A friend of mine quoted words written by C.S. Lewis 72 years ago. I follow his suggestion to replace “atomic bomb” with “corona virus:”
“In one way we think a great deal too much of the coronavirus. “How are we to live in an age of the coronavirus?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of AIDS, an age of terrorism, an age of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the coronavirus was anywhere near our radar: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have acknowledged one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by the coronavirus, let that virus when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—there are really a lot of things we can do from our own homes even if we do not wander around outside our homes—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about the coronavirus. They may break our bodies (a mishap with modern inconveniences can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948 and updated 2020 by C.S. Hayward) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays
Taking appropriate measures
We have several strokes of good fortune compared to every other pandemic in history. We have Amazon and Facebook, and opportunities to live for more than ourselves. But coping strategies extend beyond merely preventing transmission of the virus, and I would like to comment on standard guidelines. From sampling the CDC:
Clean your hands often
Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
Avoid close contact
Avoid close contact with people who are sick
Put distance between yourself and other people if COVID-19 is spreading in your community. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.
The first impression that this makes is that it is based on a superstitious and neanderthal concept of immunology, though I would here state that desperate times call for desperate measures and I don’t see why my immune system should stand up particularly well to something as nasty as COVID-19. People are working on not touching, and normally loving touch stimulates the immune system. Social isolation itself is an excellent way to depress the person and the immune system at one stroke. Furthermore, the prolonged effect of obsessive-compulsive cleanliness is to weaken the immune system. However, again, this is probably a case of desperate times that call for desperate measures.
I would pause briefly to comment that it is possible, albeit not obvious, to embrace without touching. Treasure tells how I supported a crying little girl without touching above a handshake that ended the interaction. When I went to give a present to my young nephews, I did not touch them, but was vigorous about making a nice big waving motion with my arm. If it is appropriate, these circumstances make it all the more helpful to be able to give an embrace without touching.
The second thing I would say is that this advice is like whiffle balls: it doesn’t go very far. It touches a point of need, but there is much more to coping.
For that reason, I offer another shopping list to try to get what you can:
“Really coping” shopping list
Lego Mindstorms EV3 31313 Robot Kit, preferably with The Lego Mindstorms Discovery Book. Legos are good, but Lego Mindstorms are better. Lego generated tremendous enthusiasm in the robotics community by dropping the price for serious robotics hobbyists by a factor of four. One feeling you may face going out very little is being cooped up by the walls of your home. If you are exploring what you can do with a super Lego set and more, these walls are likely to be a lot less restricting.
If you are interested in learning a foreign language during this downtime, I personally recommend FluentU, the best language learning app I’ve seen. The best free language app I know is DuoLingo. Avoid Rosetta Stumblingblock; it doesn’t work for adult brains.
Dorothy Sayers wrote in “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” “I am reminded of a young man who once said to me with perfect simplicity: ‘I did not know there were seven deadly sins: please tell me the names of the other six.'” Writing in World War II in England about gluttony broadly construed, Sayers wrote,
You will notice that, under a war economy, the contrast [between consumption by rich and poor] is being flattened out; we are being forced to reduce and regulate our personal consumption of commodities, and to revise our whole notion of what constitutes good citizenship in the financial sense. This is the judgment of this world: when we will not amend ourselves by Grace, we are compelled under the yoke of Law. You will notice also that we are learning certain things. There seems, for example, to be no noticeable diminution in our health and spirits due to the fact that we have only the choice of, say, half a dozen dishes in a restaurant instead of forty. In the matter of clothing, we are beginning to regain our respect for stuffs that will wear well; we can no longer be led away by the specious argument that it is smarter and more hygienic to wear underlinen and stockings once and then throw them away than to buy things that will serve us for years. We are having to learn, painfully, to save food and material and to salvage waste products; and in learning to do these things we have found a curious and stimulating sense of adventure.
And I believe that this coronavirus might not just be a restriction on civil liberties, or practical restrictions when others are being meticulous. The coronavirus and COVID-19 has declared war on humanity; we have declared war on it. By reining ourselves in we can and will reduce human casualties. And in this warfare we may touch something almost transcendent. We may, through difficult measures, save many, many, many human lives.
There is something I wish to say, and I wish it so much that it is hard to think of how to say it. I wrote in God the Spiritual Father that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that makes all the difference.
Life is here and now, under the circumstances, and life is not about waiting for the rain to stop so you can dance, but dancing in the rain.
One koan has a cook monk, a position of high status, toiling over vegetables in the midday sun. A less mature monk asked him, “Why are you doing that work on the vegetables now?” The cook countered with a question: “When else can I do it?”
Zen and koans have a reputation for being enigmatic, but the point is sometimes a clue-by-four to help someone see the painfully obvious. The only time we can live is now, in the here and now that God has given us. Perhaps some of us are not Zen rigorists and are willing to schedule like the less mature monk expected. None the less, Orthodox hold to salvation being in the here and now, and recognizing that the here and now is under the guiding hand of Providence. It is fruitful for us to pray, with St. Philaret of Moscow,
My Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of Thee.
Thou and Thou alone knowest my needs.
Thou lovest me more than I am able to love Thee.
O Father, grant unto me, Thy servant, all which I cannot ask.
For a cross I dare not ask, nor for consolation;
I dare only to stand in Thy presence.
My heart is open to Thee.
Thou seest my needs of which I myself am unaware.
Behold and lift me up!
In Thy presence I stand,
awed and silenced by Thy will and Thy judgments,
into which my mind cannot penetrate.
To Thee I offer myself as a sacrifice.
No other desire is mine but to fulfill Thy will.
Teach me how to pray.
Do Thyself pray within me.
And the Father may gently answer, in a poem of unknown attribution,
Behind those golden clouds up there
the Great One sews a priceless embroidery
and since down below we walk
we see, my child, the reverse view.
And consequently it is natural for the mind to see mistakes
there where one must give thanks and glorify.
Wait as a Christian for that day to come
where your soul a-wing will rip through the air
and you shall see the embroidery of God
from the good side
and then… everything will seem to you to be a system and order.
And with it, the prayer for acceptance of God’s will from St. Philaret of Moscow:
We are in God’s workshop, and God is working with us, if we will work with him, to create an eternal glory. The circumstances of our lives may be messy; God’s Providence is perfect in order, and it beckons to us.
A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine l’Engle. Swirls of kything, Charles Wallace, and Blajeny. The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis. Swirls of Narnia and visits to that land. Arthurian legends. Swirls of knighthood, Merlin, and the Holy Grail. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein. Swirls of grokking, Michael Valentine Smith, and Martian wisdom.
These are some of the “realer world” things I have found captivating over the years, and all of them, in different forms, offer a glimpse of transcendence—and heartache.
There is a scene, central to the plot, in The Silver Chair where a Witch has been weaving an enchantment to seduce the Narnian Marsh-Wiggle Puddleglum and the earthborn children into believing that there is no world outside the underground caverns, no sun, no Aslan and so on and so forth, and when the Witch has practically won, Puddleglum mostly stamps out the spice-laden, narcotic fire with his bare feet, and greatly weakens the enchantment, and tells the Witch,
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is this, that in that case the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
This heroic stance is, in a word, the marketing proposition offered by fantasy.
(Particularly if it is taken out of its context of defending the book’s real world, Narnia.)
People who find the world dismal can seek salvation in escape, where there is no true salvation to be found. But there is another option.
Realize that the greater world is not by escape, but by recognizing that the real world is not the dreary, mundane cave that it looks like when you are making Puddleglum’s stance.
The Orthodox Church is very much embracing the here and now, and insists that no, there is no other place than the here and now God has given us that we can be saved. Or that we can be happy. But something funny happens along the way.
We may discover that after we have given up the hope of any illusion of the Holy Grail that the only game in town is to become the Holy Grail, to receive Christ’s body and blood in the Holy Mysteries ourselves, as the Blessed Augustine said, “Behold what you believe! Become what you behold!” and the purpose of being human is to become by grace what Christ is by nature.
There are lessons along the way. One is that happiness is not for sometime down the road when we get some new possession, but for here now. Possessions, no matter how badly we want them, do not mediate our really living human life. Another lesson is that the greatest treasures, all of them, we are invited to pursue. The God Who Transcends His Own Transcendence bids us grow in humility, love, and divinity. These eclipse Nobel Prizes, royal honors, and indeed all the honor in the world.
And really, it is an adventure, but it all hinges on repentance and virtue.
In The ??????? Rule, I suggested that a good rule of thumb is to ask, “What do Silicon Valley technology executives choose for their children?” And Steve Jobs, for instance, did not have a nerd’s paradise for his kids. He had walls with big bookshelves and animated discussions. They hadn’t seen an iPad when it first entered the limelight. And employees of technology company chose what might seem some remarkably strict rules, because they didn’t buy into the mystique of hot gadgets. They knew better.
In Bridge to Terebithia, the author introduces Leslie as privileged with a capital P. The biggest cue is quite possibly not that money is not the issue, but that her family does not own a television. Today that character might also be introduced as not having a smartphone, for several reasons.
People know on several levels that Facebook and smartphones suck the life out of their users. That’s old news. This page is about an alternative.
How I tamed my iPhone
I have what might be called a Holy Grail of iPhone usage. I carry my iPhone but I rule it and it does not rule me. It is often at hand, but I have domineered it well enough that I don’t compulsively check it. I get almost all of the practical benefits with none of the hidden price tags.
Prequel: How I tamed television
Before I became a strict iPhone user, I was a slightly relaxed television non-user. I grew up with limited television, one hour per day during the schoolyear and two hours during summer vacation, and I read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business and the more book-like Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and also books like Stephen Covey’s First Things First. And I slowly checked out the rest of the way from television. And as an older child and later a young man, I had the vibrancy one associates with an unhindered imagination: the days before television, or something that as might as well be the days before television:
The irony of the Far Side cartoon is that time before television sucked the life out of everything was much more vibrant, not a family huddled around a vacant spot by a wall.
Prequel: Weston A. Price diet
I’m not specifically interested in converting people to Western A. Price or Paleo diets beyond saying that it is my opinion that your body’s engine merits pure premium fuel, but I wanted to comment on something very specific about Nourishing Traditions. As one friend pointed out, some of the ways food is produced are really gross; most vegetable oils besides olive, avocado, and coconut oils have to be extracted under conditions that goes rancid immediately, like popped popcorn, and are then made yellow and clear and not smelling bad by chemical wizardry, or the artificial phenomenon of getting four gallons of milk from a cow per day and then manipulations to make 2% milk (“No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows except for the additional ingredients of blood and pus.“). It overall builds a sense of “This is really gross and unfit for human consumption,” and that’s good.
I check my iPhone at intervals: once per hour, or perhaps once per day. That breaks the spine of constant checking, at least eventually. My phone has three games, all of them for my little nephews, and I’ve come to dodge showing them games on my smartphone, because when I show them a real, physical toy, they can wait turns and share, while smartphone games are addictive enough that when I take out my phone and let them play with it, squabbles consistently follow. In good spirit, when they wanted to play pinball games on my phone, I deleted the pinball game and then made a crude pinball machine out of some leftover wood, nails, rubber bands, large ball bearings, and a plastic pipe. They were initially disappointed, but when they had some time to play with it, they began to be imaginative in a way I have never seen with a smartphone video game.
Returning to my smartphone, I use it for utilitarian purposes, including making bottom-liner use of Facebook and Twitter. Bottom-liner use of Facebook can be constructed, but having it fill the hours is depressing to anyone.
Specific suggestions for iPhone and Android smartphones
On this point I would say that there are few things you must do, but many things you might do. Probably the single best advice I know is to work with an Orthodox priest who is comfortable freeing you from your chains to technology. Good advice is to make a small change to start, and then slowly but steadily build up until what you have in place is working for you.
I would also underscore that these are suggestions, that some people have found helpful. I do not use all the rules others have found helpful, and I’ve found benefit in getting stricter with myself as time has passed. However, you don’t owe a duty to make all of these your own.
Learn from Humane Tech. Humane Tech is a movement to mitigate some of turning people’s brains to tapioca, and it is well worth attending. I don’t believe they go far enough; I believe that Orthodox ascesis and fasting provide a good backbone, but knowing which apps make you happy and which apps make you sad is at very least a good start. Three Humane Tech pages you should know about include the following:
Take control. This gives many concrete suggestions. I’ve thought about all of them and implemented some of them.
Familiarize yourself with app ratings. All apps are not created equal in terms of their effect on how you feel. If you want to get your head out of your apps, this is another page I would at least recommend familiarizing yourself with.
Make a conscious adult decision about what you carry. I would recommend choosing between three primary options:
Keep a smartphone, but be sure that you are the one in charge. This is the option I go with, but only after not carrying a cell phone when they were becoming common, and have less plugged in days of only checking email once per day. I do more frequent usage, and think that checking it once per hour is also a good baseline, but I only check things more frequently when I have a specific logistical reason. The strongest reason for this may be less the inner logic of dominating your technology, than smartphones being socially mandated.
Don’t carry a smartphone. Kings, Emperors, Popes and Patriarchs before the twentieth century lived in great luxury without having any kind of phone access, ever. They weren’t deprived. You most likely don’t need it.
Carry alternate gear. What about, instead of carrying a smartphone, you carry a standalone GPS, an old-school handset that only does talk and text with a numeric keypad, a paper planner or a small paper pad for your scheduling, todo, and scratchpad use, and maybe a book or Kindle? That sounds like a lot, but it fits nicely, with room to spare, in my favorite messenger bag. Admittedly these things are not the same convergence device, but it really may be possible to carry everything you want without difficulty. And by the way, their not including social media isn’t a defect; it’s a feature.
Read The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul, and The Luddite’s Guide to Technology. Pay close attention to the rules in The New Media Epidemic as taken from Silicon Valley tech Moms and Dads. Chapter 13 is rich in practical application, mentions a #1 rule of no phones in bedrooms ever, and “Alex Constantinople… said her youngest son, who is 5, is never allowed to use gadgets during the week, and her older children, 10 to 13, are only allowed 30 minutes a day on school nights.” Not an absolutely different rule from what my parents had for me. Other aspects covered include having the network’s router shut off outside of a certain window of time.
Take an attitude of “Everything is permitted… maybe, but not everything is beneficial.” We are tempted to try to get the most use out of our investment, when a better use might be more sparing. As far as TV goes, I have sought out to see one Simpsons episode in the past five or so years. Somewhere along the way, I stopped seeing as much television as I was allowed. Don’t use as much as you will let yourself use, and recognize that the most beneficial uses are sometimes the ones with the lightest touch. A smartphone in “Do Not Disturb” mode is just as much capable of calling 911 in a bad situation as any other cell phone.
Have an attitude of having a life outside of online activity. When I grew up, I was taught to cast a line with a fishing rod. I didn’t end up catching much of anything, but my father taught me the basics, face-to-face, with a genuine fishing rod. Young people today are far more likely to learn to cast a line with the accelerometer on a smartphone, and that was a deprivation. I did my studies through travelling to campuses face-to-face even if I used email as well. This is a human baseline that is a survival from the Middle Ages, for that matter a survival from the animal world where young wolves are not handed tools necessarily but are taught how to interact with their environment to hunt, face-to-face with other wolves. And I would suggest that traveling to a college campus and also using some email is a pretty good baseline for technology use. And in relation to this, we have:
Take up a hobby and give smartphones some competition. It can be hard to just pull back from habitual technology use. It is somewhat easier, even if it is not really easy, to pull back from the draw of technology and engage in something else, such as candle making. Having a constructive hobby can be very helpful as something else to do instead.
Use your phone for a purpose, and never to treat boredom. A practice of reaching for your phone when you need it to do something, and not much else, can be great. Your phone can be genuinely nice when you use it to contact an acquaintance by any means, or to order a pair of shoes. It’s a trap when you use it to just pass time or make boredom easier to deal with. The most miserable use of Facebook, for instance, is when you’re always on.
Use older technologies and fast from technologies. Fasting from technologies is explored in The Luddite’s Guide to Technology, and while it may not be possible, there are times where you can make a phone call instead of sending an email, or drive to see someone face-to-face instead of making a phone call. In general, using older space-conquering technologies instead of newer space-conquering technologies can uncover a forgotten richness. Some have had days of no electricity. A Lead Pencil Society day here and there can produce just a little freedom, or even just write a single hand-written, lead-pencil letter to a loved one, or perhaps buy a single, paper book instead of an ebook.
Treat porn as a real danger, and get help whenever you need it. Porn is the disenchantment of the entire universe; it is our day’s biggest attack on men; it is preparation for committing rape. Take things to a father confessor; use a support group; use xxxchurch.
Don’t look at your phone as a treasure from a magic world. A phone can feel exotic until you’re already hooked, but I think of people in the second world where a smartphone may seem a relic from the wonderland of the first world. In fact the U.S. may have more seeking of escape than Uganda. In fact material treasure may be found much more easily in the U.S.—and with it spiritual poverty. I believe that smartphones have uses, but as an experience they are not really helpful if you’re an American, and not really helpful if you’re a Ugandan friend. There are uses, and you can read ebooks for instance, which is really sweet. However, being sucked into a phone is not really a helpful way of using it. On those grounds I would advise friends both in the U.S. and Uganda to use phones, maybe, but know that God has placed people around you, and a person is infinitely better than a smartphone. Enjoy the real treasures!
All of this may seem like a lot, but it is very simple at heart:
Start walking on the path and put one foot in front of the other.
Have I not seen,
How thou hast placed me in Paradise?
And how have I said,
That a first monastic command,
Is, “Go home and spend another year with your family?”
While I have spent a few?
The obedience is not limited,
By a count of years,
But by obedience,
This being a first obedience.
I stand, or sit,
Not scholar, nor user experience professional,
Making use of a life of leisure,
Learning leisure well, to lord it over leisure,
Once I made a vow before a wonder-working icon in Brooklyn,
That I might receive a doctorate,
Earned or honorary,
And since then have prayed that my vow not be granted,
An honorary doctorate not to receive,
Because I do not want it enough to even travel,
To give the icon a kiss of veneration!
An Invitation to the Game is an icon,
Of children in a proletariat of excessive leisure,
Excessive leisure being a training ground,
Before a new life in a new world begins.
God the Spiritual Father looks after,
Each person he has made,
As a spiritual father looks after each disciple,
God looketh after each,
In the situations he placed each:
Behind those golden clouds up there
the Great One sews a priceless embroidery
and since down below we walk
we see, my child, the reverse view.
And consequently it is natural for the mind to see mistakes
there where one must give thanks and glorify.
Wait as a Christian for that day to come
where your soul a-wing will rip through the air
and you shall see the embroidery of God
from the good side
and then… everything will seem to you to be a system and order.
What have I to add,
To words such as these?
This time is a time of purification and training,
And as in times past,
In an instant, I may be taken to a monastery,
As I was taken to study theology,
Six months’ work to obtain student loans,
Falling into place one business day before leaving.
Thou teachest me,
And I know thou art willing to save:
Whether or not my plans are the best.
Whether I ever reach monasticism,
Thou art potent to save.
I might need to seek monasticism:
God can save me with or without.
So I learn patience,
Fly through FluentU and learn Russian,
And here I sit,
In a place thou hast opened my eyes to see as Paradise,
And with lovely food pantries,
And visits to pets at a lovely cat shelter,
And thou ever ministerest to me.
Thou givest me simple pleasures,
Who knew tidying up a besmudged keyboard could be fun?
Whither I go, thou art with me;
Thou preparest a table before family and friends.
“World” refers not to God’s creation,
But to our collections of passions,
Seeing through a glass, darkly,
What bathes in the light of Heaven:
Hell is a state of mind,
But Heaven is reality itself.
I am perhaps not worthy of praise,
To say such things in middle-class comfort.
I seek monasticism, to be a novice,
Which is meant to be exile,
Yet an abbot’s work,
Is to help me reach freedom from my passions,
And what true joy I have in luxury,
Only know further in monastic exile.
Years I have waited:
Now I am willing to wait years more.
Only if I may pursue repentance,
On such terms as it is offered me.
Glory to God who has allowed me such luxury!
Glory to God who has allowed me such honors!
Glory to God who has shown me that these avail nothing,
And seek the true fame,
Fame before God himself!
Be thou glorified, O God, in me,
Though I know nothing,
Though I am nothing,
Be none the less glorified in me.
The Infinite can do the Infinite in the finite:
Be thou therefore glorified and praised in me,
Though I am nothing before thee,
Yet thou grantest me breath and life,
And ever offerest me salvation.
Glory be to God on high!
Glory be to God for Paradise!
Which Paradise is in all things!
Glory to God for all things!
Thimble even maintained that a good critic, by his sensibility alone, could detect between the traces head-knowledge and heart-knowledge had left on literature. “What common measure is there between IT hackers with their obscure and esoteric interests, their unworldly collections of skills that ordinary mortals scarcely even hear of, their attendant servers and daemons, and figures like the saints, who seem to produce results simply by trusting and following God?” Heart-knowledge and head-knowledge differ profoundly; heart-knowledge (though this is doubtful) may be as difficult to acquire; it is certainly a better exercise of the whole person.
The NASTY (the NASTY Association for the Scientism and Transhumanism Y-combinator) had, in a spirit of jest, one member occasionally call another member “more evil than Satan himself.” But in fact the many members fitting into NASTY had one-by-one filled in pieces: now by FaecesBook, now by the Twits’ Crowd, now by dark Goggles, now by MicroSith, now by Forbidden Fruit, all offering such treasures that in countries as poor as Africa, No Such Agency would know not only every web search and every text, but to any who could obtain a smartphone and a watch, every step, every breath, every heartbeat.
As time passed on, the technological dragnet only drew tighter. And people naturally think that all of this is the creative genius of man.
But there was always, always individual human freedom.
“It is rather horrible. The newer technologies together represent something like a secularized occult. I mean even our time (we come at the extreme tail end of it), though you could still use that sort of technology innocently, you can’t do it safely. These things aren’t bad in themselves, but they are already bad for us. They sort of withered the person who dealt with them. On purpose. They couldn’t be adopted by the masses if they couldn’t. People of our time are withered. Some millennials are quite pious and humble and all that, but something has been taken out of them. Take away their gadgets for a day and they will show a quietness that is just a little deadly, like the quiet of a gutted building. It’s the result of having our minds laid open to something that broadens the environment.
“Orthodoxy is a last and greatest view of an old order in which matter and spirit are, for a modern point of view, confused. For some saints every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. Now we have the modern man to whom Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases, and postmodern varieties with their ‘spirituality’ which drives ever much deeper the chasm separating the sacred from the secular. The Orthodox Church, with her saints, represent what we’ve got to get back to do and an ever-open door. Did you know that Orthodox are all forbidden to pursue systematic theology?”
But Redemption already knew, in fact, that there was Eldilic energy and Eldilic knowledge behind the NASTY. It was, of course, another question whether the human members knew of the dark powers who were their real organisers. And in the long run this question was not perhaps important. As Ransom himself had said more than once, “Whether they know it or whether they don’t, much the same sort of things are going to happen. It’s not a question of how the human members of NASTY will act—the Dark-Eldils will see to that—but of how they will think about their actions.”
For Redemption already knew of the constant stings of temptation come to all of us and try to entice us to believe ideas we think our own and embrace to our slow spiritual depth. The Philokalia, second only to the Bible among Orthodox classics in recent history, was a manual on the spiritual life that kept returning to the activities and operations of demons. Its authors know well enough about the continuing warfare of thoughts to desire this or that that have been assaulting us for the ages, and demonic temptations occur not only to some rare specialty of people deeply enmeshed in e.g. the occult. (And we are briefly told, “Men hold on to sin because they think it adorns them.”) Demonic possession through occult or other means is of course a worse problem, but whether we like it or not a great deal of what we think of as our thoughts and our desires are stings of demons attacking us. As one student had approached Redemption and said, with great excitement, “I’ve just had a completely new idea,” Ransom answered, “I am very excited for you and for your having this new idea. However, this idea was had before by Such-and-such particular monk in the fourth century, and furthermore he is still wrong.”
The Saint opened his Golden Mouth and sang, ‘There be no war in Heaven, Not now, at very least, And not ere were created, The royal race of mankind. Put on your feet the Gospel of peace, And pray, a-stomping down the gates of Hell. There were war in Heaven but ever brief, The Archangel Saint Michael, Commander of the bodiless hosts, Said but his name, “Michael,” Which is, being interpreted, “Who is like God?” With that the rebellion were cast down from Heaven, Sore losers one and all. They remain to sharpen the faithful, God useth them to train and make strength. Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? Or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, Or as if the staff should lift up itself, As if it were no wood. Therefore be not dismayed, If one book of Holy Scripture state, That the Devil incited King David to a census, And another sayeth that God did so, For God permitted it to happen by the Devil, As he that heweth lifteth an axe, And God gave to David a second opportunity, In the holy words of Joab. Think thou not that God and the Devil are equal, Learnest thou enough of doctrine, To know that God is greater than can be thought, And hath neither equal nor opposite, The Devil is if anything the opposite, Of Michael, the Captain of the angels, Though truth be told, In the contest between Michael and the Devil, The Devil fared him not well. The dragon wert as a little boy, Standing outside an Emperor’s palace, Shooting spitwads with a peashooter, Because that wert the greatest harm, That he saweth how to do. The Orthodox Church knoweth well enough, ‘The feeble audacity of the demons.’ Read thou well how the Devil crowned St. Job, The Devil and the devils aren’t much, Without the divine permission, And truth be told, Ain’t much with it either: God alloweth temptations to strengthen; St. Job the Much-Suffering emerged in triumph. A novice told of an odd clatter in a courtyard, Asked the Abbot what he should do: “It is just the demons. Pay it no mind,” came the answer. Every devil is on a leash, And the devout are immune to magic. Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: The young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. Wherefore be thou not arrogant towards men, But be ever more arrogant towards devils and the Devil himself: “Blow, and spit on him.”‘
And Redemption agreed. He said, “Faecesbook’s old-school database-like limit on specifying one’s religion are constricted. The facilities are sorely lacking to give one’s religion as, “Alter Christus: “Follower of Jesus” means “Another Christ!””
Thimble asked, “And what of the Arthurian legends?”
Redemption said, “What about them?”
Thimble said, “Please, I want to hear.”
Redemption said, “Well, one can say that there is no option to achieve the Holy Grail, nor to acquire it. The only game in town is to become the Holy Grail. But that is on the periphery.”
iPun said, “I’m no literary critic, nor do I know about the Holy Grail, but it sounds an awful lot to me like you’re holding out on us for an answer.”
Redemption said, “Perhaps the most damning remark about medieval literature is that of all that one of the greatest literary legacies, and the only one on ordinary non-medievalists’ radar, is that of the Arthurian legends.”
Thimble said, “Could you be a little more concrete?”
Redemption said, “Take the figure of Merlin. His name, rendered as ‘Myrddhin’ in Lawhead’s account, was changed to ‘Merlin’ in the Brut in order not to sound like a French swear-word, today ‘merde.’ The Brut, formally the Historia Regum Britanniae, is a twelfth-century example of history as society would like it to be, like some conspiracy theory works today, which is to say that is pseudo-history that today would ordinarily be introduced as fiction, with masterful storytelling but no connection to actual history. Also, the legends were importantly no longer offered in Celtic language, but Latin that could quickly spread through Europe. The legends spread like wildfire through Europe even centuries later, and interestingly spread in the vernacular, possibly carried by the troubadours who would inspire the name of Francis of Assisi.
“But about Merlin specifically. There have been efforts to Christianize him, and not just in recent history: Robert de Boron represents a medieval teller of Arthurian tales who tried to anchor them to Christian doctrine. In Sir Thomas Mallory, the hinge between the medieval flourishing and almost all subsequent English retellings of the legend, Merlin is not called a ‘wizard,’ but a ‘prophet.’ There is in the medieval legends pseudo-Christian working out of pseudo-doctrine that the Devil was to have a son by an almost-perfect virgin who had slipped in her prayers but once, and he would be something like an incarnate Anti-Christ, but Christians fortunately got wind of this and said many powerful prayers, to the effect that Merlin was born the Devil’s son, but without the Devil’s evil, so someone who commanded the Devil’s power was yet good and Christian. And the same is to be said of C.S. Lewis, in whom we read:
“And where would Merlin be?”
“Yes. He’s the really interesting figure. Did the whole thing fail because he died so soon? Has it ever struck you what an odd creation Merlin is? He’s not evil: yet he’s a magician. He is obviously a druid: yet he knows all about the Grail. He’s ‘the devil’s son’: but then Layamon goes out of his way to tell you that the kind of being who fathered Merlin needn’t have been bad after all. You remember: “There dwell in the sky many kinds of wights. Some of them are good, and some work evil.”
“It is rather puzzling. I hadn’t thought of it before.”
“I often wonder,” said Dr. Dimble, “whether Merlin doesn’t represent the last trace of something the later tradition has quite forgotten about—something that became impossible when the only people in touch with the supernatural were either white or black, either priests or sorcerors.
“Perhaps like no other character in literature, C.S. Lewis’s Merlin is ‘the really interesting figure.’ He rivets all attention on himself, and for good reason. The standard distinction between flat and rounded characters in literature has said to be that a rounded character believably surprises the reader. Merlin comes remarkably close to delivering nothing but believable surprises.
“And Lewis has Merlin, and reference to being the Devil’s son; the opening prehistory of the main story has a figure say, ‘Marry, sirs, if Merlin who was the Devil’s son was a true King’s man as ever ate bread, is it not a shame that you, being but the sons of bitches, must be rebels and regicides?’, but even Amazon reviewers have asked why Lewis has Merlin come if he’s not allowed to do anything. And indeed one monumental goal when the Pendragon speaks with him is to shut down every single service Merlin offers to do for him (and finally corner him into one terrifying service).”
Thimble said, “Well and done, but does that one character tarnish into oblivion the entirety of the encyclopedia’s worth of Arthurian legends that have been written?”
Redemption paused, and said, “Now that you mention it, I think it does in a much more direct way than I expected.”
Thimble said, “How’s that?”
Redemption said, “The Arthurian legends represent a never-never land to us, but it shows historical insensitivity to assume that they were realistic fiction to the Brut’s first audience, or Chrétien de Troyes, or Sir Thomas Mallory. The Arthurian legends were a never-neverland when the ink on those pages was still wet: a land in which anything can happen, at least anything wondrous or supernatural. Commerce never sullies the pages, and one of very few peasants to get a physical description has a striking description that seems to describe a pachyderm more than any human. The dates for Arthurian legends to spread through Europe like wildfire are twelfth century and following, but the dates given as ostensible historical references for the original events are fifth or sixth century. In other words, the medievals telling the legends lived about as far after Arthur’s supposed time as we are after them. There are a similar number of centuries in between.
“Furthermore, you get comments, in relation to chivalry and courtly love, that ‘People don’t really love nowadays, not like they loved then,’ which is a perfect recipe for the same thing as you get today in the Orthodox Church with a nuclear family all wearing cassocks like monks and priests, and having an Irish last name. It’s an attempt to re-create a past that never existed, and that is a gateway drug not just to silliness but trouble.”
Thimble said, “Yes, but are stories about never-never land really as bad as a baptized Merlin?”
Redemption said, “I’m trying to think of a pleasant analogy. An unpleasant analogy might be to ask if soft porn is really as bad as hard porn. We ought ideally steer clear of both.
“In the desert, monks were perennially warned of the danger of escapism. When escape seems like something we need, it is a temptation, and the proper way of dealing with it is to keep on praying. Escape and the occult both have a sense that we know better than God what circumstances we should be in, and not see the here and now as a gift from God the Father. The whole temptation is a hydra. Whatever else Muslims have wrong, there is a very good reason why, historically, Muslim science may have been very good at observation, but very bad at entertaining competing theories: the basic objection is, in Christian terms, ‘How can you want anything but what God in his Sovereignty has willed?’ And this repugnance stems from something Western Christianity has lost in its transition to modernity.
“And this is why Lewis’s distinction between ‘fairy magic’, meaning fairy-tale magic, which he saw as harmless and most often supplying plot devices, and ‘real magic’, meaning realistic depiction of occult practice, which he condemned, does not hold well enough. Of course the distinction is to be made, but when one reads the Chronicles of Narnia and reads Aslan saying, ‘This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there,’ one wants to be in Narnia in escape and not to set down Narnia to experience real joy. To wish to be in Narnia represents the same passion, in the classical sense, as to wish to be Merlin.
“And if a tree may be judged by its fruit, the many fantasy authors who have followed Lewis in writing medieval fantasy have scarcely understood medieval history or been Christians, writing for Christian edification. Even as far as escape goes, Aslan sends all the children back from Narnia to our world, and says that trips to Narnia are only appropriate up to a certain age. In some subsequent works, the traveler from our world never returns: he remains in escape.”
Thimble asked, “So we’re best off leaving the Arthurian legends, and Merlin, with the medieval world?”
Redemption said, “I have trouble answering that question Aye or Nay.”
Thimble asked, “Why? You see shades of grey?”
Redemption said, “No. I don’t believe we’ve left the medieval world.”
Thimble asked, “How’s that?”
Redemption said, “I don’t believe we’ve left the medieval world. I believe we’ve delved deeper into it than any figure who died before modern or postmodern history. If you know anything about how the katana—the sword that was called the soul of the samarai—is made, you would know that a smith makes a particular iron block, then stretches it and folds it in on itself, then that is hammered until it is stretched out, then folded in on itself, and the process is repeated many, many times. When the manifold steel is shaped into a sword, the blade is sharp as a razor, incredibly strong, and will last for ages, perhaps for centuries. The medieval West, isolated from the Greek Fathers, then later on infatuated with “the Philosopher” Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas’s own great harm, and with its stream of Renaissances, represents that block of steel stretched out and folded in on itself. The chain continues for more than the more spectacular eccentricities to be found in the postmodern world. But the future sword blade stretched out and folding in on itself is a process of and by the medieval world, and a process that will perhaps continue until that terrible day when the Lord comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead—and may help pave the way for it!”
iPun said, “Do you not make allowances for greater ignorance in the past?”
Redemption said, “I do not make any allowance for greater ignorance in the past, although allowances for different ignorance in the past are more negotiable. You, personally, would do well to make allowances for greater ignorance in the present.”
iPun said, “Do you not deny that we live in the ongoing wake of an explosion of knowledge in the sciences?”
Redemption said, “Knowledge can be ignorance. There has been a shift, as the steel has folded in on itself, of moving from heart-knowledge, knowledge of the whole person, to head-knowledge, to a knowledge that in its proper use serves as a moon to the sun of heart-knowledge. And in that sense we have gone from seeing by sunlight to being expert at seeing by moonlight. In the heyday of Arthurian legends, Rome warned its members about “idle romances,” and even someone as foundational as Chrétien de Troyes has a privileged woman reading a romance on top of a sweatshop. As far as an explosion goes, we are spiritual heirs to the wreckage of a bomb exploding, so that even in Africa it is common to have multiple mobile devices per house. Lewis wrote of the press as spewing Western venom across the world; we’ve done his press one better, or perhaps many better for that. And the press of his day did not match the vile content on the web, nor accept as normal the intrusion of unsolicited porn, except that today you need a pill to make love.
“It is as if you stopped using the light of the sun himself, and would only see by the light of the moon, and as events unfolded you regained the natural human ability to see truly but imperfectly by the light of moon and star, and then you invented night vision systems that let you see by infrared indication of heat, or the little bit of green light that takes the lion share of natural light by night, and then to your pride combined them to make one cadaverous combination. And in all of this you remain in Plato’s cave, and will not step out in the light of the sun, and not only because the people who see by moonlight would call it lunacy if you helped them see by the light of the sun.”
Thimble said, “And in the light only of the moon herself, intimacy itself turns artificial.”
Redemption said no more.
Gain flipped the page of the book, and read:
…accounts of Satan as God’s jester. For all of us do the will of God; that is not the question. The real question is whether we will do God’s will as instruments, like Satan and Judas, or Sons, as St. Peter and St. John.
That is why Christians need not fear the Antichrist, even if he is knocking at the door. For Satan will ever remain God’s jester, and though an Antichrist be possessed of God’s jester or not, to Christians there is no Antichrist and Christ is ever present to those who only “keep their eyes on Jesus.” Do you fear not being able to buy and sell if you do not accept the Mark of the Beast on your hand and forehead? Know then that, as is said in the Philokalia, a man can live without eating (or drinking) if God so wills? Do not worry that the grace of God which so strengthened the martyrs in ages past need fail if you cannot buy bread or perhaps water. God is merciful, and no one can use force to stop God from being gracious to you. Remain faithful, that is all. Christians may, in the end, be saved simply because they refused the mark of the beast. Many monastics would have given everything to buy the grace of God at such a light price!
Gain heard footsteps on the floor behind the door, snapped shut the book and turned red, and then slowly opened it again.
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.
Lecturer’s note: This lecture is modelled after Randy Pausch’s famous Last Lecture, and is in some way a satellite to it even when I disagree with him. If you haven’t heard of Randy Pausch, this lecture might make more sense after hearing Dr. Pausch’s lecture first.
A humble attempt to follow in the footsteps of Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture.”
I grew up on technologies but became more and more suspicious of inattentive use of technologies as marketed to us. Enough so that my reaction to having my cell phone disappear was almost, “I have a GPS. Beyond that, I might be experiencing an early start on one of the privileges of monasticism already,” a reaction that would not surprise a reader of The Luddite’s Guide to Technology.
I am also a former gamer, and I have long wanted to put down on paper why one might unplug from games as I have unplugged from TV as far as I reasonably can. “Everything is permitted, but not everything is beneficial,” and this applies to games and iPhones apps alike.
Let me start by looking at the archtypal Game.
In the movie The Game, there is a game which the player is dumped into that has a profound element of transcendence. Nothing that is portrayed as happening is presented as intrinsically supernatural; the creators, so far as I know, are materialists, and so far as I can recall the audience is never taxed with a request for even a willing suspension of disbelief: the viewer is in the movie and in the end never asked to entertain that there could have been even one faintest magical blessing from the tiniest fairy.
Nonetheless, there is something that is transcendent in the movie, and though Hollywood normally capitalizes movie titles, capitalization convention is not the real reason I believe that this is not a movie about a “game,” with a lowercase G, but the Game, with a very uppercase G. Some very bizarre things happen at the beginning of The Game that are ordinarily what Christians would associate with the bizarre operations of demons, and there is a long plot with questions about what is real and shifting sands until everything is unveiled at the end as impressive, but believable on terms of materialism. On the recommendation of my brother I also watched The Spanish Prisoner and The Usual Suspects, but I was disappointed in because they did not drop you into an obvious maze of a Game specifically. In retrospect, I was disappointed after my brother recommended to me some astonishingly similar movies to one which with I was enthralled. Nonetheless the other movies’ essentially isomorphic plots unfold with much shifting sand and bewilderment about what is real, until in the last minute everything is clear and the stage magician explains, on materialist terms, how all the big illusions were pulled off.
My sister-in-law’s mother, an independent bookstore employee, has talked about how people have a right to know what they’re getting in a book, and (without divulging explicit details for the rest of us to struggle to un-see mental images) talks about speaking with patrons about The Hunger Games to let them know that they contain XYZ. However, everything I’ve known about the books is that they are books dealing with an epic Game, capital G: again, shifting sand, a hidden rules game, and the question of whether the strangeness of the details are literally supernatural really seems to matter less than one might think at first. Apparently another capital ‘G’ Game.
If I may pick a title that has not to my knowledge been Hollywoodified, the milder An Invitation to the Game has characters trapped in an unfortunate ersatz leisure class in a ruined world; someone gives children golden tickets to go to play a game, and they get temporarily knocked out of the game when they make a mistake that would kill them; and when they say in the game, “I wish So-and-So were here,” and the other person, who had been much better off, suddenly gets kicked down into the leisure class. Eventually, the game becomes real, and a pod of eight kids are sent among others to begin a new life on a beautiful new world such as they had virtually visited in the Game. Now in this instance the roller coaster activity is rated PG instead of being rated R, but we are still talking about something transcendent: the Game, with a capital G please.
One point is that whether or not the entire tale of the Game is told as involving a single physically occult feature, the Game is occult. It has the same heart as magic. For a fantasy version, The Labyrinth that enthralled me very much asks for major willing suspensions of disbelief, but as a hidden rules game, the shifting sand and the question of what is really going on has the same heart as The Game in any materialist implementation. The heart of the Game has an occult resonance such as I dissected in AI as an Arena for Magical Thinking Among Skeptics, and this is not irrelevant to the heart of games, in which something is overlaid atop real life.
C.S. Lewis, in and outside discussion for The Screwtape Letters, says that demons have two lies to offer us: that they do not exist, or that they are all-powerful. He says that which one you believe matters less than one might think: they are both devastating, and he asks the reader to avoid both errors if we are to have spiritual health. He also, and more pointedly, posits that demons might have a holy grail (he does not use such language) in the “Materialist Magician,” given that demons are equally satisfied to make of us a Materialist or a Magician, but it is not at all clear how one would go about making both of the same man. I would pose that The Game, The Spanish Prisoner and The Usual Suspects offer a maelstrom of magic, unveiled to run materialistically at the very ending. The Game, whether or not it is available to us in real life, is the locus of Materialist Magic. The ordinary (g)ames we can buy, download, or create, and become absorbed in, are never as impressive as the Game, but they participate in its Materialist Magic. The mechanism appears materialist; the resonance is in a real sense occult.
A journey of repentance
The usual reasons Protestants leave role playing game is that one is in one’s heart, pretending to do magic or do other things. The issue of violence may be treated less forcefully, but I remember in college when one friend was trying to recruit me back to Dungeons & Dragons, and he made the point that Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t just battle. He talked about how in a recent campaign, in actions that the players imagined, his character had used magic and charmed a jeweler, and conned him into giving him jewels, and he didn’t say much more than “bad example” so that his picture of Dungeons & Dragons being more edifying was saying that his character:
My conscience boiled down to the question, essentially, of “Would you be right to do with your hands what you are doing vicariously in your heart by saying that your character does XYZ?” And I left Dungeons & Dragons with concerns of imagining one’s viceroy to be using magic and violence well beyond the bounds of any version of “just war” theory I’ve heard Christians assert. People training with firearms can be told, “The second last thing you want to do is pull that trigger.” Trying to “stop” real, live opponents with a real, live gun is one notch away from being the last resort. By contrast, Dungeons & Dragons makes getting into at least some fights to be desirable, a form of entertainment, and a way for characters to gain experience to advance in the game. The combat rules are very different from traditional duels in the West, where there was a protocol to try to avoid duels, but usually there was not so much a winner or a loser as:
One disputant who died one to two weeks later as a direct result of injuries sustained in the duel, and:
One disputant who died six to eight weeks later as a results of indirect infections stemming from injuries sustained during the duel.
I’ve never heard of a game in Dungeons & Dragons where there was a significant chance of dying due to infection from a wound from an enemy’s dirty blade. I’ve heard of pacifist characters every once in a blue moon, or players refusing to use violence, but I’ve never heard of gashes and wounds that modern medicine could heal ending up getting infected and a character dying from sepsis.
But the real, central reason Dungeons & Dragons and kin have been called demon games is vicarious magic use, and I believe that the temptation and what Orthodox would call the passion are the same thing. Some time after leaving Dungeons & Dragons, I decided that imaginary play as such was not wrong, and pioneered and playtested The Minstrel’s Song, set in an unfallen world. And possibly it could be played in weaning someone from harder-core activity, and I missed the second point argued in Escaping Reality: The Danger of Role Playing: that role playing games, including The Minstrel’s Song, deliver an escape from reality.
And this brings me to various points that are often not given any connection with gaming. It is a spiritual problem that is like stepping on a water balloon: a problem which I called, for lack of any other name that was better, The Hydra. Though I do not mention it in the article, I think of a very unpopular website I made in the early days of the web, called “The Revenge of the Hydra.” (If you visited, nine popup windows appeared, and if you closed one of them down, two more appeared.)
“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”
“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” added Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
When I read this, many times, I never was amped up to find Christ. I didn’t want Christ, at least not then. I wanted to be in Narnia with Aslan. And stay there in Narnia. And this relates to a recurring thread of what might be called my “sin life” that I found entirely deadly. And there is a spiritual poison I found in the Chronicles of Narnia that I have reproduced to varying degrees of my own work. Within the Steel Orb contains much real wisdom, but is laced with escapism.
On the point of escapism, I would briefly comment that monks, in the ancient world, were perennially warned about the perils of escape, which when they were tempted, were advised to pray through the temptation until they were through it. And without further ado, I quote below a work that already expresses my
concern about escape and Narnia…
Some of the heads of the Hydra sound related to gaming; some sound unrelated. For instance, I long had a futile desire for something from another world, and my heart ached when I read a story about a saint being given a ring that had miraculous powers: which I coveted, not for the miracle, but for a ring that (it seemed) did not have its origin from earth.
I’ve heard of an alcoholic who had a rum problem, and gave up rum altogether and tried whiskey, until he found he had a whiskey problem and foreswore whiskey in favor of vodka. In my case it was more a matter of developing a Moonlight Sonata problem, and then avoiding Beethoven and finding I had a problem with swimming, and dried up inside and out and then found myself repeatedly tripping over my shoelaces. The number of substances an alcoholic might get in trouble with can all be identified as including something you can get from a liquor store; the The Hydra neither begins or ends with (g)ames, though its trunk is hinted at in the (G)ame.
What we don’t see when we look into The Hydra:
The Silhouette and the Full-Color Portrait
G.K. Chesterton, writing on an immediate topic of madness (and not games in particular):
Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument. Suppose, for instance, it were the first case that I took as typical; suppose it were the case of a man who accused everybody of conspiring against him. If we could express our deepest feelings of protest and appeal against this obsession, I suppose we should say something like this: “Oh, I admit that you have your case and have it by heart, and that many things do fit into other things as you say. I admit that your explanation explains a great deal; but what a great deal it leaves out! Are there no other stories in the world except yours; and are all men busy with your business? Suppose we grant the details; perhaps when the man in the street did not seem to see you it was only his cunning; perhaps when the policeman asked you your name it was only because he knew it already. But how much happier you would be if you only knew that these people cared nothing about you! How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.” Or suppose it were the second case of madness, that of a man who claims the crown, your impulse would be to answer, “All right! Perhaps you know that you are the King of England; but why do you care? Make one magnificent effort and you will be a human being and look down on all the kings of the earth.” Or it might be the third case, of the madman who called himself Christ. If we said what we felt, we should say, “So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be! What a little heaven you must inhabit, with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love more marvellous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”
Today Chesterton’s use of the term “infinite” is opaque; a high school student studying classic geometry will be told of finite line segments and infinite lines, but the term “infinite circle” does not arise. However, there is a sort of logic that connects with where the term “infinite” comes from. It means, “without end.” On a geometric line segment, you can go a certain distance in either direction and have to stop cold, while on an infinite and proper line, you can go as far as you want in each direction and never meet an end. The same thing can be said of a circle that modern mathematicians would call “finite;” you can travel along the curve of the circle as far as you want in either direction and never have to stop before the circle runs out of curve and you’ve reached the end of the circle. In that sense Chesterton is saying something mathematically as well as literature-wise coherent when he talks about a circle that is infinite as any other, but cramped. And though Chesterton does not speak of it, there is something relevant in the Circle whose Center is everywhere and whose perimeter is nowhere.
I said that Chesterton is talking about madness and not games, but I caught myself crossing my fingers… but may have found a way to say it without crossing my fingers. Here’s what I think I can say: I see no evidence that Chesterton was thinking about games in any sense, and I do not recall reading him condemn games when he mentions them elsewhere, much less make the clain that I make here. None the less, a game is a way to step into another, smaller circle. It is the Materialist Magician’s way. In addition there is a scale of hard- to soft-core games, and I remember when I was trying to push the envelope on gaming, from tabletop role playing into a (re)invention of real life role playing, to make it harder core, that an occultist who respected me more than I think was due gently said that this is how magic works, and it’s real enough when you get a call at 3:00 AM to take down a Brujah (a type of vampire in the “World of Darkness” role playing game Vampire, the Masquerade), it feels about as real as you can get.
It is known even among secular behavioral health professionals that involvement in the occult can make you lose your mind and end up detached from the real world; as another head of the Hydra, the nexus of games, gaming and gamers seems too close a relative to this to dismiss the danger. The figure of the role player who has fallen off the deep end is known to role players as much as anyone else, and I can’t help but sense an implied need to establish that role playing is OK even among geeks, as stated in Lifehacker’s The Surprising Benefits of Role Playing Games and How to Get Started. Games in general are attractive enough, at least to some, that one might be surprised that they would need defending, as it is a pariah Protestant thing to warn about the evils of role playing game. The “Surpising Benefits” mentioned in the title evoke a French proverb, “Qui s’excuse, s’accuse,” literally “He who excuses himself (by that very fact) accuses himself:” or more loosely, “You only rationalize when you know you’re wrong.” Lifehacker mentions that role playing is a way to get instant friends. The same is true among bikers; come alone on a motorcycle to a group of bikers and you have instant friends. But there is something unsavory to both alike.
What does a gamer have if gaming is taken away? It’s not about changing which part of a silhouette you are in, but seeing a portrait in full color.
Watching a DVD of The Game is a whole lot more attractive of a proposition than turning around your chair and facing the wall while other people are at least watching the DVD; and if your pleasure and sense of well-being is drawn from the Game, only the Chesterton quote really hints at what could possibly be better if you think losing your participation in the Game and games is simply turning around and staring at a wall.
But in fact it is not a matter of being more constricted. G.K. Chesterton, if applied to gaming, does not stop at giving arguments or critiques. He wants to give the gamer air. He wants the small circles to be abandoned, not to be even more constricted, but to enter that Circle whose Center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. He wants gamers to let go of their Game Master’s plans to be swept into the galaxies by the Lord of the Dance. A famed Far Side cartoon says:
Some humor provokes laughter by pointing out what is clearly and painfully true. But this point, and even its truth, is accented by saying something ludicrous. The days before television, in the West, were not characterized by people vegging out in front of a blank wall. People often spent time in what geeks call “The Big Room,” namely outside. Children read, threw paper airplanes, built things, spent time playing with pets, built model airplanes, danced, manipulated physical toys such as jacks, played hide and seek, and for that matter played some make-believe games that bore a living and healthier organic link to today’s grown-up role-playing games. And what I believe is offered to gamers is not to turn a chair around and stare at the wall; it is to turn your chair a bit, get up, and go to the Big Room and get some fresh air. And start, just start, to see the Divine Face in full, living color that is not even hinted at in even a remote white part of a silhouette.
The Apocalyptic Anti-Game
There have been several earlier works which I tried to write, but the time was not ripe, or at least I had not grown enough to write them. I tried and failed to write an article called “The Luddite’s Guide to Technology” but now consider The Luddite’s Guide to Technology to be one of my best books, even if it was years before a similar voice was heard in The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul. At much less of an interval, I tried and failed to write an article on “St. Clive” before writing St. Clive: An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis (the Kindle edition was for several days the #1 topselling new title in “Christian Literature and Arts.”) This work, incidentally, began life as an attempt to write a dialogue called “Medieval Anti-Game”, in which the Middle Ages are not the medieval theming of classic role play, but the historical root that has now developed into what has now been called “Western cultural singularity;” we live in the logic of the medieval West played out; and the Middle Ages were thought of as a bridge that can go both ways and that we can follow the medieval bridge the other way into a greater sanity: the Middle Ages offer a kind Anti-Game, rightly understood. It is increasingly difficult to fail to see that we live in one spectacular unfolding singularity.We seem to be in the kinds of circumstances where saints are made. It is not in easy times that the arm of the Lord bares its power.
I had earlier hoped to wind this down with the classic monastic advice given when one is tempted to escape: “Persevere in alternating prayer and work, and one can eventually emerge a victor,” and with an anecdote that one of the times I repented of another layer of this vice I desired, instead of God putting me somewhere else as I sought escape, that a loving God had put me in quite an awesome place without escape, and that in the here and now where God has placed me I am in a very real sense in communion with the stars in the sky and the salt in the sea. And that is where the lesson ended when I began working on this article… but there is more.
In a discussion where conservatives said that liberals were well enough able to have one point on which they were conservative, one friend described a liberal launching off about how bad the possibility is that we might be ruled by one world government. My friend mentioned commenting, “I suppose this would be a bad time to mention the Book of Revelation,” and watching the color drain from the other person’s face. Gamers who have played Call of C’Thulu, in which a sleeping Old One is coming to life and wants to destroy the world, might let go of the game only to come to terms with the possibility that we might be in something very much like the Call of C’Thulu, in which an Old One that has been trying to come to this world may in fact show up. Such is called the Antichrist, whether he will openly appear in two years or two millenia.
Another friend (from what source I do not know and do not know whether I should trust), claimed that there was a prophecy that the present Pope would be the last real Pope and after him would only be anti-Popes. I do not know if that is true, but I am not terribly impressed with Poop Francis. He says deliberately ambiguous things that can be interpreted in an (o)rthodox way by Roman standards, but can be read in very different ways and sound pretty much like something a leftist journalist would want once his words pass through the alimentary canal of mainstream journalism.
It is increasingly known on the left and the right what Amazon represents, not only in closing regular bookstores but even in teaching bookworms to own fewer and fewer physical books, and rent rather than own Kindle books. I remember years back reading Richard John Neuhaus sounding the alarm that all of the major components of National Socialism were being redeemed in academic circles. I also remember my grammar professor at the Sorbonne saying how he would never forgive a former French president for earning political advantage by splitting the right into the right and the far-right: in hard economic times, giving all kinds of at least apparently preferential treatment to immigrants, and then insisting that the far-right Le Pen be given ample coverage and time to speak (“Les votes pour Le Pen sont a cent pourcent les troues de balle!“—”One hundred percent of the votes for Le Pen are bullet holes!”). Now we have a new white nationalism emerging after racism being un-respectable in most conservative circles for a while, and (I haven’t paid attention to what is this year’s installment) the taking down of Confederate flags and statues of Confederates is a masterful way to get white nationalism alive and kicking (I once wrote an Onion-style article about how frustrated filmmakers in our day erected another statue of a smiling Martin Luther King because they couldn’t figure out how to deal in film with their hero’s difficulties keeping something in his pants). But the problem extends beyond white nationalism. And it’s worse.
National Socialism in very large measure motivated by eugenics, one pillar of which was to hope that certain races be eliminated. Google, which no longer goes by the motto “Don’t be evil” of its former days, is open and direct in supporting the successor to eugenics: transhumanism, Eugenics 2.0, a transhumanism which I discuss in part of my thesis. A eugenic hope was that the only people left in the world would be people who were sufficiently white and acted sufficiently white. Transhumanism goes further, no longer satisfied to phase specific human races out, but instead hoping in its ideal that the human race itself be phased out in a posthuman science fiction eschaton. And what eugenics was to Nazi Germany, transhumanism is to Google. It’s just in an incubation stage.
Other things are playing out in the small. An increasing number of young people in the U.S. aren’t interested in driving; they are also not interested in earning their own income. One deacon I know said, “Conversation is like texting for adults,” and the concern is raised that youth are learning social skills that are anemic at best. Some people have said that Romans 1 might as well have been written about people today… and furthermore that reading Romans 1 aloud might be legally classified as hate speech in a political climate increasingly resonant with Terreurs past and present. Meanwhile smartphones are no longer any kind of rich kid’s syndrome; 85% of African homes have a television and many families incur debt for multiple mobile devices.
We’ve had several shellshocks now: Islam is finding its kairos or decisive moment, the U.S. Constitution is used to defend gay rights over and against the free and proper exercise of religion, and it’s been something like two decades since I heard journalists giving attention to our society’s increasing use of porn. I don’t think we’ve seen the end.
But there is more than this. When we have let go of the last dear shred of games and gaming, what we may need to face is that were are in fact in a real Game, that we are in a real game more spectacular than the most brilliant of created games, with the best possible Game Master of all. And there is one more thing to say: as an undead pirate in Pirates of the Carribean tells an unbelieving woman, “You best start believing ghost stories, Miss Turner… You’re in one.”
Read e.g. The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul. We may be the last to remember the medieval institution of face-to-face universities; perhaps as discussed in The Dying of the Light Christian colleges and universities may have disengaged from the Christian faith but they have kept as strongly as Anselm of Canterbury a face-to-face conversation for centuries; and companies and even unions may act unlike the practices of a medieval guild, but until recently work was part and parcel where you went and not only what you did. There is an unbroken stream of saints shining in Heaven, and they still beckon us to join their august College. And though we may only go into outdoor parks for picnics as a special occasion, comparable to medieval “Maying,” we do much more than the dungeoneer in classic Dungeons & Dragons: we are summoned to a company in age-long war against am ancient red dragon with seven heads and ten horns. We may be in a unique place to live cyberpunk; in a spiritual sense many of us are there already. And lastly, we may be in something more “Call of C’Thulu” than “Call of C’Thulu” itself, where an Old One has long been knocking on our door, and the door may be open soon. It may be that everything that is compelling in role play is in the real world setting offered to us today, where all games come together and, having long repented from the foolishness of infantile games, we find before us an embossed card saying, “An invitation to The Game“, and if we look at it closely, it is covered with etched letters saying, “Love, God.”
“St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis adopts an unusual perspective because most examinations of the spirituality of C.S. Lewis come from Western spiritual perspectives, and few adopt the approach of C.J.S. Hayward, who opens his book with a Lewis-type series of letters to a guardian angel, The Angelic Letters, a Heavenly analogue to The Screwtape Letters. The book is even more distinctive in reflecting back on Lewis from a perspective meant to be thoroughly Orthodox.
Readers might anticipate a dry analytical style typical of too many Lewis analysis and assessments, but Hayward includes a wry sense of observational humor, evident in the first lines of his survey where a reflection on scholarly footnote traditions ventures into comedic cultural inspection: As it is now solidly established practice to add an a footnote skittishly defending one’s own choices regarding “gendered pronouns,” I would like to quote a couple of tweets. In response to a fellow user tweeting, “Nobody is safe in today’s society, man. It’s like walking on eggshells constantly. Someone will be offended, will be out to get you. It’s exhausting… and, I think somewhat that social media is to blame,” Titania McGrath coolly answered, “The phrase ‘walking on eggshells’ is a microaggression against vegans. Reported and blocked. [Emoji depicting a white woman tending to her nails.]”
This said, Lewis was a huge influence on Hayward’s Evangelical upbringing and religious perspectives and the starting point to his “pilgrimage from Narnia” (as one of his poems is titled) into Orthodoxy. St. Clive is not to be considered another scholarly inspection rehashing familiar spiritual pathways, but a unique compilation of Lewis-like reflections steeped in Orthodox beliefs and inspections for everyday readers. It produces a compilation of pieces that attempt to sound like Lewis himself, but which are original works meant to directly address these reflections and beliefs. This book is exciting, almost as if a hitherto unknown book of original works by C.S. Lewis had suddenly come to light.
The writings are presented in four sections that hold distinctly different tones and objectives. The first “…quotes him, builds on him, and challenges him to draw conclusions he may not have liked.” The second focuses more on Hayward’s writings and style, but with a nod to Lewis’ influence. The third section addresses Lewis’ affection for the book The Consolation of Philosophy and offers perspectives from Hayward on how its ideas and Lewis’s expand different aspects of spiritual reflection; while the fourth section offers bibliographic keys to further pieces in the Lewis/Hayward tradition for newcomers who may be piqued by this collection’s lively inspections, and who want more insights from other sources.
As far as the contentions themselves, “St. Clive” is a journeyman’s venture into the traditions of the Orthodox Church and its relationship to mysticism. It provides a lively set of discourses considering such varied topics as the failure of Christianity to superimpose itself on the pagan custom of Halloween and the notion that science is just one of the “winnowing forks” available for denoting pathways beneficial to mankind (natural selection being yet another; especially as it applies to diet choices).
By now it should be evident that a series of dichotomies exist surrounding this effort, which is ‘neither fish nor fowl’ but a delightful compendium of reflections that represent something new. It’s not a scholarly work per se, but its language will appeal to many in the scholarly community (particularly since any discussions of Lewis usually embrace this community more or less exclusively). It’s also not an attempt to channel Lewis’ approach and tone, though these reflective pieces are certainly reminiscent of C.S. Lewis. And it’s not a singular examination of spiritual perspectives, but offers a wider-ranging series of discussions that defy pat categorization.
Indeed, this is one of the unique aspects of “St. Clive.” What other treatise holds the ability to reach lay and scholarly audiences alike, creates a wider-ranging series of connections between his works and similar writings, and expands upon many concepts with an astute hand to spiritual, philosophical, and social reflection?
None: and this not only sets “St. Clive:” An Eastern Orthodox Author Looks Back at C.S. Lewis apart from any other considerations, but makes it accessible to a lay audience that might have only a minimal familiarity with Lewis or the Orthodox Way.
You can say that it’s a work of art, but the reason I’m posting this is because after writing it, with repeated allegations of ironic hypocrisy, and asked him permission to post the whole work (including the posting of his that I replied to), he said, “I don’t want toadies.” In other words, he forcefully put something he really meant, and then responded majestically to a work picking his work apart from bit to bit.
I miss that.
The basic principle I was appealing might be called “the retortion principle” or “the self-referential incoherence principle.” This principle is a theoretically modest principle, without the messianic fantasies of other winnowing forks, but it is pronounced in its effect and what it can winnow.
The now-unpopular “verification principle” says that we should only accept is verifiable from empirical data or by bare logic. And if we follow retortion, we find that the principle calls for its own rejection. It is, after something like a century, something we have no known way to verify apart from its standards.
If I may provide a pair of fictitious examples, compare the following two statements a Christian might make:
Everything we say should be documented to a particular Bible literal chapter and verse citation.
Everything we say should be documented to a particular Bible literal chapter and verse citation (1 Cor 4:6).
There is a big difference between these two. The second example may or may not be true and it may or may not be a good and responsible analysis. I do not affirm its truth. But it does not disqualify itself.
By contrast, the first disqualifies itself immediately and without any need to check any external reference.
And I have seen many, many things that fail this winnowing fork, modest and limited as it may appear to be.
To provide one example, let me dismiss a couple of distractions for my purposes here, before showing an example C.S. Lewis seemed to be alarmed that others had so much difficulty seeing.
First objection not really analyzed here: The theory of evolution, which is no longer a theory of evolution, has new features developing in geological eyeblinks in ways that make no statistical sense that is apparently reconcilable to the fossil records. Once evolutionists mocked a “God of the gaps,” where God lives in the areas unilluminated by present science. Now we have a “mechanism of producing new life forms of the gaps,” that seem to find the generation of new life-forms only in the gaps of our understanding of the fossil record.
Second objection not really analyzed here: Some life-forms show mechanisms that are at least partly irreducible in their complexity, and it does not make sense statistically to assert that the basic Darwinian mechanism produces irreducibly complex biological mechanisms.
I do not ask you to avoid either objection; speaking as a mathematician, none of the people who have tried to convince me of today’s “theory of evolution” have found a way to assert their claims in a way that is statistically believable. However, I am mentioning these to ask that they be put aside as irrelevant to C.S. Lewis’s concern with any form of Darwinian evolution.
C.S. Lewis’s concern is essentially that if, as common biology implies, our thoughts and emotions and such all boil down to the biochemical, then we have reason to assert we have brains good enough to find food, but not reason to assert that we have brains good enough to find out the theory of evolution. A biological reaction is not, in and of itself, true. A biological reaction is not, in and of itself, false. A biological reaction is a biological reaction that is mistakenly classified as a sort of thing that can be “true” or “false.” Romantic love is just biochemical, and the same razor that slices through romantic love cuts itself on the backswing. The explanation explains away all explanation, including itself.
This is to me, a subtle and harder-to-see case of the same principle of retortion, that we should reject blades that cut themselves off in the backswing. The verification principle is self-referentially incoherent. In regards to postmodernism, neat analysis may be easier once postmodernism has been dead for centuries, but it has been commented broadly that relativism is always relativism for others’ principles, not one’s own. In a footnote, C.S. Lewis’s discussion of “The Green Book” in The Abolition of Man, discusses the authors’ own values and assumptions, documented by repeated quotes, as being just what was fashionable in certain social circles at a particular time. The authors have cut off values and assumptions, and this in principle and not just practice, but they are free to let assertion of those opinions concretely trump the principle they have asserted, which cuts up all values into meaninglessness.
In a philosophical theology class, I mentioned some argument of retortion, and the professor commented that thesis are often known to use retortion. He did not say exactly why that may be, but one possible reason, perhaps tacit, is a gentlemen’s agreement that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. This leaves at least some theists free to throw stones, because some theists themselves live in thick-walled steel fortresses, at least as far as retortion is concerned. Right or wrong as theism may be, you do not need to contradict yourself from the start if you are to believe in the Christian God. You do need to contradict yourself from the start to be a materialist, because if materialism is true, no human biochemical state can in principle ever be true, and that includes belief in materialism.
I mention as possible a gentleman’s agreement; I wish to go further and say that people with self-referentially incoherent beliefs have a vested interest in not having self-referential incoherence be the sort of thing one brings up in polite company. It is attractive to have a sweeping principle that cuts through all nonsense to a core of real, genuine truth, and there is something very grand in sentiment in saying we should only believe what is demonstrated from sensory data (no comments from the peanut gallery about how we believe in an external world that extends beyond a solipsistic self, please), or logic itself. That sounds grand, striking, strong. Meanwhile, asking “Does it make a special exception in its own case?” is a much humbler-sounding question, not striking, not grand, but nonetheless a useful winnowing fork.
I would not make this argument central to any theism, and not to my own. I am Eastern Orthodox, and the Orthodox Way is much more about debugging one’s own vices than debugging poor philosophy. But I would propose, as a footnote deeply buried in the main text, that we might not be justified as adulating something so grand as the verification principle, but in apologetics and engagement with people who believe differently, this footnote might be worth looking up.