Pope Francis Is Not a Holy Fool

One literature professor talked about (Protestant) evangelism in Russia, and presenting Christ’s claim to be the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, and asked a couple of young women if he was, in C.S. Lewis’s terms, a liar, lunatic, or the Lord. And they talked a bit and got very excited, and said he was crazy, and the professor talked, without the greatest clarity, about there being a tradition of some kind crazy foolishness in Russia that was nonetheless sacred. The professor commented that C.S. Lewis’s trilemma to exclude speaking of Christ as “just a teacher” crumbled, and the students saw a way of seeing Christ as a holy person who need not not be the Second Person of the Trinity.

Spending a bit of time in Orthodoxy may bring some amount of clarity and placing things that are in sharper relief. It is, of course, unfortunate that these two Russian young woman did not know enough about Orthodoxy to know the Christ who is reflected in the holy fool. None the less, Orthodoxy has a tradition of saints called holy fools, and it’s enough of a tradition that holy fools are known as a distinct and recognized category within the canonized saints alongside e.g. healers and hermits. To those not acquainted with the category, one example of a life story of a holy fool is found in Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg.

I have not heard Catholics speak of a general category of holy fools, although there is a Western category of saints bearing Christ’s stigmata, but G.K. Chesterton’s life of the Pope’s namesake, Francis of Assisi, explains him as being quite importantly a holy fool, and to my recollection Chesterton never explains or situates Francis of Assisi in relation to a Western tradition of holy fools the same way Chesterton very briefly defends the possibility of miracles. Chesterton needs to defend the class of miracle-working saints, but he doesn’t spend much breath specifically insisting that, if there is a legitimate category of miracle-working saints, Francis of Assisi is included. However, as a holy fool Francis of Assisi is presented as a singularity.

Perhaps a singular identifier to holy fools is that they do strange things that afterwards turn out right. Hence one holy fool upset tables in the market where food and drink was being sold, until it became evident that the food and drink were not prepared appropriately and would have been dangerous to consume. Under the hood, the Orthodox Church considers human honor to be a troublesome burden, and it is a burden that holy fools dodge by their unusual actions. When people see past the disguise, holy fools plead and beg for their holiness not to be told.

And on that point, Pope Francis is not living up to Francis of Assisi’s precedent. Francis of Assisi lived the garish colors of a holy fool, and if he were in communion with the Orthodox Church, he would be remembered as a member of that holy company. Pope Francis is impulsive on a scale rivalling Francis of Assisi, but his actions do not turn out to be vindicated. And making big, impulsive actions is not an especially great feat; making big, impulsive actions that turn out to be right is the real trick. Also, a track record of almost uninterrupted ambiguity in communication that makes statements so both the more and less orthodox can claim victory is utterly inappropriate to one presenting himself as following in the footsteps of a holy fool. Holy fools are known to speak the truth to power. Holy fools do not serve waffles.

Orthodoxy has a grand tradition of recognized holy foolishness, and after you’ve seen enough lives of holy fools, there is something that looks very counterfeit, if it is meant to be holy foolishness, about merely being impulsive on a grand scale. And in this regard, Pope Francis is less faithful to his namesake than someone who simply avoids big and impulsive actions.

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The Anti-Game: Better than Materialist Magic

I grew up on technologies but became more and more suspicious of inattentive use of technologies as marketed to us. Enough so that my reaction to having my cell phone disappear was almost, “I have a GPS. Beyond that, I might be experiencing an early start on one of the privileges of monasticism already,” a reaction that would not surprise a reader of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology.

I am also a former gamer, and I have long wanted to put down on paper why one might unplug from games as I have unplugged from TV as far as I reasonably can. “Everything is permitted, but not everything is beneficial,” and this applies to games and iPhones apps alike.

Let me start by looking at the archtypal Game.

The Game

In the movie The Game, there is a game which the player is dumped into that has a profound element of transcendence. Nothing that is portrayed as happening is presented as intrinsically supernatural; the creators, so far as I know, are materialists, and so far as I can recall the audience is never taxed with a request for even a willing suspension of disbelief: the viewer is in the movie and in the end never asked to entertain that there could have been even one faintest magical blessing from the tiniest fairy.

Nonetheless, there is something that is transcendent in the movie, and though Hollywood normally capitalizes movie titles, capitalization convention is not the real reason I believe that this is not a movie about a “game,” with a lowercase G, but the Game, with a very uppercase G. Some very bizarre things happen at the beginning of The Game that are ordinarily what Christians would associate with the bizarre operations of demons, and there is a long plot with questions about what is real and shifting sands until everything is unveiled at the end as impressive, but believable on terms of materialism. On the recommendation of my brother I also watched The Spanish Prisoner and The Usual Suspects, but I was disappointed in because they did not drop you into an obvious maze of a Game specifically. In retrospect, I was disappointed after my brother recommended to me some astonishingly similar movies to one which with I was enthralled. Nonetheless the other movies’ essentially isomorphic plots unfold with much shifting sand and bewilderment about what is real, until in the last minute everything is clear and the stage magician explains, on materialist terms, how all the big illusions were pulled off.

My sister-in-law’s mother, an independent bookstore employee, has talked about how people have a right to know what they’re getting in a book, and (without divulging explicit details for the rest of us to struggle to un-see mental images) talks about speaking with patrons about The Hunger Games to let them know that they contain XYZ. However, everything I’ve known about the books is that they are books dealing with an epic Game, capital G: again, shifting sand, a hidden rules game, and the question of whether the strangeness of the details are literally supernatural really seems to matter less than one might think at first. Apparently another capital ‘G’ Game.

If I may pick a title that has not to my knowledge been Hollywoodified, the milder An Invitation to the Game has characters trapped in an unfortunate ersatz leisure class in a ruined world; someone gives children golden tickets to go to play a game, and they get temporarily knocked out of the game when they make a mistake that would kill them; and when they say in the game, “I wish So-and-So were here,” and the other person, who had been much better off, suddenly gets kicked down into the leisure class. Eventually, the game becomes real, and a pod of eight kids are sent among others to begin a new life on a beautiful new world such as they had virtually visited in the Game. Now in this instance the roller coaster activity is rated PG instead of being rated R, but we are still talking about something transcendent: the Game, with a capital G please.

Switching our attention from the Game to (g)ames

The English language, and some religious communities, have a distinction between God, with a capital G, and ‘gods’, with a lowercase G. The pagan gods of the Israelites’ neighboring nations, or the Greeks, have been described as little more than humans with super powers and endless life, and sometimes much less. The Christian God is something different, enough so that it represents confusion to place another god alongside him or speak of another God, and Orthodox Christianity goes through this looking-glass to say that its children are made gods, because the Deity has a Oneness so thorough that to let humans share in the divine Life and become themselves gods cannot threaten the One God, but fulfill his oneness. And at this point I would like to comment that games, with a lowercase ‘g’, are in the shadow of the Game that appears in literature, and in a dilute and less sharpened peak offer a participation of the characteristic of the transcendent Game.

Materialist Magic

One point is that whether or not the entire tale of the Game is told as involving a single physically occult feature, the Game is occult. It has the same heart as magic. For a fantasy version, The Labyrinth that enthralled me very much asks for major willing suspensions of disbelief, but as a hidden rules game, the shifting sand and the question of what is really going on has the same heart as The Game in any materialist implementation. The heart of the Game has an occult resonance such as I dissected in AI as an Arena for Magical Thinking Among Skeptics, and this is not irrelevant to the heart of games, in which something is overlaid atop real life.

C.S. Lewis, in and outside discussion for The Screwtape Letters, says that demons have two lies to offer us: that they do not exist, or that they are all-powerful. He says that which one you believe matters less than one might think: they are both devastating, and he asks the reader to avoid both errors if we are to have spiritual health. He also, and more pointedly, posits that demons might have a holy grail (he does not use such language) in the “Materialist Magician,” given that demons are equally satisfied to make of us a Materialist or a Magician, but it is not at all clear how one would go about making both of the same man. I would pose that The Game, The Spanish Prisoner and The Usual Suspects offer a maelstrom of magic, unveiled to run materialistically at the very ending. The Game, whether or not it is available to us in real life, is the locus of Materialist Magic. The ordinary (g)ames we can buy, download, or create, and become absorbed in, are never as impressive as the Game, but they participate in its Materialist Magic. The mechanism appears materialist; the resonance is in a real sense occult.

A journey of repentance

The usual reasons Protestants leave role playing game is that one is in one’s heart, pretending to do magic or do other things. The issue of violence may be treated less forcefully, but I remember in college when one friend was trying to recruit me back to Dungeons & Dragons, and he made the point that Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t just battle. He talked about how in a recent campaign, in actions that the players imagined, his character had used magic and charmed a jeweler, and conned him into giving him jewels, and he didn’t say much more than “bad example” so that his picture of Dungeons & Dragons being more edifying was saying that his character:

  1. Used magic,
  2. Lied, and
  3. Stole bigtime.

My conscience boiled down to the question, essentially, of “Would you be right to do with your hands what you are doing vicariously in your heart by saying that your character does XYZ?” And I left Dungeons & Dragons with concerns of imagining one’s viceroy to be using magic and violence well beyond the bounds of any version of “just war” theory I’ve heard Christians assert. People training with firearms can be told, “The second last thing you want to do is pull that trigger.” Trying to “stop” real, live opponents with a real, live gun is one notch away from being the last resort. By contrast, Dungeons & Dragons makes getting into at least some fights to be desirable, a form of entertainment, and a way for characters to gain experience to advance in the game. The combat rules are very different from traditional duels in the West, where there was a protocol to try to avoid duels, but usually there was not so much a winner or a loser as:

  1. One disputant who died one to two weeks later as a direct result of injuries sustained in the duel, and:
  2. One disputant who died six to eight weeks later as a results of indirect infections stemming from injuries sustained during the duel.

I’ve never heard of a game in Dungeons & Dragons where there was a significant chance of dying due to infection from a wound from an enemy’s dirty blade. I’ve heard of pacifist characters every once in a blue moon, or players refusing to use violence, but I’ve never heard of gashes and wounds that modern medicine could heal ending up getting infected and a character dying from sepsis.

But the real, central reason Dungeons & Dragons and kin have been called demon games is vicarious magic use, and I believe that the temptation and what Orthodox would call the passion are the same thing. Some time after leaving Dungeons & Dragons, I decided that imaginary play as such was not wrong, and pioneered and playtested The Minstrel’s Song, set in an unfallen world. And possibly it could be played in weaning someone from harder-core activity, and I missed the second point argued in Escaping Reality: The Danger of Role Playing: that role playing games, including The Minstrel’s Song, deliver an escape from reality.

And this brings me to various points that are often not given any connection with gaming. It is a spiritual problem that is like stepping on a water balloon: a problem which I called, for lack of any other name that was better, The Hydra. Though I do not mention it in the article, I think of a very unpopular website I made in the early days of the web, called “The Revenge of the Hydra.” (If you visited, nine popup windows appeared, and if you closed one of them down, two more appeared.)

What I say in The Hydra, in which I criticize C.S. Lewis, is something I bundled up with in my recent title “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis, is:

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” added Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

When I read this, many times, I never was amped up to find Christ. I didn’t want Christ, at least not then. I wanted to be in Narnia with Aslan. And stay there in Narnia. And this relates to a recurring thread of what might be called my “sin life” that I found entirely deadly. And there is a spiritual poison I found in the Chronicles of Narnia that I have reproduced to varying degrees of my own work. Within the Steel Orb contains much real wisdom, but is laced with escapism.

On the point of escapism, I would briefly comment that monks, in the ancient world, were perennially warned about the perils of escape, which when they were tempted, were advised to pray through the temptation until they were through it. And without further ado, I quote below a work that already expresses my
concern about escape and Narnia…

Some of the heads of the Hydra sound related to gaming; some sound unrelated. For instance, I long had a futile desire for something from another world, and my heart ached when I read a story about a saint being given a ring that had miraculous powers: which I coveted, not for the miracle, but for a ring that (it seemed) did not have its origin from earth.

I’ve heard of an alcoholic who had a rum problem, and gave up rum altogether and tried whiskey, until he found he had a whiskey problem and foreswore whiskey in favor of vodka. In my case it was more a matter of developing a Moonlight Sonata problem, and then avoiding Beethoven and finding I had a problem with swimming, and dried up inside and out and then found myself repeatedly tripping over my shoelaces. The number of substances an alcoholic might get in trouble with can all be identified as including something you can get from a liquor store; the The Hydra neither begins or ends with (g)ames, though its trunk is hinted at in the (G)ame.

What we don’t see when we look into The Hydra:
The Silhouette and the Full-Color Portrait

G.K. Chesterton, writing on an immediate topic of madness (and not games in particular):

Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument. Suppose, for instance, it were the first case that I took as typical; suppose it were the case of a man who accused everybody of conspiring against him. If we could express our deepest feelings of protest and appeal against this obsession, I suppose we should say something like this: “Oh, I admit that you have your case and have it by heart, and that many things do fit into other things as you say. I admit that your explanation explains a great deal; but what a great deal it leaves out! Are there no other stories in the world except yours; and are all men busy with your business? Suppose we grant the details; perhaps when the man in the street did not seem to see you it was only his cunning; perhaps when the policeman asked you your name it was only because he knew it already. But how much happier you would be if you only knew that these people cared nothing about you! How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.” Or suppose it were the second case of madness, that of a man who claims the crown, your impulse would be to answer, “All right! Perhaps you know that you are the King of England; but why do you care? Make one magnificent effort and you will be a human being and look down on all the kings of the earth.” Or it might be the third case, of the madman who called himself Christ. If we said what we felt, we should say, “So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be! What a little heaven you must inhabit, with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love more marvellous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”

Today Chesterton’s use of the term “infinite” is opaque; a high school student studying classic geometry will be told of finite line segments and infinite lines, but the term “infinite circle” does not arise. However, there is a sort of logic that connects with where the term “infinite” comes from. It means, “without end.” On a geometric line segment, you can go a certain distance in either direction and have to stop cold, while on an infinite and proper line, you can go as far as you want in each direction and never meet an end. The same thing can be said of a circle that modern mathematicians would call “finite;” you can travel along the curve of the circle as far as you want in either direction and never have to stop before the circle runs out of curve and you’ve reached the end of the circle. In that sense Chesterton is saying something mathematically as well as literature-wise coherent when he talks about a circle that is infinite as any other, but cramped. And though Chesterton does not speak of it, there is something relevant in the Circle whose Center is everywhere and whose perimeter is nowhere.

I said that Chesterton is talking about madness and not games, but I caught myself crossing my fingers… but may have found a way to say it without crossing my fingers. Here’s what I think I can say: I see no evidence that Chesterton was thinking about games in any sense, and I do not recall reading him condemn games when he mentions them elsewhere, much less make the clain that I make here. None the less, a game is a way to step into another, smaller circle. It is the Materialist Magician’s way. In addition there is a scale of hard- to soft-core games, and I remember when I was trying to push the envelope on gaming, from tabletop role playing into a (re)invention of real life role playing, to make it harder core, that an occultist who respected me more than I think was due gently said that this is how magic works, and it’s real enough when you get a call at 3:00 AM to take down a Brujah (a type of vampire in the “World of Darkness” role playing game Vampire, the Masquerade), it feels about as real as you can get.

It is known even among secular behavioral health professionals that involvement in the occult can make you lose your mind and end up detached from the real world; as another head of the Hydra, the nexus of games, gaming and gamers seems too close a relative to this to dismiss the danger. The figure of the role player who has fallen off the deep end is known to role players as much as anyone else, and I can’t help but sense an implied need to establish that role playing is OK even among geeks, as stated in Lifehacker’s The Surprising Benefits of Role Playing Games and How to Get Started. Games in general are attractive enough, at least to some, that one might be surprised that they would need defending, as it is a pariah Protestant thing to warn about the evils of role playing game. The “Surpising Benefits” mentioned in the title evoke a French proverb, “Qui s’excuse, s’accuse,” literally “He who excuses himself (by that very fact) accuses himself:” or more loosely, “You only rationalize when you know you’re wrong.” Lifehacker mentions that role playing is a way to get instant friends. The same is true among bikers; come alone on a motorcycle to a group of bikers and you have instant friends. But there is something unsavory to both alike.

A corresponding silhouette and full-color portrait facing each other.

What does a gamer have if gaming is taken away? It’s not about changing which part of a silhouette you are in, but seeing a portrait in full color.

Watching a DVD of The Game is a whole lot more attractive of a proposition than turning around your chair and facing the wall while other people are at least watching the DVD; and if your pleasure and sense of well-being is drawn from the Game, only the Chesterton quote really hints at what could possibly be better if you think losing your participation in the Game and games is simply turning around and staring at a wall.

But in fact it is not a matter of being more constricted. G.K. Chesterton, if applied to gaming, does not stop at giving arguments or critiques. He wants to give the gamer air. He wants the small circles to be abandoned, not to be even more constricted, but to enter that Circle whose Center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. He wants gamers to let go of their Game Master’s plans to be swept into the galaxies by the Lord of the Dance. A famed Far Side cartoon says:

A Far Side cartoon saying 'In the Days Before Television' and showing a family crouched around an empty space in a wall.

Some humor provokes laughter by pointing out what is clearly and painfully true. But this point, and even its truth, is accented by saying something ludicrous. The days before television, in the West, were not characterized by people vegging out in front of a blank wall. People often spent time in what geeks call “The Big Room,” namely outside. Children read, threw paper airplanes, built things, spent time playing with pets, built model airplanes, danced, manipulated physical toys such as jacks, played hide and seek, and for that matter played some make-believe games that bore a living and healthier organic link to today’s grown-up role-playing games. And what I believe is offered to gamers is not to turn a chair around and stare at the wall; it is to turn your chair a bit, get up, and go to the Big Room and get some fresh air. And start, just start, to see the Divine Face in full, living color that is not even hinted at in even a remote white part of a silhouette.

The Apocalyptic Anti-Game

There have been several earlier works which I tried to write, but the time was not ripe, or at least I had not grown enough to write them. I tried and failed to write an article called “The Luddite’s Guide to Technology” but now consider The Luddite’s Guide to Technology to be one of my best books, even if it was years before a similar voice was heard in The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul. At much less of an interval, I tried and failed to write an article on “St. Clive” before writing St. Clive: An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis (the Kindle edition was for several days the #1 topselling new title in “Christian Literature and Arts.”) This work, incidentally, began life as an attempt to write a dialogue called “Medieval Anti-Game”, in which the Middle Ages are not the medieval theming of classic role play, but the historical root that has now developed into what has now been called “Western cultural singularity;” we live in the logic of the medieval West played out; and the Middle Ages were thought of as a bridge that can go both ways and that we can follow the medieval bridge the other way into a greater sanity: the Middle Ages offer a kind Anti-Game, rightly understood. It is increasingly difficult to fail to see that we live in one spectacular unfolding singularity. We seem to be in the kinds of circumstances where saints are made. It is not in easy times that the arm of the Lord bares its power.

I had earlier hoped to wind this down with the classic monastic advice given when one is tempted to escape: “Persevere in alternating prayer and work, and one can eventually emerge a victor,” and with an anecdote that one of the times I repented of another layer of this vice I desired, instead of God putting me somewhere else as I sought escape, that a loving God had put me in quite an awesome place without escape, and that in the here and now where God has placed me I am in a very real sense in communion with the stars in the sky and the salt in the sea. And that is where the lesson ended when I began working on this article… but there is more.

In a discussion where conservatives said that liberals were well enough able to have one point on which they were conservative, one friend described a liberal launching off about how bad the possibility is that we might be ruled by one world government. My friend mentioned commenting, “I suppose this would be a bad time to mention the Book of Revelation,” and watching the color drain from the other person’s face. Gamers who have played Call of C’Thulu, in which a sleeping Old One is coming to life and wants to destroy the world, might let go of the game only to come to terms with the possibility that we might be in something very much like the Call of C’Thulu, in which an Old One that has been trying to come to this world may in fact show up. Such is called the Antichrist, whether he will openly appear in two years or two millenia.

Another friend (from what source I do not know and do not know whether I should trust), claimed that there was a prophecy that the present Pope would be the last real Pope and after him would only be anti-Popes. I do not know if that is true, but I am not terribly impressed with Poop Francis. He says deliberately ambiguous things that can be interpreted in an (o)rthodox way by Roman standards, but can be read in very different ways and sound pretty much like something a leftist journalist would want once his words pass through the alimentary canal of mainstream journalism.

It is increasingly known on the left and the right what Amazon represents, not only in closing regular bookstores but even in teaching bookworms to own fewer and fewer physical books, and rent rather than own Kindle books. I remember years back reading Richard John Neuhaus sounding the alarm that all of the major components of National Socialism were being redeemed in academic circles. I also remember my grammar professor at the Sorbonne saying how he would never forgive a former French president for earning political advantage by splitting the right into the right and the far-right: in hard economic times, giving all kinds of at least apparently preferential treatment to immigrants, and then insisting that the far-right Le Pen be given ample coverage and time to speak (“Les votes pour Le Pen sont a cent pourcent les troues de balle!“—”One hundred percent of the votes for Le Pen are bullet holes!”). Now we have a new white nationalism emerging after racism being un-respectable in most conservative circles for a while, and (I haven’t paid attention to what is this year’s installment) the taking down of Confederate flags and statues of Confederates is a masterful way to get white nationalism alive and kicking (I once wrote an Onion-style article about how frustrated filmmakers in our day erected another statue of a smiling Martin Luther King because they couldn’t figure out how to deal in film with their hero’s difficulties keeping something in his pants). But the problem extends beyond white nationalism. And it’s worse.

National Socialism in very large measure motivated by eugenics, one pillar of which was to hope that certain races be eliminated. Google, which no longer goes by the motto “Don’t be evil” of its former days, is open and direct in supporting the successor to eugenics: transhumanism, Eugenics 2.0, a transhumanism which I discuss in part of my thesis. A eugenic hope was that the only people left in the world would be people who were sufficiently white and acted sufficiently white. Transhumanism goes further, no longer satisfied to phase specific human races out, but instead hoping in its ideal that the human race itself be phased out in a posthuman science fiction eschaton. And what eugenics was to Nazi Germany, transhumanism is to Google. It’s just in an incubation stage.

Other things are playing out in the small. An increasing number of young people in the U.S. aren’t interested in driving; they are also not interested in earning their own income. One deacon I know said, “Conversation is like texting for adults,” and the concern is raised that youth are learning social skills that are anemic at best. Some people have said that Romans 1 might as well have been written about people today… and furthermore that reading Romans 1 aloud might be legally classified as hate speech in a political climate increasingly resonant with Terreurs past and present. Meanwhile smartphones are no longer any kind of rich kid’s syndrome; 85% of African homes have a television and many families incur debt for multiple mobile devices.

We’ve had several shellshocks now: Islam is finding its kairos or decisive moment, the U.S. Constitution is used to defend gay rights over and against the free and proper exercise of religion, and it’s been something like two decades since I heard journalists giving attention to our society’s increasing use of porn. I don’t think we’ve seen the end.

But there is more than this. When we have let go of the last dear shred of games and gaming, what we may need to face is that were are in fact in a real Game, that we are in a real game more spectacular than the most brilliant of created games, with the best possible Game Master of all. And there is one more thing to say: as an undead pirate in Pirates of the Carribean tells an unbelieving woman, “You best start believing ghost stories, Miss Turner… You’re in one.”

Read e.g. The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul. We may be the last to remember the medieval institution of face-to-face universities; perhaps as discussed in The Dying of the Light Christian colleges and universities may have disengaged from the Christian faith but they have kept as strongly as Anselm of Canterbury a face-to-face conversation for centuries; and companies and even unions may act unlike the practices of a medieval guild, but until recently work was part and parcel where you went and not only what you did. There is an unbroken stream of saints shining in Heaven, and they still beckon us to join their august College. And though we may only go into outdoor parks for picnics as a special occasion, comparable to medieval “Maying,” we do much more than the dungeoneer in classic Dungeons & Dragons: we are summoned to a company in age-long war against am ancient red dragon with seven heads and ten horns. We may be in a unique place to live cyberpunk; in a spiritual sense many of us are there already. And lastly, we may be in something more “Call of C’Thulu” than “Call of C’Thulu” itself, where an Old One has long been knocking on our door, and the door may be open soon. It may be that everything that is compelling in role play is in the real world setting offered to us today, where all games come together and, having long repented from the foolishness of infantile games, we find before us an embossed card saying, “An invitation to The Game“, and if we look at it closely, it is covered with etched letters saying, “Love, God.”

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

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

TL;DR

In this book, a brilliant Eastern Orthodox apologist looks back at C.S. Lewis as a formative influence, then up into Holy Orthodoxy.

C.S. Lewis fans will love “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis (Kindle, paperback).

A Very Scripted Dialogue

Books

  • “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis (Kindle, paperback)

    What People Are Saying

    The Midwest Book Review

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

    C.J.S. Hayward

    C.J.S. Hayward Publications

    9781794669956 $9.99 Kindle / $49.99 paperback

    Website/Ordering Links:
    cjshayward.com/st-clive (homepage)
    cjshayward.com/st-clive-kindle (Kindle)
    cjshayward.com/st-clive-paperback (paperback)

    “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis adopts an unusual perspective because most examinations of the spirituality of C.S. Lewis come from Western spiritual perspectives, and few adopt the approach of C.J.S. Hayward, who opens his book with a Lewis-type series of letters to a guardian angel, The Angelic Letters, a Heavenly analogue to The Screwtape Letters. The book is even more distinctive in reflecting back on Lewis from a perspective meant to be thoroughly Orthodox.

    Readers might anticipate a dry analytical style typical of too many Lewis analysis and assessments, but Hayward includes a wry sense of observational humor, evident in the first lines of his survey where a reflection on scholarly footnote traditions ventures into comedic cultural inspection: As it is now solidly established practice to add an a footnote skittishly defending one’s own choices regarding “gendered pronouns,” I would like to quote a couple of tweets. In response to a fellow user tweeting, “Nobody is safe in today’s society, man. It’s like walking on eggshells constantly. Someone will be offended, will be out to get you. It’s exhausting… and, I think somewhat that social media is to blame,” Titania McGrath coolly answered, “The phrase ‘walking on eggshells’ is a microaggression against vegans. Reported and blocked. [Emoji depicting a white woman tending to her nails.]”

    This said, Lewis was a huge influence on Hayward’s Evangelical upbringing and religious perspectives and the starting point to his “pilgrimage from Narnia” (as one of his poems is titled) into Orthodoxy. St. Clive is not to be considered another scholarly inspection rehashing familiar spiritual pathways, but a unique compilation of Lewis-like reflections steeped in Orthodox beliefs and inspections for everyday readers. It produces a compilation of pieces that attempt to sound like Lewis himself, but which are original works meant to directly address these reflections and beliefs. This book is exciting, almost as if a hitherto unknown book of original works by C.S. Lewis had suddenly come to light.

    The writings are presented in four sections that hold distinctly different tones and objectives. The first “…quotes him, builds on him, and challenges him to draw conclusions he may not have liked.” The second focuses more on Hayward’s writings and style, but with a nod to Lewis’ influence. The third section addresses Lewis’ affection for the book The Consolation of Philosophy and offers perspectives from Hayward on how its ideas and Lewis’s expand different aspects of spiritual reflection; while the fourth section offers bibliographic keys to further pieces in the Lewis/Hayward tradition for newcomers who may be piqued by this collection’s lively inspections, and who want more insights from other sources.

    As far as the contentions themselves, “St. Clive” is a journeyman’s venture into the traditions of the Orthodox Church and its relationship to mysticism. It provides a lively set of discourses considering such varied topics as the failure of Christianity to superimpose itself on the pagan custom of Halloween and the notion that science is just one of the “winnowing forks” available for denoting pathways beneficial to mankind (natural selection being yet another; especially as it applies to diet choices).

    By now it should be evident that a series of dichotomies exist surrounding this effort, which is ‘neither fish nor fowl’ but a delightful compendium of reflections that represent something new. It’s not a scholarly work per se, but its language will appeal to many in the scholarly community (particularly since any discussions of Lewis usually embrace this community more or less exclusively). It’s also not an attempt to channel Lewis’ approach and tone, though these reflective pieces are certainly reminiscent of C.S. Lewis. And it’s not a singular examination of spiritual perspectives, but offers a wider-ranging series of discussions that defy pat categorization.

    Indeed, this is one of the unique aspects of “St. Clive.” What other treatise holds the ability to reach lay and scholarly audiences alike, creates a wider-ranging series of connections between his works and similar writings, and expands upon many concepts with an astute hand to spiritual, philosophical, and social reflection?

    None: and this not only sets “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis apart from any other considerations, but makes it accessible to a lay audience that might have only a minimal familiarity with Lewis or the Orthodox Way.

    Go on and buy “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis (Kindle, paperback)!

The Retortion Principle

In a mailing list, I wrote of the list’s beloved and missed founder, Graham Clinton:

I am in the process of remastering my paperback books, and came across the article at [A Strange Archaeological Find].

You can say that it’s a work of art, but the reason I’m posting this is because after writing it, with repeated allegations of ironic hypocrisy, and asked him permission to post the whole work (including the posting of his that I replied to), he said, “I don’t want toadies.” In other words, he forcefully put something he really meant, and then responded majestically to a work picking his work apart from bit to bit.

I miss that.

The basic principle I was appealing might be called “the retortion principle” or “the self-referential incoherence principle.” This principle is a theoretically modest principle, without the messianic fantasies of other winnowing forks, but it is pronounced in its effect and what it can winnow.

The now-unpopular “verification principle” says that we should only accept is verifiable from empirical data or by bare logic. And if we follow retortion, we find that the principle calls for its own rejection. It is, after something like a century, something we have no known way to verify apart from its standards.

If I may provide a pair of fictitious examples, compare the following two statements a Christian might make:

  1. Everything we say should be documented to a particular Bible literal chapter and verse citation.

And:

  1. Everything we say should be documented to a particular Bible literal chapter and verse citation (1 Cor 4:6).

There is a big difference between these two. The second example may or may not be true and it may or may not be a good and responsible analysis. I do not affirm its truth. But it does not disqualify itself.

By contrast, the first disqualifies itself immediately and without any need to check any external reference.

And I have seen many, many things that fail this winnowing fork, modest and limited as it may appear to be.

To provide one example, let me dismiss a couple of distractions for my purposes here, before showing an example C.S. Lewis seemed to be alarmed that others had so much difficulty seeing.

  1. First objection not really analyzed here: The theory of evolution, which is no longer a theory of evolution, has new features developing in geological eyeblinks in ways that make no statistical sense that is apparently reconcilable to the fossil records. Once evolutionists mocked a “God of the gaps,” where God lives in the areas unilluminated by present science. Now we have a “mechanism of producing new life forms of the gaps,” that seem to find the generation of new life-forms only in the gaps of our understanding of the fossil record.
  2. Second objection not really analyzed here: Some life-forms show mechanisms that are at least partly irreducible in their complexity, and it does not make sense statistically to assert that the basic Darwinian mechanism produces irreducibly complex biological mechanisms.

I do not ask you to avoid either objection; speaking as a mathematician, none of the people who have tried to convince me of today’s “theory of evolution” have found a way to assert their claims in a way that is statistically believable. However, I am mentioning these to ask that they be put aside as irrelevant to C.S. Lewis’s concern with any form of Darwinian evolution.

C.S. Lewis’s concern is essentially that if, as common biology implies, our thoughts and emotions and such all boil down to the biochemical, then we have reason to assert we have brains good enough to find food, but not reason to assert that we have brains good enough to find out the theory of evolution. A biological reaction is not, in and of itself, true. A biological reaction is not, in and of itself, false. A biological reaction is a biological reaction that is mistakenly classified as a sort of thing that can be “true” or “false.” Romantic love is just biochemical, and the same razor that slices through romantic love cuts itself on the backswing. The explanation explains away all explanation, including itself.

This is to me, a subtle and harder-to-see case of the same principle of retortion, that we should reject blades that cut themselves off in the backswing. The verification principle is self-referentially incoherent. In regards to postmodernism, neat analysis may be easier once postmodernism has been dead for centuries, but it has been commented broadly that relativism is always relativism for others’ principles, not one’s own. In a footnote, C.S. Lewis’s discussion of “The Green Book” in The Abolition of Man, discusses the authors’ own values and assumptions, documented by repeated quotes, as being just what was fashionable in certain social circles at a particular time. The authors have cut off values and assumptions, and this in principle and not just practice, but they are free to let assertion of those opinions concretely trump the principle they have asserted, which cuts up all values into meaninglessness.

In a philosophical theology class, I mentioned some argument of retortion, and the professor commented that thesis are often known to use retortion. He did not say exactly why that may be, but one possible reason, perhaps tacit, is a gentlemen’s agreement that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. This leaves at least some theists free to throw stones, because some theists themselves live in thick-walled steel fortresses, at least as far as retortion is concerned. Right or wrong as theism may be, you do not need to contradict yourself from the start if you are to believe in the Christian God. You do need to contradict yourself from the start to be a materialist, because if materialism is true, no human biochemical state can in principle ever be true, and that includes belief in materialism.

I mention as possible a gentleman’s agreement; I wish to go further and say that people with self-referentially incoherent beliefs have a vested interest in not having self-referential incoherence be the sort of thing one brings up in polite company. It is attractive to have a sweeping principle that cuts through all nonsense to a core of real, genuine truth, and there is something very grand in sentiment in saying we should only believe what is demonstrated from sensory data (no comments from the peanut gallery about how we believe in an external world that extends beyond a solipsistic self, please), or logic itself. That sounds grand, striking, strong. Meanwhile, asking “Does it make a special exception in its own case?” is a much humbler-sounding question, not striking, not grand, but nonetheless a useful winnowing fork.

I would not make this argument central to any theism, and not to my own. I am Eastern Orthodox, and the Orthodox Way is much more about debugging one’s own vices than debugging poor philosophy. But I would propose, as a footnote deeply buried in the main text, that we might not be justified as adulating something so grand as the verification principle, but in apologetics and engagement with people who believe differently, this footnote might be worth looking up.

More Than Royalty

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

One element I remember from a documentary video at Avery Coonley School was talking about some Native American cultures. They commented that, like Christianity, there was an origins myth in which they were placed in a garden, a Paradise. But unlike Christianity, there was no story of leaving paradise. And yet in Orthodoxy, we insist that Paradise is wherever the saints are. (Paradise can be every bit here and now!)

There are certain ways that this is not an obvious thing to say for Christianity, especially if Hell exists, and great saints are often sanctified through great suffering. However, I wish to say more than I said in God the Spiritual Father, in which I said that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that makes all the difference.

There is something more to say, but words begin to fail me.

One point where we are in paradise is that every moral injunction, insofar as Orthodox ascesis is moral, is not for God’s benefit, but for ours. St. Maximus Confessor describes three grades of sonship: slaves obey God out of fear of punishment, mercenaries obey God for Heavenly reward, but sons obey God out of love. And the Philokalia contains the striking statement that we owe more to Hell than to Heaven, because more people have obeyed God out of the fear of Hell than out of desire for the delights of Paradise. Nonetheless, if the highest growth is to obey God out of love for him, we are the beneficiaries of our obedience and love. We can be saved from Hell by fearing the torments, or we can grow to seek Heaven’s rewards, or we can love as the least inadequate kind of response to God, but we do not benefit God. In the best spirit of de-mythologizing, it can be said that God is perfect from all eternity and has never had needs except in the person of your neighbor, and God is fundamentally beyond being made more perfect by our acts or our love, no matter how much we love him. We benefit ourselves the more we obey God out of love for him.

In something of the same sense, ambition, which includes trying to become a bishop, is a sin, but when things are rightly understood, there is a sense in which we cannot overreach and we cannot reach so high as to be guilty of overreaching ambition. Now maybe ecclesiastical office need not be sought after (but I do not condemn honorable seminarians in the world). However, when we talk about what is good for us, about humility, about prayer, about repentance, we cannot reach too far. And humility is a greater thing than the Philosopher’s Stone or the Holy Grail, as I just barely graze on in The Treasure of Humility and the Royal Race: in short, it opens your eyes and mine to the godlike beauty with which God has imbued every single human being. Humility transforms everything, or rather it transforms us so that we can be in Paradise anywhere. And monks may be forbidden to seek the lowest of elevations, let alone seek to be the next Ecumenical Patriarch, but there is no degree of the treasure of humility I know of that will bring a confessor’s rebuke of “Do you really think such a lofty humility is fitting for someone in your undistinguished rank? Have some more pride like the rest of us!” And humility, in monastics or in the world, is a far greater treasure than any external honor that is to be had. Humility may sometimes be followed by ecclesiastical rank, but the real high estate doesn’t wait for ecclesiastical office which may or may not come. The treasure and reward of humility is there, immediately, not just sometime later when authorities decide you are ready to bear a heavier cross and push you out of the nest for a greater service.

I would like to comment, very inadequately, on the monastic vow of wealth. It is said well enough that monastics renounce possessions and Orthodox in the world are to practice generosity and detachment, but he who renounces all possessions ends up with God Himself as pre-eminent among many possessions. The words “Do not store up treasure on earth” are but a shadow to “Store up treasures in Heaven,” and monasticism is scarcely more nor less than a community framework for storing up still more treasures in Heaven. The Gospel may censure the man who stores up treasures on earth and tears down his barns to build bigger barns: but in and out of monasticism Orthodox are summoned to reach positions where their barns are not big enough for the treasures in Heaven they have come to possess, and they need to tear down their spiritual barns and build up bigger barns. The Gospel implies nothing positive about the man who has great earthly wealth while considering himself much too poor and wearing himself out to acquire even more wealth, but God’s fullest blessings are on the monk who considers himself to have no appreciable treasures in Heaven and lives an insatiable desire to get even more treasures in Heaven. The monk who rejects an earthly endowment of wealth is instead given an incomparable Providence that gives him treasures he didn’t know to seek. Royalty have such privilege that they are not to touch money: monasticism takes this treasure to the utmost. The monk has lost two hundred and thirty-nine pounds in one vow: if you want to know true treasure, monks have the greatest treasure of all, in this world in the next. St. Constantine, equal to the apostles and great among princes, told one monk that if he had known what rewards monks have in Heaven, he would have exchanged his royal purple for a monk’s robes immediately. Monasticism is a unique realm of privilege in the Church. (And the security provided by merely earthly wealth is an illusion and does not compare to the Providence given to married and monastic who do not put their trust in riches.)

What does monastic work pay for a monastic or pilgrim? The answer “100% below minimum wage” is positively misleading. The coin which monastic work pays in, and is more important to a spiritual father than getting work done, is healing from our passions, and freedom from our sins is a coin which no amount of secular money is worth. As regards what monks receive by their labor, I would appeal to the Song of Songs: Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.

All this and more is to be said of monasticism, but it is also to be said that monasticism is no more than the rudiments of the Gospel. If you do not have a monastic spiritual father, all that really means is that you have God for a Spiritual Father. Monastics insist that salvation is possible at every time and everywhere, and is offered to all. However spectacular the blessings of monasticism sound, God’s blessings are offered everywhere. If you should be a monk, by all means become a monk. But if not, do not believe that the God who created and governs all of Creation cares for monks but does not care for you. Christ died for you, and you are made in the divine image to ascend to the divine likeness whether or not monasticism is your path. God has loved you from everlasting to everlasting, and even your ability to choose between Heaven and Hell is part of the glory he built into you.

Moreover the saints, and we are invited to this, are not dependent on their efforts succeeding. We often think of moral victory like a consolation prize, as a palliative to essential failure, but the saints don’t. St. Paul at the end of his life, when he had greater external achievement than almost anyone since, wrote to St. Timothy, “I have fought the good fight. I have run the race. I have kept the faith.” St. Paul, saint that he was, seemed to consider his moral victories of being faithful as more worthy of mention than external victories that included planting churches, writing half the books of the New Testament, and healing and even raising the dead. He did not need to be successful, and his gargantuan external successes were never mentioned when he claimed a faithfulness that many others can share. There is a crushing character to needing to succeed, and the example of the saints is liberating. We don’t need to succeed, however noble our endeavor may be. We need only pray and be faithful.

We live in a spiritual and visible world, and some say that man, as the recapitulation of the spiritual and visible worlds, as a microcosm of all Creation, is higher than even the angels. And in this world, there are devils and there is evil, but the devils are always and only on a leash. Meanwhile, the Church Triumphant, the Holy Trinity and every saint before, is watching and cheering us as we run the race. The Church has been called a large yet extremely close-knit family, and every saint standing before the throne of God is praying, or is willing to pray, for us.

And the world we live in is real. I am not the only person who has wanted to escape into another world; small literature brings escape from the world while great literature brings engagement with the world. I’ve wanted to be in Narnia, among other places, and C.S. Lewis says that many kids have their own little world, but for the children, it was real. And this world we are in is itself real. It may not be in its final greatness yet. But it is real and still profoundly great, and after one spiritual adventure I came to realize that being in communion with Christ, I was in a certain sense in communion with all Creation, with the stars in the sky and the starfish in the sea, and insofar as the human person is constituted in the image of the Trinity, I was more in communion with the heretics than they were with themselves. I am not sure this is officially endorsed language; but I do know that I reached the brink of death and Hell, and my salvation consisted in rejecting a passion of alienation with Creation, and that I am in fact in communion with the Orthodox Church, in communion with God, and in communion with Creation.

Even suffering has meaning. Before I became Orthodox, as a Protestant I said that Purgatory seemed to be a spiritual reality present on earth, whether or not it was a place after death. Now Orthodoxy has been clear in not preaching that some must pass through Purgatory to reach Heaven: but we share in the sufferings of Christ, and spiritual giants suffer more. Part of this is “No servant is greater than his master,” but suffering in our lives is neither random nor meaningless. Marriage and monasticism are both intended to be a crown of thorns to help us grow up; and unlike the world assumed by certain Church Fathers, we live in a world where blessed marriage is almost as much an exceptional holy light as monasticism, and it should be recognized both that marriage and monasticism serve the same goal of self-transcendence, and are different positions on one and the same team.

In The Orthodox Church, Vladyka KALLISTOS compares Christians today to the Early Church in terms of what society Christians are surrounded in. He does not make the complaint in ages past, when ancient Roman persecution ended and a saint said that easy times rob the Church of her saints. Now we live in times more reminiscent in pagan terms of Ragnarok or the Kali-Yuga, where Norse paganism sided with the good gods because they wanted to go down losing on the right side. But this is precisely not the Christian situation. It is more like a business with unrestricted Facebook use, where some people spent all their work hours sunk into social media, while the worker bees became even more focused. Things are darker outside for Christians, but for many the divine light shines more starkly. I have been blessed.

I have titled this piece “More Than Royalty” because whatever is distinctive about royalty, or giftedness, or wealth is a shadow compared to what is built into the human constitution in the divine image. The reference is obvious:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord

Paradise is wherever the saints are!

(What more is there to say?)

Why We Should Believe in Hell

We live in an age where we wish that all should be saved; universalism is “in the air,” and every recent treatment I am aware of Hell being treated by an Orthodox author today, the author does not deny the doctrine of Hell, but none the less wishes to do so. Universalism is “in the air” both inside and outside of Orthodoxy (I think it’s a likely import to Orthodoxy), and the telling of a title is telling: Han Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved? does not deny that people will go to Hell, but it wishes to do so. And on that topic I remember a homilectic comment I heard some twenty years back, about hoping that all would be saved: “Hope it all you want! But don’t preach it.

I might briefly comment that one author in the Philokalia says that we owe more to Hell than Heaven, because more people have been saved through fear of Hell’s torments than through desire of Heaven’s bliss [even if the latter infinitely outclass the former]. I know I owe a lot to the fear of Hell and the desire for a better balance sheet come Judgment.

Doctrine of God

In the interests of doing more than just stitch together a couple of quotations from previous blog posts, I would like to comment on what in formal academic language is called “doctrine of God,” and studies one angle of the One God in a way that is a mutual counterbalance to studying the persons of the Trinity.

In what may be the most controversial argument in the history of philosophy, Anselm of Canterbury defines God to be that which is greater than anything else that can be thought [and is also greater than can be thought]. To exist in reality is greater than to exist only in thought, and so it would be a contradiction for the God who is greater than anything else that can be thought to only exist in people’s minds. (And if you’ve just come up with a counterargument to say that the same implies there must be an ultimate tropical island that rains Champagne and has filet mignon and lobster grow on trees, your objection and argument has been raised by one of Anselm’s contemporaries and refuted by Anselm.)

I personally do not accept this argument, although I am not interested in explaining why. What I am interested in is that Anselm is starting with the Christian God. Until you have seen why, it sounds odd that theologians deny that God is the largest element within a larger system, or that God is an instance of a class. It’s a bit slippery what is being asserted and/or denied, and even more slippery why. But there is a great deal to be said about doctrine of God, and I would dip into it with a joke.

There were four rabbis who were discussing Torah, and as was usual among them the three agreed on something and overruled the odd man out. They always said, “See? It’s three against one.”

One day the odd man out had enough, and he began to pray, “Show them that I am right,” and all of a sudden there was a soft rumble of thunder.

The odd rabbi out said, “So?”

The other three said, “That’s striking, but it doesn’t prove you’re right. It’s still three against one.”

The rabbi prayed, “G-d, I’ve given you so much and I’ve asked for so little. Please give them a sign that I’m right.”

When he finished praying, there was much louder thunder, and a small cloud appeared in the sky. He looked at the other rabbis, but they only said, “It’s still three against one.”

Then the lone rabbi knelt down, was able to pray just, “G-d, I—” when before his knee could even touch the ground, clouds suddenly filled the sky, a bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree, there was a thunderous earthquake, and a deep, booming voice thundered, “He’s right!

The lone rabbi looked at the others and said, “Well? Are you still going to deny it?”

The others said, “So what? It’s still three against two.”

The point of this scandalous joke is not just that when God has spoken, a discussion is over. It is that the Oneness of God is not the same as creaturely oneness; it can’t be added like we count physical objects. Saying “It’s still three against two” is at its core strict idolatry, because asserting One God is fundamentally beyond asserting that there happens to be one book on a shelf. Doxology asserts a monotheism that is more thorough than Islam; a monotheism that is large enough to be threatened neither by the non-numerical three persons in the Trinity, nor by faithful being made divine.

Recognizing an exception as an exception

And on this point I would like to point to something exceptional as something exceptional in Orthodox classics. The Our Father is understood to be a particularly special, divine prayer, and it is included in the Divine Liturgy after the holy gifts have been consecrated and almost immediately before the Holy Mysteries are received. “Our Father” is understood as tied to theosis, a prayer that belongs only to those deified as sons of God. And regarding the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” St. Maximus Confessor says that we stand before God as moral exemplars to him, and urge him to imitate our own virtue.

This much is legitimate, but it is deliberately striking, and it completely loses its force if the idea of us showing God the nature of virtue is a commonplace cliché. The claim is intended to be shocking, because he assumes his readers know that we don’t know holiness better than God. In the day that he wrote, it was very striking for men to attempt to inform God about the nature of holiness and virtue. In our day, the project is quite common.

On that point, I would like to look at a maxim I propose, that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods and that makes all the difference.

God the Spiritual Father

In God the Spiritual Father, I wrote:

Let’s turn the clock back a bit, to 1755. There was a catastrophic earthquake in Lisbonne in Portugal, and its untold misery shook people’s faith in the goodness of the world we live in. In the questioning that came afterwards, Voltaire wrote Candide in which the rather ludicrous teacher Pangloss is always explaining that we live in “the best of all possible worlds:” no matter what misfortune or disaster befell them, the unshakable Pangloss would always find a way to explain that we still lived in the best of all possible worlds. And Voltaire’s point is to rip that preposterous idea apart, giving a dose of reality and showing what the misery in Lisbonne made painfully clear: we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But there is another shoe to drop.

We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Far from it. But we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods, and it is a more profound truth, a more vibrant truth, a truth that goes much deeper into the heart of root of all things to say that we may not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live under the care of the best of all possible Gods.

Voltaire may be right when he explicitly explodes the claim that we live in the best of all possible worlds, but he is wrong when he implicitly fails to draw the readers to a more profound and important truth: we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and this best of all possible Gods cares for us in a way participated in by a spiritual father caring for a spiritual child.

I do not explore the afterlife in God the Spiritual Father, only the present life. However, what is asserted of the God who looks over our lives while we are living carries full force after our lives, too: the God who is the best of all possible Gods before our death remains the best of all possible Gods to us after our death.

One point when I was studying academic theology at Fordham there was a fashionable doctrine that was absolutely right. And that is that the freedom we have is not simply an identical and unchanging ability to make unrelated choices; one way to differ is to assert that by each choice we make we are making ourselves one notch more a creature of Heaven, or one notch more a creature of Hell. C.S. Lewis wrote that you can only get to Hell on your own steam, and said that in the end there are two classes of people: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” Though God may send people to Hell, the image of God sending people to Hell might be counterbalanced by the deeper image of God offering each person, saved and unsaved alike, an eternal choice between Heaven and Hell.

When I wrote the seriously flawed The Way of the Way, years before joining the Orthodox Church, one thing I commented was that to those who hold on to sin, even Heaven would be Hell. I understand that Kalomiros’s The River of Fire has undergone serious critique, but it is right at least in this: if the damned were to enter Heaven, they would experience Heaven as Hell. In Kalomiros it is said that the fire of Hell is nothing other than the Light of Heaven as experienced through the rejection of the only terms it can be enjoyed.

In this world we have theodicy, difficulty understanding how an absolutely Good God could create a world with suffering. In looking at the next world, the same impulse holds; we want to be exemplars to God in virtue, but I assert that if we wish to change God’s mind, we wish incoherently on several levels.

Suffering for others

In another work I do not wish to name, I wrote,

What is necessary for people is the same in or outside of the monastery; it’s just that with all the modern inconveniences and interesting and entertaining work the near-identical needs are not met to the same degree. Monks say to each other, “Have a good struggle,” and struggle is expected and normal; people who approach monasteries to loaf around or have some romanticized image be their life may succeed, but not without considerable growth. And to the point of struggle, it is the norm and it is necessary for salvation in or out of Heaven. Those scientifically minded know that when physicists have examined how different the physical constants could and support life as we know it, the invariable conclusion is that life as we know it could not be possible unless the universe were tuned, not to put too fine a point on it, but with mind-boggling precision as if there were a God creating a universe universe that was incredibly fine-tuned, just to support life. And with a similar question among those who have any idea of the dimensions of the earth and the incomparable dimensions of the universe, “Why is the universe so vast, and the earth smaller than a grain of sand when held next to its grandeur? How much legroom does the human race need?” the answer is, “A universe’s worth: no less!” And if we ask, “How much legroom does the Church require for salvation, that the saved may have eternal joy and shine with the uncreated Light in Heaven?” the answer is to me my least favorite part of this book and one that brings me to tears. The answer is, “Hell,” or possibly more strongly and chillingly, “Every single soul from among the innumerable multitude of those who will be eternally damned to Hell!

One pastor tried to say this without a laugh, and failed, that he was one place in the American South during a heat wave, and just before elevator doors closed, a jogger stepped in, sweating bullets, and said, “It’s hotter than Hell out there!” The pastor said, slowly, “No. It isn’t,” and creeped out everyone else in the elevator. But the damned exist, there is always at least possibility of salvation, God does ever better than they observe, and the damned do one thing that is essential. They provide other people with conflicts that can be part of a saving struggle. And when the Crack of Doom comes those who treat you abusively you will partly answer for your sins in your place. This is first a cause to feel relieved, then giddy, then at least for a moment when the full implications begin to unfold, pure terror. Christ died for your sins, and so did Judas, Arius, Marx, Jung, and Hitler.

I used to find the close of the Beatitudes sung during the Divine Liturgy hard to accept as real: “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.” I found it hard to rejoice at verbal abuse.

Now I find those words difficult in a different way: the Philokalia briefly, and in a single passage, states that if you mistreat others, you will answer for their sin. I no longer find it so difficult to be glad I have a reward in Heaven, but the hard part now is that recognizing that my own reward comes at a terrible price. However, I trust that in this I am not more loving than God, and how he arranges things is beautiful, and it all fits in God’s heart, whether or not it fits in my head.

And this, I think, is the one thing I have going for me compared to Christians who wish they are universalist. It is not whether we would wish the salvation of all; it is whether notions about God that fit in my head are normative for God to reform by. I do not claim a final word on whether all will be saved, but I do suggest a palliative at least that the God who makes the saved co-workers with God and co-heirs with Christ has imbued human nature with a genuine authority to choose between Heaven and Hell, and none arrive in Hell but those who choose it above Heaven.

An Orthodox clergyman said, in another context (namely what happens to us in our days on earth) that we should wish for whatever God has provided to happen, to be what happens. (In other words, wish for what exists, not what doesn’t exist.)

Perhaps this, together with an appreciation of Sovereignty and Mercy being in God one and the same thing, might help us to curb our wishes that God would comply with our universalism.

Ye Olde Curiositie & Gift Shoppe

Merry Christmas! I wanted to offer to you what treasures I can.

A picture of C.J.S. Hayward

Skip ahead to: Accolades, Books, Configurator for Swiss Army Knives®

I am a sinful, imperfect, and very unworthy layman of the Orthodox Church, seeking to enter monasticism to repent of my sins for the rest of my life. (However, I’ve written some pretty good stuff, and if you buy something you might help me along my way.)

What people are saying about this collection

“A collection of joyful, challenging, insightful, intelligent, mirthful, and jarring essays written by an Eastern Orthodox author who is much too wise for his years.”

—Joseph Donovan, Amazon

“Each piece is a delight: partially because each ‘speaks’ using a different voice and partially because a diversity of topics and cross-connections between theology and everyday living makes the entire collection a delight to read, packed with unexpected twists, turns, and intellectual challenges.

Fans of C.S. Lewis and similar Christian thinkers will find The Best of Jonathan’s Corner an absolute delight.”

—Diane Donovan, Midwest Book Review

“When I read C. S. Lewis, A. W. Tozer, or G. K. Chesterton, there is a deep ache for both the times and the men that made honor, wisdom, and clarity a thing of such beauty and strength. We wonder what they would say of our time, and why, with so many more people and better communication, we don’t see more of them.
Hayward is such a person of wisdom and depth. I do not say this lightly or flatteringly. He and I don’t agree on everything, but when we contrast, it will never be his side of the issue that is lacking in depth, beauty, or elegance. He’s Orthodox, yes (I’m not). But I suspect all sides will claim him as they do Lewis and Chesterton.”

—Kent Nebergall, Amazon

The Sign of the Grail is a unique, scholarly, and thorough examination of the Grail mythos, granting it a top recommendation for academia and the non-specialist reader with an interest in these subjects. Also very highly recommended for personal, academic, and community library collections are C.J.S. Hayward’s other deftly written and original literary works, essays, and commentaries, compilations and anthologies: Yonder, Firestorm 2034, A Cord of Seven Strands, The Steel Orb, The Christmas Tales, and Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary [the other six Hayward titles then in print].”

—John Burroughs, Midwest Book Review

“Divinely inspired for our day and age’s spiritually thirsty fellows.”

—Colleen Woods, Amazon

“The work that stands out most among the creative pieces, perhaps among all of them, is that which opens the book, The Angelic Letters. I have had the pleasure of reading nearly all of Hayward’s writings, and I was delighted that he undertook to write such a work. Readers who are familiar with C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters will recognize at once that it is the very book which that author desired, but felt unable, to write in order to balance the demonic correspondence. It is a mark of Hayward’s skill, knowledge, and spiritual insight that he has successfully written something that such a theologian as Lewis did not wish to attempt. He has of course accomplished this work with God’s help, but one must realize the spiritual struggle, mental effort, careful study, and deep prayer that has gone into every piece in this anthology… This author has gathered pearls for us, and may we gladly look upon them. They hold glimmers that can reflect our lives.”

—Sydney “Nicoletta” Freedman, in the Foreword to The Best of Jonathan’s Corner.

An author’s bookshelf

I have dozens of works on my shelf; the “Complete Works” collection spans eight paperback volumes (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, plus Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide and The Seraphinians), and are available in Kindle. Several much shorter collections are also available. Some top sellers include:

The inner sanctum of my library:

The Best of Jonathan’s Corner: An Anthology of Orthodox Christian Mystical Theology
This is the piece of which the Midwest Book Review wrote, “Each piece is a delight: partially because each ‘speaks’ using a different voice and partially because a diversity of topics and cross-connections between theology and everyday living makes the entire collection a delight to read, packed with unexpected twists, turns, and intellectual challenges.

In other words, it enchants as a Swiss Army Knife enchants, and individual works are as distinctive as blades on a Swiss Army Knife..

This is the flagship of my works, both in theology and writing as a whole, and there’s a lot there.

A Pilgrimage From Narnia: The Story of One Man’s Journey into Orthodoxy
One question many who are Orthodox are asked is how they came into the Orthodox Church. This is an account of what I saw journeying into Orthodoxy, a process that is still not complete.
The Luddite’s Guide to Technology: The Past Writes Back to Humane Tech!
Among the critiques I’ve made, The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts has had a pretty broad and effective reach, in particular for a work that has numerous vitriolic one star reviews. This title, by contrast, contains another significant critique. The “Humane Tech” movement achieves some things, but I would recall a common misquote allegedly from Einstein: “Our problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” Humane Tech looks at how technology experts can work within today’s technical paradigms to soften some of technology’s rough spots. The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is written across ages to step much further outside the box, and the light adaptation of Plato in Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen? has been called deep, perhaps because it was a light touch to a masterpiece.
“Do We Have Rights?” and Other Homilies
I mentioned in conversation with a previous parish priest that I would jump at an opportunity to do a homily, and when I asked for him to do a homily on something briefly touched on in previous opportunities, he invited me to give such a homily myself. I did, and it was the one time in my life that people burst out clapping after a homily. He was a great encourager, and it is my loss that he has moved to another state.
As It Were in Ye Olden Dayes
This is a collection with works containing Elizabethan or medieval English. It includes prayers.
A Small Taste of Jonathan’s Corner
This is a sampler meant to let people taste my writing and see if they might like it.

The outer court of my porch:

Subtle Humor, in the style of the Onion Dome and rec.humor.funny.
Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide
Subtle Humor: A Jokebook in the Shadow of The Onion Dome, The Onion, and rec.humor.funny
I haven’t written for The Onion; I have multiple submissions published in The Onion Dome and rec.humor.funny.
The Spectacles: A Collection of Short Stories
This collection holds fifteen short stories, no two of which are alike. The title chapter is in particular worth reading.
Merlin’s Well
This is a twist on Arthurian legends written by a medievalist storyteller.
Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide
One of my top-selling works. It offers a glimpse into worlds.

A configurator for Swiss Army Knives®

Check out the features: Click on the pictures!

A picture of the foot-thick Wenger Giant pocketknife. If you do not have a live option to buy a foot-thick Wenger Giant, have you considered that my foot-thick print selection (with volumes one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, plus Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide and The Seraphinians) is much the same thing?

The cover to C.J.S. Hayward's "The Complete Works" collectionIt’s not just that they’re both about a foot thick. The thickness comes from a numerous and varied set of tools: 87 implements with 141 functions for the Wenger Giant, compared with 230 separate works (as of the time of this writing) in the Kindle collection. Furthermore, if you search Amazon for my dozens of titles you will see something a bit like the many Swiss Army Knives you can search from above.

If you love Swiss Army Knives, you may love my book collection and author homepage even more. It’s a whole lot cheaper, and it might also be even better than the classic Wenger Giant.

How to Think About Psychology: An Orthodox Look at a Secular Religion

Buy The Best of Jonathan's Corner on Amazon.

Introduction: A study of secularization

Thomas Dixon in Theology, Anti-Theology, and Atheology: From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions, offers a model of societal secularization intended to be a more robust than just seeing “theology vs. anti-theology,” “theology vs. theology in disguise,” or “theology vs. anti-theology in disguise.” He argues for a process that begins with full-blooded theism, such as offered by almost any strain of classic Christianity, and then moves to “thin theism,” such as Paley (today think Higher Powers), then “anti-theology” that is directly hostile to theism, then “atheology” which is alienated from theological roots but is merely un-theological, “in much the same way as a recipe in a cookery book is un-theological.”

Dixon, like a good scholar, provides a good case study explored at greater length in his dissertation, and I am very interested in the case study he chose. He looks at the formation of a secular category of psychology, and the steps that have been taken to depart from older religious understandings situating the concept of passions, to a secular concept of emotions. The development of the secular category of emotions serves as a microcosm of a study of a society’s apostasy (a term Dixon does not use in his article) from understanding aspects of life as features of religion, to covering similar territory in terms of what is explained, but understanding things on secular terms, disconnected from religion. (Much prior to the transition Dixon documents, it’s difficult to see what the West would make of psychobabble about “Feelings aren’t right. They aren’t wrong. They’re just feelings.“)

If I may summarize Dixon’s account of the apostasy, while moving the endpoints out a bit, in the Philokalia, passions are loosely sin viewed as a state, with inner experience (and sometimes outer) related to how we live and struggle with our passions. Orthodox Christians have quite an earful to give (and sometimes the maturity not to give it) if someone from the West asks, “What are your passions?” In an Orthodox understanding, taken literally, that question has nothing to do with activities we enjoy and get excited about (unless they are wrong for us to engage in). It is more the matter of a habit of sin that has defaced their spiritual condition and that they are, or should be, repenting of. That is one of the more “Western-like” points we can take from the Philokalia; another foundational concept is that many of the thoughts we think are our own, and make our own (such as authentic handling of non-straight sexuality as is broadly understood today), are the unending attempted venomous injections of demons and we need to watchfully keep guard and destroy what seems to be our own thoughts. This is not present, nor would be particularly expected, in Dixon’s account. However, the “before” in Dixon’s “before and after” clearly situates what would today be considered feelings as markers and features of spiritual struggle, spiritual triumph, and spiritual defeat. The oldest so-to-speak “non-influence” figure Dixon attends to lived his life well after the Orthodox eight demons, that attack us from without, were revised to become our own internal seven deadly sins.

The first alternative Dixon studies is a concept of emotion that is paper-thin. The specific text he studies, which is remarkably accurately named, is Charles Darwin’s The Expressions of Emotion in Man and the Animals. The title does not directly herald a study of emotion, but the expressions of emotion, with an a priori that diminishes or removes consideration of human emotional life being distinctive (contrast Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation; she believes very much that animals have a psyche, but takes a sledgehammer to all-too-easy anthromorphization of animal psyches). Furthermore, an emotion is something you feel. Emotion is not really about something, and emotional habits are not envisioned. Darwin’s study was a study of physiologically what was going on with human and animal bodies approached as what was really going on in emotion.

Later on, when atheology has progressed, this begins to change. After a certain point people could conceive that emotions are about something; another threshold crossed, and you could speak of emotional habits; another threshold crossed, and you could regard a person’s emotional landscape as healthy or unhealthy. All of this fits Dixon’s category of atheology if one is using his framework. There remain important differences from either the Philokalia or the earliest models Dixon studies: it is today believed that you should let emotions wash through you until they have run their course, an opinion not endorsed by any framing of passions that I know. However, I would recall G.K. Chesterton on why it was not provocative for him to call the Protestant Reformation the shipwreck of Christianity: the proof is that, like Robinson Crusoe, Protestants keep on retrieving things from the Catholic ship.

Perhaps the fullest atheological rediscovery of the concept of a passion I am aware of is the disease model of alcoholism lived out in Alcoholics Anonymous. The passions are, in the Philokalia, spiritual wounds or diseases of some sort, and the dominant metaphor for a father confessor is that of a physician or healer. While the important term “repent” is not included in the wording of the twelve steps, the twelve steps paint in powerful and stark relief what repentance looks like when it puts on work gloves. The community is in many ways like a church or perhaps is a church. Steps may be taken to qualify strict doctrine, but the teaching and resources are a sort of practical theology to help people defeat the bottle. (One thinks of Pannenberg’s essay How to Think About Secularism suggests that secularism did not arise from people grinding an axe against all religion; it arose from people wanting to live in peace at a time when it was mainstream to wish that people on the other side of the divide would be burned at the stake.) There is a bit of haziness about “God as I understand him,” but this is decidedly not the result of hazy thinking. The biggest difference between Alcoholics Anonymous and the Orthodox Church may be that Alcoholics Anonymous helps with one primary disease or passion, and the Church, which could be called Sinners Anonymous, doesn’t say, “Hi. I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” It believes, “Hi. I’m Joe, and I’m the worst sinner in history.”

Where is the Orthodox Church in all of Dixon’s study?

At a glance, there may not be much visible. The Orthodox Church is not mentioned as such, the text seems to focus on English-speaking figures from the 17th century onwards, and the only figure claimed by the Orthodox Church is the Blessed Augustine, who is first mentioned in a perfunctory list of influences upon authors who retained significant grounding in older tradition. (The next stop seems to jump centuries forward to reach Thomas Aquinas.) The text does not seem to have even a serious pretension to treat Orthodoxy as far as the case study goes. Furthermore, while passions were and are considered important in Orthodoxy, the theological affections that counterbalance theological passions in the “before” part of “before and after” are obscure or nonexistant in Orthodox faith.

However, there is something that would feel familiar to Orthodox. To the Orthodox student in a Roman university, there may be the repeated effect of a Catholic student conspiratorially explain that the Roman Catholic Church has been doing that was daft and wrong, but now Rome is getting its act together, has progressed, and has something genuinely better to offer. To Orthodox, this whole topos heralds something specific; it heralds the dismantling of one more continuity that Rome used to have with Holy Orthodoxy. And while Dixon does not discuss “Catholic” or “Protestant” as such and does not even have pretensions of treating Orthodoxy, he offers a first-class account of Western figures dismantling one more continuity with Holy Orthodoxy. To many Orthodox, the tune sounds all too familiar.

Quasi-Mystical-Theology

In Orthodoxy, all theology is “mystical theology”, meaning what is practically lived in the practice of Holy Orthodoxy. Systematic theology is off-limits, as a kind of formal book exercise that is not animated by the blood of mystical theology.

Clinical psychology offers what Dixon terms quasi-theology, and I would more specifically term quasi-mystical theology. Not all psychologists are clinical practitioners; there are a good number of academic research psychologists who explore things beyond the bounds of what a counselor would ordinarily bring up. For instance, academic psychology has developed theories of memory, including what different kinds of memory there are, how they work, and how they fit together. These are not only more detailed than common-sense understandings, but different: learning a skill is considered a type of memory, and while it makes sense on reflection, the common, everyday use of “memory” does not draw such a connection.

This is a legitimate finding of research psychology, but it falls outside of common counseling practice unless the client has some kind of condition where this information is useful. Clinical practitioners attempt to inculcate aspects of psychology that will help clients with their inner state, how to handle difficulties, and (it is hoped) live a happier life. All of this is atheology that is doing something comparable to theology, and more specifically mystical theology; the speculative end is left for academics, or at least not given to clients who don’t need the added information. In Dixon’s framing, some atheology is additionally quasi-theological, meaning that it offers e.g. overarching narratives of life and the cosmos; he mentions science-as-worldview as one point. Clinical psychology offers a different, humbler, and vastly more powerful quasi-theological project. It offers an attempt at a secular common ground that will let people live their lives with the kind of resources that have been traditionally sought under religious auspices. As far as the Philokalia as the Orthodox masterwork for the science of spiritual struggle goes, at times the content of clinical psychology runs parallel to the Philokalia and at times it veers in a different and unrelated direction from the Philokalia, but it is almost a constant that clinical psychology is intended to do Philokalia work that will help overcome bad thoughts, preventable misery, regrettable actions, being emotionally poisoned by people who are emotionally poisonous, etc. There is of course an additional difference in that the works in the Philokalia are concerned with building people up for eternal glory, but clinical psychology is meant to build people up for a positive life, and that much is common ground.

What is a religion? Can religion be secular?

Q> With so many religions [in India], how do you stay united ?

A: A common hatred of stupid Americans.

An FAQ list written by an exasperated Indian

The term “religion” etymologically comes from Latin, “religare”, which means to bind. It is the same root as in “ligament” in the human body, which do a job of connecting bones to each other. And while the FAQ list contains some astonishingly silly questions, there is some degree of insight reflected in a realization of many religions in India leading to a question of, “How do you stay united?

I bristled when I read scholars saying that courtly love and chivalry was the real religion of knights and nobles late in the Middle Ages, but some years later, the claim makes a lot more sense to me. The medieval versions of Arthurian legend I read before and during The Sign of the Grail repeatedly talked about how people didn’t love (in courtly fashion) anything like the days of King Arthur, which is a signal warning that courtly love was present in a sense that was unthinkable in the claimed days of King Arthur’s court. The first widespread version of Arthurian legends outside of Celtic legend were in the twelfth century; the dates reported, with mention of St. Augustine of Canterbury, put Arthur as being in the sixth century. The number of intervening centuries is roughly the same as the number of years between our time and the tail end of the medieval world.

Furthermore, I have not read Harry Potter but I would offer some contrasts. First of all, Harry Potter is produced, offered, and among the more mentally stable members of the fan base, received as a work of fiction. The version of King Arthur that first swept through mainland Europe was a work of pseudohistory produced mostly out of thin air, but was presented and received as literal history. Secondary, Harry Potter mania is not expected to be a fixture for all of a long lifetime: the cultural place we have is like nothing else in its heyday, but it is a candidate for a limelight that shone on many other things before it and is expected to shine on many things after it. The Arthurian legends were more of a Harry Potter without competition. Today one can walk in the bookstore and see fantasy novels representing many worlds; Arthurian legends tended to absorb anything beside them that was out there (like the story of Tristan and Yseult, included in Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur). It might be pointed out that the present Pope as of this writing is named after a medieval Western saint, Francis of Assisi, who was named under the inspiration of France and more specifically French troubadours. I am not sure where the troubadors’ lyrics began and ended, but Arthurian legends entered the vulgar (i.e. common, instead of Latin) tongue in France and troubadours were part and parcel to what spread. Notwithstanding that the Arthurian legends take place in England, they are to this day as well-known, or better-known, in France, than the story of the (French) Roland and his paladins. The Roman Catholic Church forbade reading “idle romances,” meaning, essentially, all Arthurian literature, but it seems that, in the circles of courtly love, the active endeavors of chivalry were much more on the front burner with Christianity assumed to be on the back burner, and chivalry was more of one’s real religion to knights and nobles than Christianity.

One Orthodox student, perhaps not making himself particularly well-liked in a theology program by complaining about Karl Rahner’s reliance on Western analytic philosophy (one particularly memorable cart-before-the-horse heading was “The presence of Christ in an evolutionary worldview”), and was answered by saying that it was to reach the unbeliever. He responded and said that he did not see why the common ground between all world religions was Western analytic philosophy. The professor said that it was to reach the unbeliever in us. The student said that Western analytic philosophy did not speak to the unbeliever in him. (The conversation moved on from there, but without uncovering any particular reason why Western analytic philosophy should fit the job description Rahner was conscripting it to do.)

In psychology today, the common ground that is legitimately given the job of a secular and artificial religion in a sense of what common ground binds us together is material derived by Buddhism and Hinduism (whether or not their incarnations would be recognized by the religious communities). Jainism is omitted perhaps because of a lack of familiarity with Indian religion. (The term “yoga,” for instance, means a spiritual path, in which sense it would be natural for a Christian to claim to be practicing the Christian yoga, but yoga in the usual sense is lifted from Hinduism. As to whether Orthodox may practice yoga, as always, ask your priest; I do not see why Christians need yoga, but many priests are much more lenient than I would be.) What is presented in psychology today is a secular religion, not specifically requiring one to reverence certain deities or providing as complete a moral code as world religions, and for that matter expected to be markedly different than the secular religions offered ten years in the past and ten years in the future, and no less meant to do a religion’s job because it is concocted.

Why are we seeking mindfulness from the East?
Perhaps because we because we have dismantled it in the West.

A cartoon about where morality is. /><br />
Buddhism has four noble truths, and an eightfold noble path in which a Western philosopher or historian of philosophy would recognize a path of virtue-based morality. One of them, “Right Mindfulness,” has been given a heyday in the sun, although mindfulness is best understood holistically in a society where self-identified Buddhists find license to treat morality as optional (Buddhist societies and religious texts seem to find a great deal of moral debt owed to other humans, as one can likely find by reading whatever the Wikipedia page for Buddhism mentions). Virtue-based moralities are common in many world religions and world philosophical traditions; if Christianity offers a virtue-based morality, this has never been a Christian monopoly. Besides Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, for instance in the East, and Aristotle and the Stoics in the West, approach morality by virtues. There are important differences in <em>how</em> they approach morality by virtues, but the concept of virtues as such is common. (A virtue is a disposition, or an internal state influencing action, that “points towards” some category of good action and/or “points away” from some category of bad action.)</p>
<p>As compared to Western philosophy without much Eastern influence, there is not a packaged standalone virtue of mindfulness. Another Indian virtue that is shared between Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, <em>ahimsa</a> or not-harming, says in essence “I cannot harm you without harming myself,” and while it may be easier to see from pantheism, even secular grounds can recognize that divorce is not the only misfortune that hurts all involved. Various stripes of abuse are destructive for the victim, but they are also destructive to the abuser. To steal or lie to another is also a self-violation. This virtue may not be spelled out in older Western texts, but a philosopher who knows Western virtue philosophy should be able to immediately recognize mindfulness, ahimse, etc. as newly met members of the family of virtues, and possibly cardinal virtues to boot. (Cardinal virtues are virtues that are both important in themselves, and something that other virtues hinge on.)</p>
<p>Mindfulness is something that’s part of the terrain of virtue, in the West as well as the East; it’s just that with how something like a “political map” is drawn, it’s not framed as its own separate territory. (This kind of thing is familiar enough to students of philosophy and religion.) However, there are repeated points of contact between mindfulness and <a href=Fr. Thomas Hopko’s “55 Maxims for the Christian Life”:

  1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  2. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
  3. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  4. Sit in silence 20 or 30 minutes a day.
  5. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
  6. Live a day, or even part of a day, at a time.
  7. Be grateful.
  8. Be cheerful.
  9. Listen when people talk to you.
  10. Be awake and attentive, fully present wherever you are.
  11. Flee imagination, analysis, fantasy, figuring things out.

34 is not the only item that exhorts us to be mindful.

But we are rediscovering mindfulness after having dismantled it at home. One friend talked about how his grandmother complained about Walkmans, that if you are running through natural surroundings and listening to music, you are not paying due attention to your surroundings. There has been a stream of technologies, from humble, tape-eating Walkmans to the iPod’s apotheosis in an iPhone and Apple Watch pairing, whose marketing proposition is to provide an ever-easier, ever-more-seductive, ever-more-compelling alternative to mindfulness. Now an iPhone can be awfully useful (I have a still-working iPhone 7), but using technology ascetically and rightly is harder than not using it at all, and Humane Tech only reaches so far.

One CEO talked about how she wanted to share one single hack, and the hack she wanted to share was that her mother gave you her full attention no matter who you were or what you were doing. And evidently this was something the CEO considered important both to do and to invite others to do. However, her mother’s behavior, however virtuous, and virtuously mindful, was nothing distinctive in her generation, nor was it presented as such. Even with no concept of mindfulness as such, people in her mother’s generation were taught in life, faith, and manners to give mindful attention to everyone you dealt with.

G.K. Chesterton exposes the sadness of laboring in the prison of one idea, and something similar might be said by laboring in the prison of one virtue, especially if that is not a cardinal virtue that opens to a vista of other virtues. Mindfulness, for instance, is much more worthy of attention when viewed as part of an Eightfold Noble Path of interlocking virtues. A TED talk about what makes people beat the odds, presented as original research to a virtue the presenter calls “grit,” which (however much research is done) is quickly recognizable as the standard virtue of perseverance.

There may be hope for a TED talk about an interlocking family of virtues. Tim Ferris’s talk about Stoicism does not discuss virtue as such, but does introduce the oblong concept that life lessons learned in ancient times can be relevant and useful today, and discusses Stoicism as the substance of a play George Washington used to strengthen his troops, and discovered as a kind of ultimate power tool by some of the top coaches in the NFL.

The first book of the Philokalia, moved to an appendix by formerly Protestant editors, was misattributed to one saint and the stated reason for its banishment was that it was spiritually insightful but not written by a Christian; it was Stoic and not Christian in certain respects. That may be true, but the Philokalia is universally human and its authors have usually been quick to borrow from, and respect, Stoic virtue philosophy.

One influential book from the West is Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. C.S. Lewis gives its reception a cardinal place in The Discarded Image, and contests a tendency to have to choose between Boethius’s Christianity and his philosophy. Both should be taken seriously, and the book, among other excellences, shows a Christian who has profited from the best pagan philosophy had to offer, including important Stoic elements.

We’ve seen a TED talk that doesn’t name virtues but shows enthusiasm for ancient philosophy in which virtues were important. Perhaps someday we may have a TED talk about an ancient or modern family of virtues.

“Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic,” is fundammentally not an “affirmation.”

I would like to look at the phrase, “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” to dismiss two ideas that might already be obviously ridiculous.

The first is that it’s sadistic, Alcoholics Anonymous rubbing member’s noses into the dirt because of some cruel glee. The practice of introducing yourself as an alcocholic is part and parcel of a big picture intended to free alcoholics from a suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, perhaps reminding members that someone who has been fifteen years sober can return to bondage to alcohol. Furthermore, the main intended beneficiary of saying “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic,” is simply the alcoholic who says it.

The second is that it’s wishful thinking. Perhaps there are some confused people who believe that it would be nice to be drunk all the time and drink more and more. However, for someone who knows the incredibly destructive suffering alcoholism inflicts on oneself and those one loves, it is an absurdity to think of “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” as a way to talk something into being, for someone who’s been stone cold sober lifelong to wish to be in cruel slavery to alcohol. “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” being an “affirmation” of wishful thinking belongs in a Monty Python sketch. The introduction as an alcoholic falls under the heading of facing already present reality.

“Here is a trustworthy saying which deserves acceptance: Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” Such said St. Paul, and such is enshrined in two brief prayers before communion. Confessing oneself the chief of sinners is not a positive affirmation: but it is a handmaiden to being one Christ died for, and another saying which has rumbled down the ages, “The vilest of human sins is but a smouldering ember thrown into the ocean of God’s love.” The confession as the chief of sinners is not an endpoint. It is a signpost lighting up the way to, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” However vile the sins one owns up to, they are outclassed in every possible way by the Lord who is addressed in, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (“Mercy” is said to translate chesed, a Hebrew word usually translated as “lovingkindness.”)

How do modern psychological affirmations look to a theist? A bit like trying to nourish yourself by eating cotton candy, but I’d really like to give more of an argument than an unflattering comparison. The introduction to Seven Habits of Highly Effective People describe a shift in wisdom literature (written and other materials about how to live life well; the concept heavily overlaps both theology and psychology). The shift is from a character ethic, which says that you get ahead by moral character or moral virtue, to a personality ethic which does not call for submitting to inner transformation, and whose hallmarks include exhortations to “Believe in yourself.” (Since Covey wrote his introduction, the jobhunting world is not the only arena to undergo a second fall into a personal brand ethic, but affirmations have not gotten to that point, or at least not that I’m aware of.)

Spirituality and organized religion

One Orthodox priest mentioned, for people who want to be spiritual but express distrust of organized religion, “If you don’t like organized religion, you’ll love Orthodoxy. We’re about as disorganized as you can get.” But he also had a deeper point to make.

That deeper point is that “objection to organized religion” is usually at its core “objection to someone else holding authority over me.” And that is deadly, because someone else having authority over you is the gateway to much of spiritual growth.

Spirituality that is offered as neutral, and has been castrated enough not to visibly trample any mainstream demographic’s religious and spiritual sensitivities, may have some effect, but true growth takes place outside of such spiritual confines.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World almost opens on “spirituality.” He discusses its vacuity, and how it exacerbates an already secular enough life. The reader is directed to him for what one might have that is better than taking a secular life and adding spirituality.

For lack of knowledge my people perish

I would like to take a moment to talk about mental illness.

The teaching of the Orthodox Church on what we understand as mental illness (see some “hard pill to swallow” prayers), as articulated by an Orthodox MD/PhD, is that the terrain we frame as mental illness has already been analyzed and addressed. Mental illnesses, or what are called such, are tangles of passion. But the psychiatrist was clear that he could and did prescribe medications to lessen patients’ suffering.

One bugbear that needs to be addressed is the idea that if you are suffering from mental illness, you need more faith, and/or you just need to snap out of it. Now all of us really need more faith, and if you suffer from a mental illness, you obviously should pray. However, trying to pray hard enough to make it go away may not work any better than trying to snap out of it.

Now, with caveats, I would recommend Orthodox Christians with mental illness to see a psychiatrist and/or a counselor. Their methods can be very effective, and for all my writing about ersatz religion, they can significantly reduce suffering.

The caveat I would give is not theologically motivated. It is that there are excellent psychiatrists and counselors, but psychology is a minefield, with counselors who will tell you to use pornography and masturbate. If I were looking for a provider, I would do research and/or ask someone you trust to do research for you (if, for instance, you are depressed enough that it’s difficult to get out of bed). And if your provider seems to be acting inappropriately or displaying incompetence, it may be the entirely right decision to switch providers.

However, there is one piece more that the secular category of psychology does not understand. Mental illness can improve dramatically when you delve into new layers of repentance. While it doesn’t work to just try harder to have more faith, as you walk the Orthodox journey of repentance you will see things to repent of, and some of that repentance can slowly help untangle the knot of passions that the Fathers of the Philokalia knew, and St. Isaac the Syrian, a saint who has benefitted many mentally ill people.

The reason this section is titled “For lack of knowledge my people perish” is that we usually don’t see what we need to repent of to work at that level. We don’t know the steps. The solution I would expect is to work hard to repent, and make your confession include that one sin that you are wishing to forget when you confess. But walk on the journey of repentance: Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret. Monasticism is rightly called repentance, but the treasure of repentance is for everyone.

For those for whom this is a live option, the care of a spiritual director receives a central endorsement in Orthodox Psychotherapy, a classic which says that if patristic spiritual direction were to be introduced today, it would not likely be classified as religion so much as a therapeutic science. A good, experienced spiritual director who is familiar with mental illness as understood in Orthodoxy can be a much better alternative to fumbling around until you find out what sin you need to repent of and reject to turn your back on a particular point of mental illness. “For lack of knowledge my people perish” can be greatly alleviated by a spiritual director who understands classic Orthodox teaching on mental illness.

One more thing: a wise Orthodox protopresbyter said, “Avoid amateur psychologists. They usually have more problems than the rest of us!”

Et cetera

There are other things I do not wish to treat in detail. After it has been observed that clinical psychology often takes a person who is miserable and raise that person to feeling OK, but not rise above feeling OK, there has been a “positive psychology” meant for everyone, to help people rise above OK and make use of great talents. I would comment briefly that monasticism is both a supreme medicine for those of us who need some extra structure, and a school for positive excellence, and the latter is more central than the former.

In terms of “Christian psychology,” Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No is consistently violent to Biblical texts in the process of presenting secular boundaries as Christian. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is ludicrous hyperbole, and not properly understood until it is recognized as ludicrous hyperbole, in which the Good Samaritan goes through a road infested by brigands, gambles with his life when he gives in to what would ordinarily be the bait to brigands’ oldest and deadliest trick in the book, and so on. It was made to make the listener who asked Christ, “Who is my neighbor?” profoundly uncomfortable. Cloud and Townsend, however, present the Good Samaritan as giving a moderate and measured response, and asks us to imagine the rescued victim asking the Samaritan to give even more, and the Good Samaritan wisely saying, “No.

If you have to be that violent to the Bible to make it agree with you, you’re almost certainly wrong.

And there are other things. I’m not going to try to detail life without thinking in terms of boundaries, beyond saying that Christianity, and almost certainly not only Christianity, has a concept of “Love your neighbor as yourself” that unfolds into right relations with other people, but without psychology’s concept of boundaries.

Let me mention one more point.

Honest?

Perhaps most striking of all was a session under the heading of honesty, and showed a TED talk where a psychiatrist shared (in retrospect and in context, this seems like a deliberate name-drop) that he was named after his father, a Baptist minister. Then he came out as an illegitimate child, and I would like to repeat why my own parents do not like the term “bastard.”

While they wanted to teach polite language, my parents did not object to the term “bastard” because it is forceful enough to be a rude word. They objected to the term “bastard” because the term refers to someone who did not and could not have any say or any agency in a wrong decision. If there is a term forceful enough to be a rude word in this context, and the relevant act was consensual, the abrasive word should refer to the parents and not the child. And now that we’ve mostly retired the use of words like “adulterer” and “fornicator”, we have an abrasive term for the victim who had no choice in a matter and not those who made the victimhood and the victim. If the worst TMI delivery in the TED talk was that the psychiatrist was an illegitimate child, one could have answered, “Well, Christ was also born from a scandalous pregnancy.” But in fact this is not all the TMI psychiatrist was “sharing.”

Back to the TED talk. Coming out as a bastard was a softening up of the audience for behavior in which the psychiatrist genuinely did have agency. He then came out as a philanderer; he did not use any negative terms, but talked about honesty and authenticity when he opened up to his wife, now his 2nd ex-wife whom he presents as not really harmed, and shared to her, of himself, that he was both married and dating. It was, to adapt a striking phrase from Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a confession with total absence of contrition or repentance.

No light bulbs went on above staff members’ heads when patients complained that this was the most autistic version of honesty they had yet seen endorsed by a mental health professional, and explained that you don’t open a coat and say “Here’s all there is to see, whether or not seeing it will help you,” or that you don’t bleed all over a casual acquaintance who asks “How are you?” in passing; as sometimes has to be explained to the autistic patient, it is rarely a shirking of due honesty to withhold a full-strength informational answer in responding to a merely social question.

And perhaps no light bulbs should have gone on over staff heads because the session on honesty had nothing to do with honesty. Staff members were in fact not ignorant of the major concept of “negative politeness” and that right speech usually both conceals and reveals. Ostensible “honesty” was just how an unrelated payload was delivered.

To spell it out, the payload is that whatever sexual practices you find yourself most drawn to pursue, and others pursue, is your real, authentic self, and honesty takes that as a non-negotiable foundation. The lecture was devoid of any clear or even vague reference to any stripe of queers (or whatever they are called this week), and if the speaker’s philarendering tried out dating a guy, he did not disclose this point. But as much as coming out as an illegitimate child paved the way for coming out as a philanderer, accepting his coming out as a philanderer on the terms he presented was masterfully crafted to pave the way to saying the only real payload to that TED talk: “The sexual practices you are most drawn to engage in are your real, authentic self, and authenticity starts with accepting these practices as its foundation,” and if one labors under the delusion that a successful straight marriage is what happens when one man, and one woman, lay the reins on the horse’s neck, one is in a position that has little to no ground to dissent from a position of, “If you allow straight marriage to be authentic, you have to give queers the same right too.”

The entire session ostensibly offered to teach honesty was itself treacherously dishonest.

(Queer advocacy has long since been baked into the societal common ground that psychology deems inoffensive to all religions.)

Conclusion: Beyond solipsism

The goal and lesson of psychology is quite often solipsistic. There are exceptions: positive psychology may cover three versions of the good life, the last and deepest version being the meaningful life, a non-solipsistic life of service to others. (Though this is seldom covered in psychology, service to others gives a real happiness). However, a session on boundaries covers how to establish and maintain our own boundaries, but probably does not cover respecting other boundaries, including when someone draws a boundary when you think it would be so much better not to establish the boundaries. The further you go, the tightest the constriction of solipsistic self-care. The endgame approached by most pillars of counseling psychology is a client with self-contained happiness.

In Orthodoxy, we do one better: “Only God and I exist.”

“Only God and I exist.” What does that mean? In a nutshell, the only standing that ultimately matters is your standing before God. Now the Orthodox Church has various forms of mediated grace, and that mediation may be included. However, the only one you need seek to please is God; if you are pleasing God, it doesn’t matter what people may do, or even the demons. Arrogance has a place; we are summoned to be rightly and properly arrogant of the demons in pleasing God. And trample them.

One major difference between ancient Judaism and its neighbors was that, as God’s people knew, there was only one God, and our problem before him was sin; if one has sinned, the one and only necessary remedy was atonement. The polytheistic neighbors believed in something much less rational, not to mention far less humane, was that one could do things that offended one or more gods, and the solution to this situation was to appease the offended deity, but unfortunately what appeased one deity could offend another. The unfortunate picture was much like the fool’s errand of being on friendly terms with everyone in a bickering junior high.

St. Moses is in fact one who confessed what Orthodox believe as “Only God and I exist.”

Once one has crossed that ground, and found that there is only one God to serve and offer our repentance, we move beyond the junior high of our life circumstances… and find that the one God is in fact the Lord of the Dance and the Orchestrator of all Creation. And this time everything besides onself again becomes real, but not ultimately real. There are billions of people in the world whom we should love, and we should show virtue and politeness to all we meet, but in the end only God has the last word.

Psychology offers a narrower and narrower constriction if you take it a guide to living with others. “Only God and I exist,” by contrast, opens wider and wider and wider, in a solipsism that is vaster than the Heavens that it, also, embraces. It is a solipsism in which you are summoned to dance the Great Dance with your neighbors and all Creation!

If you need psychology and psychiatry, by all means, use them. But remember that only God and you exist!

Much Love,
C.J.S. Hayward

“‘Blessed’? When Did That Happen?”: A Crash Course in Twisted Logic

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

On Facebook, one Orthodox priest (ROCOR, if I recall) commented in reference “Blessed Seraphim Rose,” “‘Blessed?’ When did that happen?”

I’d like to unravel that a bit. Let me say it’s very simple when that happened. It happened when Fr. Seraphim breathed out his last breath. It’s that simple.

We have an expression today that someone who has passed away in the Lord is said to be “of blessed memory.” That expression has been with us forever. Ecumenical councils like Chalcedon have even used a shortening of the original phrase, “blessed.” So today we might speak of “blessed Alexander Schmemann” or “blessed Alexander Lossky” as quickly and readily as “blessed Seraphim (Rose).” Or really these other two might be more appropriate, because we usually try to avoid using a monk’s last name.

'Blessed' Seraphim Rose

But the meaning of “blessed” has been hijacked!

There are at least two difference between “Blessed” for Fr. Seraphim compared to any other camp I’ve met:

  1. First, the ‘B’ is capitalized like an expected honorific; Fr. Seraphim seems to never be “blessed.”
  2. Unique in what I have seen, “Blessed” has been abbreviated to “Bl.”

Both of these nitpicks point out to something. More specifically, the word “Blessed” when used of Fr. Seraphim does not work like most adjectives. It is not fluid. It functions as the kind of honorific that would be rude to omit. And all this is strange if the point is to announce to the whole world that Fr. Seraphim has passed away.

In some academic circles this would be called, “misusing a speech act.” For practically everyone else I’ve sampled, the term “blessed” is a gentle ackowledgement of someone’s passing and nothing more.

In the fundamentalist usage, the use of “Blessed” is not, however much used, a shrill insistence to keep on telling the whole world that their leader, Fr. Seraphim, is dead.

Fr. Seraphim’s following is not not even honest, not even to themselves: people warp an obscure term to be able to treat Fr. Seraphim as, to quote one flame, “If he is not a saint, who is?”

And to put things differently, the practice of calling someone of blessed memory, “blessed,” is being used as a sort of ecclesiastical loophole to venerate someone who has not been canonized.

In my earliest treatment of the topic, What Makes Me Uneasy About Fr. Seraphim (Rose) and His Followers:

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.

There’s some pretty twisted logic there, and it’s warped in the same way.

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What Makes Me Uneasy About Fr. Seraphim (Rose) and His Followers

Alchemy: Fool’s Gold in Today’s World

Introduction: Alchemy and Questionable Moral Character

I would like to open with a disturbing passage from Mary Midgley’s Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning. I might briefly mention that Midgley is no feminist; she is a conservative whose chief influences are Plato and Aristotle.

We come here to one more of the strange compensatory myths, dreams, or dramas that are my theme. The literature of early modern science is a mine of highly-coloured passages that describe Nature, by no means as a neutral object, but as a seductive but troublesome female, to be unrelentingly pursued, sought out, fought against, chased into her inmost sanctuaries, prevented from escaping, persistently courted, wooed, harried, vexed, tormented, unveiled, unrobed, and ‘put to the question’ (i.e. interrogated under torture), forced to confess ‘all that lay in her most intimate recesses’, her ‘beautiful bosom’ must be laid bare, she must be held down and finally ‘penetrated’, ‘pierced’, and ‘vanquished’ (words which constantly recur).

Now this odd talk does not come from a few exceptionally uninhibited writers. It has not been invented by modern feminists. It is the common, constant idiom of the age. Since historians began to notice it, they have been able to collect it up easily in handfuls for every discussion.

Or as I heard approvingly quoted many times by teachers at the liberal enough Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, “We place Nature on the rack [i.e. a particularly nasty instrument of torture] and compel her to bear witness.

Let’s talk about Sir Isaac Newton for a moment. He was the founder of physics as we know it, and the co-founder of calculus. Also, he was a world-class academic bully. All his scientific endeavors were side projects next to his involvement in alchemy, and he has been called, “Not the first of the scientists, but the last of the magicians.” He also, late in life, acquired a position of authority, bypassed certain checks and balances, and saw it to it that dozens of men died a slow and painful death.

(Some of us might detect a note of envy in that any and all effort he made to produce gold were failures even for him. At the same time, the men he destroyed were “coiners” or forgers who made at times remarkably convincing imitations of officially minted gold coins.)

Did I mention that messianic fantasies were standard issue for scientists then?

In fact there weren’t just messianic fantasies for scientists and alchemists. The original hope people saw in calculus was not, as today, a branch of mathematics that holds place X in the creation of new mathematicians and place Y in practical applications. It was rather hoped to be a tool where, as I quote, “there should be no more need for disputes among philosophers than among accountants,” because all differences of opinion could be resolved through straightforward use of calculus. The Utopian vision was a precursor to Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, only Hesse seemed very skeptical about how well something like this occult pipe dream would really play out for society.

My friends, the foundations of science smell bad, and alchemy with them.

Alchemy in the Limelight

Some time over ten years back, and much to my later chagrin, I wanted to illustrate a point and deliberately chose alchemy, as a jarring image, to illustrate it.

Later, I was one of the voices saying that alchemy was coming out of the closet. Here I would point out that semiotics defines a “sign” to be “anything that can be used to lie,” including not only words but posture, clothing, furniture, activities, etc. When I was working at the American Medical Association headquarters, there was a quilt hanging by the cafeteria, looking in every way quaint, domestic, and conservative… and explained dozens of alchemical symbols. (Did the AMA forget it was founded to shut down homeopathy as an occult medicine?)

Some years after that, I was saying simply that alchemy was out, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. And now I have stopped making such statements because they are superfluous. I have been told by Christians that alchemy was the bedrock nascent science was founded on.

Alchemy as a Strategy to Grow Whilst Dodging Spiritual Work

Why grind an axe against alchemy? The critique can be stated in six English words: “Sorry, kid. You need elbow grease.

I do not in cany sense wish to say that all religions say the same thing; that is ultimately a degrading way to say that no world religion says anything significant. However, there appears to be a widespread sense that we need elbow grease. The Hindu concept of the Royal Science of God-Realization does not work without elbow grease; it is scarcely more nor less than a structure and plan for elbow grease. The Buddha may have simplified Hinduism to an astonishing degree, but his eightfold noble path calls for, among other things, various dimensions of elbow grease. Even the apparent exception of staunch Evangelicals who believe with Luther that we are sanctified by grace alone and through faith alone (and, though it is not relevant here, that the Bible alone has authority), also have an expectation that if you have healthy and living faith, you will produce elbow grease, and for that matter you will produce quite a lot of elbow grease. Evangelicals may categorically deny that elbow grease can save, but they set the bar pretty high as far as world religious traditions go for how much elbow grease a genuine member should be producing.

Alchemy offers a dangerously treacherous and seductive shortcut. Its marketing proposition is to offer a shortcut to spiritual transformation, a technique in lieu of inner work, but a that does not legitimately work. It certainly didn’t work in Newton’s case; if we return to the Sermon on the Mount’s “by your fruits you shall know them,” Sir Isaac Newton’s moral character is the character of a false prophet on a capital scale.

There was one unenlightened book commenting about how ironic it was that an alchemist was to be spiritually transformed somewhere beyond greed before being able to transmute metals to gold. And so, it said, one of the requisites to produce gold ironically being to have let go of desiring gold. I do not find irony, and I find a point of contact with Orthodox iconography. The idea of ridding oneself of greed before being ready to create gold recalls a (possibly G.K. Chesterton) comment I have failed to track down, that a particular desire was like a spiritualist’s desire to see a nymph’s breasts and not that of a run-of-the-mill lecher, and I fail to see irony in the expectation to transcend greed. I am not here concerned with whether that makes sense to desire, but in Newton’s case it did not work!

I do not condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute lead to gold.

I do condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute his own heart to gold. (That is, incidentally, something that many, many non-alchemists have done.)

There was an Oprah Winfrey-endorsed book The Alchemist which on the back had a quote from ?Bill Clinton? saying something like, “When I read it I felt like I was awake and the whole world was asleep.” Friends, you do not want to feel like that. One of the usual signs you are coming to a spiritual breakthrough is that you are repenting.

Alchemy Is Deeper Than Hinduism? Huh?

In The Alchemist, a religious studies scholar studied all the world’s religions, which he summarily dismissed in favor of alchemy. Sorry, no. There may be religions in the world that are shallower than alchemy; but alchemy is a consolation prize, particularly as compared to Orthodox Christianity and Hinduism. G.K. Chesterton didn’t even mention alchemy when he said, “If you are considering world religions, you will save yourself a great deal of time by only considering Christianity and Hinduism, because Islam is just a Christian heresy, and Buddhism is just a Hindu heresy.”

I have heard Christian critiques of Hinduism, some of them sharp. One person at a theology faculty who was a Hindu before becoming an Orthodox Christian suggested that if I really want to understand Hinduism, I should focus less on a reconciliation between monotheism and polytheism and the striving for purity one encounters in modern commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, and instead read Kali’s Child. I have in fact not read the title yet, but Kali is a demon-goddess who wears skulls on her necklace, and the special blessing she bestows is madness. The point the scholar was making is that you don’t understand Hinduism until you understand the place of tantrism, which is trying to get ahead by something forbidden, much like alchemy today.

But for all this, Hinduism is still deeper than a whale can dive, and I am drawing a complete blank as to a reason to summarily dismiss even Hinduism in favor of alchemy. Possibly there are Hindus who also practice alchemy; Hinduism is cosmopolitan as far as religions go. And as far as Christianity, it only really occurs in The Alchemist as trappings to validate occult activity.

Even the Marketing Story Fails to Have Constructive Character Development

But I find it noteworthy and interesting how character development occurs in a book meant to let people covet alchemy. For the protagonist, there is no really positive change in character development; the character development in the book is only debauchery. Apart from occult sin, the hero grows more and more caught up in himself in pride; what are presented as the blunders he makes along the way are when he loves and acts out of consideration for others and forgets devotion to the polestar of his monumental pride. In the end, which may modify classical alchemy, the student is as much an alchemist as the master, and ends just as much infested with pride. He cannot transmute lead to gold or live forever because those are not part of his path in alchemy; but he acquires massive gold even if he cannot create it, and his lack of moral character matches his master.

Gnosticism, Alchemy’s Undying Cousin

Philip Lee, in Against the Protestant Gnostics, is a Protestant pastor who concludes, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” He suggests that historical study of Gnosticism is irrelevant because Gnosticism, as he reads it, is an ahistorical process that may keep recurring historically, but is not really historical. (I would loosely compare this point to why one does not study the history of the process of decomposition in untreated corpses.) He also says that Gnosticism is not fruitfully studied as a philosophy or system of ideas, because the process goes through ongoing changes of belief and over time later beliefs can and do contradict earlier beliefs. But while he knocks out two obvious scholar’s tools with which to approach Gnosticism, he leaves something solid. He suggests that all Gnosticism hinges on a mood: despair. This means more specifically a despair that can only hope as framed by escape and escapism.

Christians who read the Bible may be deaf to how shocking it was to open the Bible with a chapter repeating, “And God saw what he had made, and it was good,” and after man was created, “very good.” To my knowledge, no other Ancient Near Eastern Creation story tells the like. Marduk tore the evil dragon Tiamat’s body in two and made half into the sky and half into the earth. If that is so, our bodies are despicable. The same is true for an account of the world being produced, as best I recall, as a projection from vile sexual behavior.

Against these, Christianity tells us the world is the good Creation of a transcendent good God, and there is a very real sense that to be in communion with the Orthodox Church is to be in communion with not only God and choirs of angels and fellow Orthodox, but whales and rocks and stars and trees. Sin and its effects may be real enough: but however much we need repentance from sin, the goodness God bakes into Creation runs deeper.

Gnosticism, including alchemy, seems enticing to a certain mindset, but it is a route for unhappy people to reach an even more unhappy position.

I might note that while there are differences in the phenomenon of Gnosticism, the evil character of the world we live in, and the consequent framing of salvation that amounts to some exotic escapism, is remarkably consistent across times and schools. As Yoda said, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

It might be found that repentance for an alchemist may only to a certain measure be about spiritual practices I don’t even want to know: it may be waking up to being placed in a world that is in and of itself good and finding that the need for escape is more apparent than real and becomes even less important as the healing balm of repentance soaks in.

Escapism wants something that’s not part of the world, and anything you can acquire as real gives only an ephemeral satisfaction. Repentance from this passion in most cases won’t help you acquire wants that you don’t have. It may instead help you “acquire” and appreciate those that you actually do.

Let me close with a poem. It was written a few years ago, but if anything it is more, not less, relevant today.

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

The cold matter of science—
Exists not, O God, O Life,
For Thou who art Life,
How could Thy humblest creature,
Be without life,
Fail to be in some wise,
The image of Life?
Minerals themselves,
Lead and silver and gold,
The vast emptiness of space and vacuum,
Teems more with Thy Life,
Than science will see in man,
Than hard and soft science,
Will to see in man.

How shall I praise Thee,
For making man a microcosm,
A human being the summary,
Of creation, spiritual and material,
Created to be,
A waterfall of divine grace,
Flowing to all things spiritual and material,
A waterfall of divine life,
Deity flowing out to man,
And out through man,
To all that exists,
And even nothingness itself?

And if I speak,
To an alchemist who seeks true gold,
May his eyes be opened,
To body made a spirit,
And spirit made a body,
The gold on the face of an icon,
Pure beyond twenty-four carats,
Even if the icon be cheap,
A cheap icon of paper faded?

How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Whose eyes overlook a transformation,
Next to which the transmutation,
Of lead to gold,
Is dust and ashes?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Of the holy consecration,
Whereby humble bread and wine,
Illumine as divine body and blood,
Brighter than gold, the metal of light,
The holy mystery the fulcrum,
Not stopping in chalice gilt,
But transforming men,
To be the mystical body,
The holy mystery the fulcrum of lives transmuted,
Of a waterfall spilling out,
The consecration of holy gifts,
That men may be radiant,
That men may be illumined,
That men be made the mystical body,
Course with divine Life,
Tasting the Fountain of Immortality,
The transformed elements the fulcrum,
Of God taking a lever and a place to stand,
To move the earth,
To move the cosmos whole,
Everything created,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,
Deified.

And how shall I tell an alchemist,
That alchemy suffices not,
For true transmutation of souls,
To put away searches for gold in crevices and in secret,
And see piles out in the open,
In common faith that seems mundane,
And out of the red earth that is humility,
To know the Philosopher’s Stone Who is Christ,
And the true alchemy,
Is found in the Holy Orthodox Church?

How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?

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