Beyond the Unbearable Burden of Non-Being

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Dark: How did he explain things? Was he bitter?

Light: Oddly, no. Or someone who knew him better than I did would say, “Obviously, no.” He was too busy living, “Christ is risen!

When he was asked why he was a prisoner in the camps that served as role models for Nazi death camps, he said, “I violated the rules of my profession.” When he asked how, he said, “There was a new rule in place that I needed a permit to celebrate a marriage. And the officials were really dragging their heels, and people were assembled, a pig had been slaughtered, and still no permit came, the bride looked up at me and said, ‘You baptized me. Why can’t you marry me?’ And so I married the couple, which was now an act of professional misconduct, and I became a prisoner for my professional misconduct.” He also made some effort to make light-hearted excuses for the soldiers who destroyed his beehives; he apparently felt sorry for them.

And now we’ve left the older new rules of marriage in the dust; the new rules of his profession now are that people stand six feet apart in a service, and not more than ten people may attend, and not only for marriage, but all new services. The ancient pattern of worship, among Orthodox, heretics, pagans, all others of meeting together to worship are set aside for Hindu as much as Christian.

Dark: But don’t we have promise of technology? A chicken in every pot, really?

Light: We have delivered, if you will, a tofu virtual chicken in every pot. Tofu is not a new invention, even if it is a form of plant protein. There are several cultures that have refined a proper use, and they invariably consume it in limited measure and never as a replacement for meat!

Dark: And there is a world to be said there. You do not know what a sacrament simple face-to-face conversation is until you have abhorrently grasped telepresence, until you have grasped relating to others in no way but tofupresence telepresence.

Light: So it is.

Dark: It is, and is not, a matter of technology. Perhaps one could say that it is centered on technology once one has stepped into and embraced the illusion. Dorothy Sayers, our close contemporary, speaks largely in the past about the framing of things that finds that “ideas, like machines, grow rust and need to be replaced,” but she could almost as well have been writing about the future.

The business book Good to Great, which has been critiqued on various grounds as a book in business, is in fact a book in business with little pretension to be anything else, including spiritual gurudom. But it comments that actors in successful companies tend to downplay and de-emphasize technological advances even when they were being praised for groundbreaking advances. It commented, and pointedly not as a point about Einstein, that Einstein was Time Magazine’s Person of the Century; relativity on his claim would have come within five or ten years without him, and the fact that Einstein eclipses Mother Theresa among Man of the Year laureates says nothing about Einstein (or Mother Theresa) and everything about us.

The book does not particularly talk about World War I showing off the U.S.’s mechanized new army and trying and failing to catch a Mexican bandit who was harassing Californians; it does talk about Vietnam and makes the case that “Our cool gadgets will win the war for us” has never in history been a real military strategy, or at least not the kind that can win wars.

Moreover, we keep getting installments of the new normal. It’s like George Orwell’s 1984 in which the realization sweeps past that Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.

In technology, there has been a widespread phenomenon of things becoming obsolete. CFL’s are particularly interesting in that they were promoted on environmental grounds, were much more environmentally toxic than their predecessors, and we could have just used LED’s a few years later. But this particular version of “Out with the old, in with the new” was not the classic obsolescence where oil lamps couldn’t compete with electric light in the marketplace. And what is going on is rapid social change that is sliding over the line, or has already slid, from a technology transition where oil lamps mostly disappeared because they couldn’t compete with incandescent bulbs, to a transition that is mandated in the next installment, where the dead hand of government intervention and not the invisible hand of the free market enforced the transition.

After a certain point, you didn’t just include white people in pictures; there was an unspoken rule about other races being represented. Then, as one more installment of the new normal, some of the women were wearing hijabs. Sometime along the way came the first size 22 supermodel, and then the astonishing sight of swimsuit models with a medically healthy weight. As another installment, if you are going to do weddings, you have to do queer ones too. And this present installment looks very dubiously about one quarantine among others that will be wholly lifted once it has served its purpose. This quarantine is different in that it cuts presence but not telepresence tofupresence; things must be passed through the funnel of tofupresence, and this is not the same.

Light: Truly you have a dizzying grasp of the situation.

Darkness: But wait until I get going! Can you say anything like this?

Light: Three words known to the priest: “Christ is risen!” whether he had the faintest need to say them or not.

He lost a beehive that never really was his to begin with. Must he lose his temper too?

Such might St. John say after a failure, the St. John Chrysostom who wrote, A Treatise to Prove that Nothing Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself. His colleague St. Basil the Great played a similar sibilant tune, when a prefect was sent to intimidate him:

The emperor Valens, mercilessly sending into exile any bishop who displeased him, and having implanted Arianism into other Asia Minor provinces, suddenly appeared in Cappadocia for this same purpose. He sent the prefect Modestus to Saint Basil. He began to threaten the saint with the confiscation of his property, banishment, beatings, and even death.

Saint Basil said, “If you take away my possessions, you will not enrich yourself, nor will you make me a pauper. You have no need of my old worn-out clothing, nor of my few books, of which the entirety of my wealth is comprised. Exile means nothing to me, since I am bound to no particular place. This place in which I now dwell is not mine, and any place you send me shall be mine. Better to say: every place is God’s. Where would I be neither a stranger and sojourner (Ps. 38/39:13)? Who can torture me? I am so weak, that the very first blow would render me insensible. Death would be a kindness to me, for it will bring me all the sooner to God, for Whom I live and labor, and to Whom I hasten.”

The official was stunned by his answer. “No one has ever spoken so audaciously to me,” he said.

“Perhaps,” the saint remarked, “ that is because you’ve never spoken to a bishop before. In all else we are meek, the most humble of all. But when it concerns God, and people rise up against Him, then we, counting everything else as naught, look to Him alone. Then fire, sword, wild beasts and iron rods that rend the body, serve to fill us with joy, rather than fear.”

Reporting to Valens that Saint Basil was not to be intimidated, Modestus said, “Emperor, we stand defeated by a leader of the Church.”

Light: And perhaps this is helpful in viewing civil liberties that have never been ours to begin with; it’s been easily decades that libertarians have worn T-shirts with the text of the Bill of Rights, on top of them stamped, VOID WHERE PROHIBITED BY LAW.

The attitude of a priest or a heirarch may be most fitting within Church authorities, but none of this is marked “for Church authorities only.” The treasure is available to you and me, not just saints.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky took on the problem of evil, and he had no faint desire to water down his opponent’s position to be easier to fight. He tried to state the case for evil as strongly as possible, and some of the book’s inwards are gruesome. But the end shows a light touch in which good has triumphed all along. It is a bit like the Book of Job, where Satan tears off layer after layer of what Job can claim, to show that there is nothing inside, and then God peels off the nothing and shows that everything is inside. Some people think the book ends more strongly if Job does not in the end receive double for what has been taken, and Job just meets God. God disagrees. However, the position is worth mentioning because when Job loses his children and refuses to curse God, and then loses his health and refuses to curse God, this is as such victory. Job stands as a champion for God before the Slanderer, and the Slanderer’s defeat begins as he acts on permission to harm Job, and God wins in his champion’s response.

You are, I believe, one born in the Evangelical tradition?

Dark: Yes; I was received as a reconciled heretic. I have repented at length.

Light: I hope you have not repented of the fervor of faith or devoted study of the divine oracles of Scripture, but instead found a deeper root for what you only possessed in part.

And what do you believe about reconstructing the Early Church?

Dark: It is a cottage industry needed by Evangelicals, but entirely absent in the Early Church.

Light: You have answered well. You do well to have repented, but may I suggest something?

His Eminence Metropolitan KALLISTOS in The Orthodox Church, suggests that Orthodox Christians today may be in a position more like the Early Church than has since happened in history. And the suggestion has more gravitas now.

One finding in Church history, frustrating to some people today, was that at least some Roman persecution of the Church was not rightly understood simply as persecution of the Christian Church as such. There were, it was perceived, a sprawling bazaar’s worth of corrupting religious influences, and Christians were not always persecuted under a conception of Christianity. Christianity was sometimes not seen as distinct, but somewhat more like a department of New Age’s sprawl.

The saints’ lives record, and there is no real reason for a scholar to find this impossible, that when Christians refused to bow deeply before the idol, officials asked if they would just give a pinch of incense. Now this may have been what it seemed in temptation, and in my thought it is a possible injected in the officials’ minds by the diabolic host. However, the officials at least sometimes just wanted compliance, and hardly really wanted to make martyrs.

Furthermore, there is a social chasm surrounding holidays of pagan deities. Almost everybody in an area would be excited at a holiday, and Christians were saying something effectively inconceivable. In Chicago in recent years, there was a billboard showing the Chicago Bears and saying, “You’re a fan or you’re a tourist,” and there was tremendous enthusiasm with people happily paying thousands of dollars for tickets for when the Cubs won the World Series. The position of the Early Christian communicating with pagans was, in some measure, what the position would be in Chicago when the Bears, Bulls, Hawks, or Cubs were doing some spectacular winning, and refused on principle to say a word of enthusiasm about either team. I do not otherwise wish to compare sports fandom to idolatry, but this may be suggested: that refusing on principle to give an inch’s participation to a merry and pleasant holiday may not be something pagans conceived or rejected; in some cases it may be something they couldn’t be able to conceive of as something one could reject.

Now when victories are made by gay rights, there is a clear and distinct case of opposition and a change of society, but the Christian who does not see such things as obvious improvements may run into some level of the “You’re a fan or you’re a tourist” syndrome. That one disagrees may be communicable; the substance or even nature of the disagreement is harder to convey even if it were to queerly meet a sympathetic ear.

And pan-eroticism is not just another point of contact between our time and that of the Early Church; it is one of many false forms of living. The ascendancy of tofupresence makes for Christianity like under Roman paganism; so for that matter does the ascendancy of Islam.

But in all this there is something easy to forget. When, under Rome, Constantine ended the persecution against Christians, saints complained that easy times rob the Church of her treasures. It is said that the faithful need temptations in order to be saved. And whether or not we are the New Early Christians matters surprisingly little. We are under the care of an awesome God, and Heaven is wherever the saints are. Even if our priest does get arrested for marrying a youth and maiden without the required permit.

And that is why even know, when the blows are coming, and the Antichrist keeps knocking at the door, there is nothing to fear where we are. For the Christians there is no Antichrist, only Christ, who is ever risen and ever alive.

Christ is risen! The story of the Passion is long and detailed. And three words, “Christ is risen!” peel off the nothing and show that everything is inside. The Antichrist is knocking at the door; I know that as well as you. But then Christ will triumph, and an eternal glory will come next to which the worst persecutions of the Antichrist do not possess a shadow that is measurable at all.

Christ is risen!

Coronavirus and COVID-19: The Best Pandemic Yet?

Cover for How to Survive Hard Times

A friend of mine quoted words written by C.S. Lewis 72 years ago. I follow his suggestion to replace “atomic bomb” with “corona virus:”

“In one way we think a great deal too much of the coronavirus. “How are we to live in an age of the coronavirus?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of AIDS, an age of terrorism, an age of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the coronavirus was anywhere near our radar: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have acknowledged one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by the coronavirus, let that virus when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—there are really a lot of things we can do from our own homes even if we do not wander around outside our homes—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about the coronavirus. They may break our bodies (a mishap with modern inconveniences can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948 and updated 2020 by C.S. Hayward) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Taking appropriate measures

We have several strokes of good fortune compared to every other pandemic in history. We have Amazon and Facebook, and opportunities to live for more than ourselves. But coping strategies extend beyond merely preventing transmission of the virus, and I would like to comment on standard guidelines. From sampling the CDC:

Clean your hands often

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.

  • If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

Avoid close contact

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick

  • Put distance between yourself and other people if COVID-19 is spreading in your community. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.

The first impression that this makes is that it is based on a superstitious and neanderthal concept of immunology, though I would here state that desperate times call for desperate measures and I don’t see why my immune system should stand up particularly well to something as nasty as COVID-19. People are working on not touching, and normally loving touch stimulates the immune system. Social isolation itself is an excellent way to depress the person and the immune system at one stroke. Furthermore, the prolonged effect of obsessive-compulsive cleanliness is to weaken the immune system. However, again, this is probably a case of desperate times that call for desperate measures.

I would pause briefly to comment that it is possible, albeit not obvious, to embrace without touching. Treasure tells how I supported a crying little girl without touching above a handshake that ended the interaction. When I went to give a present to my young nephews, I did not touch them, but was vigorous about making a nice big waving motion with my arm. If it is appropriate, these circumstances make it all the more helpful to be able to give an embrace without touching.

The second thing I would say is that this advice is like whiffle balls: it doesn’t go very far. It touches a point of need, but there is much more to coping.

For that reason, I offer another shopping list to try to get what you can:

“Really coping” shopping list

Past Experience

Dorothy Sayers wrote in “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” “I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity: ‘I did not know there were seven deadly sins: please tell me the names of the other six.'” Writing in World War II in England about gluttony broadly construed, Sayers wrote,

You will notice that, under a war economy, the contrast [between consumption by rich and poor] is being flattened out; we are being forced to reduce and regulate our personal consumption of commodities, and to revise our whole notion of what constitutes good citizenship in the financial sense. This is the judgment of this world: when we will not amend ourselves by Grace, we are compelled under the yoke of Law. You will notice also that we are learning certain things. There seems, for example, to be no noticeable diminution in our health and spirits due to the fact that we have only the choice of, say, half a dozen dishes in a restaurant instead of forty. In the matter of clothing, we are beginning to regain our respect for stuffs that will wear well; we can no longer be led away by the specious argument that it is smarter and more hygienic to wear underlinen and stockings once and then throw them away than to buy things that will serve us for years. We are having to learn, painfully, to save food and material and to salvage waste products; and in learning to do these things we have found a curious and stimulating sense of adventure.

And I believe that this coronavirus might not just be a restriction on civil liberties, or practical restrictions when others are being meticulous. The coronavirus and COVID-19 has declared war on humanity; we have declared war on it. By reining ourselves in we can and will reduce human casualties. And in this warfare we may touch something almost transcendent. We may, through difficult measures, save many, many, many human lives.

Digging deeper

There is something I wish to say, and I wish it so much that it is hard to think of how to say it. I wrote in God the Spiritual Father that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that makes all the difference.

Life is here and now, under the circumstances, and life is not about waiting for the rain to stop so you can dance, but dancing in the rain.

One koan has a cook monk, a position of high status, toiling over vegetables in the midday sun. A less mature monk asked him, “Why are you doing that work on the vegetables now?” The cook countered with a question: “When else can I do it?”

Zen and koans have a reputation for being enigmatic, but the point is sometimes a clue-by-four to help someone see the painfully obvious. The only time we can live is now, in the here and now that God has given us. Perhaps some of us are not Zen rigorists and are willing to schedule like the less mature monk expected. None the less, Orthodox hold to salvation being in the here and now, and recognizing that the here and now is under the guiding hand of Providence. It is fruitful for us to pray, with St. Philaret of Moscow,

My Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of Thee.
Thou and Thou alone knowest my needs.
Thou lovest me more than I am able to love Thee.
O Father, grant unto me, Thy servant, all which I cannot ask.
For a cross I dare not ask, nor for consolation;
I dare only to stand in Thy presence.
My heart is open to Thee.
Thou seest my needs of which I myself am unaware.
Behold and lift me up!
In Thy presence I stand,
awed and silenced by Thy will and Thy judgments,
into which my mind cannot penetrate.
To Thee I offer myself as a sacrifice.
No other desire is mine but to fulfill Thy will.
Teach me how to pray.
Do Thyself pray within me.
Amen.

And the Father may gently answer, in a poem of unknown attribution,

“Life’s Tapestry”

Behind those golden clouds up there
the Great One sews a priceless embroidery
and since down below we walk
we see, my child, the reverse view.
And consequently it is natural for the mind to see mistakes
there where one must give thanks and glorify.

Wait as a Christian for that day to come
where your soul a-wing will rip through the air
and you shall see the embroidery of God
from the good side
and then… everything will seem to you to be a system and order.

And with it, the prayer for acceptance of God’s will from St. Philaret of Moscow:
We are in God’s workshop, and God is working with us, if we will work with him, to create an eternal glory. The circumstances of our lives may be messy; God’s Providence is perfect in order, and it beckons to us.

Please experience present circumstances as a joy!
Want a good dose of clear thinking about the spiritual side of surviving in a world with coronavirus and COVID-19? Read more of How to Survive Hard Times!

The Emperor’s New Fantasy

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A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine l’Engle. Swirls of kything, Charles Wallace, and Blajeny. The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis. Swirls of Narnia and visits to that land. Arthurian legends. Swirls of knighthood, Merlin, and the Holy Grail. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein. Swirls of grokking, Michael Valentine Smith, and Martian wisdom.

These are some of the “realer world” things I have found captivating over the years, and all of them, in different forms, offer a glimpse of transcendence—and heartache.

There is a scene, central to the plot, in The Silver Chair where a Witch has been weaving an enchantment to seduce the Narnian Marsh-Wiggle Puddleglum and the earthborn children into believing that there is no world outside the underground caverns, no sun, no Aslan and so on and so forth, and when the Witch has practically won, Puddleglum mostly stamps out the spice-laden, narcotic fire with his bare feet, and greatly weakens the enchantment, and tells the Witch,

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is this, that in that case the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

This heroic stance is, in a word, the marketing proposition offered by fantasy.

(Particularly if it is taken out of its context of defending the book’s real world, Narnia.)

People who find the world dismal can seek salvation in escape, where there is no true salvation to be found. But there is another option.

Realize that the greater world is not by escape, but by recognizing that the real world is not the dreary, mundane cave that it looks like when you are making Puddleglum’s stance.

The Orthodox Church is very much embracing the here and now, and insists that no, there is no other place than the here and now God has given us that we can be saved. Or that we can be happy. But something funny happens along the way.

If we give up Grail questing whether in Arthurian form or its pukeworthy successors, the world seems hollow when recognizing that we cannot ever find or reach the Holy Grail. But when we repent and turn our backs on escape, we discover that repentance is not something to fear but Heaven’s best-kept secret, and God the Spiritual Father has placed us in Paradise.

We may discover that after we have given up the hope of any illusion of the Holy Grail that the only game in town is to become the Holy Grail, to receive Christ’s body and blood in the Holy Mysteries ourselves, as the Blessed Augustine said, “Behold what you believe! Become what you behold!” and the purpose of being human is to become by grace what Christ is by nature.

If we give up reading fantasy and hoping we could live in that realer world, we may read the Saints’ lives, different each day, and find God the Spiritual Father call you to the true realer world.

There are lessons along the way. One is that happiness is not for sometime down the road when we get some new possession, but for here now. Possessions, no matter how badly we want them, do not mediate our really living human life. Another lesson is that the greatest treasures, all of them, we are invited to pursue. The God Who Transcends His Own Transcendence bids us grow in humility, love, and divinity. These eclipse Nobel Prizes, royal honors, and indeed all the honor in the world.

And really, it is an adventure, but it all hinges on repentance and virtue.

Read more of The Best of Jonathan’s Corner: An Anthology of Orthodox Christian Mystical Theology on Amazon!

How can I take my life back from my phone?

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Is there someplace in the world that does not have Internet?
-A prolific poster on Twitter

The 𝑺𝒊𝒍𝒊𝒄𝒐𝒏 Rule

In The 𝑺𝒊𝒍𝒊𝒄𝒐𝒏 Rule, I suggested that a good rule of thumb is to ask, “What do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?” And Steve Jobs, for instance, did not have a nerd’s paradise for his kids. He had walls with big bookshelves and animated discussions. They hadn’t seen an iPad when it first entered the limelight. And employees of technology company chose what might seem some remarkably strict rules, because they didn’t buy into the mystique of hot gadgets. They knew better.

In Bridge to Terebithia, the author introduces Leslie as privileged with a capital P. The biggest cue is quite possibly not that money is not the issue, but that her family does not own a television. Today that character might also be introduced as not having a smartphone, for several reasons.

People know on several levels that Facebook and smartphones suck the life out of their users. That’s old news. This page is about an alternative.

How I tamed my iPhone

I have what might be called a Holy Grail of iPhone usage. I carry my iPhone but I rule it and it does not rule me. It is often at hand, but I have domineered it well enough that I don’t compulsively check it. I get almost all of the practical benefits with none of the hidden price tags.

How?

Prequel: How I tamed television

Before I became a strict iPhone user, I was a slightly relaxed television non-user. I grew up with limited television, one hour per day during the schoolyear and two hours during summer vacation, and I read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business and the more book-like Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and also books like Stephen Covey’s First Things First. And I slowly checked out the rest of the way from television. And as an older child and later a young man, I had the vibrancy one associates with an unhindered imagination: the days before television, or something that as might as well be the days before television:

In the days before television

The irony of the Far Side cartoon is that time before television sucked the life out of everything was much more vibrant, not a family huddled around a vacant spot by a wall.

Prequel: Weston A. Price diet

I’m not specifically interested in converting people to Western A. Price or Paleo diets beyond saying that it is my opinion that your body’s engine merits pure premium fuel, but I wanted to comment on something very specific about Nourishing Traditions. As one friend pointed out, some of the ways food is produced are really gross; most vegetable oils besides olive, avocado, and coconut oils have to be extracted under conditions that goes rancid immediately, like popped popcorn, and are then made yellow and clear and not smelling bad by chemical wizardry, or the artificial phenomenon of getting four gallons of milk from a cow per day and then manipulations to make 2% milk (“No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows except for the additional ingredients of blood and pus.“). It overall builds a sense of “This is really gross and unfit for human consumption,” and that’s good.

It is worth your while to read books about how, for instance, standard smartphone use is reprogramming our brains to be bowls of tapioca. I gave, and meant, five stars to Jean-Claude Larchet’s The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul. My own title in the same vein is The Luddite’s Guide to Technology.

Now on to my iPhone

I check my iPhone at intervals: once per hour, or perhaps once per day. That breaks the spine of constant checking, at least eventually. My phone has three games, all of them for my little nephews, and I’ve come to dodge showing them games on my smartphone, because when I show them a real, physical toy, they can wait turns and share, while smartphone games are addictive enough that when I take out my phone and let them play with it, squabbles consistently follow. In good spirit, when they wanted to play pinball games on my phone, I deleted the pinball game and then made a crude pinball machine out of some leftover wood, nails, rubber bands, large ball bearings, and a plastic pipe. They were initially disappointed, but when they had some time to play with it, they began to be imaginative in a way I have never seen with a smartphone video game.

Returning to my smartphone, I use it for utilitarian purposes, including making bottom-liner use of Facebook and Twitter. Bottom-liner use of Facebook can be constructed, but having it fill the hours is depressing to anyone.

Specific suggestions for iPhone and Android smartphones

On this point I would say that there are few things you must do, but many things you might do. Probably the single best advice I know is to work with an Orthodox priest who is comfortable freeing you from your chains to technology. Good advice is to make a small change to start, and then slowly but steadily build up until what you have in place is working for you.

I would also underscore that these are suggestions, that some people have found helpful. I do not use all the rules others have found helpful, and I’ve found benefit in getting stricter with myself as time has passed. However, you don’t owe a duty to make all of these your own.

  1. Learn from Humane Tech. Humane Tech is a movement to mitigate some of turning people’s brains to tapioca, and it is well worth attending. I don’t believe they go far enough; I believe that Orthodox ascesis and fasting provide a good backbone, but knowing which apps make you happy and which apps make you sad is at very least a good start. Three Humane Tech pages you should know about include the following:

    • The homepage, for general orientation.

    • Take control. This gives many concrete suggestions. I’ve thought about all of them and implemented some of them.

    • Familiarize yourself with app ratings. All apps are not created equal in terms of their effect on how you feel. If you want to get your head out of your apps, this is another page I would at least recommend familiarizing yourself with.

  2. Make a conscious adult decision about what you carry. I would recommend choosing between three primary options:

    • Keep a smartphone, but be sure that you are the one in charge. This is the option I go with, but only after not carrying a cell phone when they were becoming common, and have less plugged in days of only checking email once per day. I do more frequent usage, and think that checking it once per hour is also a good baseline, but I only check things more frequently when I have a specific logistical reason. The strongest reason for this may be less the inner logic of dominating your technology, than smartphones being socially mandated.

    • Don’t carry a smartphone. Kings, Emperors, Popes and Patriarchs before the twentieth century lived in great luxury without having any kind of phone access, ever. They weren’t deprived. You most likely don’t need it.

    • Carry alternate gear. What about, instead of carrying a smartphone, you carry a standalone GPS, an old-school handset that only does talk and text with a numeric keypad, a paper planner or a small paper pad for your scheduling, todo, and scratchpad use, and maybe a book or Kindle? That sounds like a lot, but it fits nicely, with room to spare, in my favorite messenger bag. Admittedly these things are not the same convergence device, but it really may be possible to carry everything you want without difficulty. And by the way, their not including social media isn’t a defect; it’s a feature.

  3. Read The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul, and The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. Pay close attention to the rules in The New Media Epidemic as taken from Silicon Valley tech Moms and Dads. Chapter 13 is rich in practical application, mentions a #1 rule of no phones in bedrooms ever, and “Alex Constantinople… said her youngest son, who is 5, is never allowed to use gadgets during the week, and her older children, 10 to 13, are only allowed 30 minutes a day on school nights.” Not an absolutely different rule from what my parents had for me. Other aspects covered include having the network’s router shut off outside of a certain window of time.

  4. Take an attitude of “Everything is permitted… maybe, but not everything is beneficial.” We are tempted to try to get the most use out of our investment, when a better use might be more sparing. As far as TV goes, I have sought out to see one Simpsons episode in the past five or so years. Somewhere along the way, I stopped seeing as much television as I was allowed. Don’t use as much as you will let yourself use, and recognize that the most beneficial uses are sometimes the ones with the lightest touch. A smartphone in “Do Not Disturb” mode is just as much capable of calling 911 in a bad situation as any other cell phone.

  5. Have an attitude of having a life outside of online activity. When I grew up, I was taught to cast a line with a fishing rod. I didn’t end up catching much of anything, but my father taught me the basics, face-to-face, with a genuine fishing rod. Young people today are far more likely to learn to cast a line with the accelerometer on a smartphone, and that was a deprivation. I did my studies through travelling to campuses face-to-face even if I used email as well. This is a human baseline that is a survival from the Middle Ages, for that matter a survival from the animal world where young wolves are not handed tools necessarily but are taught how to interact with their environment to hunt, face-to-face with other wolves. And I would suggest that traveling to a college campus and also using some email is a pretty good baseline for technology use. And in relation to this, we have:

  6. Take up a hobby and give smartphones some competition. It can be hard to just pull back from habitual technology use. It is somewhat easier, even if it is not really easy, to pull back from the draw of technology and engage in something else, such as candle making. Having a constructive hobby can be very helpful as something else to do instead.

    Meetup groups and other local organizations can be great.

  7. Use your phone for a purpose, and never to treat boredom. A practice of reaching for your phone when you need it to do something, and not much else, can be great. Your phone can be genuinely nice when you use it to contact an acquaintance by any means, or to order a pair of shoes. It’s a trap when you use it to just pass time or make boredom easier to deal with. The most miserable use of Facebook, for instance, is when you’re always on.

  8. Use older technologies and fast from technologies. Fasting from technologies is explored in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, and while it may not be possible, there are times where you can make a phone call instead of sending an email, or drive to see someone face-to-face instead of making a phone call. In general, using older space-conquering technologies instead of newer space-conquering technologies can uncover a forgotten richness. Some have had days of no electricity. A Lead Pencil Society day here and there can produce just a little freedom, or even just write a single hand-written, lead-pencil letter to a loved one, or perhaps buy a single, paper book instead of an ebook.

  9. Treat porn as a real danger, and get help whenever you need it. Porn is the disenchantment of the entire universe; it is our day’s biggest attack on men; it is preparation for committing rape. Take things to a father confessor; use a support group; use xxxchurch.

  10. Don’t look at your phone as a treasure from a magic world. A phone can feel exotic until you’re already hooked, but I think of people in the second world where a smartphone may seem a relic from the wonderland of the first world. In fact the U.S. may have more seeking of escape than Uganda. In fact material treasure may be found much more easily in the U.S.—and with it spiritual poverty. I believe that smartphones have uses, but as an experience they are not really helpful if you’re an American, and not really helpful if you’re a Ugandan friend. There are uses, and you can read ebooks for instance, which is really sweet. However, being sucked into a phone is not really a helpful way of using it. On those grounds I would advise friends both in the U.S. and Uganda to use phones, maybe, but know that God has placed people around you, and a person is infinitely better than a smartphone. Enjoy the real treasures!

All of this may seem like a lot, but it is very simple at heart:

Start walking on the path and put one foot in front of the other.

That is all you need.

Read more of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology on Amazon!

The 𝑺𝒊𝒍𝒊𝒄𝒐𝒏 Rule

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

I have stated, in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, a lot of theory and analysis, and I would like now to give some of what I practice myself.

Taking a second look at asking, “What would Jesus do?”

I looked down on the “What would Jesus do?” fad when it was hot, and I have never had nor wanted a pair of W.W.J.D. Christian socks; for that matter, I have never asked that question. However, now much later, I wish to offer a word in its defense.

The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is not just a directive from the Bible; most or all world religions at least touch on it. And it is ethically very interesting in that is a simple and short ethical directive that sheds quite a lot of light over a very broad collection of situations. That’s a feat. Furthermore, it is also a feat represented by W.W.J.D. If you read the Bible regularly at all, the question “What would Jesus do?” brings clarity to many situations.

And I would like to provide another rule.

The Silicon Rule

The Silicon Rule, as I propose it, is a rule for guiding technology choices:

What do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?

Now “What would Jesus do?” is only meaningful if you have some picture of what Jesus was like, and “What do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?” may surprise you, although a search for “humane tech” might hit paydirt.

Jean-Claude Larchet, towards the end of his must-read The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul talks about a fashionable private school and quotes glimpses of the private lives offered to children of Silicon Valley technology executives in Steve Bilton’s summary:

The Waldorf School of the Peninsula, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is rare in that it is not connected [to the Internet]. Three quarters of the pupils are children whose parents work in the area, with Google, Apple, Yahoo, or Hewlett-Packard. These people who work to develop the digital economy and propagate it into every level of society are especially glad that in this school, their offspring are completely sheltered from computers, tablets, and smartphones right up till eighth grade.


“So, your kids must love the iPad?” I asked Mr. Jobs […]. The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”…

Evan Williams, a founder of Blogger, Twitter and Medium, and his wife, Sara Williams, said that in lieu of iPads, their two young boys have hundreds of books (yes, physical ones) that they can pick up and read any time.

So how do tech moms and dads determine the proper boundary for their children? In general, it is set by age.

Children under 10 seem to be most susceptible to becoming addicted, so these parents draw the line at not allowing any gadgets during the week. On weekends, there are limits of 30 minutes to 2 hours on iPad and smart-phone use. And 10- to 14-year-olds are allowed to use computers on school nights, but only for homework.

“We have a strict no screen time during the week rule for our kids,” said Lesley Gold, founder and chief executive of the SutherlandGold Group, a tech media relations and analytics company. “But you have to make allowances as they get older and need a computer for school.”

Some parents also forbid teenagers from using social networks, except for services like Snapchat, which deletes messages after they have been sent. This way they don’t have to worry about saying something online that will haunt them later in life, one executive told me.

Although some non-tech parents I know give smartphones to children as young as 8, many who work in tech wait until their child is 14. While these teenagers can make calls and text, they are not given a data plan until 16. But there is one rule that is universal among the tech parents I polled.

“This is rule No. 1: There are no screens in the bedroom: There are no screens in the bedroom. Period. Ever,” Mr. Anderson said. […]

I never asked Mr. Jobs what his children did instead of using the gadgets he built, so I reached out to Walter Isaacson, the author of “Steve Jobs,” who spent a lot of time at their home.

“Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of these things,” he said. “No one ever seemed to pull out an iPad or computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.”

Examples could easily be multiplied, even if one is only quoting Larchet. This is, quite briefly, what Silicon Valley technology executives want for their children.

My own working model

I remember, on environmental issues, someone talking softly about how “subdue the earth” in Genesis 1 originally meant a very gentle mastery. That was everything I wanted to believe, and I’d still like it to be true, but it has been said that the Hebrew has the force of, “trample it under foot!” In the Orthodox Church’s Greek Bible, the word here translated as “subdue,” κατακ&upsilonριω (katakurio) is the same verb that in the New Testament for how Orthodox leaders are not to relate to the rank and file, and can be translated “lord it over.” κυριοσ (kurios) is the basic word for “lord,” and the prefix κατα (kata) in at least some places gives the word significantly more force.

Should we lord it over the earth? That’s one thing I think we have done disproportionately well. However, I bring this up for a reason. I believe we can, should, and perhaps need to lord it over technology, and the basis for our interactions, above the assumed life in the Church and frequent reception of sacraments, is the bedrock to how we should relate to technology. We should reject most use of technology along marketing positions. Possibly I will be under the authority of an abbot and be directed not to engage in electronic communication at all. For now, I have the usual technologies, apart from any working smartwatch.

One way I have tried to explain my basic attitude is as follows. Most of us, most of the time, should not be calling 911. And my understanding is that you can get in trouble with the law without having what the law considers appropriate justification; you don’t call 911 because you’re bored and you want someone to talk to. However, the single most important number you can call is 911; if you are in a medical emergency or some other major problem, being able to call 911 can be a matter of life and death.

My prescription is, in caricature, carry a smartphone but only use it when you need to call 911.

Apart from the smartphone, I try to avoid TV, movies, radio and so on. Michael in Stranger in a Strange Land said that he had questions about what he saw on the “g**d**-noisy-box”, and I really don’t think I’m losing out by not being involved in them. Television has over the years grown a heavy dose of MSG; watching even a clean movie hits me like a stiff drink. Silence is something precious, and it has been called the language of the world to come.

On my smartphone, I’ve watched maybe a couple of dozen movies and have nothing loaded for it as an iPod. I have no games, or at least none for my own use, nor amusement apps. Its use is governed by silence, which means in large measure that it is used for logistic purposes and not used when I do not have a logistical reason to use it. I only really use part or what appears on my home screen: Gmail, Calendar, Camera, Maps, Weather, Notes, App Store, Settings, Termius (software for IT workers), GasBuddy, PNC, Kindle, Flashlight, Pedometer, Libby, Translate, FluentU (for language learning), DuckDuckGo (a privacy-enhanced web browser), Phone, mSecure (a password manager), and Text. And of those, I do not really use Camera, Weather, Notes, or Kindle.

This may sound very ascetic, but it is a spiritual equivalent of good physical health. Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the ELIMINATION of Television looks about artificial unusuality, about how we connect with the kind of stimulation we receive, and how children not stimulated by television can be stimulated by the natural world. My seemingly austere use of my phone gives me luxuries that would have been unimaginable to Emperors and Popes in the ancient and medieval times. Even in the nineteenth century people were pushing the envelope on keeping toilets from smelling nasty.

One area where I am learning now is to avoid making fake or ersatz connections by computer or phone. I use Facebook and Twitter to announce new postings; arguably I shouldn’t do even that. They are an arena for idle talking, and for fake friendship. Larchet’s term for a person hollowed out by technology is Homo connecticus, Man the Connected. There are numerous ways to be connected, all the time, in a way that is simply not helpful, and in fact an intravenous drip of noise. If I do not have an active conversation, I check my email by default about once an hour; though this might not be a good idea, I have turned off all sound notifications for text messages. In previous years, I had gone on “net.vacations” and avoided computers and electronic communication for a few days; more recently I have sometimes kept my phone on a permanent “Do not disturb.” As far as my social life, I meet people (and cats) face-to-face when I can.

I also almost categorically try to avoid exposure to advertising, almost as if it were porn; both are intended to stimulate unhelpful desire. I tend to be a lot less likely to covet something and spend tight money on things I don’t need. And really, if I need something only after an advertiser paints ownership beautifully, chances are some

All of this is how, in the concrete, I have tried to trample technology underfoot, and really trample its marketing proposition. This is something of a countercultural use, but it works remarkably well, and if you can rein in yourself, it won’t suck out so much of your blood.

What is the advantage of having a phone then? Wouldn’t it be simpler to not own one? I personally think there is much to commend about not owning a smartphone, but it is a socially mandated technology. You should be able to get along well enough to have a paper planner and pad and a standalone GPS to navigate by, but this is how to skim the cream off of technology and not hurt yourself with its murkier depths.

All of this may sound excessively ascetic, or a feat that it isn’t. Feel free to chalk it up to eccentricity or introversion. However, I would point out that the conversations in Silicon Valley technology executive’s houses are quiet lively. For example, here are ten things you might do, or start doing.

  1. Read a book by yourself.

  2. Read a book and discuss it together.

  3. Take up a new hobby, like woodworking. You can make a lot of interesting things woodworking.

  4. Go to an Orthodox church. After that, take a breather and go to a museum or a library.

  5. Pick one topic and research it as far as you can in a fixed number of days. Share with others what you learned.

  6. Buy a pair of binoculars and take up bird watching. Please note that local conservation society members, park districts, possibly libraries, and so on may have excellent advice on how to get involved.

  7. Spend an hour in silence and just sit, just unwind.

  8. Use older technologies and practices. Drive to visit someone instead of calling. Call instead of texting. Watch old 1950’s movies that are at an F on special effects but an A on plot and storytelling. Go outside and play catch with a ball or frisbee.

  9. Take a walk or a hike, or fish up a bicycle and take bike rides for fun.

  10. Have a conversation about everything and nothing.

And trample technologies underfoot as much as it takes to have a life.

How to get there

What I have listed above is more a destination than a means how. As far as how goes, the basic method is to start whittling away at your consumption of noise bit by bit. If you watch television, you might decide in advance what you want to watch, and stick to only shows you’ve picked out. After that, vote one show per week off the island (maybe one show per month would stick better), until there is only one show, and then cut into the days you watch it. That is much more effective than through sheer force of will to stop watching together until you binge and decide you can’t live without it. And the same principle applies with other things.

An Orthodox priest can be very good at helping you taper down and stop activities, and another perspective can really help. If you want to stick with a book, Tito Collander’s The Way of the Ascetics: The Ancient Tradition of Inner and Spiritual Growth displays the discipline well. However, a real, live encounter with an Orthodox priest gives a valuable second set of eyes, and making the pilgrimage and overcoming a bit of shyness are two good things you should want to have.

One P.S. about motivation

My main motivation in writing this is for you and your spiritual health. Now it might also be good for your body to stop vegetating with your smartphone and start doing things, and it might also be beneficial for the environment in that it encourages a much lighter step in consumption.

Would you take one small step, for yourself?

Read more of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology on Amazon!

Paradise

O Lord,
Have I not seen,
How thou hast placed me in Paradise?

And how have I said,
That a first monastic command,
Is, “Go home and spend another year with your family?”
While I have spent a few?
The obedience is not limited,
By a count of years,
But by obedience,
This being a first obedience.

Gifts I have fought as chance left me,
Bloodied, but more deeply bowed:

Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?
It hurteth thee to kick against the goads.

I stand, or sit,
Not scholar, nor user experience professional,
Making use of a life of leisure,
Learning leisure well, to lord it over leisure,
Once I made a vow before a wonder-working icon in Brooklyn,
That I might receive a doctorate,
Earned or honorary,
And since then have prayed that my vow not be granted,
An honorary doctorate not to receive,
Because I do not want it enough to even travel,
To give the icon a kiss of veneration!

An Invitation to the Game is an icon,
Of children in a proletariat of excessive leisure,
Excessive leisure being a training ground,
Before a new life in a new world begins.

God the Spiritual Father looks after,
Each person he has made,
As a spiritual father looks after each disciple,
God looketh after each,
In the situations he placed each:

“Life’s Tapestry”

Behind those golden clouds up there
the Great One sews a priceless embroidery
and since down below we walk
we see, my child, the reverse view.
And consequently it is natural for the mind to see mistakes
there where one must give thanks and glorify.

Wait as a Christian for that day to come
where your soul a-wing will rip through the air
and you shall see the embroidery of God
from the good side
and then… everything will seem to you to be a system and order.

What have I to add,
To words such as these?
This time is a time of purification and training,
And as in times past,
In an instant, I may be taken to a monastery,
As I was taken to study theology,
Six months’ work to obtain student loans,
Falling into place one business day before leaving.
Thou teachest me,
And I know thou art willing to save:
Whether or not my plans are the best.
Whether I ever reach monasticism,
Thou art potent to save.
I might need to seek monasticism:
God can save me with or without.

So I learn patience,
Fly through FluentU and learn Russian,
And here I sit,
In a place thou hast opened my eyes to see as Paradise,
And with lovely food pantries,
And visits to pets at a lovely cat shelter,
And thou ever ministerest to me.

Though thousands around me be addicted to television,
And ten thousands can’t stop checking their cell phones,
Thou hast delivered me,
And taught me to lord it over technologies,
Perchance a prophet in the way,
To the technology user who still suffers,
To those who remain entangled in the Web.

Thou hast delivered me from mortal danger:
Perhaps thou givest me more time to repent.
Or perhaps thou givest merely,
More time to repent.
Glory to God for all things!

Thou givest me simple pleasures,
Who knew tidying up a besmudged keyboard could be fun?
Whither I go, thou art with me;
Thou preparest a table before family and friends.

“World” refers not to God’s creation,
But to our collections of passions,
Seeing through a glass, darkly,
What bathes in the light of Heaven:
Hell is a state of mind,
But Heaven is reality itself.

I am perhaps not worthy of praise,
To say such things in middle-class comfort.
I seek monasticism, to be a novice,
Which is meant to be exile,
Yet an abbot’s work,
Is to help me reach freedom from my passions,
And what true joy I have in luxury,
Only know further in monastic exile.
Years I have waited:
Now I am willing to wait years more.
Only if I may pursue repentance,
On such terms as it is offered me.
Glory to God who has allowed me such luxury!
Glory to God who has allowed me such honors!
Glory to God who has shown me that these avail nothing,
And seek the true fame,
Fame before God himself!

Be thou glorified, O God, in me,
Though I know nothing,
Though I am nothing,
Be none the less glorified in me.
The Infinite can do the Infinite in the finite:
Be thou therefore glorified and praised in me,
Though I am nothing before thee,
Yet thou grantest me breath and life,
Joy,
And ever offerest me salvation.

Glory be to God on high!
Glory be to God for Paradise!
Which Paradise is in all things!
Glory to God for all things!

Amen.

That Hideous Impotence

"St. Clive:" An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis

Thimble even maintained that a good critic, by his sensibility alone, could detect between the traces head-knowledge and heart-knowledge had left on literature. “What common measure is there between IT hackers with their obscure and esoteric interests, their unworldly collections of skills that ordinary mortals scarcely even hear of, their attendant servers and daemons, and figures like the saints, who seem to produce results simply by trusting and following God?” Heart-knowledge and head-knowledge differ profoundly; heart-knowledge (though this is doubtful) may be as difficult to acquire; it is certainly a better exercise of the whole person.


The NASTY (the NASTY Association for the Scientism and Transhumanism Y-combinator) had, in a spirit of jest, one member occasionally call another member “more evil than Satan himself.” But in fact the many members fitting into NASTY had one-by-one filled in pieces: now by FaecesBook, now by the Twits’ Crowd, now by dark Goggles, now by MicroSith, now by Forbidden Fruit, all offering such treasures that in countries as poor as Africa, No Such Agency would know not only every web search and every text, but to any who could obtain a smartphone and a watch, every step, every breath, every heartbeat.

As time passed on, the technological dragnet only drew tighter. And people naturally think that all of this is the creative genius of man.

But there was always, always individual human freedom.


“It is rather horrible. The newer technologies together represent something like a secularized occult. I mean even our time (we come at the extreme tail end of it), though you could still use that sort of technology innocently, you can’t do it safely. These things aren’t bad in themselves, but they are already bad for us. They sort of withered the person who dealt with them. On purpose. They couldn’t be adopted by the masses if they couldn’t. People of our time are withered. Some millennials are quite pious and humble and all that, but something has been taken out of them. Take away their gadgets for a day and they will show a quietness that is just a little deadly, like the quiet of a gutted building. It’s the result of having our minds laid open to something that broadens the environment.

“Orthodoxy is a last and greatest view of an old order in which matter and spirit are, for a modern point of view, confused. For some saints every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. Now we have the modern man to whom Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases, and postmodern varieties with their ‘spirituality’ which drives ever much deeper the chasm separating the sacred from the secular. The Orthodox Church, with her saints, represent what we’ve got to get back to do and an ever-open door. Did you know that Orthodox are all forbidden to pursue systematic theology?”


But Redemption already knew, in fact, that there was Eldilic energy and Eldilic knowledge behind the NASTY. It was, of course, another question whether the human members knew of the dark powers who were their real organisers. And in the long run this question was not perhaps important. As Ransom himself had said more than once, “Whether they know it or whether they don’t, much the same sort of things are going to happen. It’s not a question of how the human members of NASTY will act—the Dark-Eldils will see to that—but of how they will think about their actions.”

For Redemption already knew of the constant stings of temptation come to all of us and try to entice us to believe ideas we think our own and embrace to our slow spiritual depth. The Philokalia, second only to the Bible among Orthodox classics in recent history, was a manual on the spiritual life that kept returning to the activities and operations of demons. Its authors know well enough about the continuing warfare of thoughts to desire this or that that have been assaulting us for the ages, and demonic temptations occur not only to some rare specialty of people deeply enmeshed in e.g. the occult. (And we are briefly told, “Men hold on to sin because they think it adorns them.”) Demonic possession through occult or other means is of course a worse problem, but whether we like it or not a great deal of what we think of as our thoughts and our desires are stings of demons attacking us. As one student had approached Redemption and said, with great excitement, “I’ve just had a completely new idea,” Ransom answered, “I am very excited for you and for your having this new idea. However, this idea was had before by Such-and-such particular monk in the fourth century, and furthermore he is still wrong.”


Redemption opened The Luddite’s Guide to Technology and called out:

A HYMN TO ARROGANCE.

The Saint opened his Golden Mouth and sang,
‘There be no war in Heaven,
Not now, at very least,
And not ere were created,
The royal race of mankind.
Put on your feet the Gospel of peace,
And pray, a-stomping down the gates of Hell.
There were war in Heaven but ever brief,
The Archangel Saint Michael,
Commander of the bodiless hosts,
Said but his name, “Michael,”
Which is, being interpreted,
“Who is like God?”
With that the rebellion were cast down from Heaven,
Sore losers one and all.
They remain to sharpen the faithful,
God useth them to train and make strength.
Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith?
Or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it?
As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up,
Or as if the staff should lift up itself,
As if it were no wood.

Therefore be not dismayed,
If one book of Holy Scripture state,
That the Devil incited King David to a census,
And another sayeth that God did so,
For God permitted it to happen by the Devil,
As he that heweth lifteth an axe,
And God gave to David a second opportunity,
In the holy words of Joab.
Think thou not that God and the Devil are equal,
Learnest thou enough of doctrine,
To know that God is greater than can be thought,
And hath neither equal nor opposite,
The Devil is if anything the opposite,
Of Michael, the Captain of the angels,
Though truth be told,
In the contest between Michael and the Devil,
The Devil fared him not well.
The dragon wert as a little boy,
Standing outside an Emperor’s palace,
Shooting spitwads with a peashooter,
Because that wert the greatest harm,
That he saweth how to do.
The Orthodox Church knoweth well enough,
‘The feeble audacity of the demons.’
Read thou well how the Devil crowned St. Job,
The Devil and the devils aren’t much,
Without the divine permission,
And truth be told,
Ain’t much with it either:
God alloweth temptations to strengthen;
St. Job the Much-Suffering emerged in triumph.
A novice told of an odd clatter in a courtyard,
Asked the Abbot what he should do:
“It is just the demons.
Pay it no mind,” came the answer.
Every devil is on a leash,
And the devout are immune to magic.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder:
The young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
Wherefore be thou not arrogant towards men,
But be ever more arrogant towards devils and the Devil himself:
“Blow, and spit on him.”‘


And Redemption agreed. He said, “Faecesbook’s old-school database-like limit on specifying one’s religion are constricted. The facilities are sorely lacking to give one’s religion as, “Alter Christus: “Follower of Jesus” means “Another Christ!””

Thimble asked, “And what of the Arthurian legends?”

Redemption said, “What about them?”

Thimble said, “Please, I want to hear.”

Redemption said, “Well, one can say that there is no option to achieve the Holy Grail, nor to acquire it. The only game in town is to become the Holy Grail. But that is on the periphery.”

iPun said, “I’m no literary critic, nor do I know about the Holy Grail, but it sounds an awful lot to me like you’re holding out on us for an answer.”

Redemption said, “Perhaps the most damning remark about medieval literature is that of all that one of the greatest literary legacies, and the only one on ordinary non-medievalists’ radar, is that of the Arthurian legends.”

Thimble said, “Could you be a little more concrete?”

Redemption said, “Take the figure of Merlin. His name, rendered as ‘Myrddhin’ in Lawhead’s account, was changed to ‘Merlin’ in the Brut in order not to sound like a French swear-word, today ‘merde.’ The Brut, formally the Historia Regum Britanniae, is a twelfth-century example of history as society would like it to be, like some conspiracy theory works today, which is to say that is pseudo-history that today would ordinarily be introduced as fiction, with masterful storytelling but no connection to actual history. Also, the legends were importantly no longer offered in Celtic language, but Latin that could quickly spread through Europe. The legends spread like wildfire through Europe even centuries later, and interestingly spread in the vernacular, possibly carried by the troubadours who would inspire the name of Francis of Assisi.

“But about Merlin specifically. There have been efforts to Christianize him, and not just in recent history: Robert de Boron represents a medieval teller of Arthurian tales who tried to anchor them to Christian doctrine. In Sir Thomas Mallory, the hinge between the medieval flourishing and almost all subsequent English retellings of the legend, Merlin is not called a ‘wizard,’ but a ‘prophet.’ There is in the medieval legends pseudo-Christian working out of pseudo-doctrine that the Devil was to have a son by an almost-perfect virgin who had slipped in her prayers but once, and he would be something like an incarnate Anti-Christ, but Christians fortunately got wind of this and said many powerful prayers, to the effect that Merlin was born the Devil’s son, but without the Devil’s evil, so someone who commanded the Devil’s power was yet good and Christian. And the same is to be said of C.S. Lewis, in whom we read:

“And where would Merlin be?”

“Yes. He’s the really interesting figure. Did the whole thing fail because he died so soon? Has it ever struck you what an odd creation Merlin is? He’s not evil: yet he’s a magician. He is obviously a druid: yet he knows all about the Grail. He’s ‘the devil’s son’: but then Layamon goes out of his way to tell you that the kind of being who fathered Merlin needn’t have been bad after all. You remember: “There dwell in the sky many kinds of wights. Some of them are good, and some work evil.”

“It is rather puzzling. I hadn’t thought of it before.”

“I often wonder,” said Dr. Dimble, “whether Merlin doesn’t represent the last trace of something the later tradition has quite forgotten about—something that became impossible when the only people in touch with the supernatural were either white or black, either priests or sorcerors.

“Perhaps like no other character in literature, C.S. Lewis’s Merlin is ‘the really interesting figure.’ He rivets all attention on himself, and for good reason. The standard distinction between flat and rounded characters in literature has said to be that a rounded character believably surprises the reader. Merlin comes remarkably close to delivering nothing but believable surprises.

“And Lewis has Merlin, and reference to being the Devil’s son; the opening prehistory of the main story has a figure say, ‘Marry, sirs, if Merlin who was the Devil’s son was a true King’s man as ever ate bread, is it not a shame that you, being but the sons of bitches, must be rebels and regicides?’, but even Amazon reviewers have asked why Lewis has Merlin come if he’s not allowed to do anything. And indeed one monumental goal when the Pendragon speaks with him is to shut down every single service Merlin offers to do for him (and finally corner him into one terrifying service).”

Thimble said, “Well and done, but does that one character tarnish into oblivion the entirety of the encyclopedia’s worth of Arthurian legends that have been written?”

Redemption paused, and said, “Now that you mention it, I think it does in a much more direct way than I expected.”

Thimble said, “How’s that?”

Redemption said, “The Arthurian legends represent a never-never land to us, but it shows historical insensitivity to assume that they were realistic fiction to the Brut’s first audience, or Chrétien de Troyes, or Sir Thomas Mallory. The Arthurian legends were a never-neverland when the ink on those pages was still wet: a land in which anything can happen, at least anything wondrous or supernatural. Commerce never sullies the pages, and one of very few peasants to get a physical description has a striking description that seems to describe a pachyderm more than any human. The dates for Arthurian legends to spread through Europe like wildfire are twelfth century and following, but the dates given as ostensible historical references for the original events are fifth or sixth century. In other words, the medievals telling the legends lived about as far after Arthur’s supposed time as we are after them. There are a similar number of centuries in between.

“Furthermore, you get comments, in relation to chivalry and courtly love, that ‘People don’t really love nowadays, not like they loved then,’ which is a perfect recipe for the same thing as you get today in the Orthodox Church with a nuclear family all wearing cassocks like monks and priests, and having an Irish last name. It’s an attempt to re-create a past that never existed, and that is a gateway drug not just to silliness but trouble.”

Thimble said, “Yes, but are stories about never-never land really as bad as a baptized Merlin?”

Redemption said, “I’m trying to think of a pleasant analogy. An unpleasant analogy might be to ask if soft porn is really as bad as hard porn. We ought ideally steer clear of both.

“In the desert, monks were perennially warned of the danger of escapism. When escape seems like something we need, it is a temptation, and the proper way of dealing with it is to keep on praying. Escape and the occult both have a sense that we know better than God what circumstances we should be in, and not see the here and now as a gift from God the Father. The whole temptation is a hydra. Whatever else Muslims have wrong, there is a very good reason why, historically, Muslim science may have been very good at observation, but very bad at entertaining competing theories: the basic objection is, in Christian terms, ‘How can you want anything but what God in his Sovereignty has willed?’ And this repugnance stems from something Western Christianity has lost in its transition to modernity.

“And this is why Lewis’s distinction between ‘fairy magic’, meaning fairy-tale magic, which he saw as harmless and most often supplying plot devices, and ‘real magic’, meaning realistic depiction of occult practice, which he condemned, does not hold well enough. Of course the distinction is to be made, but when one reads the Chronicles of Narnia and reads Aslan saying, ‘This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there,’ one wants to be in Narnia in escape and not to set down Narnia to experience real joy. To wish to be in Narnia represents the same passion, in the classical sense, as to wish to be Merlin.

“And if a tree may be judged by its fruit, the many fantasy authors who have followed Lewis in writing medieval fantasy have scarcely understood medieval history or been Christians, writing for Christian edification. Even as far as escape goes, Aslan sends all the children back from Narnia to our world, and says that trips to Narnia are only appropriate up to a certain age. In some subsequent works, the traveler from our world never returns: he remains in escape.”

Thimble asked, “So we’re best off leaving the Arthurian legends, and Merlin, with the medieval world?”

Redemption said, “I have trouble answering that question Aye or Nay.”

Thimble asked, “Why? You see shades of grey?”

Redemption said, “No. I don’t believe we’ve left the medieval world.”

Thimble asked, “How’s that?”

Redemption said, “I don’t believe we’ve left the medieval world. I believe we’ve delved deeper into it than any figure who died before modern or postmodern history. If you know anything about how the katana—the sword that was called the soul of the samarai—is made, you would know that a smith makes a particular iron block, then stretches it and folds it in on itself, then that is hammered until it is stretched out, then folded in on itself, and the process is repeated many, many times. When the manifold steel is shaped into a sword, the blade is sharp as a razor, incredibly strong, and will last for ages, perhaps for centuries. The medieval West, isolated from the Greek Fathers, then later on infatuated with “the Philosopher” Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas’s own great harm, and with its stream of Renaissances, represents that block of steel stretched out and folded in on itself. The chain continues for more than the more spectacular eccentricities to be found in the postmodern world. But the future sword blade stretched out and folding in on itself is a process of and by the medieval world, and a process that will perhaps continue until that terrible day when the Lord comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead—and may help pave the way for it!”

iPun said, “Do you not make allowances for greater ignorance in the past?”

Redemption said, “I do not make any allowance for greater ignorance in the past, although allowances for different ignorance in the past are more negotiable. You, personally, would do well to make allowances for greater ignorance in the present.”

iPun said, “Do you not deny that we live in the ongoing wake of an explosion of knowledge in the sciences?”

Redemption said, “Knowledge can be ignorance. There has been a shift, as the steel has folded in on itself, of moving from heart-knowledge, knowledge of the whole person, to head-knowledge, to a knowledge that in its proper use serves as a moon to the sun of heart-knowledge. And in that sense we have gone from seeing by sunlight to being expert at seeing by moonlight. In the heyday of Arthurian legends, Rome warned its members about “idle romances,” and even someone as foundational as Chrétien de Troyes has a privileged woman reading a romance on top of a sweatshop. As far as an explosion goes, we are spiritual heirs to the wreckage of a bomb exploding, so that even in Africa it is common to have multiple mobile devices per house. Lewis wrote of the press as spewing Western venom across the world; we’ve done his press one better, or perhaps many better for that. And the press of his day did not match the vile content on the web, nor accept as normal the intrusion of unsolicited porn, except that today you need a pill to make love.

“It is as if you stopped using the light of the sun himself, and would only see by the light of the moon, and as events unfolded you regained the natural human ability to see truly but imperfectly by the light of moon and star, and then you invented night vision systems that let you see by infrared indication of heat, or the little bit of green light that takes the lion share of natural light by night, and then to your pride combined them to make one cadaverous combination. And in all of this you remain in Plato’s cave, and will not step out in the light of the sun, and not only because the people who see by moonlight would call it lunacy if you helped them see by the light of the sun.”

Thimble said, “And in the light only of the moon herself, intimacy itself turns artificial.”

Redemption said no more.


Gain flipped the page of the book, and read:

…accounts of Satan as God’s jester. For all of us do the will of God; that is not the question. The real question is whether we will do God’s will as instruments, like Satan and Judas, or Sons, as St. Peter and St. John.

That is why Christians need not fear the Antichrist, even if he is knocking at the door. For Satan will ever remain God’s jester, and though an Antichrist be possessed of God’s jester or not, to Christians there is no Antichrist and Christ is ever present to those who only “keep their eyes on Jesus.” Do you fear not being able to buy and sell if you do not accept the Mark of the Beast on your hand and forehead? Know then that, as is said in the Philokalia, a man can live without eating (or drinking) if God so wills? Do not worry that the grace of God which so strengthened the martyrs in ages past need fail if you cannot buy bread or perhaps water. God is merciful, and no one can use force to stop God from being gracious to you. Remain faithful, that is all. Christians may, in the end, be saved simply because they refused the mark of the beast. Many monastics would have given everything to buy the grace of God at such a light price!

Gain heard footsteps on the floor behind the door, snapped shut the book and turned red, and then slowly opened it again.

Redemption laughed.

Read more of “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis on Amazon!

Technology, the Temptation of Magic, and Me: “S̶u̶f̶f̶i̶c̶i̶e̶n̶t̶l̶y̶ ̶u̶n̶d̶o̶c̶u̶m̶e̶n̶t̶e̶d̶ ̶c̶o̶d̶e̶ Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic…”

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

(To the pedantic, “Technology, magic, and I.”)

Merlin and me

I met with dismay upon rereading Mirandola’s Renaissance Oration on the Dignity of Man. The first 80% or so of the text contains bits that sound Orthodox, and much of the text sounds Christian if you aren’t really paying attention. But the last 20% of the text is a hymn to the glory of magic, and while there exists a “goetia” that brings one into contact with demonic forces and of course we should steer clear of that and not touch it with a nine foot Serb ten foot pole, there is also another magic that is perhaps the noblest endeavor we can pursue.

My shock was not in particular at Mirandola’s endorsement of occult endeavor. It was rather recognizing a point of failure in C.S. Lewis. I had recognized what looks like a source, possibly one of many Renaissance mages’ sources, of the words in C.S. Lewis That Hideous Strength:

Dimble and [the Director] and the Dennistons shared between them a knowledge of Arthurian Britain which orthodox scholarship will probably not reach for some centuries…

What exactly [Merlin] had done [in Bragdon wood] they did not know; but they had all, by various routes, come too far either to consider his art mere legend and imposture, or to equate it exactly with what the Renaissance called Magic. Dimble even maintained that a good critic, by his sensibility alone, could detect the difference between the traces which the two things had left on literature. “What common measure is there,” he would ask, “between ceremonial occultists like Faustus and Prospero and Archimago with their midnight studies, their attendant fiends or elementals, and a figure like Merlin who seems to produce his results simply by being Merlin?” And Ransom agreed. He thought that Merlin’s art was the last survival of something older and different—something brought to Western Europe after tha fall of Numinor and going back to an era in which the general relations of mind and matter on this planet had been other than those we know. It had probably differed from Renaissance Magic profoundly. It had possibly (though this is doubtful) been less guilty: it had certainly been more effective. For Paracelsus and Agrippa and the rest had achieved little or nothing: Bacon himself—no enemy to magic except on this account—reported that the magicians “attained not to greatness and certainty of works.” The whole Renaissance outburst of forbidden arts had, it seemed, been a method of losing one’s soul on singularly unfavourable terms. But the older Art had been a different proposition.

There is a problem with this passage. It is far too seductive. It also represents an adaptation of Mirandola or other Renaissance sources, enough to make me disgusted, but I am concerned that is seductive. Elsewhere Lewis portrays the banality of evil; Mark Studdock and the nightmarish, dystopian N.I.C.E. shock the reader by how hollow and empty they are, and leave one disgusted with the “Inner Ring” Lewis also critiques in cool prose. But here and elsewhere, Merlin is glorious. Ransom does not let Merlin renew old acquaintances or turn blades of grass to be weapons, but it is part of Merlin’s glory to offer what Ransom must refuse. And magic is the one area where Lewis portrays sin in seductive lighting. Never mind his “fairy[-tale] magic” vs. “real magic” distinction, which distinguishes the kind of magic that most often serves as a plot device in The Chronicles of Narnia, versus portrayal in literature of realistic occult practice, for the moment. One way people have described the difference between a flat character in literature, and a rounded one, is, “A rounded character believably surprises the reader.” Merlin on that definition at least is one of the most rounded characters I have seen in literature; he comes close to delivering nothing but believable surprises.

I should clarify that I don’t count it against Lewis that he has an older model. People have pointed out, for instance, that what C.S. Lewis advocates in The Abolition of Man is largely a framework of Aristotelian natural law; I guess that his use of the term “Tao” (which translates “Word”—”Λογος” in the classic Chinese Bible) is used in preference to “Natural Law” because Catholicism has taken the framework of natural law and moved it very far from what it was for the ancients, and for C.S. Lewis starting out with a separate term may have seemed easier than straightening out a now-highly-distorted conceptualization that people would think they already knew, not to mention that Lewis is not quick to publicly dress down a major emphasis within the Roman Catholic Church. However, in reading Mirandola, I was dismayed to have such a thing be a prototype for something that is glamorized in the text. I don’t object that C.S. Lewis worked from an older model: I object strongly that he worked here from that older model.

Now I should comment that I actually agree with some of the goodness that fills out Merlin’s character. A later dialogue reads:

“…But about Merlin. What it comes to, as far as I can make out, is this. There were still possibilities for a man of that age that aren’t for a man of ours. The Earth itself was much more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were much more like physical actions…”

…”Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our point of view, confused. For him, every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and to be taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases. Finally, come the Belbury people, who take over that view from the modern man unaltered and simply want to increase their power by tacking onto it the aid of spirits—extra-natural, anti-natural spirits. Of course they hoped to have it both ways. They thought the old magia of Merlin which worked in with the spiritual qualities of Nature, loving and reverencing them and knowing them from within, could be combined with the new goetia—the brutal surgery from without. No. In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way. Do you know that he is forbidden by the rules of his order to use any edged tool on any growing thing?

“I love vegans. They taste like chicken.”

I am an animal lover, and a meat lover (preferably grass-fed, organic). However, I would like to talk about myself a bit, at least on one point.

I regularly visit pets at a local cageless, no-kill pet shelter where I have been told, “The cats like it when you come over!” (Disclaimer: I do not speak for them in any way.) It’s a cat shelter, but if they opened an area for dogs, I’d want to go and play with the dogs, too, and the same goes for rabbits and ferrets—I’d love to meet a ferret!

On one visit, a volunteer introduced me to a visitor in a way that was clearly publicly giving me thanks. She identified me as “one of our socializers,” and named four or five cats that I had helped to socialize to be friendly and ready to be adopted. I believe her, but I was aware of nothing of the sort. What I had done was to come in on visits, approach cats and let them get my scent (so they could decide and announce if they wanted to be petted, yes or no), and gently pet and gently talk to cats who let me approach them. And that was really all; I believed I was one of many hands helping pull off a class act and see to it that a cat could go home, and nothing more. But she apparently saw a much more singular contribution on my part even if contributing to a class act is itself a major achievement. I had commented, “The one thing that’s hard about visiting pets at the cat shelter is that all the cats I like most vanish,” with the thought that this was simply a fact about the most likable cats are the fastest to go home with someone. It appears, though, that I had a more active role for at least some of those cats. The one cat whose name I do remember, is a very friendly cat now whom I earlier vaguely remember as not at all mean, but not quite so affectionate earlier on.

Some of this may sound exotic (or maybe just boastful), and the only point in my life I remember being aware of achieving a striking goal was a half hour during which I gently took a dog who was nervous around men, and slowly coaxed and pulled his leash little by little until half an hour I was petting his head on my lap and when I stood up, he wanted to meet the other men. But at the shelter, I have never been aware of any goal of my own in actions beyond the major goal of simply showing love. I had not really been aware of cats becoming friendlier; the changes are not noticeable when your attention is on the pet. But apparently I had given a singular contribution to a class act, more than what I knew.

That is what I have done in my case. Monks who are above my pay grade in one direction show such love to animals that are wild. Married couples who are above my pay grade in another direction do the same in raising children. I happen to do this with pets. And one Orthodox priest I know beats a drum that extends well beyond showing love to shelter pets in saying, “The longest journey we will ever take is the journey from our head to our heart.”

Evangelical Orthodox Church

In living memory, a group of Evangelical Christians decided, like many good, red-blooded Protestants, to recreate the ancient Church, and to follow its development in history up to when it vanished. And they did so, calling themselves the Evangelical Orthodox Church, until at one point they ran across an Eastern Orthodox priest, and interrogated him as inside authorities interrogating an outsider, testing for instance whether he recognized Holy Communion as the body and blood of Christ, until they slowly realized that in fact he was the insider and they who questioned him were outside. Then most, although not all, members of the Evangelical Orthodox Church reached the logical end of their conclusions: they were received into the Orthodox Church that has never vanished.

Never mind if the Orthodox understanding of matter and spirit appear today to be confused. What fills out Merlin’s art is in fact alive and kicking in Orthodoxy. “Do you know that [Merlin] is forbidden by the rules of his order to use any edged tool on any growing thing?” It comes as a surprise to Western Christians, especially those fond of figures like Thomas Aquinas, that I, like all Orthodox, am forbidden to engage in systematic theology. I am hesitant to call myself a theologian in that in the Orthodox understanding “theology” is not an endeavor like an academic discipline but the direct experience of God, and in the fullest sense of the term there are three that have rightly been called theologians: St. John the Theologian, St. Gregory the Theologian, and (some centuries back) St. Symeon the New Theologian. It does not need saying that I am not a fourth member of that company. However, if we deal with the more elastic senses of the term, I deal some in mystical theology. And systematic theology is categorically off-limits for all theology and for all Orthodox.

Merlin is an advertisement for Holy Orthodoxy even if this may not be evident to readers who do not understand Holy Orthodoxy.

“Space-conquering technologies” are body-conquering technologies

A futuristic Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin's father launches off in a jet-pack.

In pop culture’s older science fiction, one technology is a jetpack, and in fact such jetpacks have been researched and do exist. They are, however, surprisingly loud, and it is difficult to learn to use them safely. It was reported at one Olympic Games that they had someone use a jetpack to successfully fly over the stadium, but military researchers made jet-packs to let soldiers cross over streams, and then found that they were too loud to be useful to soldiers in the intended fashion. It has also been popularly imagined that we would send astronauts to Mars and space travel would enter public usage like jet travel did, and that hasn’t happened yet.

It has been said in projecting the future that a good estimate is:

  • Tomorrow will be like today,
  • One year from now will be about as far from now as now is from one year back,
  • Accurately predicting ten years from now is the real trick.

For a time, advances in space-conquering technologies, which I really wish to call body-conquering technologies as overriding the limits of our embodied nature, were things that could move the human body from one place to another faster. Cars are one such technology, and airplanes a further advance, even if there is not widespread airplane ownership the way there’s been for cars. Airplanes have gotten faster than sound, although faster-than-sound airplane use is not widespread and SR-71 “Blackbirds” and Concordes have been retired from use.

What was less anticipated is that the body-conquering technologies that would prevail at least up to now are not about making meat move faster; they’re about circumventing the need to move meat. Jean-Claude Larchet’s The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul looks from radio onwards at body-conquering technologies, even though I do not recall much of any comment about their status as space-conquering. Much of the book covered terrain that I already knew, but something that surprised and saddened me was to learn that 85% of African households now own a television, and cellphone use was very widespread. I had simply assumed, while on a train and seeing a minor use an iPhone to rapidly switch between screens and splitting his attention between that and two friends he was talking with, that the sort of technological acid trip I was unintendedly eavesdropping was simply a rich kid’s syndrome. It is nothing of the sort!

The Luddite’s Guide to Technology: The Past Writes Back to Humane Tech! discusses what I’ve found about abstaining from some technologies I can abstain from, and how to make abstemenious use of technologies we use. I don’t have any games on my iPhone, or at least none for my own use (I have a few train games for my nephews 4 and 6, and I prefer not to let them use it because it just seems to fester squabbles). I use it for utilitarian purposes, and try to minimize any other use, especially as a canned treatment for boredom. Also, while the watch I have is spectacular (when purchased it was the top of the line for digital Casio Pathfinder watches, and has a compass and the moon phase among other features), but it is not an Apple Watch and does not report to Big Brother on every heartbeat I make (the N.I.C.E. the N.S.A. will have to content itself with knowing every step I take). By the way, did I mention that I put duct tape on the inside surface of a now broken Apple Watch, blocking view of my bloodstream?

That Hideous Strength seems to always have on its cover an accolade from Time: “Well-written, fast-paced satirical fantasy.” It is a commonplace that real life outpaces satire, but there are many ways that his text reads as a fairly accurate prediction of today. If anything, it seems dated. To quote the dialogue between Ransom and Merlin:

“Since you have knowledge, answer me three questions, if you dare.”

“I will answer them, if I can. But as for daring, we shall see.”

“Who is called Sulva? What road does she walk? Why is the womb barren on one side? Where are the cold marriages?”

Ransom replied, “Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned towards us and shares our curse. The other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would he be who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her further side. On this side, the womb is barren and the marriages cold. There dwell an accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicati) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.”

A year or two ago, Men’s Health had a cover story, “The Sex Robots Are Coming!” (That’s, um, quite a bit of wordplay!) When I tried to get a copy of the cover in images, I caught a glimpse of the story: sex robots were perhaps never going to be mainstream, but they interviewed someone who had “lived with” a sex robot for two years and who said, “I never knew vaginas could be so varied!” (Fortunately, I did not ingest more.)

This literal fulfillment of Lewis’s image is almost beside the point of the fact that marriage is under attack and we are moving in multiple ways away from it. We have now crossed the point where a standard utility puts pornography within easy reach. On another front, we have the gay rights movement. And the concept of a marriage as being between two humans is in some ways hazy. One friend mentioned to me a website, to people whom he, and I, have a lot in common, but on the point of marriage advocated one’s choice of quite ceremony with one’s choice of non-living object as spouse, and not even a non-living object made as a sex toy!

It has been suggested that Romans 1 could read as an indictment about today whose ink is scarcely dry (Rom 1:18-32 NIV):

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

I’ve read a ?19th century? text speak of “these days of final apostasy.” There is an apostasy even from being human. Come to think of it (no pun intended), the Apostle’s words seem a bit of an understatement if we apply them today.

Part of the present generation gap is in trends of not wanting to learn to drive, and living with their parents and not pursuing employment. Now I did not want to drive; instead of my generation’s “My wheels are my freedom,” I was sucked into, and administering, a technological precursor to social networks. And I live with my parents now; I have repeatedly tried and failed to find employment in corporate America, I am trying as hard as I can to get to one monastery. (You may decide if it is hypocritical to write this while I am living at my parents’ house or not.)

One other brief note: I am as I write sitting in the parking lot of the cat shelter, where I stand among the cats as some sort of king and lord, in the truest sense of the word. On the way here, I saw a large dog which had a bit of a leash or a lead dangling from its collar. However, I did not try to make friends with it. I parked, called the police, and told them I had seen a loose dog near two streets. I didn’t attempt anything impressive beyond giving what little knowledge I had so animal control could catch the dog and return it to owners.

The author with a cat over his shoulders.
A picture of me wearing fur (see the cat Joey’s page at the shelter, or visit the shelter website; the cat pictured is available as I write)

Discernment for old “prophecies”

I have seen an “Old English prophecy” quoted in Orthodox signatures:

When pictures seem alive with movements free
When boats like fishes swim beneath the sea,
When men like birds shall scour the sky
Then half the world, deep drenched in blood shall die.

There are a couple of things to be said here.

First, a brief search will turn up that this is not an Orthodox prophecy. It is part of “Mother Shipton”‘s output. Second, “Mother Shipton” is not any kind of Orthodox monastic, but an English fortune teller. Third, “Mother Shipton” is in fact a complete hoax: a woman who never existed, with after-the-fact, made-up predictions for the most part. All of these first three points are easily found on first-page search results. Fourthly and finally, if you go through enough alleged prophecies from an occult figure, which I have not knowingly done and do not endorse, it’s usually not too long before you’ll find one that is spooky in its apparent accuracy. The demons gather information in ways not open to us, but they do not know the future, which (the Philokalia tells us) is why their (educated) guesses about the future are sometimes wrong. (Note that demons may have known what they intended for the future.) Orthodox simply do not have business endorsing this kind of “prophecy.”

Now for a thornier matter: the Prophecies of St. Nilus.

To quote the version of St. Nilus’s prophecies on OrthodoxWiki:

The Prophecy of Saint Nilus

The Plight of the World and the Church during the 20th Century

By SAINT NILUS (d. circa AD 430)

After the year 1900, toward the middle of the 20th century, the people of that time will become unrecognizable. When the time for the Advent of the Antichrist approaches, people’s minds will grow cloudy from carnal passions, and dishonor and lawlessness will grow stronger. Then the world will become unrecognizable.

People’s appearances will change, and it will be impossible to distinguish men from women due to their shamelessness in dress and style of hair. These people will be cruel and will be like wild animals because of the temptations of the Antichrist. There will be no respect for parents and elders, love will disappear, and Christian pastors, bishops, and priests will become vain men, completely failing to distinguish the right-hand way from the left.

At that time the morals and traditions of Christians and of the Church will change. People will abandon modesty, and dissipation will reign. Falsehood and greed will attain great proportions, and woe to those who pile up treasures. Lust, adultery, homosexuality, secret deeds and murder will rule in society.

At that future time, due to the power of such great crimes and licentiousness, people will be deprived of the grace of the Holy Spirit, which they received in Holy Baptism and equally of remorse. The Churches of God will be deprived of God-fearing and pious pastors, and woe to the Christians remaining in the world at that time; they will completely lose their faith because they will lack the opportunity of seeing the light of knowledge from anyone at all. Then they will separate themselves out of the world in holy refuges in search of lightening their spiritual sufferings, but everywhere they will meet obstacles and constraints.

And all this will result from the fact that the Antichrist wants to be Lord over everything and become the ruler of the whole universe, and he will produce miracles and fantastic signs. He will also give depraved wisdom to an unhappy man so that he will discover a way by which one man can carry on a conversation with another from one end of the earth to the other.

At that time men will also fly through the air like birds and descend to the bottom of the sea like fish. And when they have achieved all this, these unhappy people will spend their lives in comfort without knowing, poor souls, that it is deceit of the Antichrist.

And, the impious one!—he will so complete science with vanity that it will go off the right path and lead people to lose faith in the existence of God in three hypostases. Then the All-good God will see the downfall of the human race and will shorten the days for the sake of those few who are being saved, because the enemy wants to lead even the chosen into temptation, if that is possible… then the sword of chastisement will suddenly appear and kill the perverter and his servants.

The OrthodoxWiki points out certain problems and concludes the alleged prophecy is a forgery, the first objection being that Orthodox did not begin dating from the number of years since Christ’s birth until the century after Saint Nilus allegedly died. Other objections include that implied age of the Antichrist appears, according to this prophecy, to have been around for over half a century. And to my historian’s eye, I assert that much of this appears to be after-the-fact predictions, almost as bad as the “Mother Shipton” predictions themselves.

However, I believe the prophecy is genuine at least as a historic document, and here’s why.

Please note that, as someone with some background in history, I am not commenting on whether the document is genuine prophecy; I am commenting on whether it is apparently an old historic document possibly written by a saint who died in 1651 century (not the year 430). I am not arguing that St. Nilus’s prophecies are genuine prophecies; I am explain why I believe they represent genuinely old historic documents, and would read as old historic documents to a historian or historical theologian.

The OCA Saints page includes a St. Nilus said to predict the future as commemorated on November 12 (New Style):

Venerable Nilus the Myrrhgusher of Mt Athos

Saint Nilus the Myrrh-Gusher of Mt Athos was born in Greece, in a village named for Saint Peter, in the Zakoneia diocese. He was raised by his uncle, the hieromonk Macarius. Having attained the age of maturity, he received monastic tonsure and was found waorthy of ordination to hierodeacon, and then to hieromonk.

The desire for greater monastic struggles brought uncle and nephew to Mt Athos, where Macarius and Nilus lived in asceticism at a place called the Holy Rocks. Upon the repose of Saint Macarius, the venerable Nilus, aflame with zeal for even more intense spiritual efforts, found an isolated place almost inaccessible for any living thing. Upon his departure to the Lord in 1651, Saint Nilus was glorified by an abundant flow of curative myrrh, for which Christians journeyed from the most distant lands of the East.

Saint Nilus has left a remarkably accurate prophecy concerning the state of the Church in the mid-twentieth century, and a description of the people of that time. Among the inventions he predicted are the telephone, airplane, and submarine. He also warned that people’s minds would be clouded by carnal passions, “and dishonor and lawlessness will grow stronger.” Men would not be distinguishable from women because of their “shamelessness of dress and style of hair.” Saint Nilus lamented that Christian pastors, bishops and priests, would become vain men, and that the morals and traditions of the Church would change. Few pious and God-fearing pastors would remain, and many people would stray from the right path because no one would instruct them.

After seeing that, I dug long and hard on the Internet, and I found what I believe is an authentic historic document, barnacled over in later versions but stemming from a document that seems real enough to my own historical instinct. I now deeply regret that I did not preserve the fruit of that research. The urban legend version reads straightforwardly as a retelling of St. Nilus’s life, and it omits something important that the life omits: the actual text of the Mark of the Beast. This is something that is extremey unlikely to be dropped in an urban legend retelling, but logically would not be present in a retelling of a saint’s life that originally omitted mention of these details.

For one reason why I trust it, it didn’t seem to contain any sort of dating or timeline, at least that I could recognize. Possibly it gave a timeline along some system that I am not familiar with, and the saint’s life here says that St. Nilus’s predictions accurately describe the people of the mid-twentieth century. But that could just be from someone writing the saint’s life, possibly during the Silly Sixties and the Sexual Revolution, and finding things uncomfortably pointed as a remark about his specific time. Furthermore, I would quite specifically point out that while the life of St. Nilus provided by the OCA gives a timeline of the middle of the 20th century, this is never alleged to be a date predicted within the text itself. The OCA life is consistent with the belief that the Prophecies never name a date, and the person writing the saint’s life and giving a date never believed St. Nilus’s Prophecies themselves to predict the date. The rumor mill appears to have incorporated the dating of the saint’s life and inlined them to allegedly be part of the Prophecies themselves.

Second, this version did comment that men would grow long hair and become indistinguishable from the women, but it didn’t simply list the sexual vices we did today. Presumably a particular point is being made about effeminacy, but the original contained no vice lists such as St. Paul is wont to do.

Third, my recollection is that the OCA site used to say that St. Nilus predicted the radio and did not mention the telephone. The text of his prophecy said that some party would be given “wisdom” (parts of the rumor mill version say “depraved wisdom”) that one man could speak and be heard on the other side of the world. This is from a technological perspective ambiguous, although I might comment that Larchet Jean-Claudet in The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul understands distinctions within technology perfectly well but is inclined to lump them together, especially as regards their implications for morals. Today the list of technologies that fit the bill include the radio, television, telephones, internet telephony, Skype, video chat, and more. More may be invented.

Fourth, it is a characteristic of prophecy, at least in the Bible, to include together related things that do not happen at the same time but fit the same pattern. St. Nilus’s prediction regarding technology has been fading in, perhaps first with the radio. His remarks about effeminacy have also been fading in. My father used to joke, in a spirit of humor that was nothing at all literal, that when he said he had a twin sister and people asked if they were identical, he would say, “Yes, I had a sex change.” I would not joke about such things now. Never mind just the long hair. Cross-dressing already is mainstream, and gender reassignment surgery already is mainstream. I believe this is fading in further.

Fifth, my recollection is that the original version contained information that I have not found since. More specifically, I recall a chilling account of what I believe was presented as the full inscription in the Mark of the Beast. I regrettably do not remember all of it, but part of what I rememeber is, “…Of my own ?free? will I accept ?this?…” in admitting total and voluntary consent.

Now if you are concerned that I am relying on my memory, I’d mention that on one IQ test my memory subscore was one of the highest, at 188. (On another incident, bizarrely enough, the psychologist found that I had dropped 118 points to a memory score of 70, and he was holding on to that intellectually disabled score for dear life, without budging an inch when I said, “My writing, including recent writing, is at complexity, and my speech is at complexity.”) Pick whichever one you want to believe.

My verdict is that St. Nilus wrote prophecies that are probably preserved, and it has attained an extraordinary collection of urban legend barnacles on top of barnacles, but the seed of the whole thing is real.

The disenchantment of magic

Q: How many Wiccan fundamentalists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Why on earth would Mary Daly want light?!?

Wicca is called the Old Religion, and its original self-account is that this was the ancient religion to return to. Since some scholarly controversies, it has become unmistakably clear that unless you are going to steel yourself out of all evidence, Wicca is in fact a feature of 19th century spiritualism, and most people accept the historical conclusions while holding original Wiccan accounts of its history and pre-history to be inspiring stories, with a few insisting in the face of evidence beyond reasonable doubt that Wicca’s claims are true, called by other Wiccans an extremely pejorative “Wiccan fundamentalists.”

The Old Religion is not Wicca; the Old Religion is in fact Orthodoxy, and it began in eternity, present with Creation itself, present with Adam and Eve, and it retains the perfection of classical paganism; C.S. Lewis’s favorite old book, The Consolation of Philosophy, is the fully Christian work of a philosopher who has after extraordinarily good fortune been exiled far from Rome and faces eventual execution, and without contradiction consoles himself from the very best that classical paganism has to offer. As I have said elsewhere, Orthodoxy is pagan and neo-paganism isn’t.

Most Wiccans, I imagine, have gotten over the blow that someone seeking the real and true Old Religion would be well-advised to look elsewhere from Wicca.

Here, I have a deeper cut to offer.

One major selling point in Wicca, and one major consideration, is harmony with nature. And I have to say that if you want harmony with nature you should abandon Wicca.

In Orthodox theology, unnatural vice neither begins nor ends with queer sex. It is an umbrella term, and it includes the occult. It also includes, for that matter, contraception.

Role playing games as I have played them offer a weaker form of the same drug: it lets you override the Providence of God the Spiritual Father’s decisions about where you are and what circumstances you are in. Magic is not content with grounding. It wants to circumvent or override what nature is and how it normally works, and it is a step into a smaller world. The fact that some people go mad after practicing the occult stems from a fissure that began, perhaps, with seeking to do things by magic. Seeking power to correct what God did wrong is wrong whether it is done in gender reassignment surgery or occult practice.

I have long been drawn to the occult, and pornography, and they have both seemed like innocent things I should not be denied. However, those who have their heads clear of the siren songs see something very different with harmony with God and nature in occult endeavor. And those people closest to God (and with Him, nature) find magic an abomination. On this point I trust them.

“More evil than Satan himself”

Some years back, some people made the firstGoogle bombing so that the #1 organic search result for “more evil than Satan himself” was Microsoft’s homepage. Since then, Google has had hard feelings when Microsoft artificially set Bing’s search for “more evil than Satan himself” to be the number Google is named after, which can be written, as Bing did, “10^100”.

Nazi Germany was wrong because it embraced what seemed one of the most progressive ideas at all time, eugenics. Google is not Nazi in any sense, but it has embraced Eugenics 2.0: Transhumanism. While eugenics wanted most people out of the gene pool (more specifically, those who were not Aryans, and Aryans who were not enough of a perfect specimen), transhumanism wants everybody out of the gene pool: phasing out the entire human race itself, in favor of the kind of technological creation I critiqued in AI as an Arena for Magical Thinking Among Skeptics.

Amazon has been critiqued; it wants to destroy paper booksellers, and it is another terrible megacorporation. FaecesBook FaceBook is just as bad. All the megacorporations I’ve really heard research on, from Apple to Wal-Mart, are in their own way the N.I.C.E. that is the corporate villain-figure in That Hideous Strength. It is essentially non-optional to patronize N.I.C.E.s, and I say that as an author with books on Amazon. Kindle books are there because Amazon wants to phase out printed books.

All this is true, but we are advised to take a cue from another powerhouse brand: “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

Are we in the end times?

The Vladimir icon of the Mother of God holding Christ Eastern Orthodoxy affirms the Incarnation in all its sundry implications, and that is why an icon of Christ, perhaps with his holy Mother, is the best possible picture an Orthodox Christian can have: witness the Orthodox love of icons, such as the profoundly cherished icon to the left.

Islam categorically denies the Incarnation in all its sundry implications, and that is why an a picture of Mohammed is the worst possible picture to a Muslim: witness the reaction to the Danish cartoons. The Muslim community was so deeply offended to see the their Prophet depicted on such terms that they repeatedly tried to assassinate the person who drew the Danish cartoons (plus over two hundred deaths)!

I believe that we are in the end times, but figuring out when Christ will return remains completely off-limits.

The earliest I can remember reading someone saying that the Second Coming is immanent is not St. John Chrysostom; it is the Apostle. You may think St. Nilus’s eschatological prophecies were wrongly grasped in the mid-twentieth century; but here we are 70 years later, and we’ve been hit by a stronger dose, but the times and dates God intends are still beyond us. I believe we are in the end times, and I do not feel qualified to contradict that people are throwing things at the wall and seeing if it will stick, to pave the way for the Antichrist. Some people have said that the Antichrist will be a Muslim. I don’t know if this is prophecy or mere rumor, but St. John the Evangelist’s definition of being an anti-Christ is denying that Jesus came in the flesh, and Islam works out on a capital scale what you get if you take Christianity and you systematically remove all trace of the Incarnation. Furthermore, there are, I have heard, over a hundred organizations trying to establish a world Muslim Caliphate. I don’t know whether I will die, or be alive when Christ comes, but my obligation is the same in either case.

Conclusion: “Hogwarts for Hackers”—Wired

Wired ran a piece on the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy as Hogwarts for Hackers. I spent way too much time reading Arthurian legends, and at IMSA, I had barely opened a page of Arthurian legends (I remember the spelling “swerde” for “sword,” and I was not then a philologist), and one of the Class of 1992’s senior class awards was apparently made for me: “Most likely to be on IMSAsun [the Unix social network I administered] in the year 2020.” The award was given to me as Jonathan “Merlin” Hayward, as I was then much drawn to the character of Merlin, and it was immortalized in my senior award.

(I remember one time when I was a student, someone asked if I was the local “Unix wizard,” and when I showed extreme hesitance, a much-loved alum, Scott Swanson, answered, “Yes.” And in fact I was, at IMSA, a 15 year old Unix system administrator. And I have in fact long traded in a power that is not considered literal wizardry but seems enmeshed in magical metaphor; I have traded in what is called “intuitive thinking” and “intuitive feeling” exercise of power, even if exercise of the latter power does not come across as an exercise of power. “The longest journey we will ever take is the journey from our head to our heart,” and I have found something liberating in letting go of some of my “intuitive thinking” power.)

Now, however, I am hoping that my senior award, most likely to be on an early social network in 2020, might not quite come true. Already I use social media mainly for occasional announcements, and not of my breakfast. I would like to be a monastic novice using the Internet only as blessed by an abbot, and repenting from a desire for power that would break rules in the natural order God provided for our good: for magic (and to some degree other sins) is an attempt to cheat and overpower what God has given.

I am puzzled, personally, that Wired gave press coverage for someome who edited the source to be a better “DikuLOSER” (as the term for DikuMUD players was when I was at IMSA). I also edited the source code there, for my favorite game, in the same computer language, but I don’t particularly think it merits at least positive attention. But Avery Coonley School and the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy represent a starting point in a strong identification with mathematics (I ranked 7th in the nation in a math contest as a kid), to being a Renaissance man in an almost classical style, to (God willing) making the journey from my head to my heart, and repenting before and in monastic repentance. I would say that I want with all my heart to go to Kursk Root Hermitage, but that is not quite true. My deepest will is to do as God wills, and seeking monasticism wholeheartedly is a step of obedience I make in pursuit of that goal. I am seeking that self-transcendent theosis or divinisation that is alike the goal of marriage and monasticism, in whatever form God wills.

Read more of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology on Amazon!

“The Church Must Breathe with Both Lungs” is Rome’s “Amos and Andy” Show

As an Orthodox, one of many “Amos and Andy” moments that I’ve seen mentioned that Orthodox agree that Roman sacraments and orders are valid, lists a third point of contact I forget, and then comments that Orthodox aren’t interested in reunion, and leave it at that. What I have never heard mentioned or acknowledged is the Orthodox perception that there are unresolved doctrinal issues, and that Orthodox desire doctrinal reconciliation before restored intercommunion with Romans the way Romans desire doctrinal reconciliation before restored intercommunion with Protestants. Even if devout Romans are honored enough that they are fully welcome at practically any Protestant table.

I’ve only once seen a Roman ecumenist call for dropping the Filioque Clause from the Creed instead of just including the Filioque clause in the West and not including it in the East, and demanding that Orthodox join Rome in saying it doesn’t matter. The position may be mainstream in Roman ecumenism for all I know, but I have only met one Roman with a solid enough head to say, “You know, if the Great Schism was over the Filioque Clause, and East and West alike agree that it was inserted into the Creed not by any Ecumenical Council or any other authority Orthodox recognize as able to legitimately alter the Creed, maybe we should drop this instead of continuing to retain use of the Filioque and expecting that Orthodox will happily agree it doesn’t really matter that much.”

And this is really a matter of, “If I can’t talk to you about a matter as blatant as a dropping the Filioque clause altogether, how on earth can I talk to you about the real barriers to legitimately restored communion?”

This is in relations to Orthodoxy what Amos and Andy are to race relations.

What is one concrete doctrinal area where there is a doctrinal difference? Let me pull off one that won’t be pooh-poohed as “You say tomayto, I say tomahto:”

One elephant: In Rome, all theology fits under systematic theology.
In Orthodoxy, all theology fits under mystical theology.

In Orthodoxy, systematic theology is seriously off-limits as such, and I remember one Orthodox priest mentioning in a lecture that when priests come to him and are trying to work out the first Orthodox systematic theology, he encourages them, because that will help their heresy trial come sooner. In Orthodoxy, there is no theology but what you know mystically. And that means, as posted in An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism:

But don’t we agree on major things? Rome’s bishops say we do!

…To Catholics who insist that we share a common faith, I wish to ask a question that may sound flippant or even abrasive. A common faith? Really? Are you ready to de-canonize Thomas Aquinas and repudiate his scholasticism? The Orthodox Church’s response to the Renaissance figure Barlaam and Aristotelianism. Orthodox faith is something incompatible with the “theology” of Thomas Aquinas, and if you don’t understand this, you’re missing something fundamental to Orthodox understandings of theology. And if you’re wondering why I used quotes around “theology,” let me explain. Or, perhaps better, let me give an example.

See the two texts below. One is chapter 5 in St. Dionysius (or, if you prefer, pseudo-Dionysius), The Mystical Theology. That gem is on the left. To the right is a partial rewriting of the ideas in the style of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiæ.

St. Dionysius the Areopagite, “The Mystical Theology” Rewritten in the scholastic style of Thomas Aquinas
Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense that we understand the term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond every assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, it is also beyond every denial. Question Five: Whether God may accurately be described with words and concepts.

Objection One: It appears that God may be accurately described, for otherwise he could not be described as existing. For we read, I AM WHO AM, and if God cannot be described as existing, then assuredly nothing else can. But we know that things exist, therefore God may be accurately described as existing.

Objection Two: It would seem that God may be described with predicates, for Scripture calls him Father, Son, King, Wisdom, etc.

Objection Three: It appears that either affirmations or negations must accurately describe God, for between an affirmation and its negation, exactly one of them must be true.

On the Contrary, I reply that every affirmation and negation is finite, and in the end inadequate beyond measure, incapable of containing or of circumscribing God.

We should remember that the ancients described God in imperfect terms rather than say nothing about him at all…

Lost in translation?

There is something lost in “translation” here. What exactly is lost? Remember Robert Frost’s words, “Nothing of poetry is lost in translation except for the poetry.” There is a famous, ancient maxim in the Orthodox Church’s treasured Philokalia saying, “A theologian is one who prays truly, and one who prays truly is a theologian:” theology is an invitation to prayer. And the original Mystical Theology as rendered on the left is exactly that: an invitation to prayer, while the rewrite in the style of the Summa Theologiæ has been castrated: it is only an invitation to analysis and an impressively deft solution to a logic puzzle. The ideas are all preserved: nothing of the theology is lost in translation except for the theology. And this is part of why Archimandrite Vasileos, steeped in the nourishing, prayerful theology of the Orthodox Church, bluntly writes in Hymn of Entry that scholastic theology is “an indigestible stone.”

Thomas Aquinas drew on Greek Fathers and in particular St. John the Damascene. He gathered some of the richest theology of the East and turned it into something that is not theology to Orthodox: nothing of the Greek theology was lost in the scholastic translation but the theology! And there is more amiss in that Thomas Aquinas also drew on “the Philosopher,” Aristotle, and all the materialistic seeds in Aristotelianism. (The Greeks never lost Aristotle, but they also never made such a big deal about him, and to be called an Aristotelian could be a strike against you.) There is a spooky hint of the “methodological agnosticism” of today’s academic theology—the insistence that maybe you have religious beliefs, but you need to push them aside, at least for the moment, to write serious theology. The seed of secular academic “theology” is already present in how Thomas Aquinas transformed the Fathers.

This is a basic issue with far-reaching implications.

Am I seriously suggesting that Rome de-canonize Thomas Aquinas? Not exactly. I am trying to point out what level of repentance and recantation would be called for in order that full communion would be appropriate. I am not seriously asking that Rome de-canonize Thomas Aquinas. I am suggesting, though, that Rome begin to recognize that nastier and deeper cuts than this would be needed for full communion between Rome and Orthodoxy. And I know that it is not pleasant to think of rejoining the Orthodox Church as (shudder) a reconciled heretic. I know it’s not pleasant. I am, by the grace of God, a reconciled heretic myself, and I recanted Western heresy myself. It’s a humbling position, and if it’s too big a step for you to take, it is something to at least recognize that it’s a big step to take, and one that Rome has not yet taken.

I’ve gotten responses like “You have no idea what Thomas Aquinas means to us.” Um, in fact, I do. I think it is a fair statement (if I may cite a Catholic roommate from my years studying Catholic theology) that the two chief Doctors in Rome are the Blessed Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, with a steady leadership for the Blessed Augustine in most of history and Thomas Aquinas pulling ahead at times, including our own time. So I am explicitly raising a concern about the #1 Roman classical spokesman today. (Also, I’ve also read McDermott’s distillation, and studied unabridged questions and answers from his Summa Theologiæ). And the reason I am bringing this up, besides the fact that it is grounded to Orthodox, is that I can name a second elephant in the room (to Orthodox) that is unlikely to get a widespread Roman reply of “Thomas, Schmomas! You say tomayto, I say tomahto.” The response may be red-hot anger, but there is no anger I’ve seen about making a mountain out of a mole-hill.

Two elephants: The Saint and the Activist

Let me describe two very different images of what life is for. The one I will call “the saint” is that, quite simply, life is for the contemplation of God, and the means to contemplation is largely ascesis: the concrete practices of a life of faith. The other one, which I will call, “the activist,” is living to change the world as a secular ideology would understand changing the world. In practice the “saint” and the “activist” may be the ends of a spectrum rather than a rigid dichotomy, but I wish at least to distinguish the two, and make some remarks about modern Catholic social teaching.

Modern Catholic social teaching could be enlightened. It could be well meant. It could be humane. It could be carefully thought out. It could be a recipe for a better society. It could be providential. It could be something we should learn from, or something we need. It could be any number of things, but what it absolutely is not is theology. It is absolutely not spiritually nourishing theology. If, to Orthodox, scholastic theology like that of Thomas Aquinas is as indigestible as a stone, modern Catholic social teaching takes indigestibility to a whole new level—like indigestible shards of broken glass.

The 2005 Deus Caritas Est names the Song of Songs three times, and that is without precedent in the Catholic social encyclicals from the 1891 Rerum Novarum on. Look for references to the Song of Songs in their footnotes—I don’t think you’ll find any, or at least I didn’t. This is a symptom of a real problem, a lack of the kind of theology that would think of things like the Song of Songs—which is highly significant. The Song of Songs is a favorite in mystical theology, the prayerful theology that flows from faith, and mystical theology is not easily found in the social encyclicals. I am aware of the friction when secular academics assume that Catholic social teaching is one more political ideology to be changed at will. I give some benefit of the doubt to Catholics who insist that there are important differences, even if I’m skeptical over whether the differences are quite so big as they are made out to be. But without insisting that Catholic social teaching is just another activist ideology, I will say that it is anything but a pure “saint” model, and it mixes in the secular “activist” model to a degree that is utterly unlawful to Orthodox.

And, if I may delicately point this out: the text above was written during Pope BENEDICT, and now I am writing under Pope FRANCIS, and there’s a difference.

In An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism, ©2009, I predicted an Orthodox schism. Now, as I write in 2019, the schism is fresh. I saw as non-negotiable retained communion with Patriarch BARTHOLEMEW even as I said, “It’s ‘Ecumenical Patriarch,’ not ‘ECUMENIST Patriarch’!” Now Russian heirarchs have broken communion, and while I see that as profoundly sad, I believe they made a very painful right choice (and respect Orthodox who disagree).

However, Pope FRANCIS has greatly eclipsed Patriarch BARTHOLOMEW in every way. The Pope Is Not a Holy Fool like your St. Francis of Assisi. He looks to some Orthodox, and some Romans so far as I can tell from reading them, to be a second Arius.

Also, did I mention that ecumenism is anathematized heresy in my jurisdiction, and the bottom up laity often agree that ecumenism is not just one heresy among others, but the ecclesiastical heresy of our day?

Three elephants: The Roman “BOTH-AND”

One of the mindsets or approaches that is foundational to Rome is the famous “BOTH-AND”, a “BOTH-AND” that can perhaps embrace BOTH systematic theology AND mystical theology, BOTH saint AND activist. To Orthodox, this mantra seems to mean “BOTH Orthodox AND heretic.” As I saw it, the “BOTH-AND” seems to grab something that is allowed in Orthodoxy, and something that is forbidden (or two things that are forbidden).

I haven’t heard Orthodox preach about an “Orthodox EITHER-OR,” even once, but to some extent it is much easier for Orthodox to say “EITHER true mystical theology, OR effective systematic theology; EITHER Saint OR Activist, EITHER Orthodox OR heretic.” And Orthodox do seem to be particular about having mystical theology and not systematic theology, enough so that trying to endow the Orthodox Church with its first Orthodox systematic theology is begging for a heresy trial. Roman readers may well enough see the difference as minor or insist on a BOTH-AND. However, they would be wise enough not to expect Orthodox to regard the question of “Is this systematic theology or mystical theology?” to be anywhere near so fine or insignificant of a distinction as it obviously seems to Roman faithful.

Four elephants: Anglo-Catholidox and trying to be married without a spouse

In my years wasting time on Facebook, I ran into Anglo-Catholics, Anglo-Catholidox, Anglo-Orthodox. And I really did (and do) find many of them charming. But I would expect Romans who reflect a bit to possibly also see them as charming but making a fundamental error about what it means to be a Roman.

A standard enough phrase for Romans to articulate is that to Protestants, submitting to God and submitting to the Church are two acts. In Rome, it is one act. And I would add now, after indiscretions, that Roman communion and submission to Church authority are one thing.

If you can look and see how Anglo-Catholics try to be fully Roman within non-Roman church structure, you might see that (as a friend kindly rephrased it for me) it is an attempt to be married without a spouse.

Anglicans, some of them at least, have claimed to be both Roman and Protestant, are trying to be Roman in a way that precludes being Roman. Any number of Roman details may be imitated from the outside, but being formed as Roman comes as a package deal that cannot be both live and piecemeal, and no imitation of Rome from the outside can change that.

Um, hello, have you heard of Orthodoxy?

Trying to be Orthodox from within Roman Communion, even Eastern Catholic, is as confused as trying to be Roman from within the Anglican Communion, if not more. But I won’t argue the “if not more,” and only ask Roman readers to see in the Orthodox Church something they recognize well enough in Rome.

This is another of several ways that Romans have an ecclesiological “Amos and Andy” show.

(I might briefly insert another topic here. In practical spiritual life, almost everything that is required in Orthodoxy is permitted in Rome.)

Five elephants: Progressively dismantling relics of Orthodoxy

In my studies at Cambridge and at Fordham, I heard many times the conversational posture of “We Romans are getting our act together,” and without exception the change that was being acclaimed to me was just one more continuity with Orthodoxy being severed, like a boat attached to a moor with ropes and one more rope being cut, helping the boat break free of the moor.

In a most immediate sense, this is something I have primarily met among liberal Romans, although the change they heralded seemed like it was probably at least partly a real change. I also spent a year or so, when I was at the University of Illinois, at the Newman Foundation, and the community was the one place I met living faith during my prior master’s. And I do not remember there having members of Newman Foundation Koinonia lean in with a conspiriatorial glance and tell me how Rome is slowly and finally getting its act put together.

However, there is another shoe to drop.

Barriers and differences between East and West absolutely did not stop with the Filioque clause. Over centuries there have been further doctrinal developments, understood to be something that was always there, and pronounced irreformibly (as Avery Cardinal Dulles used the technical term in our class on the Profession of Faith). Most or all of these irreformable edicts create problems for Orthodox. To pick two examples of accretions made official in the 19th century, the Infallibility of the Pope and the Immaculate Conception are not only not required in Orthodoxy, they are forbidden. Orthodox have concerns, for that matter like Protestants, that the Immaculate Conception undermines the full humanity of the Mother of God, and therefore her divine Son, and (in a classic phrase–I don’t know who said it first) Rome “was offered primacy and demanded supremacy.” And Rome accumulates more of these as the centuries of history on.

And there is one frustration I’ll mention in regard to Cardinal Dulles. Pinning down certain things with him about Rome was difficult and slippery, like pinning down a water balloon you can’t see because it’s too dark. In the Orthodox Church, it is commonly said that no bishop has the authority to interfere in another’s diocese. Such is part of why the Moscow Patriarchate broke communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch. There is a definite primacy of honor for a Patriarch, but at least today, bishops didn’t interfere in others’ dioceses. And so I commented to Cardinal Dulles about Roman bishops being the Pope’s deputies, and Cardinal Dulles denied that bishops are delegates to the Pope, but volunteered no clarification. It was quite some time until he clarified that the Pope has universal jurisdiction, meaning that he is to work with bishops, and also can override. But as conservative a figure as Cardinal Dulles would contradict me if I said it seemed that Roman bishops were the Pope’s deputies, but he did not show the faintest clarification to state the Roman position more clearly (in this case, that the Roman Pontiff has universal jurisdiction). Not sure what to make of that, but apart from once being in the room with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, I have known no other Roman of near his position, and he would not communicate clearly to me.

A personal note

As mentioned along the way, my history is intertwined with Rome’s, and perhaps I should have joined. Newman Foundation Koinonia meant an awful lot to me, and it was of all the self-identified Christian groups that had a spiritual pulse, and it was a strong pulse. I found more of a mixed bag when I went in to get my doctorate at a Roman university in theology, but I had a Roman suitemate who was a wonderful man.

However, there are certain things that Rome does and says that are somewhat “Amos and Andy” in regard to the Orthodox Church, and almost of all of them represent moments when Roman ecumenism reaches out for a restoration of intercommunion, and in my experience never address the elephant in the room to Orthodox, namely the doctrinal unity that must precede any restoration of communions. Roman ecumenists, for the most part, politely decline when Protestants say “We agree on all essentials. Let’s have communion together,” but show an almost unshakable certitude in telling Orthodox, “We agree on all essentials. Let’s have communion together!” The Catholic claim is that we agree in all essentials. Orthodox squeamishly look at the elephants in the room, and wonder why having such a singularity of good theology be represented by Thomas Aquinas, along with the Blessed Augustine, be the polestar for all theology, and expect us to (now) accept the jurisdiction of Poop Francis, and so on. But this page has not been a “name the elephant” post, at least not to what I expect for Roman readers, but “There are elephants in the room that you don’t see.”

If you want a rapprochement with Orthodoxy, would you be willing to at least try to see the elephants in the room that are there for Orthodox?

Theory of Evolution Tries to Be More Like Superstring Theory, Dismantles Own Falsifiability

Superstring physics has abdicated from the throne of emperical science by making predictions so close to prior theory that no one has proposed any idea on any resources we could conceivably get to experimentally test superstring theory against predictions made by its predecessors, but that has not stopped the self-identified science community to place superstring theory on a higher pedestal than any empirical form of science. Now neo-Darwinian evolution has upstaged superstring theory going far beyond it in unfalsifiability.

A philosopher of science explains.

“Karl Popper contributed a landmark concept in the philosophy of science when, observing that adherents of non-scientific theories kept finding fresh proofs of their claims. Popper proposed that quite an opposite principle was the mark of a scientific theory is in fact its falsifiability. The essential concept is that empirical science should make claims whose falsifiability would contradict or hurt the theory. And not all such claims are created equal. The more surprising and unexpected prediction the theory makes and is vindicated by experiment, the better the theory is corroborated, is worthy of serious attention.

“Popper used Marxism as a textbook example of unfalsifiable, meaning non-scientific claims. Marxism originally made testable claims, and those claims turned out to be substantially false. Then Marxists modified their theory so as to make it unfalsifiable. In Popper’s suggestion, this marks a transition from a falsified scientific theory to a theory that was no longer science.”

Our reporter asked, “Does any of this relate to origins questions?”

“Yes,” we were told, “and word on the street that Popper chose Marxism over evolution as an unfalsifiable theory because, understandably, he did not want to be called a Creationist and be fighting a battle on two fronts, seeing that one does not want to be called a Creationist. But now, even evolutionary apologists recognize that when their opponents apply statistics to what, statistically, is asserted by the claim that a breeding pool has acquired and sustained a chain of beneficial mutations and turned into a new life form in a geological heartbeat, evolution has gotten the short end of the stick. The response on the part of evolutionists has been both simple and drastic: point out that some interesting statistics are inaccessible, simply inaccessible on information we have access to, and then amputate all statistical argument at the neck, and refuse to accept statistical critique of evolution at all, thus marking a transition from a falsifiable scientific theory to an unfalsifiable formerly scientific theory.”

Our reporter said, “That’s kind of throwing out the baby with the bath water, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” we were told, “it’s throwing out the baby, the bathwater, and for that matter the whole tub, all for a weak excuse. Mary Midgley said, ‘A disturbance followed when it was noticed that [scientists] had left the whole of evolutionary theory outside in the unscientific badlands as well. But special arrangements were made to pull it in without compromising the principle.’ That was then, this is now. Evolutionary apologists have simply cauterized a line of critique, with little explanation beyond that the unwashed masses get arguments about lottery tickets, and demanded that its opponents stop making a straightforward analysis of what kind of statistical ceiling can be placed on a bunch of things that, on an evolutionary accounts, happened at random and almost all at once. Superstring happens to be an awesome theory that people like that has an unfalsifiable character in. Evolution was made an ex-scientific theory simply by forbidding its opponents a straightforward line of critique.

C.S. Lewis eulogized evolution as a great myth which in principle could not be true.

“Perhaps today we can sing a dirge for the great formerly scientific theory of evolution.”

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