Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist

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Saying farewell to heroes

C.S. Lewis was one of my youth heroes, and after much quoting of him I have said farewell to him, in A Pilgrimage from Narnia.

The oldest written work on this site, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Real peace through real strength, is one that I owe to Gandhi. It is an apology for the Christian pacifist position, and I as a Christian held tight to the The Sermon on the Mount and nonviolence as best I could. And I was positive Mohondas K. Gandhi had openly pulled from Christianity in his nonviolence, and part of my debt to him is expressed in that in Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Real peace through real strength I took as my model a chapter called “Ahimse or the Way of Nonviolence” in All Men Are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as Told In His Own Words. And in fact Gandhi did borrow from Christianity; he says that the three men he holds as his heroes are Jesus, Daniel, and Socrates, all of whom held their lives as nothing next to their souls. Elsewhere he said that Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for the sin of the world, a perfect act. Gandhi in fact wanted to become a Christian, and was soured to Christianity when a missionary turned him away because of the color of his skin. Absolutely disgusting.

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:

Luke 12:16-21:

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.

I have written elsewhere of the Saint and the Activist: in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, in The most politically incorrect sermon in history: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and principally in An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism. If I may put it in a table:

Question The Activist The Saint
What is the chief end of mankind? To change the world. To glorify God and enjoy him forever.
What is that in a word? Change. Contemplation.
By what means do your pursue that end? 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. Me.

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.)

Conclusion: Saints forever!

The Activism we see in the Academy may be the damned backwing of Gandhi’s nonviolent Activist precedent. That much will not be investigated here. What I will say is much the same thing I would say to C.S. Lewis, that I in fact did imply to him in A Pilgrimage from Narnia:

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.

Thus I bid farewell to heroes of my youth.

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An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

Surgeon General’s Warning

Roman Catholic readers are asked to seriously consider hitting the “Back” button and not reading further than this warning.

This piece is being kept online for the benefit of Orthodox readers.

Rome’s position is that Rome and Orthodoxy agree on all essentials needed for appropriate reunion. Orthodoxy’s position is that there are unresolved essential differences which need to be addressed before appropriate reunion. This piece is intended to specifically, clearly, forcefully, and bluntly articulate some (not all) of unresolved essential differences for what is held as essential in the Orthodox Church in response to Roman communication that acknowledged no genuine Orthodox objection to Roman ecumenism. It remains posted because it may be helpful for Orthodox who are searching for why Orthodoxy disagrees with Rome and Roman ecumenism.

You have been warned.

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.”

Cordially yours,
Christos Jonathan Seth Hayward
The Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt; Lent, 2009.

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Creation and Holy Orthodoxy: Fundamentalism Is Not Enough

Cover for The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts

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.”

Read more of The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts on Amazon!