country, and neither side pulled back when blood flowed like a river, deep and wide. As to World War II, on essentially every side it was several notches removed from what I have tried to call orthodoxy, even though making what it means clear is hard. Even the traditional Arab raiding and lightweight fighting was a longstanding departure from what I call orthodoxy, but it was in the same ballpark. It did not go too far from the Garden of Eden. But warfare in its modern sense—the inventor of what we now know as a modern machine gun had almost pacifist intentions; he thought that when that invention was brought into war, people would be so horrified and disgusted that they would stop using guns, or at least machine guns, into war, and apparently horrified at the nation that would use such a vile weapon and horrified at using guns on people. But though an early machine gun may have been called “the Devil’s paintbrush,” automatic assault rifles are standard in infantry combat for anyone who is serious about war. There has been a long history of weapons that were expected to be too horrible to use: several Popes tried unsuccessfully to ban crossbows in their day’s version of the Geneva Conventions, and the machine gun just mentioned, and the battleship, and most recently nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. For now at least we have stopped using them. But whether or not warfare as such is “orthodox”, modest and small wars by modern standards depart from orthodoxy much further than Francis of Assisi going to fight another city-state with dreams of soldierly glory.

Now to return to the 1950’s. In the course of the greatest industrial war so far, America developed very well optimized industrial production to fuel the war. People may well have been Spartan enough in what they were doing and how they were living (ration books and all that), but when the war ended, the gears of factories started out turning other things besides munitions, and advertising became more manipulative and seductive, and people began to keep up with the Joneses. This may be better than the river of blood in world war, but there is something about spend, spend, spend to keep the factories spewing out goods that is further from orthodoxy than the sacrifice of a war effort which gave as much of one’s sap and soul with no personal benefit in the progress, than consuming the output of factories spewing consumer goods on the level of materials for war. Dorothy Sayers’s The Other Six Deadly Sins comes to mind, readily to mind. Sayers outlined a door to orthodoxy open to post-war Europe, but Europe did not choose that route.

Quest: And now we have shifted gears further: calling the 1950’s sexist has given way to attacking whether religion may act against queer interests, it would seem.

Targe: There is an instance of a pattern of people saying, “You are making a mountain out of a molehill. You should give in here.” To make an extremely offensive comparison, this is a bit like the molester’s message, “Don’t tell anyone. It’s OK.” Both parts of the message are internalized by the person addressed. It’s the same warped character that said, “Voting for Bush because you oppose gay marriage is a bit like buying a ticket to England because you like the salted nuts the airline stewardesses serve on the flight.”

I have never seen someone who says “You are making a mountain out of a molehill. You should give in,” treat the ‘molehill’ as a molehill that is readily conceded to focus on more important points. I have never heard of someone who calls an opponent’s position a molehill ever give in on that point. And here actions speak louder that words: the rhetorical move of “your position is a molehill; you should give it up and do things our way” is always, always accompanied by actions treating the “molehill” as a non-negotiablemountain.

One of those molehills concerns the ordination of women. Gender or Giftedness? one promoted title asks. And it is begging the question; it assumes giftedness has nothing to do with gender when gender provides much of the concrete shape by which God has gifted all of mankind.

There is someone who said that all of the Luddites were right; all describe something of mankind dying. Plato took a Luddite approach to writing, saying in a famous passage in Phaedrus, let me look it up…

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis was sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days Thamus was the king of the whole of Upper Egypt, which is in the district surrounding that great city which is called by the Hellenes Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he went through them, and Thamus inquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. There would be no use in repeating all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; for this is the cure of forgetfulness and folly. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, he who has the gift of invention is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance a paternal love of your own child has led you to say what is not the fact: for this invention of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters. You have found a specific, not for memory but for reminiscence, and you give your disciples only the pretence of wisdom; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome, having the reputation of knowledge without the reality.

And anyone who thinks this is a mere hiccough would be well advised to remember that Orthodoxy preserves alive the character of an oral tradition. Perhaps this is not the most important truth about Orthodoxy. Mount Athos preserves a great many age-old forms of life, but it would be a serious misunderstanding to make that one’s primary reason to visit the Holy Mountain.

Quest: Is there any hope? Any way to turn back the clock? It seems we have departed from the natural operating conditions of Homo sapiens quite a bit.

Targe: In more ways than we can name. We have lost a primal stillness; even Lao Tzu in the fifth century B.C. knew a primal stillness had then been lost among his people; he was concerned people had become noisy, complicated where peace is simple. He is said to have been a keeper of some royal library, but he did not turn to books for our salvation.

Quest: Then where is hope to be found?

Targe: Here and now. There was one hieromonk who reflected back on his time in a Soviet, Marxist concentration camp, and simply said, “God was so present there.” There, in the midst of everything the Devil might do, was God. He had been tortured to the point of breaking all of his fingers, and he simply remembered that God was there.

Quest: He must have been quite a monk.

And yet I wonder… um, maybe it’s better not to mention…

Targe: Yes?

Quest: Um…

Targe: Yes?

Quest: Orthodoxy and Paleo both say things about diet, and they don’t say the same thing. Can we benefit from both?

Targe: That is an excellent question to discuss with your priest.

Quest: And beyond that?

Targe: That is still an excellent question to discuss with your priest.

Strictly speaking, Orthodox fasting and Paleo diet are compatible. Nothing in Orthodox fasting rules dictates that one eats bread every day, or rice or noodles. During a fasting period, you may eat seafood and an abundance of vegetables, and for that matter possibly more variety than keeping the fast without Paleo. Have you ever gone through a fast and exhausted the possibilities of just vegetables available in grocery stores?

But let’s look at fasting in the extreme. The reconciliation I gave above, saying there is an area where the two dietary rules intersect, is a bit of a decoy. If you read the lives of the saints, they walk on water, or enter fire without being burnt. Saints give to God above what nature provides, and often, though not always, saints who work great wonders live on a diet that would seem to produce all manner of weakness. But these are spiritual athletes. Now the ascesis of fasting or something like it is normative, but in considering Orthodoxy and the Paleo diet, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. One’s priest, and perhaps also one’s doctor, is really the kind of person one should seek help from. In general, the rule in Orthodoxy is, Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

Attempts to turn back the clock keep moving us further from the source. Don’t look back. Look up!

There is something false in things as we have been looking at them, in saying that Luddites since the time of Plato have mourned losses that came with technological gains, in talking about food and drink: the Kingdom of Heaven is not a matter of food and drink. Now the choices we make may matter, but the true way of looking at things is not from the material up to the spiritual, but from the spiritual down to the material. Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to you as well. This was true in the first century, when the Sermon on the Mount was given, but the truth is as old as humanity.

And it is also the answer to the question, “how we shall live in this instant?

The damned backswing

Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion


“Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution