I haven’t been able to trace my sources at all, but I vaguely remember a book like Good to Great talking about a company like Intuit making a decision for a product like Quicken, a decision, not just to have a collection of really nice tools, but to declare war on the pencil.
The core insight behind ?Intuit? declaring war on the pencil when it made ?Quicken? was that accounting and finance types using accounting software would also use pencil and paper, and possibly a calculator. The company’s decision was to do user research, find out when and why finance users resorted to using pencil and paper, and then implement improvements to eliminate the need to resort to pencil and paper.
(?Intuit? has also been credited with a similar feat in making a lighter and cheaper version that was not just a more feature-limited version of mainstream accounting software, but would make sense to non-accountants who did not know all the technical terms as one would expect of finance and accounting professionals using the version of ?Quicken? made for accounting and finance professionals. Hence the change in terms to a dirt-simple “money in” and “money out.” This is an additional feat of user research and knowing your audience.)
I am interested in what might be called a “neo-old-fashioned mindfulness,” and an older part of this project relates to looking at your watch more than is necessary, an ancestor to “phubbing,” or snubbing someone socially by looking at your phone. I do not seek a new project, but articulate how we can continue an age-old Western pursuit of mindfulness with a few nuances updated to be mindful when using technologies not around when this aspect of manners came to be.
In a martial arts class, the teacher commented, “Set your foot down because you want to, not because you need to.” This was in reference to a swinging kick that started with picking up your leg from behind you and ended with setting it down in front. And in fact there is a difference between moving so that you have to set your foot down or else lose your balance, and moving so that you set your foot down because you choose to do so.
The difference is illuminating.
Face-threatening behavior and basically rude behavior
When I was taking Wheaton College’s “linguistics and anthropology boot camp for missionaries,” one theme that was underlined was the concept of “face-threatening behavior.” The core concept in face-threatening behavior is behavior that could cause the other party to lose face, and it is normally polite to try to soften or remove the danger of causing the other party to lose face. The next time the lecturer was asked a question by someone in the audience, he pointed out the asker’s politeness behavior: before asking the question directly, he offered some kind words to the person he was addressing. The social subtext? “I am asking you a question, but not because you’re a bad lecturer, and I don’t want to make you lose face.” In other words, politeness leads people to usually try and avoid getting egg on someone else’s face.
I remember visiting with a friend of about my age, some years back, where my friend had asked me to look at a printer. I looked at it briefly, but didn’t immediately see how to fix it. I then apologetically asked if I could call my brother, who worked at a well-treated internal help desk. The social message? “I’m doing something that is basically rude, but I don’t want to be rude to you.” And this was when I was acting entirely out of concern for my friend. I had made a first approach to a difficulty he asked me to look at, and when that didn’t resolve the issue, I made a sensible second approach. However, my behavior was an example of how to maintain politeness while doing something that is basically rude: calling and talking with someone else on my phone when I was visiting him.
On another level, I remember a post-graduation visit to a well-liked professor who, as we were talking, glanced at his clock and then apologized, saying that he looked at the clock because he was surprised it was dark so soon. This was a graceful recovery from a minor social blunder: needlessly looking at his clock, which is an example of basically rude behavior. When Madeleine l’Engle briefly states that Mr. Jenkins One “looked at his watch,” this is a social shorthand to say that Mr. Jenkins One was tired with the present social situation, was wishing it would be over and he could be doing something else, perhaps anything else, and that he wondered how long it would continue to drag on and on. And the professor I was visiting, who has a profound ability to enjoy and be present to practically anyone, made a social recovery after a behavior that carries a message of “I wish this conversation were over.”
Mindfulness and manners
Mindfulness as we use the term today derives from Buddhism, where Right Mindfulness is part of what in Buddhism is called “the Eightfold Noble Path,” and what in classic Western philosophy would be called cardinal or hinge virtues. (A “cardinal” or “hinge” virtue is not just a virtue, but a virtue that others hinge on, cardinal being Latin for “hinge,” with a cardinal virtue being a sort of gateway drug to further virtue. The “four-horsed chariot” of the cardinal virtues of classical antiquity lists courage, classically called “fortitude” or today “grit,” justice, wisdom, and moderation, to which Christian Tradition has added faith, hope, and love, and perhaps implicitly, humility.) Now Buddhism’s Eightfold Noble Path may be a different list of cardinal virtues than those in Western philosophy, and the two may or may not be two equivalent ways of cutting up the same pie. This question need not concern us here.
Different traditions have different lists of virtues, and it does not take any particularly great stretch of the imagination for a Westerner interested in virtue to recognize, for instance, India’s ahimsa, or not causing at least needless harm, as a virtue, and perhaps recognize it as a profound virtue and a cardinal virtue. It has also in my experience not been particularly difficult to get Western Christians to see mindfulness as a virtue, at least in some other tradition’s way of cutting up the pie.
However, this is not because they do not see mindfulness as an obligation. It is because they see the obligation as falling under the heading of manners rather than moral virtue.
A friend I mentioned earlier talked about how decades back, when Walkmans were eating tapes, about how his mother or grandmother had commented that people running with Walkmans on were not paying due attention to their surroundings. I’m not entirely clear how much our society’s concept of manners extends beyond treatment of other people (perhaps manners covers being gentle with your friend’s pets, or at very least leaving them alone if they’re not bothering you), but there is some sense in her remark that you owe attentiveness to your surroundings whether or not there are other people in the picture, and perhaps even that “being off in your own little world” is another name for Hell.
I am not specifically interested in establishing that mindfulness should be thought of as a department of manners, nor am I interested in establishing that mindfulness is a department of virtue. In the interest of not holding my cards too close to my vest, I think it is mostly in an area where the heart of manners meets virtue, and I am inclined to regard it, as I am interested in virtues, as a virtue. However, this is not a point I am interested in establishing. It could be argued that if you owe attentiveness, meaning mindfulness, to nearby rocks and trees as well as other people, it is a virtue rather than just manners as conventionally understood, but possibly some reader will find in this article itself solid reasons to believe mindfulness is manners first and foremost and should not in the first instance be lumped in with virtues. I am genuinely not interested in the question.
However, I will remark, as curiously interesting, that while I’ve seen attention to mindfulness blanketing the air and I have been invited to share in mindfulness exercises, not one of the mindfulness practices I have seen talks about old-fashioned manners to pay attention to others and the situation. Mindfulness is discussed as a Far Eastern virtue or discipline. I have never heard it connected to old-fashioned Western manners.
Fr. Tom Hopko’s famous (to Orthodox) 55 Maxims include:
Be always with Christ.
Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings. Cut them off at the start.
Be polite with everyone.
Live a day, and a part of a day, at a time.
Do your work, then forget it.
Be awake and be attentive.
These at least overlap with mindfulness; when I spoke to one martial artist heavily influenced by Buddhism and quoted, “Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings,” he said, “That’s mindfulness!”
Fr. Tom never uses the word “mindfulness,” but he calls for politeness to “everyone” and to be attentive, and it would at least be consistent with his call for unqualified politeness to say “When you are exercising, be attentive to your surroundings rather than using the time to be off in your own little world.” And I believe there are several maxims of his that a mindfulness practitioner would rightly interpret as being mindfulness or overlapping with mindfulness. And, while Fr. Tom is Eastern Orthodox and perhaps praying for all of us from Heaven, his 55 maxims are written almost entirely on terms the West should be able to make sense of, and the incredible number of search results for “fr tom hopko 55 maxims” attest that he has written something simple that people can connect to.
Manners are much more important, and much more than arcana about which is the salad fork. “The fork goes to the left, and the knife guards the spoon,” is a particular alphabet and language in which manners are translated. It is at the exterior of manners that, under some circumstances, you could be given a bowl of water to rinse your fingers in before eating. A much deeper glimpse into manners is afforded in that a distinguished visitor to a Queen picked up his finger bowl and then drunk it, then Her Majesty picked up her finger bowl and then drunk it, and then every person seated around the table picked up their finger bowls and drunk them.
Manners, at least according to older generations and according to our conversations about manners with prior generations, has a great deal to do with paying attention to other people. It was both manners and mindfulness if Boomers and Gen X’s teachers told us not to pass notes and throw paper airplanes in class, perhaps with exceptions for e.g. the last day of school, but the fact that this may have made life easier for the teacher is incidental to teachers using humble gradeschool arithmetic classes to teach a major life lesson, and a major life lesson that is not only for dealing with authorities. I remember talking to one friend with a spine of steel about children who do not respect adults, and the biggest takeaway I took from the conversation is not that children who do not respect adults grind down adult patience. It was that children who do not respect adults can hardly benefit from adult help, and it is far easier to do something that will benefit a child who respects adults than one who is hostile and disrespectful.
In Madeleine l’Engle’s day, needless attention to a watch or clock was the go-to device to avoid practicing mindfulness for a time. It changed and told you where you are. This pint of beer that Boomers tried not to drink too many of has been replaced by a pint of rum in the smartphone, and a pint of weed in the smartwatch and its successors. Mr. Jenkins One looked at his plain old pre-digital watch, probably one without a second hand, while kids now enjoy (or are bored with) a virtual acid trip quickly surfing from one smartphone app to another.
If we care about mindfulness, an excellent starting point is to drink deeply of what we can learn about manners especially from Boomers while we still can.
My own rather counter-cultural technology choices
Some people seek great merit in being counter-culture. I do not think counter-culture is too great an index of merit, and not just because I believe some countercultures, such as the Klu Klux Klan, are evil incarnate. I have sought, even if I have so far not achieved my goal, to reach life on Orthodox turf where I will not be working out a private heresy in counterculture. None the less, I believe that many of my most helpful technology choices amount to counterculture, whether or not I have the faintest desire to be counter-cultural.
When I was in high school, and for far longer, I made it a matter of pride not to wear a watch. It helped me evade, for a certain age, the tyranny of the clock. Since then I have worked professionally where late is unacceptable, and I’ve been bitten by the personal information management and logistics bug; I have my own system for keeping track of calendar appointment, tasks, etc., so at a glance I can see a month or more of scheduled events and when they are scheduled for. And now I own an Apple Watch.
Any freedom I have from compulsively checking phone, email, or watch is a freedom on the other side of needing to deal with logistics.
But a funny thing happened along the way.
I’ve almost exclusively used the solar watch face because, while it may be beautiful, it is less distracting than the face of my industrial strength Pathfinder watch, which changes every second and shows patterns in the numbers (to a mathematician, 11:23:58 looks familiar). I have it set to a smaller analog clock face display within the solar face because from childhood I’ve found analog clocks harder to read than digital. (If analog clocks were easier for me, I would have the digital display, and if I had the option to turn off the inset clock besides the outer solar display, I would turn it off.)
Taking a cue from Humane Tech, I have dug around in “Accessibility” settings and set the watch face to grayscale. It’s beautiful, and the analog clock face’s second hand, brown on blue when seen in color, blends in remarkably well. I have to strain to see it the one time I genuinely want to watch a second hand’s sweep. I also found, under “Display and Brightness,” how to turn off one of the key reasons I purchased an Apple Watch 5: its “Always on” display. It now takes just a little more work to check my watch, supplemented by wearing an oversized fleece whose sleeves tend to cover my watch face.
I’ve also turned on the hourly chime, also an accessibility feature. This reminds me to check the clock once an hour, and relieves me of having to constantly check. If I need to check email once an hour (my preference is to check it once a day), I don’t need to check either my watch or my email compulsively; my watch will remind me on the hour.
Furthermore, I set alarms for when I need to do something. Besides appointments and things like taking medication, I have followed a practice recommended by sleep advocates and set an alarm for when I should go to bed and not when I should get up.
I would briefly pause and acknowledge one objection to the technique above, which is that doing things according to a preset timer and quite possibly stopping when you have momentum going is not as good as working on tasks for as long as they naturally take. For those no ancient or modern watch is needed. However, while I believe working on something for however long it takes to unfold naturally is often better than working for a fixed length of time set without knowledge of how things will unfold, I believe that use of intelligently set alarms is better than clock-watching. (One further aspect of intelligent use of alarms is to have two alarms for something: one five or ten minutes before, meaning when you look at your watch because of the “early warning” alarm, it’s time to start wrapping up; and one at the exact time, meaning it’s time to stop.)
I have almost completely unplugged logistic need to check my watch unprovoked, and I may have the most unobtrusive, if still most expensive, watch I’ve owned. Every non-Apple watch I’ve owned had a digital display, and most recent ones have been gadgety (I have owned three Pathfinders). However, the gadgetry is almost always there if I summon it, and I can take shortcuts by twiddling with complications.
The Apple Watch is designed and marketed as the next level of integrating digital and everyday life, and in my opinion that is not a wise thing to be wishing for at all.
However, it is also powerful enough that judicious choices mean it can be tamed into unobtrusiveness further than any previous watch I’ve owned.
I’m glad for my Apple Watch. For as long as I’ve owned a timepiece, my Apple Watch is the biggest friend of mindfulness to grace my wrist yet.
A few closing words
I would recall a few words from Seeing Through Native Eyes. The main speaker recounted a visit to Kalihari bushmen, who retain hunter-gatherer life unhindered today, and an elder asked him in reference to a device, “Is that a timepiece?”
He said, “Yes.”
The elder said, “Then I don’t like it.”
He said, “Why not?”
The elder said, “Every time you look at it, the next thing you do is rude.”
If you want mindfulness, cultivate an inexhaustible interest in manners.
(Note: Some of this is old and some of this is new. I’m not seeking to be original.)
Trust technology about as far as you can throw it, and remember that you can’t throw software or the web.
When facing a situation, ask, “What would a Boomer do?”
If your priest is willing, ask for pastoral guidance in slowly but steadily withdrawing from technologies that hurt you. (Don’t try to leap over buildings in one bound. Take one step at a time, and one day at a time.)
Practice the spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, generosity, church attendance, the sacraments, silence, etc.
Use older technologies.
Fast from technologies some of the time, especially on fasting days.
Use your phone only for logistics, never for games, entertainment, or killing time. (You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.)
Unplug your intravenous drip of noise, little by little. It may be uncomfortable at first, but it’s worth it.
Choose face-to-face meetings over Zoom meetings if you have a choice, and Zoom over any instant messaging.
Consider screen time, and multitasking, to be a drain on the mindfulness we are seeking from the East because we have rejected it in the West.
Turn off all phone notifications you have a live option to do.
Look at your phone when it rings or buzzes. Do not check your phone unprovoked every five minutes to see if you missed a text.
When you are reading on the web, don’t just scan the page. Read it, like a paper book, slowly.
When you type, type full words, not txtisms.
Don’t trade your adequate, existing, working gadgets for the latest and hottest gadget.
Set a fixed bedtime, and then lights out is lights out.
Keep and charge your phone in some room that is away from your bedroom.
If you use porn, stop. If you find yourself unable to stop, bring it to confession, and seriously consider XXXchurch.com.
Do not store up treasures on earth, but own and use technology only so far as it advances the Kingdom of Heaven.
Live by a Silicon Rule of, “What technologies do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?” Steve Jobs, for instance, gave his kids walls of paper books and animated discussion, and so far as I am aware no iPads.
Shop in real, local stores, even a local Wal-Mart, rather than making Amazon your first port of call.
Hang the fashions. Buy only what you need.
When you want to go shopping like some feel-good sacrament, do not buy it. You may buy it after you’ve let go of coveting after it and probably let go of buying it at all, and not before.
Limit your consumption of TED talks, and recognize them along psychology as something of a secular religion. (But if you need help, get help, without fear or shame.)
Write snailmail letters, preferably with your own handwriting.
Recognize that from the Devil’s perspective, Internet is for porn—and he may have helped inspire, guide, and shape its development.
Expect Amazon and Google Books to delist priceless treasures. (This is already happening.)
Cultivate the virtues.
Cultivate social skills, especially for face-to-face.
If your conscience and applicable law permit, maybe consider owning and learning to use a gun. It’s safer for everyone to have most criminals and some law-abiding citizens be armed than only have criminals be armed.
Seek theosis in the acquisition of the Spirit.
When shopping, use a debit card before a credit card, and use cash before either if you have a choice. Giving away paper bills and wondering what to do with change is a partial deterrent to buying things you do not need.
Never form an identity around the brands you patronize, and do not adopt a personal brand.
If you have the luxury, check email once per day. If your job or obligations do not permit a literal once per day checking of email, check it as often as you must. (If that is once per hour, don’t keep checking your watch, but set an hourly alarm bell to remind you.)
Limit new technological intrusions into your life.
Drop it and pay attention to the person you’re with.
Keep good posture and take steps to avoid the diseases of civilization. Some approaches that have been taken to all be important include using Paleo diet (with fasts, eating vegetables in lieu of grain and saving bread for ceremonial purposes) and exercise, have a balanced ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids, get real sleep, have engaging activities, and have social interactions.
Do not be surprised if you live to see the Antichrist rise to power.
Learn survival skills.
Recognize that we are already in an apocalyptic singularity.
Recognize that it will be easier to get the people out of the cyber-quarantine than to get the cyber-quarantine, our new home, out of the people.
Keep a reasonable amount of cash available, at home or in a money belt.
To my parents John and Linda— I owe you more than words can say.
The state of psychology
Martin Seligman, a giant in the psychological community, kicked off a major TED talk by talking about how a TV station wanted a sound bite from him, and it should be one word. He said, “Good.” Then they decided that as the president of the American Psychological Association he was a figure of such stature that they would let him have two words, and he said, “Not good.” Finally, they decided he was of such stature that he would be allowed three words, and his three words were, “Not good enough.”
What he was getting at was essentially as follows: clinical psychology had a goal which was remarkably well accomplished: the complete classification of behavioral health conditions, along with effective psychiatric treatment and psychotherapy. He didn’t really underscore the magnitude and implications of this goal; apart from the fact that public figures know they at least need to act humble publicly, sometimes greatness brings real humility and he was trying to lead people to see there was more to ask for than just getting someone to feel OK, and he did not suggest that clinical psychology is the kind of tool that lets people of all kinds to thrive in every way. He called for a positive psychology to help people thrive, have fulfilling and delightful living, and enable high talent not to go to waste. And the point that I know him for is his calling for positive psychology.
What is systematic theology? What is mystical theology? What is positive theology?
One distinction between Eastern Orthodoxy and Rome is that in Rome, all theology is systematic theology, and in Orthodoxy, all theology is mystical theology. This much is true to point out, however it invites confusion.
Thomas Aquinas, were he alive today, couldn’t cut it for “publish or perish” academia. He is revered as one of the greatest giants in history, but he would not obviously be welcome as an academic today. While there are many ideas in his Summa Theologiae, few or any have the faintest claim to originality. Some people, including me, don’t think that a single original idea is to be found. Others think that there are a few, very few: I have not read anyone attribute even a dozen original ideas in his quite enormous work. But what he did provide was a system: an organized set of cubbyholes with a place for everything and everything in its place. And the claim that all Roman theology is systematic theology means that everything fits somewhere in the system, whether Thomas Aquinas’s or something else.
The claim that all theology in Orthodoxy is mystical theology is a different sort of claim. It says that all true theology meets a particular criterion, like saying that all true fire brings heat. It is not a claim that everything fits under some kind of classification scheme. Systematic theology as such is not allowed, and trying to endow the Orthodox Church with its first systematic theology is a way to ask the Church heirarchy for a heresy trial. “Mystical” in mystical theology means theology that is practiced, experienced, and lived. The claim to “study” a martial art can involve reading, especially at the higher levels, but if you are going to study karate, you go to a dojo and start engaging in its practices. In that sense, while books may have some place in martial arts mastery, but “studying” ninjutsu is not something you do by burying your nose in books. It is a live practice.
All theology is positive theology, and my assertion is like saying that all theology is mystical theology, and not that all theology is part of systematic theology.
As to the relationship between positive psychology and positive theology, I honestly hope for an interesting conversation with some of the positive psychology community. I do not assert that positive theology contains positive psychology as we know it, or that positive psychology contains positive theology. I do, however, wish to suggest that something interesting and real is reflected in the claim that all theology is positive theology.
A wonderful old world
I wish to make one point of departure clear in the interest of framing what I am attempting.
There is a certain sense that this work could be seen as novel; for all I know it may be the first work discussing all Orthodox theology as being positive theology, but I follow Chesterton’s footsteps here (or rather fall short of them). I am not seeking to invent a positive theology. I am in fact attempting no novelty of any sort other than a new articulation of timeless truths that are relevant to the conversation. And I am seeking to offer something better than something wonderful I invented. I want to talk about wondrous things that I believe God invented, as old as the hills.
A deliberately jarring example
What is positive in the psychology of the Orthodox Church? To get off to a good start, I would like to say “repentance from sins.” And one of my articles unfolds in Repentance, Heaven’s Best-Kept Secret.
The Philokalia says that men hold on to sin because they think it adorns them. Repentance is terrifying. It is an unconditional surrender. But once you have made that surrender, you receive a reward. You realize that you needed that sin like you need a hole in the head—and you are free of a trap. It is something like a spiritual chiropractic massage, that you walk away from in joy with a straighter spine. And in my own experience, I’m not sure I am ever as joyful as when I am repenting. And the effect is cumulative; repentance represents a rising spiritual standard of living. Repentance is like obediently showing up for your funeral, and then you get there and you have shown up for your resurrection.
Monasticism, which I discuss in A Comparison Between the Mere Monk and the Highest Bishop, represents a position of supreme privilege within the Orthodox Church. Now I love my Archbishop dearly and wouldn’t want to take him down one whit, but part of the point of the piece is that if you are given a choice between being the greatest bishop in the world and being an ordinary monk, “ordinary monk” is hands down the better choice to choose. The overriding concern in that environment is the spiritual, human profit of its members. Poverty, obedience, and chastity are all conditions to one of two routes to salvation, and however wonderful marriage may be, monasticism is even better. And as well as other terms, monasticism is spoken of as “repentance.” To live in a monastery is to work at a place that is minting spiritual money and giving all members as copious pay as possible.
The Utopia that is nowhere absent
Robert Goudzward, in Aid for the Overdeveloped West, talked about Old Testament law as representing a paradise, and part of the picture is that it represented a paradise in which it was hard to get rich. A sage in the Bible asks, “Give me neither poverty nor riches,” and there is a sense that having more and more money is not good for us as humans.
This world was created to be a paradise. The Old Covenant represented a paradise. The New Covenant represents a paradise. Marriage represents a paradise. Monasticism represents a paradise.
We were made for human flourishing, and part of what the Church attempts is to provide for each person to flourish as that person should flourish. Abbots (and everyone else) are not to colonize and clone; the authority is profound, but it is a profound authority in restoring a damaged icon—and helping the icon look like itself, not like something it isn’t. If you read the saints’ lives over time, all the saints represent Christ, but there is incredible diversity among how the saints represent Christ.
What does God ask from us?
If we look at the question of what God commands and what he requests, there is fundamental confusion in thinking God is asking us to fill his needs. God in Heaven is perfect, and has no conceivable needs except in the person of our neighbor. God makes demands of us, not to fill his needs like an incompetent therapist, but to give us what is best. St. Maximus the Confessor divides three classes of obedience: slaves, who obey out of fear, mercenaries, who obey to obtain benefits, and sons, who obey out of love. Now all obedience is in at least some sense obedience and sometimes obedience out of fear is just what the doctor ordered, but if you obey as a slave you can be saved, if you obey as a mercenary you do better, and if you obey as a son even better than that. However, none of this is a setup to fill God’s needs. The point is not that it is best for God if we obey out of love; the point is that it is best for us if we obey out of love.
A better kind of affirmation
This may come across very strangely to a psychologist who endorses affirmations, but the two main affirmations in Orthodoxy are “Christ died to save sinners, of whom I am first,” and “All the world will be saved, and I will be damned.”
Part of this stems from beliefs that I will explain but I do not ask you to subscribe to. Religion has enough of a reputation for focusing on the afterlife that it is provocative for a social gospel poster to say, “We believe in life before death.” This life is of cardinal and incomparable significance; it is a life in which inch by inch we decide whether we will embrace Heaven or Hell when our live ends and no further repentance is available. But it has also been said that birth and death are an inch apart whilst the ticker tape goes on forever, and reform is only possible before we die. What the “affirmations” (of a sort) that I have mentioned do is prepare people like plaintiffs to press forth for maximum awards in their favor. The statements are for our good, and they help before death. Furthermore, it is believed that God doesn’t do everything in our good works for us, but he allows a genuine cooperation of combined powers where we do part of it. We are told, though, that we are not to take credit for one single achievement in our life, but give all the merit to God… but come Judgment Day, all good deeds we have done our part to are reckoned as if we did them entirely ourselves and without any help from God. I do not ask you to believe this or think it makes sense, but I suggests it is a part of a picture where an overriding concern is God blessing us as much as we will accept.
Dr. Seligman’s lecture linked at the beginning of this article talked about how French vanilla ice cream tastes exquisite for the first bite, but by the time you get to the fifth or sixth bite, the flavor is gone. In the first candidate for the good life, people habituate quickly.
I have slightly opposite news about Orthodox affirmations: when you make them central to your life, the sting crumbles. Furthermore, if you see yourself as the worst sinner in a parish, or a monastery, or all prehistory and prehistory, that’s the time that real growth and even real joy appear. Orthodoxy’s affirmations unlock the door to repentance, and there is no end of treasure to be mined from that vein.
Stoicism and virtue
I’ve seen TED talks about how stoicism is being taken as some sort of ultimate power tool, and secret weapon, within the professional NFL community.
Part of my thought was, “Duh!” and with it a thought that it is a mischaracterization of philosophy to assume it’s just something for odd and eccentric people, including yours truly, who have their noses in books. Stoicism is legitimately a power tool, but it is one of many power tools that have garnished quite a following and have been as powerful to their practitioners might have been.
I have said elsewhere, “Orthodoxy is pagan. Neo-paganism isn’t,” and The Philokalia preserves the very best of pagan philosophy with its profound endowment of virtues. N.B. the same word in Greek means “virtue” and “excellence,” and if you want to help people thrive and develop giftedness, the four-horsed chariot of courage, justice, wisdom, and moderation has really quite a lot to go for it, and all the more if these are perfected by the virtues of faith, hope, and love. All of these are called “cardinal” or “hinge” virtues, meaning that not only are they good, but they are positive “gateway drugs” to other and perhaps even greater virtue.
And I would like to say one thing that the authors of The Philokalia simply can’t much of ever stop talking about. This does not seem an view of yourself that you would want to have, but I’ve had some pretty arrogant and abrasive people try pretty hard to teach me about humility. But I will say this: humility is the Philosopher’s Stone and maybe the Elixir of Life. It opens your eyes to beauty pride may not see, and I need humility in my daily living more than I need air. I’m not going to try to further argue for an unattractive virtue, but I will say that it looks tiny and constricted from the outside, and vast and spacious from the inside. And for another Chesterton name drop: “It takes humility to enjoy anything—even pride.”
If we are going to look at world traditions, the Greek term for virtue, arete also meant excellence, and arete (I both mean ‘virtue’ and ‘excellence’) represents a tradition well worth heeding. Bits and pieces have been picked up on TED talks; Stoicism is a power tool among the professional American football community, and another TED talk talks about how “grit” (also known as fortitude or courage) makes a big difference in success. But the tradition of virtue itself, and virtue philosophy, is worth attention.
I haven’t read the title, but I have read Fr. Richard John Neuhaus talk about his title The Naked Public Square, in which he argues essentially that a religiously neutral public square is an impossibility, and the attempt to produce a naked public square will, perhaps, result in a statist religion.
If serious inner work without the resources of religious tradition is a possibility, I haven’t seen it. Present psychotherapy has changed much faster than core humans have changed, and uses yoga practices from Hinduism, mindfulness of a sort (whether a traditional Buddhist would recognize Western exhiliration at mindfulness as Right Mindfulness I do not know), and a couple of other usual suspects like guided imagery (alleged to be known from Graeco-Roman times and known to some traditional medicines, although the pedigree seems to be copied and pasted across websites).
In my Asian philosophy class, I was able to sympathize with some element of almost everything that was presented. In terms of Hindu claims that inside each of us is a drop of God, I could sympathize, believing we are made in the image of God. But the one point I recoiled from is Buddhism’s anatta, or an-atman: the claim that we, and everything that “exists”, are an empty illusion. Or as Chesterton put it: “Buddhism is not a creed. It is a doubt.”
Right Mindfulness, in its context in the Buddhist Eightfold Noble Path, is a cardinal virtue, and I count that as a positive. However, I do not see the need for the West to turn to India as a maternal breast. It is a microaggression that treats Orthodox Christianity as bankrupt of resources. I also don’t like being advised to practice yoga. I am already participating in a yoga, or a spiritual path: that of Orthodox Christianity, and it is a complete tradition.
My point, however, is not to attack the medicinal use of Indian tradition (whether or not Indians would recognize their land’s spiritualities), but to say that value-free counseling is something I have never seen, and while it may be politically correct to foist Indian spirituality but not Orthodox Christian, I wish to offer a word on my drawing on my religious tradition. Whether you accept it is not up to me, but Orthodoxy is a therapeutic tradition. And the claim has been explicitly made, in a book called Orthodox Psychotherapy, that if Orthodox spiritual direction were to appear new on the scene today, it might well not be classified as “religion,” but as “therapeutic science.”
I have not been directly involved with that therapeutic science. I’ve tried to reach monasticism, and am still trying, and therapeutic science is included in monasticism. So I cannot directly speak from experience about its fruit. But other things—virtue, repentance from sin and the like, I can directly attest to as positive theology.
A few more words about humility
Humility seems at the start something you’d rather have other people have than have it yourself. It looks small on the outside, but inside it is vaster than the Heavens, and it is one of two virtues that the virtue-sensitized Fathers of the Philokalia simply cannot ever stop talking about.
Perhaps what I can say is this. I don’t know positive psychology well, but one of the first lessons, and one of the biggest, is to learn and express gratitude. And what I would say as someone who believes in gratitude is this: what gratitude is to positive health, humility is more.
Let me ask a question: which would you rather spend time with: someone horrible and despicable, or someone wonderful and great? The latter, of course. How it relates to humility is this: if you are in pride, you see and experience others as horrible and despicable, while if you are in humility, you see others as wonderful and great. Church Fathers talk about seeing other men as “God after God.” That is a recipe for a life of delight.
Eyes to see
There is more to be said; I am quite fond of St. John Chrysostom’s A Treatise to Prove that Nothing Can Injure the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself. In connection with this, there are constant liturgical references to “the feeble audacity of the demons.” The devils are real, but they are on a leash, and we are called to trample them. It has been said that everything which happens has been allowed either as a blessing from God, or as a temptation. (In Orthodoxy, “temptation” means both a provocation enticing to sin, and a situation that is a trial). As has been said, the faithful cannot be saved without temptations, and the temptations that pass are provided by God so we can earn a crown and trampling them. St. John here frames things in a very helpful way.
Here I am starting to blend into something other than positive theology, and making assertions about positive theology and how they have similar effects to positive psychology. But really, all is ordained for us by a good God, a point for which I would refer you to God the Spiritual Father. There is profound providence, and profound possibility for profit, if only we have eyes to see it and be grateful for a God who has ordained Heaven and Earth for the maximum possible benefit for each of us. Does this strain credibility? Yes, but I believe it, and I believe it makes a world of difference.
Thomas Dixon on secularism and psychology
The article form of my advisor’s thesis offered a case study for an understanding of se cularity, and his case study was in psychology. He talked about how an older religious concept of passions was replaced by what was at first a paper-thin concept of emotions which you were just something you felt at the moment, then how the concept of emotions filled out and became emotions that could be about something, and then they filled out further and you could have an emotional dimension to a habit. The secular concept remains alienated from its religious roots, but the common Alcoholics Anonymous concept of being an alcoholic has almost completely filled out what was in the older concept of a passion.
I’m not completely sure secularism is possible; it returns to Hinduism, at least for yoga, and Buddhism, at least for Right Mindfulness, as maternal breasts, and Hinduisim has something there as Buddhism does not. Chesterton comes again to mind: “The problem with someone who doesn’t believe in God is not that he believes nothing; it’s that he believes anything!” I believe the Orthodox Church’s bosom offers a deeper nourishment. I’m not sure I have much to back this claim other than by the extent by which this article does (or does not) make sense, or whether it is more desirable to pursue one virtue (giving that virtues are stinkin’ awesome things to have), or pursue a panoply of virtues. But I would hope that the reader would by now be able to make sense of my assertion that all Orthodox theology is positive psychology, even if the claim is more superficial than the assertion that all Orthodox theology is mystical theology.
For further reading without a moment’s thought to positive psychology as such, see The Consolation of Theology, a work of Orthodox theology, and one steeped in virtue philosophy.
Environmentalist, n. One devoted to a particular political agenda, regardless of its impact on the environment.
A recent project at Argonne National Laboratory was working on a new generation of nuclear reactor which would be in many ways a dream come true. Its design would be such that meltdown would be physically impossible. It could run on nuclear waste from other plants, not only generating power but reducing them to material which would become harmless in a matter of roughly a century, rather than millions of years. It could run on nuclear warheads, thus not only providing a safe and permanent manner to dispose of some of the most appalling and destructive devices ever created, but so doing in a manner which would provide useful energy to hospitals and families; a beautiful picture of what it means to beat swords into ploughshares.
However, it is still nuclear, and, in the eyes of environmentalism, all nuclear power is evil and must be stopped at any cost. This project was, most definitely, stopped at any cost. It was terminated at great monetary cost; it was nearing completion, and, now that it was ready to be tested on different materials, those materials must be disposed of, at a cost of ninety-four million dollars more than it would have cost to complete. It was terminated at great environmental cost; those materials are dangerous nuclear wastes, and, though they were going to be made harmless, they must now be disposed of in established manners; that is to say, function as the nuclear waste that environmentalists so adamantly oppose. However, they stopped something bearing the dirty ‘n’ word, so environmentalists are now happy.
It is at least fortunate that environmentalists do not yet have the means to extinguish the sun.
Historically, there have been many transitions of technology. Before he came along, people were happy with the solutions they had for indoor lighting, and those solutions exist: when I grew up we had an oil lantern and various candles, which were trotted out for power outages and candlelight dinners, and I use candles in my prayers today. However, you could brightly illuminate indoor spaces with Edison’s light bulbs, and precious few people reach for candles and lanterns when they want illumination. The Amish might, for all I know, because of carefully thought out convictions. However, when the question of illuminating a building or a room comes up, people naturally reach for electric lighting, just like horses exist (and I would love to have a horse), but when the question comes of getting from one point to another, they reach for an automobile of some description, whether gas, hybrid, or electric. I’d personally love to have both a horse and a recumbent trike, and there are bicycle-friendly cities where people have made another carefully-thought-out decision, but for practical purposes I may have a say in which type of car I drive; I don’t have a say in which of these are live options for my living situation. The invisible hand of the free market has removed candles oil-burning lighting and horse riding from mainstream use.
Having Big Brother legislate a technology transition from incandescent bulbs to good LED lighting would have been bizarre enough, but the move that was actually made, at first, was at any cost to the health of the environment. I have gently twisted a CFL to unscrew it and broken it; my understanding is that there are techhical implications which make it not a live option to make a durable plastic shell for the mercury payload, but people can and do mass produce thin tempered glass sheets that will substantially protect cell phones from some pretty impressive blows. Making CFL’s that require more than being treated as if they are made of glass (something adults have learned in dealing with incandescent bulbs) is asking for environmental degradation that dwarfs the higher power consumption of an incandescent heat bulb.
Now the first white LED’s I know of were what is called “lunar white”, which looked white but (speaking as someone who used a lunar white LED flashlight to pick out clothes from a close closet) everything was a shade of grey and it was a wild guess whether a shirt and a pair of pants had matching color. Something of this has been explicitly acknowledged in LED lighting advertising that they show colors truly, and the problem has been overcome. And it is part of the normal flow for people to note that good LED bulbs don’t need to be treated like they are made of glass (or at least I have never broken one), cost pennies on the dollar for your electric bill, apparently last for ages (or at least I’ve never replaced an LED that died), don’t make a well-lit summer room even hotter, can be truthfully advertised as much more attractive for environmental concerns, and so on and so forth, and the forces of the free market would make incandescent heat bulbs go the way of the oil lantern and the horse without the faintest government intervention.
But what is odd, and really historically out of place, was that Big Brother decided he needed to power the change. It would have been a strange thing for the dead hand of government intervention to specify a move from incandescent bulbs to mature LED technology, but the exact inept move enforced was from incandescent bulbs, which contain no toxins to speak of, to a mercury delivery system that seems not to be intended for members of the general public to be able to handle without breakage. And again, I’ve broken a CFL by a gentle if firm twist that would have been entirely appropriate for a made-of-glass incandescent bulb.
What’s true for the goose is true for the gander
We have not directly have laws in force that require us to use any technology, and people off the grid are welcome to stay off the grid. However, the quarantine has created social conditions so that now some technologies are socially mandated. No one is holding a gun to our heads and demanding we use Zoom—but the government is holding a gun to our heads and forbidding us most normal social interactions.
What can we do?
There are several things to do, and I would point out the top 10:
Please note that I am not jockeying for book sales, and if you don’t want to buy a copy on Amazon, email me and I will send you a free copy. Most of it was worked out before the present cyberquarantine, but the issues have long roots, and a book on how to be responsible with beer and wine has everything to do if water and juice are restricted but 151 proof rum is now placed before us and available for free.
Do what you can within the rules to live as human.
It has been said in reference to fair trade that international laws are not biased against poor countries, but for the rich. Fair trade serves as a witness that it is possible to support dignified and human life if a conscious effort to that is done.
The rules are not specifically prohibitions on all human contact; they just load the dice so a Toastmasters Zoom meeting is much more in reach than a face-to-face meeting, and it must be admitted that doing some things virtually has its convenience. However, it is still possible to have human meetings. It is still possible, if socially awkward, to have a conversation with a friend across six feet’s distance. It is possible to eat at picnic tables six feet apart. Things like this are not impossible; they just take an extra bit of reaching when virtual interaction is in much easier reach.
Limit your use of counterfeit social interactions, or at least try to consume them in balance.
I have written in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology about the goal of a tofu virtual chicken in every pot. I mentioned research that cultures that have absorbed tofu use and are not harmed by it consume only fermented soy, in limited quantities, and never as a substitute for meat.
Social media (meaning anti-social media) are fake tofu. FecesBook keeps you plugged in and glued on, but it causes depression. The people who enjoy it most dip in and out quickly; prolonged use is asking for real depression.
If you are feeling lonely, seek out a face-to-face conversation with a friend. Maybe a conversation at six feet distance while wearing a mask, but don’t just reach for FecesBook when you feel lonely and want to feel better.
Make counter-cultural technology decisions.
I agreed with Jean-Claude Larchet’s The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul before I read it, but reading Larchet raised the bar higher. I didn’t watch TV or movies if there was a polite way to avoid it, and I still don’t. What’s different is that instead of checking my email every hour (and watching my clock), I now check my email once in the morning and other times as needed on a case-by-case basis. I also don’t compulsively check my phone. My life is only the richer for this, and I have unplugged a drain on the human soul.
I put on a gaiter mask just around my neck in the morning, pull it up to cover my mouth and nose when a mask is called for, and can breathe without feeling hot. It’s a bit of a mask lite, but all the orthochristian.com articles about COVID being a big deal were by older men. I entertain some skepticism for a situation where e.g. a motorcycle fatality is classified as a COVID death because doctors know what side their bread is buttered on.
A gaiter mask removes a strong disincentive to social interactions of the normal face-to-face type.
Consider getting a pet.
Some people are not animal people, and I am not personally in a position to responsibly own a pet. However, a friendly, good-natured cat or dog makes wonderful companionship without a quarantine, and possibly makes essential companionship with a quarantine. And if you like animals but can’t own one now, do spend some time with the pets of any friend you visit.
We vote our fears. And a very good thing that we do, according to the formidable Dennis Prager. In his newsletter, he lists the major interest groups of the two major parties and then suggests that we ask ourselves: “If all the listed Republican groups had their way, what would happen to America? If all the listed Democratic groups had their way, what would happen to America?” Mr. Prager asked himself and concluded that, while he supports almost none of the organizations on the Republican list, he fears them less than the groups on the Democratic list, and so he “nearly always” votes Republican. Here are his lists. Republican: National Rifle Association, Christian Coalition and Religious Right, Big Business, Black Conservatives (e.g., Clarence Thomas), Pro-Life Organizations, Conservative Justices, Tobacco Companies. Democrats: American Civil Liberties Union, Hollywood, Teachers’ Unions, Black Leaders (e.g., Jesse Jackson), Feminist Organizations, Liberal Justices, Trial Lawyers, Alcohol Companies.
The comment is dated by more than twenty years; the lack of mention of the gender rainbow alone says that the ink is far from being wet. But I would mention something to those who do vote your fears:
The quarantine will be bad under Trump and worse under Biden. That it will go badly under Trump hardly needs saying, but under Biden we are talking drones to enforce the wearing of masks, and who knows what else after federal drones have their “killer app” role of enforcing mask use. Please, have the courage to vote your fears.
In Robert Heinlein’s sex-crazed, anti-Christian Stranger in a Strange Land, the grandfather-figure asks the heroine if she knows the Bible, and when she says “not much,” he says, “It merits study, it provides helpful advice for most emergencies.” And really, it does. “Do not worry about tomorrow; each day has enough trouble of its own” is very, very practical advice. If you haven’t availed yourself of this kind of resource, visit an Orthodox Church that is open (some are). If you have, dig deeper.
And in any case, give thanks in any and every circumstance, and be mindful of what you have to be grateful for.
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I remember one ethics class where I commented with deliberate wary tentativeness, “One comment that has been made about the atom bomb is that it didn’t just save lots and lots and lots of American lives, it also saved lots and lots and lots of Japanese lives,” and then added something very important: “…but I don’t know what the standard critiques of this claim are,” bracketing that claim in a considerable degree of unknowing. And I was not surprised, nor did I argue, when a later resource in the course had someone comment in reference to just war, “The claim is not, ‘If we do not do this, this is what they will do,’ but ‘If we do not do this, this is what we will do.'” I have heard some people point out that American politicians had campaigned on a platform of unconditional surrender by the Japanese, but this assertion is a detail of American culture and an irrelevancy if you are going to claim to be within just war theory. (Another unintelligible point on just war terms is the choice to make civilian cities the ground zero of an experiment.) “We campaigned for unconditional surrender” is not a consideration that factors into the principles of just war. Neither jus ad bellum nor jus in bello explains why it is justifiable to reject any surrender short of an unconditional surrender, a condition tantamount to letting infidel trample on the holy city. I do not know what the terms are on which the Japanese emperor sued for peace before the use of the atom bomb, but he did sue for peace before we dropped the bomb, and the burden of proof falls on people who assert it was a matter of just war to detonate nuclear weapons in a push for unconditional surrender rather than try to work with the Japanese emperor for terms of peace, perhaps not all those originally proposed by the emperor, that would deal with the threat but not insist on unconditional surrender and consent to let the infidel trample on the holy city as much as they saw fit.
(It might also be commented that Albert Einstein asked that his theory be used to develop nuclear weapons to stop Hitler, and he was horrified that his work was used against the Japanese, which he did not consider to be picking on someone our own size: “Should I have known, I would have become a watchmaker.” But, culturally speaking, once we started to develop nuclear weapons there was essentially no way culturally we were not going to use them, and if we did not have nuclear weapons available in time to use them against the Nazis, Japan was next in succession.)
My reason for mentioning this is that I added an important qualifier: “but I don’t know what the standard critiques of this claim are.” These are not weasel words. I am no fan of weasel words nor slippery rhetoric: see a dissertation focused on slippery rhetoric. But in a very real sense, what I was saying was that I didn’t understand the right import of the assertion (that nuclear weapons were mercifully quick, and had a far lower body count compared to the anticipated bloodshed of a land invasion where women and schoolchildren were doing combat drills and preparing in every way for a fight to the death), because I didn’t have a situated understanding, in particular knowing what lines of standard critique would be. (I have not heard anyone deny that assertion; the critique I saw essentially said, “No contest that it would be less bloody, but you are using the wrong standard and here is why.”) More broadly, understanding an assertion in the Great Conversation is incomplete if you do not grasp how it is situated in the Conversation, and part of that is understanding standard critiques.
Two senses of nature connection
I did a search for “nature connection critiques” on Google and DuckDuckGo, and Google got very quickly into academic articles having those three keywords but no connection to the nature connection movement, and DuckDuckGo gave nature connection pages without any critiques I could discern.
So I may be blazing a bit of a trail here in trying to situate nature connection.
I would like to begin by making a distinction between two significantly different senses of “nature connection.”
The first sense is an engagement with nature across many times and places, usually without any sense of nature connection in the second sense.
The second sense is an engagement with the nature connection movement’s tools, core routines, etc. The distinction between these is the difference between a general first category and a specific second type. The concerns I raise here mostly regard the second specific type.
I desire greater connection in the first sense, and it is one of the things I hope for in Orthodox monasticism, an arena that normally exposes one to nature a great deal and reaches further. (Perhaps I should say a third and other specific type centered on such things as virtue.)
A glimpse into a larger pattern
One place to start is Coyote the Trickster. Coyote is described in the pages of Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, or at least what he does is described, and I’m not sure how to pin Coyote down (if he even should be pinned down). Is he only an animal as materialist science would understand an animal? That one possibility is the one I would be quickest to reject. Perhaps a coyote, the animal, is special, but what is Coyote? A spirit? A god? An archetype? A familiar? A patron saint? A Platonic Idea? An astrological sign? A totem? One god who is part of a henotheist God or Greatest Spirit in vaguely Hindu fashion?
I think that all of the possibilities above are at least illustrative, but this choice of the coyote writ large is perhaps not best for Christians, and not just because Coyote is coyote writ large. The text asserts Jesus and Buddha represent the Trickster; Jesus the trickster is illustrated by the cleansing of the Temple. Now it would perhaps be unfair to ask the work to do serious Biblical exegesis, but the cleansing of the Temple was one of the least prank-like actions he took. He wasn’t manipulating people; he was deeply offended by irreverent use of the Temple and drove people and animals out without the faintest mercurial intent. Not to say that there is nothing like the trickster in Christ; the story of Christ and St. Photini (“the Woman at the Well”) has St. Photini enlisting Christ’s help in fleeing from her shame, and Christ opening things up until she has been pulled through her shame and runs with no further shame saying, “See a man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Christ?” Christ was mercurial enough that if you tried to catch Christ the Word in some trap of words, you always, always lose. And, perhaps, it is an exegesis of Christ that Orthodoxy has what are called holy fools. But the use of the cleansing of the Temple gives a sense that the text has been conscripted to fit the Trickster archetype. (For that matter, the story of Buddha has his father trying very hard to ensure that he would be a political leader, and he chose instead to go on a quest and found a religion. Perhaps in the cornucopia of Mahayana Buddhism we have Zen masters who may use trickery to teach, but I do not see that Buddha was being a Trickster to choose a divergent career path from what his father wanted.)
And I was trying to think of a good way to present a companion aspect, and I’m not sure I’ve found one. When I was in middle school, one Social Studies question was, if we had lived in the 19th century, we would have braved the hardships to settle the West. And I, little schoolboy that I was, said that the question was irrelevant because the West was already settled by people who had a right not to be killed. My teacher didn’t like that and tried to push me to answer the question on the terms that it was posed, and none of my classmates said anything like that. But to Native Americans, apart from Guns, Germs, and Steel concerns about Europeans carrying diseases Native America had no defenses for, how should Christianity be seen? It was the religion of white Americans who disregarded as basic interests among the Native Americans as life and not being subjected to needless and major suffering, and so it is not a surprise that my brother, a historical re-enactor, talked about one re-enacting group who re-enacted a first contact between white and Native American and who were explicitly Christian, calling themselves The King’s Regiment or the like, and were distinguished for all other re-enactors in that they did not engage in native American spirituality which was understandably laced with something anti-Christian.
Nothing I have listened or read from the nature connection movement is explicitly or directly anti-Christian. Critique may be implied in assertions that reject Christian practice, however nothing I have seen appears to be there for the purpose of facilitating attack on Christianity. However, nature connection is largely grounded in Native American figures, and even if nature connection is mostly secularized, people who dig into nature connection roots beyond nature connection will sooner or sooner run into this. We have, perhaps well outside of Native American culture, seen T-shirts saying:
But there is something profoundly important besides the humor. As I explained it to a friend at church, if we dug into the Book of Grudges we could probably find that far enough back, his ancestors did nasty things to my ancestors, and far enough back my ancestors did nasty things to his ancestors, but the only things he had needed to forgive me were things I had done personally. That’s not how all cultures work, and that’s not how most or all of the Native American cultures work. The Problem, as seen in Native American cultures, is not just that reservations have 35% unemployment. The Problem is that living conditions in today’s reservations are one link in a continuous chain of maltreatment that is the same thing as the Indian Removal Act and every other form of terrorism since 1492.
I don’t blame Native Americans for this. And I’d be very wary of claiming a teachable moment to impress on these people that Eastern Orthodoxy is not the Christianity of the settlers and it is the #1 religion among indigenous peoples in Alaska, and that my archbishop’s patron saint is one of the patron saints of our land, an Aleut martyr killed by the Jesuits. (N.B. I know a man whose academic career was ended by today’s Jesuits in a singularly unfortunate fashion.) But there are elements in Native American nature connection that conflict with Christianity, and others who dabble in Native American spirituality may dabble in something anti-Christian.
I might also point out that I have looked through wildernessawareness.org and 8shields.org and none of the bios I found let me discern a self-identified Christian of any stripe. I expect that at least a few of the members self-identify as Christian, but if nature connection is just for human beings, and you’re not trying to call people out of Christianity, not having Christians represented is kind of a gap.
A body without a head
The nature connection movement does much of the job of a religion: it does the work of peacemaking without invoking the Price of Peace, its practitioners engage in culture repair without exploring the cultic element of worship, and more broadly it treats what it means to be human without addressing created man as made in the image of God. Possibly there is a failure of complete secularity in pursuing “sacred fires;” I am not completely sure I understand what the word “sacred” means but it is culturally important and best started with a bowdrill or other ancient means. However, I find it difficult to construe the term “sacred fires” as it is used while neutering the term “sacred” to mean something secular.
I might comment in regards to secularity: secularity didn’t arise in Western history because of atheists crying for the Church’s blood; it arose when Western Christianity fragmented and each community treated others as infidel. It arose out of really nasty religious wars as a voice saying, “Can’t we all just get along?” and I call the nature connection movement “secular” as a recognition that it is intended to be appropriate to everyone. I have yet to detect a derisive word from a nature connection leader towards any religious community or tradition. However, this choice of common ground has an anemic dimension, something to do some of the work of a religion, but in a secular way, which psychology does on a larger scale. Orthodox would see this as a body needing a head, and wonderfully animated if we receive it.
The final critique I would give, with a challenge, is this: nature connection, as it is pursued, is a body without a head that only becomes richer and deeper if it has a head. I would challenge you to read my book The Best of Jonathan’s Corner, or for a better text, take a rebel author who works in caricatures, who decries Western music and blared Wagner’s opera (“Wagner,” as in, “Wagner’s opera is not as bad as it sounds”), and wrote, The Rape of Man and Nature, and see rebellion against all things Western done right!
Furthermore, these words are not meant to dismiss nature connection in either sense. They are written to family, not meant as taking no prisoners. Much of what is delivered in Native Eyes is an approach to core routines, and core routines are about equally foundational to Orthodoxy. It’s nice to see discussion of engaging in core routines. And it’s nice to see agape or love (or as nature connection has called it, “connection”) in reference to nature. A Christian could summarize ethics as saying we should love God with our whole being, love our neighbor as ourselves, and love nature as our kingdom. Furthermore, if you read closely, you may see that I don’t find any critique of nature connection in the broader and more generic sense. I may question Coyote as totem, and I would gently note that my brother with the “What Would Loki Do?” T-shirt says for that trickster that the line between “Ha ha, fooled you!” and “Ha ha, killed you!” is a remarkably fine line. But I do not see a trickster edge as necessary for nature connection in the first, broader sense. Certainly it is not a necessity for nature connection in Orthodox monasticism, where animals cease being afraid of monks and cease to harm them.
Furthermore, the perceptive reader may note that none of my critique really affects nature connection in the broader sense. Historically, it is a rule in ethics that you don’t forbid what isn’t happening. The New Testament was written in an agrarian society where a large amount of nature connection was assumed. A parable takes its literal sense from a Sower sowing seed; Christ says that he is the Vine and his Father is the Vinedresser, and perhaps no one felt a need to explain something a friend pointed out, that you have to love a vine to prune it well. There were some moral failures common to ancient times and our own; the older Ten Commandments remain relevant. But the fact that the New Testament never condemns disengaging from awareness with nature in favor of an inanimate thing: this does not necessarily prove that the New Testament authors would make such condemnations if faced by today’s issues, but it also doesn’t make silence mean that there is no nature connection implied in the New Testament. The evidence concerning “nature deficit disorder” suggests to the person interested in ascesis that the harm caused by a lack of engagement with nature is a failure with a moral dimension. Furthermore, as has been pointed out, “Silence does not equal contempt.” In the Christian tradition, you have homilies for some religious feast which never mention the occasion for the feast. And this is true for questions that had been explicitly raised and addressed.
The human race is built on a hunter-gatherer chassis. The human race is built on a hunter-gatherer chassis, and we ignore this to our peril. The core insight to the Paleo diet is that the human organism works best on the kind of foods available to a hunter-gatherer, even if it takes extra effort to eat that way instead of MacDonald’s and Cheetos, and also that it is highly desirable to approximate hunter-gatherer exercise. The nature connection movement says that we need more than food and exercise, and as much as doctors may prescribe vitamin D for people who don’t get enough sunlight to synthesize the vitamin the natural way, we need to take added effort to consume vitamin N, Nature, even or especially if it takes going out of our way. There may be a Standard Social Sciences Model which asserts that human nature is infinitely malleable, but it is not, and we can still be biologically alive while living in a way that humans aren’t made to function.
There is an insistence among some that “Biology is not destiny.” Maybe, but biology is destiny to those heedless of the chassis we are running on. The less than ten thousand years of civilization (without which written history is possible) represent an eyeblink next to the four hundred thousand years we’ve had Homo sapiens sapiens and perhaps two million of some form of humans: written history represents less than 2% of the time we have existed as humans, with no significant evolution represented. Freedom, such as is available, recognized is as hunter-gatherers. And this may be a point where the nature connection movement deeply informs the conversation.
The nature connection movement is a voice worth listening to, and I hope these words can help it contribute to the conversation.
Epilogue, written some time later
I have backed away from the nature connection movement.
The core reason why, besides noting whether I have business in the tradition’s core routines, is that when I listened to Seeing Through Native Eyes and read much of Coyote’s Guide to Nature Connection, it seemed like as a whole the offering made sense, but at each particular point along the way I held my nose about the particular part I was reading.
That kind of squeamishness is something I don’t consider wisely ignored.
Readers familiar with my site might have read Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion, which complains about attempts to resurrect the glory of ages past (and willing, to do so, break from a nearer past), such as the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Vatican II’s ressourcement and aggiornamiento, and perhaps I should have included neo-Paganism, on the assertion that they bring a decisive break with the recent past and ultimately from the older past they seek to resurrect as well. So what is my point about asking for the ancient ways now?
Simply this: the cyber-quarantine for Coronavirus has brought us to a newer and virtual way of doing things, and however much we may long for the real thing in the moment, they are in some cases convenient, above and beyond a field training exercise for the next level of virtual living.
When we can, we would do well to resume what we were doing, in for instance meeting with people face-to-face and perhaps driving to do so. I applaud Civil War re-enacting, not specifically as a means of resurrecting something long past, but because it is a kind of face-to-face meeting (and community!) that has been part of our present and that we would do well to resume. And participate in church life as you are able, and the door remains open. I am not at all impressed that my own governor has decided to keep churches closed, but in Orthodoxy there is a very simple rule: in matters pertaining to the Church, obey your bishop first and Caesar second. That is all. (I do not know other bishops’ positions to comment on them, nor perhaps should I comment on them). My own archbishop has said to obey the law and work within the quarantine, which has now included having online services and allow one person at a time to enter the cathedral building to receive communion. It is a hardship, perhaps, but the Orthodox position is very simple.
There is something ancient and beautiful in a real (not virtual) hug, a picnic on the lawn, seeing your co-workers face-to-face (some places are discovering remote work now, which gives people a private office such as has been banished from mainstream businesses, first for cubicles and then for open plan offices, and discovering that employees work remarkably better when they can hear themselves think, but this is a separate issue). In the “Old Technologies” section of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, I wrote:
There is a Foxtrot cartoon where the mother is standing outside with Jason and saying something like, “This is how you throw a frisbee.”—”This is how you play catch.”—”This is how you play tennis.” And Jason answers, “Enough with the historical re-enactments. I want to play some games!” (And there is another time when he and Marcus had been thrown out of the house and were looking at a frisbee and saying, “This is a scratch on the Linux RAID drive.”)
I remember one time when I was visiting a friend, and his son and two best friends were holding close to each other and each playing a video game on a portable device. I’m not going to endorse video games, but I will comment that three little boys were having fun together face-to-face, and if they were all playing video games, they were still playing them face-to-face, friends like in time immemorial.
So some of the things we can do when the quarantine is relaxed (or lifted) include ordering a paper book from Amazon, reading it outside and putting it on a bookshelf and taking care of it so it is available afterwards, or driving to a new restaurant via GPS to have a meal together, or just go to church, or spending some days in the office face-to-face to maintain social connection with your co-workers. Note that I am commenting less on using or not using new technologies (but really it is also possible to do purely older things like take a stack of blank sheets of paper and hold a physical brainstorm about how to make paper airplanes, or origami—which I mention not because it is of Asian origins but because it is a recognized thing in my time and place). Or build something with Legos, old or new (I might comment that the decidedly new-school Lego Mindstorms robots offer a whole new dimension for creativity). What all of these share is that they are sharing something classic and organic, regardless of how much (or little) they use technology. Churches may have signs saying, “Cellphones that go off in the service will be dunked in holy water,” but while some avoid or minimize digital technology usage while fasting for the Eucharist, there is presently little policing of cellphone usage in getting to the church.
We have one more doors open, doors to something unclean. Perhaps now there is not legitimate choice, and if our bishops say “Obey the quarantine” we should obey the law. Those inclined to increasingly virtual life have had a good practice at handling things virtually, and so have those not so inclined. And there is something practically good, if not always in trying to recover long-lost glory, at very least at continuing in living traditions we know how to do, and to be able to get up from the new normal, get off our back ends, and reclaim ancient and still living glory that remains open to all of us, even if it turns out to be surprisingly more convenient not to drive (another technology) and meet people face-to-face.
Taking a second look at asking, “What would Jesus do?”
I looked down on the “What would Jesus do?” fad when it was hot, and I have never had nor wanted a pair of W.W.J.D. Christian socks; for that matter, I have never asked that question. However, now much later, I wish to offer a word in its defense.
The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is not just a directive from the Bible; most or all world religions at least touch on it. And it is ethically very interesting in that is a simple and short ethical directive that sheds quite a lot of light over a very broad collection of situations. That’s a feat. Furthermore, it is also a feat represented by W.W.J.D. If you read the Bible regularly at all, the question “What would Jesus do?” brings clarity to many situations.
And I would like to provide another rule.
The Silicon Rule
The Silicon Rule, as I propose it, is a rule for guiding technology choices:
What do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?
Now “What would Jesus do?” is only meaningful if you have some picture of what Jesus was like, and “What do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?” may surprise you, although a search for “humane tech” might hit paydirt.
The Waldorf School of the Peninsula, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is rare in that it is not connected [to the Internet]. Three quarters of the pupils are children whose parents work in the area, with Google, Apple, Yahoo, or Hewlett-Packard. These people who work to develop the digital economy and propagate it into every level of society are especially glad that in this school, their offspring are completely sheltered from computers, tablets, and smartphones right up till eighth grade.
“So, your kids must love the iPad?” I asked Mr. Jobs […]. The company’s first tablet was just hitting the shelves. “They haven’t used it,” he told me. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”…
Evan Williams, a founder of Blogger, Twitter and Medium, and his wife, Sara Williams, said that in lieu of iPads, their two young boys have hundreds of books (yes, physical ones) that they can pick up and read any time.
So how do tech moms and dads determine the proper boundary for their children? In general, it is set by age.
Children under 10 seem to be most susceptible to becoming addicted, so these parents draw the line at not allowing any gadgets during the week. On weekends, there are limits of 30 minutes to 2 hours on iPad and smart-phone use. And 10- to 14-year-olds are allowed to use computers on school nights, but only for homework.
“We have a strict no screen time during the week rule for our kids,” said Lesley Gold, founder and chief executive of the SutherlandGold Group, a tech media relations and analytics company. “But you have to make allowances as they get older and need a computer for school.”
Some parents also forbid teenagers from using social networks, except for services like Snapchat, which deletes messages after they have been sent. This way they don’t have to worry about saying something online that will haunt them later in life, one executive told me.
Although some non-tech parents I know give smartphones to children as young as 8, many who work in tech wait until their child is 14. While these teenagers can make calls and text, they are not given a data plan until 16. But there is one rule that is universal among the tech parents I polled.
“This is rule No. 1: There are no screens in the bedroom: There are no screens in the bedroom. Period. Ever,” Mr. Anderson said. […]
I never asked Mr. Jobs what his children did instead of using the gadgets he built, so I reached out to Walter Isaacson, the author of “Steve Jobs,” who spent a lot of time at their home.
“Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of these things,” he said. “No one ever seemed to pull out an iPad or computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.”
Examples could easily be multiplied, even if one is only quoting Larchet. This is, quite briefly, what Silicon Valley technology executives want for their children.
My own working model
I remember, on environmental issues, someone talking softly about how “subdue the earth” in Genesis 1 originally meant a very gentle mastery. That was everything I wanted to believe, and I’d still like it to be true, but it has been said that the Hebrew has the force of, “trample it under foot!” In the Orthodox Church’s Greek Bible, the word here translated as “subdue,” κατακ&upsilonριω (katakurio) is the same verb that in the New Testament for how Orthodox leaders are not to relate to the rank and file, and can be translated “lord it over.” κυριοσ (kurios) is the basic word for “lord,” and the prefix κατα (kata) in at least some places gives the word significantly more force.
Should we lord it over the earth? That’s one thing I think we have done disproportionately well. However, I bring this up for a reason. I believe we can, should, and perhaps need to lord it over technology, and the basis for our interactions, above the assumed life in the Church and frequent reception of sacraments, is the bedrock to how we should relate to technology. We should reject most use of technology along marketing positions. Possibly I will be under the authority of an abbot and be directed not to engage in electronic communication at all. For now, I have the usual technologies, apart from any working smartwatch.
One way I have tried to explain my basic attitude is as follows. Most of us, most of the time, should not be calling 911. And my understanding is that you can get in trouble with the law without having what the law considers appropriate justification; you don’t call 911 because you’re bored and you want someone to talk to. However, the single most important number you can call is 911; if you are in a medical emergency or some other major problem, being able to call 911 can be a matter of life and death.
My prescription is, in caricature, carry a smartphone but only use it when you need to call 911.
Apart from the smartphone, I try to avoid TV, movies, radio and so on. Michael in Stranger in a Strange Land said that he had questions about what he saw on the “g**d**-noisy-box”, and I really don’t think I’m losing out by not being involved in them. Television has over the years grown a heavy dose of MSG; watching even a clean movie hits me like a stiff drink. Silence is something precious, and it has been called the language of the world to come.
On my smartphone, I’ve watched maybe a couple of dozen movies and have nothing loaded for it as an iPod. I have no games, or at least none for my own use, nor amusement apps. Its use is governed by silence, which means in large measure that it is used for logistic purposes and not used when I do not have a logistical reason to use it. I only really use part or what appears on my home screen: Gmail, Calendar, Camera, Maps, Weather, Notes, App Store, Settings, Termius (software for IT workers), GasBuddy, PNC, Kindle, Flashlight, Pedometer, Libby, Translate, FluentU (for language learning), DuckDuckGo (a privacy-enhanced web browser), Phone, mSecure (a password manager), and Text. And of those, I do not really use Camera, Weather, Notes, or Kindle.
This may sound very ascetic, but it is a spiritual equivalent of good physical health. Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the ELIMINATION of Television looks about artificial unusuality, about how we connect with the kind of stimulation we receive, and how children not stimulated by television can be stimulated by the natural world. My seemingly austere use of my phone gives me luxuries that would have been unimaginable to Emperors and Popes in the ancient and medieval times. Even in the nineteenth century people were pushing the envelope on keeping toilets from smelling nasty.
One area where I am learning now is to avoid making fake or ersatz connections by computer or phone. I use Facebook and Twitter to announce new postings; arguably I shouldn’t do even that. They are an arena for idle talking, and for fake friendship. Larchet’s term for a person hollowed out by technology is Homo connecticus, Man the Connected. There are numerous ways to be connected, all the time, in a way that is simply not helpful, and in fact an intravenous drip of noise. If I do not have an active conversation, I check my email by default about once an hour; though this might not be a good idea, I have turned off all sound notifications for text messages. In previous years, I had gone on “net.vacations” and avoided computers and electronic communication for a few days; more recently I have sometimes kept my phone on a permanent “Do not disturb.” As far as my social life, I meet people (and cats) face-to-face when I can.
I also almost categorically try to avoid exposure to advertising, almost as if it were porn; both are intended to stimulate unhelpful desire. I tend to be a lot less likely to covet something and spend tight money on things I don’t need. And really, if I need something only after an advertiser paints ownership beautifully, chances are some
All of this is how, in the concrete, I have tried to trample technology underfoot, and really trample its marketing proposition. This is something of a countercultural use, but it works remarkably well, and if you can rein in yourself, it won’t suck out so much of your blood.
What is the advantage of having a phone then? Wouldn’t it be simpler to not own one? I personally think there is much to commend about not owning a smartphone, but it is a socially mandated technology. You should be able to get along well enough to have a paper planner and pad and a standalone GPS to navigate by, but this is how to skim the cream off of technology and not hurt yourself with its murkier depths.
All of this may sound excessively ascetic, or a feat that it isn’t. Feel free to chalk it up to eccentricity or introversion. However, I would point out that the conversations in Silicon Valley technology executive’s houses are quiet lively. For example, here are ten things you might do, or start doing.
Read a book by yourself.
Read a book and discuss it together.
Take up a new hobby, like woodworking. You can make a lot of interesting things woodworking.
Go to an Orthodox church. After that, take a breather and go to a museum or a library.
Pick one topic and research it as far as you can in a fixed number of days. Share with others what you learned.
Buy a pair of binoculars and take up bird watching. Please note that local conservation society members, park districts, possibly libraries, and so on may have excellent advice on how to get involved.
Spend an hour in silence and just sit, just unwind.
Use older technologies and practices. Drive to visit someone instead of calling. Call instead of texting. Watch old 1950’s movies that are at an F on special effects but an A on plot and storytelling. Go outside and play catch with a ball or frisbee.
Take a walk or a hike, or fish up a bicycle and take bike rides for fun.
Have a conversation about everything and nothing.
And trample technologies underfoot as much as it takes to have a life.
How to get there
What I have listed above is more a destination than a means how. As far as how goes, the basic method is to start whittling away at your consumption of noise bit by bit. If you watch television, you might decide in advance what you want to watch, and stick to only shows you’ve picked out. After that, vote one show per week off the island (maybe one show per month would stick better), until there is only one show, and then cut into the days you watch it. That is much more effective than through sheer force of will to stop watching together until you binge and decide you can’t live without it. And the same principle applies with other things.
An Orthodox priest can be very good at helping you taper down and stop activities, and another perspective can really help. If you want to stick with a book, Tito Collander’s The Way of the Ascetics: The Ancient Tradition of Inner and Spiritual Growth displays the discipline well. However, a real, live encounter with an Orthodox priest gives a valuable second set of eyes, and making the pilgrimage and overcoming a bit of shyness are two good things you should want to have.
One P.S. about motivation
My main motivation in writing this is for you and your spiritual health. Now it might also be good for your body to stop vegetating with your smartphone and start doing things, and it might also be beneficial for the environment in that it encourages a much lighter step in consumption.
I met with dismay upon rereading Mirandola’s Renaissance Oration on the Dignity of Man. The first 80% or so of the text contains bits that sound Orthodox, and much of the text sounds Christian if you aren’t really paying attention. But the last 20% of the text is a hymn to the glory of magic, and while there exists a “goetia” that brings one into contact with demonic forces and of course we should steer clear of that and not touch it with a nine foot Serb ten foot pole, there is also another magic that is perhaps the noblest endeavor we can pursue.
My shock was not in particular at Mirandola’s endorsement of occult endeavor. It was rather recognizing a point of failure in C.S. Lewis. I had recognized what looks like a source, possibly one of many Renaissance mages’ sources, of the words in C.S. Lewis That Hideous Strength:
Dimble and [the Director] and the Dennistons shared between them a knowledge of Arthurian Britain which orthodox scholarship will probably not reach for some centuries…
What exactly [Merlin] had done [in Bragdon wood] they did not know; but they had all, by various routes, come too far either to consider his art mere legend and imposture, or to equate it exactly with what the Renaissance called Magic. Dimble even maintained that a good critic, by his sensibility alone, could detect the difference between the traces which the two things had left on literature. “What common measure is there,” he would ask, “between ceremonial occultists like Faustus and Prospero and Archimago with their midnight studies, their attendant fiends or elementals, and a figure like Merlin who seems to produce his results simply by being Merlin?” And Ransom agreed. He thought that Merlin’s art was the last survival of something older and different—something brought to Western Europe after tha fall of Numinor and going back to an era in which the general relations of mind and matter on this planet had been other than those we know. It had probably differed from Renaissance Magic profoundly. It had possibly (though this is doubtful) been less guilty: it had certainly been more effective. For Paracelsus and Agrippa and the rest had achieved little or nothing: Bacon himself—no enemy to magic except on this account—reported that the magicians “attained not to greatness and certainty of works.” The whole Renaissance outburst of forbidden arts had, it seemed, been a method of losing one’s soul on singularly unfavourable terms. But the older Art had been a different proposition.
There is a problem with this passage. It is far too seductive. It also represents an adaptation of Mirandola or other Renaissance sources, enough to make me disgusted, but I am concerned that is seductive. Elsewhere Lewis portrays the banality of evil; Mark Studdock and the nightmarish, dystopian N.I.C.E. shock the reader by how hollow and empty they are, and leave one disgusted with the “Inner Ring” Lewis also critiques in cool prose. But here and elsewhere, Merlin is glorious. Ransom does not let Merlin renew old acquaintances or turn blades of grass to be weapons, but it is part of Merlin’s glory to offer what Ransom must refuse. And magic is the one area where Lewis portrays sin in seductive lighting. Never mind his “fairy[-tale] magic” vs. “real magic” distinction, which distinguishes the kind of magic that most often serves as a plot device in The Chronicles of Narnia, versus portrayal in literature of realistic occult practice, for the moment. One way people have described the difference between a flat character in literature, and a rounded one, is, “A rounded character believably surprises the reader.” Merlin on that definition at least is one of the most rounded characters I have seen in literature; he comes close to delivering nothing but believable surprises.
I should clarify that I don’t count it against Lewis that he has an older model. People have pointed out, for instance, that what C.S. Lewis advocates in The Abolition of Man is largely a framework of Aristotelian natural law; I guess that his use of the term “Tao” (which translates “Word”—”Λογος” in the classic Chinese Bible) is used in preference to “Natural Law” because Catholicism has taken the framework of natural law and moved it very far from what it was for the ancients, and for C.S. Lewis starting out with a separate term may have seemed easier than straightening out a now-highly-distorted conceptualization that people would think they already knew, not to mention that Lewis is not quick to publicly dress down a major emphasis within the Roman Catholic Church. However, in reading Mirandola, I was dismayed to have such a thing be a prototype for something that is glamorized in the text. I don’t object that C.S. Lewis worked from an older model: I object strongly that he worked here from that older model.
Now I should comment that I actually agree with some of the goodness that fills out Merlin’s character. A later dialogue reads:
“…But about Merlin. What it comes to, as far as I can make out, is this. There were still possibilities for a man of that age that aren’t for a man of ours. The Earth itself was much more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were much more like physical actions…”
…”Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our point of view, confused. For him, every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and to be taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases. Finally, come the Belbury people, who take over that view from the modern man unaltered and simply want to increase their power by tacking onto it the aid of spirits—extra-natural, anti-natural spirits. Of course they hoped to have it both ways. They thought the old magia of Merlin which worked in with the spiritual qualities of Nature, loving and reverencing them and knowing them from within, could be combined with the new goetia—the brutal surgery from without. No. In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way. Do you know that he is forbidden by the rules of his order to use any edged tool on any growing thing?
“I love vegans. They taste like chicken.”
I am an animal lover, and a meat lover (preferably grass-fed, organic). However, I would like to talk about myself a bit, at least on one point.
On one visit, a volunteer introduced me to a visitor in a way that was clearly publicly giving me thanks. She identified me as “one of our socializers,” and named four or five cats that I had helped to socialize to be friendly and ready to be adopted. I believe her, but I was aware of nothing of the sort. What I had done was to come in on visits, approach cats and let them get my scent (so they could decide and announce if they wanted to be petted, yes or no), and gently pet and gently talk to cats who let me approach them. And that was really all; I believed I was one of many hands helping pull off a class act and see to it that a cat could go home, and nothing more. But she apparently saw a much more singular contribution on my part even if contributing to a class act is itself a major achievement. I had commented, “The one thing that’s hard about visiting pets at the cat shelter is that all the cats I like most vanish,” with the thought that this was simply a fact about the most likable cats are the fastest to go home with someone. It appears, though, that I had a more active role for at least some of those cats. The one cat whose name I do remember, is a very friendly cat now whom I earlier vaguely remember as not at all mean, but not quite so affectionate earlier on.
Some of this may sound exotic (or maybe just boastful), and the only point in my life I remember being aware of achieving a striking goal was a half hour during which I gently took a dog who was nervous around men, and slowly coaxed and pulled his leash little by little until half an hour I was petting his head on my lap and when I stood up, he wanted to meet the other men. But at the shelter, I have never been aware of any goal of my own in actions beyond the major goal of simply showing love. I had not really been aware of cats becoming friendlier; the changes are not noticeable when your attention is on the pet. But apparently I had given a singular contribution to a class act, more than what I knew.
That is what I have done in my case. Monks who are above my pay grade in one direction show such love to animals that are wild. Married couples who are above my pay grade in another direction do the same in raising children. I happen to do this with pets. And one Orthodox priest I know beats a drum that extends well beyond showing love to shelter pets in saying, “The longest journey we will ever take is the journey from our head to our heart.”
Evangelical Orthodox Church
In living memory, a group of Evangelical Christians decided, like many good, red-blooded Protestants, to recreate the ancient Church, and to follow its development in history up to when it vanished. And they did so, calling themselves the Evangelical Orthodox Church, until at one point they ran across an Eastern Orthodox priest, and interrogated him as inside authorities interrogating an outsider, testing for instance whether he recognized Holy Communion as the body and blood of Christ, until they slowly realized that in fact he was the insider and they who questioned him were outside. Then most, although not all, members of the Evangelical Orthodox Church reached the logical end of their conclusions: they were received into the Orthodox Church that has never vanished.
Never mind if the Orthodox understanding of matter and spirit appear today to be confused. What fills out Merlin’s art is in fact alive and kicking in Orthodoxy. “Do you know that [Merlin] is forbidden by the rules of his order to use any edged tool on any growing thing?” It comes as a surprise to Western Christians, especially those fond of figures like Thomas Aquinas, that I, like all Orthodox, am forbidden to engage in systematic theology. I am hesitant to call myself a theologian in that in the Orthodox understanding “theology” is not an endeavor like an academic discipline but the direct experience of God, and in the fullest sense of the term there are three that have rightly been called theologians: St. John the Theologian, St. Gregory the Theologian, and (some centuries back) St. Symeon the New Theologian. It does not need saying that I am not a fourth member of that company. However, if we deal with the more elastic senses of the term, I deal some in mystical theology. And systematic theology is categorically off-limits for all theology and for all Orthodox.
Merlin is an advertisement for Holy Orthodoxy even if this may not be evident to readers who do not understand Holy Orthodoxy.
“Space-conquering technologies” are body-conquering technologies
In pop culture’s older science fiction, one technology is a jetpack, and in fact such jetpacks have been researched and do exist. They are, however, surprisingly loud, and it is difficult to learn to use them safely. It was reported at one Olympic Games that they had someone use a jetpack to successfully fly over the stadium, but military researchers made jet-packs to let soldiers cross over streams, and then found that they were too loud to be useful to soldiers in the intended fashion. It has also been popularly imagined that we would send astronauts to Mars and space travel would enter public usage like jet travel did, and that hasn’t happened yet.
It has been said in projecting the future that a good estimate is:
Tomorrow will be like today,
One year from now will be about as far from now as now is from one year back,
Accurately predicting ten years from now is the real trick.
For a time, advances in space-conquering technologies, which I really wish to call body-conquering technologies as overriding the limits of our embodied nature, were things that could move the human body from one place to another faster. Cars are one such technology, and airplanes a further advance, even if there is not widespread airplane ownership the way there’s been for cars. Airplanes have gotten faster than sound, although faster-than-sound airplane use is not widespread and SR-71 “Blackbirds” and Concordes have been retired from use.
What was less anticipated is that the body-conquering technologies that would prevail at least up to now are not about making meat move faster; they’re about circumventing the need to move meat. Jean-Claude Larchet’s The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul looks from radio onwards at body-conquering technologies, even though I do not recall much of any comment about their status as space-conquering. Much of the book covered terrain that I already knew, but something that surprised and saddened me was to learn that 85% of African households now own a television, and cellphone use was very widespread. I had simply assumed, while on a train and seeing a minor use an iPhone to rapidly switch between screens and splitting his attention between that and two friends he was talking with, that the sort of technological acid trip I was unintendedly eavesdropping was simply a rich kid’s syndrome. It is nothing of the sort!
The Luddite’s Guide to Technology: The Past Writes Back to Humane Tech! discusses what I’ve found about abstaining from some technologies I can abstain from, and how to make abstemenious use of technologies we use. I don’t have any games on my iPhone, or at least none for my own use (I have a few train games for my nephews 4 and 6, and I prefer not to let them use it because it just seems to fester squabbles). I use it for utilitarian purposes, and try to minimize any other use, especially as a canned treatment for boredom. Also, while the watch I have is spectacular (when purchased it was the top of the line for digital Casio Pathfinder watches, and has a compass and the moon phase among other features), but it is not an Apple Watch and does not report to Big Brother on every heartbeat I make (the N.I.C.E. the N.S.A. will have to content itself with knowing every step I take). By the way, did I mention that I put duct tape on the inside surface of a now broken Apple Watch, blocking view of my bloodstream?
That Hideous Strength seems to always have on its cover an accolade from Time: “Well-written, fast-paced satirical fantasy.” It is a commonplace that real life outpaces satire, but there are many ways that his text reads as a fairly accurate prediction of today. If anything, it seems dated. To quote the dialogue between Ransom and Merlin:
“Since you have knowledge, answer me three questions, if you dare.”
“I will answer them, if I can. But as for daring, we shall see.”
“Who is called Sulva? What road does she walk? Why is the womb barren on one side? Where are the cold marriages?”
Ransom replied, “Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned towards us and shares our curse. The other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would he be who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her further side. On this side, the womb is barren and the marriages cold. There dwell an accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicati) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.”
A year or two ago, Men’s Health had a cover story, “The Sex Robots Are Coming!” (That’s, um, quite a bit of wordplay!) When I tried to get a copy of the cover in images, I caught a glimpse of the story: sex robots were perhaps never going to be mainstream, but they interviewed someone who had “lived with” a sex robot for two years and who said, “I never knew vaginas could be so varied!” (Fortunately, I did not ingest more.)
This literal fulfillment of Lewis’s image is almost beside the point of the fact that marriage is under attack and we are moving in multiple ways away from it. We have now crossed the point where a standard utility puts pornography within easy reach. On another front, we have the gay rights movement. And the concept of a marriage as being between two humans is in some ways hazy. One friend mentioned to me a website, to people whom he, and I, have a lot in common, but on the point of marriage advocated one’s choice of quite ceremony with one’s choice of non-living object as spouse, and not even a non-living object made as a sex toy!
It has been suggested that Romans 1 could read as an indictment about today whose ink is scarcely dry (Rom 1:18-32 NIV):
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
I’ve read a ?19th century? text speak of “these days of final apostasy.” There is an apostasy even from being human. Come to think of it (no pun intended), the Apostle’s words seem a bit of an understatement if we apply them today.
Part of the present generation gap is in trends of not wanting to learn to drive, and living with their parents and not pursuing employment. Now I did not want to drive; instead of my generation’s “My wheels are my freedom,” I was sucked into, and administering, a technological precursor to social networks. And I live with my parents now; I have repeatedly tried and failed to find employment in corporate America, I am trying as hard as I can to get to one monastery. (You may decide if it is hypocritical to write this while I am living at my parents’ house or not.)
One other brief note: I am as I write sitting in the parking lot of the cat shelter, where I stand among the cats as some sort of king and lord, in the truest sense of the word. On the way here, I saw a large dog which had a bit of a leash or a lead dangling from its collar. However, I did not try to make friends with it. I parked, called the police, and told them I had seen a loose dog near two streets. I didn’t attempt anything impressive beyond giving what little knowledge I had so animal control could catch the dog and return it to owners.
I have seen an “Old English prophecy” quoted in Orthodox signatures:
When pictures seem alive with movements free
When boats like fishes swim beneath the sea,
When men like birds shall scour the sky
Then half the world, deep drenched in blood shall die.
There are a couple of things to be said here.
First, a brief search will turn up that this is not an Orthodox prophecy. It is part of “Mother Shipton”‘s output. Second, “Mother Shipton” is not any kind of Orthodox monastic, but an English fortune teller. Third, “Mother Shipton” is in fact a complete hoax: a woman who never existed, with after-the-fact, made-up predictions for the most part. All of these first three points are easily found on first-page search results. Fourthly and finally, if you go through enough alleged prophecies from an occult figure, which I have not knowingly done and do not endorse, it’s usually not too long before you’ll find one that is spooky in its apparent accuracy. The demons gather information in ways not open to us, but they do not know the future, which (the Philokalia tells us) is why their (educated) guesses about the future are sometimes wrong. (Note that demons may have known what they intended for the future.) Orthodox simply do not have business endorsing this kind of “prophecy.”
Now for a thornier matter: the Prophecies of St. Nilus.
The Plight of the World and the Church during the 20th Century
By SAINT NILUS (d. circa AD 430)
After the year 1900, toward the middle of the 20th century, the people of that time will become unrecognizable. When the time for the Advent of the Antichrist approaches, people’s minds will grow cloudy from carnal passions, and dishonor and lawlessness will grow stronger. Then the world will become unrecognizable.
People’s appearances will change, and it will be impossible to distinguish men from women due to their shamelessness in dress and style of hair. These people will be cruel and will be like wild animals because of the temptations of the Antichrist. There will be no respect for parents and elders, love will disappear, and Christian pastors, bishops, and priests will become vain men, completely failing to distinguish the right-hand way from the left.
At that time the morals and traditions of Christians and of the Church will change. People will abandon modesty, and dissipation will reign. Falsehood and greed will attain great proportions, and woe to those who pile up treasures. Lust, adultery, homosexuality, secret deeds and murder will rule in society.
At that future time, due to the power of such great crimes and licentiousness, people will be deprived of the grace of the Holy Spirit, which they received in Holy Baptism and equally of remorse. The Churches of God will be deprived of God-fearing and pious pastors, and woe to the Christians remaining in the world at that time; they will completely lose their faith because they will lack the opportunity of seeing the light of knowledge from anyone at all. Then they will separate themselves out of the world in holy refuges in search of lightening their spiritual sufferings, but everywhere they will meet obstacles and constraints.
And all this will result from the fact that the Antichrist wants to be Lord over everything and become the ruler of the whole universe, and he will produce miracles and fantastic signs. He will also give depraved wisdom to an unhappy man so that he will discover a way by which one man can carry on a conversation with another from one end of the earth to the other.
At that time men will also fly through the air like birds and descend to the bottom of the sea like fish. And when they have achieved all this, these unhappy people will spend their lives in comfort without knowing, poor souls, that it is deceit of the Antichrist.
And, the impious one!—he will so complete science with vanity that it will go off the right path and lead people to lose faith in the existence of God in three hypostases. Then the All-good God will see the downfall of the human race and will shorten the days for the sake of those few who are being saved, because the enemy wants to lead even the chosen into temptation, if that is possible… then the sword of chastisement will suddenly appear and kill the perverter and his servants.
The OrthodoxWiki points out certain problems and concludes the alleged prophecy is a forgery, the first objection being that Orthodox did not begin dating from the number of years since Christ’s birth until the century after Saint Nilus allegedly died. Other objections include that implied age of the Antichrist appears, according to this prophecy, to have been around for over half a century. And to my historian’s eye, I assert that much of this appears to be after-the-fact predictions, almost as bad as the “Mother Shipton” predictions themselves.
However, I believe the prophecy is genuine at least as a historic document, and here’s why.
Please note that, as someone with some background in history, I am not commenting on whether the document is genuine prophecy; I am commenting on whether it is apparently an old historic document possibly written by a saint who died in 1651 century (not the year 430). I am not arguing that St. Nilus’s prophecies are genuine prophecies; I am explain why I believe they represent genuinely old historic documents, and would read as old historic documents to a historian or historical theologian.
The OCA Saints page includes a St. Nilus said to predict the future as commemorated on November 12 (New Style):
Venerable Nilus the Myrrhgusher of Mt Athos
Saint Nilus the Myrrh-Gusher of Mt Athos was born in Greece, in a village named for Saint Peter, in the Zakoneia diocese. He was raised by his uncle, the hieromonk Macarius. Having attained the age of maturity, he received monastic tonsure and was found waorthy of ordination to hierodeacon, and then to hieromonk.
The desire for greater monastic struggles brought uncle and nephew to Mt Athos, where Macarius and Nilus lived in asceticism at a place called the Holy Rocks. Upon the repose of Saint Macarius, the venerable Nilus, aflame with zeal for even more intense spiritual efforts, found an isolated place almost inaccessible for any living thing. Upon his departure to the Lord in 1651, Saint Nilus was glorified by an abundant flow of curative myrrh, for which Christians journeyed from the most distant lands of the East.
Saint Nilus has left a remarkably accurate prophecy concerning the state of the Church in the mid-twentieth century, and a description of the people of that time. Among the inventions he predicted are the telephone, airplane, and submarine. He also warned that people’s minds would be clouded by carnal passions, “and dishonor and lawlessness will grow stronger.” Men would not be distinguishable from women because of their “shamelessness of dress and style of hair.” Saint Nilus lamented that Christian pastors, bishops and priests, would become vain men, and that the morals and traditions of the Church would change. Few pious and God-fearing pastors would remain, and many people would stray from the right path because no one would instruct them.
After seeing that, I dug long and hard on the Internet, and I found what I believe is an authentic historic document, barnacled over in later versions but stemming from a document that seems real enough to my own historical instinct. I now deeply regret that I did not preserve the fruit of that research. The urban legend version reads straightforwardly as a retelling of St. Nilus’s life, and it omits something important that the life omits: the actual text of the Mark of the Beast. This is something that is extremey unlikely to be dropped in an urban legend retelling, but logically would not be present in a retelling of a saint’s life that originally omitted mention of these details.
For one reason why I trust it, it didn’t seem to contain any sort of dating or timeline, at least that I could recognize. Possibly it gave a timeline along some system that I am not familiar with, and the saint’s life here says that St. Nilus’s predictions accurately describe the people of the mid-twentieth century. But that could just be from someone writing the saint’s life, possibly during the Silly Sixties and the Sexual Revolution, and finding things uncomfortably pointed as a remark about his specific time. Furthermore, I would quite specifically point out that while the life of St. Nilus provided by the OCA gives a timeline of the middle of the 20th century, this is never alleged to be a date predicted within the text itself. The OCA life is consistent with the belief that the Prophecies never name a date, and the person writing the saint’s life and giving a date never believed St. Nilus’s Prophecies themselves to predict the date. The rumor mill appears to have incorporated the dating of the saint’s life and inlined them to allegedly be part of the Prophecies themselves.
Second, this version did comment that men would grow long hair and become indistinguishable from the women, but it didn’t simply list the sexual vices we did today. Presumably a particular point is being made about effeminacy, but the original contained no vice lists such as St. Paul is wont to do.
Third, my recollection is that the OCA site used to say that St. Nilus predicted the radio and did not mention the telephone. The text of his prophecy said that some party would be given “wisdom” (parts of the rumor mill version say “depraved wisdom”) that one man could speak and be heard on the other side of the world. This is from a technological perspective ambiguous, although I might comment that Larchet Jean-Claudet in The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul understands distinctions within technology perfectly well but is inclined to lump them together, especially as regards their implications for morals. Today the list of technologies that fit the bill include the radio, television, telephones, internet telephony, Skype, video chat, and more. More may be invented.
Fourth, it is a characteristic of prophecy, at least in the Bible, to include together related things that do not happen at the same time but fit the same pattern. St. Nilus’s prediction regarding technology has been fading in, perhaps first with the radio. His remarks about effeminacy have also been fading in. My father used to joke, in a spirit of humor that was nothing at all literal, that when he said he had a twin sister and people asked if they were identical, he would say, “Yes, I had a sex change.” I would not joke about such things now. Never mind just the long hair. Cross-dressing already is mainstream, and gender reassignment surgery already is mainstream. I believe this is fading in further.
Fifth, my recollection is that the original version contained information that I have not found since. More specifically, I recall a chilling account of what I believe was presented as the full inscription in the Mark of the Beast. I regrettably do not remember all of it, but part of what I rememeber is, “…Of my own ?free? will I accept ?this?…” in admitting total and voluntary consent.
Now if you are concerned that I am relying on my memory, I’d mention that on one IQ test my memory subscore was one of the highest, at 188. (On another incident, bizarrely enough, the psychologist found that I had dropped 118 points to a memory score of 70, and he was holding on to that intellectually disabled score for dear life, without budging an inch when I said, “My writing, including recent writing, is at complexity, and my speech is at complexity.”) Pick whichever one you want to believe.
My verdict is that St. Nilus wrote prophecies that are probably preserved, and it has attained an extraordinary collection of urban legend barnacles on top of barnacles, but the seed of the whole thing is real.
The disenchantment of magic
Q: How many Wiccan fundamentalists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Why on earth would Mary Daly want light?!?
Wicca is called the Old Religion, and its original self-account is that this was the ancient religion to return to. Since some scholarly controversies, it has become unmistakably clear that unless you are going to steel yourself out of all evidence, Wicca is in fact a feature of 19th century spiritualism, and most people accept the historical conclusions while holding original Wiccan accounts of its history and pre-history to be inspiring stories, with a few insisting in the face of evidence beyond reasonable doubt that Wicca’s claims are true, called by other Wiccans an extremely pejorative “Wiccan fundamentalists.”
The Old Religion is not Wicca; the Old Religion is in fact Orthodoxy, and it began in eternity, present with Creation itself, present with Adam and Eve, and it retains the perfection of classical paganism; C.S. Lewis’s favorite old book, The Consolation of Philosophy, is the fully Christian work of a philosopher who has after extraordinarily good fortune been exiled far from Rome and faces eventual execution, and without contradiction consoles himself from the very best that classical paganism has to offer. As I have said elsewhere, Orthodoxy is pagan and neo-paganism isn’t.
Most Wiccans, I imagine, have gotten over the blow that someone seeking the real and true Old Religion would be well-advised to look elsewhere from Wicca.
Here, I have a deeper cut to offer.
One major selling point in Wicca, and one major consideration, is harmony with nature. And I have to say that if you want harmony with nature you should abandon Wicca.
Role playing games as I have played them offer a weaker form of the same drug: it lets you override the Providence of God the Spiritual Father’s decisions about where you are and what circumstances you are in. Magic is not content with grounding. It wants to circumvent or override what nature is and how it normally works, and it is a step into a smaller world. The fact that some people go mad after practicing the occult stems from a fissure that began, perhaps, with seeking to do things by magic. Seeking power to correct what God did wrong is wrong whether it is done in gender reassignment surgery or occult practice.
I have long been drawn to the occult, and pornography, and they have both seemed like innocent things I should not be denied. However, those who have their heads clear of the siren songs see something very different with harmony with God and nature in occult endeavor. And those people closest to God (and with Him, nature) find magic an abomination. On this point I trust them.
“More evil than Satan himself”
Some years back, some people made the firstGoogle bombing so that the #1 organic search result for “more evil than Satan himself” was Microsoft’s homepage. Since then, Google has had hard feelings when Microsoft artificially set Bing’s search for “more evil than Satan himself” to be the number Google is named after, which can be written, as Bing did, “10^100”.
Nazi Germany was wrong because it embraced what seemed one of the most progressive ideas at all time, eugenics. Google is not Nazi in any sense, but it has embraced Eugenics 2.0: Transhumanism. While eugenics wanted most people out of the gene pool (more specifically, those who were not Aryans, and Aryans who were not enough of a perfect specimen), transhumanism wants everybody out of the gene pool: phasing out the entire human race itself, in favor of the kind of technological creation I critiqued in AI as an Arena for Magical Thinking Among Skeptics.
Amazon has been critiqued; it wants to destroy paper booksellers, and it is another terrible megacorporation. FaecesBook FaceBook is just as bad. All the megacorporations I’ve really heard research on, from Apple to Wal-Mart, are in their own way the N.I.C.E. that is the corporate villain-figure in That Hideous Strength. It is essentially non-optional to patronize N.I.C.E.s, and I say that as an author with books on Amazon. Kindle books are there because Amazon wants to phase out printed books.
All this is true, but we are advised to take a cue from another powerhouse brand: “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”
Are we in the end times?
Eastern Orthodoxy affirms the Incarnation in all its sundry implications, and that is why an icon of Christ, perhaps with his holy Mother, is the best possible picture an Orthodox Christian can have: witness the Orthodox love of icons, such as the profoundly cherished icon to the left.
Islam categorically denies the Incarnation in all its sundry implications, and that is why an a picture of Mohammed is the worst possible picture to a Muslim: witness the reaction to the Danish cartoons. The Muslim community was so deeply offended to see the their Prophet depicted on such terms that they repeatedly tried to assassinate the person who drew the Danish cartoons (plus over two hundred deaths)!
I believe that we are in the end times, but figuring out when Christ will return remains completely off-limits.
The earliest I can remember reading someone saying that the Second Coming is immanent is not St. John Chrysostom; it is the Apostle. You may think St. Nilus’s eschatological prophecies were wrongly grasped in the mid-twentieth century; but here we are 70 years later, and we’ve been hit by a stronger dose, but the times and dates God intends are still beyond us. I believe we are in the end times, and I do not feel qualified to contradict that people are throwing things at the wall and seeing if it will stick, to pave the way for the Antichrist. Some people have said that the Antichrist will be a Muslim. I don’t know if this is prophecy or mere rumor, but St. John the Evangelist’s definition of being an anti-Christ is denying that Jesus came in the flesh, and Islam works out on a capital scale what you get if you take Christianity and you systematically remove all trace of the Incarnation. Furthermore, there are, I have heard, over a hundred organizations trying to establish a world Muslim Caliphate. I don’t know whether I will die, or be alive when Christ comes, but my obligation is the same in either case.
Conclusion: “Hogwarts for Hackers”—Wired
Wired ran a piece on the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy as Hogwarts for Hackers. I spent way too much time reading Arthurian legends, and at IMSA, I had barely opened a page of Arthurian legends (I remember the spelling “swerde” for “sword,” and I was not then a philologist), and one of the Class of 1992’s senior class awards was apparently made for me: “Most likely to be on IMSAsun [the Unix social network I administered] in the year 2020.” The award was given to me as Jonathan “Merlin” Hayward, as I was then much drawn to the character of Merlin, and it was immortalized in my senior award.
(I remember one time when I was a student, someone asked if I was the local “Unix wizard,” and when I showed extreme hesitance, a much-loved alum, Scott Swanson, answered, “Yes.” And in fact I was, at IMSA, a 15 year old Unix system administrator. And I have in fact long traded in a power that is not considered literal wizardry but seems enmeshed in magical metaphor; I have traded in what is called “intuitive thinking” and “intuitive feeling” exercise of power, even if exercise of the latter power does not come across as an exercise of power. “The longest journey we will ever take is the journey from our head to our heart,” and I have found something liberating in letting go of some of my “intuitive thinking” power.)
I am puzzled, personally, that Wired gave press coverage for someome who edited the source to be a better “DikuLOSER” (as the term for DikuMUD players was when I was at IMSA). I also edited the source code there, for my favorite game, in the same computer language, but I don’t particularly think it merits at least positive attention. But Avery Coonley School and the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy represent a starting point in a strong identification with mathematics (I ranked 7th in the nation in a math contest as a kid), to being a Renaissance man in an almost classical style, to (God willing) making the journey from my head to my heart, and repenting before and in monastic repentance. I would say that I want with all my heart to go to Kursk Root Hermitage, but that is not quite true. My deepest will is to do as God wills, and seeking monasticism wholeheartedly is a step of obedience I make in pursuit of that goal. I am seeking that self-transcendent theosis or divinisation that is alike the goal of marriage and monasticism, in whatever form God wills.
Superstring physics has abdicated from the throne of emperical science by making predictions so close to prior theory that no one has proposed any idea on any resources we could conceivably get to experimentally test superstring theory against predictions made by its predecessors, but that has not stopped the self-identified science community to place superstring theory on a higher pedestal than any empirical form of science. Now neo-Darwinian evolution has upstaged superstring theory going far beyond it in unfalsifiability.
A philosopher of science explains.
“Karl Popper contributed a landmark concept in the philosophy of science when, observing that adherents of non-scientific theories kept finding fresh proofs of their claims. Popper proposed that quite an opposite principle was the mark of a scientific theory is in fact its falsifiability. The essential concept is that empirical science should make claims whose falsifiability would contradict or hurt the theory. And not all such claims are created equal. The more surprising and unexpected prediction the theory makes and is vindicated by experiment, the better the theory is corroborated, is worthy of serious attention.
“Popper used Marxism as a textbook example of unfalsifiable, meaning non-scientific claims. Marxism originally made testable claims, and those claims turned out to be substantially false. Then Marxists modified their theory so as to make it unfalsifiable. In Popper’s suggestion, this marks a transition from a falsified scientific theory to a theory that was no longer science.”
Our reporter asked, “Does any of this relate to origins questions?”
“Yes,” we were told, “and word on the street that Popper chose Marxism over evolution as an unfalsifiable theory because, understandably, he did not want to be called a Creationist and be fighting a battle on two fronts, seeing that one does not want to be called a Creationist. But now, even evolutionary apologists recognize that when their opponents apply statistics to what, statistically, is asserted by the claim that a breeding pool has acquired and sustained a chain of beneficial mutations and turned into a new life form in a geological heartbeat, evolution has gotten the short end of the stick. The response on the part of evolutionists has been both simple and drastic: point out that some interesting statistics are inaccessible, simply inaccessible on information we have access to, and then amputate all statistical argument at the neck, and refuse to accept statistical critique of evolution at all, thus marking a transition from a falsifiable scientific theory to an unfalsifiable formerly scientific theory.”
Our reporter said, “That’s kind of throwing out the baby with the bath water, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” we were told, “it’s throwing out the baby, the bathwater, and for that matter the whole tub, all for a weak excuse. Mary Midgley said, ‘A disturbance followed when it was noticed that [scientists] had left the whole of evolutionary theory outside in the unscientific badlands as well. But special arrangements were made to pull it in without compromising the principle.’ That was then, this is now. Evolutionary apologists have simply cauterized a line of critique, with little explanation beyond that the unwashed masses get arguments about lottery tickets, and demanded that its opponents stop making a straightforward analysis of what kind of statistical ceiling can be placed on a bunch of things that, on an evolutionary accounts, happened at random and almost all at once. Superstring happens to be an awesome theory that people like that has an unfalsifiable character in. Evolution was made an ex-scientific theory simply by forbidding its opponents a straightforward line of critique.
One minor turning point, which I mention as an example of a type of humanist observation, was when I was in a doctor’s office and read a forceful “MYTH vs. FACT” for the MMR vaccine. What struck me was, “You’re fighting awfully hard for someone who is running unopposed!”
In terms of my education, I have an M.S. in math from UIUC and an M.Phil. in theology from Cambridge (plus doctoral coursework from Fordham). I had many evolution-centric biology courses before college, though I would really not paint myself as an expert in biology; I do, however, intend to be frank about the limitations of my biological study and do my reader a basic courtesy of not presenting guesses as facts. As an undergraduate, I had a couple of advanced courses in probability and statistics; however this does not matter terribly much as the statistics I use are driven by concepts that should be reasonably presented in Statistics 101.
While I would downplay the significance of my scientific knowledge here and I wouldn’t want to overemphasize my quite limited knowledge of biology (for instance, I don’t know what are the standard lines of arguments to put the phyla of the Cambrian explosion in an orderly evolutionary sequence rather than all at once), I do not wish to downplay the status I have as an unemployed humanities scholar. One wonderful Roman priest I knew, who was conservative and could every bit say Rome’s Creed without crossing his fingers, listened to me wanting to study theology and he explained that his spiritual father wanted him to study under “the best bad guys,” and the bishop overrode his decision because a more conservative school would happen to get him graduating faster and be back in ecclesiastical action. His point in mentioning this was not in any sense that he wanted me to go liberal; he was asking me to consider, not trying to find a school that was sufficiently conservative, but that I should actively choose to study under “the best bad guys.”
My first thesis in theology, Dark Patterns / Anti-Patterns and Cultural Context Study of Scriptural Texts: A Case Study in Craig Keener’s “Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul”, was part and parcel a study of shady argument. I rightly or wrongly brought in the context of a pattern as it originated in architecture and then object-oriented computer programmers, and offered a framework to classify bad arguments. And in this study, I continued to grow some sensitivities that I had already started earlier: sensitivities to what is clean argument, and what is dirty argument. The difference matters quite a lot; clean argument is only convincing if you’re somewhere near the truth, where dirty argument “includes the gift of making any color appear white,” if I may quote Ambrose Bierce. I can count on one finger the number of times I was given dirty argument that told a truth I would have done well to heed.
I might call myself a “dislodged intelligent design member”, meaning that I don’t know how much intelligent design I accept, but evolutionary apologetics push me away.
For one example, that has happened a couple of times, the evolutionary apologist denies Darwin’s original picture of a slow evolution, but articulates a “punk eek” (formally “punctuated equilibrium”) scenario where when things are stable, they will probably be stable for a long time, but when things are chaotic, there is a much greater incentive to make big changes quickly, until equilibrium is restored. And what I failed completely to communicate is that there might have been a much greater incentive to make big changes quickly, there is no explanation offered, or at least none that would not embarrass a statistician, to say that there is an ability for a breeding population to acquire and sustain a large number of beneficial changes quickly.
The earliest and perhaps most striking example I remember was, wet behind the ears, I brought up intelligent design in a forum with alumni from the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. Before presenting a conclusion, I asked a question: suppose that I claim to be able to predict lottery numbers in advance. I do it once, and you think it’s an odd coincidence. I do it twice, and you think it’s a really odd coincidence. If I continue, and we suppose for the sake of argument that I can make at most one prediction per minute, I can only predict for a forty hour workweek, and I will die of old age at 70 if nothing else gets me sooner, is there any way I could predict enough lottery tickets to convince you that I can genuinely predict lottery tickets? I was answered that yes, I could be taken to predict lottery tickets with “no more than a dozen” predictions. I then proceeded to show that at very least the production of new Cambrian life forms by mutagen exposure (I had allowed for the possibility of mutagen exposure at least for the sake of argument) was much, much more improbable than correctly predicting a dozen lottery numbers in advance by mere chance. To this I was given a response of, “There may be some things we can never know;” closing out a theistic argument at the price of not having a valid explanation was better than acknowledging intelligent design as an apparent part of the explanation. Perhaps surprisingly, or not surprising at all given the humility of greatness, the one member of the entire discussion who did not try to jackhammer down intelligent design was… a microbiology graduate student. He did not claim to be convinced, but he said, “You appear to be well-read,” which is in one sense politeness, but I believe the non-commital tone was genuine, and I further believe that if he had seen a hole or an impossibility in the argument I presented, he would have said so politely but plainly. The microbiology graduate student was the one other person in the discussion who refrained from slamming me and saving naturalist evolution at any cost. I don’t think I convinced him, but it was the one discussion partner who knew the most about neo-Darwinian evolution and dealt with it on most intimate terms who was most open to my statement that mutagen exposure does not account for the Cambrian explosion in any way that makes sense to a statistician.
If I may expose my ignorance of alchemy for a moment, rumor has it that alchemy was not originally just one more scheme to make money fast; it recalls a comment by Chesterton(?) that compared some desire to a spiritualist’s desire to see a nymph’s breasts, as opposed to the straightforward lecher’s desire to see a nymph’s breasts. In Western history, there has been extraordinarily strong incentive and desire to turn lead into gold, and while during some childhood some nuclear physicists whimsically made gold into lead by a few nuclei, even if their method were reversible the energy would be prohibitively expensive compared to old-fashioned gold mining. Today we are having a renaissance of renaissance alchemy, and we again have a very strong incentive to turn lead into gold; more broadly capitalistic economies would heavily reward, at least temporarily, someone who could turn cheaper materials into gold with revenues vastly exceeding expenses. For the transformation to happen, alchemy needs not only have incentive; it needs a live possibility, a possibility not known to exist under mainstream science.
What has been asserted to me, by naturalist evolutionists, is on statistical grounds the equivalent of there being long stretches of people steadily buying lottery tickets but rarely if ever does someone draw a winning lottery ticket, then somewhere completely off the fossil record a breeding population wins one lottery after another after another, and finally, after they have won enough lottery tickets, the environment stabilizes and the incentive to innovate recedes.
This is the assertion as it has been given to me. I knew two theistic evolutionists but I do not know their responses to such arguments (in this case, formulated after our last real conversation), because socially whenever I tried to make a point about intelligent design, they shut me down completely and prevented me from even beginning an argument. For the more forceful of the two, this was not his boilerplate behavior; when he was contradicted by someone and he knew he was right, he would let the other person fill out his argument completely, then allow the conversation to explain why the other person was wrong.
I have doubts about intelligent design as presented. I was dismayed to find out that one Orthodox brotherhood, in making a posthumous book on origins, had asked Philip Johnson to write the introduction, and the introduction reeked of having been written by a lawyer. It masterfully avoided treating the question of the age of the universe, so that young earth creationists and old earth creationists could read it and see their own reflection. However, the single, simple strongest reason to believe I was onto something in reading intelligent design materials was simply that it is the one topic of any short where I was always rudely shut down socially before I could begin to make my point. That is not the behavior of people who know they are right!
I am going to leave the example of the pepper moth itself at a brief mention. As far as the pepper moth goes, I have heard that Darwin’s version of the pepper moth example is not the image that has been copied by many hands, and so what I read in intelligent design about the pepper moth example not being an example of natural selection creating or at least making some population extinct, I’m merely going to acknowledge that people have discussed the point from different angles.
What I do not wish to be silent on, because I have seen it in living discourse in my own time, is tuskless elephants. And what arguments Johnson gives for the pepper moth are relevant here. In the case of tuskless elephants, we do not have an example of a new feature being suddenly developed. We have an example of a feature being suddenly removed. Furthermore, the feature is not new. Historically, something like 3% of female elephants have been tuskless; the proportion of tuskless elements is “only” a major shift in which individuals within a genetic population sport a feature (“phenotype”). The source I was read that ordinarily, tuskless males are unable to mate, but in these careful words it contained no assertion that tuskless males never appear. Among humans (and, for I know, elephants), until recent treatments hemophilia would make someone bleed to death, quite possibly well before reproductive age. (If untreated hemophilia allows patients to live long enough to successfully reproduce, substitute Tay-Sachs Disease.) Regarding Robert A. Heinlein’s eugenic comment that the only real cure for hemophilia is to let all hemophiliacs bleed to death, H. sapiens sapiens has been around, on some counts, 400,000 years, and hemophiliacs’ bleeding to death all that time has not removed them from the gene pool. Heinlein’s remark may be heartless, but that does not make it intelligent or show a perceptive grasp of biology: a breeding pool can and often will produce individuals with phenotypes that do not get to mate. There may be a few tuskless bull elephants; we are not told the frequency merely by a statement that tuskless males do not ordinarily get to mate.
The tuskless elephant example is brought as an example of the kind of change that powers Darwinism, and that it is not. It has suppressed what is normally a feature of elephantine anatomy; it has not created new or additional organs. We, or at least I, have never heard of pachyderms developing even stronger and tougher forms of skin that will repel poachers’ machine gun fire. “All” that has happened, as with pepper moths, is that two existing variations are being altered in their frequency, possibly permantly and possibly for a time as with pepper moths.
It used to be that Intelligent Design drew me by its apologetic arguments; it is now evolutionist apologetic arguments that repel me. I haven’t read anything new to me in intelligent design that was convincing; I have read evolutionary assertions that convincingly demonstrated flaws. I remember being the only person in a Ph.D. program to dissent from Darwinian evolution – and almost assuredly the only person in the Ph.D. program who could explain the difference between paleo-Darwinian evolution, the slow process, and neo-Darwinian evolution, the punk eek, or why, as I put it once before, “Darwin’s theory of evolution has been dead in the academy for so long that it no longer even smells bad.”
It used to be that naturalists would accuse theists of a “God of the gaps”, a God whose heavy lifting lies in the gaps of scientific knowledge. The allegation was meant to sting, but not by being impossible: in the set of all conceivable circumstances, we could have (for one non-biology example) God holding together the nuclei of all multi-proton atoms because the protons are all positive and electrically repel each other. The implication is more that you’re on the losing end of an argument if your God has to hide in the gaps of our knowledge. But now we are seeing a “natural selection of the gaps,” a natural selection that does most or all of its true heavy lifting in geological eyeblinks without direct remaining evidence of intermediate forms: it all hides in tiny areas where paleontology has nothing positive to tell us. And if tuskless elephants are given as an example of positive additions being made in a geological eyeblink, perhaps that is because evolutionary apologists do not know any better example to offer.
In addition, C.S. Lewis, before intelligent design, played the self-referential incoherence card and explained why natualist forms of evolution could not possibly be true. The basic argument he gives is as follows: romantic love can be explained away as a biochemical state, but there’s a nasty backswing to that explanation: by the same stroke as it explains away romantic love, it also explains away all explanation, including the explanation of romantic love. If mental states, including holding scientific theories, are just permutations of matter, then it is a category error to assign truth or falsehood to such a permutation of matter. Mere physical states do not rise to the dignity of error. The theory of evolution may explain why we have brains good enough to recognize food and avoid natural dangers; it does not explain why we have brains good enough to formulate a theory of evolution, or for that matter any scientific theory ordinarily deemed worthy of provisional assent. Possibly theistic evolutionists have an option of saying that God did something special when humans came forth: I would want to understand a theistic theory of evolution better before deciding whether I would play a self-referential incoherence card. However, I have not heard of a way to deal with this from naturalist evolution, and I would note that it was a matter of great consternation to C.S. Lewis, not that people did not agree with his objection, but that few people were able to see what the objection was at all. This one point is not one I’ve pulled from interactions with evolutionists, but it represents something similar in Lewis’s own observations: not, specifically, that they failed to agree with his argument that evolution is an explanation that explains away all explanation, but that people were in most cases completely unable to see a serious philosophical objection to evolution producing brains that could produce a scientific theory of evolution. He wasn’t upset that people rejected his point (they apparently didn’t); he was upset that people didn’t see what his point was in the first place.
Before intelligent design, I was a settled theistic evolutionist; afterwards, I was straightforwardly a member of intelligent design; now I am wary of intelligent design but on a humanist’s eye can’t see why evolution is true. But it is on increasingly humanist grounds that I look at a movement, I look at discourse, and I say that evolution is everywhere but it repeatedly fails to have the ring of truth. I regard neo-Darwinian (punk eek) evolution as a theory in crisis, and I stand, perhaps, as a churchman without a church.