I believe that if some of the best bishops were asked, “How would you like to step down from all of your honors, and all of your power, and hand the reins over to an excellent successor, and become only the lowest rank of monk at an obscure monastery in the middle of nowhere with no authority over any soul’s salvation but your own—would you take it?” their response might be, “Um, uh… what’s the catch?”
(I deeply respect my heirarch and after a bit of thought, I removed certain remarks because I really think he would rather endure baseless slander than others making a public display of his virtues.)
If I may comment briefly on virginity and marriage: in a culture where you try to rip your opponent’s position to shreds instead of aiming for fair balance in a critique, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity is meant to rip marriage to shreds. I don’t mean that, and I would say something that I don’t think needed to be said, or at least not needed to be said, as much: true marriage should be seen as having something of the hallowed respect associated with monasticism. A marriage in its fullest traditional sense, is becoming (or already is) something that should be called exotic if people didn’t look down their noses at it. As far as true marriage relates to monasticism, the externals are almost antithetical but the goal is the same: self-transcendence. The person who said, “Men love women. Women love children. Children love pets. Life isn’t fair,” is on to something. Getting into marriage properly requires stepping beyond an egotism of yourself; raising children, if you are so blessed, requires stepping beyond an egotism of two. And Biblically and patristically, childlessness was seen as a curse; the priestly father to whom one child was given in old age, the Mother of God herself, bore derision even in his high office because people viewed childlessness as a curse enough to be a sign of having earned divine judgment and wrath. And at a day and age where marriage is being torn from limb to limb, it might befit us to make particular efforts to honor marriage alongside monasticism.
There is one advantage to monasticism; actually, there are several, but one eclipses the others, and that is mentioned when St. Paul recognizes that not everyone can be celibate like him, marriage being a legitimate and honorable option. But he mentions a significant advantage to celibacy: the married person must have divided attention between serving family and the Lord, where a celibate person (today this usually belongs in monasticism) is able to give God an undivided attention, enjoying the blessed estate of a Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet as a disciple taking in the one thing that is truly necessary, and not as a Martha who is busily encumbered with many other things. And while St. Paul knows that not everybody can walk the celibate path, he does at least wish that people could offer God an undivided attention. And I have yet to hear Orthodox challenge that any genuine marriage includes a condition of divided attention.
If we leave off talking about bishops just briefly, let’s take a brief look at the abbot next to a simple monk under him (“simple monk” is a technical term meaning a monk who has not additionally been elevated to any minor or major degree of sacramental priesthood). The simple monk has lost some things, but he has in full the benefit St. Paul wants celibates to have: everything around him is ordered to give him the best opportunity to work on salvation. Meanwhile, any abbot who is doing an abbot’s job is denied this luxury. Some abbots have been tempted to step down from their honored position because of how difficult they’ve found caring for themselves spiritually as any monk should, and additionally care for the many needs of a monastery and the other monks. An abbot may not focus on his own salvation alone; he must divide his attention to deal with disciples and various secular material needs a monastery must address. An abbot is a monk who must bear a monk’s full cross; in addition, while an abbot has no sexual license, he must also bear the additional cross of a father who is dividing his attention in dealing with those under his care. He may be celibate, but he effectively forgoes the chief benefit St. Paul ascribes to living a celibate life.
To be a heirarch brings things another level higher. Right now I don’t want to compare the mere monk with a bishop, but rather compare an abbot with a bishop. The abbot acts as a monk in ways that include the full life participation in the services and environment in a monastery. It may be true that the abbot is more finely clad than other monks, but abbot and simple monk alike are involved in the same supportive environment, and what abbot and simple monk share is greater than their difference. By comparison, unless the bishop is one of few bishops serving in a monastery, the bishop may be excused for perhaps feeling like a fish out of water. It may be desired that a bishop have extensive monastic character formation, but a bishop is compelled to live in the world, and to travel all over the place in ways and do some things that other monastics rightly flee. Now the heirarch does have the nicest robes of all, and has privileges that no one else has, but it is too easy to see a bishop’s crownlike mitre in the majesty of Liturgy and fail to sense the ponderous, heavy crown of thorns invisibly present on a bishop’s head all the time. Every Christian must bear his cross, but you are very ignorant about the cross a bishop bears if you think that being a bishop is all about wearing the vestments of the Roman emperor, being called “Your Grace” or “Your Eminence,” and sitting on a throne at the center of everything.
Now it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear a bishop’s robes; for that matter it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear an acolyte’s robe or never wear liturgical vestments at all. But I know someone who is really bright, and has been told, “You are the most brilliant person I know!” The first time around it was really intoxicating; by the fifth or sixth time he felt more like someone receiving uninteresting old news, and it was more a matter of disciplined social skills than spontaneous delight to keep trying to keep giving a graceful and fitting response to an extraordinary compliment. Perhaps the first time a new heirarch is addressed as “Your Grace,” “Your Emimence,” or “Vladyka,” it feels intoxicatingly heady. However, I don’t believe the effect lasts much more than a week, if even that. There is reason to address heirarchs respectfully and appropriately, but it is really much less a benefit to the bishop than it is a benefit to us, and this is for the same reason children who respect adults are better off than children who don’t respect adults. Children who respect adults benefit much more from adults’ care, and faithful who respect clergy (including respect for heirarchs) benefit much more from pastoral care.
As I wrote in A Pet Owner’s Rules, God is like a pet Owner who has two rules, and only two rules. The first rule, and the more important one, is “I am your Owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have given you,” and the second is really more a clarification than anything else: “Don’t drink out of the toilet.” The first comparison is to drunkenness. A recovering alcoholic will tell you that being drunk all the time is not a delight; it is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. “Strange as it may sound, you have to be basically sober even to enjoy getting drunk:” drunkenness is drinking out of the toilet. But you don’t need to literally drink to be drinking out of the toilet.
There is something like a confused drinking out of the toilet in ambition, and in my own experience, ambition is not only sinful, but it is a recipe to not enjoy things. Being an abbot may be more prestigious than being a simple monk and being a bishop may be more prestigious than being an abbot but looking at things that way is penny wise and pound foolish.
Ambition reflects a fundamental confusion that sees external honors but not the cross tied to such honors. I hope to write this without making married Orthodox let go of one whit of their blessed estate, but the best position to be in is a simple monastic, end of discussion. It is a better position to be a simple monastic than to be an abbot, and it is a better position to be an abbot than a heirarch. Now the Church needs clergy, including abbots and heirarchs, and it is right to specifically pray for them as the Liturgy and daily prayer books have it. Making a monk into a priest or abbot, or bishop, represents a sacrifice. Now all of us are called to be a sacrifice at some level, and God’s grace rests on people who are clergy for good reasons. An abbot who worthily bears both the cross of the celibate and the cross of the married in this all-too-transient world may shine with a double crown for ever and ever. But the lot we should seek for is not that of Martha cumbered about with much serving; it is of Mary embracing the one thing needful.
The best approach is to apply full force to seeking everything that is better, and then have God persistently tell us if we are to step in what might be called “the contemplative life perfected in action.”
The Patriarch’s throne, mantle, crown, title, and so on are truly great and glorious.
But they pale in comparison to the hidden Heavenly honors given to a simple monk, an eternal glory that can be present in power here and now.
A couple of years ago, perhaps, I heard that the pairing of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica and Wounded By Love: The Life and Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios were blasting through the ranks, and the last endorsement I heard for Wounded by Love was earlier the month this article was posted.
Both are associated with precious Elders, and neither is appropriate for most Orthodox to read. Let me explain some of why:
Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: It’s an occult book!
I’m not really sure how to explain this. Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives is simply the most occultic book I have read from any canonical author. It never advocates any kind of cursing, but with the terrain it covers, it describes just how someone could kill another in a motorcycle accident by a thought, or three examples of how a subconscious curse of envy could shatter another person’s beautiful objet d’art.
The book and its message are extremely subtle, but that is not a good thing. The snake, we read in Genesis, was extremely subtle. Speaking as the author of The Sign of the Grail, I have read Arthurian legends at length, and Merlin is asked to exercise “subtlety,” with meaning including but not limited to magic powers, but only one version I’ve read (T.H. White’s The Once and Future King) gives any sense of how one might go about achieving the kinds of effects you covet from the never-neverland of the Arthurian literary tradition that flourished in the Middle Ages and remains a name people have heard of.
This book offers an occult dimension that I have failed to see in reading half of the collected works of the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. One work whose title I forget discusses sorcerors as charlatan illusionists and then gives the equivalent of how explaining how a modern magic trick works. But even then, I have no Orthodox work which so sensitizes the reader to how one may lay a potent curse.
If we look for parallels Western Christianity, I recall a fantasy-novel-loving friend who read mainstream fantasy at length, but put down a Charles Williams novel because of how much more occultic it was than anything in the fantasy literature she was drawn to. (Charles Williams was a member of the Inklings but tried hard to be a Christian without decisively severing ties to the occult and Rosicrucianism.) I’ve read three of Charles Williams’ novels (that’s about three too many on my part). Those three novels show the closest parallel I am aware of to the subtle and occultic character of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.
This is not to say that the book is 100% false. Precious few of even the worst books are 100% false, and cultivating inner calm in chaotic circumstances with eyes fixed on God and the Light is a very valuable lesson, but there are better and less occult Orthodox treatments of the matter.
“Focus exclusively on God and light. Never focus on darkness, temptation, and sin. That’s classic teaching. Fill yourself with good things. Don’t be mesmerized by dark things. Don’t meditate on evil things. Meditate on good things, and God will take care of the rest.”
Wounded by “Wounded by Love:” Monastic TMI!
There is such a thing as Too Much Information (TMI). Perhaps the most common way of violating a listener’s boundaries with TMI is to provide excessively visceral details, and Wounded by Love does not vividly describe carnal temptations or the like, even though we may assume that someone who grew up as an incredibly strong and rugged mountain man presumably faced certain temptations common to men with a decent amount of testosterone.
But that is not the only form of TMI. There is a rather strong rule, violated especially at the end of this title, that monastics do not share their esoteric experiences with laity, period, and even in the book the elders advise the future monastic elder not to speak of at least some spiritual experiences and charisms strictly to them: the demons might hear. But he, or rather the sisters whom he oversaw, placed things in public sight that should never have been leaked outside monastic circles. As I wrote to my spiritual father:
The latter divulges esoteric monastic experiences in ability including an Abbot traveling spiritually without having left his monastery physically for decades, and a kind of limited omniscience where the protagonist could see through anything (late in life and physically blind, he did perhaps chastely the work of a water witch, although it might be better to suggest that the latter is demonic parody of a legitimate aspect of charism).
Christ told people to do their good works in secret, and this applies much more forcefully to monastic spiritual experiences. Monastics normally view the parading of their intimate experience before the public eye to be a great misfortune, and I believe the rule is much more intended for the benefit of laity than for monastics themselves. It is a rule of mystagogy that you do not mock people with realities they are not ready to cope with, and one minor application is the advice that if you know the truth, and you know that another person will reject the truth if told, you do not tell the other person that truth. It’s better for the other person before Christ’s Judgment Throne not to have rejected the truth, and it is better for you not to have pushed the other person into that position. And that is really just the least, most diluted shade of mystagogy as it can and should in Orthodoxy. Molesting the reader with monastic TMI is simply not needed.
Beware of all fashions
Peter Kreeft, one amiably writing Roman apologist, discussed at some point differences between ancient and modern concepts of authorship. The modern concept, especially if we forget the hard work of editors who try to make authors look better in print, tends to say, “If it has your name on it, you are responsible for 100% of its content,” where the ancient conception can admit many hands and classic books are more the work of a school of people sharing the same sympathies than one individual. What is interesting is the remark that follows: Kreeft does not state that the ancient fashion is better, or for that the matter that the modern fashion is better, but advises us to beware of all fashions.
The spiritually questionable character of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives and Wounded by Love is not really a feature of Orthodoxy; it is a feature of fashion. It applies to the two books that were fashionable five years ago, and it applies to the one or more ebooks that will be fashionable five years in the future. Fashions really exist in Orthodoxy as much as NPR, and they are no more helpful. But this is not any reason to throw up our hands in despair.
One thing I explained to a newly illumined Orthodox about reading recommendations, as another person explained to me when I was myself newly illumined, is that I should have a relationship with a priest who could provide helpful books to read. If you are a bookworm, part of your spiritual father or parish priest’s job description is to recommend good books. And indeed a priest who knows you personally and hears your needs in your confessions may be the best person in the world to give you something better than you could know to ask for. (Now it is entirely possible for a parish priest to recommend an obvious dud, but that is much less serious of a problem than any problem that is seductive in character.) However much parish priests may be wrong about the helpfulness of the occasional dud, they are usually familiar with many books and human spiritual needs, and they are significantly more often right than the rumor mill is.
A dark memorial, and a warning sign
I would suggest that these two books by Orthodox elders be remembered.
There are many strands within Judaism, but 6,000,000 is the first number a Jewish child hears, and the sense is not just, “This happened in the past,” but “This could happen again.” And recent events do nothing to prove this to be groundless paranoia or confusion between what is past and what is future. Dietrich Bonhoeffer watched one professor he admired after another rally behind the swastika. (On a much lesser scale, I’ve watched one theology professor after another sign a petition, older than a certain rainbow-colored Supreme Court judicial legislation, demanding that organizations extend any benefit extended to married couples to same-sex couples even if their religious tradition and conscience simply reject such vindication of others’ inimical demands.) In my mind the question is not why so many theology professors Bonhoeffer admired stood behind the Nazi flag; it is why that one person, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, bucked an overwhelming consensus. Something similar is akin to my puzzlement, not about how innumerable Protestant efforts to reconstruct the ancient Church went awry, but how the one such effort I know well, the Evangelical Orthodox Church which entered canonical Orthodoxy and provided one of my dear past parish priests, got it right.
The Orthodox Church remembers the bloodshed of its members across the centuries, many of whom are commemorated in the saints’ lives, but the Eastern Orthodox Church’s “This could happen again” is not about bloodshed. “This could happen again” is about heresies. One Subdeacon, a little bit lightly, said, “Arius gets it worse in the Liturgy than Judas,” and founders of subsequent heresies such as Nestorius are said to be “taught by Arius.” Arius was not the first heretic by any means, and St. Irenaeus’s long and dull Against Heresies predates Arius by over a century. However, there is reason to call Arius the father of heretics. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed after some vein of Presbyterianism ordained someone who denied that Jesus was the Son of God, and Protestants I know from mailing lists have, without even needing to know post-Biblical Orthodox texts, that Arianism is not just one heresy among others; it is the one heresy that keeps on popping up, possibly comparably to gnosticism. And if the Jewish population is sharply aware that genocide has happened in the past and could happen again, this is not odd; what is odd to me historically is not that a genocide was started, but that a genocide was stopped. But the Orthodox consciousness is not as much of bloodshed, but of heresy and heterodoxy.
And all in this lie two little books that have swept Orthodoxy as a fad, both written by monastic elders. Perhaps they are not front and center as far as problems go. But they show much less about healthy Orthodoxy than healthy fads, and there is a warning about whatever next flourishes in the rumor mill.
There are things that make me uneasy about many of Fr. Seraphim (Rose)’s followers. I say many and not all because I have friends, and know a lovely parish, that is Orthodox today through Fr. Seraphim. One friend, who was going through seminary, talked about how annoyed he was, and appropriately enough, that Fr. Seraphim was always referred to as “that guy who taught the tollhouses.” (Tollhouses are the subject of a controversial teaching about demonic gateways one must pass to enter Heaven.) Some have suggested that he may not become a canonized saint because of his teachings there, but that is not the end of the world and apparently tollhouses were a fairly common feature of nineteenth century Russian piety. I personally do not believe in tollhouses, although it would not surprise me that much if I die and find myself suddenly and clearly convinced of their existence: I am mentioning my beliefs, as a member of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and it is not my point to convince others that they must not believe in tollhouses.
It is with sympathy that I remember my friend talk about how his fellow seminarians took a jackhammer to him for his admiration of “that guy who taught the tollhouses.” He has a good heart. Furthermore, his parish, which came into Holy Orthodoxy because of Fr. Seraphim, is much more than alive. When I visited there, God visited me more powerfully than any parish I have only visited, and I would be delighted to see their leadership any time. Practically nothing in that parish’s indebtedness to Fr. Seraphim bothers me. Nor would I raise objections to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia’s newsletter affectionately calling Fr. Seraphim “our editor.” Nor am I bothered that a title of his has been floating around the nave at my present parish.
Two out of many quotes from a discussion where I got jackhammered for questioning whether Fr. Seraphim is a full-fledged saint, or in response to this piece:
“Quite contrary, the only people who oppose [Fr. Seraphim’s] teachings, are those who oppose some or all of the universal teachings of the Church, held by Saints throughout the ages. Whether a modern theologian with a ‘PhD,’ a ‘scholar’, a schismatic clergymen, a deceived layperson, or Ecumenist or rationalist – these are the only types of people you will find having a problem with Blessed Seraphim and his teachings.”
You are truly desparate for fame. Guess what? Blessed Seraphim Rose will forever be more famous than you. Fitting irony I think, given that he never sought after fame. Ps. Willfully disrespecting a Saint of the Church is sacreligious. Grow up, you pompous twit.”
Maybe you’re just not strong enough for true Orthodoxy. Maybe you would be happier at a spiritual salad bar like Wicca.
But with all that said, there is something that disturbs me about most devotees of Fr. Seraphim, or at very least most of his vocal devotees. The best way I can put it has to do with subjectivism, which says in essence, “I will accept what I will accept, and I will reject what I will reject, and I will project what I will project.” There is something that demands that Fr. Seraphim be canonized as a saint regardless of whether he really should be, almost like “My country, right or wrong!” This isn’t the only thing that smells disturbing, but it is one. And these followers who insist that Fr. Seraphim be canonized as a saint seem to quickly gloss over how some of his group broke away from canonical status in the Orthodox Church to dodge Church discipline. Now I do not wish to exceed my authority and speakex cathedra to decisively say which sins should be a bar from sainthood; it is God’s job to make saints out of sinners, and any sin that Fr. Seraphim has committed, there are canonized saints who did something ten times worse. However, this is an example of something that needs to be brought to light if we are to know if Fr. Seraphim should be considered a saint, and in every conversation I’ve seen, the (vocal) devotees of Fr. Seraphim push to sweep such things under the rug and get on with his canonization.
To pull something from putting subjectivism in a word: “I will accept what I will accept, and I will reject what I will reject, and I will project what I will project” usurps what God, Ο ΩΝ, supremely declares: “I AM WHO I AM.” Subjectivism overreaches and falls short in the same gesture; if you grasp it by the heart, it is the passion of pride, but if you grasp it by the head, it is called subjectivism, but either way it has the same stench. And it concerns me gravely that whenever I meet these other kinds of followers, Fr. Seraphim’s most vocal advocates, it smells the same, and it ain’t no rose.
Protestant Fundamentalist Orthodoxy
A second concern is that, in many of Fr. Seraphim’s followers, there is something Protestant to be found in the Church. Two concerns to be mentioned are “Creation Science”-style creationism, and the fundamentally Western project of worldview construction.
On the issue of “Creation Science”-style creationism, I would like to make a couple of comments. First, the Fathers usually believed that the days in Genesis 1 were literal days and not something more elastic. I believe I’ve read at least one exception, but St. Basil, for instance, insists both that one day was one day, and that we should believe that matter is composed of earth, air, fire, water, and ether. The choice of a young earth and not any other point of the Fathers is not the fruit of the Fathers at all; it is something Protestant brought into the Orthodox Church, and at every point I’ve seen it, Orthodox who defend a young earth also use Protestant Creation Science, which is entirely without precedent in the Fathers. One priest said, “It was easier to get the children of Israel out of Egypt than it is to get Egypt out of the children of Israel.” There have been many Orthodox who believe entirely legitimately in a young earth, but every single time I have met young earth arguments from a follower of Fr. Seraphim, they have drawn on recycled Protestant arguments and fundamentalist Protestant Creation Science. And they have left me wishing that now that God has taken them out of Egypt they would let God take Protestant Egypt out of them.
I observed something quite similar to this in a discussion where I asked a partisan of Fr. Seraphim for an example of his good teaching. The answer I was given was a call for Orthodox to work on constructing a worldview, and this was presented to me as the work of a saint at the height of his powers. But there’s a problem.
The project of worldview construction, and making standalone adjustments to the ideas in one’s worldview, is of Western origin. There is no precedent for it in the Fathers, nor in medieval Western scholastic theologians like Thomas Aquinas, nor for that matter in the Reformers. The widespread idea that Christians should “think worldviewishly”, and widespread understanding of Christianity as a worldview, is of more recent vintage than the Roman proclamations about the Immaculate Conception and the Infallibility of the Pope, and the Protestant cottage industry of worldview construction is less Orthodox than creating a systematic theology. If there is an Orthodox worldview, it does not come from tinkering with ideas in your head to construct a worldview; it arises from walking the Orthodox Way for a lifetime. Protestants who come into Orthodoxy initially want to learn a lot, but after time spend less time with books because Orthodoxy has taken deeper root in their hearts and reading about the truth begins to give way to living it out. Devotional reading might never stop being a spiritual discipline, but it is no longer placed in the driver’s seat, nor should it be.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.
Not every one who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.”
Fr. Seraphim has borne fruit in his lifetime and after his death. In his lifetime, there was the one fruit I mentioned, a close tie to someone who broke communion with the Orthodox Church shortly after his death. After his death, he has brought Protestants into the Orthodox Church. But in the living form of his disciples, those who have been taken out of Egypt seem not to have Egypt taken out of them; they have asked me to pay homage to Protestant calves they’ve brought with them.
Let me try to both introduce something new, and tie threads together here. Subjectivism can at its heart be described as breaking communion with reality. This is like breaking communion with the Orthodox Church, but in a way it is more deeply warped. It is breaking communion not only with God, but with the very cars, rocks and trees. I know this passion and it is the passion that has let me live in first world luxury and wish I lived in a castle. It tries to escape the gift God has given. And that passion in another form can say, “If God offers me Heaven, and Heaven requires me to open up and stop grasping Fr. Seraphim right or wrong, I will escape to a Hell that makes no such demand for me to open up to God or His reality.” And it is a red flag of this passion that breaks communion with reality, that the people most devoted to Fr. Seraphim hold on to pieces of fundamentalism with a tightly closed fist. And these Protestant insistences are a red flag, like a plume of smoke: if one sees a plume of smoke coming from a house, a neighbor’s uncomfortable concern is not that a plume of smoke is intolerable, but that where there’s smoke, there’s fire and something destructive may be going on in that house. And when I see subjectivism sweep things under the rug to insist on Fr. Seraphim’s canonization, and fail to open a fist closed on Protestant approaches to Holy Orthodoxy, I am concerned not only that Fr. Seraphim’s colleague may have broken communion with the Orthodox Church to avoid Church discipline, but that Fr. Seraphim’s devotees keep on breaking communion with reality when there is no question of discipline. The plume of smoke is not intolerable in itself, but it may betray fire.
I may be making myself unpopular here, but I’m bothered by Fr. Seraphim’s fruit. I know that there have been debates down the centuries between pious followers of different saints—but I have never seen this kind of phenomenon with another well-known figure in today’s Orthodoxy.
So far as I have tasted it, Fr. Seraphim’s fruit tastes bad.
I included Aristotle’s Physics when I originally posted An Orthodox Bookshelf, then read most of the text and decided that even if the Fathers’ science was largely Aristotelian physics, reading the original source is here less helpful than it might appear. The Fathers believed in elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and these elements are mentioned in the Theophany Vespers, which are one of the primary Orthodox texts on how the cosmos is understood. However, even if these are found in Aristotelian physics, the signal to noise ratio for patristic understanding of science is dismal: Aristotle’s Physics could be replaced with a text one tenth its length and still furnish everything the Fathers take from it.
I would like to take a moment to pause in looking at the word “physics.” It is true enough that historically Aristotelian physics was replaced by Newton, who in turn gave way to Einstein, and then quantum physics entered the scene, and now we have superstring theory. And in that caricatured summary, “physics” seems to mean what it means for superstring theory. But I want to pause on the word “physics.” Orthodox know that non-Orthodox who ask, “What are your passions?” may get a bit more of an earful than they bargained for. “Passions” is not a word Orthodox use among themselves for nice hobbies and interests they get excited about; it means a sinful habit that has carved out a niche for itself to become a spiritual disease. And “physics”, as I use it, is not a competitor to superstring theory; etymologically it means, “of the nature of things,” I would quote C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
“I am a star at rest, my daughter,” answered Ramandu. “When I set for the last time, decrepit and old beyond all that you can reckon, I was carried to this island. I am not so old now as I was then. Every morning a bird brings me a fire-berry from the valleys in the Sun, and each fire-berry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as the child that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at earth’s eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance.”
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.“
The stars in the icon are connected with the six-winged seraphim, the highest rank of angels. The Heavens are an icon of Heaven, and the icon says something very different than, “What are stars if we view them as reductionists do?”
And this article is not intended to compete with physics as it is now understood, or to defend patristic Aristotelian physics against its challengers, or to demonstrate the compatibility of theology with the present state of scientific speculation: words that I choose carefully, because theology is about divine revealed doctrine while science is the present state of speculation in a very careful system of educated guesses, and scientific theories will not stop being discarded for newer alternatives until science is dead. It is therefore somewhat of a strange matter to demonstrate the compatibility of theology with science, as conforming timeless revealed doctrines to the present best educated guess that is meant to be discarded.
Of the nature of things
The central mystery in the nature of things is the divine nature. No man can see God and live, and the divine essence is not knowable to any creature. The divine energies are available, and indeed can deify creation, but the central mystery around which all else revolves is God’s unknowable essence and nature.
This is the central mystery around which everything else revolves, but the divine essence is not part of a larger system, even as its largest part. God lies beyond the created order, and perhaps the greatest failure of Aristotelian physics to understand the nature of things lies in its tendency towards materialism, its sense that you understand things by looking down. Some have said, in introducing Michael Polanyi’s theories of personal knowledge, that behavioralism in psychology does not teach, “There is no soul;” rather, it induces students into investigation in such a way that the possibility of a soul is never even considered. And Aristotelian physics started a trajectory that has lingered even when the specifics of Aristotelian physics were considered to be overturned: you understand the nature of things by looking at them materially. Aristotelian physics, in asking, “What is the nature of this?” leads the listener so as to never even consider an answer of, “Because that is how it functions as a satellite of God.” And the entire phusis or nature of every created being is as a satellite of God: the atheist who says “The very notion of a God is incoherent,” does so with the breath of God.
Headship and harmony with nature
Many Westerners may identify the goal of harmony with nature with the East, but the concept as we have it is essentially Western in nature. Orthodox monasticism may look a lot like harmony with nature to the West: it often takes place in rustic surroundings, and animals are not afraid of monastics: deer will eat from a monk’s hand. But there is a fundamental difference between this and the Western concept of harmony with nature: the harmony does not come from our taking out cue from plants and animals. Monks and nuns are to take their cue from God, and harmony with animals comes from how they take their cue from God.
All creation bears some resemblance to God, and God himself is called the Rock. For every creature there is a logos or idea in God’s heart, that is what that creature should strive to be. But there is a distinction among creation. Some are given the image of God: men and angels, and we exist in a fuller and deeper sense than creatures that do not bear such an image. God exists in a unique and deepest sense, and if we say that God exists, we cannot say that we exist in the same sense, and if we say that we exist, we cannot say that God exists in the same sense. Those who are given the image, who have a human or angelic mind, are more fully nature than those creatures who have do not exist in the same way on the same level. And we who bear the royal image, even if liturgical ascesis removes barriers between us and the rest of Creation, are to take our cue from God our head.
Getting past “the politics of envy”
The concept of headship is a difficult and perhaps touchy one, not least because the only place where people think it applies is the husband being the head of the wife. But it is written into the cosmos in larger letters. St. Maximus the Confessor spoke of five divisions that are to be transcended:
The inhabited world
All these differences are ultimately to be transcended, and many more not listed. But the project of transcending them assumes there are differences to start off with, which we do not transcend by closing our eyes and pretending they are not there. And this feature of creation runs aground what might be called “the politics of envy”, whose central feature is an equality that boils down to saying, “I don’t want anybody to be better than me.”
And this brings me to the point of inequality. Not only are the politics of envy toxic, but unequal treatment bears something that the politics of envy would never imagine. The kindest and most courteous acts are most often not those that treat the other as an equal, but those that treat the other as not equal. The man who buys six dozen roses for his wife does not treat her as an equal: the thought would not occur to him to buy six dozen roses for one of his fellow workmen. The mother who holds and comforts a child after a scrape extends a courtesy that would not be extended quite so far for an adult capable of managing moods and life’s scrapes. The greatest courtesies are extended precisely at the point when someone in a position of headship treats someone else, not as an equal, but as the head’s body as in the chart above. The same is implied for authority, or some of the more painful social lessons having to do with profound giftedness. Perhaps people may say “Treat me as an equal” instead of “treat me well,” but it has been my own experience that treating people as equals in an area where they request equality has given social explosions that I could have avoided if I were wise enough to realize that the point where I was asked, “Treat me as an equal,” were precisely the situations which demanded the wisdom not to treat people as intellectual equals that could handle the full force of what I was thinking, but extend some of the most delicate courtesy and social graces. Exactly what is needed is hard to say, but precisely what is not needed is to say, “Great, I’ve found someone gifted in exactly the same way I am,” and launch into the full force of your deepest thought. God does not create two blades of grass alike. He has never created two humans who are equal, but after each, he broke the mould.
Microcosm and mediator
Mankind was created to be a microcosm, summarizing both the spiritual and tangible creation, and a mediator. All the Orthodox faithful participate in a spiritual priesthood, and its sigil is the sacramental priesthood that a few identify. We are called to mediate and help transcend the differences above. Our worship of the God who is Light, and ourselves being the light of the world, is as the vanguard of Creation returning to the Creator, the firstfruits of a world created by and for God.
I would like to close on an understanding of symbol. Men are symbols of God; that is what it means to be made in the image of God. The material world is best understood, not as things operating under mathematical laws, but as having a symbolic dimension that ultimately points back to God. The theory of evolution is not a true answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” because it does not address the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” If it is true, it is a true answer to the question, “How is there life as we know it?” The sciences answer questions of “How,” not questions of “Why,” and the world is best understood as having a symbolic dimension where the question of “Why?” refers to God and overshadows the question of “How?”
Even if physics answers its questions with accuracy, it does not answer the deepest questions, and a deeper level has three kinds of causation, all of them personal. Things are caused by God, or by humans, or by devils. When we pray, it is not usually for an exception to the laws of physics, but that nature, governed by personal causes on a deeper level, may work out in a particular way under God’s governance. And the regular operations of physics do not stop this.
Miracles are very rare, if we use the term strictly and not for the genuine miracle of God providing for us every day. But the readings for the Theophany Vespers repeat miracles with nature, and they present, if you will, nature at its most essential. Most of the matter in the universe is not part of icons of Christ, his Mother, and his Saints, and yet even outside of men icons are a vanguard, a firstfruit of a creation that will be glorified. Mankind is at its most essential in Christ himself, and the natural world is at its most essential as an arena for God’s power to be displayed. And God’s display of power is not strictly a rarity; it plays out when bread comes out of the earth, when The Heavens declare the glory of God / And the firmament sheweth his handywork. / Day unto day uttereth speech / And night unto night sheweth knowledge.
Sweet Lord, You Play Me False
All of this may be true, but there is an odor of falsity built in its very foundations, to provide an Orthodox “physics” (or study of “the nature of things”) analogous to Aristotle’s original “physics.” Anselm famously wrote the “Monologion” (in which Anselm explores various arguments for God’s existence) and the “Proslogion” (in which Anselm seeks a single and decisive proof of God’s existence). Once I told an Anselm scholar that there had been a newly discovered “Monophagion,” in which Anselm tries to discern whether reasoning can ever bring someone to recognize the imperative of eating, and “Prosphagion,” in which Anselm gets hungry and has a bite to eat. For those of you not familiar with Greek, “prosphagion” means “a little smackerel of something.”
This work is, in a sense, an exploration about whether philosophy can bring a person to recognize the necessity of eating. But that’s not where the proof of the pudding lies. The proof of the pudding lies in the eating, in the live liturgical life that culminates in the Eucharist, the fulcrum for the transformation and ultimate deification of the cosmos. The proof of the pudding lies not in the philosophizing, but in the eating.
The central, root difference between Orthodoxy and Islam is that Orthodoxy affirms the Incarnation wholeheartedly and Islam wholeheartedly denies it. If you want to see what difference believing or not believing in the Incarnation makes, look at the differences between Orthodoxy and Islam.
As a point of departure, I would like to look at something about Islam that is not entirely obvious to many people in the West. As I write, the U.S. is involved in Iraq and this issue looms large in not only U.S. but world politics. I don’t want to write lengthy comments on whether war is ever appropriate, or, if war can be appropriate, whether there were appropriate reasons for the U.S. to fight, or whether or not the U.S. has brought genuine good things to the Iraqi populace, or exposing inhuman treatment of prisoners. Those may be well enough worth discussing, but the single issue that concerns me here is the U.S. endeavor to endow Iraq with “freedom and democracy.”
That rally, that cry—to bring “freedom and democracy” to Iraq—had me wincing well before I heard about Guantanamo Bay. Quite simply, there is a more profound cultural insensitivity in trying to bestow democracy on part of the Islamic world than one can easily explain. It is obvious enough that starting a rumor about flushing the Quran down a toilet is patently offensive. What is harder to explain is why trying to install democracy may be a bigger gaffe.
What in Islam could be offended by democracy? The answer is a first glimpse of what difference the Incarnation makes, but the connection is not at surface level.
Western observers in the Islamic world talk of an “IBM,” an acronym for inshallah, meaning, “It will happen if Allah wills it and it will not happen if Allah does not will it, and you don’t really have much say in whether Allah wills it,” bukra, meaning, “Tomorrow; it can be done tomorrow; it need not be done today,” and malesh, meaning, “It was fated; it was doomed to happen that way.” When you understand inshallah, bukra, malesh, you understand something that runs very deep in Muslim culture.
G.K. Chesterton, in Heretics, writes a chapter called Omar Khayyam and the Sacred Vine. Omar Khayyam was a 12th century Iranian thinker who studied under a famous Imam, but is not necessarily the image of a good, devout Muslim: he was a renegade Muslim, if he really was a Muslim, and the point Chesterton is trying to make is a criticism of Omar who (on Chesterton’s indictment) advocates heavy wine-drinking to blot out a miserable universe. Chesterton writes:
Of course, the great part of the more stolid reproaches directed against the Omarite morality are as false and babyish as such reproaches usually are. One critic, whose work I have read, had the incredible foolishness to call Omar an atheist and a materialist. It is almost impossible for an Oriental to be either; the East understands metaphysics too well for that. Of course, the real objection which a philosophical Christian would bring against the religion of Omar, is not that he gives no place to God, it is that he gives too much place to God. His is that terrible theism which can imagine nothing else but deity, and which denies altogether the outlines of human personality and human will.
“The ball no question makes of Ayes or Noes,
But Here or There as strikes the Player goes;
And He that tossed you down into the field,
He knows about it all—he knows—he knows.”
A Christian thinker such as Augustine or Dante would object to this because it ignores free-will, which is the valour and dignity of the soul. The quarrel of the highest Christianity with this scepticism is not in the least that the scepticism denies the existence of God; it is that it denies the existence of man.
In this aspect, Omar retains something significant from Islam. Renegade as he may be, there is something from Islam deep in his bones: God, the Player, will act as he will, and it is a fundamental error to think that our Yes or No makes a difference. And even in a renegade Muslim with little respect for popular piety, this foundational attitude remains.
By contrast, as I write, Today’s Vile Attack on Christianity is Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and ilk, and it would be a stretched argument to say that Pullman is trying to be Christian. Far from it; he provides Today’s Vile Attack on Christianity, but there is something very different from Khayyam. Pullman retains a profoundly Christian assumption: that his actions matter, that he can make a difference in the world. No one I’ve read has suggested that Pullman is fatalistic and treats the religious beliefs he hates as doomed to be there and that no endeavor he could make would matter or make a difference.
Philip Pullman is a renegade against popular Christianity, and Omar Khayyam is a lesser renegade against popular Islam, but they both retain something significant of the piety they rebel against. Pullman, on a very deep level, lives out the Christian belief that his Yes or No in fact matters for something, and Omar retains unchallenged the understanding that God alone may say Yes or No. This is the same conviction in the inshallah, bukra, malesh that it is not our place to say Yes or No, or at least say a Yes or No that makes an actual difference.
If it is not our place to say Yes or No, then what is democracy? Democracy can take some different forms, but its basic premise is that people can and should say a Yes or No that amounts to something, and whether it is a direct democracy, a representative democracy, or something else, the root idea is to empower people to say Yes or No… which, in other words, is to usurp the office of God in the eyes of many Muslims.
As far as insensitivity goes, the nearest equivalent I have been able to think of if someone were to conquer the U.S., would be decide that the best thing for our traditions would be to install a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. And that still does not capture an offense of a political assumption that, on many Muslim understandings, amounts to blasphemy.
If you want to know what this has to do with the Incarnation, let me ask you a question: What does the Incarnation mean if we are denied the freedom to say a significant Yes or No, if it is the very opposite of the truth to say that God created us to be his conversation partners?
One of the biggest things it means is that, if Christ had freedom to issue a real and significant Yes or No, this is as a special exception because he was God that does not have a direct bearing on our lives. If Christ alone had real freedom, the truth of this is a philosophical truth but not a practical truth that directly helps us live human lives. Christ’s divinity is not connected to our humanity, and it turns out that his humanity is dubiously connected to our humanity: which is to say, we are somewhat short of the Incarnation.
History may forget most people whom it does not call movers and shakers; God has numbered the hairs on our heads, and he forever remembers every person who has ever lived and indeed every action, every choice, every Yes or No as eternally significant choices as we choose between Heaven and Hell. This is to say that our freedom matters, and if Christ made a holy exercise of his freedom, this is the supreme example of human freedom with every relevance to our lives: an Incarnation that is not simply a philosophical truth, but has practical relevance to daily living.
More explicitly, the Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation is not, “Something that had not happened one second before the Annunciation when Mary conceived the Son of God, and something that was completely finished one second after that conception.” That almost approaches saying that building the United States of America was something that had not started one second before the first person signed the Declaration of Independence, and something that left nothing more to do one second after the last person signed that Declaration. Or it is like saying that once an inventor has a working prototype of some invention, all the real work has been taken care of—with no mention of the work that had to take place each time an invention like the light bulb, the car, or the computer became no longer a curiosity in an inventor’s lab, but saw widespread use in the community at large. It is a fundamental mistake to read the Bible, and read about the Church as the body of Christ, among other things, and think that the Incarnation ends with the Son of God becoming fully man in the conception of the Annunciation, and does not include Christ becoming Incarnate in the Church. The Incarnation is ultimately the Incarnation of Christ in the Church, in Christians whom the Bible rightly calls sons of God, and finally the whole Creation.
Once it is understood that we are created to be part of Christ’s Incarnation unfolding, that we are created to be co-workers with God and co-heirs with Christ, given a freedom to which God assigns eternal significance and created for the express purpose of being God’s conversation partners, then it may be easier to see that Islam with its inshallah, bukra, malesh and its renegade proclaiming—
The ball no question makes of Ayes or Noes,
But Here or There as strikes the Player goes;
And He that tossed you down into the field,
He knows about it all—he knows—he knows.
—then it is possible to see that the denial that we are given the place to say Yes or No is not random; it is part of the logic working out in Islam’s fundamental rejection of the Incarnation.
Now I would like to introduce another point. Is Islam better at being monotheist than Trinitarian Christianity? I would like to give an image for that.
I’ve heard the image that it is a fundamental error to say, excluding created spirits, that someone who doesn’t believe in God would count the number of items in the universe, everything from galaxies down to protons, and arrive at a number—let us say, 1,000,000,000,000,000—and the person who believes in God simply arrives at one more—let us say, 1,000,000,000,000,001: the person who doesn’t believe in God arrives at one number, and the person who does believe in God simply counts one more.
That error has been called idolatry; it’s the same kind of error as going into a plant that manufactures Bibles, and after being shown the machines that lay out the paper and the printers that lay down ink, asking to be shown, alongside the paper and ink, the spiritual authority that is being put into the Bibles. The spiritual value of the Bible is not the sort of thing that is ordered as a material used to make Bibles, and it is a fundamental error to ask to be shown the spiritual meaning the same way one could ask to be shown the glue or cloth materials used for binding. It is something of the same kind of error in thinking that God is one more thing that can be counted as material objects are counted—and Orthodoxy and Islam alike would really wince at the idea that God is one more thing that lets you reach a total of 1,000,000,000,000,001 objects in your counting.
The next step of this argument is as follows: if material counting is something you misuse by applying it to God, then denying that the Trinity is still one God may be the same kind of error as counting God as one more physical thing. God is beyond material counting, but this means more than denying “God is one more thing.” It may mean that if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God, the Oneness of God is so great that it is uninjured even by the Incarnation of God the Son. If the Oneness of God is on a higher plane my having one pen on my desk, perhaps it is on high enough of a plane that it is not threatened by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being the One God.
God is transcendent: he transcends, is beyond, anything and everything to be found in all creation. That is part of why, when we say that God is One, we mean something different from counting one pen—and something deeper. And part of this transcendence is something like heat. Depending on how tough we are, we might, or might not, be able to pick something up after it is hot from prolonged sunlight. Few of us would want to pick up a heavy black crowbar that has been soaking in summer sun and heat on the asphalt. Most of us want oven mitts, or some surrogate like a folded towel, to pick up something that has been in a hot 450° oven—it’s too hot to touch with bare hands. But even a good oven mitt has limits: I would not want, even with the best oven mitt I’ve used, to reach into a blacksmith’s furnace and pull out a large piece of iron so hot that it’s getting mushy. But there is something about the one God that is transcendently hot: hotter than red-hot iron, hotter than white-hot iron, hotter than a river of rapidly boiling steel, hotter than the heart of the sun, hotter than the Big Bang. The transcendent God is hotter than the heat of fire, plasma, and the Big Bang.
Many of the controversies in early centuries of the Christian Church were about Christ as the bridge between God and his Creation—because if the divine nature is of such heat, then the Creation needs an oven mitt to be in contact with its Creator. Arius proposed one solution, that the oven mitt was the foremost and unique creation. The Orthodox response was that this wasn’t good enough: a created oven mitt could insulate against a created heat, but only a truly transcendent bridge, or oven mitt, or mediator, could allow us to meet God without being destroyed: not only the fiery coal, but the oven mitt must be absolutely and fully divine. And here we can glimpse why the Orthodox Church found Trinitarian theology so necessary: she found, in fact, that the one God, if the logic is worked out and he is properly understood, to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that the doctrine of the Trinity is the radical understanding of the One God.
I mention this to guard against a reaction some may have: the reaction that says that Islam really believes in one God, while Christianity has to cross its fingers to say that. Now let me continue:
There are some people who believe that Islam is later than Christianity and extends Christian beliefs: Islam is Christianity with things added. This is quite the opposite of the truth! One way to see beyond this point is to ask the question, “What is said in Islamic worship that an Orthodox would wince at saying? And what is said in Orthodox worship that a Muslim might wince at?”
There are a number of things in Islamic worship that an Orthodox would believe: God is said to be One, to be merciful, to be the Creator of the world, and so on and so forth, and all of this the Orthodox believes. What the Orthodox would not be able to say, in good conscience, is that Muhammed is God’s Prophet. That would come close to the one thing that an Orthodox would squirm about agreeing to.
Now what about a Muslim in an Orthodox “divine liturgy”? God is said to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mary is praised as the Mother of God, icons are warp and woof to worship, and saints, perhaps called divine, share in the glory of God. Even the term “divine liturgy” may not be liked. And each of these is related to the Incarnation.
The Orthodox Church realized the doctrine of the Trinity as something it could not deny, precisely in the wake of wrestling with questions about the Incarnation. Perhaps it would be doubtful to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is a mere part of the doctrine of the Incarnation. What would not be doubtful is to say that the doctrine of the Trinity was articulated out of the Orthodox Church wrestling with heresies which gave a deficient understanding of the Incarnation. The Church proclaimed the doctrine of the Trinity after affirming what might be called “maximum Christology,” that Christ was everything he could be: maximally divine, maximally human, maximally united, and maximally preserving the divine and human even as they were united.
Now we get into territory some Protestants may be uncomfortable with: the great and scandalous phrase, “Mother of God.” Some may be eager to point out that “Mother of God” reflects a Greek term, theotokos, which might more accurately be translated as “Birth-Giver of God,” as “tokos” refers to birth better than the full freight of the English “mother.” In fact one could go further: “tokos,” in Greek, is a word used to describe both the person who gives birth and the one who is born, and on out-of-context, legalistic grounds, “theotokos” could mean “the one to whom God gave birth,” and one could make a mirror image of that switch to say that Christ, o prototokos twn nekrwn (Rev. 1:5), is “the dead’s chief birthgiver,” dodging the more sensible and customary rendering that he is “the firstborn from among the dead.”
This kind of cleverness is all very nice, but it is unhelpful in understanding the theology. The reason the term “theotokos” is significant is something that happened in Arius’s wake. Arius said that Christ was “a creature, but not as one of the creatures,” a unique first creature through whom God created every other, lesser creature. The Church’s response was, in essence, “If that is Christ, he is an oven mitt that will be incinerated if it touches the divine fire. Not good enough.” In Arius’s wake, it was clearly on the table that Christ had to be considered fully divine, and fully human. But one person, Nestorius, said that Christ was fully divine and fully human, but not quite fully united. The controversy came to a head when Nestorius said that Mary could and should be called, “christotokos,” “Mother of Christ,” but that it was absolutely inappropriate to call her “theotokos,” “Mother of God.” The verdict of the Church was that Nestorius had divided the Christ, because he would let the Mother of Jesus be called the Mother of Christ, but he denied that Christ was united enough that you could actually go so far as to say that she was simply the Mother of God.
The decision to call Mary the Mother of God is a move to protect the unity of Christ—that what could be said of the man Jesus could be said of God the Son, and what could be said of the Son of God could be said of the man Jesus. This is why some Christians speak—correctly—of the crucified God, because Christ is so united that it was inescapably God who was crucified if Jesus was crucified, and by the same token Christians insisted on speaking of God the Son, because Christ is so united that it is inescapably God who was born in her womb if she was the Mother of Jesus.
The reason Nestorius could only call Mary the Mother of Christ, and not the Mother of God, was because his christology drove a wedge between Jesus the man and God the Son that caused him to pull back from the full force of “theotokos.” Is it a valid response to try to be picky about the Greek and say that “theotokos” is really more accurately translated “Bearer of God”? If you’re really that concerned about linguistics and Greek, possibly, but in my experience that kind of argument is a matter of “Everybody has two reasons for everything he does—a good reason, and the real reason.” The good reason is a linguistic concern that goes above and beyond the call of duty of meticulous precision in translation… but a real reason is one of the fixations, almost one of the theological allergies, that arose out of the medieval Catholic West being very concerned about ferreting out idolatry, that Mary the theotokos receives reverence that God alone should receive. This is a sensible enough objection, if you forget how far Incarnation goes: Mary the theotokos gave Christ his humanity, and he gave her something in the exchange. But the force of the argument may leave it legitimate in English to call Mary “the Bearer of God,” but provides no theological justification to say, “On a purely material level, I have to acknowledge that Mary gave birth to God, but I am absolutely not going to say that Mary exercised the spiritual office of motherhood to the God to whom I technically have to acknowledge she gave birth.” If the theology is acknowledged that is behind saying that Mary gave birth to God, full stop, it is by the same argument necessary to say that she exercised the full human and spiritual office of motherhood to God, full stop. This is how the logic of the Incarnation unfolds.
And the logic unfolds. The parents of Mary, the Mother of God, are remembered as “the ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna,” and the icon depicting James, considered “the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19), has in Greek, “o adelphotheou:” “the brother of God.” And there is a deeper way that this logic unfolds.
The Incarnation is to happen in each person. Saints are people in whom the Incarnation shines brightly, but we were made for the Incarnation. Some exemplars who provide shining examples of the Incarnation are held forth as saints, but we were all made for divine, uncreated life they share in. The saints live lives out of the Incarnation, and they are part of how the Incarnation is shown to us.
In Orthodox worship, there may or may not be explicit words spoken about icons, but even if not a word is spoken about icons, actions may speak louder than words. A Muslim visitor to Orthodox worship will see something very different from the inside of a mosque, which may be adorned by quite beautiful abstract patterns, but in which anything like an icon is forbidden: pictures as such are forbidden, and it is in particular forbidden to make pictures of Mohammed: perhaps quite a perceptive rule reflecting an insight that a picture of Mohammed would not be likely to be, in the Western sense, simply a nice, inspiring picture on a wall.
What exactly is going on with icons may take some time to understand, but a Western visitor may notice that Orthodox seem to be treating icons differently from just a nice picture on a wall. The Orthodox do not simply stand back with an admiring gaze; they interact with the pictures and kiss them. There may be a line of people standing to pay respects to an icon, and people walking into the temple may almost seem like they are introducing themselves to the icons or greeting them, as one may greet friends one meets in a room.
Orthodox have traditionally called icons “windows of Heaven,” and I would like to take a look at what that means. One obvious meaning today is that they are spiritually a view into a larger world, and I would not discount that. People like to work, and perhaps work better, in an office with a window, and I would not discount that either. But it may help to look at some layers of that image that are harder to see today.
Artificial lighting has been around for a long time: lanterns were good enough in Edison’s time that when he invented the light bulb, many people responded, “Why do we need it? What does it give that an oil lantern does not?” But in fact light bulbs do something that is not in easy reach for candles and lanterns. If you have entered an Orthodox temple when all electric lights were off, there may have been dozens of lit candles—possibly hundreds—but this did not stop the room for being very dark. If you’re in a dark room and can barely see by candlelight for an hour a day, it may seem memorable and romantic; but a candle offers “just enough light to get by,” rather than “as much light as you really want,” and before the light bulb became common, work and activities tended to stop when the daylight fled: if you want to wrap something up, candlelight may give you more time, but if you want enough light to go full steam ahead, then you must either have daylight or a bright, electric light. Only with the electric light can it be common and ordinary for people to be working or playing well into the night, not particuarly caring about the hindrance of there being no sunlight worthy of the name. Before the light bulb, inside as well as out, you needed sunlight to really see outside, and you needed sunlight to really see inside. Given all this, let me ask a question: what more is a window if you can’t flip a switch and turn on the lights?
A window, without having lights, was almost everything that a light bulb is to us. Have you ever woken up, groggy, and fumbled around for the light switch? Have you ever noticed, during a power outage, how hard basic tasks become when you try, for instance, to use a windowless bathroom? Have you ever tried, at a friend’s house, to find the light switch for the bathroom when that part of the house is dark? We have good enough light bulbs that we can fail to understand how hard it is to function in darkness. But in a world without light bulbs, windows are the light bulbs. You don’t just look out the window to see what the weather is like; you can see inside because of the light that comes through windows.
There is another insight to be gathered from glass panes. Today, if one visualizes a window, it seems almost by definition to have a glass pane that provided another layer between what was inside the window, and what was outside. It was not always that way: if one looks at the great age of stained glass windows in the West, saying that a window normally has a glass pane is like saying that a wristwatch is normally a unique creation handcrafted by a master jeweller. (For ages, people knew how to make glass, but making glass was prohibitively expensive, and glass itself was rather precious.) I have seen handcrafted timepieces in museums, and if I had a year’s salary to blow, I could get a master jeweller’s unique creation, but my normal expectation when I see a wristwatch is that it’s mass-produced just like my wristwatch. Today a wristwatch is normally mass-produced, and before a couple of centuries ago a window was normally without glass. In another age, if the bugs were bad enough, a window might let light in through a covering, perhaps of vellum, that would let the window serve as a light bulb without making the insect count that much worse. Quite often, a window didn’t just let in light. It was also something that let in wind and the outside world: it was something wind could blow through.
To say this much is to miss something important, and something that does not particularly require a history-lesson: the “window of Heaven” is like a window one looks through to see a loved one one has been waiting for. Icons are not landscapes raised to a higher spiritual plane, or purely architectural, or a still life. All of those may make beautiful art, but if icons are windows of Heaven, they show people. They may show Christ, or his mother, or his saints, or angels, or people at a decisive moment, or the Trinity as shown through three angels. Most are icons of saints. This is to say that most icons are icons of people in whom Christ has become Incarnate… and icons are part of the Incarnation unfolding.
The Orthodox understanding is that you are missing the point of the Incarnation if you affirm that the Son of God became fully a man, but then deny the maxim of the ages, “The Divine became human that the human might become divine. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God. God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that men might become gods and the Sons of God.” To say that the Incarnation happened in Christ but is not to happen in us is worse than saying, “The operation was a success, but the patient died.” It is more like, “The grandmaster in chess played brilliantly until he reached an invincible position but then resigned in defeat,” or, “The operation was a success, but the physician refused to save the patient’s life,” or “The medical researcher discovered the perfect cure for cancer and then refused to share his results or let them save lives.” Since the earliest centuries the Orthodox Church has believed that the Incarnation did not stop when Mary bore the God-Man in her womb. Christ is meant to be Incarnate in Christians in every age.
(I’ve noticed that some of my friends list their Facebook “Religious Views” as “Follower of Jesus.” There’s something in that modest way of putting it that tempts me to list my own views as, “Orthodox Christian: ‘Follower of Jesus’ is another way of describing an alter Christus, Latin for ‘another Christ’!”)
Christ is the Savior and Lord of the whole Creation: there is indeed something very special about being human, but the sanctifying reach of the Incarnation is a sanctifying reach that extends to matter. The rule elsewhere in theology is that the deepest symbols are symbols that represent and embody what they represent, and it is the Orthodox experience that icons are just that degree of symbol.
One Protestant student at an Orthodox seminary mentioned, as a local oddity, that when he said he didn’t venerate icons, asked him if he believed in the Incarnation. To him the question was a complete non sequitur. But the Orthodox spiritual experience is that the veneration of icons is part of the Incarnation unfolding, and saying that you believe in the Incarnation but not that the Incarnation unfolds into icons, is a bit like saying that you want to be a scholar but don’t want to be troubled with reading books.
I would like to make one last remark about culture and the Incarnation, before shifting focus, from being primarily concerned about Orthodoxy and Islam, to being primarily concerned about Orthodoxy and the Reformation.
At least of the major groups of Orthodox Christians is Arabic. In the Arab world, there is a strong Muslim majority, but many parts of the Arab world have a significant Christian minority, and more specifically an Orthodox minority.
One aspect of different cultures are rules about touch—when it is and isn’t permitted, among other things. As may be guessed, the devout Muslim practice has much stricter rules than American culture, at least about men touching women: if I were to be introduced to a devout Muslim woman in many parts of the Arabic world—which is something of an if, as those cultures see many fewer reasons why such an interaction would be appropriate; the idea of “just hanging out” would seem strange—a devout Muslim woman may well place her hand on her heart and make a slight bow as a gesture of respect and acknowledgment, but shaking hands would be a big deal, and probably seen as at best questionably appropriate. In general, the lines of what would be considered appropriate would call for much less interaction, and even a tap on the shoulder would not obviously be “no big deal.” There are very different rules on touch, and a handshake with palm against palm is emphatically not “no big deal.”
The Arabic expression of Orthodoxy shows some Muslim influences; in some ways, it would be rather surprising if it didn’t. However, as regards touch, it is relatively common for Arab Christians to greet one another with kisses, including men and women giving each other kisses: this can be part of normal social interaction or of the Divine Liturgy.
If you are wondering what relevance this has to do with religion, as it seems obviously a cultural detail, it is one example of what an anthropologist would call “culture” being tied to worship and its implications. Such a kiss as is found in Arabic forms of Orthodoxy is also found in Slavic forms of Orthodoxy; the practice may differ slightly, and greeting with kisses may be more associated with special events, but both practices are the same reality.
In the Greek New Testament, the main word for worship literally means to emphatically kiss or bow. That may not survive in English translation, but there’s something there, and it is not an accident. In Orthodox worship, to kiss an icon is to display reverence that ultimately points to God: John the Damascene and others have been very clear that the respect you show to an icon passes through to God. It is an extension of the Incarnation. A kiss between Orthodox Christians is not simply a cultural detail; it is connected to the kiss given to icons, and it is connected to reverence to one in whom Christ is, to some degree, Incarnate. Orthodox speak today of people as living icons, and though this manner of speech has not always been in fashion, there is a connection between a kiss saluting an icon that is ultimately of Christ, and a kiss saluting a fellow believer who is being transformed into the likeness of Christ. And what is particularly interesting about Arabic forms of Orthodoxy is that the “custom” has survived over a millenium of Muslim rule. (It’s really not just a custom; if it were “just a custom,” it would not have survived nearly so long.)
Having looked at Orthodoxy, Islam, and the Incarnation, my point has not really been to say that Islam does not believe in the Incarnation; that much could be deduced from any decent encyclopedia entry on the topic. My real point of interest has been to look at exactly how Islam does not believe in the Incarnation: not only would devout Muslims be disturbed by the idea that God could become Incarnate, or that that would be fitting to God, but Muslim culture very clearly and consistently works out what it means to refuse to entertain the Incarnation. Actions not only speak louder than words; they also speak in more detail than words, and they can reveal things that words do not.
Now I would like to turn my attention from Orthodoxy and Islam, to Orthodoxy and the Reformation.
Perhaps this is setting limits on Protestantism, but most of the conservative Protestantism I know—or, rather, all—believes on philosophical grounds every finding about the Incarnation from the Church Councils. Every one of the Christologies that was deemed inadequate—including some I have not mentioned—is something Protestants and the better Reformers dismiss as out of bounds. What I have hinted at by referring to maximum Christology is something considered non-negotiable: Reformers may not ascribe definitive authority to the Church Councils in the sense that Orthodox do, but the findings about the Incarnation are effectively treated as “If you don’t believe this, you’re not Christian.” And so it would seem odd to question how much the Reformers believed in the Incarnation, but that is exactly what I want to question.
How much of what I have said about Islam could be said of the Reformation, or parts of it? I was thinking of Calvinism at some early parts of this essay. I cannot say that Calvinism encourages a fatalism that is languid about action. The “Protestant work ethic” we proverbially speak of is in fact a Calvinist work ethic, and Calvinists are often hard workers. Calvinist scholars proclaim in word and deed that “thinking Christianly” is a big deal. It would be a mistake to say that this aspect of Calvinist practice could have nothing to do with their theology. Therefore, what I have said earlier about Islam being conducive to inshallah, bukhara, malesh should not be applied to Calvinist Christianity.
As I have encountered it, Calvinism does not live a fatalistic life.
However, that does not take away a profound point of contact: Islam does not lead people to believe that they were created to be conversation partners for God, fashioned to contribute to the conversation. Calvinism is less than enthusiastic in trumpeting a theology of human contribution; some very serious Calvinists express the concern that if we believe we can contribute to our conversation with God, we have, in the title of one book, “No Place for [God’s] Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism” and if we understand God as sovereign, we can contribute nothing but a rubber stamp to God working in us. And in that regard, Calvinism, a bit like Islam, falls subject to Chesterton’s critique: “It denies the existence of man.”
And in that regard, Orthodoxy can raise the question of how far Calvinism really believes in the Incarnation.
My own experience with the Mennonite Church—even a Mennonite Church relaxed enough to encourage artistic impulses—is that the Mennonite Church worked out, very consistently, what it means to say that images can have no helpful spiritual reality. What I saw and experienced extended well beyond images: it meant that “spirit” and “matter” were in almost separate compartments: there was a special exception for people who were composed of both spirit and matter, and there was a phenomenal miracle when the Son of God became man, but these were exceptions that ran against the usual course of things.
In Orthodoxy, our physical world is pregnant with spirit: men are both matter and spirit because we are the microcosm a crowning jewel to Creation. We are the masterpiece of an excellent corpus, not a pearl crowded by worthless sand, and there is a mountain of differencve between saying “They’re all pretty good, but this one is the best,” and saying, “This is the only good one—the rest are atrocious.” It is the same difference as the difference between saying that spirit and matter are in separate water-tight compartments separated by a chasm except in the case of humans, and saying that the material world was made to share in spiritual glory, and that spiritual and material Creation are woven into the same masterwork with mankind as its ornament and jewel. This difference parallels the difference between saying on the one hand that there’s normal human life and then there’s one exception, Christ, who is so unlike what we normally mean by ‘human’, and on the other hand saying that Christ is the apex of human existence, the one man who fully lived the stature the human race was created for, the one whom St. Paul calls “the last Adam” (see I Cor. 15:45-49).
What I saw in Mennonite spiritual practice was that the iconoclasm was a microcosm of a world where people alone of the whole Creation bridged a chasm that otherwise separated spirit and matter, and the Incarnation was an exception: I never heard, “The Divine became human that the human might become divine.” The denial of Incarnation in icons left a spiritual world with no place for an Incarnation that was to take place in people: the Incarnation began and ended when the Son of God became a man.
And now on to the holy kiss.
I remember being shocked when an Orthodox friend mentioned, in a matter of fact way, that Orthodox Christians greet each other with kisses to celebrate (in this case) Pascha, and that this was rooted in the Biblical words about greeting one another with a holy kiss. This was so different from anything I had seen among Protestants, and I would like to talk about the contrast.
The best way I can concisely describe how the holy kiss was viewed is that, when Evangelicals want to give an example of cultural wackiness that somehow ended up in the Bible, there is one standard example that comes up: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”
I found the response when I suggested that those words be taken seriously to be essentially the same among the faithful and among (conservative) Bible scholars at Cambridge: if you say that “Greet one another with a holy kiss” should be given attention as part of God’s revelation, you might as well have sprouted a second head. The response from both groups was essentially culture shock: if I pressed my point, people might see that there was a point worth making, perhaps tell me I was on to something—but even when I pressed my point at Cambridge, not one scholar acknowledged my point that the verse admitted a study for doctrinal content. If I was to study the holy kiss in the Bible, it had to be a study of a cultural and historical detail, used for studying the Bible as a historical document, rather than as something doctrinal, spiritual, or otherwise relevant for us today. I wanted to do a spiritual and doctrinal study, and that was not allowed except as doctrinal and spiritual elements would occasionally come up in a study of history and customs.
My point in mentioning this is that people didn’t just disagree when I said “Greet one another with a holy kiss” is revelation and of spiritual benefit; it was so far out of the realm of things people could conceive as being taken seriously that it caused culture shock: my first battle was never about being agreed with; it was getting my position to be taken seriously. This seems to offer a very strong pedigree in saying that the holy kiss does not have much of a proper theological place to be put in. And if the holy kiss is a practice that derives from the Incarnation—if it is connected to the kiss of reverence that feeds into a major Greek term for worship of God—then this near-total inability to conceive of “Greet one another with a holy kiss” as God’s revelation for us is a near-total lack of needed and Incarnational soil for that practice to be planted in or grow out of. And this would seem to be another area where the Reformation attempts an unwavering and absolute faith in the Incarnation, but is very ill-prepared to live out a classical unfolding of the conviction.
When I was at Calvin, I remember one professor laying theological foundations. To address the question, “What were we made for?” he gave the answer, “Worship and culture,” only he deliberately gave it in Latin: “Cultas et culturas.” The reason is that, in English, ‘worship’ and ‘culture’ may be two separate words, but in Latin they spring from the same root, and the Latin exposes the connection. There may, or may not, be other things I disagree with him about. I don’t disagree with the point he was making there; I think it is beautiful, and I might press it further by saying that worship becomes incarnate in culture: worship gives its practical expression in culture. A culture bears witness to the nature of whatever God or god(s) its society worships. It bears a profound witness.
My thesis for much of this paper is that Orthodoxy demonstrates the unfolding of the Incarnation, and Islam demonstrates the unfolding of denying the Incarnation. There are many other factors at play, but several details about Orthodox practice and culture demonstrate what practical belief in the Incarnation may look like, and several details about Islamic practice and culture demonstrate what practical rejection of the Incarnation may look like. And if so, this may raise some very interesting questions about the Reformation and even the more conservative Protestant Christianity.
As far as ideas and statements go, absolute and full belief in the Incarnation is non-negotiable across the board for different forms of Protestant Christianity: there may be a lot of difference between the more conservative heirs of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, but asserting what the Councils asserted about Christ and the Incarnation remains entirely non-negotiable, and probably will remains so for as long as conservative Protestant Christianity is around.
However, in terms of cultural working out, there is real question about how far Protestant Christianity lets the Incarnation unfold: I have read very few Protestants solidly deny that the Incarnation ends with Christ, and in practical terms, many would agree to disagree with Calvinism over the question of free will, but I have het to hear the question of whether Calvinism, in denying man anything to contribute to his salvation save a rubber stamp, denies the reality of man and in so doing cuts down the Incarnation. None of the Evangelical critiques I’ve read of Calvinism say that Calvinism jeopardizes the Incarnation. That the Incarnation could unfurl so that it is right to call Mary the Mother of God, or direct reverence to saints—even Protestants who agree to disagree may be a bit squeamish, and the idea that this is a proper consequence of the Incarnation, almost its purpose, is not one that comes up. Icons as one feature of a sanctified cosmos with Christ as its head (Eph 1:22), don’t come up, and it is my impression that where there are no icons, there is a chasm between matter and spirit, and the unity of spirit and matter in Christ and the human person may be an exception rather than the highest example. There may be other issues to be raised as well: is the doctrine of the Invisible Church a doctrine of the Virtual Incarnation? The common thread running through these things is that the Incarnation may be asserted on a philosophical level by Protestants, but it does not seem to unfur as it might as the concrete culture plays out. The cultural shape of Protestant Christianity raises questions about how much practical belief there is in the Incarnation.
If the question is, “Where do we go from here?” the answer might be in the closing words of Mark 9:17-24 (RSV):
And one of the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a dumb spirit; and wherever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.”
And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”
And they brought the boy to him; and when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.
And Jesus asked his father, “How long has he had this?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.”
And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.”
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!“
C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader opens with a chapter called “The Picture in the Bedroom,” which begins, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Not long into the chapter, we read:
They were in Lucy’s room, sitting on the edge of her bed and looking at a picture on the opposite wall. It was the only picture in the house that they liked. Aunt Alberta didn’t like it at all (that was why it was put away in a little back room upstairs), but she couldn’t get rid of it because it had been a wedding present from someone she did not want to offend.
It was a picture of a ship—a ship sailing straight towards you. Her prow was gilded and shaped like the head of a dragon with a wide-open mouth. She had only one mast and one large, square sail which was a rich purple. The sides of the ship—what you could see of them where the gilded wings of the dragon ended—were green. She had just run up to the top of one glorious blue wave, and the nearer slope of that wave came down towards you, with streaks and bubbles on it. She was obviously running fast before a gay wind, listing over a little on her port side. (By the way, if you are going to read this story at all, and if you don’t know already, you had better get it into your head that the left of a ship when you are looking ahead is port, and the right is starboard.) All of the sunlight fell on her from that side, and the water on that side was full of greens and purples. On the other, it was darker blue from the shadow of the ship.
“The question is,” said Edmund, “whether it doesn’t make things worse, looking at a Narnian ship when you can’t get there.”
“Even looking is better than nothing,” said Lucy. “And she is such a very Narnian ship.”
“Still playing your old game?” said Eustace Clarence, who had been listening outside the door and now came grinning into the room. Last year, when he had been staying with the Pevensies, he had managed to hear them all talking of Narnia and he loved teasing them about it. He thought of course that they were making it all up; and as he was far too stupid to make anything up himself, he did not approve of that.
“You’re not wanted here,” said Edmund curtly.
“I’m trying to think of a limerick,” said Eustace. “Something like this:
Some kids who played games about Narnia
Got gradually balmier and balmier—”
“Well, Narnia and balmier don’t rhyme, to begin with,” said Lucy.
“It’s an assonance,” said Eustace.
“Don’t ask him what an assy-thingummy is,” said Edmund. “He’s only longing to be asked. Say nothing and perhaps he’ll go away.”
Most boys, on meeting a reception like this, would have either cleared out or flared up. Eustace did neither. He just hung about grinning, and presently began talking again.
“Do you like that picture?” he asked.
“For Heaven’s sake don’t let him get started about Art and all that,” said Edmund hurriedly, but Lucy, who was very truthful, had already said, “Yes, I do. I like it very much.”
“It’s a rotten picture,” said Eustace.
“You won’t see it if you step outside,” said Edmund.
“Why do you like it?” said Eustace to Lucy.
“Well, for one thing,” said Lucy, “I like it because the ship looks as if it were really moving. And the water looks as if it were really wet. And the waves look as if they were really going up and down.”
Of course Eustace knew lots of answers to this, but he didn’t say anything. The reason was that at that very moment he looked at the waves and saw that they did look very much indeed as if they were going up and down. He had only once been in a ship (and then only so far as the Isle of Wight) and had been horribly seasick. The look of the waves in the picture made him feel sick again. He turned rather green and tried another look. And then all three children were staring with open mouths.
What they were seeing may be hard to believe when you read it in print, but it was almost as hard to believe when you saw it happening. The things in the picture were moving. It didn’t look at all like a cinema either; the colours were too real and clean and out-of-doors for that. Down went the prow of the ship into the wave and up went a great shock of spray. And then up went the wave behind her, and her stern and her deck became visible for the first time, and then disappeared as the next wave came to meet her and her bows went up again. At the same moment an exercise book which had been lying beside Edmund on the bed flapped, rose and sailed through the air to the wall behind him, and Lucy felt all her hair whipping round her face as it does on a windy day. And this was a windy day; but the wind was blowing out of the picture towards them. And suddenly with the wind came the noises—the swishing of waves and the slap of water against the ship’s sides and the creaking and the overall high steady roar of air and water. But it was the smell, the wild, briny smell, which really convinced Lucy that she was not dreaming.
“Stop it,” came Eustace’s voice, squeaky with fright and bad temper. “It’s some silly trick you two are playing. Stop it. I’ll tell Alberta—Ow!”
The other two were much more accustomed to adventures but, just exactly as Eustace Clarence said, “Ow,” they both said, “Ow” too. The reason was that a great cold, salt splash had broken right out of the frame and they were breathless from the smack of it, besides being wet through.
“I’ll smash the rotten thing,” cried Eustace; and then several things happened at the same time. Eustace rushed towards the picture. Edmund, who knew something about magic, sprang after him, warning him to look out and not be a fool. Lucy grabbed at him from the other side and was dragged forward. And by this time either they had grown much smaller or the picture had grown bigger. Eustace jumped to try to pull it off the wall and found himself standing on the frame; in front of him was not glass but real sea, and wind and waves rushing up to the frame as they might to a rock. There was a second of struggling and shouting, and just as they thought they had got their balance a great blue roller surged up round them, swept them off their feet, and drew them down into the sea. Eustace’s despairing cry suddenly ended as the water got into his mouth.
I don’t know that C.S. Lewis was thinking about icons or Orthodoxy when he wrote this, and I am reluctant to assume that C.S. Lewis was doing what would be convenient for the claims I want to make at icons. Perhaps there are other caveats that should also be made: but the caveats are not the whole truth.
I don’t mean that the first time you see an icon, you will be swept off your feet. There was a long time where I found them to be clumsy art that was awkward to look at. I needed to warm to them, and appreciate something that works very differently from Western art. I know that other people have had these immediate piercing experiences with icons, but appreciating icons has been a process of coming alive for me. But much the same could be said of my learning French or Greek, where I had to struggle at first and then slowly began to appreciate what is there. This isn’t something Orthodoxy has a complete monopoly on; some of the time Roman Catholic piety can have something much in the same vein. But even if it’s hard to say that there’s something in icons that is nowhere else, there is something in icons that I had to learn to appreciate.
Icon of the Holy Transfiguration, Anonymous
A cradle Orthodox believer at my parish explained that when she looks at an icon of the Transfiguration, she is there. The Orthodox understanding of presence and memory is not Western and not just concerned with neurons firing in the brain; it means that icons are portals that bring the spiritual presence of the saint or archetypal event that they portray. An icon can be alive, some more than others, and some people can sense this spiritually.
Icons are called windows of Heaven. Fundamental to icon and to symbol is that when the Orthodox Church proclaims that we are the image of God, it doesn’t mean that we are a sort of detached miniature copy of God. It doesn’t mean that we are a detached anything. It is a claim that to be human is to be in relation to God. It is a claim that we manifest God’s presence and that the breath we breathe is the breath of God. What this means for icons is that when the cradle Orthodox woman I just mentioned says that she is there at the Transfiguration, then that icon is like the picture of the Narnian ship. If we ask her, “Where are you?” then saying “Staring at painted wood” is like saying that someone is “talking to an electronic device” when that person is using a cell phone to talk with a friend. In fact the error is deeper.
Icon of the Glykophilousa (Sweetly-Kissing) Mother of God, Anonymous
An icon of a saint is not intended to inform the viewer what a saint looked like. Its purpose is to connect the viewer with Christ, or Mary the Theotokos, or one of the saints or a moment we commemorate, like the Annunciation when Gabriel told humble Mary that she would bear God, or the Transfiguration, when for a moment Heaven shone through and Christ shone as Christians will shine and as saints sometimes shine even in this life. I don’t know all of the details of how the art is put together—although it is art—but the perspective lines vanish not in the depths of the picture but behind the viewer because the viewer is part of the picture. The viewer is invited to cross himself, bow before, and kiss the icon in veneration: the rule is not “Look, but don’t touch.” any more than the rule in our father’s house is “Look, but don’t touch.” The gold background is there because it is the metal of light; these windows of Heaven are not simply for people to look into them and see the saint radiant with Heaven’s light, but Heaven looks in and sees us. When I approach icons I have less the sense that I am looking at these saints, and Heaven, than that they are looking at me. The icon’s purpose is not, as C.S. Lewis’s picture, to connect people with Narnia, but to draw people into Heaven, which in the Orthodox understanding must begin in this life. It is less theatrical, but in the end the icon offers something that the Narnian picture does not.
It is with this theological mindset that Bishop KALLISTOS Ware is fond, in his lectures, of holding up a photograph of something obviously secular—such as a traffic intersection—and saying, “In Greece, this is an icon. It’s not a holy icon, but it’s an icon.”
Door (KPOYETE), CJS Hayward
(Not a holy icon, but an icon)
That, I believe, provides as good a departure as any for an Orthodox view of art. I would never say that icons are inferior art, and I would be extremely hesitant to say that art is equal to icons. But they’re connected. Perhaps artwork is lesser icons. Perhaps it is indistinct icons. But art is connected to iconography, and ever if that link is severed so that art becomes non-iconic, it dies.
Another illustration may shed light on the relation between iconography and other art. The Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ to Orthodox. It is not simply a sacrament, but the sacrament of sacraments, and the sacrament which all other sacraments are related. And there are ways the Orthodox Church requires that this Holy Communion be respected: it is to be prepared for with prayer and fasting, and under normal circumstances it is only received by people who are of one mind as the early Church. It encompasses, inseparably, mystic communion with God and communion with the full brothers and sisters of the Orthodox Church.
How does an ordinary meal around a table with family compare? In one sense, it doesn’t. But to say that and stop is to miss something fundamental. Eating a meal around a table with friends and family is communion. It is not Holy Communion, but it is communion.
A shared meal is a rite that is part of the human heritage. It persists across times, cultures, and religions. This is recognized more clearly in some cultures than others, but i.e. Orthodox Jewish culture says that to break bread is only something you do when you are willing to become real friends. The term “breaking of bread” in the New Testament carries a double meaning; it can mean either the Eucharist or a common meal. A common meal may not have Orthodox making the same astounding claims we make about the Eucharist, but it is a real communion. This may be why a theologian made repeatedly singled out the common meal in the Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Education Day publication to answer questions of what we should do today when technology is changing our lives, sometimes for the better but quite often not. I myself have not made that effort much, and I can say that there is a difference between merely eating and filling my animal needs, and engaging in the precious ritual, the real communion, of a common meal around a table.
If we compare a common meal with the Eucharist, it seems very small. But if we look at a common meal and the community and communion around that meal (common, community, and communion all being words that are related to each other and stem from the same root), next to merely eating to serve our animal needs, then all of the sudden we see things that can be missed if we only look at what separates the Eucharist from lesser communions. A common meal is communion. It is not Holy Communion, but it is communion.
In the same sense, art is not the equal of sacred iconography. My best art, even my best religious art, does not merit the treatment of holy icons. But neither is art, or at least good art, a separate sort of thing from iconography, and if that divorce is ever effected (it has been, but I’ll wait on that for how), then it generates from being art as a meal that merely fills animal, bodily needs without being communion degenerates from what a common meal should be. And in that sense I would assert that art is lesser iconography. And the word “lesser” should be given less weight than “iconography.” I may not create holy icons, but I work to create icons in all of my art, from writing to painting to other creations.
In my American culture—this may be different in other areas of the world, even if American culture has a strong influence—there are two great obstacles to connecting with art. These obstacles to understanding need to be denounced. These two obstacles can be concisely described as:
The typical secular approach to art.
The typical Christian approach to art.
If I’m going to denounce those two, it’s not clear how much wiggle room I am left over to affirm—and my goal is not merely to affirm but embrace an understanding of art. Let me begin to explain myself.
Let’s start with a red flag that provides just a glimpse of the mainstream Christian view of art. In college, when I thought it was cool to be a cynic and use my mind to uncover a host of hidden evils, I defined “Christian Contemporary Music” in Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary to be “A genre of song designed primarily to impart sound teaching, such as the doctrine that we are sanctified by faith and not by good taste in music.”
May God be praised, that was not the whole truth in Christian art then, and it is even further from being the whole truth today—I heartily applaud the “Wow!” music videos, and there is a rich stream of exceptions. But this doesn’t change the fact that the #1 selling Christian series today is the Left Behind series, which with apologies to Dorothy Parker, does not have asingle book that is to be set aside lightly. (They are all to be hurled with great force!)
If I want to explain what I would object to instead of simply making incendiary remarks about Christian arts, let me give a concrete example. I would like to discuss something that I discussed with a filmmaker at a Mennonite convention a couple of years I converted to Orthodoxy. I did not set out to criticize, and I kept my mouth shut about certain things.
What I did do was to outline a film idea for a film that would start out indistinguishably from an action-adventure movie. It would have one of the hero’s friends held captive by some cardboard-cutout villains. There is a big operation to sneak in and deftly rescue him, and when that fails, all Hell breaks loose and there is a terrific action-adventure style firefight. There is a dramatic buildup to the hero getting in the helicopter, and as they are leaving, one of the villain’s henchmen comes running with a shotgun. Before he can aim, the hero blasts away his knee with a hollow-nosed .45.
The camera surprisingly does not follow the helicopter in its rush to glory, but instead focuses on the henchman for five or ten excruciating minutes as he curses and writhes in agony. Then the film slows down to explore what that one single gunshot means to the henchman for the remaining forty years of his life, as he nursed a spiritual wound of lust for vengeance that was infinitely more tragic than his devastating physical wound.
The filmmaker liked the idea, or at least that’s what he thought. He saw a different and better ending than what I envisioned. It would be the tale of the henchman’s journey of forgiveness, building to a dramatic scene where he is capable of killing the hero and beautifully lets go of revenge. And as much as I believe in forgiveness and letting go of revenge, this “happy ending” (roughly speaking) bespoke an incommensurable gulf between us.
The difference amounts to a difference of love. Not that art has to cram in as much love, or message about love or forgiveness, as it can. If that happens, it is fundamentally a failure on the part of the artist, and more specifically it is a failure of a creator to have proper love for his creation. My story would not show much love in action, and it is specifically meant to leave audiences not only disturbed but shell shocked and (perhaps) sickened at how violence is typically shown by Hollywood. The heartblood of cinematic craft in this film would be an effort to take a character who in a normal action-adventure movie is faceless, and which the movie takes pains to prevent us from seeing or loving as human when he is torn up by the hero’s cool weapon, and give him a human face so that the audience feels the pain not only of his wounded body but the grievous spiritual wound that creates its deepest tragedy. That is to say that the heartblood of cinematic craft would be to look lovingly at a man, unloving as he may be, and give him a face instead of letting him be a faceless henchman whose only purpose is to provide conflict so we can enjoy him being slaughtered. And more to the point, it would not violate his freedom or his character by giving him a healing he would despise, and announce that after his knee has been blasted away he comes to the point of forgiving the man who killed his friends and crippled him for life.
Which is to say that I saw the film as art, and he saw it as a container he could cram more message into. That is why I was disturbed when he wanted to tack a happy ending on. There is a much bigger problem here than ending a story the wrong way.
I don’t mean to say that art shouldn’t say anything, or that it is a sin to have a moral. This film idea is not only a story that has a moral somewhere; its entire force is driven by the desire to give a face, a human face, to faceless villains whose suffering and destruction is something we rejoice in other words. In other words, it has a big moral, it doesn’t mince words, and it makes absolutely no apologies for being driven by its moral.
Then what’s the difference? It amounts to love. In the version of the story I created, the people, including the henchmen, are people. What the filmmaker saw was a question of whether there’s a better way to use tools to drive home message. And he made the henchman be loving enough to forgive by failing to love him enough.
When I was talking with one professor at Wheaton about how I was extremely disappointed with a Franklin Peretti novel despite seeing how well the plot fit together, I said that I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. He rather bluntly interrupted me and simply said that Peretti didn’t love his characters. And he is right. In This Present Darkness, Franklin Peretti makes a carefully calculated use of tools at his disposal (such as characters) to provide maximum effect in driving home his point. He does that better than art does. But he does not love his characters into being; he does not breathe into them and let them move. It’s not a failure of technique; it’s a failure of something much deeper. In this sense, the difference between good and bad art, between A Wind in the Door and Left Behind, is that in A Wind in the Door there are characters who not only have been loved into being but have a spark of life that has been not only created into them but loved into them, and in Left Behind there are tools which are used to drive home “message” but are not in the same senseloved.
There is an obvious objection which I would like to pause to consider: “Well, I understand that elevated, smart people like you can appreciate high art, and that’s probably better. But can’t we be practical and look at popular art that will reach ordinary people?” My response to that is, “Are you sure? Are you really sure of what you’re assuming?”
Perhaps I am putting my point too strongly, but let me ask the last time you saw someone who wasn’t Christian and not religious listening to Amy Grant-style music, or watching the Left Behind movie? If it is relevant, is it reaching non-Christians? (And isn’t that what “relevant” stuff is supposed to do?) The impression I’ve gotten, the strong impression, is that the only people who find that art relevant to their lives are Evangelicals who are trying to be relevant. But isn’t the world being anti-Christian? My answer to that is that people who watch The Chronicles of Narnia and people who watch Star Wars movies are largely watching them for the same reason: they are good art. The heavy Christian force behind The Chronicles of Narnia, which Disney to its credit did not edit out, has not driven away enough people to stop the film from being a major success. The Chronicles of Narnia is relevant, and it is relevant not because people calculated how to cram in the most message, but because not only C.S. Lewis but the people making the film loved their creation. Now, there are other factors; both The Chronicles of Narnia and Star Wars have commercial tie-in’s. And there is more commercial muscle behind those two than the Left Behindmovie. But to only observe these things is to miss the point. The stories I hear about the girl who played Lucy walking onto the set and being so excited she couldn’t stop her hands from shaking, are not stories of an opportunistic actress who found a way to get the paycheck she wanted. They are stories of people who loved what they were working on. That is what makes art powerful, not budget.
There’s something I’d like to say about love and work. There are some jobs—maybe all—that you really can’t do unless you really love them. How? Speaking as a programmer, there’s a lot of stress and aggravation in this job. Even if you have no difficulties with your boss, or co-workers, the computer has a sort of perverse parody of intelligence that means that you do your best to do something clearly, and the computer does the strangest things.
It might crash; it might eat your work; it might crash and eat your work; it might show something weird that plays a perverted game of hide and seek and always dodge your efforts to find out what exactly is going wrong so you can fix it. Novices’ blood is boiling before they manage to figure out basic errors that won’t even let you run your program at all. So programmers will be fond of definitions of “Programming, n. A hobby similar to banging your head against a wall, but with fewer opportunities for reward.”
Let me ask: What is programming like if you do not love it? There are many people who love programming. They don’t get there unless they go through the stress and aggravation. There’s enough stress and aggravation that you can’t be a good programmer, and maybe you can’t be a programmer at all, unless you love it.
I’ve made remarks about programming; there are similar remarks to be made about carpentry, or being a mother (even if being a mother is a bigger kind of thing than programming or carpentry). This is something that is true of art—with its stress and aggravation—precisely because art is work, and work can have stress and aggravation that become unbearable if there is no love. Or, in many cases, you can work, but your work suffers. Love may need to get dirty and do a lot of grimy work—you can’t love something into being simply by feeling something, even if love can sometimes transfigure the grimy work—but there absolutely must be love behind the workgloves. It doesn’t take psychic powers to tell if something was made with love.
I would agree with Franky Schaeffer’s remark in Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, when he pauses to address the question “How can I as a Christian support the arts?” the first thing he says is to avoid Christian art. I would temper that remark now, as some Christian art has gotten a lot better. But he encouraged people to patronize good art, and to the question, “How can I afford to buy original paintings?” he suggests that a painting costs much less than a TV. But Schaeffer should be set aside another work which influenced his father, and which suggests that if Christian art is problematic, that doesn’t mean that secular art is doing everything well.
Penny, Edward the Confessor (1042-1066)
An example of coinage that shows icon-like medieval figures, instead of photograph-style modern portraits. Other ancient and medieval examples abound.
When I was preparing for a job interview with an auction house that deals with coins and stamps, I looked through the 2003(?) Spink’s Catalogue of British Coins. (Mainly I studied the pictures of coins to see what I could learn.) When I did that, a disturbing story unfolded.
The Spink’s catalogue takes coins from Celtic and Roman times through medieval times right up through the present day. While there are exceptions in other parts of the world, the ancient and early medieval coins all had simple figures that were not portraits, in much the way that a drawing in a comic strip like Foxtrot differs from Mark Trail or some other comic strip where the author is trying to emulate a photograph. Then, rather suddenly, something changes, and people start cramming in as much detail as they could. The detail reaches a peak in the so-called “gold penny”, in which there is not a square millimeter of blank space, and then things settle down as people realize that it’s not a sin to have blank space as well as a detailed portrait. (On both contemporary British and U.S. coinage, the face of the coin has a bas-relief portrait of a person, and then there is a blank space, and a partial ring of text around the edge, with a couple more details such as the year of coinage. The portrait may be detailed, but the coinmakers are perfectly willing to leave blank space in without cramming in more detail than fits their design. In the other world coinage I’ve seen, there can be some differences in the portrait (it may be of an animal), but there is a similar use of portrait, text, and blank space.
This is what happened when people’s understanding of symbol disintegrated. The effort to cram in detail which became an effort to be photorealistic is precisely an effort to cram some reality into coins when they lost their reality as symbols. There are things about coins then that even numismatists (people who study coins) do not often understand today. In the Bible, the backdrop to the question in Luke 20 that Jesus answered, “Show me a coin. Whose likeness is it, and whose inscription? … Give what is Caesar’s to Caesar, and what is God’s to God,” is on the surface a question about taxes but is not a modern gripe about “Must I pay my hard-earned money to the Infernal Revenue Service?”, It is not the question some Anabaptists ask today about whether it is OK for Christians’ taxes to support things they believe are unconscionable, and lead one pastor to suggest that people earn less money so they will pay less taxes that will end up supporting violence. It’s not a question about anything most Christians would recognize in money today.
It so happens that in traditional fashion quarters in the U.S. today have a picture of George Washington, which is to say not only a picture but an authority figure. There is no real cultural reason today why this tradition has to be maintained. If the government mint started turning out coins with a geometric design, a blank surface, or some motto or trivia snippet, there would be no real backlash and people would buy and sell with the new quarters as well as the traditional ones. The fact that the quarter, like all commonly circulated coins before the dollar coin, has the image of not simply a-man-instead-of-a-woman but specifically the man who once held supreme political authority within the U.S., is a quaint tradition that has lost its meaning and is now little more than a habit. But it has been otherwise.
The Roman denarius was an idol in the eyes of many Jewish rabbis. It was stamped with the imprint of the Roman emperor, which is to say that it was stamped with the imprint of a pagan god and was therefore an idol. And good Jews shouldn’t have had a denarius with them when they asked Jesus that trapped question. For them to have a denarius with them was worse on some accounts than if Jesus asked them, “Show me a slab of bacon,” and they had one with them. The Jewish question of conscience is “Must one pay tax with an idol?” and the question had nothing to do with any economic harship involved in paying that tax (even though most Jews then were quite poor).
Jesus appealed to another principle. The coin had Caesar’s image and inscription: this was the one thing he asked them to tell him besides producing the coin. In the ancient world people took as axiomatic that the authority who produced coinage had the authority to tax that coinage, and Jesus used that as a lever: “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God’s the thing that are God’s.”
This last bit of leverage was used to make a much deeper point. The implication is that if a coin has Caesar’s image and we owe it to Caesar, what has God’s image—you and I—are God’s and are owed to God. This image means something deep. If it turns out that we owe a tax to Caesar, how much more do we owe our very selves to God?
Augustine uses the image of “God’s coins” to describe us. He develops it further. In the ancient world, when coins were often made of precious and soft metals instead of the much harder coins today, coins could be “defaced” by much use: they would be rubbed down so far that the image on the coin would be worn away. Then defaced coins, which had lost their image, could be restruck. Augustine not only claims that we are owed to God; he claims that the image in us can be defaced by sin, and then restruck with a new image by grace. This isn’t his whole theology for sin and grace, but it says something significant about what coins meant not just to him but to his audience.
During the Iconoclastic Controversy, not only in the East but before the overcrowded “gold penny”, one monk, who believed in showing reverence to icons, was brought before the emperor, who was trying to suppress reverence to icons. The emperor asked the monk, “Don’t you know that you can walk on an icon of Christ without showing disrespect to him?” and the monk asked if he could walk on “your face”, meaning “your face as present in this coin,” without showing the emperor disrespect. He threw down a coin, and started to walk on it. The emperor’s guards caught him in the act, and he was brutally assaulted.
These varying snapshots of coins before a certain period in the West are shapshots of coins that are icons. They aren’t holy icons, but they are understood as icons before people’s understanding of icons disintegrated.
When I explained this to one friend, he said that he had said almost exactly the same thing when observing the development or anti-development of Western art. The story I was told of Western art, at least until a couple of centuries ago, was a story of progress from cruder and more chaotic art. Medieval art was sloppy, and when perspective came along, it was improved and made clearer. But this has a very different light if you understood the older art’s reality as symbol. In A Glimpse of Eastern Orthodoxy, I wrote:
Good Orthodox icons don’t even pretend to be photorealistic, but this is not simply because Orthodox iconography has failed to learn from Western perspective. As it turns out, Orthodox icons use a reverse perspective that is designed to include the viewer in the picture. Someone who has become a part of the tradition is drawn into the picture, and in that sense an icon is like a door, even if it’s more common to call icons “windows of Heaven.” But it’s not helpful to simply say “Icons don’t use Renaissance perspective, but reverse perspective that includes the viewer,” because even if the reverse perspective is there, reverse perspective is simply not the point. There are some iconographers who are excellent artists, and artistry does matter, but the point of an icon is to have something more than artistry, as much as the point of visiting a friend is more than seeing the scenery along the way, even if the scenery is quite beautiful and adds to the pleasure of a visit. Cramming in photorealism is a way of making more involved excursions and dredging up more exotic or historic or whatever destinations that go well beyond a scenic route, after you have lost the ability to visit a friend. The Western claim is “Look at how much more extravagant and novel my trip are than driving along the same roads to see a friend!”—and the Orthodox response shows a different set of priorities: “Look how lonely you are now that you no longer visit friends!”
Photorealistic perspective is not new life but an extravagance once symbol has decayed. That may be one problem, or one thing that I think is a problem. But in the centuries after perspective, something else began to shift.
The Prophet Elias, Anonymous
Before photorealistic perspective.
There is rich detail and artistry in this icon of the Prophet Elias. To those making their first contacts with Orthodox iconography, it may seem hard to appreciate—the perspective and proportions are surprising—but the things that make it something you need to learn are precisely the gateway to what an icon like this can do that mere photographs can never do.
The Dream of Joachim, Giotto
Medieval art is beginning to become photorealistic.
In Giotto’s painting of the dream of Joachim, one can see something probably that looks like an old icon to someone used to photorealistic art and probably looks photorealistic to someone used to icons. Not all medieval art is like this, but this specific piece of medieval art is at once a contact point, a bridge, and a hinge.
Madonna of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci’s art is beginning to look very different from medieval art. In some ways Leonardo da Vinci’s art is almost more like a photograph than a camera would take—Leonardo da Vinci’s perspective is all the more powerful for the fact that he doesn’t wear his grids on the outside, and in this picture Leonardo da Vinci makes powerful use of what is called “atmospheric perspective”, giving the faroff place and above the Madonna of the Rocks’ shoulder the blue haze that one gets by looking through a lot of air. Hence Leonardo da Vinci’s perspective is not just a precise method of making things that are further away look smaller.
When Renaissance artists experimented with more photorealistic perspective, maybe they can be criticized, but they were experimenting to communicate better. Perspective was a tool to communicate better. Light and shadow were used to communicate better. It’s a closer call with impressionism, but there is a strong argument that their departure from tradition and even photorealism was to better communicate how the outsides of things looked in different lighting conditions and at different times of day. But then something dreadful happened: not only artists but the community of people studying art learned a lesson from history. They learned that the greatest art, from the Renaissance onwards, experimented with tradition and could decisively break from tradition. They did not learn that this was always to improve communicate with the rest of us. And so what art tried to do was break from tradition, whether or not this meant communicating better to “the rest of us”.
The Guitar Player, Pablo Picasso
Art that has disintegrated from photorealism.
In at least some of Pablo Picasso’s art, the photorealistic has vanished. Not that all Pablo Picasso art looks this way: some looks like a regular or perhaps flattened image. But this, along with Picasso’s other cubist art, tries to transcend perspective, and the effect is such that one is told as a curiosity the story of a museumgoer recognizing someone from the (cubist) picture Picasso painted of him. Of all the pictures I’ve both studied and seem live, this kind of Pablo Picasso art is the one where I have the most respect for the responses of people considered not to be sophisticated enough to appreciate Pablo Picasso’s achievement.
Some brave souls go to modern art museums, and look at paintings that look nothing like anything they can connect with, and walk away humbled, thinking that they’re stupid, or not good enough to appreciate the “elevated” art that better people are able to connect with. There’s something to be said for learning to appreciate art, but with most of these people the problem is not that they’re not “elevated” enough. The problem is that the art is not trying to communicate with the world as a whole. Innovation is no longer to better communicate; innovation at times sneers at communication in a fashion people can recognize.
The Oaths of the Horatii, Jacques Louis David
“High” art that communicates to ordinary people.
In an age before television, Jacques Louis David’s depiction of the oaths of the Horatii was extraordinarily powerful political communication, even political propaganda. Jacques Louis David combines two things that are separate today: elevated things from classical antiquity, and a message that is meant to communicate to ordinary people. A painting like one of Jacques Louis David’s was the political equivalent of a number of television news commentaries in terms of moving people to action.
The Franky Schaeffer title I gave earlier was Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts; the title I did not give is Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, which has disturbing lettering and a picture of a man screaming on its cover art. If there is a deep problem with the typical Christian approach to arts (and it is not a universal rule), there is a deep problem with the typical secular Western approach to arts (even if that isnot a universal rule either). A painting like “The Oaths of the Horatii” is no more intended to be a private remark among a few elite souls than Calvin and Hobbes; Calvin and Hobbes may attract the kind of people who like other good art, but this is never because, as Calvin tells Hobbes about his snowman art which he wants lowbrows to have to subsidize, “I’m trying to criticize the lowbrows who can’t appreciate this.”
The concept of an artist is also deeply problematic. When I was taking an art history class at Wheaton, the professor asked people a question about their idea of an artist, and my reaction was, “I don’t have any preconceptions.” Then he started talking, and I realized that I did have preconceptions about the matter.
If we look at the word “genius” across the centuries, it has changed. Originally your “genius” was your guardian angel, more or less; it wasn’t connected with great art. Then it became a muse that inspired art and literature from the outside. Then “genius” referred to artistic and literary giftedness, and as the last step in the process of internalization, “genius” came to refer to the author or artist himself.
The concepts of the artist and the genius are not the same, but they have crossed paths, and their interaction is significant. Partly from other sources, some artists take flak today because they lead morally straight lives. Why is this? Well, given the kind of superior creature an artist is supposed to be, it’s unworthy of an artist to act as if they were bound by the moral codes that the common herd can’t get rid of. The figure of the artist is put up on a pedestal that reaches higher than human stature; like other figures, the artist is expected to have an enlightened vision about how to reform society, and be a vanguard who is above certain rules.
That understanding of artists has to come down in the Christian community. Artists have a valuable contribution; when St. Paul is discussing the Spirit’s power in the Church, he writes (I Cor 12:7-30, RSV):
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
I would suggest that the secular idea of an artisan is closer to an Orthodox understanding of an artist than the secular idea of artist itself. Even if an artisan is not thought of in terms of being a member of a body, the idea of an artisan is one that people can accept being one member of an organism in which all are needed.
An artisan can show loving craftsmanship, can show a personal touch, can have a creative spark, and should be seen as pursuing honorable work; however, the idea of an artisan carries less bad freight than the idea of an artist. They’re also not too far apart: in the Middle Ages, the sculptors who worked on cathedrals were closer to what we would consider artisans who produced sculptures than being seen as today’s artists. Art is or should be connected to iconography; it should also be connected to the artisan’s craft, and people are more likely to give an artisan a place as a contributing member who is part of a community than artists.
If we look at technical documentation, then there are a number of believable compliments you could give if you bumped into the author. It would be believable to say that the documentation was a helpful reference met your need; that it was clear, concise, and well-written; or that it let you find exactly what you needed and get back to work. But it would sound odd to say that the technical writer had very distinctive insights, and even odder to say that you liked the author’s personal self-expression about what the technology could do. Technical writing is not glorified self-expression, and if we venerate art that is glorified self-expression, then maybe we have something to learn from how we treat technical writing.
If this essay seems like a collection of distinctive (or less politely, idiosyncratic) personal insights I had, or my own personal self-expression in Orthodoxy, theology, and faith, then that is a red flag. It falls short of the mark of what art, or Orthodox writing, should be. (And it is intended as art: maybe it’s minor art, but it’s meant as art.) It’s not just that most or all of the insights owe a debt to people who have gone before me, and I may have collated but contributed nothing to the best insights, serving much more to paraphrase than think things up from scratch. Michel Quenot’s The Icon: A Window on the Kingdom, and, for much longer, Madeleine l’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art have both given me a grounding. But even aside from that, art has existed for long before me and will exist for long after me, and I am not the sole creator of an Orthodox or Christian approach to the arts any more than a technical writer has trailblazed a particular technique of creating such-and-such type of business report. Good art is freedom and does bear its human creator’s fingerprints. Even iconography, with its traditional canons, gives substantial areas of freedom to the iconographer and never specify each detail. Part of being an iconographer is using that freedom well. However, if this essay is simply self-expression, that is a defect, not a merit. As an artist and writer, I am trying to offer more than glorified self-expression.
This Sunday after liturgy, people listened to a lecture taped from Bp. KALLISTOS Ware. He talked about the great encounter at the burning bush, when God revealed himself to Moses by giving his name. At the beginning of the encounter, Moses was told, “Take off your shoes, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” Bp. KALLISTOS went on to talk about how in those days, as of the days of the Fathers, people’s shoes were something dead, something made from leather. The Fathers talked about this passage as meaning by implication that we should take off our dead familiarity to be able to encounter God freshly.
I was surprised, because I had reinvented that removal of familiarity, and I had no idea it was a teaching of the Orthodox Church. Perhaps my approach to trying to see past the deadness of familiarity—which you can see in Game Review: Meatspace—was not exactly the same as what Bp. KALLISTOS was saying to begin a discussion about receiving Holy Communion properly. Yet I found out that something I could think of as my own private invention was in fact a rediscovery. I had reinvented one of the treasures of Orthodoxy. Part of Orthodoxy is surrender, and that acknowledgment that anything and everything we hold, no matter how dear, must be offered to God’s Lordship for him to do with as we please. Orthodoxy is inescapably a slow road of pain and loss. But there is another truth, that things we think are a private heresy (I am thinking of G.K. Chesterton’s discussion) are in fact a reinvention, perhaps a crude reinvention, of an Orthodox treasure and perhaps an Orthodox treasure which meets its best footing, deepest meaning, and fullest expression when that jewel is set in its Orthodox bezel.
There are times when I’ve wanted to be an iconographer (in the usual sense). I don’t know if that grace will ever be granted me, but there was one point when I had access to an icon painting class. When I came to it and realized what was going on, I shied away. Perhaps I wanted to learn to write icons (Orthodox speak of writing icons rather than painting them), but there was something I wasn’t comfortable with.
Parishes have, or at least should have, a meal together after worship, even if people think of it as “coffee hour” instead of thinking of it as the communion of a common meal. The purpose is less to distribute coffee, which coffee drinkers have enough of in their homes, than to provide an opportunity (perhaps with a social lubricant) for people to meet and talk. That meeting and talking is beautiful. Furthermore, a parish may have various events when people paint, seasonally decorate, or maintain the premises, and in my experience there can be, and perhaps should be, an air of lighthearted social gathering about it all.
But this iconography class had lots of chatter, where people gathered and learned the skill of icon painting that began and ended with a prayer but in between had the atmosphere of a casual secular gathering that didn’t involve any particularly spiritual endeavor or skill. Now setting my personal opinions aside, the classical canons require that icons be written in prayer, concentration, and quiet. There are reasons for this, and I reacted as I did, not so much because I had heard people were breaking such-and-such ancient rule, but more because I was affronted by something that broke the rule’s spirit even more than its letter, and I sensed that there was something askew. The reason is that icons are written in silence is that you cannot make a healthy, full, and spiritual icon simply by the motions of your body. An icon is first and foremost created through the iconographer’s spirit to write what priests and canons have defined, and although the iconographer is the copyist or implementor and not original author, we believe that the icon is written by the soul of the iconographer—if you understand it as a particular (secular) painting technique, you don’t understand it. That class, like that iconographer, have produced some of the dreariest and most opaque icons, or “windows of Heaven”, that I have seen. I didn’t join that class because however much I wanted to be an iconographer, I didn’t want to become an iconographer like that, and in the Orthodox tradition you become an iconographer by becoming a specific iconographer’s disciple and becoming steeped in that iconographer’s spiritual characteristics.
Years ago, I stopped watching television, or at least started making a conscious effort to avoid it. I like and furthermore love music, but I don’t put something on in the background. And, even though I love the world wide web, I observe careful limits, and not just because (as many warn) it is easy to get into porn. The web can be used to provide “noise” to keep us from coming face to face with the silence. The web (substitute “television”/”title=”Jonathan’s Corner → Library”music”/”title=”Jonathan’s Corner → Library”newspapers”/”title=”Jonathan’s Corner → Library”movies”/for that matter, “Church Fathers” for how this temptation appears to you) can be used to anesthetize the boredom that comes when we face silence, and keep us from ever coming to the place on the other side of boredom. When I have made decisions about television, I wasn’t thinking, on conscious terms, about being more moral and spiritual by so doing. I believe that television is a pack of cigarettes for the heart and mind, and I have found that I can be creative in more interesting ways, and live better, when I am cautious about the amount of noise in my life, even if you don’t have to be the strictest “quiet person” in the world to reap benefits. Quiet is one spiritual discipline of the Orthodox Church (if perhaps a lesser spiritual discipline), and the spiritual atmosphere I pursued is a reinvention, perhaps lesser and incomplete, of something the Orthodox Church wants her iconographers to profitably live. There is a deep enough connection between icons and other art that it’s relevant to her artists.
When I write what I would never call (or wish to call) my best work, I have the freedom to be arbitrary. If I’m writing something of no value, I can impose my will however I want. I can decide what I want to include and what I want to exclude, what I am going to go into detail about what I don’t want to elaborate on, and what analogies I want to draw. It can be as much dictated by “Me! Me! Me!” as I want. When I am creating something I value, however, that version of freedom hardly applies. I am not free, if I am going to create fiction that will resonate and ring true, to steamroll over my characters’ wishes. If I do I diminish my creation. What I am doing is loving and serving my creations. I can’t say that I never act on selfish reasons, but if I am doing anything of a good job my focus is on loving my creation into being and taking care of what it needs, which is simultaneously a process of wrestling with it, and listening to it with the goal of getting myself out of the way so I can shape it as it needs to be shaped.
There is a relationship that places the artist as head and lord of his creation, but if we reach for some of the most readily available ideas of headship and lordship, that claim makes an awful lot of confusion. Until I began preparing to write this essay, it didn’t even occur to me to look at the human creator-creation connection in terms of headship or lordship. I saw a place where I let go of arbitrary authority and any insistence on my freedoms to love my creation, to listen to and then serve it, and care for all the little details involved in creating it (and, in my case, publishing it on the web). All of this describes the very heart of how Christians are to understand headship, and my attitude is hardly unique: Christian artists who do not think consciously about headship at all create out of the core of the headship relation. They give their works not just any kind of love, but the particular and specific love which a head has for a body. If art ends by bearing the artist’s fingerprints, this should not be because the artist has decided, “My art must tell of my glory,” but because loved art, art that has been served and developed and educed and drawn into manifest being, cannot but be the image, and bear the imprint, of its creator. That is how art responds to its head and lord.
To return to spiritual discipline: Spiritual discipline is the safeguard and the shadow of love. This applies first and foremost to the Orthodox Way as a whole, but also specifically to art. Quiet is a lesser discipline, and may not make the front page. Fasting from certain foods can have value, but it is only good if saying no to yourself in food prepares you to love other people even when it means saying no to yourself. There are harsh warnings about people who fast and look down on others who are less careful about fasting or don’t fast at all and judging them as “less spiritual”. Perhaps fasting can have great value, but it is better not to fast than to fast and look down.
Prayer is the flagship, the core, and the crowning jewel of spiritual discipline. The deepest love for our neighbor made in God’s image is to pray and act out of that prayer. Prayer may be enriched when it is connected with other spiritual disciplines, but the goal of spiritual discipline and the central discipline in creating art is prayer.
There is a passage in George MacDonald where a little girl stands before an old man and looks around an exquisite mansion in wonder. After a while the old man asks her, “Are you done saying your prayers?” The surprised child responds, “I wasn’t saying my prayers.” The old man said, “Yes you were. You just didn’t realize it.”
If I say that prayer drives art, I don’t just mean that I say little prayers as I create art (although that should be true). I mean that when I am doing my best work, part of why it is my best work is that the process itself is an act of prayer. However many arbitrary freedoms I would not dare to exercise and deface my own creation, I am at my freest and most alive when I am listening to God and a creation about how to love it into being. It is not the same contemplation as the Divine Liturgy, but it is connected, part of the same organism. The freedom I taste when I create, the freedom of service and the freedom of love, is freedom at so deep a level that a merely arbitrary freedom to manipulate or make dictatorial insistences on a creation pales in comparison to the freedom to listen and do a thousand services to art that is waiting for me to create it.
“He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (I Jn 4:20, RSV). If an artist does not love God and the neighbors whom he can see and who manifest the glory of the invisible God, he is in a terrible position to healthily love a creation which—at the moment, exists in God’s mind and partially in its human creator, but nowhere else. This is another way of saying that character matters. I have mentioned some off-the-beaten-track glimpses of spiritual discipline; this leaves out more obvious and important aspects of love like honesty and chastity. The character of an artist who can love his works into being should be an overflow of a Christian life of love. Not to say that you must be an artist to love! Goodness is many-sided. This is true of what Paul wrote (quoted above) about the eye, hand, and foot all belonging to the body. Paul also wrote the scintillating words (I Cor 15:35-49, RSV):
But some one will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
These are words of resurrection, but the promise of the glorious and incorruptible resurrection body hinge on words where “star differs from star in glory”. An artist’s love is the glory of one star. It is no more the only star than the eye is the only part of the body. It is part of a scintillating spectrum—but not the whole spectrum itself!
I would like to also pause to respond to an objection which careful scholars would raise, and which some devout Orthodox would sense even if they might not put it in words. I have fairly uncritically used a typically Western conception of art. I have lumped together visual arts, literature, music, film, etc. and seem to assume that showing something in one case applied to every case. I would acknowledge that a more careful treatment would pay attention to their differences, and that some stick out more than others.
I am not sure that a better treatment would criticize this assumption. However, let’s look at one distinctive of Orthodoxy. One thinks of why Western Christians talk about how the superficial legend goes that the leaders of (what would become) Russia went religion-shopping, and they saw that the Orthodox worship looked impressive, and instead of deciding based on a good reason, they went with the worship they liked best. Eastern Christians tend to agree about the details of what people believe happened, but we do not believe the aesthetic judgments were something superficial that wasn’t a good reason. We believe that something of Heaven shone through, and if that affected the decision, people weren’t making a superficial decision but something connected with Truth and the Light of Heaven and of God. We believe that worship, and houses of worship, are to be beautiful and reflect not only the love but the Light and beauty of Heaven, and a beautiful house of worship is no more superfluous to light than good manners are superfluous to love. The “beauty connection” has not meant that we have to choose between good homilies, music, liturgy, and icons. A proper Orthodox listing of what constituted real, iconic art may differ from a Western listing, and there’s more than being sticks in the mud behind the fact that Orthodox Churches, by and large, do not project lyrics with PowerPoint. Part of what I have said about icons is crystallized in a goal of “transparency”, that the goal of a window of Heaven is to be transparent to Heaven’s light and love. Not just icons can be, or fail to be, transparent. Liturgical music can be transparent or fail to be transparent. Homilies can be transparent or fail to be transparent.
I’ve heard just enough bad homilies, that is opaque homilies that left me thinking about the homilist instead of God—to appreciate how iconically translucent most of the homilies I’ve heard are, and to realize that this is a privelege and not a right that will automatically be satisfied. The opaque Orthodox homilies don’t (usually) get details wrong; they get the details right but don’t go any further. But this is not the whole truth about homilies. A homily that is written like an icon—not necessarily written out but drawn into being first and foremost by the spirit, out of love, prayer, and spiritual discipline, can be not only transparent but luminous and let Heaven’s light shine through.
Some wag said, “A sermon is something I wouldn’t go across the street to hear, but something I’d go across the country to deliver.” I do not mean by saying this to compete with, or replace, the view of homilies as guidance which God has provided for our good, but a successful homily does more than inform. It edifies, and the best homilies are luminously transparent. They don’t leave the faithful thinking about the preacher—even about how good he is—but about the glory of God. When icons, liturgy, and homilies rise to transparency, they draw us beyond themselves to worship God.
My denser and more inaccessible musings might be worth reading, but they should never be read as a homily; the photographs in my slideshow of Cambridge might capture real beauty but should never be mounted on an icon stand for people to venerate; my best cooking experiments may be much more than edible but simply do not belong in the Eucharist—but my cooking can belong at coffee hour. The Divine Liturgy at its best builds up to Holy Communion and then flows into a common meal (in my culture, coffee hour) that may not be Holy Communion but is communion, and just as my more edible cooking may not be fit for the Eucharist but belongs in a common meal, I am delighted to tell people I have a literature and art website at CJS Hayward which has both short and long fiction, musings and essays, poetry, visual art, and (perhaps I mention) computer software that’s more artistic than practical. I have put a lot of love into my website, and it gives me great pleasure to share it. If its contents should not usurp the place of holy icons or the Divine Liturgy, I believe they do belong in the fellowship hall and sacred life beyond the sanctuary. Worshipping life is head and lord to the everyday life of the worshipping faithful, but that does not mean a denigration of the faithful living as lesser priests. The sacramental priesthood exists precisely as the crystallization and ornament of our priestly life in the world. As I write, I am returning from the Eucharist and the ordination of more than one clergy. Orthodox clergy insist that unless people say “Amen!” to the consecration of the bread and wine which become the holy body and the holy blood of Christ, and unless they say, “Axios!” (“He is worthy!”) to the ordination, then the consecration or the ordination doesn’t happen. Unlike in Catholicism, a priest cannot celebrate the Divine Liturgy by himself in principle, because the Divine Liturgy is in principle the work of God accomplished through the cooperation of priest and faithful, and to say that a priest does this himself is as odd as saying that the priest has a hug or a conversation by himself. The priest is head and even lord of the parish, but under a richer, Christian understanding of headship and lordship, which means that as the artist in his care he must listen to the faithful God has entrusted to his inadequate care, listening to God about who God and not the priest wants them to become, and both serve them and love them into richer being. (And, just as it is wrong for an artist to domineer his creation, it is even more toxic for a priest to domineer, ahem, work to improve the faithful in his parish. The sharpest warning I’ve heard a bishop give to newly ordained clergy is about a priest who decided he was the best thing to happen to the parish in his care, and immediately set about improving all the faithful according to his enlightened vision. It was a much more bluntly delivered warning than I’ve said about doing that to art.) The priest is ordained as the crystallization and crown of the faithful’s priestly call. The liturgy which priest (and faithful) is not to be cut off when the ceremony ends; it is to flow out and imprint its glory on the faithful’s life and work. Not only the liturgical but the iconic is to flow out and set the pace for life.
Art is to be the broader expression of the iconic.
Icon of the Trinity, Rublev
One of the greatest icons in the Orthodox treasury
Yet I am taking leave of Gandhi as the same Orthodox who took leave of C.S. Lewis. I take leave of Gandhi even as it unravels the style of nonviolence I found as a best interpretation of the The Sermon on the Mount. I find in the end not that I was too fixated on theThe Sermon on the Mount and took too much from it, but that I took too little. The Indian style of nonviolence has much to commend it, and I am impressed that Indian nationalism identifies with nonviolence instead of glorified violence that affects nationalism in so many other places. India and others have not let Gandhi be the last of a particular nonviolent alternative to violence. But there is a little bit of a burr under my saddle here. The Sermon on the Mount does not, in the main, offer an alternative answer to the questions addressed by just war and violence, not even the alternative answer of voluntary suffering that brought India’s freedom. It answers another question altogether.
How else could it be?
The rather obvious question to be raised, by just war Christian and by pacifist as well, is “How else could it be?” How does a Sermon on the Mount that says, “Do not resist evil” not call for nonviolent resistance if it is not taken as a hyperbolic statement that for more ordinary mortals means something like, “Be restrained when you must resist evil, and grieve when you must do so.”? And on this point I would place my own earlier position, and Blessed are the Peacemakers, in the same category as just war theory. It is an answer to what is the most effective legitimate means to address certain dark situations.
And the answer I would give is that the The Sermon on the Mount does not say, “Do not resist evil.” Or at least it does not stop there. It says in full,
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. After this manner therefore pray ye:
Our Father which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
When Christ preached these words, the crowds were astounded.
What is at the heart of this is a Life, a life like the birds of the air and the grass of the field, the Divine life, that is as naked as Adam. One of the greatest idols and transgressions against the The Sermon on the Mount. One particularly illumining footnote in The Orthodox Study Bible reads:
Then [Jesus] spoke a parable to them, saying, “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many good things laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” ‘ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night [angels shall require] your soul of you; then whose things be which you have provided?’
“So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God.”
The comment reads:
“Whose will those things be by which you have provided?” is the key to understanding the saving up of material goods. St. John Chrysostom writes that the only barns we need we already have: “the stomachs of the poor.” St. Basil the Great taught that the bread in our cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in our closet belong to the one who has no shoes, and money we hoard belongs to the poor. St. Ambrose teaches, “The things which we cannot take with us are not ours. Only virtue will be our companion when we die.” Even when Joseph stored up grain in Egypt (Gn 41), it was for the benefit of the whole nation.
Sandwiched between “Do not store up treasure on earth” and “No man can serve two masters” is the strange-sounding, sandwiched “The eye is the lamp of the body.” But this is of a piece with the text that surrounds it. Is our eye fixed on providing for ourselves through earthly means, or looking up to God in the trust that he will provide and the realization that he knows our needs better than we do and loves us better than we know how to love? If we are confused here then our eye is not “single”, but poisoned. Those of us who are not monastics are permitted some possessions, but better not to create an endowment that provides the illusion that we are not at the hands of the severe mercy of a providing God. And when we begin to loosen our grip on money, God’s providence is written in stronger, starker strokes.
And the point of this is not to fetter us, but to free us from what seems necessary and recognize the shackles we were bound to. On this point I am talking about money; but I might as well speak of a gun and self-defense lessons. The Sermon on the Mount‘s motto is not a Boy Scout’s Be prepared, but a carefree, Don’t be prepared. Be as naked as Adam.
The Divine Liturgy and its associated readings speak of “He who of old stripped you both naked,” meaning “The Devil who of old stripped you, Adam and Eve, both naked.” It wasn’t just that their flesh in its pure form raised no question of lust. Neither fire nor water nor the elements could touch Adam or Eve until they abdicated, and there are stories of a saint who threw down the gauntlet to a sorceror, walked into a fire and said “I’m unharmed,” and when the sorceror was thrown into the flame with him and was burned, healed him and sent him out unharmed. On a more mortal level, monks and nuns can dress almost or exactly the same in terms of layers of clothing between summer and winter, and that includes an American Midwest summer and winter. Paradise is where the saints are; the door may have been closed to Adam and Eve but it is open to the saints.
And all of this is an invitation to freedom, free and absolute, unencumbered and unchained freedom. It is not legalism that bids us, “If someone conscript you to go with him one mile, go with him two;” it is utter freedom even from selfishly stopping with what was asked. Christ the Lily of the Valley is the flower that leaves a fragrant scent on the heel that crushes it: but what we may find is that those things we expect to crush us, are just the removal of a shackle. And at the end saintly peacemakers are of a piece with the merciful, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake: there is a unity of the beatitudes and they are rightly sung as a shorthand for the entire Sermon on the Mount in every Orthodox Liturgy. There is freedom to trust in the Lord’s providence, freedom to every kind of generosity, freedom from lust, freedom from anger, every freedom that counts.
Q: So what’s the difference?
A: The Saint and the Activist.
Some readers may wonder where really I have departed from Gandhi. If he were alive, quite possibly he could say he agreed with most or all of it, not out of diplomatically seeking common ground, but out of a direct candour. But I assert there is a difference.
Military action and nonviolent resistance are two answers to the same question. Between the two, military action has much to commend it, and in fact Gandhi had great respect for soldiers: in Blessed Are the Peacemakers, I wrote:
Once the men of a village came, running, and told Gandhi that they had run away while the police were raping and pillaging. When they told him that this was because of his instruction to be nonviolent, he hung his head in shame. He would not have been angry with them if they had defended their families by the power of a sword. He would have approved had they stood in harm’s way, calling all injury to themselves without seeking to strike or to harm, to the point of death. But to run away like that and passively leave those who could not run was an act of great and terrible cowardice, the darkest possible answer to the problem.
From speaking with and listening to soldiers, I recognize military training and life as the cross of St. George, an ascetical framework that is much more disciplined than most life outside the military. Hard work and dedication are good things, and there is much to be praised about the cross of St. George. Nonviolent activism such as Gandhi offered, the practice of satyagraha which I refer to as ‘peacemaking’, perhaps questionably, has more to commend it. It is also disciplined, and it does not resist force with force. None the same, it is an alternative in the same orbit as military action. It does not stain its hands with others’ blood, but it is a tool you can use to achieve the same kind of end as military resources. India’s independence was won with nonviolent resistance. But it is the sort of goal that could have been achieved by warfare, and in fact it stands in stark contrast to other nations as “achieving without bearing the sword what elsewhere has not been gained except by bearing the sword.” And this falls infinitely short of resting in the hands of providence, naked as Adam.
By means an atheist and a religious person could equally recognize as effective.
Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you. This means that you work sometimes in ways an atheist would see as foolish.
What is the place of nonviolence?
It is a tool for political influence.
It is a flower of spiritual growth.
What is the place of discipline?
If you are disciplined, you are more effective at getting things done.
Protestants have said, “Mission exists because worship does not:” no one, without exception, exists for the sake of missions. All mankind, without exception, exists for the sake of worshipping God. Some people, however, are deprived of the purpose for which they are created, and therefore some people are missionaries so that more people may enjoy the purpose for which they are made. In like fashion, spiritual discipline exists because contemplation does not. It is a corrective when we have lost touch with the life of contemplation.
What do you live to become?
A catalyst for a better world.
To become by grace what Christ is by nature.
What is the Bible for?
To push moral authority behind the causes we further.
Part of God’s work to shape us to grow in faith.
What is justice?
Equitable redistribution of resources, as conceived by assuming that political reforms included in this goal will do nothing to hinder the economy’s ability to do all that is asked of it.
One of the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity, that is at times interchangeable with spiritual righteousness.
What is the government’s role?
The more important a task is, the more essential it is that it is channeled through the government. Success usually includes bringing about governmental reforms.
Government has a place, but that place is not the place of a messiah. Success is not usually connected to governmental reforms.
Can human nature be improved on?
Yes; we can bring it about in others through political programs.
Yes; if we let God work with us we will be improved in the work.
What attitude brings real success?
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Be it unto me according to thy word.
What is wrong with the world?
A number of issues, most importantly the issues I am fighting and giving the most advcocacy for.
Where does Gandhi stand in all of this?
There was one document forwarded that listed a bunch of statements like, “If you disapprove of sport utility vehicles and private jets and own a sport utility vehicle and private jet, you might be a liberal.” And on that count, Gandhi cannot be called an unadorned Activist. He didn’t just say, “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s wants;” his gaunt frame attests to the fact that he was attending to the beam in his own eye rather than the speck in his brother’s eye. His writing is devout; “God” is not, as with many of today’s Activists, a word not to be used in polite company. Gandhi cannot be completely understood except with reference to Saints, and what I would call the centerpiece of his Activism is drawn out of from Saint terrain. Gandhi’s particular genius is to take nonviolent resistance as one of many particular eddies in the flow of holiness in the plane of the Saint, and transform it to be a keystone in the plane of the Activist. That places Gandhi away from being at least a pure saint to being substantially an Activist. It makes him, in fact, more of an Activist than if he had merely used existing Activist tools; he was Activist enough to profoundly contribute to the bedrock of Activism.
Furthermore, I am concerned about the wake that he has left. Not that this is a unique concern about Mr. Gandhi; I have raised concerns about the wake left by Fr. Seraphim (Rose). I have seen one Gandhi quote in the wild that alludes to the Sermon on the Mount, “An eye for an eye only ends by making the whole world blind.” But this is an Activist argument; an atheist Activist and a Saint could equally agree that the basic argument is sound or unsound. And that’s it for religious quotes. In All Men Are Brothers, Gandhi unashamedly, frequently, and freely refers to God. But I have never seen a Gandhi quote in the wild that uses the G-word. And when Gandhi’s style of nonviolent resistance is imitated today, it is used in a way that is completely detached from the Saint’s freedom, that is more removed from the Saint than not protesting.
Rivers of living water
By contrast, I would tell the story of St. Photini, the Woman at the Well, or part of it. It was shameful for the Woman at the Well to come alone to draw water; women would come together to draw water in groups. No other woman would be caught dead with a woman of her reputation, and when she evasively answered Jesus’s “Go and call your husband,” she was dodging her shame. Earlier she had sought to enlist Christ’s help in running from her shame; her words, “Give me this water,” were not so that she could dodge the manual labor of drawing water, but so that she could run from the shame of having to draw water alone. And Christ did not give her what she wanted; instead, in answering her evasive “I have no husband” with, “You have truly said, ‘I have no husband’, for you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband,” pulled her through her shame and opened her eyes to higher things. The story builds up to her running, free from shame, telling people, “Come and see a man who told me every thing I ever did!” She sought Christ’s help in covering up her shame; instead he made her unashamed as Adam. And it is in this unashamed woman that the story unfolded of a Great Martyr and Equal to the Apostles.
This is what it means to be naked as Adam. It is not a license for indecency; when she gave Christ an evasive answer, he called a spade a spade. But she did become like the Adam whom fire and water could not harm. The point of this is not that her story goes on to her being tortured and her whole company drinking poison and being unharmed by it, but that everything at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount was alive in her. In her later story much is told of miracles, but perhaps we should make less of the fact that she went to tortures and was miraculously delivered, and more of the fact that she went to tortures and was faithful. She did, in the spirit of giving more than was asked, when Nero decided to bring her to trial, she went ahead and tried to convert him. She didn’t succeed at that, but she did seem to convert practically everyone else she came in contact with. But what is significant is not just the results that she brought about. What is significant is that she was faithful, with the overflowing freedom that soars as the birds of the air. Perhaps we are not Saints on the level of St. Photini; perhaps it is not within our reach to be called Equal to the Apostles. But what is in our reach is to be a little more a Saint, a little less of an Activist.
Now, a word on being naked as Adam. St. Photini wore clothes and so should we. It is true that there are some saints who labored without clothing: the pre-eminent example is St. Mary of Egypt, and there have been male Desert Fathers who were naked. But we should wear normal clothes even as St. Photini did. What is forbidden to those who would be naked as Adam is not literal clothing but metaphorical armor. What is forbidden is not trusting in God’s Providence but trying, in addition to the Lord’s Providence, or instead of it (if these are really two different things) to straighten things out for ourselves. The opposite of this is someone like St. Photini who, instead of waiting to be captured, went on her own initiative to Caesar Nero. She trusted in God’s Providence in a way that could be seen as blackmailing God. But there is something very like Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance, not in how the Saint deals with evil in the world, but how the Saint works with God. If a Saint were told, “You are making no provision to take yourself but it’s like you’re blackmailing God by your actions,” one Saint might respond, giving more than was asked, “Yes, I’m emotionally blackmailing God, and you should emotionally blackmail him too!”
Deep in our bones
Activism runs deep in our bones today; I surprised one professor who discussed disability and an “autism and advocacy” conference, that the natural way to seek the best interests of the autistic community is by political advocacy. And I tried, perhaps in vain, to show her that of the two assigned articles she gave on dealing with autism and disability, one offered a clear activist agenda for autism and disability, and the other was not political, at least not in an overly narrow understanding of politics, but was the father of an autistic child speaking of limitless love. My professor couldn’t see what would benefit the autistic besides rolling out one more theme in political activism.
And so, with activism deep in our bones, if we look for a saint, the kind of figure that so naturally comes to mind is Gandhi, or Martin Luther King if we insist on a Christian. Both admired and sought to imitate Christ; both led nonviolent resistance against laws that were legislated evil. Both sought a response to evils out of the Sermon on the Mount. And both contributed to the Activist outlook that is now non-negotiable in the academy. Not necessarily that Gandhi’s style of nonviolence is non-negotiable; Gandhi respected his enemies, while it is perfectly socially acceptable in some queer circles to break in to Catholic churches and vandalize them, and spray paint swastikas to identify Romans with Hitler. But the question in so much of the academy is not, “Are you a Saint or an Activist,” but, “On to the real question. What kind of Activist are you?” (If they have enough distance to recognize that that is the only real question in their eyes.)
You helped me reach where I am now, and I would be much poorer had our conversation been deleted from my past. I have sat at your feet. But now even what I have taken from you summons me to bid you farewell. If your right eye or your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. Holding on to your ecumenism, Mr. Lewis, or—it is a deeper cut—your nonviolence, Mr. Gandhi, is to lose everything you sought for. The journey in faith involves many times when we cut off a right hand or take out a right eye. Perhaps we lose nothing, or only a piece of Hell, when we do so. But God created man to glorify him and become him forever, and I cannot be an Activist: I can only strive to be a Saint.
There is an elephant in the room.But Catholics are very skilled at NOT seeing it.
What might be called “the Orthodox question”
I expect ecumenical outreach to Orthodox has been quite a trying experience for Catholics. It must seem to Catholics like they have made Orthodoxy their top ecumenical priority, and after they have done their best and bent over backwards, many Orthodox have shrugged and said, “That makes one of us!” or else made a nastier response. And I wonder if Catholics have felt a twinge of the Lord’s frustration in saying, “All day long I have held out my hands to a rebellious and stubborn people.” (Rom 10:21)
In my experience, most Catholic priests have been hospitable: warm to the point of being warmer to me than my own priests. It almost seems as if the recipe for handling Orthodox is to express a great deal of warmth and warmly express hope for Catholics and Orthodox to be united. And that, in a nutshell, is how Catholics seem to conceive what might be called “the Orthodox question.”
And I’m afraid I have something painful to say. Catholics think Orthodox are basically the same, and that they understand us. And I’m asking you to take a tough pill to swallow: Catholics do not understand Orthodox. You think you do, but you don’t.
I’d like to talk about an elephant in the room. This elephant, however painfully obvious to Orthodox, seems something Catholics are strikingly oblivious to.
A conciliatory gesture (or so I was told)
All the Orthodox I know were puzzled for instance, that the Pope thought it conciliatory to retain titles such as “Vicar of Jesus Christ,” “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles,” and “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church,” but drop “Patriarch of the West.” Orthodox complain that the Roman bishop “was given primacy but demanded supremacy,” and the title “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church” is offensive. Every bishop is the successor of the prince of the apostles, so reserving that title to the Pope is out of line. But Orthodoxy in both ancient and modern times regard the Pope as the Patriarch of Rome, and the Orthodox Church, having His Holiness IGNATIUS the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, has good reason to call the Patriarch of Rome, “the Patriarch of the West.” The response I heard to His Holiness Benedict dropping that one title while retaining the others, ranged from “Huh?” to, “Hello? Do you understand us at all?”
What Catholics never acknowledge
That is not a point I wish to belabor; it is a relatively minor example next to how, when in my experience Catholics have warmly asked Orthodox to reunify, never once have I seen any recognition or manifest awareness of the foremost concern Orthodox have about Rome and Constantinople being united. Never once have I seen mere acknowledgment of the Orthodox concern about what Rome most needs to repent of.
Let me clarify that slightly. I’ve heard Catholics acknowledge that Catholics have committed atrocities against Orthodox in the past, and Catholics may express regrets over wrongs from ages past and chide Orthodox for a lack of love in not being reunified. But when I say, “what Rome most needs to repent of,” I am not taking the historian’s view. I’m not talking about sack of the Constantinople, although people more Orthodox than me may insist on things like that. I am not talking about what Rome has done in the past to repent of, but what is continuing now. I am talking about the present tense, and in the present tense. When Catholics come to me and honor Orthodoxy with deep warmth and respect and express a desire for reunion, what I have never once heard mention of is the recantation of Western heresy.
This may be another tough pill to swallow. Catholics may know that Orthodox consider Catholics to be heretics, but this never enters the discussion when Catholics are being warm and trying to welcome Orthodox into their embrace. It’s never acknowledged or addressed. The warm embrace instead affirms that we have a common faith, a common theology, a common tradition: we are the same, or so Orthodox are told, in all essentials. If Orthodox have not restored communion, we are told that we do not recognize that we have all the doctrinal agreement properly needed for reunification.
But don’t we agree on major things? Rome’s bishops say we do!
I would like to outline three areas of difference and give some flesh to the Orthodox claim that there are unresolved differences. I would like to outline one issue about what is theology, and then move on to social ethics, and close on ecumenism itself. I will somewhat artificially limit myself to three; some people more Orthodox than me may wonder why, for instance, I don’t discuss the filioque clause (answer: I am not yet Orthodox enough to appreciate the importance given by my spiritual betters, even if I do trust that they are my spiritual betters). But there’s a lot in these three.
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’sSumma 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.
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.
Arius is more scathingly condemned in Orthodox liturgy than even Judas. And, contrary to current fashion, I really do believe Arius and Arianism are as bad as the Fathers say. But Arius never dreamed either of reasoning out systematic theology or of establishing social justice. His Thalia are a (perhaps very bad) invitation to worship, not a systematic theology or a plan for social justice. In those regards, Catholic theology not only does not reach the standard of the old Orthodox giants: it does not even reach the standard of the old arch-heretics!
Catholics today celebrate Orthodoxy and almost everything they know about us save that we are not in full communion. Catholic priests encourage icons, or reading the Greek fathers, or the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But what Catholics may not always be mindful of is that they celebrate Orthodoxy and put it alongside things that are utterly anathema to Orthodox: like heartily endorsing the Orthodox Divine Litugy and placing it alongside the Roman mass, Protestant services, Unitarian meetings, Hindu worship, and the spiritualist séance as all amply embraced by Rome’s enfolding bosom.
What we today call “ecumenism” is at its root a Protestant phenomenon. It stems from how Protestants sought to honor Christ’s prayer that we may all be one, when they took it as non-negotiable that they were part of various Protestant denominations which remained out of communion with Rome. The Catholic insistance that each Protestant who returns to Rome heals part of the Western schism is a nonstarter for this “ecumenism:” this “ecumenism” knows we need unity but takes schism as non-negotiable: which is to say that this “ecumenism” rejects the understanding of Orthodox, some Catholics, and even the first Protestants that full communion is full communion and what Christ prayed for was a full communion that assumed doctrinal unity.
One more thing that is very important to many Orthodox, and that I have never once heard acknowledged or even mentioned by the Catholics reaching so hard for ecumenical embrace is that many Orthodox are uneasy at best with ecumenism. It has been my own experience that the more devout and more mature Orthodox are, the more certainly they regard ecumenism as a spiritual poison. Some of the more conservative speak of “ecumenism awareness” as Americans involved in the war on drugs speak of “drug awareness.”
Catholics can be a lot like Orthodox in their responses to Protestants and Protestant ideas of ecumenism; one might see a Catholic responding to an invitation to join an ecumenical communion service at First Baptist by saying something like,
I’m flattered by your ecumenical outreach… And really am, um, uh, honored that you see me as basically the same as an Evangelical… And I really appreciate that I am as welcome to join you in receiving communion as your very own flock… Really, I’m flattered…
…But full communion is full communion, and it reflects fundamental confusion to put the cart before the horse. For us to act otherwise would be a travesty. I know that you may be generously overlooking our differences, but even if it means being lessgenerous, we need to give proper attention to our unresolved differences before anything approaching full communion would be appropriate.
But Catholics seem to be a bit like Protestants in their ecumenical advances to Orthodox. If I understand correctly, whereas Rome used to tell Orthodox, “You would be welcome to take communion with us, but we would rather you obey your bishops,” now I am told by Rome that I may remain Orthodox while receiving Roman communion, and my reply is,
I’m flattered by your ecumenical outreach… And really am, um, uh, honored that you see me as basically the same as any Catholic… And I really appreciate that I am as welcome to join you in receiving communion as your very own flock… Really, I’m flattered…
…But full communion is full communion, and it reflects fundamental confusion to put the cart before the horse. For us to act otherwise would be a travesty. I know that you may be generously overlooking our differences, but even if it means being lessgenerous, we need to give proper attention to our unresolved differences before anything approaching full communion would be appropriate.
If the Roman Church is almost Orthodox in its dealings with Protestants, it in turn seems almost Protestant in its dealings with Orthodox. It may be that Rome looks at Orthodoxy and sees things that are almost entirely permitted in the Roman Church: almost every point of theology or spirituality that is the only way to do things in Orthodoxy is at least a permitted option to Roman Catholics. (So Rome looks at Orthodoxy, or at least some Romans do, and see Orthodox as something that can be allowed to be a full-fledged part of the Roman communion: almost as Protestants interested in ecumenism look at the Roman Church as being every bit as much a full-fledged Christian denomination as the best of Protestant groups.) But the reverse of this phenomenon is not true: that is, Orthodox do not look at Rome and say, “Everything that you require or allow in spiritual theology is also allowed in healthy Eastern Orthodoxy.” Furthermore, I have never seen awareness or sensitivity to those of Orthodox who do not consider ecumenism, at least between traditional communions, to be a self-evidently good thing to work for: Catholics can’t conceive of a good reason for why Orthodox would not share their puppyish enthusiasm for ecumenism. And I have never heard a Catholic who expressed a desire for the restoration for full communion show any perception or willingness to work for the Orthodox concerns about what needs to feed into any appropriate restoration of communion, namely the recantation of Western heresy represented by figures like Thomas Aquinas and not only by Mater et Magistra or liberal Catholic dissent (but I repeat myself).
Conclusion: are we at the eve of an explosion?
I may have mentioned several elephants in the room. Let me close by mentioning one more that many Orthodox are painfully aware of, even if Catholics are oblivious.
Orthodoxy may remind Western Christians of Rome’s ancient origins. But there is an important way in which I would compare Orthodoxy today to Western Christianity on the eve of the Reformation. Things hadn’t exploded. Yet. But there were serious problems and trouble brewing, and I’m not sure it’s that clear to people how much trouble is brewing.
Your ecumenical advances and efforts to draw us closer to Rome’s enfolding bosom come at a rough and delicate time:
What if, while there was serious trouble but not yet schisms spreading like wildfire, the East had reached out to their estranged Western brethren and said:
Good news! You really don’t need scholasticism… And you don’t exactly need transsubstantiation either… And you don’t need anywhere such a top-down Church heirarchy… And you really don’t need to be in communion with the Patriarch of Rome… And…
There is a profound schism brewing in the Orthodox Church. It may not be within your power to stop it, but it may be within your power to avoid giving it an early start, and it may be within your power to avoid making the wreckage even worse.
The best thing I can think of to say is simply, “God have mercy on us all.”
Against (crypto-Protestant) “Orthodox” fundamentalism
If you read Genesis 1 and believe from Genesis 1 that the world was created in six days, I applaud you. That is a profound thing to believe in simplicity of faith.
However, if you wish to persuade me that Orthodox Christians should best believe in a young earth creation in six days, I am wary. Every single time an Orthodox Christian has tried to convince me that I should believe in a six day creation, I have been given recycled Protestant arguments, and for the moment the entire conversation has seemed like I was talking with a Protestant fundamentalist dressed up in Orthodox clothing. And if the other person claims to understand scientific data better than scientists who believe an old earth, and show that the scientific data instead support a young earth, this is a major red flag.
Now at least some Orthodox heirarchs have refused to decide for the faithful under their care what the faithful may believe: the faithful may be expected to believe God’s hand was at work, but between young earth creationism, old earth creationism, and “God created life through evolution”, or any other options, the heirarchs do not intervene. I am an old earth creationist; I came to my present beliefs on “How did different life forms appear?” before becoming Orthodox, and I have called them into a question a few times but not yet found reason to revise them, either into young earth creation or theistic evolution. I would characterize my beliefs, after being reconsidered, as “not changed”, and not “decisively confirmed”: what I would suggest has improved in my beliefs is that I have become less interested in some Western fascinations, such as getting right the details of how the world was created, moving instead to what might be called “mystical theology” or “practical theology”, and walking the Orthodox Way.
There is something that concerns me about Orthodox arguing young earth creationism like a Protestant fundamentalist. Is it that I think they are wrong about how the world came to be? That is not the point. If they are wrong about that, they are wrong in the company of excellent saints. If they merely hold another position in a dispute, that is one thing, but bringing Protestant fundamentalism into the Orthodox Church reaches beyond one position in a dispute. Perhaps I shouldn’t be talking because I reached my present position before entering the Orthodox Church; or rather I haven’t exactly reversed my position but de-emphasized it and woken up to the fact that there are bigger things out there. But I am concerned when I’m talking with an Orthodox Christian, and every single time someone tries to convince me of a young earth creationism, all of the sudden it seems like I’m not dealing with an Orthodox Christian any more, but with a Protestant fundamentalist who always includes arguments that came from Protestant fundamentalism. And what concerns me is an issue of practical theology. Believing in a six day creation is one thing. Believing in a six day creation like a Protestant fundamentalist is another matter entirely.
A telling, telling line in the sand
In reading the Fathers, one encounters claims of a young earth. However, often (if not always) the claim is one among many disputes with Greek philosophers or what have you. To my knowledge there is no patristic text in which a young earth is the central claim, let alone even approach being “the article by which the Church stands or falls” (if I may borrow phrasing from Protestant fundamentalist cultural baggage).
But, you may say, Genesis 1 and some important Fathers said six days, literally. True enough, but may ask a counterquestion?
Are we obligated to believe that our bodies are composed of earth, air, fire and water, and not of molecules and atoms including carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen?
If that question seems to come out of the blue, let me quote St. Basil, On the Six Days of Creation, on a precursor to today’s understanding of the chemistry of what everyday objects are made of:
Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and bonds, form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting or separating, produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider’s web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Deceived by their inherent atheism it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that was all was given up to chance.
At this point, belief in his day’s closest equivalent to our atoms and molecules is called an absolutely unacceptable “spider’s web” that is due to “inherent atheism.” Would you call Orthodox Christians who believe in chemistry’s molecules and atoms inherent atheists? St. Basil does provide an alternative:
“And the Spirit of God was borne upon the face of the waters.” Does this spirit mean the diffusion of air? The sacred writer wishes to enumerate to you the elements of the world, to tell you that God created the heavens, the earth, water, and air and that the last was now diffused and in motion; or rather, that which is truer and confirmed by the authority of the ancients, by the Spirit of God, he means the Holy Spirit.
St. Basil rejected atoms and molecules, and believed in elements, not of carbon or hydrogen, but of earth, air, fire, and water. The basic belief is one Orthodoxy understands, and there are sporadic references in liturgical services to the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and so far as I know no references to modern chemistry. St. Basil seems clearly enough to endorse a six day creation, and likewise endorses an ancient view of elements while rejecting belief in atoms and molecules as implicit atheism.
Why then do Orthodox who were once Protestant fundamentalists dig their heels in at a literal six day creation and make no expectation that we dismiss chemistry to believe the elements are earth, air, fire, water, and possibly aether? The answer, so far as I can tell, has nothing whatsoever to do with Orthodoxy or any Orthodox Christians. It has to do with a line in the sand chosen by Protestants, the same line in the sand described in Why Young Earthers Aren’t Completely Crazy, a line in the sand that is understandable and was an attempt to address quite serious concerns, but still should not be imported from Protestant fundamentalism into Holy Orthodoxy.
Leaving Western things behind
If you believe in a literal six day creation, it is not my specific wish to convince you to drop that belief. But I would have you drop fundamentalist Protestant “creation science” and its efforts to prove a young earth scientifically and show that it can interpret scientific findings better than the mainstream scientific community. And I would have you leave Western preoccupations behind. Perhaps you might believe St. Basil was right about six literal days. For that matter, you could believe he was right about rejecting atoms and molecules in favor of earth, air, fire, and water—or at least recognize that St. Basil makes other claims besides six literal days. But you might realize that really there are much more important things in the faith. Like how faith plays out in practice.
The fundamentalist idea of conversion is like flipping a light switch: one moment, a room is dark, then in an instant it is full of light. The Orthodox understanding is of transformation: discovering Orthodoxy is the work of a lifetime, and perhaps once a year there is a “falling off a cliff” experience where you realize you’ve missed something big about Orthodoxy, and you need to grow in that newly discovered dimension. Orthodoxy is not just the ideas and enthusiasm we have when we first come into the Church; there are big things we could never dream of and big things we could never consider we needed to repent of. And I would rather pointedly suggest that if a new convert’s understanding of Orthodoxy is imperfect, much less of Orthodoxy can be understood from reading Protestant attacks on it. One of the basic lessons in Orthodoxy is that you understand Orthodoxy by walking the Orthodox Way, by attending the services and living a transformed life, and not by reading books. And if this goes for books written by Orthodox saints, it goes all the more for Protestant fundamentalist books attacking Orthodoxy.
Science won’t save your soul, but science (like Orthodoxy) is something you understand by years of difficult work. Someone who has done that kind of work might be able to argue effectively that evolution does not account for the fossil record, let alone how the first organism could come to exist: but here I would recall The Abolition of Man: “It is Paul, the Pharisee, the man ‘perfect as touching the Law’ who learns where and how that Law was deficient.” Someone who has taken years of effort may rightly criticize evolution for its scientific merits. Someone who has just read fundamentalist Protestant attacks on evolution and tries to evangelize evolutionists and correct their scientific errors will be just as annoying to an atheist who believes in evolution, as a fundamentalist who comes to evangelize the unsaved Orthodox and “knows all about Orthodoxy” from polemical works written by other fundamentalists. I would rather pointedly suggest that if you care about secular evolutionists at all, pray for them, but don’t set out to untangle their backwards understanding of the science of it all. If you introduce yourself as someone who will straighten out their backwards ideas about science, all you may really end up accomplishing is to push them away.
Conversion is a slow process. And letting go of Protestant approaches to creation may be one of those moments of “falling off a cliff.”