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.
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:
First, the ‘B’ is capitalized like an expected honorific; Fr. Seraphim seems to never be “blessed.”
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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?
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,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,
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?
Even Bjarne Stroustrup has some sense that there is indeed a smaller and more elegant language struggling to get out of C++. He is right that that language is not Java or C#, but I would suggest that this more elegant language has been right under our noses the whole time:
Now if we could turn back the clock on MacOS
I used to think that OSX was my favorite flavor of Unix. Now I think that the Mac, iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch may be preferred for nontechnical users on all counts, but Apple has been more and more going its own way, and the result has made an environment that is more and more hostile to Unix / Linux gurus. Some of this is discussed further in Macs are now Super.Computer.s running “IRIX,” a Super.Computer. OS!:
I have narrated above the breakage that shipped to me with OSX 12.2.4; the breakage that shipped with the OSX 12.2.2 update was Terminal.app crashing on a regular basis. And while I don’t wish to patronize developers who work with graphical IDE’s, the two most heavily used applications I have are Google Chrome and Terminal. When I poked around, I was pointed to an Apple developer bug first posted in 2016 that has 147 “I have this problem too” votes… I wish they had done something more polite to Unix users than breaking and not fixing Terminal, like setting a Terminal.app background image of someone flipping the bird at command-line Unix / Linux types. Really, flipping the bird would be markedly more polite.
In conversations with technical support about malfunctioning in Apple’s version of Apache, it took me an escalation all the way to level 3 support before I spoke with someone who knew that the Macintosh had a command line (let alone having any idea what that meant). And I was told that Apple supported GUI use of e.g. webservers, but not command line.
More broadly, it’s been harder and harder by the year to get things working and I was astonished after initial difficulties installing SuiteCRM what my research turned up: Apple has removed parts of the OS that that project needed to run.
An even bigger shock
A much bigger shock came when I created a Linux VM to install some open source software projects I had meant to install natively.
I was shocked about how easy it was.
It was the command line version of “Point and click”.
I realized that over the years I had become more and more accustomed to installing open source software under MacOS being like out-stubborning an obscure and crufty flavor of Unix (such as Irix on NCSA supercomputers, with a general comment of “Nothing works on Irix!“). And working on installing major open source projects recalls a favorite xkcd comic about the joy of first meeting Python:
Tolerating upgrades that break software: Do you remember how people used to just accept the forever close at hand BSOD?
Before Windows XP came out, I remember trying to make a point to a non-hacker friend that “Computers are logical but not rational.” Meaning that from a programming standpoint they ideally do neither more nor less than what the logic in a computer program called for, but state-of-the-art AI could not make sense of the basics of a children’s “I Can Read” book. (For that matter, computers cannot understand the gist of a program. They may execute the program, but only programmers understand the gist.)
She said, “I disagree. What if you’re using a computer and the mouse freezes?”
In the ensuing conversation, I failed completely in my efforts to communicate that incessant crashes on par with the Blue Screen of Death were simply not an automatic feature of how computers act, and that my Linux box did not malfunction at anywhere near the violence of Windows, on which point I quote Tad Phetteplace:
In a surprise announcement today, Microsoft President Steve Ballmer revealed that the Redmond-based company will allow computer resellers and end-users to customize the appearance of the Blue Screen of Death (BSOD), the screen that displays when the Windows operating system crashes.
The move comes as the result of numerous focus groups and customer surveys done by Microsoft. Thousands of Microsoft customers were asked, “What do you spend the most time doing on your computer?”
A surprising number of respondents said, “Staring at a Blue Screen of Death.” At 54 percent, it was the top answer, beating the second place answer “Downloading XXXScans” by an easy 12 points.
“We immediately recognized this as a great opportunity for ourselves, our channel partners, and especially our customers,” explained the excited Ballmer to a room full of reporters.
Immense video displays were used to show images of the new customizable BSOD screen side-by-side with the older static version. Users can select from a collection of “BSOD Themes,” allowing them to instead have a Mauve Screen of Death or even a Paisley Screen of Death. Graphics and multimedia content can now be incorporated into the screen, making the BSOD the perfect conduit for delivering product information and entertainment to Windows users.
The BSOD is by far the most recognized feature of the Windows operating system, and as a result, Microsoft has historically insisted on total control over its look and feel. This recent departure from that policy reflects Microsoft’s recognition of the Windows desktop itself as the “ultimate information portal.” By default, the new BSOD will be configured to show a random selection of Microsoft product information whenever the system crashes. Microsoft channel partners can negotiate with Microsoft for the right to customize the BSOD on systems they ship.
Major computer resellers such as Compaq, Gateway, and Dell are already lining up for premier placement on the new and improved BSOD.
Ballmer concluded by getting a dig in against the Open Source community. “This just goes to show that Microsoft continues to innovate at a much faster pace than open source. I have yet to see any evidence that Linux even has a BSOD, let alone a customizable one.”
Most of the software upgrades I have purchased in over a decade of Mac ownership have been because an OSX upgrade broke them completely.
On this point I would distinguish between Windows and Mac on the one hand, and Linux on the other. Microsoft and Apple both need to make changes that people have to buy different software over time; Linux may include mistakes but there is no built-in need to radically change everything on a regular basis. Now some Linux programming may change quickly: front-end web developers face a very volatile list of technologies they should know. However, something said about Unix applies to Linux to a degree that is simply unparalleled in Windows or Mac: “Unix has a steep learning curve, but you only have to climb it once.”
OSX admittedly has better UX than Linux, and possibly it make sense for open source types to buy a Mac, run VMware Fusion in Unity mode, and do Linux development and open source software use from a Linux Mint VM. (My own choice is just to do Linux, with Windows VM’s for compatibility.) However, for Unix and Linux wizards, the container is one that occasionally gives a nasty surprise.
Beautiful things work better: An interesting solution
I’ve given a once-over to Linux Mint Sonya, to address UX tweaks and to echo some of that old glory. As is appropriate to an appliance, passwords are not needed (though the usual root methods of assigning a Linux password work better). The desktop and background are laid out to be truly beautiful!
To pick one little example of improved UX: copy is Control-C, and paste is Control-V, with gnome-terminal or without; if you want to send a literal Control-C, then Shift-Control-C will do that, and likewise for Control-V. This cuts down on frustrating attempts to remember, “In this context, will I copy by typing Control-C, or Control-Shift-C?” There are other little touches. For instance, Chrome is already installed, and the default Firefox search engine is configured out of the box to be, drum roll please… Google!”
Mint comes with a search engine that in my experience only have SERPs with ads above the fold that are formatted exactly or almost exactly like real organic search results. And not only is Google not the main search engine: it is FUDded, banished to a list options that are either not monetizable to Mint’s makers, or are considered problematic and potentially unsafe. (Mint’s FUDding does not distinguish which is which; it is set up to make Google look seedy.)
Perhaps you don’t like the Aqua interface; it is if nothing else the gold star that North Korea’s One Star Linux Red Star Linux offers, and people seem interested in an Aqua-themed Linux enough to write HOWTO’s to get a root shell and migrate to English. Even if they advise against serious use, not because a fresh install has software that’s years obsolete software, but because the entire environment could be described not so much as having spyware, but being spyware.
Or perhaps it might served as a change of scenery, a virtual vacation of a virtual machine.
This is a virtual machine from VMware Workstation Player. If you have not used virtualization software before, you may need to turn on hardware virtualization on your BIOS.
You can likely find instructions to do this by searching for “bios enable hardware virtualization” and adding the manufacturer and model for your machine. If you aren’t feeling brave, just ask for help from the local teenage computer guru.
I would like to take a Protestant church’s electronic sign for a starting point. The sign, with a portrait of Martin Luther to the right, inviting people to an October 31st “Reformation Day potluck.” When I stopped driving to pick up a few things from ALDI’s, I tweeted:
I passed a church sign advertising a “Reformation Day” potluck.
I guess Orthodox might also confuse Halloween with the Reformation…
Those words, if one steps beyond a tweet, may be taken as a witty jibe not obviously connected with reality. Some people might an ask an obvious question: “What train of thought was behind that jab?” And I’d like to look at that, and answer that real or imagined interlocutor who might wonder.
When I first read The Abolition of Man as a student at Calvin College, I was quite enthralled, and in my political science class, I asked, “Do you agree with C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man ab—” and my teacher, a well-respected professor and a consummate communicator, cut me off before I could begin to say which specific point I was inquiring about, and basically said, “Yes and amen to the whole thing!” as as brilliant analysis of what is going on in both modernist and postmodernist projects alike.
C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (available online in a really ugly webpage) is a small and easily enough overlooked book. It is, like Mere Christianity, a book in which a few essays are brought together in succession. In front matter, Lewis says that the (short) nonfiction title of The Abolition of Man and the (long) novel of That Hideous Strength represent two attempts to make the same basic point in two different literary formats. It isn’t as flashy as The Chronicles of Narnia, and perhaps the first two essays are not captivating at the same level of the third. However, let me say without further argument here that the book is profoundly significant.
Let me bring in another partner in the dialogue: The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis, Science, Scientism, and Society. The title may need some explanation to someone who does not know Lewis, but I cannot ever read a book with so big a thesis so brilliantly summarized in so few words. There are allusions to two of his works: The Abolition of Man, which as discussed below calls the early scientist and the contemporary “high noon of magic” to be twins, motivated by science, but science blossomed and magic failed because science worked and magic didn’t. (In other words, a metaphorical Darwinian “survival of the fittest” cause science to ultimately succeed and magic to ultimately fail). In The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis has managed to pull off the rather shocking feat of presenting and critiquing the ultimately banal figures of the Renaissance magus and the Nietzchian Übermensch (and its multitude of other incarnations) in a way that is genuinely appropriate in a children’s book. The title of “The Magician’s Twin,” in three words including the word “The”, quotes by implication two major critiques Lewis provided, and one could almost say that the rest, as some mathematicians would say, “is left as an exercise for the reader.”
The book has flaws, some of them noteworthy, in particular letting Discovery Institute opinions about what Lewis would say trump what in fact he clearly did say. I detected, if I recall correctly, collisions with bits of Mere Christianity. And the most driving motivation is to compellingly argue Intelligent Design. However, I’m not interested in engaging origins questions now (you can read my muddled ebook on the topic here).
Nothing I can say will prevent some people from describing this lecture as an attack on science. I deny the charge, of course: and real Natural Philosophers (there are some now alive) will perceive that in defending value I defend inter alia the value of knowledge, which must die like every other when its roots in the Tao [the basic wisdom of mankind, for which Lewis mentions other equally acceptable names such as “first principles” or “first platitudes”] are cut. But I can go further than that. I even suggest that from Science herself the cure might come.
I have described as a ‘magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.
There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious — such as digging up and mutilating the dead.
If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) with Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls. ‘All things that move between the quiet poles ‘shall be at his command’ and ‘a sound magician is a mighty god’. In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to ‘use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit.’ The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible. He rejects magic because it does not work; but his goal is that of the magician. In Paracelsus the characters of magician and scientist are combined. No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power; in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes. It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say that it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour. Its triumphs may have-been too rapid and purchased at too high a price: reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.
Is it, then, possible to imagine a new Natural Philosophy, continually conscious that the natural object’ produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view, and always correcting the abstraction? I hardly know what I am asking for. I hear rumours that Goethe’s approach to nature deserves fuller consideration — that even Dr Steiner may have seen something that orthodox researchers have missed. The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation. The analogy between the Tao of Man and the instincts of an animal species would mean for it new light cast on the unknown thing. Instinct, by the only known reality of conscience and not a reduction of conscience to the category of Instinct. Its followers would not be free with the words only and merely. In a word, it would conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life.
Perhaps I am asking impossibilities.
I’m drawing a blank for anything I’ve seen in a life’s acquaintance with the sciences to see how I have ever met this postulate as true.
In my lifetime I have seen a shift in the most prestigious of sciences, physics (only a mathematician would be insulted to be compared with a physicist), shift from an empirical science to a fashionable superstring theory in which physics abdicates from the ancient scientific discipline of refining hypotheses, theories, and laws in light of experiments meant to test them in a feedback loop. With it, the discipline of physics abdicates from all fully justified claim to be science. And this is specifically physics we are talking about: hence the boilerplate Physics Envy Declaration, where practitioners of one’s own academic discipline are declared to be scientists-and-they-are-just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-“hard-sciences”-like-physics.
I do not say that a solution could not come from science; I do say that I understand what are called the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines after people started grinding a certain very heavy political axe, I’ve had some pretty impressive achievements, and C.S. Lewis simply did not understand the science of his time too far above the level of an educated non-scientist: probably the biggest two clues that give away The Dark Tower as the work of another hand are that the author ineptly portrays portraiture gone mad in a world where portraiture would never have come to exist, and that the manuscript is hard science fiction at a level far beyond even Lewis’s science fiction. Lewis may have written the first science fiction title in which aliens are honorable, noble beings instead of vicious monsters, but The Dark Tower was written by someone who knew the hard sciences and hard science fiction much more than Lewis and humanities and literature much less. (The runner-up clue is anachronous placement of Ransom that I cannot reconcile with the chronological development of that character at any point in the Space Trilogy.)
However, that is just a distraction.
A third shoe to drop
There are three shoes to drop; one prominent archetype of modern science’s first centuries has been hidden.
Besides the figure of the Renaisssance Magus and the Founding Scientist is the intertwined figure of the Reformer.
Now I would like to mention three reasons why Lewis might have most likely thought of it and not discussed it.
First of all, people who write an academic or scholarly book usually try to hold on to a tightly focused thesis. A scholar does not ordinarily have the faintest wish to write a 1000-volume encyclopedia about everything. This may represent a shift in academic humanism since the Renaissance and Early Modern times, but Lewis has written a small, focused, and readable book. I don’t see how to charitably criticize Lewis on the grounds that he didn’t write up a brainstorm of every possible tangent; he has written a short book that was probably aiming to tax the reader’s attention as little as he could. Authors like Lewis might agree with a maxim that software developers quote: “The design is complete, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.”
Second of all, it would cut against the grain of the Tao as discussed (the reader who so prefers is welcomed to use alternate phrasing like “first platitudes”). His appendix of quotations illustrating the Tao is relatively long and quotes Ancient Egyptian, Old Norse, Babylonian, Ancient Jewish, Hindu, Ancient Chinese, Roman, English, Ancient Christian, Native American, Greek, Australian Aborigines, and Anglo-Saxon, and this is integrated with the entire thrust of the book. If I were to attempt such a work as Lewis did, it would not be a particularly obvious time to try to make a sharp critique specifically about one tradition.
Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, C.S. Lewis is a founder of ecumenism as we know it today, and with pacifism / just war as one exception that comes to mind, he tried both to preach and to remain within “mere Christianity”, and it is not especially of interest to me that he was Protestant (and seemed to lean more Romeward to the end of his life). C.S. Lewis was one of the architects of ecumenism as we know it (ecumenism being anathematized heresy to the Orthodox Church as of 1987), but his own personal practice was stricter than stating one’s opinions as opinions and just not sledgehammering anyone who disagrees. There is a gaping hole for the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary in the Chronicles of Narnia; Aslan appears from the Emperor Beyond the Sea, but without any hint of relation to any mother that I can discern. This gaping hole may be well enough covered so that Christian readers don’t notice, but once it’s pointed out it’s a bit painful to think about.
For the first and second reasons, there would be reason enough not to criticize Reformers in that specific book. However, this is the reason I believe C.S. Lewis did not address the third triplet of the Renaissance Magus, the Founder of Science, and the Reformer. Lewis’s words here apply in full force to the Reformer: “It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say that it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour.”
You have to really dig into some of the history to realize how intertwined the Reformation was with the occult. Lewis says, for one among many examples, “In Paracelsus the characters of magician and scientist are combined.” Some have said that what is now called Lutheranism should be called Melancthonism, because as has happened many times in history, a charismatic teacher with striking influence opens a door, and then an important follower works certain things out and systematizes the collection. In Melancthon the characters of Reformer, Scientist, and Astrologer are combined. Now I would like to address one distraction: some people, including Lewis (The Discarded Image), draw a sharp distinction between astrology in the middle ages and the emptied-out version we have today. He says that our lumping astrology in with the occult would have surprised practitioners of either: Renaissance magic tasserted human power while astrology asserted human impotence.The Magician’s Twin interestingly suggests that astrology as discussed by C.S. Lewis is not a remnant of magic but as a precursor to present-day deterministic science. And there is an important distinction for those who know about astrology in relation to Melancthon. Medieval astrology was a comprehensive theory, including cosmology and psychology, where “judicial astrology”, meaning to use astrology for fortune-telling, was relatively minor. But astrology for fortune-telling was far more important to Melanchthon. And if there was quite a lot of fortune-telling on Melanchthon’s resume, there was much more clamor for what was then called natural philosophy and became what we now know as >e,?science.
Another troubling weed in the water has to do with Reformation history, not specifically because it is an issue with the Reformation, but because of a trap historians fall into. Alisdair McGrath’s Reformation Theology: An Introduction treats how many features common in Protestantism today came to arise, but this kind of thing is a failure in historical scholarship. There were many features present in Reformation phenomena that one rarely encounters in Protestant histories of the Reformation. Luther is studied, but I have not read in any Protestant source his satisfied quotation about going to a bar, drinking beer, and leering at the barmaids. I have not seen anything like the climax of Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior, which covers Martin Luther’s rejection of his vow of celibacy being followed by large-scale assault on others’ celibacy (“liberating” innumerable nuns from their monastic communities), Luther’s extended womanizing, and his marriage to a nun as a way to cut back on his womanizing. For that matter, I grew up in the Anabaptist tradition, from which the conservatism of the Amish also came, and heard of historic root in terms of the compilation of martyrdoms in Martyr’s Mirror, without knowing a whisper of the degree to which Anabaptism was the anarchist wing of the Reformation.
Questions like “Where did Luther’s Sola Scriptura come from?”, or “Where did the Calvinist tradition’s acronym TULIP for ‘Total Depravity’, ‘Unconditional Election’, ‘Limited Atonement’, ‘Irresistable Grace’, and the ‘Perseverance of the Saints?’ come from?” are legitimate historical questions. However, questions like these only ask about matters that have rightly or wrongly survived the winnowing of history, and they tend to favor a twin that survived and flourished over a twin that withered and died. This means that the chaos associated with the founders of Anabaptism do not linger with how truly chaotic the community was at first, and in general Protestant accounts of the Reformation fail to report the degree to which the Reformation project was connected to a Renaissance that was profoundly occultic.
A big picture view from before I knew certain things
We miss how the occult turn taken by some of Western culture in the Renaissance and early modern period established lines of development that remain foundational to science today. Many chasms exist between the mediaeval perspective and our own, and there is good reason to place the decisive break between the mediaeval way of life and the Renaissance/early modern occult development, not placing mediaeval times and magic together with an exceptionalism for our science. I suggest that our main differences with the occult project are disagreements as to means, not ends—and that distinguishes the post-mediaeval West from the mediaevals. If so, there is a kinship between the occult project and our own time: we provide a variant answer to the same question as the Renaissance magus, whilst patristic and mediaeval Christians were exploring another question altogether. The occult vision has fragmented, with its dominion over the natural world becoming scientific technology, its vision for a better world becoming political ideology, and its spiritual practices becoming a private fantasy.
One way to look at historical data in a way that shows the kind of sensitivity I’m interested in, is explored by Mary Midgley in Science as Salvation (1992); she doesn’t dwell on the occult as such, but she perceptively argues that science is far more continuous with religion than its self-understanding would suggest. Her approach pays a certain kind of attention to things which science leads us to ignore. She looks at ways science is doing far more than falsifying hypotheses, and in so doing observes some things which are important. I hope to develop a similar argument in a different direction, arguing that science is far more continuous with the occult than its self-understanding would suggest. This thesis is intended neither to be a correction nor a refinement of her position, but development of a parallel line of enquiry.
It is as if a great island, called Magic, began to drift away from the cultural mainland. It had plans for what the mainland should be converted into, but had no wish to be associated with the mainland. As time passed, the island fragmented into smaller islands, and on all of these new islands the features hardened and became more sharply defined. One of the islands is named Ideology. The one we are interested in is Science, which is not interchangeable with the original Magic, but is even less independent: in some ways Science differs from Magic by being more like Magic than Magic itself. Science is further from the mainland than Magic was, even if its influence on the mainland is if anything greater than what Magic once held. I am interested in a scientific endeavour, and in particular a basic relationship behind scientific enquiry, which are to a substantial degree continuous with a magical endeavour and a basic relationship behind magic. These are foundationally important, and even if it is not yet clear what they may mean, I will try to substantiate these as the thesis develops. I propose the idea of Magic breaking off from a societal mainland, and sharpening and hardening into Science, as more helpful than the idea of science and magic as opposites.
There is in fact historical precedent for such a phenomenon. I suggest that a parallel with Eucharistic doctrine might illuminate the interrelationship between Orthodoxy, Renaissance and early modern magic, and science (including artificial intelligence). When Aquinas made the Christian-Aristotelian synthesis, he changed the doctrine of the Eucharist. The Eucharist had previously been understood on Orthodox terms that used a Platonic conception of bread and wine participating in the body and blood of Christ, so that bread remained bread whilst becoming the body of Christ. One substance had two natures. Aristotelian philosophy had little room for one substance which had two natures, so one thing cannot simultaneously be bread and the body of Christ. When Aquinas subsumed real presence doctrine under an Aristotelian framework, he managed a delicate balancing act, in which bread ceased to be bread when it became the body of Christ, and it was a miracle that the accidents of bread held together after the substance had changed. I suggest that when Zwingli expunged real presence doctrine completely, he was not abolishing the Aristotelian impulse, but carrying it to its proper end. In like fashion, the scientific movement is not a repudiation of the magical impulse, but a development of it according to its own inner logic. It expunges the supernatural as Zwingli expunged the real presence, because that is where one gravitates once the journey has begun. What Aquinas and the Renaissance magus had was composed of things that did not fit together. As I will explore below under the heading ‘Renaissance and Early Modern Magic,’ the Renaissance magus ceased relating to society as to one’s mother and began treating it as raw material; this foundational change to a depersonalised relationship would later secularise the occult and transform it into science. The parallel between medieval Christianity/magic/science and Orthodoxy/Aquinas/Zwingli seems to be fertile: real presence doctrine can be placed under an Aristotelian framework, and a sense of the supernatural can be held by someone who is stepping out of a personal kind of relationship, but in both cases it doesn’t sit well, and after two or so centuries people finished the job by subtracting the supernatural.
What does the towering figure of the Reformer owe to the towering figure of the Renaissance Magus?
However little the connection may be underscored today, mere historical closeness would place a heavy burden of proof on the scholar who would deny that the Reformation owes an incalculable debt to the Renaissance that it succeeded. Protestant figures like Francis Schaeffer may be sharply critical of the Renaissance, but I’ve never seen them explain what the Reformation directly inherited.
The concept Sola Scriptura (that the Bible alone is God’s supreme revelation and no tradition outside the Bible is authoritative) is poured out from the heart of the Reformation cry, “Ad fontes!” (that we should go to classical sources alone and straighten out things from there). The term “Renaissance” / “Renascence” means, by mediation of two different languages, “Rebirth”, and more specifically a rebirth going back to original classic sources and building on them directly rather than by mediation of centuries. Luther owes a debt here even if he pushed past the Latin Bible to the Greek New Testament, and again past the revelation in the Septuagint or Greek Old Testament (the patristic Old Testament of choice) to the original Hebrew, dropping quite a few books of the Old Testament in the process. (He contemplated deeper cuts than that, and called the New Testament epistle of James a “letter of straw,” fit to be burned.)
The collection of texts Luther settled on is markedly different to the Renaissance interest in most or all of the real gems of classical antiquity. However, the approach is largely inherited. And the resemblance goes further.
I wrote above of the Renaissance Magus, one heir of which is the creation of political ideology as such, who stands against the mainland but, in something approaching Messianic fantasy, has designs to tear apart and rebuild the despicable raw material of society into something truly worthwhile and excellent by the power of his great mind. On this point, I can barely distinguish the Reformer from the Renaissance Magus beyond the fact that the Reformer’s raw material of abysmal society was more specifically the Church.
Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion was something I wrote because of several reasons but triggered, at least, by a museum visit which was presented as an Enlightenment exhibit, and which showed a great many ancient, classical artifacts. After some point I realized that the exhibit as a whole was an exhibit on the Enlightenment specifically in the currents that spawned the still-living tradition of museums, and the neo-classicism which is also associated that century. I don’t remember what exact examples I settled on, and the article was one where examples could be swapped in or out. Possible examples include the Renaissance, the Reformation, Enlightenment neo-classicism, various shades of postmodernism, neo-paganism, the unending Protestant cottage industry of reconstructing the ancient Church, unending works on trying to make political ideologies that will transform one’s society to be more perfect, and (mumble) others; I wrote sharply, “Orthodoxy is pagan. Neo-paganism isn’t,” in The Sign of the Grail, my point being that if you want the grandeur of much of any original paganism (and paganism can have grandeur), you will do well to simply skip past the distraction and the mad free-for-all covered in even pro-paganism books like Drawing Down the Moon, and join the Orthodox Church, submitting to its discipline.
The Renaissance, the founding of modern science, and the Reformation have mushy, porous borders. This isn’t how we conceptualize things today, but then you could have pretty much been involved one, or any two, or all three.
The Renaissance Magus, the Founder of Science, and the Reformer are triplets!
Halloween: The Second U.S. National Holiday: Least Successful Christianization Ever!
There has been some background noise about Christianity incorporating various pagan customs and transforming them, often spoken so that the original and merely pagan aspect of the custom appears much more enticing than anything else. My suspicion is that this has happened many times, although most of the such connections I’ve heard, even from an Orthodox priest, amount to urban legend.
For example, one encyclopedia or reference material that I read when I was in gradeschool talked about how, in the late Roman Empire, people would celebrate on December 21st or 22nd, and remarked briefly that Christians could be identified by the fact that they didn’t bear swords. The Roman celebration was an annual celebration, held on the solstice, and Christians didn’t exactly observe the pagan holiday but timed their own celebration of the Nativity of Christ so as to be celebrated. And along the centuries, with the frequent corruptions that occurred with ancient timekeeping, the Nativity got moved just a few days to the 25th. However, ever recent vaguely scholarly treatment I have read have said that the original date of the Nativity was determined by independent factors. There was a religious belief stating that prophets die on an anniversary of their conception or birth, and the determination that placed the Nativity on December 25th was a spillover calculation to a date deemed more central, the Annunciation as the date when Christ was conceived, set as March 25th.
I do not say that all claims of Christianization of pagan custom are bogus; probably innumerable details of Orthodoxy are some way or other connected with paganism. However, such claims appearing in the usual rumor format, much like rumor science, rarely check out.
However, Halloween is a bit of anomaly.
Of all the attempts to Christianize a pagan custom, Halloween is the most abject failure. In one sense the practice of Christmas, with or without a date derived from a pagan festival, does not seem harmed by it. The Christmas tree may or may not be in continuity with pre-Christian pagan customs; but in either case the affirmative or negative answer does not matter that much. It was also more specifically a custom that came from the heterodox West, and while Orthodox Christians might object to that or at least not see the need, I am not interested in lodging a complaint against the custom. Numerous first-world Christians have complained about a commercialization of Christmas that does in fact does matter and poisons the Christmas celebration: C.S. Lewis, one might mention here, sounds off with quite a bit of success. My own college-day comment in Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary went:
Christmas, n. A yearly holiday celebrating the coming of the chief Deity of Western civilization: Mammon.
And commercial poisoning of the Christmas spirit was also core to my The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. One might join many others and speak, instead of a Christianization of a pagan custom, of the commercialization of a Christian custom.
However, Halloween, or various archaic spellings and names that are commonly dug up, has kept its original character after a thousand years or so, and the biggest real dent in its character is that you don’t need to dress up as something dead or occult (or both); the practice exists of dressing up for Halloween as something that is not gruesome. Celebrities and characters from treasured TV shows and movies are pretty much mainstream costumes. But it is a minority, and the Christmas-level escalating displays in people’s front yards are, at least in my neck of the woods, all gruesome.
Martin Luther is in fact believed by many to have published his 95 theses (or at least made another significant move) on October 31, 1517, and people have been digging it up perhaps more than ever, this year marking a 500th anniversary. I only heard of “Reformation Day” for the first time as a junior in college, and the wonderful professor mentioned above asked me, “What do you think of celebrating Reformation Day?” and probably expecting something pungent. I answered, “I think celebrating one ghastly event per day is enough!”
Christianization attempts notwithstanding, Halloween seems to be growing and growing by the year!
Alchemy no longer needs to come out of the closet
Today the occult is in ascendancy and alchemy is coming out of the closet, or rather has been out of the closet from some time and still continuing to move away from it. Now there have been occult-heavy times before; besides the three triplets of Renaissance Magus, Founder of Science, and Reformer several centuries back, the Victorian era was at once the era of Romanticism and Logical Positivism, and at once an era with very strictly observe modesty and of a spiritualism that posited a spiritual realm of “Summer-land” where gauzy clothing could quickly be whisked away. Alchemy is now said to be more or less what modern science arose out of, and people are no longer surprised to hear that Newton’s founding of the first real physics that is part of the physics curriculum was given a small fraction of the time he devoted to pursuing alchemy. I haven’t yet gotten all the way through Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances: A History of Idolatry as it reads to me as choking antithesis to an Orthodox theology that is pregnant with icon. However, one of the steps along the way I did read was one talking about the heart, and, characteristic of many things in vogue today, he presents one figure as first introducing a mechanistic understanding of the heart as a pump that drives blood through the system of vessels: that much is retained at far greater detail in modern science, but in that liminal figure, such as alchemists love, the heart was still doing major alchemical jobs even if his successors may have abandoned them.
Today there are some people who have made some sharp apologetic responses. Books endorsed on Oprah may treat alchemy as supreme personal elevation. However, conservative authors acknowlege some points while condemning others as barren. It is perhaps true that alchemy represents a tradition intended to transform the practitioner spiritually. But alchemy is false in that spiritual transformation is approached through master of technique and “sympathetic magic” as Bible scholars use the term. We do not need a technique to transform us spiritually. We may need repentance, faith, spiritual discipline that is neither more nor less than a cooperation with God, and communion, and in the Holy Mysteries we have a transformation that leaves gold in the dust. And alchemy is in the end positively anemic when it stands next to full-blooded religion. And really, what person in any right mind would crawl on broken glass to create gold when Someone will give you the Providence of the true Dance and make the divine Life pulse through your blood?
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?
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,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,
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?
Most of us are quite clueless, and we are just as much clueless as people in the so-called “hard science” like physics!
If one begins to study not exactly physics itself, but the people who best contributed to 20th century physics, the first and most popular name will likely be Albert Einstein. However, if one extends the list of names, Nobel Prize laureate Richard P. Feynman will come up pretty quickly. He provided a series of lectures now known as the Feynman lectures, which are widely held as some of the most exemplary communication in the sciences around. He also gave a graduation lecture called “Cargo Cult Science” in which he demonstrates a lack of understanding of history. Its opening sentences read,
During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. (Another crazy idea of the Middle Ages is these hats we have on today—which is too loose in my case.) Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas—which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age.
Sorry. No. This gets an F. Parts are technically true, but this gets an F. It is not clear to me that it even reaches the dignity of cargo cult history. (On Feynman’s account, cargo cults usually managed to make something look like real airports.) If you don’t understand history, but leap centuries in a single bound, don’t presume to summarize the whole of it in a short paragraph. Feynman’s attempt to summarize as much of the sciences as possible in a single sentence is impressively well-done. This is not.
I wish to make use of Darwin, and what I will call “Paleo-Darwinism”, which I would distinguish from any version of Darwinism and evolution which is live in the academy.
What is called “Darwinism” or “evolution” has changed markedly from anything I can meaningfully connect with the theory Darwin articulated in The Origin of Species.
Some of the terms remain the same, and a few terms like “natural selection” even keep their maiden names. However, Darwin’s theory was genuinely a theory of evolution, meaning that life forms slowly evolve, and we should expect a fossil record that shows numerous steps of gradual transitions. There are multiple live variations of evolution in biology departments in mainstream academics, and I don’t know all the variations. However, my understanding is that part of the common ground between competing variations is that the fossil record is taken at face value and while there is common ancestry of a form, all the evidence we have is that there long periods of extreme stability with surprisingly little change worthy of the name, which are suddenly and miraculously interrupted by the appearance of new forms of life without preserved record of intermediate forms.
For this discussion I will be closer to Darwin’s theory in the original, and I wish to explicitly note that I am not intending, or pretending, to represent any theory or concept that is live in the biological sciences. By “Evolution” I mean Paleo-Evolution, an ongoing acquirement of gradual changes. And I would furthermore want to note the distinction between natural selection, and artificial selection.
Artificial selection, meaning breeding, was presumably a readily available concept to the 19th century mind. It was, or at least should be, a readily available concept thousands of years older than the dawn of modern science. Farmers had controlled mating within a gene pool to increase certain traits and diminish others. To an economy that was at least a little closer to farming, breeding was the sort of concept well enough available that someone might use it as a basis for an analogy or metaphor.
It appears that Darwin did just that. He introduced a concept of natural selection, something that might seem odd at first but was intelligible. “Natural selection” meant that there was something like breeding going on even in the absence of a breeder. Instead of farmers breeding (I think the term ecosystem may be anachronism to place in Darwin’s day and it apparently does not appear in his writing, but the term fits in Paleo-Darwinism as well as in newer forms like a glove), natural selection is a mechanism by which the natural environment will let organisms that survive continue to propagate, and organisms that can’t survive won’t propagate either. There is a marked difference between animals that are prey animals and those that aren’t. Animals that contend with predators tend to have sharp senses to notice predators, the ability to flee predators, and the ability to put up a fight. None of these traits is absolutely essential, but mice that do not evade cats cease to exist. Dodos in Darwin’s day, or field chickens in the 19th century U.S., did not face predators and at least the dodos were quickly hunted to extinction when humans discovered the place.
I wish to keep this distinction between two different methods and selections in saying that artificial selection is not the only selection and the scientific method is not the only selection either.
What else is there? Before a Paleo diet stopped some really nasty symptoms, I read Nourishing Traditions. That book documents, in scientific terms, ways and patterns of eating that are beneficial, even though those dishes appeared well before we had enough scientific understanding to dissect the benefits. Buttered asparagus, for instance, provides a nutritionally beneficial that is greater than the nutritional value of its parts. And there are many things; the author, celebrating fermentation, says that if you have a Ruben, you are eating five fermented foods.
The point I would make about (here) diet is that independently of scientific method, societies that had choices about what to eat tended by something like natural selection to optimize foods within their leeway that were beneficial.
Science has a very valuable way to select theories and laws that is really impressive. However, it is not the only winnowing fork available, and the other winnowing fork, analogous to natural selection, is live and powerful. And, though this is not really a fair comparison, a diet that has been passed down for generations in a society is almost certainly better than the industrial diet that is causing damage to people worldwide who can’t afford their traditional cuisine.
There exist some foods which were scientifically engineered to benefit the eater. During World War II, experiments were run on volunteers to know what kind of foods would bring the best benefits and best chance of survival to liberated, starving concentration camp prisoners. Right now even my local government has gotten a clue that breast milk is vastly better for babies than artificial formula, but people have still engineered a pretty impressive consolation prize in baby formulas meant to be as nourishing as possible (even if they still can’t confer the immune benefits conferred by mother’s milk). However, 99% of engineered foods are primarily intended to make a commercially profitable product. Concern for the actual health of the person eating the food is an afterthought (if even that).
Withered like Merlin—and, in a mirror, withered like me!
I would like to quote That Hideous Strength, which again was an attempt at a novel that in fictional format would explore the same terrain explored in the three essays of the nonfiction The Abolition of Man; it is among the book’s most haunting passages to me.
“…But about Merlin. What it comes to, as far as I can make out, is this. There were still possibilities for a man of that age which there aren’t for a man of ours. The earth itself was more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were much more like physical actions. And there were—well, Neutrals, knocking about.”
“I don’t mean, of course, that anything can be a real neutral. A conscious being is either obeying God or disobeying Him. But there might be things neutral in relation to us.”
“You mean eldils—angels?”
“Well, the word angel rather begs the question. Even the Oyéresu aren’t exactly angels in the same sense as our guardian angels are. Technically they are Intelligences. The point is that while it may be true at the end of the world to describe every eldil either as an angel or a devil, and may even be true now, it was much less true in Merlin’s time. There used to be things on this Earth pursuing their own business, so to speak. They weren’t ministering spirits sent to help fallen humanity; but neither were they enemies preying upon us. Even in St. Paul one gets glimpses of a population that won’t exactly fit into our two columns of angels and devils. And if you go back further . . . all the gods, elves, dwarves, water-people, fate, longaevi. You and I know too much to think they are illusions.”
“You think there are things like that?”
“I think there were. I think there was room for them then, but the universe has come more to a point. Not all rational beings perhaps. Some would be mere wills inherent in matter, hardly conscious. More like animals. Others—but I don’t really know. At any rate, that is the sort of situation in which one got a man like Merlin.”
“It was rather horrible. I mean even in Merlin’s time (he came at the extreme tail end of it) though you could still use that sort of life in the universe innocently, you couldn’t do it safely. The things weren’t bad in themselves, but they were already bad for us. They sort of withered the man who dealt with them. Not on purpose. They couldn’t help doing it. Merlinus is withered. He’s quite pious and humble and all that, but something has been taken out of him. That quietness of his is just a little deadly, like the quiet of a gutted building. It’s the result of having his mind open to something that broadens the environment just a bit too much. Like polygamy. It wasn’t wrong for Abraham, but one can’t help feeling that even he lost something by it.”
“Cecil,” said Mrs. Dimble. “Do you feel quite comfortable about the Director’s using a man like this? I mean, doesn’t it look a bit like fighting Belbury with its own weapons?”
“No. I had thought of that. Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something to be dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases. Finally, come the Belbury people who take over that view from the modern man unaltered and simply want to increase their powers by tacking on the aid of spirits—extra-natural, anti-natural spirits. Of course they hoped to have it both ways. They thought the old magia of Merlin which worked with the spiritual qualities of Nature, loving and reverencing them and knowing them from within, could be combined with the new goetia—the brutal surgery from without. No. In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way. Do you know that he is forbidden by the rules of order to use any edged tool on any growing thing?”
I find this passage to speak a great truth, but coming the opposite direction! Let me explain.
I might briefly comment that the virtues that are posited to have pretty much died with Merlin are alive and kicking in Orthodoxy; see “Physics.” The Orthodox Christian is in a very real sense not just in communion with fellow Orthodox Christians alive on earth: to be in communion with the Orthodox Church is to be in communion with Christ, in communion with saints and angels, in communion with Creation from stars to starlings to stoplights, and even in a certain sense in communion with heterodox at a deeper level than the heterodox are in communion with themselves. This is present among devout laity, and it is given a sharper point in monasticism. It may be completely off-limits for a married or monastic Orthodox to set out to be like Merlin, but a monastic in particular who seeks first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness may end up with quite a lot of what this passage sells Merlin on.
Now to the main part: I think the imagery in this passage brings certain truths into sharper contrast if it is rewired as a parable or allegory. I do not believe, nor do I ask you to believe, that there have ever been neutral spirits knocking about, going about on their own business. However, the overall structure and content work quite well with technologies: besides apocalyptic prophecies about submarines and radio being fulfilled in the twentieth century, there is something very deep about the suggestion that technology “sort of withers” the person dealing with it. I think I represent a bit of a rarity in that I have an iPhone, I use it, but I don’t use it all that much when I don’t need it. In particular I rarely use it to kill time, or when I know I should be doing something else. That’s an exception! The overall spiritual description of Merlin’s practices fits our reception of technology very well.
“The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts: More than any other of my books this book is a critique, and part of its 1.4 star review on Amazon is because Fr. Seraphim’s following seems to find the book extremely upsetting, and so the most helpful review states that the book is largely unintelligible, and casts doubt on how sober I was when I was writing it. I’m a bit more irritated that the title has received at least two five-star reviews that I am aware of, and those reviews universally vanish quickly. (I tried to ask Amazon to restore deleted reviews, but Amazon stated that their policy is that undeleting a censored review constitutes an unacceptable violation of the reviewer’s privacy.)
The Luddite’s Guide to Technology: At the time of this writing, I have one review, and it is kind. However, I’m a bit disappointed in the book’s relative lack of reception. I believe it says something significant, partly because it is not framed in terms of “religion and science”, but “technology and faith”. Right and ascetically-based use of technology would seem to be a very helpful topic, and if I may make a point about Merlin, he appears to have crossed the line where if he drove he could get a drunk driving conviction. We, on the other hand, are three sheets to the wind.
“They sort of withered the man who dealt with them:” Mathematician and Renaissance Man
I ranked 7th in the nation in the 1989 MathCounts competition, and that is something to be very humble about. There’s more than just jokes that have been floating around about, “How can you tell if a mathematician is an extravert?”—”He looks at your feet when he talks to you!”
In the troubled course of my troubled relationship with my ex-fiancée, I am not interested in disclosing my ex-fiancée’s faults. I am, however, interested in disclosing my own faults in very general terms. The root cause in most cases came from acting out of an overly mathematical mind, very frequently approaching things as basically a math problem to solve and relating to her almost exclusively with my head rather than my heart, and really, in the end, not relating to her as properly human (and, by the same stroke, not relating to myself as properly human either).
I do not say that the relationship would have succeeded if I had avoided this fault and the blunders that came up downwind of it. I am also not interested in providing a complete picture. I mention this for one reason: to say that at a certain level, a very mathematical mind is not really good for us!
This is something that is true at a basic level; it is structural and is built into ourselves as persons. Some vices are in easier reach. The Orthodox understanding is that the nous or spiritual eye is the part of us that should guide us both; the dianoia or logic-related understanding has a legitimate place, but the relation between the nous and the dianoia should ideally be the relationship between the sun and the moon. One Orthodox figure characterized academic types as having a hypertrophied or excessive, out-of-check logic-handling dianoia, and a darkened nous. I plead guilty on both counts, at least in my mathematical formation.
I might also recall a brief point from Everyday Saints, a book that has managed to get a pretty long book hold waitlist at some libraries. A Soviet government agent commented, rather squeamishly, that highly educated prisoners were the first to crack under torture.
Prayerful manual labor is considered normative in Orthodox monasticism, and in a monastery, the novices who are asked to do extensive manual labor are being given a first choice offering. The fact that abbots do less labor than most other monks is not a privilege of authority. Rather, it is a deprivation. The reduced amount of manual labor is a concession to necessities, and many abbots would exchange their responsibilities with those of a novice in a heartbeat.
(I have been told, “Bishops wish they were novices!”)
Along more recent lines, I have been called a Renaissance man, or less often a genius. I felt a warm glow in being called a Renaissance man; I took the term as a minor social compliment recognizing broad-ranging interests and achievements, and not really much more than that, or much more important. Then I pulled up the Wikipedia article for “polymath,” read the section on Renaissance men, and my blood ran cold.
The article does not even pretend to list detail of what was expected of Renaissance men, but as I ran down the list of distinctions, I realized that I had pretty much every single achievement on the list, and education, and a good deal more. And what came to me was, “I’m coming down on the side of Barlaam and not St. Gregory Palamas!” (For non-Orthodox readers, Barlaam and St. Gregory were disputants in a controversy where Barlaam said that Orthodox monks chiefly needed lots of academic learning and what would today be called the liberal arts ideal, and St. Gregory said that monks chiefly need the unceasing prayer usually called “prayer of the heart.”)
There was one executive who said, “I climbed to the top of the corporate ladder only to find that it was leaning against the wrong building,” and that’s pretty much where I found myself.
I have had less of a mathematical mind by the year, and I am hoping through monasticism to let go of things other than thoroughly seeking God, and let go of my Renaissance man chassis. My hope in monasticism is to try and follow the same path St. Gregory Palamas trod, and spend what time I have remaining in repentance (better late than never).
I now have a silence somewhat like the silence of a gutted building.
I seek the silence of hesychasm.
One wise priest said again and again, “The longest journey we will take is the journey from our mind to our heart.“
In the present Wikipedia article on the Golden Rule, Harvard’s humanist chaplain Greg Epstein is quoted as saying, “‘do unto others’ … is a concept that essentially no religion misses entirely.But not a single one of these versions of the golden rule requires a God“. Yet months after I lodged a protest about this at least depending on where your quote from the Gospel begins and ends, the chaplain’s pristine wording still summarizes a list of quotes from the New Testament that begins and ends where some would expect it to. (In the other two parallel passages, Christ is quoted as saying explicitly that the duty to love one’s neighbor was like the duty to love God.) As quoted earlier in the very same Wikipedia article:
25And one day an authority on the law stood up to put Jesus to the test. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to receive eternal life?”
26What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you understand it?” 27He answered, ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.’(Deuteronomy 6:5) And, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ ” 28“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do that, and you will live.”.
For now, I do not want to go into the unquoted followup to a question about where our obligations stop. I wish instead to say quite specifically here what the text quoted in the Wikipedia says. What it says, in essence, that “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” is a spillover to an absolute obligation to love God with your whole being. The obligation to love one’s neighbor is, in mathematical language, a corollary to an obligation to love God. It’s a consequence of the first stated imperative. Whilst one can cut the beginning and ending of the quotation so that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is all that survives the abbreviation, the obligation to love one’s neighbor is but a brilliant shadow cast by the infinite obligation to love God. There is some degree of confusion in the suggestion that this gem, shared by Jew and Christian, works just as well if “Love your neighbor as yourself” is stripped of its foundation of, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.” There is considerable insensitivity in seeing the two but failing to recognize them as connected.
While Eastern Orthodoxy may have a rich and many-layered understanding of holy icons and experience a rich interconnectedness between the theology of holy icons on the one hand, and a human race created in the image and likeness of God as stated in the very opening chapter of the Bible, it is not just Eastern Orthodox who have reason to see an implied, too-obvious-to-need-stating connection between loving God and loving people who are made in the image of God. You cannot be cruel to a child without paining that child’s healthy parent, and it is confusion to try to love God without implications for loving one’s neighbor. I am not aware of C.S. Lewis articulating any particularly interesting theology of icon as such, but the rising crescendo that closes The Weight of Glory could hardly be clearer: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” We are to love God entirely, and this love must unfold to loving God in the person of every neighbor who bears God’s divine image. Only a Harvard humanist chaplain could make a blanket statement for all world religions and let slip something so foundational to the plain, old New Testament. You know, the text from which we learned John 3:16 as Bible-believing kids.
Having said such, I would like to go over some rules and variations related to the Golden Rule, before explaining why I believe “Love your neighbor as yourself” is far more interesting than “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
A Fool’s Golden Rule: “If you can’t take it, don’t dish it out!“
There is a bit of social wisdom, legitimate enough in itself, that is a sort of spurious version of the Golden Rule: “Don’t tease others beyond the point where you can handle them returning the same.” It may be wise enough to observe in practice, as it’s really best not to get into waters deeper than you can swim, but in itself doesn’t shed much light on whether teasing should really be avoided (a position that has adherents), or teasing is a legitimate and important dimension to any particularly strong personal connection (another position with adherents).
Of greater concern is this: different people have different tolerances for how much they can enjoy banter. Perhaps others will present less of a confusing situation if they also follow this Fool’s Golden Rule, but it is desirable, and in the spirit of a real Golden Rule, to avoid teasing others beyond what they can handle.
If we go with an expectation that some people avoid getting into waters beyond what they can swim in, and some are less perspective, there is an element of self-care in making sure you don’t invite more teasing than you can handle, and self-care can be perfectly legitimate. However, it doesn’t address how to approach banter legitimately, and without dishing out needless pain. Perhaps one pair of options are either to mostly avoid teasing, indefinitely, or to start very lightly, gradually escalate with a question mark in your eyes, and stop immediately and later on tone things down a bit on any social cue that the other person has had enough. I believe this suggestion is arguably appropriate, but runs somewhat independently of the Golden Rule, and is even based on recognition that knowing what “you would have others do unto you” does not fully answer everything essential. Teasing within people’s tolerances is an area where knowing only your own limits is not enough.
However, this would provide a nuance some have explored in relation to the Golden Rule. If you are eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a friend with a deadly peanut allergy walks by, perhaps you might show social respect, but there is neither any faintest obligation of hospitality nor the Golden Rule to knowingly give your special-needs friend food containing a large amount of peanut ingredients. If you’re having beef stew and a vegetarian friend walks by, one obvious level of interpreting the Golden Rule is to offer some social salute and, depending on how rushed the friend is, invite the friend to join the conversation but not, under any ordinary circumstance, offer a bowl of beef stew. A classic comic has a father taking a son to a restaurant and bowling to celebrate, and in the last frame the mother tells the son, “I know; we also did all the things he likes for my birthday too.”
I might note that some Orthodox authors have challenged this nuance (or, perhaps, nuanced the nuance). The essential argument is that if you’re spiritually healthy, you will probably be at least sometimes seeking for yourself things that are good and genuinely in your best interest. If you are trying to show kindness to someone in the grip of passions, that person will be seeking to indulge passion and not what is in his best interests. The correct gift is, for that person, one that in some minor way, and without invading and assuming command, what you would want in the sense of something in one’s own best interest, and not what the other person would want in the sense of serving one’s sinful passions.
The Silver Rule: “Do Not Do Things to Others That You Would Not Have Them Do to You“
Figures in multiple religious traditions have summarized ethics in a commandment not to do things you wouldn’t want other people to do to you. It is unmistakable that “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.” has received devoted attention in Judaism for millennia. However, certain scholars who represent landmarks in the Talmud have summarized the Golden Rule in a more diluted form: they tell people only to refrain from doing things to others that they wouldn’t want others to do to them. This is a lower bar.
I would like to put a word in to puzzled Christians wondering why master scholars of the Jewish Bible would choose what is essentially an ethical consolation prize, and a negative morality rather than a positive morality.
My best guess here is that Talumidic scholars didn’t choose the easier of two serious options. That is, they did not line up “Treat others the way you’d like to be treated” and “Don’t do things to other people you wouldn’t want them to do to you,” and go for the less demanding option. The Old Testament thunders “Thou shalt not,” and not in just the Ten Commandments. It includes “Love your neighbor as yourself” but not, as stated in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” It took me a long time to understand what a Lawgiver was years back, because I thought of rules as unhelpful and constricting. But I would call to mind a medievalist conference that talked about law in Western Europe, and said in essence that law had captivated the public imagination, and fascinated people as being, among other things, a way for people to resolve conflicts without attacking each other physically. Perhaps even the word “lawyer” has slimy connotations today and we think litigation is completely out of control, but to many in the medieval West, people thought litigation was a live and better alternative to an ongoing and deadly feud. Law was seen as a peaceful way to avoid violence. St. Moses was a Lawgiver, and a great deal of that Law was devoted to forbidding people from engaging in destructive practices. There is brilliance in condensing the entirety of the Law to “Do not do things to other people that you would not do unto you,” and I would suggest it is an anachronism to criticize Rabbi ben Hillel and others like them because they chose the Silver Rule over the Golden Rule. (I see no reason to believe that they did anything of the sort.)
Whether or not the Silver Rule is not as good as the full-fledged Golden Rule, it shares the strengths that make the Golden Rule so important. The Silver Rule and the Golden Rule both alike are short, simple directives that offer broad and far-reaching guidance. They might not replace longer and more detailed treatment of what is right and wrong, but a treatment of ethical details alone presents a danger of not seeing the forest for the trees. The Silver and Golden Rules help people see the forest very quickly, and then be in a better position to see the trees situated in the forest when it’s time to study the trees. And, as has been pointed out, in U.S. educational culture the most important lessons are not introduced in graduate meta-ethics seminars; they’re taught in kindergarten, with the Golden Rule often given a place of prominence. The “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” poster that was ubiquitous some decades back reflects important choices made in U.S. educational culture, whatever other flaws it may have. The most important ethical lessons are placed at the very beginning of formal education itself.
I would also like to comment on a the terms “negative morality” and “positive morality.” The language is loaded. It doesn’t mean, or at least not at first glance, that negative morality is bad and positive morality is good. I might mention what the term “progressive cancer” means. “Progressive” is not here loaded language complimenting someone for being sufficiently far to the left; a “progressive” cancer is a cancer that continues to grow and grow, and be more and more destructive despite every treatment that’s thrown at it. Returning to “negative” and “positive” morality, a negative morality essentially says, “Here’s a shortlist of things you shouldn’t do. You’re free to do anything else.” A positive morality dictates your options far more narrowly: “This is what you should do.” And I would make a pointed remark about positive moralities: if you are going to choose a positive morality, choose very, very carefully.Every single one of the twentieth century Utopias that racked up over a million innocent lives in its body count was driven by a positive morality!
The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
I wish to comment quite briefly about the Golden Rule as classically worded that it appears exactly once in the Bible, that Christ states it in the most important homily the Orthodox Church can offer, and that Christ himself endorses it as a complete summary of the Scriptures that existed then. The Golden Rule itself is the least in need of introduction of all these variations: asking the man on the street, “What’s the Silver Rule?” or “What’s the Platinum Rule?” should often elicit a perhaps puzzled, “I don’t know.” If you ask, “What’s the Golden Rule?” people may not be able to rattle off the words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but they should usually immediately recognize the reference and instantly recall the point, gist and basic concern whether or not they can quote (or misquote) the classic formulation.
The Platinum Rule: “Do unto others better than you would have them do unto you“
I would briefly comment that the Platinum Rule is more a curiosity of discussion of ethics than a point in any live community’s ethical system that I am aware of. For reasons to be discussed below, I believe the Law of Love represents a far more valuable way to go beyond the Golden Rule than simply upping the ante for what one is expected to give others.
However, while I am not aware of religions teaching the Platinum Rule (even in ethics it seems to me to only come up in academic discussions), it does seem to come up in practice even if it is not enjoined. The first job I had was at a rental yard, where assignments ranged from assembling tents for a celebration to scrubbing burnt-on crud off steel to putting away sewer snakes. It was not a glamorous position. However, I noticed that the worst and most disgusting jobs (such as cleaning up a port-a-potty after a wild and wet trailer ride) were always done personally by a manager. Always. In a traditional marriage and family, feminists may claim that the husband and father occupies the position of greatest privilege. This is possibly so, but under the live definition of privilege, his privilege includes taking an ailing pet to the vet for the last time. In the business world, there is the manager who from time to time skips lunch during crunch mode, but would never arrange a schedule so that one of her subordinates was asked to miss a meal. Goodwill, whether or not it is an organization of goodwill towards its employees’ financial interests, asks people whether a donation is good enough to give a friend, and I would comment on that point that there are some pockets where people are generous and giving towards others, but continue to personally use worn or damaged possessions themselves that they would be mortified to give to someone else, especially someone lower than them socially. For a concluding example, anti-smoking advocates found that they met limited success with anti-smoking messages that said, “Hey, Dad! Look at what you’re doing to yourself!” (Dads seemed not to be terribly concerned.) Then they shifted the center of the message to, “Hey, Dad! Look at what you’re doing to your kids!” and, Wow! was there a change.
The Platinum Rule may or may not be preached anywhere outside of academia. It does, however, appear to be something people practice of themselves in situations where they have been brought up to respect the Golden Rule.
And now I will show you a more excellent way
One patristic claim has been that the Old Testament purifies what is done externally in the hands, and the New Testament purifies what is done inwardly in the heart. That may be painting things with broad strokes, and someone who doesn’t know the Bible well may still point out that as prominently as in the Ten Commandments the Old Testament forbids coveting in one’s heart, and the New Testament has numerous passages condemning concrete actions as sin. I don’t know the Talmud, but I’m pretty sure that a good Talmud scholar could point out numerous passages rejecting sins committed, at least at first, only in the heart. However, it is helpful to understand here that the relationship between “Old Testament” and “New Testament” is really not a relationship between “First installment” and “Second installment: more of the same.”
One core aspect of “Road to Emmaus” passage that winds up Luke’s Gospel is, “Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” “Scriptures” does not here refer to any part of the New Testament; there is only one place, in 2 Peter, that any part of the New Testament is called Scripture. Furthermore, at the time reported in this Gospel passage, none of the New Testament had been written. The basic model of Scripture in this passage, which remained live for a surprisingly long time, was that the Scriptures were the Old Testament and represented a locked treasure hoard, and the New Testament contained the key to unlock the Old Testament Scriptures. Fr. John Behr commented in a class that the worst thing that happened to the Church was the canonization of the New Testament. He was perhaps speaking provocatively, but he was driving home a patristic enough point that the Old and New Testaments should not be identified as a first installment and a second installment of the same.
At least in the Wikipedia, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is treated as a wording or formulation of the Golden Rule. I would like to draw an increasingly sharp distinction, and from here, I will use the terms Golden Rule to strictly mean paraphrases or repetitions of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and Law of Love to mean “Love your neighbor as yourself,” with or without explicitly stating the commandment to love God from which it arises.
In my own experience, I was surprised by what was apparently obvious enough to the article authors that there seemed no perceived need to establish or defend: that the Law of Love was a wording of the Golden Rule, apparently interchangeable with others.
The first, relatively superficial objection I had was that the Golden Rule uses one’s own desires as a guideline for what action to take. The Law of Love does not directly state what actions to take, and the implied line of action I would see (others might nominate other candidates) is an obligation to seek others’ best interests. It is long religious experience that we often do not seek our own best interests, but finely gilt spiritual potholes, and the Christ who commands love for one’s enemies might perhaps leave room to believe that someone who meets forgiving love with ongoing hostility might, perhaps, be even further from seeking what is genuinely beneficial to them. In the Golden Rule the yardstick of action, at least on a rule of thumb level, is one’s own desires. My personal impression, as someone who has problematic desires, is that the yardstick for action, besides love which I will come to in a minute, is that it is the other person’s best interests.
The second, more serious objection I can think of, has to do with virtue. One basic distinction has been made between a rule-based morality and a virtue-based morality. At the heart of Confucianism, for instance, is not any calculus of required, permitted, and forbidden actions; the highest goal is to become a person who embodies certain virtues, such as a filial piety. The Philokalia draws on certain Greek philosophy, carefully and selectively. The greatest debt I can see to a feature of Greek philosophy in the whole collection is in the cardinally important place that is given to virtues. The concept may be adapted for Christian use at points, but any reasonably sensitive reading would recognize that virtue, from wherever the authors acquired it, is extremely important in the text. As regards the Golden Rule, it is a strictly rule-based guideline and need not perturb a rule-based morality. As regards the Law of Love, “love” may appear as a verb and not a noun, but the commandment is to exercise virtue. Now there are feedback and reinforcement between what is in your heart and what you do with your hands; someone who is honest is more likely to tell the truth, but conversely telling the truth is a practice that also builds the virtue of honesty. However, the Law of Love takes the action from the Golden Rule’s playing field of (potentially) rule-based morality, and puts us on turf where virtue at least looms large.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent is on the shortlist of Orthodox classics, and Orthodox monastics traditionally read it each Lent. It has various steps of virtues to acquire and vices to surrender, amounting to thirty steps in total. And elements of Greek philosophy may be present; the step that is second from the top is “Dispassion”, a Holy Grail sought in the same philosophical currents that had the authors of the Philokalia think so much in terms of virtue. However, the very, very top rung of all in the great Ladder is the “Faith, Hope, and Love” in an industrial-strength allusion to one of the favorite chapters of the Bible the world around:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
And there is further to go than virtue-based morality.
Beyond even virtue-based morality
The concepts “You need right action” and “You need to be in the right moral state”, taken together, cover many of the world’s ethical systems, and for that matter cover most of what I have said so far.
I would like to push further.
Your actions are in some sense something you possess, and your virtues are in some sense something you possess. Perhaps neither one nor the other is an item you can put on your desk next to your car keys, but they can appear, so to speak, as self-contained. Which they are not.
I was rebuked, when I was newly minted as Orthodox, for asking a question entirely framed by the Reformation schema of nature, sin, and grace, and given very good pastoral advice to stay out of 16th century Reformation concerns for a while. I am grateful for this. That stated, the Reformers were not the first people to see grace, and our need for grace, in that faith whose book is the Bible. But the Philokalia has titles like the in-depth “On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous By Works,” and stern warnings that you may only take credit for those achievements you pulled off before you were born (an exception could be made disqualifying the handful of places in the saints’ lives where an unborn child cries or speaks from within the womb). This is not exactly a teaching of grace alone, in that there is a sense of synergy in relation to a divinization where we contribute, but the relevant Fathers are here as clear as any of the Reformers that however much we seek virtue and right actions, we should take no credit before God. Even if, as it turns out, on Judgment Day the saved who take no credit for their works are given full credit for these works by God.
The whole of how we are created is for a divine dance, where we are part of a larger picture and God is calling the shots. Had I raised another Protestant question about discerning God’s will for my life, I might have gotten an equally helpful rebuke. Christ has all but sworn that if we seek first the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, all God’s Providence will follow, including career paths, material needs, and so on and so forth, perhaps even without our needing to try to seek God’s will for our lives. God’s Providence may have plans for the course of our lives, which will be given if we seek first God’s Kingdom, but the New Testament doesn’t have a word about seeking God’s will for our lives. When it discusses God’s will, it discusses God’s will for Creation and the like. Nowhere do the Pauline letters discuss a discernment of what course is intended for your life, or mine.
Sometimes pagan custom ain’t so great
I was in England and on a Cambridge tour was excitedly shown, in a church building no longer live as a place of worship, pagan symbols such as two-tailed mermaids on the baptismal font. What I wanted to ask, instead of just holding my tongue, was whether she had anything to say about Christian symbols in the building. But I held my tongue.
There is an ambiance of mystery and the alluring today surrounding pagan customs, and someone who reads some of the same books I’ve read may read, for instance, about a heirarch who wisely decided to try to wean a newly-illumined people from pagan practices across a few generations, or that some particular detail of observance was in origin an exotic pagan custom that was incorporated into the Church’s intricate practices. And, in general, I’ve read that some leniency was observed in relation to pagan custom. What may be the first written account of the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov, Flame in the Snow, seems unblushing about recording a preserved pagan custom here and there.
But may I say something about pagan custom in relation to my own milieu, and one intended to be not enticing, but banal?
We have bank accounts and general financial planning and don’t let a good deal of what the Sermon on the Mount says about providence and God’s generosity get past our filters. We want endowments, or in short, we want the financial infrastructure to what is, in the end, Hell.
This may be a much less exotic and enticing than the chasing and catching game in the great St. Seraphim’s life, but I really mean it. Forget every sexy connotation that vaguely rises up at the thought of being allowed to practice a pagan custom. One of the great pagan customs in our world is wealth management, and here I write not as someone without slaves who calls for the abandonment of slavery, but someone with fewer slaves who calls for the abolition of slavery. We need, by God’s grace to wean ourselves from the violation of the Sermon on the Mount that forever tries to create our own providence, administered by nothing wiser than our own hand. That is (among the) pagan customs that should come to mind when we think of the Church trying by degrees to free generations of converts from pagan custom, ancestral or otherwise.
The story is told of a little girl who saw, in a vending machine, a metal necklace with gold wash. She asked her Dad, but he discouraged her. But she insisted, and he bought the necklace. That night at bedtime, he asked her, “Do you love me?” She said, “Yes.” He said, “Give me the necklace,” but she didn’t. The next night, the same thing happened. Many nights later, with tears in her eyes, she reached out and set her necklace in his hand, the gold wash all but gone. He, also with tears, reached out with his other hand, and gave her a necklace of solid gold.
What we are invited to is God’s Providence, but we can opt out by trying to get our own ersatz providence and not really need God’s intervention. (One of the names for this is, “Hell.”) We are instead summoned to the Great Dance, where many people weave together in intricate motion and in unfolding glory, and things end up better than we could have imagined if we had everything our way. (Or we can insist on trying to have our way; one of the names for this is, “Hell.”) Or we can stop fighting, and work with God as he draws us into a larger world and opened our eyes to what was there all along, but still more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our financial planning.
And, incidentally, trying to live on a basis of what pseudo-providence you can get for yourself is not a new pagan custom: while admittedly some of our financial instruments were not available then, Christ calls the basic practice a pagan custom as much as anyone else has: “For after all these things the [pagans] seek.” Christ never denies that we need food, water, clothing, etc., but he does try to give people a clue that the God who has loved them from eternity already knows the needs he has built in to their constitution, and has every desire to provide everything necessary to people who are seeking what really is worth seeking.
(Similar remarks could be made for other ways we isolate ourselves from patristic submission to the Sermon on the Mount in favor of pagan customs.)
In depth: If thine eye be single…
St. Philaret of Moscow, possibly a rare instance of a Metropolitan named after a layman, wrote a famed prayer for the acceptance of God’s will:
O Lord, I do not know what to ask of Thee. Thou alone knowest what are my true needs. Thou lovest me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation. I can only wait on Thee. My heart is open to Thee. Visit and help me, for the sake of Thy great mercy. Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Thy holy will and Thine unsearchable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to Thee. I have no other desire than to fulfill Thy will. Teach me to pray. Pray Thou Thyself in me. Amen.
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the [pagans] seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
“If thine eye be single”: this part appears to be a digression, even an intrusion. It is not. Most translations translate away a term like “single” to mean “healthy” or “sound”, and while an aspect of “single” is indeed “healthy” or “sound”, the direct and unusual rendering tells more. St. Paul describes one decisive advantage of celibacy: that the celibate can focus on God with an undivided, single attention, where the married Orthodox must needs live out a divided attention where effort is split between God and one’s spouse. This is no heretical rejection of sacred, holy marriage, where St. Paul elsewhere says forcefully, “…marriage, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth…”; he is simply advising people that he wishes to spare them the trouble, however holy marriage itself may be.
But here celibate and married are both summoned to an eye that is single: an eye that rests its gaze purely on God, instead of dividing attention between God and stupid money. It may be honorable to divide attention between God and a wife given as an icon by whom to love and serve God: but nowhere does the New Testament endorse it as also acceptable to divide attention between God and a lifeless, subhuman wealth that is utterly unworthy of human love.
The seeming digression ups the stakes for trying to serve both God and mammon. The cost of chasing after wealth is a fragmented and divided spiritual vision. There are several places in the Sermon on the Mount where advice about a divided attention could appropriately be placed: for example, if you look in lust, your eye is not single, and is not single in a much more obvious sense. However, Christ sandwiches the warning in a passage debunking the apparent and seemingly self-evident goodness of wealth. And this passage, like others in the Sermon on the Mount, opens up a larger world.
A third basis for morality beyond rules and virtues
In the philosophy class where a professor introduced a distinction between a rule-based morality and a virtue-based reality, I looked and rightly or wrongly drew a conclusion for a Holy Spirit-based morality that is productive of virtues as virtues are productive of right actions. The key verse I drew on was Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”
I’m a little cautious about saying tout court that this musing is fully patristic. Some people have made a subtle but important distinction between virtues and “graces”, where a virtue is the sort of thing you build with God’s help but by your own action, and “graces”, which are also by God’s help but the divine generosity greatly exceeds the contribution you would normally need to build up a virtue. Possibly there are other adjustments needed; because it is my own musing, I think that it would best be endorsed as Orthodox by someone else besides me.
However, what I believe more legitimate for me to endorse is this. In The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit, St. Seraphim of Sarov, mentioned above, speaks with a layman who has essentially spent his life trying to understand, in Western terms, the meaning of life. St. Seraphim receives him with great respect, and lays out the answer: the central point of life is “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”
As mentioned, I’m a little cautious about saying that my own formulation that Christianity has a Spirit-driven morality that reaches higher than virtue-based morality as virtue-based morality is higher than rule-based morality. It hasn’t stood the test of time so far as I am aware. However, what I think has stood the test of time is that, while thoughts, actions, and virtues are all very important in the New Testament and the Philokalia, it is even more, more important to focus on a God who infinitely eclipses the greatest virtue. I’ve heard Orthodox raise a question of, “Then why am I here?” and assert that the reception of grace is synergistic, where the reception of grace includes our active cooperation with Christ in us, the hope of glory. But, whatever other differences may exist between Orthodoxy and Protestantism, I have never heard an Orthodox complain that Martin Luther, or any other figure, overstated the importance of grace. (For that matter, I have never heard an Orthodox Christian state that it is possible to overstate the importance of grace.)
The surprise I hadn’t mentioned
There was a surprise I met with the Wikipedia article that I haven’t mentioned. I was surprised that the Law of Love was classified as an articulation of the Golden Rule at all. After numerous readings of the Bible, it was settled in my mind that the Golden Rule’s explicit presence in the entire Bible amounted to part of a single verse of the Sermon on the Mount. It was not just that I preferred the Law of Love to other things that were called phrasings of the Golden Rule. To me they were so different that I never made the connection.
The Golden Rule is great partly because it offers direct prescriptions for action. If we avoid getting bogged down too much in special cases, if I wish others to show me such courtesies as saying “Please” and “Thank you,” that’s probably a sign I should seek to extend those courtesies to others. If I prefer not to be needlessly interrupted, in most cases I should probably avoid needlessly interrupting others. If I prefer that others’ communications with me be straightforward, that is probably a sign I should usually be straightforward with others. The Golden Rule may be stated in a sentence, but it covers an enormous territory.
The Law of Love dictates virtue, not action, and is far more ambiguous as far as action goes. There is respected precedent in monastic literature to what may be an assumption that the actions most fitting to the Law of Love are those that seek the complete best interests of the other. The point of monasticism, including the point of its many unpleasant parts, is to advance your best interests, which are never trumped by treating people the way they would like to be treated.
Let me give one example. At least some monastic rules state that “Monastery guests are to be treated as Christ himself,” and even without that implication the third parable of Matthew 25 provides excellent and chilling warrant to all Orthodox to treat all others as Christ. Good Abbots meet visitors with infinite respect. And for all this, monastics, including Abbots, are normally very sparing with compliments. (And they sometimes shock visitors by trying to dodge social compliments.)
There is no contradiction to this. In many cultures, compliments are given freely and are a staple of managing mood in the other. The Philokalia speaks of foul plants of spiritual sickness as being (as rendered in the polite English translation) “manured by praise.” The Philokalia is not generally foul-mouthed, and to the best of my knowledge human praise is the only thing that the entire collection metaphorically compares to excrement.
Marriage is also an institution for self-transcendence; some have said that marriage is not a place for children to grow up, but for parents to grow up. Marriage is also a vessel of holiness and salvation, but things are perhaps sharper and perhaps easier to see in monasticism. If insults and cleaning latrines are what it will take for a novice to gain the precious treasure of humility, then the love of an Abbot will be expressed in that nasty way. And monasticism above marriage highlights the difference between a nuanced understanding of the Golden Rule that will treat other people the way they want to be treated on the one hand, and on the other hand a nuanced understanding of the Law of Love as seeking the other’s best interests. We should best not treat ourselves as honorary Abbots and authorities above others, but seeking the other’s total best interest is more important than being pleasing to others.
Conclusion: A doorway to the divine
If I may quote Lewis again, this time from The Abolition of Man, “It is Paul, the Pharisee, the man ‘perfect as touching the Law’ who learns where and how that Law was deficient.” It is further St. Paul, the Apostle, who tells us that the Law is a tutor meant to train us up until we are ready for greater things.
I might suggest that the Golden Rule, at least in the forms I have seen it, be given a place similar to what place the Apostle gives to the Law, and in one aspect the place Church Fathers give to the Old Testament as addressing outer righteousness until the New Testament could train us in inner righteousness.
That is to say that we should keep the Golden Rule, perhaps at some level of sophistication and nuance so we don’t knowingly offer a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a friend who has a deadly peanut allergy. And furthermore we should recognize its significance in that world religious traditions are immeasurably different in immeasurable ways, yet precious few fail to offer some form of the Golden Rule. That speaks for a profound significance even beyond that a moral directive that covers an incredible amount of ground with something in a nutshell. Even a good subset of these credentials properly qualify the Golden Rule as astonishing and arresting.
Yet, for all of this, neither the Platinum Rule, nor the Golden Rule, nor the Silver Rule, nor this article’s nomination for a Fool’s Golden Rule speak a whisper about inner state or virtue, and on this account they must be seen as outer righteousness as Church Fathers have received the Old Testament as a tutor in outer righteousness. The Silver, Gold, and Platinum Rules may progressively escalate the action that is specified in their demand towards our neighbor: but even the Platinum Rule does not show the faintest hint of a request for virtue. The Silver, Gold, and Platinum Rules push further forward in the same plane: not one of them rises higher to draw our eyes towards virtue.
The Law of Love does, and here I am not especially interested in the fact that on the level of action it is possible to rise from pleasing people to seeking their best interests as best we can in a given situation. The Law of Love is a summons to virtue, and more. It moves beyond outer action alone to inner state, and here I might mention that contrary to today’s psychological framing of “inner”, figures such as Augustine held the inner realm to hold the things themselves for spiritual realities: or as condensed in homilectics, Heaven and Hell are inside us. I do not claim any Orthodox or Christian monopoly on inner concerns; the desire for inner virtue may be found in innumerable world religions and age-old philosophies. However, the Law of Love says something that was missed in the Silver Rule. Even if Ben Hillel probably knew both summonses to love, by heart.
Furthermore, the Law of Love implies something that I am not aware of in any formulation of the Golden Rule, and though I am hesitant to quote someone I’ve just critiqued as an authority, is something that a certain Harvard chaplain did not at least notice anywhere else: the box is open at the top.
Nothing hinders a materialist from seeking to act by the Golden Rule, and it may be seen as needlessly insulting to question whether a materialist might take guidance from that beacon. For that matter, you can be in your actions halfway to being a solipsist and still seek to obey the Golden Rule, even if you might end up being hampered by your habits because you are trying to act beyond what your philosophical reserves will afford you. There is nothing in any standard formulation of the Silver, Golden, or Platinum Rule that forbids you from being, and seeing yourself as, self-contained. One can of course subscribe to the Golden Rule and be open to things vaster than the Heavens: Christ himself did as much, and it’s hard to see what stronger warrant one could ask to say that a practitioner of the Golden Rule might be open. However, if we hear that chaplain say, “None of these versions requires a God,” then we might see circumstantial evidence that, as magnificent and really astonishing as the Golden Rule may be, it does not reach high enough to bid us seek a box that is open at the top.
The Law of Love is more and different compared to this. It really does say, “There are more things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, and I want to show them to you.” It summons us to leave the Hell of self. Its overwhelming impulse that bids us exercise the highest of all virtues, love itself, is a surge from the heart of a command to render an even higher, absolute love to a God who is infinitely beyond. A hymn tells the Theotokos, “When you gave birth, you tore all the philosopher’s nets;” along with that is all possibility of enclosure by anything less than God. I have quoted from the Sermon on the Mount; it is important enough in Orthodoxy that even in the shorter forms of the Divine Liturgy it is quoted in shorthand by chanting its opening Beatitudes. It is characterized by a fundamental openness that is needed as an exegesis of the right and proper love to God, and if you try to love God and live a self-contained life, you may find God responding to you by offering you help to repent of your sin and begin to enjoy a larger world.
I wish to conclude by quoting a poem I wrote, Open:
How shall I be open to thee,
O Lord who is forever open to me?
Incessantly I seek to clench with tight fist,
Such joy as thou gavest mine open hand.
Why do I consider thy providence,
A light thing, and of light repute,
Next to the grandeur I imagine?
Why spurn I such grandeur as prayed,
Not my will but thine be done,
Such as taught us to pray,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come:
Thy will be done?
Why be I so tight and constricted,
Why must clay shy back,
From the potter’s hand,
Who glorifieth clay better,
Than clay knoweth glory to seek?
Why am I such a small man?
Why do I refuse the joy you give?
Or, indeed, must I?
And yet I know,
Thou, the Theotokos, the saints,
Forever welcome me with open hearts,
And the oil of their gladness,
Loosens my fist,
Little by little.
God, why is my fist tightened on openness,
When thou openest in me?
If you look on the web, you can find a lot of interesting quotes about what is simple and what is complex. These quotes are often interesting. They are sometimes contradictory. Some say reality is simple. Some say reality is complex. One of the most famous quotes is, “Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.”
Probably the most interesting claim I read was, “Complexity goes before simplicity.” And that sounds strange. In biology complex organisms originally come from simple life forms. Programmers have repeated, “Every complex system that works is found to have evolved from a simple system that works.” However, I insist that the claim “Complexity goes before simplicity” is true, and furthermore that this claim unfolds the words, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would given my life for the simplicity on other side of complexity.”
When I read The Twitter Job Search Book, something struck me as odd. One Twitter user said, “If you can’t make your case in 140 characters, having more space won’t help.” The author underscored this point. However, that was not what struck me as odd. What struck me as odd was that the quote was broken across three long tweets because it couldn’t fit anywhere near 140 characters. Twitter may serve legitimate purposes. Books and articles are still not obsolete.
Every U.S. presidential candidate in recent races, whether they are from the the left, right, or center, has something that they stand for. That “something” is usually big enough that even loyal followers can’t put all of it in words. But they also have a slogan. This slogan is often not even a complete sentence. The slogan may be just a short sentence fragment. And yet, at least to loyal followers, those few words put everything the candidate stands for in a very short nutshell. But the simple slogan comes after the big ideas a candidate stands for. The big ideas never stem from the slogan.
In the Gospel, Christ is asked which of the commandments is greatest out of the Law that opens the Bible, and answers, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Someone familiar with the culture would recognize both the question and answer as stemming from an established and important tradition. Let me put the question in modern terms: “Out of all the commandments in the Law, can you put the whole thing in a nutshell?”
The response Christ gave wasn’t the only possible answer. There were several other accepted answers, such as “He has shown you, man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” However, the answer Christ gave was considered the greatest of all such answers. And there is a crucial point. You need to appreciate something of the Old Testament Law’s six hundred and thirteen commandments at some level before you understand why all of them fit in that nutshell. Reading a couple of sentences’ nutshell version is no substitute for knowing the Law in its long and complex form. Only then can you properly understand the nutshell.
Among the Great Teachers, the Golden Rule keeps resurfacing. People who have said giant things about ethics often say “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or something similar, and the Law of Love, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is considered an expression of the Golden Rule. However, it is lunacy to keep the text of the Golden Rule and simply drop the other 99% of what moral teachers have written. We need help fleshing things out.
People who are at the top of their game can put tremendously complex things into a nutshell. They can communicate with extreme simplicity. For instance, in Congressional hearings after the Challenger disaster, people were endlessly discussing whether O-rings could be brittle under cold conditions. People hemmed and hawed and said almost every perspective imaginable on the topic. Then Richard Feynman took a piece of an O-ring, swirled it around in his icewater, and went Snap! and was suddenly holding broken shards of O-ring. The discussion was over.
However, this isn’t because e.g. physics is simple and any physicist who can’t explain it simply doesn’t really understand. It says more about the talent that can reach mastery. Physics is not easy to master. It takes years for even very bright people to understand physics. The “Feynman lectures” are considered top masterpieces in scientific communication. They are noted for their simplicity. They are also simple for their subject and are not any kind of fluffy read. Let’s look at a related discipline. There was an uproar after Mattel released a speaking Barbie doll that might say, “Math is hard!” But the comment I remember from other math students was, “Umm… but math is hard!” Mathematicians consider doing something simply to be elegant and desirable given a correct solution, but math is is still hard. On that point I quote Einstein: “Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you that mine are greater still.”
Let me close with one illustration that closed an argument with something really beyond simplicity. In the “letters to the editor” section of a senior-oriented publication, one member wrote an article saying, in essence, “I have attended church such-and-such many years and during that time, I estimate that I have heard such-and-such many thousand sermons. I cannot however remember any of the sermons. I know that pastors work very hard on their sermons, but I wonder if their time might be better spent.”
Here, too, people hemmed and hawed, and made ongoing arguments in different discussions, until finally another member wrote a letter to the editor saying, “I met my wife such-and-such many years ago, and we have been happily married for such-and-such years. During that time, I estimate that my wife has made me such-and-such many tens of thousands of meals. I do not remember the recipe to any of the meals, but I am on the whole in good health and not any fatter than when I met her. I judge that it was worth her time to cook all those meals.”
The discussion was over.
Simplicity is good, but it is not the only good. And “Simplicity comes after complexity.”
There was a letter to the editor I wrote long ago and have tried and failed to find. It did not seem to come up in a search on the magazine that printed it; but I do not fault the magazine or its website because I also could not find it in my Gmail archives. My Gmail account is over a decade old, but the core conversation was a couple of years before I opened my Gmail account.
What I essentially said was as follows:
The common terminology of “inclusive language” and “exclusive language” is loaded language and harsh, exclusive language… It would be better to speak of “belabored inclusive language” and “naturally inclusive language.”
Confidence and timidity
When I was on one consulting gig at a prestigious client, political correctness in language was present but not enforced. What I mean by that is this: I heard both the old style and the new style of language. I never heard someone get even a little upset at someone using “he” in an inclusive way, but there was a good chunk of my colleagues who used naturally inclusive language (N.B. including some immigrants), and a good chunk of my colleagues who used belabored inclusive language).
When people spoke in naturally inclusive language, without exception it was bold, confident, assured. And they did not seem to be thinking about being confident; they seemed to be quite undistracted in making whatever point they wanted to make.
When men at very least spoke (I don’t clearly remember a woman speaking in anything but naturally inclusive language, although that was probably included), there was a timidity and a bad kind of self-consciousness. Even a divided attention. A man saying “they” for a single person of unspecified sex always had a question on his face of “Is this un-sexist enough?” Even men who were current with the belabored inclusive language of political correctness as it existed then had a perennial distracted question on their faces of, “Have I done enough?” with significant doubt as to any definite and positive answer.
This kind of divided mind is not especially good for business communication, or non-business communication for that matter.
Feminists don’t even use inclusive language
Feminism is a bazaar not a cathedral, and one can find a mainstream feminist classic saying that “all the central terms [in feminism] are up for grabs” (and, presumably, one could also find numerous disagreements to those words). Even the term “feminism” may appear dated when this work is new; as of classes a decade ago feminism was working on a far-reaching rebranding as “gender studies”, and I tolerate both that this work’s treatment of feminism will likely appear dated in five or ten years, and for that matter might have appeared dated to feminist readers ten years ago. However, as no form of feminism that has emerged that I am aware of has yet been stable, I am not particularly interested in endlessly updating a minor work to keep up with fashions.
My point is this. I have read feminists at length. I have spoken with people and met its live form. I have taken a graduate course in feminist theology. One of my advisors was big enough in egalitarian circles to be a plenary speaker at Christians for “Biblical” Equality. And I have yet to read a feminist author use inclusive language. Ever.
What do I mean by that?
The essential feminist bailiwick, the area of primary feminist concern, is members of the human species and the human race, Homo sapiens, who are female, for the entirety of life, from whenever life is considered to begin, to whenever life is considered to end.
And the universal feminist-used term for a member of this bailiwick is not “human female” or “female human.” It is “woman.”
Do you see something odd?
Without imposing nearly so great a reform program to create a politically correct English, we have a mainstream English term that begins and ends neatly where the bailiwick begins and ends, and a pronoun that works perfectly: “she.” This amounts to a much smaller shift in language than migrating from “man-hours” to “work-hours”, “waiter” or “waitress” to “server” and “waitstaff”, and selling “five-seat licenses,” a term which engenders considerable confusion about what part of the body most makes us human. By contrast, even cattle have historically been given enough dignity to be counted by the head. “Head” may be taken to have an undesired second meaning now, but couldn’t we at least be counted by the spine?
But every single feminist author I’ve read is content to refer to the entire bailiwick as “women.”
“Woman,” age-wise, is not inclusive language. It refers to adults alone, according to the shallow view of communication, and if “man” excludes “woman”, “woman” excludes “female children.”
It happens that feminist authors, at least for a present discussion, will talk about human females who are seniors and cope with issues about aging, or girls in math classes (classes which seem to always being given an ‘F’). And if a feminist author is writing about minors alone, she may refer to the human females in question as “girls.” But I have yet to read a feminist source of any decade use any other term at all for any member of the whole bailiwick. The sense is that when you write “woman,” female minors are spoken for. There is no felt need to specify “women and girls” (or, to perhaps pursue a familiar logic, “girls and women”) when the group of females in question is mixed and includes minors. Nor, as far as principles and general approach, is there any concept that a good solution for adult women might be misguided if applied to minors. There might be storms of protest at some strain of literature that says, “A man should watch his step carefully all the days of his life,” and the required, and almost hysterical, allegation placed that the author in question had not conceived of any advice that considers women, and this hysterical enough allegation may be accompanied by ostensible clarification that the text should only be quoted as “A man [Sic] should watch his [Sic] step carefully all the days of his [Sic] life.” But there is no uproar, there is not a whisper of dissent, when discussions of “women” are taken to obviously fully include girls unless excluded by context such as discussion of distinctively senior needs.
If you look at feminist use of the term “woman”, with blindingly obvious concern for all human females, you have a remarkably good working model for how a good, naturally inclusive language might function.
He poured me a cup of wine. “Here, take this.” No sooner had I drunk it than I became aware of a crystal globe forming around me. It began to expand until finally it surrounded him too. This monk, who a minute before had seemed so commonplace, now took on an astonishing beauty. I was struck dumb. After a bit the thought came to me, “Maybe I should tell him how beautiful he is—perhaps he doesn’t even know.”
But I really was dumb—that wine had burned out my tongue! But so great was my happiness at the sight of such beauty that I thought it was well worth the price of my tongue. When he made a sign to leave, I turned away, confident that the memory of such beauty would be a joy forever.
But what was my surprise when I found that with each person I met it was the same—as soon as he would pass unwittingly in my crystal globe, I could see his beauty too. And I knew it was real.
Is this what it means to be a REAL monk—to see the beauty in others and be silent?
To even get near [humility], even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.
Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.
If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.
These two striking Western quotes need some counterbalance. Orthodox confess before communion: “I believe that thou hast come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” And though this is above my pay grade, there are some very important words (in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, for instance) about longing for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor, an experience that I believe is very different from the inside and from the outside. The experience of reaching a new level of pride may be exultant for an instant, but the natural course of that sin, if we do not repent of it, is to hold on to the sin while its pleasure necessarily vanishes. My suspicion that those who long for the cup of dishonor as if it were honor, retain the virtue while its sting gives way to joy. Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret, and the monastic longing for dishonor may also bring joyful surprises.
With all of that stated, the story about the globe is the best picture I’ve seen of the heart of humility. And the humblest people I have known don’t really try to impress upon me how horrible people they are. They bear a striking resemblance to the figure Lewis describes: hospitable, generous, open, welcoming, listening, wanting to understand what you have to say, and wanting to understand you. Their style, the practical living effect of their belief that God is everything and they are nothing, is marked by joy in whatever person’s company God deigns to grace them with.
One verse that I’ve found profoundly difficult to appreciate is, “In humility consider others better than yourself.” I suspect others don’t find it pleasant either. But there is treasure inside.
I’d like for you to imagine yourself sitting next to your hero: your favorite person, past or present, near or far, someone you know or someone you might never meet. What is it like to be next to that person?
Now imagine someone who is a jerk and acts like an absolute scumbag. Do you enjoy the company?
Which one of these two is humbly considering others better than yourselves?
Pride is blinding; the term “hubris” refers to a blinding arrogance. The greatest degree of pride that has a label I’m aware of is called “prelest” or spiritual illusion, a term that doesn’t even mention self-opinion but describes being completely and destructively out of touch with reality and what will benefit oneself and/or others.
But with humility it is quite different. Some have said that the only true intelligence is humility. Humility opens people’s eyes, and it opens them to everything that is beautiful, honorable, and noble in others.
Humility allows us to see and enjoy the royal race.
The royal race
What do I mean by “the royal race?”
Let’s visit Confucius.
One nice, opaque snippet states that Confucius learned of a fire in the horse stables. Confucius asked, “Were any people hurt?” And we are explicitly told that he did not ask about the horses.
Today this story lends itself to thinking, “I guess Confucius just wasn’t the world’s biggest animal lover,” and trust me if I say, “Please ignore that; something completely different was going on culturally.”
In the China of Confucius’s day, a stable worker was a slave, here meaning a mere commodity worth only 20% of the value of a horse. Please contrast this with U.S. Southern slave owners who rationalized slavery at infinite length because they knew it was wrong, and they rationalized because they knew that it was morally wrong to keep African-American slaves in conditions unworthy of human beings and unfit for human consumption. In Confucius’s day, they didn’t even know it was wrong. The socially expected response from Confucius, upon hearing that there had been a major fire in the horse stables, would be to ask about what was the most valuable and important: the precious horses, not the expendable stable hands.
Confucius’s question about people in the stable left the obvious, socially expected response highly conspicuous by its absence. The point he sledgehammered was of the supreme value of every human life, whether at the top of the social scale, or the bottom, or anywhere in between. He didn’t say that all human life is sacred, and possibly it would not have occurred to him to connect life with the sacred, but the essential point he drove home is the supreme value of human life.
And that is really a dignity of the royal race.
Having mentioned race, I would like to comment something on the biology of the royal race. If we lay out on a football field the whole millions of years since humans first appeared, the first ninety-nine yards, or perhaps even the first ninety-nine and a half yards, show to the best of my knowledge our ancestors as living in Africa in the Sahara Forest. Then, a geological eyeblink ago, there was an Ice Age, and some of our ancestors bundled up against the cold and migrated under sub-Arctic conditions to what was eventually Europe. And they suddenly changed from needing lots of dark pigment to block out the mighty African sun, to vastly decreased levels of our built-in sunscreen because they needed to get as much of the precious little sun as they could. The whole change was only reducing the amount of one particular chemical: that’s it. And that is one major factor of the difference between dark and light skin.
What I would like to comment here is that this is an extremely shallow biological adaptation. Never mind that a dark-skinned and a much lighter-skinned person look quite different to the uninstructed.The biological difference is shallow. It is quite literally only skin-deep. None of us as the royal race grow feathers and have the ability to fly like birds, or can breathe underwater without technology, or can sleep while standing up unsupported. Nor, apart from birth defect, accident, etc. have we lost toes, or lose the full support of a circulatory system, or anything like that. Unless disability or adverse circumstances stop us, we all walk and we all trade in the miracle of language. There is one set of human anatomical features to be had with distinction between the sexes. We all need food, water, sleep, and so on. We tend to think we are very different because we look different, but the adaptations we have are biologically the shallow adaptations of a single, royal human race. There are admittedly other adaptations besides the pigments in our skin, but race as we know it hinges on people leaving Africa an extremely short time ago on geological terms and not enough time for much of any particularly interesting evolution to have occurred. We are all from the same species, Homo sapiens. For that matter, we are also all from the same, more specific subspecies: Homo sapiens sapiens!
Now I would balance my remark in biology and acknowledge any number of the most profound cultural differences across the world and possibly right in each other’s back yards, but again this is the royal race. Humpback whales have a culture; wolves have a culture; but there is essentially one culture for an animal community in a wild ecosystem. So far as I know the vast number of cultures that exist today attest to an unparalleled flexibility built into the royal race.
And if we look at Genesis 1, perhaps the two biggest takeaways are that we are made in the image of God, constituted by the divine presence in us, and that the entire human race is one family. The person before you is great: and he is your brother.
A note on beggars
And I would like to make one comment, very specific: “He is your brother” includes beggars.
I know some people, who do or do not give to beggars, who have made a careful and considerate decision and act in a situation where evaluating the best action is hard to do. I know of some people whose considered judgment is that giving money to beggars does more harm than good, and their refrain from giving is harder to them than giving would be. I might also suggest that one could give things other than money; one can carry a bag with easily peeled Cuties citrus fruit, or a Halloween-style bag of tiny chocolate bars if the weather won’t melt them.
However, I have heard, and wince, when someone says “beggars” like they are some kind of disgusting vermin.They are not. They are made in the image of God, as you, and the Orthodox Church’s teaching is that you should give, and when you give, you are respecting others made in the image of God. It is possible that their begging is sinful; that is not your concern and you do not share in the guilt by a gift. I’ve heard multiple Orthodox priests address the topic, and they never seem to suggest giving particularly much; the specific suggestion is to give little at least most of the time, without any suggestion that you have to furnish all that a beggar with a story of need lists as the needed expense.
But there is a more basic concern than meeting beggars with an open hand, and that is meeting them with an open heart. Monastics are said to be “above alms”: those who have placed themselves above possessions may not have a single bite of food to offer at the moment. But the literature quotes, “Is not a word better than a gift?”, with the implication explicitly explored that if you have nothing you could give (or, perhaps, you have a $20 bill but have run out of the quarters or singles you carry in a separate pocket to give), a warm welcome is itself giving a gift. Monastics are spoken of as “above alms”, but they are not above loving beggars. Those monastics, perhaps more than people who are not above alms, are called to fit the picture of humility towards beggars: hospitable, generous, open, welcoming, listening, wanting to understand what they have to say, and wanting to understand them. This kind of warm welcome is a much bigger gift than a quarter.
But may I suggest a view of beggars that has more sharply defined contours?
Look at beggars as altars. The beggar, regardless of religion, is made in the image of God and can never be rightly understood without reference to God. He who despises the poor shows reproach for their Maker; God loves everybody at every level of the social scale, and to show kindness to a beggar is to show a kindness to God. It is possible to embrace without touching, or embrace in an offered fist bump. Insofar as you are able, give a quarter or dollar (if you are in the U.S.) / a Cutie / chocolate / …, and what is more, try to give in the generosity of a monk above alms who meets the dues of hospitality.
Look on beggars as altars on whom you can show kindnesses to God.
One more quote to squirm by
Here is one more quote that makes people squirm; it is a personal favorite (Mt 25:31-46, NIV):
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Christ, in his own person, has no needs beyond the Trinity and could not possibly benefit from any generosity from any person.
But Christ in the person of a beggar is another story. There we can welcome him as Christ; there we can ease his hunger; there we can show a million kindnesses that will answer for us on that dread day when we are judged before his throne.
Someone who had a large collection of books asked, “Will I have any of these books with me in Heaven?” The answer came, “Probably.” The book lover then asked, “Which ones?” The answer came, “The ones you gave away.”
When our life is spent, none of the possessions we cling to will offer us any hope. However, even the tiniest of gifts given in the right spirit will answer for us. Even a smile, when you didn’t have change available, counts!
In humility consider beggars better than yourself. They, too, belong to the royal race!
I would retain what I have written here, including a parallel Bible. However, a good friend tipped me off to FluentU (App Store, Google Play).
However, I think I’ve found a way to overclock FluentU. Once you have down the skill of pegging (see Memory and Prayer for an introduction to the skill and a tool to practice; the skill is discussed at book length in the first part of Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Ego Memory), FluentU gives the spelling and pronunciation of a Russian Word, and then deliberately slows down to visually emphasize what the word means, giving some animation to the item that is being communicated… in fact, they give enough time to peg the Russian word to what it refers to once you’re proficient at pegging. I don’t consider myself great at it, but I find that I’m retaining stuff much more quickly when I’m watching the animations that cover word content.
This post is most immediately about learning Russian for native English speakers, but most of the principles apply to learning other languages as well.
At least one webpage I’ve seen about easy, medium, and hard languages for native English speakers placed Russian squarely in the middle difficulty level for languages to learn; the major qualification for difficulty is simply a vocabulary that doesn’t overlap modern English that much; I would guesstimate that the number of Russian words a native English speaker would easily recognize amounts to less than 10% of the words one would encounter. Beyond that, the grammar is not particularly slippery, or otherwise odd; the alphabet has strong and recognizable similarities to our own (compare CJK ideograms or even trying to see where one letter ends and another begins in Arabic for the un-initiated). It’s actually a lot nicer an alphabet to outsiders than the English use of our alphabet is. Learning Russian is moderately difficult, but it’s doable, and this page is here because I want to share what gleanings I’ve learned in my studies, and make things easier.
A preliminary note: the Russian alphabet
The first point I’m mentioning is the alphabet. In a word, it’s not a hard alphabet to learn; it’s just unfamiliar and takes practice. I learned it on an iPhone app named “Learn to read Russian in three hours.” Good old fashioned flashcards should work just as well, or for that matter having the alphabet below handy for cross-reference in reading. (Or a memory technique discussed below.) Also, don’t feel the need to make every sound. The Russian R sound is trilled; I’ve tried at length to learn a trilled R and don’t know how to make it. The H sound is a grated H, the kind that makes you sound like you are clearing your throat because you have a bad chest cold. I can sometimes make it, but I’ve heard native Russian speakers pronounce it as an English K, or an English H, so apparently both work. There is also a sound that sounds like an “sh” followed immediately by a “ch”; I’m working on this and sometimes succeeding at making it one sound without a break between the “sh” and “ch” sounds. Don’t sweat it overall; in most languages people will have some tolerance for imprecise sounds: if your worst liability is an inauthentic R or H sound, you’re doing well!
A first language-learning workhorse: A parallel Bible
I will try to cover a few primary techniques, but the main workhorse I’ve found, after a lot of other things, is reading a parallel Russian-English Bible. I found, to my irritation, that all the Russian-English Bibles I could track down on Amazon were made by the Russian Bible Society, which is a Protestant organization that omits certain books of the Old Testament that are present both in the Russian and English translations. (The Reformers at least included those books in an appendix!) The modern Russian translation you will be wanting is the Synodal Version (RUSV), which was translated into Russian by Orthodox Christians rather than Protestants. I wanted a nice leatherbound edition; there is also a nice but cheaper option (the only one really cheaper one I could find was a paperback edition).
No matter how much you may want to learn Russian, please start forays into the Synodal Version slowly, and ramp up slowly. As Orthodox mystagogy would have it, you don’t begin exercise by running a marathon. What I would recommend instead is reading the Gospel of John the Theologian, and start with the prologue.
The basic initial technique is to look at the Russian side for a single verse like John 1:1, and then see if you can make connections to the English side. And if you don’t on the first try, that’s fine. But try again an hour later. If you’re comfortable with a verse, move on to the next one. Before long you may be able to read a different verse each hour, and continue with hourly study. If you are comfortable trying to read one verse at a time, try reading two verses, and maybe not all the time. When you are genuinely comfortable reading two verses, move on to three. It is possible this way to get up to maybe a chapter: “Little and often fills the purse.”
But by all means, no marathons, nor stretching yourself as hard as you can for a short while. One detail about lawn care is that the kind of sprinklers that are great for children to play in should only be used for that purpose as they are terrible at watering lawns. What happens to a lawn used by the sprinklers is that the stream of water is shot high up into the air, and with the same force slams down into the ground. If you slam water onto parched ground, it isn’t absorbed; it can’t be. What each droplet of a fist does, instead of being absorbed, is hammer the ground into a beaten shield that repels further droplets. And you end up with a deceptive situation where there is water streaming in rivulets over the surface of the wet-looking soil, but an inch down the soil remains as parched as before it was watered. This is something you don’t want to do in educational situations, including learning a language. Little and often fills the purse.
One specific note to people who are in fact looking to learn classical Hebrew and/or Koine Greek: you can fairly easily find a good intralinear Bible, and to some people this looks like practically all language learning solved at once. However, I would pass on a caution: unless you have already learned multiple languages and already have that discipline, it’s not perfect and you can easily create a habit of your eyes jumping to the intralinear English words and not really spending that much time, or making much progress, with Hebrew or Greek itself. However, one bit of discipline that I am using now is as follows. Use a specially cut rubber jar opener to only let you see the partial or complete line in the ancient language, and don’t unveil to yourself the English term until you have stopped to ponder the ancient language’s term and tried to figure it out without (intralinear) help.
In earlier versions of this page, I recommended using index cards to hide and show things in a way that would be optimal. After working with them, I found that unless you have the luxury of a page that is completely level, they slide around the page whether you want it or not. That problem was solved by making a cover out of a carefully cut rubber jar opener, which I obtained at a local grocery store.
Good Cook rubber jar openers include a circular jar opener, and a larger squarish jar opener. Either of them could be cut to be useful; I used the more square model but if I made too bad a mistake cutting it I could have used the other one. The unopened package looks like so:
I made a first cut; mine was too deep and I cut a slight distance off the top. The point of the cut at the top is to be placed on top of a page, at the line of text you are working on, and to reveal a line of text, up to a point, and conceal what hasn’t been revealed further.
The full vertical height is too much; go to the bottom of the page on at least some intralinear Bibles and the rubber will fall over the bottom of the page. It was cut to height that was much less but still appropriate:
Note that at the top the top borders are closer.
Here are three examples of reading a line of the text. In all cases, the point is to place the whole Hebrew line in view, while hiding the intralinear English translation until the Hebrew has been given primary attention:
These specific images are adapted to Hebrew, as a language that reads right to left. If you want to work with an interlinear Greek New Testament you can use the same covering in almost the same way; you’ll just pull the cover left to right, after first flipping the cover horizontally so it conceals what is to the right instead of what is to the left.
I am here mentioning something that has served me powerfully in the past, and works with multiple languages, but may not be as much needed in our setting.
The Elements of New Testament Greek, the Greek textbook I was taught from, told you what you needed to learn in vocabulary, etc. Greek to Me does one better by providing a practical means to learn the vocabulary above rote memorization; it applies the classical memory technique in the first half of Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory (I have a much shorter page and training tool online in Memory and Prayer), and it has been a tremendous accelerator in offering a five-times-faster alternative to looking things up in an old-fashioned print XYZ-English dictionary.
The reason I consider this to be optional now is that there is a faster alternative to avoid repeatedly looking up a term in a thick paper dictionary. You can go to translate.google.com, set it to translate from Russian to English, and spell things phonetically, or set your computer to let you type in Russian, and maybe buy keyboard stickers (or just post-it notes) putting Russian letters on top of your keys. There are two major Russian keyboard layouts both of which should be supported; there is one that is the standard layout (stickers are available), and one that is roughly phonetic for English speakers (I couldn’t find any stickers). If you are going to Russia, you will want the Russian standard keyboard layout; if you are not intending to go to Russia, you will probably find the phonetic layout to feel easier and more natural.
That stated, the memory technique has its uses, especially in getting a new alphabet down. It acts as scaffolding; you first remember XYZ through a vivid mental image from what is called “pegging”, and then with repeated use the provisional mental image fades out of significance and you more quickly remember the word itself.
I will briefly comment that some people develop a strong initial impression that the memory technique is too much work for what it tries to do. I personally have found it not to live up to its hype, but I don’t know anyone who has become proficient and still retains the initial bad impression. I would place it as one tool among others, and less decisive given today’s technology offerings than it has been for me in the past.
A quieter memory technique
The business world has come to recognize that multitasking is not a good thing, and divided attention is needlessly diluted attention. (The Orthodox Church has known this for much longer.)
There is a less striking memory technique of, when you discover or rediscover something or come across something worth keeping, stopping and pausing for a moment to simply give it your full attention. No mental images needed: just the studious slow, focused, and present attention Orthodoxy gives to anything worth keeping. This memory tool is something that combines well with many other techniques and resources.
Language classes aren’t available to all of us; but they can provide another tool. I wanted to take a course in conversational Russian, but it didn’t work out.
There are multiple computer training systems; Rosetta Stone is far from the only option. I don’t have informed opinion about all of them, but DuoLinguo comes highly recommended, and I respect it myself.
I have had difficulty locating edifying Russian-language film or video with English subtitles. However, if you do find something, it can be worth its weight in gold to try to make connections between the Russian you hear and the English you read. However, please note that there is not a complete correspondence between speech in the video and subtitles in another language. (You can have a few people talking but only the essential part is relayed in subtitle.)
Two gems I am aware of are Ostrov and The Tale of Peter and Fevronia.
Conversations with native speakers (if available)
Having a conversation, on a very basic level, can be helpful.
One note from Wheaton’s Institute for Cross-Cultural Training: in dealing with a native speaker, you may be working and working and working on improving your language, and it remains just as hard to talk to that person.
There is a reason for this, and it is really OK. Some people who are sensitive to others’ imperfect language abilities simplify what they say to match the proficiency of the person they are speaking with. This may mean that when you start they speak very simply, but they simplify less and less when they see you become more proficient. You are making progress talking with that person; it just doesn’t feel like it.
Reading books in Russian
This is not a first step in working on a foreign language, but when you are able it is tremendously valuable to read books in that language. What may come to mind first are the proverbial nineteenth-century Russian novels, but beside them there is a vast collection of spiritual literature available in Russian. When you are ready to read books in Russian, reading books really pays off.
Listening to liturgical music
This also can be invaluable.
Different techniques work best for different people; what works best for one person may not be best for another.
This point is worth experimenting on, and it is worth being in some sense watchful by paying attention for what works and what doesn’t.
Leonard Nimoy, in I Am Spock, states that there were teachers in Hollywood for practically any additional skill an actor would need to portray a character in a movie. I don’t remember exactly what his list was, but this would include riding horseback, handling an ancient or modern weapon, using some particular musical instrument, speaking in some particular accent correctly, juggling or illusionist skills, various trades, some approach to singing and dancing not already known to the performer, and so on and so forth: I got the impression was that pretty much every skill you could name was covered, and a number of skills you wouldn’t think to name.
With one exception.
Nimoy said that there was one thing that was needed in Hollywood but did not have a single teacher: handling fame.
He talked, for instance, about creative ways of sneaking into a restaurant through the kitchen because a public commotion would happen if one person saw Spock trying to quietly walk into a restaurant’s front door. I’ve heard it said of one cast member of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 that he dresses and acts flamboyantly and strikingly in front of the camera as he should, but consciously turns that off and acts much more nondescriptly in public is usually not noticed. But Mystery Science Theatre 3000 has a smaller audience and is less mainstream; I’m no student of fashion history but a Google image search for Spock shows a consistent haircut, and one that looks to me like it was meant to be distinctive. (One would suspect that TV producers using humans to portray alien races would want actors to sport a distinctive look.)
I might suggest that my own experience is of having some degree of fame, but to a degree that has mostly been a privilege where a much greater amount of fame would bring much more obnoxious difficulties.
I’ve had someone call out, “That’s Jonathan Hayward!” Like a TV actor. Once.
I’ve also had someone ask for my autograph. Once.
I also have paper and Kindle books on Amazon that bring me a symbolic level of monthly income. It’s not on par with the income for working part-time flipping burgers, but it is still more than most authors ever see.
I’ve also repeatedly encountered people who knew me by my writing.
This might be called “sheltered fame,” or “mini-fame”, or “fame lite”, or “fame à la carte“, and I am glad I don’t enjoy a far greater degree of fame. If I were more famous, I might be able to support myself just by writing, but I regard that as being beside the point: I am seeking monasticism on the Holy Mountain, where my job will be to pray and do the obediences assigned by an Elder and be challenged at the level of parents of a first newborn. Or more. The obediences will be meant to free me from my weaknesses: but I will in a very sense not be my own man, even if my Elder’s entire goal in dealing with me is to do whatever is necessary to make me my own God-man in a fuller sense than I could possibly get on my own.
For a last detail of my miniature fame, I receive correspondence from readers, and so far I have been fortunate to be able to respond to every reader email I really can. C.S. Lewis may not have been Orthodox, and he may sound very faithful to the Greek Fathers until you recognize that Mere Christianity marks him as one of the major architects of the ecumenism as we know it today, and ecumenism was formally anathematized by several bishops in the eighties and some serious Orthodox have called ecumenism the ecclesiological heresy of our day. But I want to single out one point about C.S. Lewis’s personal life that is relevant: he made a practice of answering every reader who wrote him, even though that resulted him spending much of his later life answering essentially pastoral correspondence. And on that point I consider myself particularly privileged to be entrusted with some correspondence, but not need nearly enough interactions to the point that it is a heavy ascesis to answer people who write me.
All of this says that I may share in fame in one sense, but I really do not know in the sense that stems from direct personal experience what fame is to household names. I believe that this may be changing. But for now I would like to distance myself from claims to insider status as far as extreme fame goes. My degree of fame, as privilege, is comparable in giftedness to being somewhere a bit below the lower boundary of the range of socially optimal intelligence.
The reason for this piece: Everyman
There is a medieval play, which I have read of but not read, called Everyman. The character is not an individual “me, myself, and I” as is much more common in today’s novels, but a representative of all that is human.
That basic approach to writing was fairly mainstream; perhaps the most famous tale of Everyman is Pilgrim’s Progress, which is a tale of the only way Everyman can be saved. The pilgrim is not characterized as an individual with individual tastes, interests, hobbies (though perhaps expecting hobbies would be anachronistic). He represents in a sort of abstracted form the common story of how one may be saved as understood in the Reformation.
Today that basic approach has mostly fallen out of fashion (or perhaps has some revival I do not know about), but it is not quite dead and perhaps can never die. The assumption in an Amazon review of consumer electronics is that the review should not be about “me, myself, and I” so much as a “what’s ahead” notice to Everyman, meaning other consumers, who are contemplating purchasing that item. Reviews are ideally written from Everyman to Everyman.
This work is intended to be written by and to Everyman, even if that Everyman represents a narrower demographic than the whole of humanity. Significant, and in large measure unique, details are included on the theory that “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The assumption is that a specific picture in living color exposes the rhyme much more readily than a colorless abstraction that is propositionally true for all it treats, but lacks a pulse. It is an established finding in psychology that people are recognized more quickly from a sketched caricature than from an accurate photograph. I do not knowingly offer caricature in this work as such, but I do try to avoid bleeding out colors into abstraction, however correct, unless there are privacy concerns.
Danger! Beware of pedestal.
There is a quotation I’ve heard attributed to Gandhi, running something like, “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” At a brief check Snopes marks this as misattributed, and speaking as someone who spent considerable time perusing All Men Are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi, as Told In His Own Words, this simply doesn’t sound like something Gandhi would have ever said; its presence in the chapter “Ahimse or the way of nonviolence” would have been as obtrusive as Gandhi taking a brief moment to endorse some particular brand of toothpaste. Note that decent people do make attributions that are wrong; my Uncle Mark was a tremendously well-loved and respected schoolteacher, and more specifically a history teacher. He would open the day with some particular thought, from eclectic sources ranging over the Bible, Ben Franklin, and other historical figures, and after his passing, one student who had written down these thoughts posted pictures of her notes, and they were really quite a treasure. But one of them attributed “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” to Mark Twain. Sorry, but No. Without looking up exact dates, I believe Mark Twain’s lifetime overlapped those of the founders of modern psychology. The “shock-denial-blah-blah-blah-resignation-acceptance” grieving process could conceivably have been formulated in the nineteenth century, although it doesn’t sound like Freud to me, or any other nineteenth century psychologist I’m aware of. Kind of like how Freud’s various complexes don’t sound like something a behaviorist like Skinner would develop. However, even if we ascribe The Grieving Process to 19th century psychologists, these are technical terms in an obscure discipline, and would have been less-well-known than unconventional approaches to pig breeding or knowledge of how the results different knot techniques vary with different kinds of rope. The Grieving Process of “shock-denial-blah-blah-blah-resignation-acceptance” could absolutely not have been a lapidary part of pop culture that pops up in a remark by an unruly six-year-old boy in Calvin and Hobbes, or where saying “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” instantly telegraphs its intended meaning.
But let’s return to the pseudo-Ghandian quotation regardless of source: “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” As a sloppy sketch, this might be true, but there is a caveat that eviscerates the whole triumphal gist: The last step might not be, “You win.” The last step might be, “They install you on a pedestal.” The difference between winning and being installed on a pedestal is the difference between diamond and diamond-back.
There is a source I read decades back; the book title and even the name of the figure escapes me beyond that he was a scholar of Confucius and perhaps others, Chinese by nationality, and he meticulously documented how, after “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you.”, the last step was “Then they install you on a pedestal.” And he documented how for a figure he studied how people went from hindering and hampering him by opposing him, to hindering and hampering him by launching him on a high pedestal. And the front matter, from a Western scholar and/or translator, said that the pedestal effect he documented in fact played out in the scholar’s own life; he spent the rest of his life trying to achieve constructive results despite the pedestal that he was forever stuck with.
Fr. Seraphim’s unwanted pedestal
I’ve personally raised serious concerns about Fr. Seraphim of Plantina, and it is my considered judgment that he has been harmful and a cause of arrested spiritual development among his Western convert followers. (He is also deeply respected in some Orthodox lands, but I get the impression that a Russian or Greek admirer has a more balanced diet of spiritual reading.) Do Western followers, of the kind who relate to all outsiders as superiors guiding subordinates and often teaching humility first of all, distort Fr. Seraphim? My suspicion is that they fail to live up to Fr. Seraphim’s guidance on some point, and on other points show problems that are 100% faithful to his trajectory. One of the central tenets of what has been called “Orthodox fundamentalism” is that the world is literally about 6,000 years old, and a “Creation Science” lifted from Protestants of yesteryear who were not scientists is the true and final science that proves that. That deeply entrenched feature is one where they are following the Master’s lead. I’ve read Fr. Seraphim charge his readers to straighten out the backwards scientific misunderstandings of people who believe in an ancient universe and either evolution or progressive creation. If this is a pattern, it is not a simple case of ideological hijacking; practically all I have critiqued in The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts: A Glimpse into the Soul of Orthodox Fundamentalism remains faithful to the Master’s guidance. Possibly they exaggerate the importance of Fr. Seraphim’s position on origins; somehow God comes out second banana next to Young Earth Creationism, but if they exaggerated, they took something big and made it even bigger. Whether or not they pushed things further than they should, for to have someone who is a nonscientist (and, at least as I’ve found, wouldn’t recognize even an unsubtle scientific argument at all, even if it bit him on the arse!), gently asks “Have I cornered you?” when the other person is frustrated by a Seraphinian inability to even recognize a scientific argument, diplomatically and gently offer to straighten out a biology PhD’s backwards understanding of science (perhaps by dropping Einsteins’ name and giving an example of how “pilots experience time differently when they’re traveling above the speed of sound“; one friend, on hearing this “example,” winced, slowly gulped, and said, “That’s not even wrong.”)… Someone who does every single one of these things is following in the Master’s footsteps and living up to his exhortations.
There are other points where no matter what harassment I have met from his evangelists, I believe they weren’t faithful to Fr. Seraphim, or at least weren’t faithful to what he hoped for. Probably the kindest remark to him that I can genuinely respect is, “Fr Seraphim (Rose) is included in the mix of folks who tried to explain to folks they were sinners, but were still put on a pedestal anyway.” I have not seriously investigated the contours of Fr. Seraphim as regards guruism, but my understanding is that he would had a very simple answer: “No.” Or maybe he wrote at length about why guruism is toxic. At any rate, he now stands on a very cruel pedestal for a monastic who tried to free people from the idolatry of inordinately focusing on a single charismatic personality. And it seems that there is cruelty to Fr. Seraphim himself, of the sort one would associate with vengeful, schadenfreude-laden claims of poetic justice, except that it was quite the opposite of poetic justice: he challenged guruism, and did his best to dodge it, but his standing today is that of a polestar of a guru who serves as a primary orienting figure to a significant following of Orthodox Christians (you can call them “Orthodox fundamentalists”) where the sun rises and sets on the Master’s teachings.
This is a cruel pedestal, as it would be cruel to celebrate an environmentalist hero by starting many forest fires (in non-pyrogenic ecosystems) to celebrate by the beauty of great leaping flames. I have not read what Fr. Seraphim’s response to his pedestal actually was, but the image comes to mind of Francis of Assisi returning to his movement’s apparent success and being a lone dissent who was utterly aghast that the “success” that had been achieved was his followers’ desertion of his, and their, ever-faithful Lady Poverty.
“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.”
I would like to modify a position I strongly endorsed, albeit in a way some might call superficial.
Dorothy Sayers wrote about how, in recent centuries in the West, there has been a belief that “ideas grow rust like machines and need to be replaced.” And that deliberately crude image spoke to me. Ideas may be wrong from the very beginning and need to be replaced; but the quote “an idea whose time has come” embodies something very strange. The doctrine of progress is tied to this, so that each new idea whose time has come improves the overall picture.
That much I still hold fast to, but with a caveat. I do not believe in progress (one friend summarized the academy as saying “We’ve progressed enough not to believe in progress”), but I do believe that fashion exists and can sometimes have a spooky effect. Mathematicians are well-advised, if they find a solution to a major unsolved problem, to submit it as soon as possible. The core reason is that it is a historically common phenomenon for a question in mathematics to be unsolved for quite some time, and then be solved by several mathematicians independently. And on this count, mathematics would be expected to be perhaps the least Zeitgeist-shaken academic discipline. There are some things that change over time; the standard of mathematical rigor was rising when I was studying it, and the history of the parallel postulate in geometry shows a now-respected mathematician as working out an entirely valid non-Euclidean geometry and then publishing work under the title Euclid Freed From Every Flaw, is not today’s mindset. However, as a general rule, theorems do not go out of fashion. And still mathematics, relatively free from Zeitgeist fashions as it might be, manifests a phenomenon where major problems remain unsolved for a considerable time and then simultaneously be solved by multiple mathematicians. The same has been observed in other areas as well; Nobel Prizes are given to two or three people who make the same discovery almost simultaneously, and independently.
The question of when the automobile was invented is messy and is not “Why, Henry Ford!” even if Henry Ford invented a mass production that drastically reduced the price of an automobile. There is a similar simultaneity, and I’ve read an author enumerate a dozen mechanical inventions, all of them an automobile or something like an automobile, in the West over a short period of time. Questions come into play of, “Where do you draw the line?” and there are what might be called shades of grey or judgment calls. I’m not saying that there can be no decisive resolution to these questions, but unless you settle on the oldest, incomplete candidate, answering “When was the automobile invented?” in a responsible hinges on looking at several vehicles or devices, that were automotive at least in part, and were invented in a surprisingly close interval of time.
I would like to illustrate a particular point, and clarify what modification I mean to a standard trope. Phrases like “An idea whose time have come” partly describe a pattern of trends and partly frames things in terms of progress: “An idea whose time has come” is always a gain and never a loss. By contrast, I have come to share belief in the pattern of trends, but in place of framing things as progress, I suggest they be framed in terms of fashion. No one seems to consider that “an idea whose time has come” might be a bad idea that is worse than whatever it replaces. Nor am I the first or only one to frame things in terms of fashion (though my hybrid position might be new, for all I know).
One psychiatrist recounted how the professional community once believed that divorce was so terrible to children that except in the worst and most pathological casess it was worth keeping an very unhappy marriage together so as to avoid inflicting the pain of divorce on the children. Then the psychological community said it progressed to believing that really if a marriage is Hell on earth, the children are really better off with a divorce however nasty divorce may be. Then they claimed to have progressed to realize that an unhappy marriage was horrid, but however horrid it might be on the kids, it really is best to keep the marriage together if possible. His point in this tale of heroism and magic was that the shifts that occurred, both ones he agreed with and ones he didn’t, didn’t represent progress. They represented fashion, and I could envisage him using a term I heard from a quite different figure: “the herd of free thinkers.” Progress, or what at least is labeled as progress, is really more accurately understood as current trends within “the herd of free thinkers.
An example of my own
When I was at Cambridge and my pre-master’s diploma was winding down, I was looking for a topic for a master’s thesis. I wanted to study the holy kiss, and my advisor ridiculed the question and me with it. He asked sarcastic rhetorical questions like “Can we find justification to only kiss the pretty people at church?” When I persisted, he consulted with another scholar and came back, without ridicule, saying the question was under-studied. (This is, by the way, an extreme rarity in academic theology; usually scholars try to find some vestige of unexplored turf and when they fail at that, write things like rehabilitating a founder of heresy, as the Archdruid of Canterbury has done with Arius the father of all heretics.) Furthermore, things never sat well with the department, which kept pushing my work into the pigeonhole of what German scholars called Realia, meaning physical details (other examples of questions of Realia might be what kind of arms and armor a first Christian would have seen a Roman soldier carry, and would have given shape to the words by which St. Paul closes the letter to the Ephesians, or what kind of house would provide the backdrop to Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount about putting a lamp where it will illuminate the whole house. I am not aware of any Cambridge faculty member who was open to the idea that the “divine kiss” (as St. Dionysius the Areopagite called it) might be studied under the rubric of liturgical or sacramental theology.
My desire and interest was a doctrinal study, and my advisor there, who was Orthodox, kept pushing what I was doing into an unedifying sociological study of kissing that involved a great deal of Too Much Information, with lowlights such as the assigned Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. I tried to draw a line in the sand, saying that I wanted to do “a doctrinal study.” He immediately laid down the law: “The best way to do that is to do a cultural study and let any doctrines arise.” Other help that he offered was to suggest that narrowing scope would be helpful, and suggested that it would be a good bailiwick to study “differences between Christian and Jewish understanding of kissing in the Song of Songs.” I held my tongue at saying, “That’s impressive. Not only is that not what I wanted, but that doesn’t overlap with what I wanted.” And then, two thirds of the way through the year, the department decided that my study of the holy kiss was off-topic for the Philosophy of Religion seminar that had been selected for me, and I pulled out all the stops to write, as was demanded, a vastly different Artificial Intelligence as an Arena for Magical Thinking Among Skepticsthat left all my prior thesis work as wasted.
So what’s out there? What did my research turn up?
What kind of doctrines did I pull up? Someone, perhaps with wishful thinking, who wanted the holy kiss to be important might try to attach it somewhere under the rubric of Holy Communion. The last prayer before Holy Communion does the opposite: it places Holy Communion under the heading of the holy kiss. How? “Neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss:” neither like Judas will I give you a hollow kiss, betraying this kiss and you yourself by receiving the Holy Mysteries and then not even try to live a holy life. Incidentally, although there are ancient precursors, it is remarkably recent, 20th century or possibly 19th if I recall correctly, that the ethical concern represented by “a kiss can be seductive” appears in Orthodox theology. In the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collections, the kiss that is wrong is pre-eminently a kiss like that of Judas, the kiss of betrayal which Orthodox remember by fasting on Wednesdays, and was a double-layered betrayal: a betrayal of the Lord first of all, and with it a betrayal of everything a kiss, of all things, should be. In patristic times the holy kiss was a kiss on the mouth, and this is doctrinally significant. A Psalm prayed in preparation for Communion says, “Who is this King of Glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war. Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the Lord, the King of Glory, shall enter in.” St. John Chrysostom drives home the implication: “But about this holy kiss somewhat else may yet be said. To what effect? We are the temple of Christ; we kiss then the porch and entrance of the temple when we kiss each other.” If, in my present locale, the holy kiss is three kisses on alternate cheeks, the underlying reality is unchanged: a liturgical kiss, on the cheek, is always by implication a kiss on the mouth, on the gates that receive the Lord. And indeed St. Ambrose pushes further in his remarkable letter to his sister, discussing how we can kiss Christ: part of the unfolding truth is, “We kiss Christ, then, with the kiss of communion.” There is a very tight tie between the holy kiss and Holy Communion, and while there may be much greater laxity about a closed holy kiss than a closed Chalice, according to strict interpretation of the rules a holy kiss is only ever between two canonical Orthodox Christians. In ancient times the closed holy kiss represented an additional boundary besides a closed Communion after the catechumens actually departed. But even today I have heard a priest lightheartedly say after a convert’s chrismation, “You may kiss the convert.” Something of that essence is here, even though nobody I have met makes a big deal about the enforcement of that rule. One last note here, which may be most of benefit to Catholics: In Rome, there is a sharp “do not cross” line between between the sacraments, including Holy Communion, and what are called “sacramentals”, which include the holy kiss. Sacraments are something that Christ might as well have personally etched in diamond; sacramentals are things the Church worked out that are a different sort of thing that is far below Christ’s sacraments. The Orthodox usually list seven sacraments, and they are in general recognizable in relation to the Roman list of sacraments (overall but not in every detail), but the difference between a sacrament and a sacramental is only a difference of degree, not of kind, and people can say things like, “You can say there is only one sacrament, or that there are a million of them.” If there is one sacrament, it is a Holy Communion where nothing else comes close, but the sacramental of the holy kiss is tied to Holy Communion in multiple ways and participates in its essence. My main, brief work on this topic was in fact called The Eighth Sacrament. The title is provocative, but not daring. For one final point on the holy kiss, at least one aspect of a Protestant framing on worship is that worship is something you do with your spirit; there’s a fairly strong association between worship and singing, or worship and listening to a pastor, perhaps, but worship is contained by the spirit alone. The Orthodox understanding, besides recognizing that it is not a slight to Christ to show reverence to His Mother, refers to an act of adoration that is done with spirit and body alike. As to what the act of adoration that encompasses the body, there are variations and some ambiguity, but the Greek πρσκεω refers to bowing or kissing, usually with some ambiguity as to which physical act completes the adoration. The worship due to the Lord is in some measure to kiss him, and there is a profound tie, even if there are important differences too, between worship of Christ expressed by kissing his icon, and worship of Christ expressed by kissing a fellow Orthodox Christian as so much an icon of Christ that he is defined as being built in the image of the whole Trinity. (I find such things as these loads more interested than sociological investigation of kissing as such.)
(Some people may find an irony between my efforts to study the holy kiss that Judas betrayed, and Cambridge University’s constant “improvements” to how I was approaching that study.)
But what I would point to is this: I am not, to my knowledge, a cardinal influencer in what happened. I presumably influenced someone, somewhere, but what was met with repeated hostility became something mainstream. I don’t think that I was a primary influence in that I met with people who never seemed to recognize me as a pioneer or having already made serious investigation. My suspicion is that had I never touched the matter, it would have still been explored; I may have been the first person to publicly note one particular point, that the holy kiss is the only act the Bible calls holy, but had I never investigated the topic at all, other people would have, and my suspicion is that without me the holy kiss is still a sacramental that would have been studied as doctrinally significant and seen in continuity with sacramental and liturgical theology, and that none of the dubious help I received at Cambridge (such as classifying the holy kiss as Realia and therefore not rightfully subject to direct doctrinal investigations) would have been the last word. I think my inbox has been quiet on this topic for a few years, but when I was getting people contacting me and wanting to inform me about the holy kiss, we were usually on the same page. (I do not recall any nonscholar trying to steer the conversation to fit under the heading of Realia.)
And I would suggest that this basic plot and pattern of events are more or less generic. First I was rudely dismissed, then people kept more rudely pushing my work away from what I asked explicitly, and then some years later when I had practically forgotten the discussion, I was caught off guard by people opening up conversations about the holy kiss. And I may not have “won” in the sense of acquiring a pedestal (good riddance!), but the subject was no longer met with hostility such as was first faced, and some people found it to be of interest. (I have never gotten a disrespectful response on the topic after the point where people started to contact me on the topic.)
It is my general experience that gifted and profoundly gifted people are not, in fact, unaffected by the Zeitgeist. Often they may want to challenge the Zeitgeist, but it is not characteristic to rise above it, and the more common pattern is to concentrate the Zeitgeist and to run ahead of it, perhaps getting into the game when it is greeted with hostility. In this case, I was disappointed when I realized the topic of the holy kiss had reached the status of being more or less fashionable. I felt, if anything, violated that I had channelled the Zeitgeist, a Zeitgeist that had spoken through my mouth.
While the classification is essentially as irrefutable as Berkeley’s arguments, famously said to “admit no answer and produce no conviction,” I don’t find it helpful to say, “If your birthday falls before this year, you are ancient; if your birthday falls in this range, you are medieval; if your birthday falls in this range, you are a modern; if your birthday falls after that range, you are a postmodern.” Some people have noted that not only are engineers modern, but they probably do not know a postmodern, even though postmodern students are easily enough found in other fields. Speaking personally, I’ve been wary of postmodernism, but I have recognized points of overlap. I have been interested in thick description for more than a decade before I heard the term, and what I most want to know in history is “the way it really was,” which is a boilerplate postmodern desire as far as history goes. The postmodern figures I know could justifiably regard me as making an undue claim to insider status if I claimed to also be a postmodern, but I see more continuities now than I would like, or that I did before.
(I might briefly point out that “thick description” and “the way it really was” remains fundamental and guiding principles in the endeavor of this article, where a synopsis would be much easier to write, much briefer, and much easier to read. I could simply state that I pursued scholarly research into the holy kiss years before it was fashionable to do so, and that I sought a doctrinal, and sacramental or liturgical, study of the holy kiss where a respected Orthodox scholar only saw legitimate room for a secular history of kissing. That much is true, but it is a sketched outline where my hope is to portray something in depth and full living color.)
One friend talked about how a boy entered an Orthodox altar to serve as an acolyte, and the priest brusquely told him to unvest, leave the altar, take off his tie, and come back without his tie; the stated reason was, “You are not a slave!”
This was presented as counter-cultural, and it may have been such at some point. However, it fits with another conversation where a business owner had individual contributors wear ties, managers wear a suit and tie, and the owner wore a suit and no tie. Last I seriously checked in, the professional jobseeker fashion was for men not to wear ties.
I might mention, by the way, that when something is taking credit for being countercultural, it’s usually a mainstream fashion before too long.
Last example for now: it is presented that violin-making is a “fossil trade.” This trade may be mostly or exclusively practiced by violinists; I doubt I could produce a decent violin personally unless I had enough exposure to recognize good and bad-quality violins. Possibly I could learn enough to be a luthier without developing the level of skill appropriate to public performance; but I rather guess that takes less practice to be able to perform well in public than to be in a position to make a good violin. And on that score, I met or heard of one luthier, introducing violin-making as a “fossil trade”, and then the count quickly escalated to something like half a dozen. On which point I suggest that it’s a turn in fashion, and the number of people embracing the new fashion is chiefly limited by the fact that most people have never been trained to play a violin. (I’ve never, to my recollection, heard a musician say, “I play the violin but I am not interested in becoming a luthier.”)
Icon and Idol
There is something about the theology of icons in Orthodoxy that looms so large that I missed something.
In one passage that I have never heard Orthodox quote, Herod dressed royally, gave a stunningly good speech, and the people who were listening shouted “The voice of a god and not a man!” and when he accepts this praise and fails to give God glory, God infests him with worms and kills him.
This is as good a place as any I see to introduce the distinction between an icon and an idol. And please do not see the distinction in terms of “If an Orthodox Christian makes it with paint and gold on wood it is an icon, and if a Hindu makes it a statue with many arms it is an idol.” I don’t remember what they are, but I’ve heard from Hindus some very nuanced thoughts about god(s) and idols. For that matter, I don’t especially wish to discuss idols in relation to Graeco-Roman paganism, even though they, and Old Testament ancestors, form the basis for the universal Orthodox condemnation of idolatry. I wish to articulate a distinction, not from comparative religion as such, but as a distinction within Christianity.
Probably the #1 metaphorical name for icons is “windows to Heaven”, and the theology that St. John the Damascene among others articulated is that the honor paid to an icon passes on to the prototype. Honor to an icon of a saint honors the saint; honoring the saint honors Christ. While I am not aware of people using the term “icon” in reference to the saints’ lives, reading the saints’ lives is strongly encouraged for beginner and expert alike, and what it is that’s really worth reading in saints’ lives is that you see to a small degree the face of Christ, otherwise it’s not worth reading. This theology undergirds structures, and supports an understanding of the human person as made in the image of God, which I have not seen disowned in Western Christianity, but it grows on poor soil. Although terms like ‘icon’ and ‘image’ are not used in this specific passage, looking on and treating people as the image of Christ is given a chillingly sharp edge in Matthew 25:
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, â”Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?” And the King shall answer and say unto them, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, “Depart from me, ye who are damned, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.” Then shall they also answer him, saying, “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not serve thee?” Then shall he answer them, saying, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”
The damned are damned because they failed to love and honor the icon of Christ, and the insult might have as well been made to Christ personally. That’s how he felt it.
With all of these things said, and I am really not trying to shoehorn a place to save the Greek fathers’ teaching that we should become divine, Herod was not destroyed because he allowed himself to divine honor. He was destroyed because, receiving divine honor, he failed to pass it on to God whom it properly belonged to. Given the choice between letting honor pass on through him to the creator, and keeping it to himself, he chose to stop the honor from rising higher, and that is the difference between being an icon and being an idol.
Orthodox who like me (or for that matter Orthodox who don’t like me, but are choosing to be polite) pay a respect whose contours are set by the Orthodox theology of icon and image: I am respected for being made in the image of God, not for being godlike on my own. Respect for my writing has drawn, if I may mention my most-cherished compliment, “You write verbal icons!” The respect paid to my writing is a subordinate respect to works that salute One greater than them, and the respect paid to me is a subordinate respect that salutes One greater than me. I am respected for being to some degree divine by grace (people wanting a Biblical proof-text may cite 2 Peter 1:4 which dares to call us “partakers of the divine nature”); I am not in any sense honored as being a god in some sense independent of the Creator or stopping with me instead of referring glory to the Creator. Evangelicals often like my works, and while they may not have the doctrine of the image of God defined in such articulate and sharp contours, there is some continuity in respect I have received. Specifically, it is practically always a subordinate respect, and my works are praised as drawing them to God. There is a tale, true or apocryphal, of a visiting African pastor who came to the U.S., and after observing things, said, “It is amazing what you can do without the Holy Spirit!” Evangelicals have never praised me for being great without needing God’s help, and if they did it would most likely be sarcasm or a stinging rebuke, almost on par with saying that something is “more important than God.” Among both Orthodox and Evangelicals, whatever the differences may be, to be great is to be permeated by God’s grace.
I will comment briefly, for the sake of completeness, on one point where I am just a beginner. The saints do not seek ordinate human honor; they usually try to dodge all human honor at all whether or not that honor is ultimately referred to God, and some among them have immediately left town, without any sort of modern vehicle, if that is what it took to dodge human honor after their gifts had been discovered. I am not at the stature to do that, at least not yet. However, hostility and abuse come quickly nipping at the heels of honor, and I am trying to progressively restrain searching for human honor or accepting unsought human honor. My author bio has become progressively shorter, and at present the main glory I claim is that of a member of the royal human race. The more time passes, the more I think that seeking human honor is a fundamental error, a way of “drinking out of the toilet” that deserves a section in A Pet Owner’s Rules as something that, if you know what you’re doing, you really, really don’t want to do. On that score, I count myself fortunate that, while I was a forerunner who ran ahead of the Zeitgeist in study of the holy kiss as a legitimate matter of doctrinal study, I didn’t acquire a pedestal in reward for my endeavors. That’s about as much winning as I’d ask.
And there is one other point to mention: usually, people who have respected me have respected me like some minor icon. I had guessed, with excusable but near-disastrous naïvete, that if in the future I am put on a pedestal, I will receive more of the same and I will serve as an icon in not the best position. Now I believe it far more likely for me to put on a pedestal as an idol rather than an icon. The Church does legitimately place people on pedestals as icons; I believe that the practice of choosing bishops from the pool of monks is, without judgement against the married, a good monastic may have a fighting chance of surviving and functioning effectively in an ordeal where the title of “Bishop” has a job description of, “Whole burnt-offering without remainder.”
The Orthodox Church can, at least sometimes, put an icon on a pedestal…
…but the Zeitgeist only knows one trick: putting an idol on a pedestal, adapting an icon to function as an idol if need be.
A cloud the size of a man’s hand
St. James, the brother of the Lord, wrote, “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.” This is extraordinarily terse compared to the Old Testament narrative, albeit completely faithful. But I would like to give just one vignette not unfolded in this shorthand reminder about the story: it has been a long time since it rained, and there is a deep famine, and there has been an ongoing rivalry with multiple dimensions between the wicked King Ahab and St. Elias. There is the great contest with the prophets of Ba’al; St. Elias, who has suggested that (in modern terms) “Maybe Ba’al isn’t answering your hours of frenzied prayer because he just can’t come into the phone now,” asks that his one prophet’s sacrifice to the God of Israel be drenched with excessive /mounts of water. (Saltwater, perhaps: freshwater may have been extremely hard to come by, and rare enough to make a terrible famine, but any time during the famine you could go to the Red Sea and take as much particularly salty saltwater as you could carry.) After Ba’al had already failed to get off his porcelain throne, St. Elias makes one single prayer and calls down fire from Heaven that consumes his entire dripping sacrifice.
That story is famous; but there is a slightly less famous dramatic detail that is worth noting. St. Elias told his servant to go and look out by the sea. The servant comes back, and says, “I see nothing.” St. Elias, who had told the servants to pour water on his sacrifice again after it was already quite wet, and then for good measure asked for water to be poured a third time on already drenched it again. But for the servant, he goes six times reporting nothing, anad the seventh time he barely says, “I see a cloud the size of a man’s hand.” At that point St. Elias sends his servant to tell King Ahab to get in his chariot and get back to his castle before he would be trapped in mire by the deluge.
If you are profoundly gifted, and you think of or take a position that is attacked and ridiculed beyond due measure (and, honestly, make a good allowance for due measure), it is my suspicion that the opinion you are ridiculed for will be the fashion in 5-10 years, or longer if it’s something profound. I try to respectfully welcome visitors to my website, although some people have clearly stated that I have failed in that measure, but I pay particular attention to profoundly gifted who contact me, not because they are better than other visitors, but out of survival instinct (and recognition of a shared experience, a bit like another actor who had the cumbersome side of equal fame would be on the same page as Leonard Nimoy about sneaking into restaurants by the kitchen, and that I had better therefore try to listen hospitably). Those emails usually provide an advisory that’s a bit like insider trading, though I have never made a financial decision that was influenced by the outcome of such conversation. They, in essence, by running ahead of the Zeitgeist, let you know what’s coming. And the profoundly gifted I meet usually see something that I don’t.
Chris Langan, considered the most gifted member in almost all ultra-high-IQ society (or some might give that accolade to Paul Cooijmans), has worked on a CTMU or “Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe”, pronounced “cat-moo” by insiders, with homepage at CTMU.org, which I don’t agree with: one conversation helped me see the need to write works such as “Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution after I left him flabbergasted by saying I was not interested in cosmology. (Note: In the years after I wrote “Religion and Science” Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution, things have shifted almost to a point that alleging some opponent of “scientism” is in and of itself halfway there to, “A hit, a very palpable hit!” And again I am not a prime actor.) However, I am inclined to regard Chris Langan’s CTMU as significant on the evidence by how hard people fight against it alone. I know that some profoundly gifted individuals suffer from mental illness, and in fact I believe mental illness is significantly more likely among the profoundly gifted than otherwise. He is called a crackpot, but meeting him face-to-face and conversing via email do not give me any reason for agreeing with the label about him as a person. Every interaction I’ve had with him has had him looking brilliant and in touch with reality. It’s possible enough to be brilliant, in touch with reality, and wrong, but I have not heard of any critic recognize one point which is consensus under the tail end of the high-IQ community: that he is bright such as few people ever set eyes on. Characteristic of the reception of the CTMU is that its main page on Wikipedia was deleted, but its CTMU Wikipedia talk page is still there. Possibly the CTMU does not lend itself to experimental investigation: but we live in a time where superstring theory is very much in vogue, and where we are very hard-pressed to find a feasible or even infeasible experiment where superstring theory predicts a measurably different outcome from the best predecessor theories, and it is genuinely provocative to say “Physics is an empirical, hard science and as such is not validly practiced without claims being accountable to being tested by experiment.” And maybe we should remember, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” If we are going to join in the euphoria about superstring theory, perhaps we would do well to give the Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe a fair hearing. The main reason I believe it is significant is that it is ridiculed well beyond the hostility that greeted my study of the holy kiss. He is consistently and repeatedly dismissed as a sheer crackpot, but people do not spend anywhere near that much energy dismissing genuine crackpots as crackpots. I continue to believe in the conceptual framework’s significance even if I do not subscribe to it.
Not all clouds in the sky are tied to giftedness. I saw a major step towards Nazification in Amazon, and then Apple, drop anything bearing a confederate flag faster than a hot potato. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus made quite an opposite point in saying that if a Klu Klux Klansman wanted to injure black America, he could scarcely do better than promote Afrocentrism. Here, it may be said that white racism has had a bad name for quite a long time. That doesn’t mean that it was ever nonexistant, but most whites at least tried to not be racist, or become less racist. Here it might be said that if you want “white nationalism” (great job on the layer of whitewash, but befriend a “white nationalist” on Facebook and your feed will have Nazi flags and news articles with comments fantasizing about “[insert alternate spelling of the N-word]” criminals being lynched) to attract droves of new followers, and make white racism respectable in many places where it is not at all respectable now, you can scarcely do better than to continue flipping the bird at white descendents of the Confederacy. The significance of Amazon dropping displays of the Confederate flag is not that some goods were delisted or that the censorship affected some people’s income; the significance is essentially an announcement of a new direction in policy, as illustrated in a very first installment. I don’t know who’s safe as this enlightening policy goes; I have serious difficulties believing it will remain confined to black-white relations in race, or that purges will remain only in the South. I don’t consider myself safe, and I honestly am not sure that even people trying to be politically correct are safe. At the French Revolution, there was serious scope creep in the public enemies who were sent to the guillotine, a monstronsity that at the end was killing cleaning maids and children seven or eight years old with people standing by the foot of the guillotine to be sprayed by the enemies of states’ blood and eat their still-living flesh. And this happened in an educated Republic. The present removal of venerated public statues is not a final installment; it is if anything a reminder that the overhaul is just beginning. But there was a cloud in the sky the size of a man’s hand when Amazon dropped the Confederate flag. I have come to believe some non-Southern perspectives, that yes, the Confederacy was fighting for States’ rights, but the States’ rights were chiefly the right to maintain slavery. But the moral I take is not that white Southerners are being asked to make a few adjustments; the moral I take is that we would be well advised to read “The Cold Within” and that those of us who are not white Southerners should not say “This does not concern us.” The classic poem “The Cold Within” reads:
THE COLD WITHIN
Six humans trapped by happenstance
In bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood
Or so the story’s told.
Their dying fire in need of logs
The first man held his back
For of the faces round the fire
He noticed one was black.
The next man looking’cross the way’
Saw one not of his church
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.
The third one sat in tattered clothes.
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?
The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy shiftless poor.
The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight.
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.
The last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.
Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without
They died from the cold within.
It’s not often that I quote an ecumenist poem as authoritative. In this case the point is universally human, and while I believe in an Orthodox closed communion, I believe that nothing that is truly human should be foreign to me.
A change in experience
It was sometime in the past few months that I began asking pastoral questions about what to do with someone who is in awe of me.
The motivation and intended nuance, which I did not end up making clear, could be outlined as follows. Years back, my Mom invited neighbors across the street to some minor social function. They hesitantly said, “No,” not because the suggestion was unwelcome but because it would create a scheduling conflict, and they wanted to know, in effect, whether their “No” had alienated her. She was pretty quick to answer, “This is valuable!” She explained that now that she knew they would be willing to say “No” to a suggestion that would be less that ideal for them, or a scheduling conflict, or… Now part of this was politeness or a gracious response, but I believe she genuinely meant what she said about knowing they would be willing to say “No” when they should say “No,” and she was genuinely grateful for a safety-net of “I can extend an invitation and not worry about whether they’ll give a ‘Yes’ they shouldn’t be giving.” And in that framework, I was motivated by a difficulty. Most visitors have and maintain boundaries. Not that everything is perfect, but my visitors have been willing both to say “Yes” and “No,” and in general do not seem to worry about dealing a capital insult if they happen to say “No.”
Boundaries matter, even if I’ve voiced serious objections to Cloud and Townsend, and I felt myself in the uncomfortable position of negotiating with someone who was defenseless before me, who was too far below me in his conception to express a boundary, who would only answer “Yes” no matter how destructive a “Yes” would be, and where any knowledge that I sometimes sin and I am sometimes wrong exists only on a purely academic plane. I know there are cultures where this kind of dynamic is normal and something people can deal with, but I felt really uncomfortable and really at a loss.
The pastoral advice I received was helpful, particularly in a reminder that people that, to a one, shout “Hosanna!” and spread palm branches are entirely capable of shouting, to a one, “Crucify him!” five days later. And in Christ’s case the earlier accolades were accurate, and higher accolades would have been justified. In my case the “Hosanna!” is in fact not justified, and as I was reminded of the toxic nature of all human praise. (I am looking forward to the possibility in monasticism of being under the authority of an Abbot who treats everyone with deep respect, but might not give a single compliment, or at least not to me.)
And things like this, though varied and though I wish to refrain from providing thick description’s details out of concern for others’ privacy, have become a consistent fixture. Though varied in detail, the attempt is to place me on some minor pedestal, on terms that are unreal to me, and probably unreal to me because they are unreal to God. I regard it as very fortunate that the inundations of compliments have, by God’s grace, appeared utterly unreal to me. Future temptations will probably be more subtle.
Clearing away a distraction: NF goggles
David Kiersey’s Please Understand Me (I prefer the first edition to the more than the second) is one introduction to classical temperament theory. The book has hypocrisy as well as strengths; it is eminently nonjudgmental in describing one temperament’s liability to promiscuity, or another doing whatever their system of ideas calls for, or another’s doing what their spiritual path calls for, but when one temperament tends towards chastity or fidelity, it is described in language that is at once clinical, and the most degrading language in the entire book: metaphors are used as a basis to this temperament with seeing sex as basically a merely economic commodity, or something like being physically dirty or clean. Classic postmodern hypocrisy here.
However, there is one particular point that I wanted to pull: the “iNtuitive Feeling” or “NF” type, which is ascribed what might be the most striking characteristic in the book: they appear to other people, without any effort on their part to cause this, to be whatever the other person would most like them to be. People look at them through rosy “NF goggles,” if you will. I think I can usually detect NF’s, albeit indirectly: I am drawn to another person, especially women, to a degree that is out of step with that person’s attractiveness and the social setting, even though there is very little I have directly observed as signs of what is going on (the one cue I notice is that about half the time they appear close to crying). My guess is that this boils down to a layer of nonverbal communication that is possibly very subtle, even if it is still very effective and does not apply, or applies far less, to email and other basic electronic communication that flattens nonverbal signals beyond emoticons.
A question might be raised of, “How little or much of an NF are you?” Before Orthodoxy I considered myself to be at the boundary between “NT” (“iNtuitive Thinking”) and NF, called NX, and wanting to shift towards NF. In Orthodoxy I found that silence that I desired personally was not my particular personal trait, but something normative, and the Orthodox Church’s hesychasm or silence is bigger than what I had. Similarly, the Orthodox Church out-NFed me by making normative observations like, “The longest journey we will ever take is the journey from our mind to our heart.” In both cases the Orthodox Church’s answer was to challenge me to go further. And that raises at very least the possibility that I am close enough to (or far enough into) NF territory that some people see me through NF goggles.
I admit this as a possibility, and furthermore a possibility I think is at least probable. There is always some ambiguity and I do misunderstand some social setting, but there have been face-to-face encounters where someone seemed to really like me as something I wasn’t. I’ve worked hard to write well and I’ve received some very rosy compliments, but usually the reader and I are on the same page about what a particular work is doing. (Most strands of criticism are also usually something I can recognize as a response to something I wrote.) My writing is usually not taken to be whatever the reader would like it to be. So while I admit a likely NF layer to people drawn to me in person, the majority of the encounters where I’ve been offered a pedestal have been online, with people who have not met me face-to-face, or electronic communication that preserves nonverbal information such as Skype’s offerings. So the question of whether my nonverbal communication is enchanting is largely beside the point. Whether the answer is true or false, the question is irrelevant.
So why, if my website hasn’t grown any major new features for quite some time, why would it be drawing fundamentally different response? The answer is simple, and one I should have predicted: I’ve run ahead of the Zeitgeist, whether I had the faintest intent of doing so or not. Whether or not it’s the same article, some of what I wrote may draw people more effectively now than when they were fresh and new.
And the question of a pedestal weighs on my mind. Advertisements run repeatedly because people don’t fall for a product the first time they see an advertisement targeted to them; they fall after repeated familiarity. Only humility can pass through certain snares: and I am scarcely humble. I see the possibility that, some time after I have seen five or so clouds the size of a man’s hand, a deluge will break forth. And I would really prefer the storm hit me when I am on Mount Athos, as a novice under the authority of an Elder, who does not care how smart I am and who sees that I have the same needs as many other novices, such as humility and obediences that build humility. Possibly I will not escape the deluge by getting to Mount Athos before it breaks: but I’ll take my chances with a loving Elder rather than my own wisdom.