Halloween: A Solemn Farewell


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I remember, from when I was a little boy, that I asked my parents some question about Halloween, and I was told that I would be welcome to dress up, but not as something occult or macabre, like a witch or a zombie. My Mom helped me put together several homemade costumes, and my parents accompanied me for years of trick-or-treating. I was, in essence, invited to celebrate Halloween as a secular holiday (in time, it became my second favorite holiday), but not to celebrate ghoulishness.

Some readers may see this as needless legalism about something harmless. A few Christians who have concerns about Halloween might wonder if I was being invited to participate in something un-Christian. But back in the eighties, where it was considered superstition to believe that witches really existed, my parents took seriously something that more people take seriously today: not everything about Halloween is trivial or absolutely harmless.

In retrospect, I am quite grateful for this decision, and I respect it, much as I appreciate their decision to limit my time watching television, while encouraging me to play outside, read books, and tinker with mechanical things. (I do not own a television now, and I am glad not to have one.)

Not, in particular, that I feel any guilt about dressing up as my favorite TV character (MacGyver), or creating homemade costumes, one of which won an award. But there seemed to be, if not absolute innocence, at least a grey area. There are many things I disagreed (and disagree) with my parents about, but I really saw no need to reconsider what my parents taught me here. Even if I was trying to smoke Halloween without inhaling anything macabre, there seemed to be a reasonable case for this attempt to “smoke, but not inhale.” I believed that I was succeeding in taking Halloween à la carte and dressing up without participating in anything either my parents or I would have objected to.

But something has changed. Even though it has again become fashionable for adults (as well as children) to dress up as Halloween, I am finding that I have concerns about what exactly it is that is fashionable. It seemed to be the sort of thing you could least give the benefit of the doubt, but that seems a harder benefit to give now. There are other things going on in this occult awakening; I would like to look at herbs. Perhaps people have thought of herbs simply as a seasoning for cooks to use. This is no longer true. It is no longer enough to say that people also see herbs as a natural alternative to chemically manufactured medicines, even if that is no doubt true. Herbs are part of a picture that is changing with a magical awakening. Seeing ads for herbs for witches’ use and growing witches’ gardens is the tip of an iceberg. Herbs are microcosm of a picture that is changing.

Before I go on, let me be very clear about something, as I am going to be talking a fair bit about herbs.

There is an old Orthodox saying that talks about spending Church money: “If you have two small coins, you use one to buy bread for the offering, and you use the other to buy flowers for the altar.” The point isn’t really about herbs, but it is entirely appropriate that herbs come to mind even when making a point that isn’t really about herbs. A great many of the holiest things in Orthodoxy come from herbs: flowers to adorn the icons regularly, adorning the whole Church along with other herbs for the greatest festivities; herbal aromatic resins making incense; olive oil, mingled possibly with herbs, for every sacred anointing, wood as the most fitting material for icons, and bread and wine for the greatest and holiest rite there is. There is one rite labelled as the rite for the blessing of herbs, but herbs are blessed on a number of other occasions as well. Nature, including herbs, keeps coming up in the liturgy.

But you really cannot understand what this means until you come to the tale of herbs, if you remember that trees are herbs. I am thinking about two trees in particular.

One of these two trees was set in the center of a garden of unequalled splendor, and our first mother looked at its fruit with greedy spiritual lust, saw what the fruit could do, and then ate from it. She experienced a thrill of almost indescribable ecstasy, which quickly vanished into horror, despair, and misery. She had been created immortal, believed the words, “You shall be like gods,” found that what was created godlike about her was slipping through her fingers, and felt the seed of death already working in her heart.

That is how our first mother fell. Her husband did no better, and Orthodox writers blame now one, now the other, but I am interested in something besides assigning blame.

That is not the last tree to bear fruit, nor is it the end of the story. The wound that came by the first tree had its answer and healing from the second tree. First there was a new Eve, who triumphed where the first had failed. Then the new Adam, fully God, fully man, whose life was a journey to not a living tree in paradise but a dead tree in a desolate place: for the Cross has been considered a tree from ancient times. But this last tree is ultimately transfigured to be the Tree of Life. We were forbidden to eat from the first tree. But the Tree of Life has its own fruit, and we are commanded to eat from its fruit.

Every herb that is part of the Church’s blessings is an outpouring of that last herb, the Cross. We can and should feed on herbs. But it matters a great deal which herb we are feeding on. And Halloween has the taste of the fruit of the first tree.

I am concerned about the history of Halloween, up to a point. It is said that various pagan customs in a fight against Christianity, are at the root of almost every Halloween custom we have today—Christianity was shaped by martyrs who chose to be killed rather than offer just a pinch of incense in pagan sacrifice, and some have said that people would intimidate Christians by threatening offensive acts of vandalism unless they gave them food to use in pagan sacrifice, and that when we say “Trick or treat,” we are carrying on a custom that began with a rather vile form of extortion.

This explanation may or may not be true, and my first thought—perhaps not the most Orthodox thought—was, “The origin of something is not its present meaning.” A standard illustration is that shaking hands is a custom from the far past that was originally to prevent another person from drawing a weapon—a bit like reaching for a can of pepper spray. As such, it is a poor candidate for a friendly greeting. But it really seems hard to believe that learning something like this is a reason to try to avoid shaking hands. And the fact that a particular practice has an origins Christians today might find vile is not decisive by itself. Even what those origins were is hard to tell, as the historical data are incomplete and highly ambiguous.

But there is another concern. Let’s set aside murky questions about where Halloween comes from. There is the question of what Halloween is now, which is far less murky on several counts. Whatever the good, bad, known, or unknown roots of Halloween may be, in its present form it is associated with magic or ghoulishness—you’re not barred from dressing up as something that is neither associated with the occult or ghoulishness, but you’re stretching things a little. That much was true in my childhood. What was not true in my childhood is that Halloween is quickly becoming a second national holiday. When I was growing up, you could buy or rent costumes, but now there seem to be large, heavily-funded Halloween stores. There were yard decorations—not just pumpkins—during my childhood, and I remember putting up a package of imitation spider web. Today there are, as before Christmas, large and elaborate yard displays that are much more impressive than a snowman. But gone are the days when my parents seemed quaint for saying that magic is real and to be avoided, or just for taking magic seriously. Even a skeptic would need to be trying to be obtuse to deny that a lot of people are trying to be magicians of some sort.

I am grateful to my parents for giving Halloween the benefit of the doubt. There was really something special to me. But I am coming to a point of saying that appearances do not always deceive, and that a festival celebrating the spooky, a festival to dress up as zombies and witches and decorate with the macabre, and so on may in fact be a spiritual force, an appetizer, if you will, for the herb that gave our race the seed of death.

If one is trying to make an Orthodox response to Halloween, there is one obvious response of keeping out of the holiday and praying. Another Orthodox response to Halloween has been to have a parish party for all the children, inviting them to dress up as their patron saints. This decision may sound like a shallow change, but it shows wisdom and theological beauty. Trying to be like your patron saint is not just a day’s make-believe, but a lifelong imitation and challenge. Your patron saint is to look out for you, praying before God. This adaptation is well-chosen, and is in the spirit of the original intent: “Halloween” abbreviates “Hallowe’en”, “All Hallows Eve”, the evening of all hallowed people, holy people, an evening that was in fact the beginning of All Saints’ Day. And perhaps there are others.

But perhaps the best response Orthodoxy is not obvious if you are trying to think of something to do.

The spiritual world, in Orthodoxy, is never really far; we can be insensitive to it but never escape it. Orthodoxy provides not a single holiday each year but unfolding seasons and cycles of spiritual discipline and life as they encounter all kinds of spiritual realities. (Many people look for the spirit world to be closer at Halloween.) Death is important in Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is a mystery of life in death, and to fail to be mindful of death is a profound spiritual failure. Even if Halloween eclipses Christmas, the Orthodox concern is not that people are too interested in death, but that people are not engaging death enough, and the ways we are engaging death are not nearly deep enough. Nor is the line in the living and the dead within the Church any terribly great chasm. But although these things are present in the Orthodox Church—woven into its fabric—they all rest in the protecting shade of the Tree of Life, and it is a protection that they all need. The concern is not at all that people are getting interested in spiritual phenomena, but that they are pursuing that interest in the wrong way, tasting from the herb that is poison when they could be eating their fill from the herb that is life and medicine and healing. It is a “treasure hunting” that consists of digging around to find a few copper coins hidden in a dark place… when there are piles of gold out in the open.

If Jack’o’lanterns have the origin I have heard, then they are not a pagan custom, at least not in the sense that Druids used them in worship. The candle is of Christian origin, and more specifically, made to be a frightening mockery of the candles in Christian worship. In Orthodoxy today, beeswax candles still illuminate icons, which have a spiritual radiance shining through. (Heaven shines out through them.) They can take time to connect with, but people can look at them and continue to see something for years. I would have trouble finding new layers in a Jack’o’lantern over years, and not only because they would go bad. It’s not as deep a kind of thing. The difference between the two is like the difference between one of Bach’s fugues, and Bart Simpson butchering an advertising jingle.

I do plan on dressing up for Halloween one last time. Call it, if nothing else, a farewell, in addition to some more mundane reasons. It has been a cherished holiday for years. But only in the shallowest sense am I saying farewell to what I most valued about Halloween.

At Vespers, we chant, “The Lord is King; he has put on majesty.” This “put on” is a translation of a Greek word, enduno (ενδυνο), a word of being equipped. The Epistle to the Ephesians tells us to “put on” full Heavenly armor that includes the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation. In Isaiah, it is God who puts on the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation for spiritual war. Not to put too fine a point it, but we have a command to put on God’s own armor, and that is not all. At baptism, one of the most memorable parts is the verse chanted from Scripture, “As many as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ.”

At an ordination, the ordinand is clothed in liturgical vestments that remain almost unchanged since Byzantine times when they were court regalia. But this is not a costume that people pretend for a day. The person is made into something new, and when the ordinand puts on the garments, he puts on a new blessing and sacred service. But it is a fundamental mistake to think that royal priesthood is only for those who are ordained and “wear vestments”: the bishop is called to put on the regalia of the Byzantine Emperor, but the whole Church is called to put on Christ. This is no mere costume but a transformation of the highest order.

Perhaps we need to give up our Halloween costumes, to make room to put on something far greater: Christ himself. But that is not simply something to do about Halloween: it is the work of a lifetime and it includes the entirety of Christian practice. (Even if it might be a good idea to simply pray over Halloween.)

With thanks to friends and family with whom I have discussed this.

Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion

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C.J.S. Hayward's Early Works
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My dear Wormwood;

I still do not have your report on the status of the yearly festivals. As you have not informed me of the circumstances for several years, I may unfortunately be forced to demonstrate drastic consequences in the case that you fail again to even tell what is happening.

Your affectionate uncle,

Dear uncle Screwtape;

It is about as well as could be expected. This is a time of festivities which we have very little difficulty turning the people away from; it is, also, one of the ones where there is joy and exuberance such that it is very difficult to introduce even a dead and ritualistic approach to ceremony. We have succeeded at least in enticing a handful of people to drunkenness and adultery on one hand, and on the others have slowly been building an interest in sorcery. I am currently contemplating the introduction of a number of grimoires to heighten the interest in spellcraft; unfortunately, this is the rare exception rather than the rule, and we can make very little progress with the great many. I suppose that we should expect greater success at other times of year.

Your nephew,

My dead Wormwood;


You speak of getting a handful of people interested in spellcraft as a great achievement. Were you here, you would see that your letter caused me to engage in something not unlike men’s prestidigitation; I immediately raised my arm and extended my middle finger.

So, you have enticed a tiny handful. Whoop-de-doo. Nobody minds that you’ve chopped down a tree or two, but we are here to burn a forest.

It is evident that your abysmal lack of understanding of temptation has produced the silliest possible results. If you are going to tempt a man, TEMPT him. A large shipment of spellbooks to devout people is not productive. Have you no idea why you are trained to masquerade as an angel of light?

Use the right tool for the right job.

I want a full analysis of the situation, and a preview of any ideas, just to ensure that you do not do anything dumber.

Your affectionate uncle,

Dear uncle Screwtape;

It is the season when they celebrate the greatest gift they have ever received; namely, when the Enemy became one of them and died to create a way of escape from our trap of sin.

There are two basic intertwined ways in which they celebrate, and we have been able to do very little to stop either.

The first is by thanksgiving and enjoying what they have been given. They come to friends and family; they pray, sing songs, eat, drink, and be merry. A few we’ve managed to get drunk on the wassail or abstain from it as if it were an evil thing, but that is a chink here and there; we have had trouble making it larger. There is a wholehearted attitude of thanksgiving and worship at all the gifts which they’ve received; the time when we’ve set famine to take away some of their food only seems to make them all the more grateful and all the more prayerful.

The second is by giving each other gifts. Whether the gifts are simple or costly, they are heartfelt; they celebrate the gift given them by giving gifts to each other. Even in the lands where an evil duke has imposed harsh taxes on the peasant, so that they have little to give, their little gifts are taken as seriously as more lavish gifts from people who do have enough to live on.

I have been trying to deter them from the celebration and the gift giving, but results have been frustrating to the extreme.

Your nephew,

My dear Wormwood;

Having taken some time to think, I should like to temper some of my previous remarks. Nor that your bungling incompetence does not warrant them, but I should like you to be better informed.

There is both an individual and a corporate side to sin. The individual side is of extreme importance. Our father below personally tempted Job, and it is not an understatement to say that every last person should be tempted as far as possible. By chipping at one tree at a time, it is possible to clear cut a forest. (The importance of the individual is so great that it may be an interesting temptation to make people appear to be nothing but individuals). When the temptations facing a society do not affect a person, it is perfectly acceptable to give some variation. Once in a while, even that can be worked into a good plan for even greater corporate sin. It is spectacular to have a few become prostitutes and a great many become Pharisees; a few become witches, and a great many become witch hunters.

As important as individual sin is, it is now your responsibility to see to corporate sin, and tempt the society as a whole.

There is something I should like to remind you about the nature of sin.

Man is created to embrace what is good. Even in his fallen state, even with the power that we hold over them, that man still somehow desires to embrace the good is so true that it dictates the nature of temptation. When we tempt, it is necessary to give a candy coating to that sin with what is good. Sexual sin is only possible when we twist the tremendous goodness of human sexuality; idolatry can not exist except as an exploitation of the need of man to worship the Enemy.

There is a time and a place to use intimidation, terror, and force, but your attempts here to either tempt solid believers with sorcery, or make their celebrations impossible by physical hardship, are clumsy and inappropriate. Gold which is passed through fire only grows purer; that is why you see their devotion flowering. Instead, why don’t you appear as an angel of light and lull them to sleep?

There is a note about patience… Though occasionally we manage the sudden and sharp, it is much better in most cases (including this one) to work ever so slowly. So slowly that there doesn’t seem to be any real progress; so slowly that everything appears to them to be as they want it. If you suddenly hold a candle by a frog, it will jump away. If, instead, the frog is placed in a pot of cool water and the candle beneath the pot, it will never notice; nothing constrains it from jumping out, and yet you need only wait for the ever so slowly growing heat to destroy it. Be patient; wait for decades or centuries if need be.

Now stop wasting your energy on stupid spellbooks, droughts, and taxes. Take away these hardships; for now, I want you to only make things easier. Help their economic systems be productive; don’t take away from the laughter at the feasts. If you find an opportunity to get someone drunk at a festival, then by all means take it, but don’t worry about having things now. Just do as I have said, and wait.

Your affectionate uncle,

Dear uncle Screwtape;

It is ten years now, and I have done as you have said. I do not understand why; they enjoy the festivities as much as ever, giving and receiving gifts in a manner that enjoys each other; enjoying each other in a manner that loves and worships the Enemy. By all counts, things have only gotten worse. Am I to continue to wait?

Your nephew,

My dear Wormwood;

Patience, my dear. Patience. If you continue, you are making more progress than you think. Now, I still don’t want you to do anything spectacular. Only give an idea to an inventor here, an economist there. Don’t introduce anything nasty; just make the economic system more productive, and do nothing to impede their thoughts of giving generous gifts at this season.

Your affectionate uncle,

Dear uncle Screwtape;

It is twenty years since I last wrote you, and I still do not see the point. People have more money; they are giving it generously. The hungry are fed; the naked are clothed. The season is one of great festivity, and, as ever, they give generous gifts. Am I to continue?

Your nephew,

My dear Wormwood;

Still, you need patience. Now, I want you to do two things:

First of all, continue to increase the productivity of their economic system.

Second of all, without actively disparaging love for God or their neighbors, I want you to use the season to cause them to think about how good their material possessions are, and look forward to it.

Give it ten more years, and write back.

Your affectionate uncle,

Dear uncle Screwtape;

I have succeeded in making them think about the goodness of their material possessions (which I still do not fully understand; most of the time, you have had me delude people into thinking that the material is evil and an obstruction to spiritual growth; I am now emphasizing that truth in the matter as you say, and I don’t see any real progress). It is ten years; what should I do now?

Your nephew,

My dear Wormwood;

Now, slowly, slightly, introduce seeds of greed. Not too much; just a little. And give them more money.

It is the time to twist, and everything you twist should be done, at least at first, in a slow and slight, imperceptible manner. Twist the good of the celebration and the presents just a little; that’s all that it takes, for the moment. Just make the goodness of God and the gift the season celebrates seem less of an easy thing to think about than the goodness of all the material gifts.

Give it ten years or so, and write me back again.

Your affectionate uncle,

Dear uncle Screwtape;

Wow. Though it’s been slow, this work has been beginning to show some real results. Though every gift given by one person is a gift received by another, people are thinking of this much less as a time to give gifts, and much more as a time to receive them. I’ve now made it a major part of their economy; people are beginning to look forward very much to all of the Christmas gifts they can receive.

Should I continue as I have been?

Your nephew,

My dear Wormwood;

There is something to be said about greed. Like most other sins, it produces satiety for the moment, but over time it yields only insatiety. Those who have enough and are content with what they have remain content; those who have much with greed grow more wealthy and less satisfied. More than that, many of those who have the most material possessions enjoy them the least; time to acquire possessions, and worry for them, becomes a consuming desire. A powerful chief executive officer who can buy anything he wants, will enjoy much less the leather seats of his Porsche, the view from his yacht, the beauty of his art collection, than many children of more modest means enjoy a chain of dandelions and a grape flavored lollipop.

Just continue, and put some serious thought into the trash that you teach them to prize. I could give more detail, but I think you’re beginning to understand. Write me back in a few more years; tell me what happens.

Your affectionate uncle,

Dear uncle Screwtape;

Things have really been taking off.

The holiday celebration has become a tremendous commercial extravaganza, the best time of year when people look forward to getting glowing plastic dolls and combination pizza oven/clothes dryers. I have gone wild with the items which are produced. I’ve made one device so that much of the time people spend “together” is distant and mechanical, with no eye contact and no touch. They now have, and look forward to ever more advanced entertainment devices with blinking lights and spectacular sound effects, bright and shiny enough to distract people the emptiness within, and ever becoming more effective. (You might also be pleased to learn of the content; although the type of devices would facilitate excellent strategy games, I’ve made graphic violence seem more and more attractive; a wonderful entertainment. Now I don’t even have to be slow and patient in making a more realistic sadism; all that needs to be done is put somewhere in the storyline that you’re the hero and morally justified in wading through blood. (I’m working on taking that away as well)) I’m making sure that the games are solitary by nature; you can’t really play these games with your friends the way you can play cards, having a friendly chat as well as thinking about what to do as the next move. On a scale of glitz and convenience, they seem far more attractive than reading a book, holding a friend’s hand, going for a walk, or having a relaxed meal together. I’ve been working on a faster, exciting, frantic pace for the entertainment, and people are “learning” that having fun means moving at a breakneck speed; leisure is beginning to be considered boring. There is a great air of celebration and festivity, and an air of gifts; the facade is tremendous.

I think that the festival is mostly under control. Should we make a shift in strategy?

Your nephew,

My dear Wormwood;

Congratulations! You have passed this portion of your training with flying colors. Although I have more experience in this matter and have enjoyed many times sitting back and watching the flames as a society crumbles under the weight of its own sin, you have celebrated trivia to an extent that even I find astounding. My hat is off to you.

For now, your responsibilities (which you have made much easier) have been shifted; as you have so masterfully learned your lessons in corporate sin, it is now time for you to learn the next lesson. Your next area of training will be in the area of heresy, a battleground to which we are shifting focus.

I look forward to seeing what will come of your apprenticeship there.

Your affectionate uncle,

Inclusive Language Greek Manuscript Discovered

Satire / Humor Warning:

As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.

This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.

It is not real news.


Knights and Ladies, Women and Men
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — There is a considerable buzz among New Testament scholars over the discovery of a near-complete Greek manuscript to the book of the Bible called Romans. The manuscript is similar to others, but is the first known manuscript to mirror the Today’s New International Version (TNIV) in its use of inclusive language.

There is a wide consensus among both conservative and liberal scholars that most Greek manuscripts use grammatically masculine words where the original author meant to include women as fully as men. This manuscript, referred to by scholars as R221819, is similar to other such manuscripts but uses inclusive language where applicable.

A portion of R221819, containing Romans 8:14-15

The book of Romans was first written in Greek and is considered foundational in its treatment of what it means to be a Christian. Chapter eight is well-known among people who read the Bible; its fourteenth and fifteenth verses are shown above. Huioi (“sons”) in verse 14 is replaced by a more inclusive tekna (“children”), and various word forms are adapted to a gender-neutral spelling. R221819 is thought to reflect the TNIV’s distinguishing features with considerable accuracy.

Kenneth Barker, one of the leading scholars involved with the TNIV, said, “I don’t think this is quite as big of a deal as people make. It’s just a minor change, like other textual variations, and simply clarifies the author’s intent.” He disclaims any greater significance to the discovery.

The progressive element of Christians for Biblical Equality has been jubilant. One scholar said, “This is a very important step in the right direction. I look forward to when a manuscript is found where the patriarchal Theos is replaced by the more neutral Theon. It really only means changing a couple of the case endings plus the spelling of the word that means ‘the.’ Theon would remain in the second declension. It is just a small change, but it would help Christians reach out effectively to those on the margins of society.” After all, if one clarification helps, why not another?

The Commentary

Jobs for Theologians
Knights and Ladies
Where is the good of women? Feminism is called “The women’s movement.” But is it?

Frankincense, Gold, and Myrrh: A Look at Profound Giftedness Through Orthodox Anthropology


A look at profound giftedness through Orthodox anthropology

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Thesis Statement

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are emblems of Christ’s kingship, divinity, and suffering respectively, applying to humans as Christ’s image, studied in the profoundly gifted.


The purpose of this paper is to look at the features of Christ confessed gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh as features playing out in humans, and exploring what concrete shape this playing out takes in the so-called “profoundly gifted.” (Kingship, divinity, and suffering play out in equally significant ways for other populations, but the scope is primarily limited to a segment of the stated population.) “Profound giftedness” is used a standard psychological technical term, if a quite flattering label for a more ambivalent experience.

Profound giftedness is explored as one of many experiences that looks different from the inside and from the outside; paradoxically, what looks different from the inside and outside is in large measure its particular expression of human commonalities. (This could be said for many other populations as well.) Profound giftedness as an expression of being human is explored, in the (royal and) divine image, in particular the rule over Creation through work, alongside a particular expression of suffering, while being attentive to the fact that profoundly gifted people both suffer and cause others to suffer. Suffering is explored in light of Orthodox experience before the essay closes by applying lessons learned in looking at profoundly gifted difference to human difference as such. Profound giftedness experience combines extremes, including both privilege and marginality. This study looks at the profoundly gifted experience of being human, and owes a considerable debt to studies of the human experience of the marginalized, while drawing from other traditions including the Orthodox.

Profound giftedness is not described as exception to the normal human rule but as the univocally applied human rule given further specification that could be given different further specification for other populations.

Symbols, humans, and Christ

There is an understanding of symbol/image that plays out in this paper’s treatment of the image of God and the symbolic character of the magi’s gifts. If we look at the question, “Does a symbol represent and embody or represent only?” an Orthodox perspective is that a symbol or image both represents and embodies.[1] A proper symbol is neither arbitrary nor detached but connected to what it represents. Hence Kallistos Ware answers the question of whether Orthodox pay undue devotion to wood: “The icon is… a symbol; the veneration shown to the images is directed, not to stone, wood, and paint, but towards the person depicted.”[2] We shall see in a moment that the person is in turn a symbol of Christ, but the immediate point is the understanding of symbol that undergirds such a position. It is the same understanding of symbol that says that the Gifts of the Magi were not given arbitrary imputed symbolism, representing without embodying. Not only do they both represent and embody, but there are layers of symbolic resonance, and that resonance informs this paper as does the precedent in Ephrem the Syrian, a poet of the first rank,[3] treating a fluid rather than inflexible treatment of the symbols’ precise meaning.

It is a deceptive understatement to call Christ a norm to humanity. To be human is to be made in the image of God, classically understood as “in the image of the Trinity,”[4] as Ware attests, and this image specifically includes the image of Christ. Part of this image plays out in treatment of others: Ware writes “Monastery guests, as St Benedict of Nursia (c.480-c.550) wrote in his Rule, are to be received ‘as Christ himself.’ In similar terms, the fourth-century Egyptian Abba Apollo insisted, ‘We should bow down before those who come to see us, for we are bowing down not before them but before God.'”[5] This principle is in no sense unique to monastery guests: in Mt 25.31-46 the righteous are separated from the wicked in the last judgment according to how they treated Christ through their treatment of the downtrodden, with no distinction being made for religious persuasion. One’s treatment of another is one’s treatment of Christ tout court. Christ lies at the heart of humanity and his image in every human reaches the point that one cannot do good or ill to another human, Christian or not, as someone detached from Christ because there is no such thing as someone detached from Christ. This is tacitly tied to a norm in a much deeper sense than a norm extrinsically imposed de jure, whether or not it fits a person originally independent of that arbitrarily imposed norm. One can have something to do with Christ without encountering Christianity: the relevance of Christ does not enter the picture only in relation to explicit identification with Christianity.

As a limitation of scope, this paper looks at the image of Christ as it is expressed in the profoundly gifted. “[God] doesn’t make two blades of grass the same: how much less two saints, two nations, two angels.”[6] The image of Christ is specified equally but differently in other human populations, and other papers might look at other populations. The scope of this paper is to offer analysis and description for the profoundly gifted and talk about how the image of Christ in the human constitution plays out specifically in this locale. If the profoundly gifted are explored as connected to Christ and the Theotokos or Mother of God, this is intended as an exploration of something common with other populations rather than a specific distinction that applies to the profoundly gifted and not others. Then why focus on the profoundly gifted? Human basics can be further specified in exploring the particularity of their expression in different populations, and this paper is intended to offer specific characterization and thick description for the group in its focus, a methodology one would expect to be able to apply to any number of groups. (Other papers with different focuses might give comparable specification to the human rule through thick description of other populations.)

Chrism, frankincense, and myrrh

Chrism was not “mere” oil but a sacramental emblem of the Holy Spirit. Cyril of Alexandria compares aromatic holy oil, or chrism, which produces “the advent of deity,”[7] to consecrated bread that has become the Body of Christ,[8] and Cyril does not mean this as extrinsic and arbitrary symbolism but understands symbol along the lines outlined above. Oil is an emblem of the Holy Spirit so that anointing with oil may be hard to disentangle from anointing with the Spirit,[9] and oil carried rich resonances: Susan Ashbrook Harvey writes: “Most important for early Christians were the ideas of priesthood, kingship, and prophecy as offices of sacred activity conferred through an anointing with holy oil. Early Christians applied these concepts to the figure of Christ, as well as themselves as his followers. [emphasis added]”[10]

Ashbrook Harvey mentions a “universal patristic exegesis”[11] of gold as emblematic of Christ’s kingship, frankincense of his divinity, and myrrh of his suffering. In patristic sources this exegesis can be tersely stated,[12] but at other times there is fluidity and resonance: in Ephrem the Syrian myrrh intercedes for swords used in aggression, gold intercedes for treasures plundered from King Hezekiah, and frankincense appeased divinity.[13] The three basic meanings are here cast in a touching light of reparations for the magi’s ancestral offenses against Mary’s ancestors. This paper’s method is informed by how in Ephrem the three gifts were not limited to a single rigid meaning but could be flexibly applied in different ways.

Frankincense was a complement to anointing oil; Ashbrook Harvey writes, “…incense took its base meaning from its identification with sacrifice. Incense served as a medium for human initiative towards the divine, and its fragrance marked the process of human-divine encounter. Holy oil, by contrast, represented divine initiative towards the human.”[14] Incense could signify human approach to divinity, or divinity itself.[15]

Myrrh was associated with suffering and death. Concordance search results for “myrrh,” “spices,” or “ointment” (in the RSV) reveal an overwhelming number of Gospel references explicitly connected to the passion: the Gospel reference to myrrh, spices, ointment, etc. pave the way for the Fathers to tie myrrh to suffering and death.

Gold is less thoroughly explained in Ashbrook Harvey and seems to be one of those objects of study poised to slip through the cracks of what is considered “doctrinally significant:” prior research to support an argument appears scanty, leaving primary sources the best available resource. Kittel[16] and Fitzgerald[17] lack entries for “chrysos”/”gold.” This may be a difficulty, but it does not stop one from looking at the other two gifts, and patristic treatments of kingship can presumably illuminate gold as an emblem of kingship.

Chrism is almost a fourth gift besides the three, and in a way is prior: it cuts deeper, and we call Christ “the Christ,” meaning anointed Prophet, Priest, and King. The oil and the Holy Spirit are paradigms for each other.[18] Anointing was important in baptism[19] and some sources make baptism more a matter of oil than water.[20] John the Baptist announced one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire,[21] and perhaps oil rather than water explained baptismal anointing, with the Holy Spirit and with fire, to make little Christs. Not only myrrh for suffering, but gold for kingship and frankincense for divinity, are basic to being human and constituted by the image of Christ. The anointing with the literal-and-more-than-literal chrism that makes prophet, priest, and king applies to Christ and Christians. It is not only the pre-eminent gift of chrism that is connected with what it means to be human. The Gifts of the Magi are ultimately gifts to humans who bear Christ’s image.

Gold and frankincense in human work

The gifts have something to say about the human person. It is the Last Adam[22] who received frankincense, gold, and myrrh, and this Last Adam is tied to the First Adam: Genesis 1.26-8 (RSV) reads:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” [emphasis added for words relating to human rule]

Genesis 1 ties the divine image to human rule. The language used is of an idol image of a deity that carried the deity’s essence and through which the deity’s work was accomplished.[23] Furthermore, a good portion of the words in Genesis 1.26-8 are devoted to the relationship between the human and the rest of material Creation. To cite one patristic example, Basil of Caesarea can spiritualize rule over animals by discussing rule over oneself,[24] but alongside an a fortiori implied argument, “Let them rule over the fish. We were, in the first instance, given power over animals who live elsewhere. [God] did not say, Let them rule over domestic animals, but over fish:” humans have a powerful authority over the animals that goes beyond domestic animals to even effectively apply to fish.[25] Our relation to the natural world is a relation as royalty made to rule. Anestis Keselopoulos explains this point: “[St. Symeon] has a strong feeling for the fact that man was created to function as king of creation.”[26] Gold and frankincense do not begin to describe humanity in Christ’s shadow. They already describe the divine image in Genesis 1.

That the texts above connect to work is foundational to John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens.[27] He argues, “Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God himself, and he is placed in it in order to subdue the earth. From the beginning therefore he is called to work,”[28] making subduing the earth and human rule the bridge between the imago dei and work. The royal, divine image expresses itself in work—perhaps not only work, and perhaps “work” needs to be more broadly understood than “remunerated labor,” but on the Genesis 1 account the one holy day of rest is only achieved after the six days of the Creator himself working. One can scarcely ask for a higher valuation of work than to say the world was created by God’s work (perhaps over billions of years), and as the Father works, so does the Son (John 5.17). Work is a defining feature of humanity (although not the only important feature). Work is part of human glory, part of the gift of gold and frankincense. The archetypal command to rule Creation is a command to work, and to be king is to rule through work.

Properly understood, work is at the core of what Keselopoulos gives great moral weight, one’s “relationship with the things in creation.”[29] Work is the outward operation of the image of God, and relating to the world virtuously is partly a matter of loving work. Madeleine l’Engle describes service that is close to the heart of work: “If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve.”[30] The artist does not take first initiative but responds by serving an as yet unformed Creation that needs to be loved into its full being. We will further explore this image later.

Conceptualization of profound giftedness

I am wary of using the term “genius” for several reasons. Of all the common terms in psychological literature, “genius” is most problematic. It is difficult to say “genius” and only imply a claim of ability; invariably there are half-conscious associations evoked which approach being a morally separate class of creature who has a higher calling and is not bound by the same rules as mere mortals, much like the pathological conceptualization of the “exceptional man” critiqued in Crime and Punishment.[31] “Genius” comes with a mystique, or, to be more precise, is largely a mystique.

“Profoundly gifted” is not a synonym for “genius,” and I will use the imperfect “profoundly gifted” not because it is perfect (it isn’t), but to avoid forcing readers to deal with my own invented term when a standard term exists. “Genius,” even besides its connotations, denotes someone who leaves behind work of enduring value, and I believe it is possible for profoundly gifted to make no such achievement, and for that matter to do poorly at certain ordinary achievements like economic self-sufficiency. The narrow technical term “profoundly gifted” overlaps the term “genius” (if the latter is stripped of its mystique), but the overlap is incomplete, with one neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure the other. Having considered what amount to limited options, all of which have drawbacks, I will use the term “profoundly gifted” as being the least problematic, even if it is a flattering way of describing an ambivalent condition.

While the language of “giftedness” has Biblical origins,[32] I am using technical terms which depart from the Biblical usage and which I treat as having important differences from the Biblical way of framing gifts. Theologically, the quite different Biblical conceptualization is to be preferred, and I will use psychological terms even if it might be theologically preferable to have another terminology besides that of giftedness to refer to this particularly obscure form of human giftedness. I Corinthians 12 never speaks of “gifted” (as opposed to “non-gifted”) people, and in the parable of the talents,[33] the servants admittedly differ in how much they receive, but they do not differ in having at least one substantial “talent” entrusted to them, meaning at least sixty-five pounds[34] of precious metal.[35] It is not only the profoundly gifted who have a place and a quite significant gift for the greater, common good, nor does one need to be psychologically labeled as “gifted” to count as a human being. Furthermore, this discussion is limited in its scope and does not treat other forms of giftedness even if one departs from the Biblical baseline that true talent and giftedness are for all, not a few. Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ[36] is controversial,[37] but Goleman takes a look at one of several of the intelligences treated by multiple intelligence theory, and at very least makes a significant argument of exactly how success may be more a matter of emotional intelligence than the specific type of intelligence treated within the scope of this paper.[38] Even broader would be a serious attempt to treat not only intelligences but the broader category of aptitudes, which seem practically infinite in variety.

Profoundly gifted work at a young age

Work is a defining feature of humanity and can be neither limited to nor centered on the profoundly gifted, but there is something that shines in the work of the profoundly gifted. But before I go further about that, I need to explain a feature of traditional psychological research in this domain. Leta Hollingworth, who was highly influential in how psychology subsequently came to approach giftedness and was the founder of gifted education,[39] expressed concerns that Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius[40] identified gifted people by established adult reputation, after interventions no longer help much.[41] She suggested that one shift focus to gifted children, which has left a curious lacuna in the psychological research: study of gifted people is first and foremost study of gifted children. Therefore, the research that is available deals primarily with gifted children and I will be looking at children.

Hollingworth describes “child L” in middle school:[42]

He was relatively large, robust, and impressive, and was fondly dubbed “Professor.” His attitudes and abilities were appreciated by both pupils and teachers. He was often allowed to lecture (for as long as an hour) on some special topic, such as the history of timepieces, ancient theories of engine construction, mathematics, and history. He constructed out of odds and ends (typewriter ribbon spools, for example) a homemade clock of the pendular type to illustrate some of the principles of chronometry, and this clock was set up before the class during the enrichment unit on “Time and Time Keeping,” to demonstrate some of the principles of chronometry.

Coming from a slightly different angle, Martha June Morelock offers analysis for Michael Kerney:[43]

The Plato Phenomenon

Mr. Kearney reports that since Michael was very young, he has seemed to spontaneously manifest both factual knowledge and conceptual comprehension that no one has taught him. He recalls an incident when Michael was three years old . . .

Mr. K: Michael at three coming up to me—when I came up to me and he said “Dad, Dad! I’ve got to show you this, got to show you this!” And he showed me the commutative rule of algebra. And I said “Michael! That’s great! Where did you learn that?” “I don’t know. I just made it up!” And then he goes “Wait, Wait! There’s more! There’s more!” And then he showed me the associative rule.

In searching for an explanation for this phenomenon, Mr. Kearney has considered a number of possibilities—including an analogy to Platonic philosophy . . .

Mr. K: Just in terms of some of his mathematical ability—some of the cognitive abilities. Some of the fact knowledge that he knew. But we didn’t look at those as telepathy or spiritual things. It was more platonic. I think our experience, if anything, would be related to Platonic Forms. He seemed to be able to go in and take things out of another dimension and apply them—things that you wouldn’t normally know, he knew. I mean, I don’t think the issue was whether or not anyone taught him or not. It was that they were available to him and on occasion, he could dip into a location and bring things up. He has a cognitive ability to see things whole.

There is a sense in which a staggering intelligence is the baseline of being human: the most important sense of intelligence is not any of the intelligences on a multiple intelligence scale and in fact not something that some people have more of,[44] but something like embodiment that is simply part of the baseline of being human: this sense of intelligence forms a necessary context to achievements like the above which, taken out of context, suggest that there is a very occult phenomenon manifest in a very few, showing “ordinary” intelligence to be trivial. That would be a deep misunderstanding of intelligence in all parties. The intelligence described in the above quotation is in fact something spiritual, along with “ordinary” intelligence, but there is something easier to see in this kind of achievement even if one has grown insensitive to ordinary intelligence as a spiritual feature of the divine image at work. Profound giftedness exists in continuities with broader human intelligence: artwork in a gallery, at its best, need not dazzle in a way that “shows” that nothing outside the gallery is beautiful; one can visit an art gallery and have one’s eyes opened not only to the art but the world the art is drawn from.

If the royal, divine image expresses itself in profoundly gifted work, the expression of the image in work is not an ontologically distinct faculty that the profoundly gifted have that not everybody else has. There is, however, a qualitative difference, suitable for thick description. This quality would not be rightly identified in any sense as an exclusive or even primary shadow of the Theotokos in the Annunciation, but among many polarities and many kinds of difference work for the profoundly gifted resembles the Annunciation in one among many ways.

Before identifying the specific contours that might place the work of the profoundly gifted in the shadow of the Annunciation in a particular way, it may help to clarify one Eastern understanding of the Annunciation that I am using as a framework:[45]

The incarnation was not only the work of the Father, by His power and by His spirit, but it was also the work of the will and faith of the Virgin. Without the consent of the Immaculate, without the agreement of her faith, the plan was as unrealizable as it would have been without the intervention of the three divine Persons Themselves. It was only after having instructed her and persuaded her that God took her for His Mother and borrowed from her the flesh, that She so greatly wished to lend Him. Just as He became incarnate voluntarily, so He wished that His Mother should bear Him freely and with her full consent.

The Annunciation of the Theotokos,[46] in the Eastern Tradition, is not understood as a message the angel spoke, but was when the Theotokos gave her full cooperation to the divine initiative, saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.”[47] The Theotokos offers the perfect creaturely response to the divine initiative, and the most enduring works of profound giftedness are in its shadow. (There are many other points on the spectrum of human experience that are in its shadow, too.)

Creative work, and much of the serious work of the profoundly gifted, is a minor incarnation and the fruit of a minor annunciation. Madeleine l’Engle writes, “The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver. In a very real sense the artist (male or female) should be like Mary who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command.”[48] It is the bearing of a Creation that comes to one initially unformed, not yet given concrete shape, and one gives to it out of one’s nature, loves and serves it into being; one gives it one’s own flesh until it has become enfleshed and ready to meet the world. There are other dimensions to the connection—perichoresis or interpenetration of bearer and gift, and a spiritual discipline l’Engle calls “almost identical with adoring the Master of the Universe in contemplative prayer”[49]—and the process, meditated on throughout Madeleine l’Engle’s Walking on Water,[50] is not unique to the profoundly gifted, who are not correctly understood if they are viewed simply in terms of differences without attention to human commonalities.

But it is the textured shape taken by the human gold and incense for many profoundly gifted.

Myrrh and the suffering of the profoundly gifted

Suffering is a basic part of human life. It takes different forms, perhaps, but it is constitutive of human experience. Furthermore, there are a great many human experiences that are different from the inside and from the outside. If this is explored with regard to the profoundly gifted, this is not as something that sets the profoundly gifted apart, but exploring further the concrete human form of human universals that are given further specification one way for the profoundly gifted and are given further specification other ways for other populations.

Giftedness as studied in this paper does not automatically include emotional intelligence, but it does not leave emotional life unaffected: for the entire range of giftedness, and not only the profoundly gifted, “giftedness has an emotional as well as a cognitive substructure: cognitive complexity gives rise to emotional depth.”[51] This has a marked positive aspect; it makes it easier to have a rich inner life and to experience joy, but “[i]ntensity, in particular, must be understood as a qualitatively distinct characteristic. It is not a matter of degree but of a different quality of experiencing:”[52] it is as if at an age where children of a particular bent are given toy power tools, the range of gifted children are left to contend with real power tools, leaving more positive possibilities but also more ways of getting hurt that for many children simply aren’t an issue. This kind of inner life is a mixed blessing when it comes to experiencing difficulties.

What is school like for the profoundly gifted? What is do they experience when they are in a situation which people assume is entirely oriented around them and their interests, where they have life easy and do not need to apply themselves like other people? This is what it meant for two boys:

He would go to school from 8 to 2 and you would think that would be enough. Nope. Cause when he got home at 2 o’clock, he goes “Mom, I want work. They didn’t give me any work.” It’s like “You did all that stuff at school?” “Oh, that’s easy stuff.[“] He used to complain “Mom, they’re making me write “cat” and “dog” and all these three letter words.” So I went to the school and I said “He doesn’t like to write these things, and why are you having him read cat and dog books? He reads far beyond that level.” And they said it was because they wanted his hands—because he was so young and his motor skills had to be developed, that they wanted him to read this little easy book so that he could write. Well, he was like, “Well, let me read the big books and I’ll write.”[53]

Ian completed Grade 3 in a quiet fury of anger, intellectual frustration and bitterness. His verbal and physical aggressiveness returned in full spate; however, as he was now 2 years older than he had been in Grade 1, he was able to maintain a tighter control on his emotions while at school, and his teachers remained quite unaware of the emotional toll levied on him. At home, however, he released all of his frustration and resentment and became, in Brock’s words, “almost impossible to live with.” In addition, he began to experience severe headaches, bouts of nausea, and stomach pains. [longer emphasis added][54]

This experience is a hint of the dark side of the profoundly gifted experience. Profound giftedness offers real advantages, and no account of it is complete without accounting for what seem almost like magic powers. Giftedness is a privilege, the more the better, or is commonly assumed to be such kind of unqualified privilege so that saying that giftedness is painful comes across like saying that riches are painful. Yet if it is a privilege, it is a privilege that includes an experience that can be painful enough to cause depression, escape through street drugs, and suicide.[55]

The analogy to wealth could be refined: profound giftedness seems to be like wealth in an odd currency that makes it easy to buy luxuries but difficult to acquire some necessities. The characteristics described under “Gold and Frankincense” are quite significant and a source of joy. In general the profoundly gifted experience is an experience of extremes, where few things are moderate. But there are things some others wouldn’t guess at, such what such differences mean for difficulties finding and obtaining steady work, let alone a normal environment experienced as hostile enough to induce nausea in a young boy. Being significantly above average is an advantage, but it must be understood that the “moderately” gifted whom one is tempted to assume are “mediocre gifted” are in fact no such thing: they are almost what giftedness should be like, significantly above average and yet escaping certain problems.[56] “Moderate” giftedness coincides almost entirely with what has elsewhere been called the range of “socially optimum intelligence,”[57] and it resembles the classical image of moderation or a via media which not simply avoids two extremes but in its balance has something positive that both extremes lack. This is a different phenomenon from another range where birth trauma and brain damage seem close to a majority phenomenon,[58] is part of why scholars will speak about “the ‘syndrome’ of profound giftedness.”[59] It’s still classified as giftedness, but it not just a further enhanced form of the advantages in moderate giftedness. Doreen Freeman suggests of disability, “How often we hear people say they would ‘rather be dead than disabled’ yet the suicide rates of the disabled do not reflect this pessimistic view.”[60] Disability is a different condition viewed from the inside and the outside, and so is giftedness, for which the suicide rates are apparently higher. We are aware that stereotypes can affect a true appreciation of other groups, which includes race and disability, and also include profound giftedness as an experience difficult to judge from the outside. (Not that the profoundly gifted experience is unique in looking different from the inside versus the outside: there are any number of human experiences that are different from the inside and the outside, and this is not a distinction for the profoundly gifted but only how the phenomenon plays out for them.)

Aharon Lichtenstein writes as he concludes an article on suffering as having a profound place within Judaism:[61]

In conclusion, I return to the sinking feeling that much of what has been said here might fall on deaf ears… any attempt to cry up the purgative nature of suffering might be viewed, especially after the Holocaust, as trite, platitudinous, and—what is worst—callous…

I can understand such a reaction—and indeed, up to a point, share it. But only up to a point… Response to suffering cannot be divorced from the totality of religious experience…

Suffering, and the use of suffering, have a place within religion.

John Behr’s central mystery is “life in death” for his appropriately titled The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death.[62] The cross is central: “This scriptural reflection on the Passion of Christ began by the apostles and evangelists was continued, expanded and deepened in the work of subsequent theologians, shaping every aspect of their theological vision.”[63] This expands into meaning not only that Christ bore his Cross but we are to bear the Cross: what is normative is for “everything [in our lives to be] encompassed in [Christ’s] economy.”[64] “Life” is used in terms of the divine life,[65] and “death” holds far more than a merely biological meaning:[66] the mystery of “life in death” is a mystery of “frankincense in myrrh.”

There have been people who have found in joy in suffering. Peter and other apostles, after being beaten,[67] left the council “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”[68] Ware’s closing examples in an article on martyrdom tell of martyrs’ joy.[69] This puzzling behavior is difficult to understand but plays out what is said in the Sermon on the Mount, in a passage that is part of the Orthodox Church’s main liturgy:[70] “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all manner of evil falsely against you for my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”[71] I cite these not because I expect it to be self-evident how people could respond this way, but precisely to suggest that there’s something in their version of suffering that is hard to appreciate today.

Even if it is hard to see how, these texts indicate that there is something that may not be obvious about innocent suffering. Hebrews and I Peter elaborate and clarify: “For it was fitting that [God], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering,”[72] If Christ himself was made perfect through suffering then it would seem incongruous to say that suffering may have perfected Christ but should not apply to people in his shadow. “For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But when you do right and suffer for it and take it patiently, you have God’s approval:”[73] God’s approval can be on the innocent sufferer even if the suffering is not externally labeled as suffering in the Lord’s name.

To say that Christ “the pioneer of their salvation” was made perfect through suffering transforms our understanding of Christ and even more suffering. Elsewhere people learn from Christ, but in Hebrews we read shocking words: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”[74] (This is the only New Testament text where the Son is said to learn obedience.) In Hebrews 11.28, suffering is tied to faith, “portrayed as force sustaining God’s people in times of opposition and affliction, enabling them to overcome fear and temptation and fulfill his purposes for them,”[75] which is the context to how Moses “considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward.”[76] It may seem that such Biblical statements about suffering in the name of Christ only speak to the case of confessors and martyrs narrowly understood, but I Peter 2.19-20 forestalls such a reading and orients our understanding of innocent suffering as such. After describing Christ’s voluntary suffering as normative and monastic living as a manifestation of martyrdom, Ware writes, “What has just been said about Christ, about the martyr and the monk, is also true in a certain measure of every Christian without exception,”[77] specifically in the sufferings of life. There are different forms of martyrdom which do not always include violence and death, but to be Christian is to be called to martyrdom.[78]

This is not resignation. Paul uses paschw of “his readers, Christians in general,”[79] and can have a very active ring, meaning “‘to fight,’ perhaps ‘to fight an enforced fight,’… not ‘to be helplessly exposed or subject to alien pressure,’… ‘to prevail’. [emphasis added]”[80]But the understanding that filters into the gift of myrrh is not simply a temporary measure for when the problem cannot be properly addressed yet. Cases of truly difficult suffering are not an exceptional case that this teaching also applies to; they are the central case under this view. This view of suffering applies from relative inconveniences up to major suffering including poverty and hunger, the death of loved ones, illness from cancer to depression, and many other cases. If the profoundly gifted are no unique center to the Biblical teaching because they are in no sense the only ones to suffer, that does not make their suffering trivial. Suffering increases as one approaches sainthood, and while suffering does not confer any automatic sainthood, Orthodox hagiography details a number of people with unusually difficult lives—the saints who are canonized as unusually good at living a normal human life—and some of their relics are said to miraculously stream, significantly enough, with myrrh.[81] To see profoundly gifted suffering as outside the bounds of normal human life and to try an activist solution to bring it into the bounds of normal human life is to fail to realize that profoundly gifted suffering is a unique opportunity to live the normal Christian life, a life where gold and incense cannot be separated from myrrh.

The reality of myrrh is a reality of suffering made positive in a context where suffering is no longer the last word, and it is not separate from gold for kingship and frankincense for divinity. Those saints who are fragrant with myrrh are fragrant with Heaven’s incense. There are some theologians who talk about humanity as the priest of Creation,[82] and the massive repositories of skills acquired by the profoundly gifted can be a legitimate exercise of kingship—humans properly exercise kingship in the image of God’s kingship not only, and perhaps not primarily, when kingship is exercised over other people.[83] There is a kind of joy and pleasure to learning and acquiring skills, and this may not always be situated within an explicit ecclesial setting, but then it no less constitutes part of what is normal and the gift of gold for kingship.

Profound giftedness in its potential to harm others

Profound giftedness is both a gift from God and something whose use is not always good. Without going too far into the word “holy” (Hebr. qds, apparent etymological meaning, “separate”),[84] I would like to talk some about what it means, and why we should not make too facile an identification of holiness with moral goodness. Holiness consists less in the creature’s relationship to the Creator than the Creator’s relationship to the creature.[85] Giftedness is not unique in this regard, but it is giftedness that is not based on merit but is simply given by the Creator. It may not be achieved by being morally good, and it is misunderstood if it is treated as an accidental arrangement of cognitive faculties. And that lends to something paradoxical: the greater the gift, the greater the potential for evil in the use of that gift, even in the attempt to do good.

Where there is untold human suffering, it may well be related to profoundly gifted plans to improve the world. Stfane Courtois’s The Black Book of Communism[86] tells of millions who starved to death under Marx’s plan for a better world.[87] One can name Adam Smith and the fathers of the Industrial Revolution as creating a masculinist vision to improve the world, a vision that on the ground left things worse for a number of people, and in particular women: Bob Goudzwaard’s Aid for the Overdeveloped West[88] argues that the economic system that some profoundly gifted have helped build in the West is in fact not good for humans qua humans. Much of the industrialization that has led from wives working in adult company to housewives working in solitary confinement, destroying conditions that some feminists would like to reclaim, is transformation of society that stems from profoundly gifted people’s “good ideas” to make a better world.[89] It is perfectly coherent to say that a profoundly gifted person will persuasively argue for a vision of a better world that practically results in incalculable human suffering.

Thick description of myrrh: interdependent terms of human weal or woe

There is another feature of human life that gives a shape, allowing thick description, to what myrrh is; and this is not just for the profoundly gifted: this feature is a specific trait of interdependence. How one experiences this specific trait depends greatly on how it is received: if it is approached with joy and acceptance, can be experienced as suffering that is almost Heavenly in how full it is and how deep its grounds for joy,[90] or can be wrongly experienced as vanity, meaningless suffering that approaches dukkha.[91] The story is told of someone who saw Hell, in which wretched pandas were surrounded by rice but miserable and starving because their three foot long chopsticks made it impossible for the pandas to feed themselves. Then the visitor was taken to Heaven and saw pandas surrounded by rice, delightedly feeding and being fed by each other with their three foot chopsticks. The difference between Heaven and Hell is a difference that lies in how one is capable of experiencing the realities one is in. It is not just true in the next life that we can experience certain things as joyful or as meaningless dukkha. It is also true of this life, and more specifically of certain features of human interdependence, and the impossibility of independence, that are perhaps never completely avoidable but seem harder to even pretend to avoid in the profoundly gifted experience. It appears that some profoundly gifted may have no way to present their gifts in a way that a job recruiter will interpret as believable competence.[92] Paradoxically, an unusually impressive list of achievements may not be accompanied by much opportunity to be self-supporting and perhaps not other “necessities.”

In the work of Arthurian criticism Arthurian Torso,[93] Lewis discusses Virgil in Charles Williams’ Taliessin through Logres:[94]

It is Virgil himself who died without reaching the patria, who saw ‘Italy’ only from a wave before he was engulfed forever. It is Virgil himself who stretches out his hands among the ghosts ripae ulterioris amore, longing to pass a river that he cannot pass. This poet from whose work so many Christians have drawn spiritual nourishment was not himself a Christian—did not himself know the full meaning of his own poetry, for (in Keble’s fine words) ‘thoughts beyond their thought to those high bards were given’. This is exquisite cruelty; he made honey not for himself; he helped to save others, himself he could not save.

…The Atonement was a Substitution, just as Anselm said. But that Substitution, far from being a mere legal fiction irrelevant to the normal workings of the universe, was simply the supreme instance of a universal law. ‘He saved others, himself he cannot save’ is a definition of the Kingdom. All salvation, everywhere and at all times, in great things or in little, is vicarious. The courtesy of the Emperor has absolutely decreed that no man can paddle his own canoe and every man can paddle his fellow’s, so that the shy offering and modest acceptance of indispensable aid shall be the very form of the celestial etiquette. [emphasis original]

Lewis is summarizing Williams, and Williams’s point has strong theological relevance. Ware introduces one topic of discussion as “what Charles Williams calls ‘substituted love’, ‘coinherence’, or ‘the way of exchange’,”[95] founded precisely on the above “law of the canoe.” Profound giftedness is not a help for making honey for oneself but making honey for others, and this is not because the profoundly gifted are any more altruistic: whether one is selfish or generous, profound giftedness helps paddling others’ canoes much better than it helps paddling one’s own.

Alisdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals argues that dependence is constitutive of human nature.[96] Self-understanding as being independent requires sweeping acknowledgment of our dependence under the rug: true independence is probably impossible and certainly undesirable. If some people have difficulty achieving even a more relative independence, that is not an exception to how humanity normally works. It is continuous with large segments of humanity besides the profoundly gifted having more difficulty achieving a measure of independence. A few profoundly gifted experience worldly success—perhaps great—while many more experience surprising struggles.[97]

Lewis calls the law “exquisite cruelty,” and it is even crueler if a definition of justice in terms of paddling one’s own canoe is applied to the world, and one begins to suspect that even the Lawgiver, God, does not meet that standard of justice. But there is something in that picture that is not cruel, something that hinges on being willing to give up that standard of justice and accept the “law of the canoe” as terms of joy. If the profoundly gifted experience has extremes in its glories and difficulties, this form of interdependence is a difficulty that can and should be a glory, even if profoundly gifted may rarely be able to experience it as a particular form of human blessing.

Comparable remarks could be made for other populations and communities.


It seems a strained reading of Midas’s tale to argue that whatever Midas said, the king consciously thought he would retain the usual human ability to touch things without changing them into anything else, and in addition have the option to turn things to gold by touch when he so desired. Perhaps that would have been a far wiser thing to ask for. Despite this lack of foresight, it appears that when the king said that he wanted everything he touched to turn to gold, the “everything” he envisioned of course did not include his food and wine, and absolutely did not include his only daughter. It seems that Midas’s desire was for a fantasy version of a gift, and he was shocked when he received the real thing.

Profound giftedness is not a curse like Midas’s. It offers much better prospects of living to old age, not to mention any number of other benefits. But it is, like any number of other human experiences, different from the inside than from the outside.

There is another king associated with gold—in fact, six billion such royalty on one account, and Midas’s gold for his greed is in fact a base metal next to that gold that is from the same fountainhead as frankincense and myrrh. Human difference is not a matter of some people being at the human baseline, with everyone else starting from the same baseline but with added modifiers. In that sense everybody is on the baseline: it is mistaken to say that a profoundly gifted person is an “as modified by” representative of the majority, and neither more nor less mistaken than the opposite claim that most people are “as modified by” versions of the profoundly gifted, or comparable pairs of remarks spanning other human differences. Differences can be a chasm—sometimes requiring a great leap to bridge,—but when one can and does bridge the chasm, one may learn not of one more adjustment that can be made to a baseline centered on one’s own group, but a deeper understanding of what the baseline is and is not.

In that sense there is nothing distinctive about profound giftedness being different from the inside and from how one would imagine it from the outside. It is illustrative of the human.

Partly Annotated Bibliography

(The annotation is geared primarily towards profound giftedness as a theological reader may be expected to understand the theological literature better than the literature on giftedness.)

Ashbrook Harvey, Susan, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination, Berkeley: University of California Press 2006.

Buttrick, George, The Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press 1952.

Carson, D.A. et al. (eds.), New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press 1994.

Clark, Stephen, Man and Woman in Christ, Ann Arbor: Servant 1980.

Courtois, Stephane et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Boston: Harvard University Press 1999.

If one wishes to take seriously that profound giftedness and good intentions can cause incalculable suffering, this text covers something that is better not ignored.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Crime and Punishment, New York: Random House 1956.

L’Engle, Madeleine, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Wheaton: Shaw 1980.

In my argument about gold and kingship, I have talked about a profoundly gifted accent to work. Giftedness as such is incidental at best to Madeleine l’Engle’s focus, but this is a perspective on artistic work, a work that is close to contemplation, and if it does not have a profoundly gifted focus it still has a profoundly gifted perspective as the basis to explore artistic work as a whole.

Feldman, David, “A follow-up of subjects scoring above 180 IQ in Terman’s ‘Genetic Studies of Genius'”, in Exceptional Children, vol. 50 no. 6 1984, 518-523.

This study makes the briefest passing mention that one of Terman 1925’s very few profoundly gifted subjects “took his own life,” without the briefest passing suggestion of any way this tragedy might be something to learn from, might be something related to the profoundly gifted experience, or could even be preventable. (Statistical analysis is impossible for a small sample, but if one person in a twenty-nine person sample committed suicide, this is hundreds of times higher than the population at large, or even demographics like those suffering from major depression.) This feature is symptomatic of a broader tendency in Feldman to be a generic summary without insight, and this is part of why I prefer the more qualitative studies such as Hollingworth 1975 or Morelock 1995.

Freeman, Doreen, “A Feminist Theology of Disability”, in Feminist Theology 29 (2002), 71-85.

Fitzgerald, Allan, Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1999.

Galton, Francis, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry Into Its Laws and Consequences, London: Macmillan 1892 (1869).

From the introductory chapter Galton takes positions offensive even in his own day, and, to pick one example, his stand for intelligence-centered eugenics as a moral duty earns Galton’s vile reputation today. His study seems to be less concerned about describing or studying genius in the sense offered by other sources than making a minimal study of his subjects sufficient to move on to his real interest, identifying whether genius is hereditary enough to bolster the eugenics he advocated. On a more positive view of the study of giftedness, Galton can be read as indicating how far the study of giftedness has come since Galton’s approach. Too much of Galton’s attitude lingers in later literature, but Webb 1980 bases his argument on a completely different footing: when he appeals for reform and cites a statistic that gifted education is part of special education but receives per capita less than three cents on the dollar compared to other special needs populations,[98] the argument is not that gifted people are entitled to better treatment because they are superior. The argument is that special needs should be treated in proportion to the need. He places giftedness as a greater special need than most people realize.

While acknowledging that the gifted population may be one of few special needs populations which is envied, one may hope that future literature may shift further away from Galton in the direction of recognizing the gifted population as having legitimate if perhaps unanticipated special needs, and given proportionate treatment to the form of special needs.

Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, New York: Bantam 1995.

This controversial book treats one of several important aptitudes besides those studied here. The reason this article studies only one type of giftedness out of many is not because it’s the only interesting kind of intelligence (emotional intelligence may be more important), but a limitation of what can reasonably be treated in a single paper.

Goudzwaard, Bob, Aid for the Overdeveloped West, Oshawa: Wedge 1975.

Gross, Miraca, “The Early Development of Three Profoundly Gifted Children of IQ 200,” in Klein, Pnina; Tannenbaum, Abraham (eds.), To Be Young and Gifted, Norwood: Ablex 1992, 94-138.

This article is probably the best short sampling that offers a sense of human encounter through thick description of profoundly gifted children, and may serve as an orientation to the terrain of profoundly gifted children before tackling Hollingworth 1975 and Morelock 1995.

Gross, Miraca, “Factors in the Social Adjustment and Social Acceptability of Extremely Gifted Children,” Ohio Psychology Press 1994 as seen online at http://www.gt-cybersource.org/Record.aspx?NavID=2_0&rid=10586 on 1 January 2007.

Rather than thick description this article provides an analysis of social issues surrounding the profoundly gifted and why their position requires them to deal with social challenges that are not as much of an issue for others.

Hayward, Jonathan, Artificial Intelligence, AI as an Arena of Magical Thinking for Skeptics: Cognitive Science, and Eastern Orthodox Views on Personhood, Master’s Thesis (Cambridge University), 2004.

A study of the significance and power of basic human intelligence that can sometimes be overlooked in the study of giftedness.

Hollingworth, Leta, Children Above 180 IQ: Stanford-Binet Origin and Development, New York: Arno Press, 1975 (1942).

A classic study offering thick description of profoundly gifted children. Hollingworth has not been superseded.

Honderich, Ted (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995.

Howard, Pierce, The Owner’s Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research, Austin: Bard 2006.

Also readable as “A layperson’s introduction to the culture and prejudices of cognitive psychology/cognitive science,” but a valuable resource nonetheless, and the only psychological work I know that is not specialized in giftedness but offers an on-target treatment of profound giftedness.

Keselopoulos, Anestis, Man and the Environment: A Study of St. Symeon the New Theologian, Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.

Kittel, Gerhard, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1976.

Klein, Ann, “Fitting the School to the Child: The Mission of Leta Stetter Hollingworth, Founder of Gifted Education,” in Roeper Review, 23 (2), 2000, 97-103.

Kreeft, Peter, Three Philosophies of Life: Ecclesiastes: Life as Vanity; Job: Life as Suffering; Song of Songs: Life as Love, San Francisco: Ignatius 1989.

Landy, Frank, “The Long, Frustrating, and Fruitless Search for Social Intelligence: A Cautionary Tale,” in Murphy, Kevin (ed.), A Critique of Emotional Intelligence: What Are the Problems and How Can They Be Fixed?, Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum 2006, 81-123.

An opposing views piece to (Howard) Gardner theory, including Goleman 1995.

Lewis, C.S., That Hideous Strength, New York: Scrivener 1996.

Lichtenstein, Aharon, “The Duties of the Heart and Response to Suffering,” in Jewish Perspectives on the Experience of Suffering, Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1999.

Macintyre, Alisdair, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues, Chicago: Open Court 1999.

Maloney, George, Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh: An Introduction to Eastern Christian Spirituality, New York: Crossroad 1997.

McVey, Kathleen, Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, New York: Mahwah 1989.

Morelock, Martha, The Profoundly Gifted Child in Family Context, UMI 1995.

This dissertation studies in depth two profoundly gifted children who represent two forms of profound giftedness, Bethany Marshall (profound giftedness focused in a single area, in this case music performance) and Michael Kerney (profound giftedness spread out over many areas). The latter represents someone who is exceptional even for someone who is profoundly gifted. In some sense Morelock is a complement to Hollingworth 1975, but includes significant analysis alongside its thick description.

O’Brien, David; Shannon, Thomas, Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage, Maryknoll: Orbis 1992.

Schmemann, Alexander, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1973 (1963), 17.

Smets, Alexis; van Esbroeck, Michel (trs. and eds.), Basil de Césare: Sur l’Origine de l’Homme, Paris: Cerf 1970.

Sword, L., “Gifted Children: Emotionally Immature or Emotionally Intense?” Gifted and Creative Services, Australia, as seen online at http://www.gt-cybersource.org/Record.aspx?rid=12310 on 1 January 2007.

Giftedness is not the same as emotional intelligence but it complexifies emotional life, meaning that gifted sometimes have to work harder to reach what others achieve by less effort to reach emotional maturity. (This article is not limited to profound giftedness but tries to address the broader gifted population.)

Terman, Lewis et al., Genetic Studies of Genius, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1925 (vol. 1), 1926 (vol. 2), 1930 (vol. 3), 1947 (vol. 4), 1959 (vol. 5).

Webb offers reasons why Terman’s methods of identifying gifted people may have been unintendedly biased in favor of the members of the gifted population who enjoyed the greatest social advantage.[99] Terman uses the word “genius” in the title for a population that mostly overlaps the range of “socially optimal intelligence,” without that much attention to profound giftedness. However, Terman offers a landmark study and almost everybody stands on his shoulders even in criticizing him.

Thunberg, Lars, Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor, La Salle: Open Court, 1995.

Vasileios (Archimandrite), Hymn of Entry, Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1984.

Walton, John et al., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press 2000.

Ware, Kallistos, The Orthodox Church, New York: Penguin 1997 (1963).

Ware, Kallistos, The Orthodox Way, Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995 (1979).

Ware, Kallistos, “Seek First the Kingdom: Orthodox Monasticism and Its Service to the World,” in Theology Today, April 2004, 61.1, http://proquest.umi.com/pqdlink?did=623880061&Fmt=7&clientId=9148&RQT=309&VName=PQD as seen 11/12/06.

Ware, Kallistos, “What is a martyr?” in Sobornost Incorporating Eastern Churches Review, London: Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, V.1 (1983), 7-19.

Webb, James; Meckstroth, Elizabeth; Tolan, Stephanie, Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Parents and Teachers, Columbus: Ohio Psychology Publishing Company, 1982.

Webb ties together a great many things in this overview of the spectrum of giftedness (including profound giftedness). Where the sources I recommend for profound giftedness (Morelock 1995, Hollingworth 1974) offer qualitative thick description, this source incorporates theory, thick description, and practical advice into a picture that better than anything else I have seen in its insight into the entirety of the gifted experience.

Williams, Charles; Lewis, C.S., Taliessin through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars, and Arthurian Torso, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1974.


[1] Vasileos 1984, 81-7.

[2] Ware 1997, 32; cf. Ware 1995, 34.

[3] McVey 1989, 4.

[4] Ware 2004, seen online.

[5] Ware 2004, seen online.

[6] Lewis 1996, 370: a character breaks from description of Arthurian grandeur to discuss how this in no way makes Britain superior because each nation has its own characteristic glory: each nation is distinctive and none is superior. Much the same could be said of various populations that are/might be given thick description through the methods of this paper.

[7] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 73.

[8] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 73.

[9] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 66.

[10] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 66-7.

[11] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 254n138. I cannot here explore the suggestion, mentioned in Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 33, that “gold” may represent an underlying Aramaic term for another herbal aromatic.

[12] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 3.9.2.

[13]Hymns on the Nativity 19.4 in McVey 1989.

[14] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 74.

[15]Hymns on the Nativity 9.15.

[16] Kittel 1976.

[17] Fitzgerald 1999.

[18] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 119-21.

[19] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 67-73.

[20] Ashbrook Harvey 2006, 68.

[21]Matthew 3.11; compare: “There is fire in chrism.” (GPh 2.15)

[22] I Corinthians 15.45; cf. I Corinthians 15 and specifically 15.22.

[23] Walton 2000, Genesis 1.27.

[24]Hexameron, Homily 10.8.

[25]Hexameron, Homily 10.9, my own translation. [Emphasis taken from French translation]

[26] Keselopoulos 2001, 57.

[27] John Paul II, Laborum Exercens, 1981.

[28] LE, prologue.

[29] Keselopoulos 2001, 90.

[30] L’Engle 1980, 23.

[31] Dostoevsky 1956, III.5.

[32] Cf. Matthew 25.14-30 and I Corinthians 12.

[33]Matthew 25.14-30.

[34] Balz 1982-3, talentos.

[35] Hagner 1995, Matthew 25.14-5.

[36] Goleman 1995.

[37] Landy 2006 provides an opposing view.

[38] On anecdotal evidence, though, consider the case of one young woman with high enough social intelligence that when she enters a room all the conversations start to run more smoothly and everybody seems to want to be her close friend or romantic partner. It appears that a high enough level of social intelligence may come with unwanted side effects. (Personal conversation with her friend Lydia Klingforth c2000.)

[39] Klein 2000, 97.

[40] Galton 1892.

[41] Hollingworth 1942, xiv.

[42] Hollingworth 1942, 217-9.

[43] Morelock 1995, 223-5.

[44]Hayward 2004, 13-16.

[45] Nicolas Cabasilas, in M. Jugie, ‘Homélies mariales byzantines,’ Patrologia orientalis, XIX, fasc/, 3, 1925, p. 463, as quoted in Lossky 1976, 141.

[46] http://www.holyannunciation.org, as seen on 22/11/06.

[47]Luke 1.38, RSV.

[48] L’Engle 1980, 18.

[49] L’Engle 1980, 194.

[50] L’Engle 1980.

[51] Sword, online.

[52] Michael Pichowski as cited in Sword, online.

[53] Morelock 1995, 161.

[54] Gross 1992, 103.

[55] Webb 1982, 191-204: an entire chapter treats this.

[56] Gross 1992, 97.

[57] Gross 1994, seen online.

[58] Morelock 1995, 293-4.

[59] Morelock 1995, 295.

[60] Freeman 2002, 73.

[61] Lichtenstein 1999, 60.

[62] Behr 2006.

[63] Behr 2006, 33.

[64] Behr 2006, 143.

[65] Behr 2006, 35.

[66] Behr 2006, 143.

[67]Acts 5.40.

[68]Acts 5.41 RSV.

[69] Ware 1983, 18.

[70] The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

[71]Matthew 5.10-2.

[72]Hebrews 2.10 RSV.

[73]I Peter 2.19-20 RSV.

[74]Hebrews 5.8 RSV.

[75] Carson 1994, Hebrews 11.23-8.

[76]Hebrews 11.26 RSV.

[77] Ware 1983, 10.

[78] Ware 1983, 16.

[79] Kittel 1976, paschw.

[80] Kittel 1976, paschw.

[81] One hagiographical account may be seen at http://www.roca.org/OA/25/25d.htm, “And lo, the Star… St. Simon the Myrrh-gusher,” as seen on October 9 2006. Like most hagiography, this is considered part of the Orthodox tradition of “biography as theology,” theology given flesh in a person’s life.

[82] Schmemann 1973 (1963), 17; Keselopoulos 2001, 57.

[83] See i.e. Keselopoulos 2001, 57, 64 and comments about Genesis 1:26-8 above.

[84] Botterweck 2003, qds.

[85] Kittel 1964, hagios.

[86] Courtois 1999.

[87] Courtois 1999, 4.

[88] Goudzwaard 1975, 4-5.

[89] If one is prepared to accept that truly traditional societies are something other than traditional roles attemptedly imposed on post-Industrial Revolution living conditions, then Clark 1980 provides an analysis largely of how women have suffered under certain changes, even if it doesn’t focus on who contributed “good ideas” behind the changes.

[90] The Heavenly/Purgatorial suffering found in Job, in Kreeft 1989, 59-96.

[91] The Hellish suffering found in Ecclesiastes, in Kreeft 1989, 13-58.

[92] Personal conversations with different profoundly gifted, 2001.

[93] Lewis 1974.

[94] Lewis 1974, 305,7.

[95] Ware 1983, 11.

[96] MacIntyre 1999, 1ff.

[97] Personal conversations with profoundly gifted, 2001.

[98] Webb 1982, 3.

[99] Webb 1982, 10.

Gifted? Let me harass you!

The Hayward nonstandard test: an interesting failure

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

Within the Steel Orb

Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist


Saying farewell to heroes

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

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

Yet I am taking leave of Gandhi as the same Orthodox who took leave of C.S. Lewis. I take leave of Gandhi even as it unravels the style of nonviolence I found as a best interpretation of the The Sermon on the Mount. I find in the end not that I was too fixated on theThe Sermon on the Mount and took too much from it, but that I took too little. The Indian style of nonviolence has much to commend it, and I am impressed that Indian nationalism identifies with nonviolence instead of glorified violence that affects nationalism in so many other places. India and others have not let Gandhi be the last of a particular nonviolent alternative to violence. But there is a little bit of a burr under my saddle here. The Sermon on the Mount does not, in the main, offer an alternative answer to the questions addressed by just war and violence, not even the alternative answer of voluntary suffering that brought India’s freedom. It answers another question altogether.

How else could it be?

The rather obvious question to be raised, by just war Christian and by pacifist as well, is “How else could it be?” How does a Sermon on the Mount that says, “Do not resist evil” not call for nonviolent resistance if it is not taken as a hyperbolic statement that for more ordinary mortals means something like, “Be restrained when you must resist evil, and grieve when you must do so.”? And on this point I would place my own earlier position, and Blessed are the Peacemakers, in the same category as just war theory. It is an answer to what is the most effective legitimate means to address certain dark situations.

And the answer I would give is that the The Sermon on the Mount does not say, “Do not resist evil.” Or at least it does not stop there. It says in full,

And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him. After this manner therefore pray ye:

Our Father which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

When Christ preached these words, the crowds were astounded.

What is at the heart of this is a Life, a life like the birds of the air and the grass of the field, the Divine life, that is as naked as Adam. One of the greatest idols and transgressions against the The Sermon on the Mount. One particularly illumining footnote in The Orthodox Study Bible reads:

Luke 12:16-21:

Then [Jesus] spoke a parable to them, saying, “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many good things laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” ‘ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night [angels shall require] your soul of you; then whose things be which you have provided?’

“So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God.”

The comment reads:

“Whose will those things be by which you have provided?” is the key to understanding the saving up of material goods. St. John Chrysostom writes that the only barns we need we already have: “the stomachs of the poor.” St. Basil the Great taught that the bread in our cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in our closet belong to the one who has no shoes, and money we hoard belongs to the poor. St. Ambrose teaches, “The things which we cannot take with us are not ours. Only virtue will be our companion when we die.” Even when Joseph stored up grain in Egypt (Gn 41), it was for the benefit of the whole nation.

Sandwiched between “Do not store up treasure on earth” and “No man can serve two masters” is the strange-sounding, sandwiched “The eye is the lamp of the body.” But this is of a piece with the text that surrounds it. Is our eye fixed on providing for ourselves through earthly means, or looking up to God in the trust that he will provide and the realization that he knows our needs better than we do and loves us better than we know how to love? If we are confused here then our eye is not “single”, but poisoned. Those of us who are not monastics are permitted some possessions, but better not to create an endowment that provides the illusion that we are not at the hands of the severe mercy of a providing God. And when we begin to loosen our grip on money, God’s providence is written in stronger, starker strokes.

And the point of this is not to fetter us, but to free us from what seems necessary and recognize the shackles we were bound to. On this point I am talking about money; but I might as well speak of a gun and self-defense lessons. The Sermon on the Mount‘s motto is not a Boy Scout’s Be prepared, but a carefree, Don’t be prepared. Be as naked as Adam.

The Divine Liturgy and its associated readings speak of “He who of old stripped you both naked,” meaning “The Devil who of old stripped you, Adam and Eve, both naked.” It wasn’t just that their flesh in its pure form raised no question of lust. Neither fire nor water nor the elements could touch Adam or Eve until they abdicated, and there are stories of a saint who threw down the gauntlet to a sorceror, walked into a fire and said “I’m unharmed,” and when the sorceror was thrown into the flame with him and was burned, healed him and sent him out unharmed. On a more mortal level, monks and nuns can dress almost or exactly the same in terms of layers of clothing between summer and winter, and that includes an American Midwest summer and winter. Paradise is where the saints are; the door may have been closed to Adam and Eve but it is open to the saints.

And all of this is an invitation to freedom, free and absolute, unencumbered and unchained freedom. It is not legalism that bids us, “If someone conscript you to go with him one mile, go with him two;” it is utter freedom even from selfishly stopping with what was asked. Christ the Lily of the Valley is the flower that leaves a fragrant scent on the heel that crushes it: but what we may find is that those things we expect to crush us, are just the removal of a shackle. And at the end saintly peacemakers are of a piece with the merciful, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake: there is a unity of the beatitudes and they are rightly sung as a shorthand for the entire Sermon on the Mount in every Orthodox Liturgy. There is freedom to trust in the Lord’s providence, freedom to every kind of generosity, freedom from lust, freedom from anger, every freedom that counts.

Q: So what’s the difference?
A: The Saint and the Activist.

Some readers may wonder where really I have departed from Gandhi. If he were alive, quite possibly he could say he agreed with most or all of it, not out of diplomatically seeking common ground, but out of a direct candour. But I assert there is a difference.

Military action and nonviolent resistance are two answers to the same question. Between the two, military action has much to commend it, and in fact Gandhi had great respect for soldiers: in Blessed Are the Peacemakers, I wrote:

Once the men of a village came, running, and told Gandhi that they had run away while the police were raping and pillaging. When they told him that this was because of his instruction to be nonviolent, he hung his head in shame. He would not have been angry with them if they had defended their families by the power of a sword. He would have approved had they stood in harm’s way, calling all injury to themselves without seeking to strike or to harm, to the point of death. But to run away like that and passively leave those who could not run was an act of great and terrible cowardice, the darkest possible answer to the problem.

From speaking with and listening to soldiers, I recognize military training and life as the cross of St. George, an ascetical framework that is much more disciplined than most life outside the military. Hard work and dedication are good things, and there is much to be praised about the cross of St. George. Nonviolent activism such as Gandhi offered, the practice of satyagraha which I refer to as ‘peacemaking’, perhaps questionably, has more to commend it. It is also disciplined, and it does not resist force with force. None the same, it is an alternative in the same orbit as military action. It does not stain its hands with others’ blood, but it is a tool you can use to achieve the same kind of end as military resources. India’s independence was won with nonviolent resistance. But it is the sort of goal that could have been achieved by warfare, and in fact it stands in stark contrast to other nations as “achieving without bearing the sword what elsewhere has not been gained except by bearing the sword.” And this falls infinitely short of resting in the hands of providence, naked as Adam.

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

Question The Activist The Saint
What is the chief end of mankind? To change the world. To glorify God and enjoy him forever.
What is that in a word? Change. Contemplation.
By what means do your pursue that end? By means an atheist and a religious person could equally recognize as effective. Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you. This means that you work sometimes in ways an atheist would see as foolish.
What is the place of nonviolence? It is a tool for political influence. It is a flower of spiritual growth.
What is the place of discipline? If you are disciplined, you are more effective at getting things done. Protestants have said, “Mission exists because worship does not:” no one, without exception, exists for the sake of missions. All mankind, without exception, exists for the sake of worshipping God. Some people, however, are deprived of the purpose for which they are created, and therefore some people are missionaries so that more people may enjoy the purpose for which they are made. In like fashion, spiritual discipline exists because contemplation does not. It is a corrective when we have lost touch with the life of contemplation.
What do you live to become? A catalyst for a better world. To become by grace what Christ is by nature.
What is the Bible for? To push moral authority behind the causes we further. Part of God’s work to shape us to grow in faith.
What is justice? Equitable redistribution of resources, as conceived by assuming that political reforms included in this goal will do nothing to hinder the economy’s ability to do all that is asked of it. One of the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity, that is at times interchangeable with spiritual righteousness.
What is the government’s role? The more important a task is, the more essential it is that it is channeled through the government. Success usually includes bringing about governmental reforms. Government has a place, but that place is not the place of a messiah. Success is not usually connected to governmental reforms.
Can human nature be improved on? Yes; we can bring it about in others through political programs. Yes; if we let God work with us we will be improved in the work.
What attitude brings real success? Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me. Be it unto me according to thy word.
What is wrong with the world? A number of issues, most importantly the issues I am fighting and giving the most advcocacy for. Me.

Where does Gandhi stand in all of this?

There was one document forwarded that listed a bunch of statements like, “If you disapprove of sport utility vehicles and private jets and own a sport utility vehicle and private jet, you might be a liberal.” And on that count, Gandhi cannot be called an unadorned Activist. He didn’t just say, “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s wants;” his gaunt frame attests to the fact that he was attending to the beam in his own eye rather than the speck in his brother’s eye. His writing is devout; “God” is not, as with many of today’s Activists, a word not to be used in polite company. Gandhi cannot be completely understood except with reference to Saints, and what I would call the centerpiece of his Activism is drawn out of from Saint terrain. Gandhi’s particular genius is to take nonviolent resistance as one of many particular eddies in the flow of holiness in the plane of the Saint, and transform it to be a keystone in the plane of the Activist. That places Gandhi away from being at least a pure saint to being substantially an Activist. It makes him, in fact, more of an Activist than if he had merely used existing Activist tools; he was Activist enough to profoundly contribute to the bedrock of Activism.

Furthermore, I am concerned about the wake that he has left. Not that this is a unique concern about Mr. Gandhi; I have raised concerns about the wake left by Fr. Seraphim (Rose). I have seen one Gandhi quote in the wild that alludes to the Sermon on the Mount, “An eye for an eye only ends by making the whole world blind.” But this is an Activist argument; an atheist Activist and a Saint could equally agree that the basic argument is sound or unsound. And that’s it for religious quotes. In All Men Are Brothers, Gandhi unashamedly, frequently, and freely refers to God. But I have never seen a Gandhi quote in the wild that uses the G-word. And when Gandhi’s style of nonviolent resistance is imitated today, it is used in a way that is completely detached from the Saint’s freedom, that is more removed from the Saint than not protesting.

Rivers of living water

By contrast, I would tell the story of St. Photini, the Woman at the Well, or part of it. It was shameful for the Woman at the Well to come alone to draw water; women would come together to draw water in groups. No other woman would be caught dead with a woman of her reputation, and when she evasively answered Jesus’s “Go and call your husband,” she was dodging her shame. Earlier she had sought to enlist Christ’s help in running from her shame; her words, “Give me this water,” were not so that she could dodge the manual labor of drawing water, but so that she could run from the shame of having to draw water alone. And Christ did not give her what she wanted; instead, in answering her evasive “I have no husband” with, “You have truly said, ‘I have no husband’, for you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband,” pulled her through her shame and opened her eyes to higher things. The story builds up to her running, free from shame, telling people, “Come and see a man who told me every thing I ever did!” She sought Christ’s help in covering up her shame; instead he made her unashamed as Adam. And it is in this unashamed woman that the story unfolded of a Great Martyr and Equal to the Apostles.

This is what it means to be naked as Adam. It is not a license for indecency; when she gave Christ an evasive answer, he called a spade a spade. But she did become like the Adam whom fire and water could not harm. The point of this is not that her story goes on to her being tortured and her whole company drinking poison and being unharmed by it, but that everything at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount was alive in her. In her later story much is told of miracles, but perhaps we should make less of the fact that she went to tortures and was miraculously delivered, and more of the fact that she went to tortures and was faithful. She did, in the spirit of giving more than was asked, when Nero decided to bring her to trial, she went ahead and tried to convert him. She didn’t succeed at that, but she did seem to convert practically everyone else she came in contact with. But what is significant is not just the results that she brought about. What is significant is that she was faithful, with the overflowing freedom that soars as the birds of the air. Perhaps we are not Saints on the level of St. Photini; perhaps it is not within our reach to be called Equal to the Apostles. But what is in our reach is to be a little more a Saint, a little less of an Activist.

Now, a word on being naked as Adam. St. Photini wore clothes and so should we. It is true that there are some saints who labored without clothing: the pre-eminent example is St. Mary of Egypt, and there have been male Desert Fathers who were naked. But we should wear normal clothes even as St. Photini did. What is forbidden to those who would be naked as Adam is not literal clothing but metaphorical armor. What is forbidden is not trusting in God’s Providence but trying, in addition to the Lord’s Providence, or instead of it (if these are really two different things) to straighten things out for ourselves. The opposite of this is someone like St. Photini who, instead of waiting to be captured, went on her own initiative to Caesar Nero. She trusted in God’s Providence in a way that could be seen as blackmailing God. But there is something very like Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance, not in how the Saint deals with evil in the world, but how the Saint works with God. If a Saint were told, “You are making no provision to take yourself but it’s like you’re blackmailing God by your actions,” one Saint might respond, giving more than was asked, “Yes, I’m emotionally blackmailing God, and you should emotionally blackmail him too!”

Deep in our bones

Activism runs deep in our bones today; I surprised one professor who discussed disability and an “autism and advocacy” conference, that the natural way to seek the best interests of the autistic community is by political advocacy. And I tried, perhaps in vain, to show her that of the two assigned articles she gave on dealing with autism and disability, one offered a clear activist agenda for autism and disability, and the other was not political, at least not in an overly narrow understanding of politics, but was the father of an autistic child speaking of limitless love. My professor couldn’t see what would benefit the autistic besides rolling out one more theme in political activism.

And so, with activism deep in our bones, if we look for a saint, the kind of figure that so naturally comes to mind is Gandhi, or Martin Luther King if we insist on a Christian. Both admired and sought to imitate Christ; both led nonviolent resistance against laws that were legislated evil. Both sought a response to evils out of the Sermon on the Mount. And both contributed to the Activist outlook that is now non-negotiable in the academy. Not necessarily that Gandhi’s style of nonviolence is non-negotiable; Gandhi respected his enemies, while it is perfectly socially acceptable in some queer circles to break in to Catholic churches and vandalize them, and spray paint swastikas to identify Romans with Hitler. But the question in so much of the academy is not, “Are you a Saint or an Activist,” but, “On to the real question. What kind of Activist are you?” (If they have enough distance to recognize that that is the only real question in their eyes.)

Conclusion: Saints forever!

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

You helped me reach where I am now, and I would be much poorer had our conversation been deleted from my past. I have sat at your feet. But now even what I have taken from you summons me to bid you farewell. If your right eye or your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. Holding on to your ecumenism, Mr. Lewis, or—it is a deeper cut—your nonviolence, Mr. Gandhi, is to lose everything you sought for. The journey in faith involves many times when we cut off a right hand or take out a right eye. Perhaps we lose nothing, or only a piece of Hell, when we do so. But God created man to glorify him and become him forever, and I cannot be an Activist: I can only strive to be a Saint.

Thus I bid farewell to heroes of my youth.

Blessed are the Peacemakers: real peace through real strength

The Most Politically Incorrect Sermon in History: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount

An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism

A Pilgrimage from Narnia

The Fulfillment of Feminism


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There was one time when I was sitting in Danada Convenient Care, waiting for a blood draw. A mother led in a little girl who was bawling, sat her down in the waiting area, and began to attend to all the little details: sign in on a clipboard, speak with the office staff, sign a waiver, present an insurance card. The girl was bawling because she had apparently slammed her thumbnail in a door. After a little while I came over and began talking with her. I asked her what her favorite color was. I asked, “What kind of musical instrument does a dog play?” (answer: a trombone). I tried to get her talking, but most of what I said went over her head. After a while, I realized two things. First, I was failing rather miserably to engage her in conversation; I literally could not think of many things to say that a child of that age could respond to. And second, she stopped crying. Completely. I was struck by the near-total lack of pain in her face as she looked at me.

Eventually, I was called in for my blood draw. When I came out, things were totally different. The mother was sitting next to her daughter, and paying attention to her. The daughter was drawn into her mother’s attention. I said goodbye and left.

On another occasion, I was at a dinner at someone’s house, and my eyes were drawn to a goldfish in a fishbowl. I asked the hostess how old the goldfish was, and her answer was followed shortly by my asking how she managed to keep a goldfish for that long. And I remember vividly her answer. She said, “I talk to it,” and then stooped down and began talking to the fish like it was a small child. The fish began eagerly swimming towards her, as if it were trying to swim through the glass to meet her.

Love is a spiritual force, and I thought her answer was looney then because I didn’t understand that there are more than material forces that can affect whether a fish is healthy. I thought that the idea of love or hate affecting how a plant grows made a great exotic feature in fantasy, but in the real world science accounts for all the factors in how long a fish lives. Of course it matters that the hostess fed the goldfish and kept the fishbowl clean, but the reason the fish was alive and healthy was because she loved it. (And she’s a woman with a big heart.) And it matters, no doubt, that I made eye contact with the little girl and squatted to try to be at eye level. But the reason I was able to draw her out of intense pain was the power that love has. I can count on my fingers the times I’ve been in worse pain than smashing my thumbnails as a child; her pain was atrocious. What was strong enough to pull her out of that pain wasn’t my posture, or anything suave at my clumsy failures to say things that were age-appropriate. What pulled her out of her deep pain was love, and I was delighted to see her mother, who had been so busy with a thousand necessary details, giving her attention and love to her now comforted daughter. The mother told me as I said goodbye, “You have a very gentle way about you,” and I hold that story in my heart as one of my triumphs.

It’s hard to pick out a theme more foundational to feminist ethics, and perhaps the whole of feminism, than caring. Many feminists understand feminism as trying to move from a world dominated by male aggression to a world nurtured through motherly love and caring. And I would like to talk about love in Orthodoxy after talking about aggression.

The term “male aggression” is used a lot. The word “aggression” has a double meaning. Narrowly, “aggression” means “unprovoked violence,” a violence that is evil. But there is another meaning to “aggressive,” when a doctor pursues an “aggressive” treatment, for instance. Here “aggressive” does not literally mean violence and need not be at all evil… but there is a connection between the two. There is a real reason why we speak of an “aggressive” business plan as well as an “aggressive” assault. Why does “aggressive” sometimes mean “energetically active,” something that can be good, when the “main” usage is for something despicable?

Men are more likely to be aggressive than women. In which sense? Actually, both, and there’s a link between the two senses that offers insight into what it means to be a man. Talking about “male aggression” is not simply man-bashing, even if it is often done in exactly that fashion. There is something spirited and something fiery that is part of manhood, something that can be very destructive, but something that can be channeled. I don’t think any of us need to be told that masculine aggressiveness can be destructive. But that is not the full story of masculine energy. Channeled properly, male aggressive energy means projects. It means adventures and exploration. It means building buildings, questing after discoveries, giving vision to a community. The same thing that can be very destructive can also energize a man’s gifts to society. It can be transformed.

I would pose the question: If masculine aggression can be transformed in this manner, what about feminine and motherly caring?

Love is big in Orthodoxy. God is love. God is light, and other things can also be said, but he is love. The entirety of ethics and moral law is about loving God and one’s neighbor. The entirety of spiritual discipline, which Orthodoxy as well as feminist spirituality recognize as important for sustained growth, is a spiritual support not simply to one’s salvation, but to love. If my spiritual discipline does not turn me in love towards you, it is fundamentally incomplete. Spiritual discipline without love for others is self-contradictory as a friendship without another person.

What’s the relationship between love and caring? Are they synonyms? There is a deep connection, but I believe that an important difference shows up in the question of abortion.

“My body, my choice!” makes a powerful and easy-to-remember political slogan. But nobody believes it, or at least people who have abortions don’t believe it. Post-abortion is not about assuring women that it was just a surgery that removed something unwanted, but quite to the contrary is about helping women grieve the loss of a child. You may be able to make a legal argument that the child is part of the mother’s body, or say it’s just a potential life that was stopped. But trying to use that in post-abortion counseling is like telling someone who’s drinking milk that has gone bad that the milk is really quite fresh. You might be able to convince other people that the milk is really quite fresh, but not the person who’s actually drinking it. And women who have abortions are the ones who are drinking the rancid milk. In coffee table discussions you can deny that the death of a child is involved and say it’s just unwanted tissue. If you’re not drinking the milk, you can be conned into believing it’s still fresh. But if you’re drinking it? Post-abortion counseling helps women grieve the loss of a child, and for that reason cannot say “It was just a potential life!”

If women who have abortions don’t believe the rhetoric, then why does abortion take place? Quite often, these women feel stuck between a rock and a hard place in which there seem to simply be no good options. This is part of why the pro-life movement has made a major shift to offering compassion and practical help to people in that position. It’s a difficult position, and feminists will often argue that abortion is the most caring way out. It is not caring, the line goes, to bring a child into a situation where it will not be cared for, and women should be caring to themselves by not saddling themselves with too much responsibility. And so the ethics of caring sometimes finds abortion the appropriate choice.

In many ethical frameworks you can get away with saying that a mother’s love is one love among others. That simply doesn’t fly here. In feminism, a mother’s love is considered the most intimate love and a mother’s caring is meant to be the foundation of a better way of living. It is feminists who have given motherly caring the greatest emphasis and the most central place, and feminists who most fervently defend what any woman who’s had an abortion knows and grieves as the loss of a child. It’s almost as if a coalition of historians and archivists were the ones most fervently defending the practice of burning old documents.

My reason for mentioning this is not simply irony. My reason for pointing this out is to suggest that something’s wrong, and maybe motherly caring isn’t strong enough to support the weight feminism asks it to bear. Part of this odd picture is surely rationalization: part of what feminists want is the freedom to live a certain way but not deal with its consequences: be sexually active and not deal with children when they don’t want to, and if killing, or in today’s carefully chosen terms, “reproductive choice,” is the necessary price for freedom on those terms, they accept that price. Part of this is rationalization, but not all. Part of this is the weakness of caring when it is asked to do what feminists hope it will do. Asking motherly caring to do what feminists want is kind of like trying to drive a top-notch car engine to work. It may be a very good engine, and an engine may be indispensible to any functioning car, but things go much better if we have the whole car. I’m not just saying that abortion is wrong. I’m saying that if the people who bear the banner of “mother’s love” as the healing balm for society’s ills are the ones who defend that practice, we have a red flag that may point to another problem: maybe caring might not do what feminists think it does. Maybe it’s not enough.

So what would a whole car look like?

I’d like to quote a passage that has one teacher’s take on love:

Then a Jewish law scholar stood up to test Jesus, and said “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus answered him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”

He said to him, “You must love the Lord your God out of your whole heart, with your whole soul, with your whole strength, and with your whole mind, and love your neighbor even as you love yourself.”

He said, “That’s right; do this and you will live.”

But the scholar wanted to be proved righteous before Jesus. He said, “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answered and said, “Someone was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and brigands assaulted him, stripping him and leaving him half dead. And by providence a priest was going down that way and saw him and passed by, giving him a wide berth. Likewise, a Levite was travelling the same way, saw him, and gave him a wide berth. Then a travelling Samaritan came across him and was moved with mercy, in the depths of his bowels, and came over, and dressed his wounds with oil and wine, mounted him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and nurtured him. And the next day he gave a good chunk of his wealth to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him, and if he needs anything more, I will repay you when I come back.’ Now which one of these three do you suppose showed himself a neighbor to the man who was assaulted by brigands?”

He said, “The one who showed mercy to him.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and live that way.”

(Luke 10:25-37, my translation) Cloud and Townsend’s appropriately titled Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life argues that this story is a good illustration of their version of boundaries, and that was when I started listening to some nagging doubts about their theory. They said this was a good example of a measured response: the Samaritan made a moderate and limited response, got the Jew to safety and paid some expenses, and left. Cloud and Townsend ask us to imagine the wounded Jew saying “I need you to stay here,” and the moderate Samaritan drawing a their-version-of-appropriate-boundary and saying “I’ve made a moderate response and need to move on.” and saying “No,” the way their version of boundaries draws a line and says, “No.” And I have not heard a treatment of this story that is further from the truth.

The route from Jerusalem to Jericho was up until the eighteenth century a dangerous place with bandits, and one well-known ruse was to have one bandit lying in the way, apparently grievously wounded, and if someone stopped, the bandits would take advantage of that mercy to assault and rob him. Jesus was saying that the Samaritan stopped in a bad part of Chicago in the middle of the night because a voice in a dark alley said, “Help me.” And the Jews and Samaritans hated each other; they didn’t have, like today, a setup where people want not to be racist. For that Samaritan to help that Jew was for one gang member to stick his neck out pretty far for a stranger who was from a hostile gang. This is near the top of stupid things you absolutely don’t do. Was Jesus exaggerating? He was making a quite ludicrous exaggeration to make the point that your neighbor is every person you meet and every person you do not meet, every person who you like, every person who bothers you, every person who is unkind, every enemy and every pest you loathe. Jesus was exaggerating, in fact, to respond to someone who was trying to be too comfortable and make him pointedly uncomfortable. I believe the other person was expecting Jesus to draw a reasonable line of reasonable boundaries to his love, and Jesus was quite blunt about setting an impossible and unreasonable standard.

If we try hard enough, we can shut our eyes and neutralize this story. We can neutralize how uncomfortable it makes us; we can neutralize any way this story might contradict today’s psychological dogma of boundaries… and we can neutralize the priceless pearl that this story is meant to help us find. And this story does hold a priceless pearl for us.

The point is not that if someone asks you into a situation that makes you uncomfortable, you must go. I don’t really think the point is to set much of any kind of literal prescription for how far your love must go. The point is that what is being asked is impossible. Simply impossible, and beyond your power, and beyond my power. It’s a command of, “You must be strong enough to lift a mountain.” If someone said, “You must be strong enough to lift four hundred pounds off the ground,” that would be possible for some people with dedicated training. But the most powerfully built athlete who goes through the most disciplined training cannot lift a medium-sized boulder, let alone a mountain. Jesus isn’t saying, “You must be strong enough to lift four hundred pounds,” which is something that some of us could achieve through a gargantuan effort. He’s saying, “You must be strong enough to lift a mountain,” and he’s exaggerating, but the whole point is that he’s asking something impossible. Only the divine can love that way.

The whole secret hinges on that. The divine became human that the human might become divine. The Creator entered into the creation that the creation might enter into the Creator. Orthodoxy is not a set of rules, however good, to safeguard purely human love. The point of Orthodoxy is to be transformed by the divine love so we can live the life that God lives and love with the love that God loves. It is to live the life of Heaven, beginning here and now. It is to transfigure every human love so that it becomes divine love. Out of love, God became as we are, that out of love we might become as he is. And what feminism seeks in caring grows to its full stature in Orthodoxy.

There is something fundamental that is missed about Orthodoxy if it is understood as a set of practices organized around love, or a set of ideas in which love is prominent, or a movement which tries to help people be more loving. That has some truth, but the truth is more than that. The human cannot be understood without the divine; to be human is to participate, however imperfectly, in God. Orthodoxy can no longer be understood as a movement or a system of ideas and practices than a campfire can be understood as a collection of sticks. The sticks are not just arranged a certain way in a campfire; they burn, and you cannot understand even the arrangement of the sticks unless you are aware of the fire that is the reason they are arranged. Not only to be Orthodox but to be human is to be made in the image of God, which in Orthodoxy has always meant that we are not separate miniatures of God, but manifestations of his glory. God is not merely a First Cause who started things off; he is the blazing Sun whose light shines on everything that daylight illuminates.

Orthodoxy is the fulfillment of feminism. If feminism is a deep question, Orthodoxy is a deep answer that responds to the depths of motherly love with the limitless depths of divine love. This is not just with love. More spiritual feminists tend to like the idea of synchronicity, the idea that materialist causation isn’t the whole picture. Synchronicity is the idea that they’re not just isolated domino chains with one domino knocking another domino down; the chains are linked in ways that go beyond dominos bumping into each other. There is a richer picture. And Orthodoxy believes all this and more. Orthodoxy has never been through the Enlightenment, when people tried to argue that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind of knowledge and that the kind of cause-and-effect science studies is not only valid but the only way things come about. People used to believe something richer, and in Orthodoxy we still do: that there can be reasons why things happen; there is an explanation for “Why?” and not just a mechanism that answers “How?” Dominoes do fall, but you will never understand the picture if you only think there are isolated chains of dominoes. All of this is part of the Orthodox understanding of divine providence. Yet providence is deeper than synchronicity. Synchronicity is a jailbreak; providence is a voyage home. Less flatteringly, synchronicity is providence with its head cut off. Synchronicity recognizes interesting designs in the events of our lives. Providence turns from those interesting designs to an interesting designer, and to some Orthodox, the idea of trying to be spiritual by delving into synchronicity and other themes of Jungian psychology is like inviting people over for wine and cheese and serving Velveeta. We have Camembert, we have Brie, we have goat cheese, and when Orthodox see how often “being spiritual” to a feminist means “digging into Jungian psychology,” we want to tell you that Velveeta isn’t your only choice! Jesus said, “You will know a tree by its fruits:” people’s lives can offer a serious red flag about whether you should trust them and trust what they say. Orthodoxy has saints with better lives than a psychiatrist widely known to have slept with his patients in a relationship that was far more problematic than a mere case of raging hormones. Velveeta’s the easiest cheese to find at most stores, but it’s possible to find better. Orthodoxy deeply engaged the pillars of Jungian psychology far earlier than Jung did, and the reason we reach for something better is that there is something better to reach for.

Feminism senses that there is something wrong with Western culture, and is searching for healing. One of the strange things about Orthodoxy is that you realize you were right all along. Becoming Orthodox has been a confirmation of things I’ve sensed, and this is not because I was a particular type of Christian or because I am a man, but because I’m human. I believe that becoming Orthodox, to a feminist, will mean much more than an affirmation of what feminism yearns for. But that’s not the only strange thing. One Calvin and Hobbes strip shows the two characters walking through a wood. Calvin asks, “Do you believe in evolution? You know, do you believe that humans evolved from monkeys?” Hobbes’ answer is simple: “I can’t tell any difference.” The strip ends with Calvin chasing Hobbes. Orthodoxy might answer the question, “Do you believe evolution is the right answer to the question, ‘Why is there life as we know it?'” by saying:

No, evolution is absolutely not the right answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” For that matter, it is not even a wrong answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” It is not an answer to any “Why?” question at all. It is an answer to a “How?” question, and even if evolution were the whole truth and didn’t have any problems answering, “How is there life as we know it?” it is a mechanism to tell how things happen and not an explanation of why things happened. To say, “Why is there life as we know it? Because life evolved just like the theory of evolution says,” is a bit like saying, “Why is the dining room light on? Because the switch is in the ‘on’ position, causing electricity to flow so that the light glows brightly.” That’s how the light is on, but the reason why the light on is that someone decided, “I want light.”

The theory of evolution doesn’t answer that question. It might answer a different question, but the theory of evolution is not so much false as a distraction, if you are interested in the great and terrible question, “Why?” Instead of figuring out whether evolution is the correct mechanism, you might realize that it answers a different question, and start to ask the question, “Why is there life as we know it?”

“Why is there life as we know it?” is a meaty question, a you can grow into, and if you grow into it, you can learn about a creation that reflects God’s glory. You can learn about layers of symbol, and a physical world that is tied up with the spiritual and manifests its glory. You can learn about many layers of existence, and the body that has humanity as its head. You can learn that the mysteries in a woman’s heart resonate with the mysteries of life, and begin to see how a woman in particular is an image of the earth. You can learn about all sorts of spiritual qualities that the theory of evolution will never lead you to ask about. And you might learn that there are other questions, deeper questions to grow into, and start to grow into something even deeper than trying to answer questions.

So no, the theory of evolution is not the right way to answer the question, “Why is there life as we know it?”

And most of the time it happens without any philosophy or need to wrap your mind around some dense or subtle idea. Part of Orthodoxy is being caught off-guard by God again and again. It’s being informed, “I can’t tell any difference.” It’s asking how to pursue a great goal and learning that you shouldn’t have been pursuing that goal in the first place. It’s trying to find the best way to get all your ducks lined up, and asking the Lord’s help, and realizing that the Lord is calling for you to trust him and let him worry about the ducks. If he wants to. These are two sides of a paradox, and Orthodoxy presents them both to everyone.

And both are part of coming home.

The Patriarchy We Object to

Two Decisive Moments

What the Present Debate Will Not Tell You About Headship

Where is the good of women? Feminism is called “The women’s movement.” But is it?

Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a Passion


Read it on Kindle for $3!

It’s exotic, right?

The website for the Ubuntu Linux distribution announced that Ubuntu is “an ancient African word” meaning humanity to others. It announced how it carried forward the torch of a Linux distribution that’s designed for regular people to use. And this promotion of “an ancient African word” has bothered a few people: one South African blogger tried to explain several things: for instance, he mentioned that “ubuntu” had been a quite ordinary Xhosa/Zulu word meaning “humanity,” mentioned that it had been made into a political rallying cry in the 20th century, and drew an analogy: saying, “‘Ubuntu’ is an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity'” is as silly as saying, in reverential tones, “‘People’ is an ancient European word meaning, ‘more than one person.'” There is an alternative definition provided in the forums of Gentoo, a technical aficionado’s Linux distribution: “Ubuntu. An African word meaning, ‘Gentoo is too hard for me.'”

The blogger raised questions of gaffe in the name of the distribution; he did not raise questions about the Linux distribution itself, nor would I. Ubuntu is an excellent Linux distribution for nontechnical users, it gets some things very much right, and I prefer it to most other forms of Linux I’ve seen—including Gentoo. I wouldn’t bash the distribution, nor would I think of bashing what people mean by making “ubuntu” a rallying-cry in pursuing, in their words, “Linux for human beings.”

The offense lay in something else, and it is something that, in American culture at least, runs deep: it was a crass invocation of an Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom. It is considered an impressive beginning to a speech to open by recounting an Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Awesome Nugget of Profound Wisdom: whether one is advertising a Linux distribution, a neighbor giving advice over a fence in Home Improvement, or a politician delivering a speech, it is taken as a mark of sophistication and depth to build upon the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom.

At times I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Awesome Nugget of Profound Wisdom is the mouthpiece for whatever is fashionable in the West at the time. Let me give one illustration, if one that veers a bit close to the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom:

One American friend of mine, when in Kenya, gave a saying that was not from any of the people groups she was interacting with, but was from a relatively close neighboring people group: “When you are carrying a child in your womb, he only belongs to you. When he is born, he belongs to everyone.” The proverb speaks out of an assumption that not only parents but parents’ friends, neighbors, elders, shopkeepers, and ultimately all adults, stand in parentis loco. All adults are ultimately responsible for all children and are responsible for exercising a personal and parental care to help children grow into mature adulthood. As best I understand, this is probably what a particular community in Africa might mean in saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

What is a little strange is that, if these words correspond to anything in the U.S., they are conservative, and speak to a conservative desire to believe that not only parents but neighbors, churches, civic and local organizations, businesses and the like, all owe something to the moral upbringing of children: that is to say, there are a great many forces outside the government that owe something to local children. And this is quite the opposite of saying that we need more government programs because it takes a full complement of government initiatives and programs to raise a child well—becacuse, presumably, more and more bureaucratic initiatives are what the (presumably generic) African sages had in mind when they gave the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom and said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” There is some degree of irony in making “It takes a village” a rallying-cry in pushing society further away from what, “It takes a village to raise a child,” could have originally meant—looking for advice on how to build a statist Western-style cohort of bureaucratic government programs would be as inconceivable in many traditional African cultures as looking for instructions on how to build a computer in the New Testament.

My point in mentioning this is not primarily sensitivity to people who don’t like hearing people spout about a supposedly “ancient African word” such as, “Ubuntu.” Nor is my point really about how, whenever a saying is introduced as an ancient aboriginal proverb, the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom ends up shanghied into being an eloquent statement of whatever fads are blowing around in the West today. My deepest concern is that the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom hinges on something that is bad for us spiritually.

The Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom is tied to what the Orthodox Church refers to as a “passion,” which means something very different from either being passionately in love, or being passionate about a cause or a hobby, or even religious understandings of the passion of Christ. The concept of a passion is a religious concept of a spiritual disease that one feeds by thoughts and actions that are out of step with reality. There is something like the concept of a passion in the idea of an addiction, a bad habit, or in other Christians whose idea of sin is mostly about spiritual state rather than mere actions. A passion is a spiritual disease that we feed by our sins, and the concern I raise about the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom is one way—out of many ways we have—that we feed one specific passion.

The Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom is occult, and we cannot give the same authority to any source that is here and now. If we listen to the wise voices of elders, it is only elders from faroff lands who can give such deeply relevant words: I have never heard such a revered Nugget of Wisdom come from the older generation of our own people, or any of the elders we meet day to day.

By “occult” I mean something more than an Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom that might note that the word “occult” etymologically signifies “hidden”—and still does, in technical medical usage—and that the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom has been dug up from someplace obscure and hidden. Nor is it really my point that the Nugget may be dug up from an occult source—as when I heard an old man, speaking with a majesterial voice, give a homily for the (Christmas) Festival of Lessons and Carols that begun by building on a point from a famous medieval Kabalist. These are at best tangentially related. What I mean by calling the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom occult is that the Archetypal Exotic Culture’s Nugget of Profound Wisdom is the fruit of the same tree as explicitly occult practices—and they are tributaries feeding the same river.

Occult sin is born out of a sense that the way things are in the here and now that God has placed us in are not enough: Gnosticism has been said to hinge, not so much on a doctrine, but something like a mood, a mood of despair. (You might say a passion of despair.) Gnostic Scripture is a sort of spiritual porn that offers a dazzling escape from the present—a temptation whose power is much stronger on people yearning for such escape than for people who have learned the virtuous innoculation of contentment.

It takes virtue to enjoy even vice, and that includes contentment. As a recovering alcoholic will tell you, being drunk all the time is misery, and, ultimately, you have to be at least somewhat sober even to enjoy getting drunk. It takes humility to enjoy even pride, and chastity to enjoy even lust. Contentment does not help us escape—it helps us find joy where we were not looking for it, precisely in what we were trying to escape. We do not find a way out of the world—what we find is really and truly a way into where God has placed us.

One can almost imagine a dialogue between God and Adam:

Adam: I’m not content.

God: What do you want me to do?

Adam: I want you to make me contented.

God: Ok, how do you want me to do that?

Adam: First of all, I don’t want to have to engage in ardent, strenuous labor like most people. I don’t want to do that kind of work at all.

God: Ok.

Adam: And that’s not all. I want to have enough bread to feel full.

God: Ok.

Adam: Scratch that. I want as much meat as I want.

God: Ok, as much meat as you want.

Adam: And sweet stuff like ice cream.

God: Ok, I’ll give you Splenda ice cream so it won’t show up on your waistline.

Adam: And I don’t like to be subject to the weather and the elements you made. I want a home which will be cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

God: Sure. And I’ll give you hot and cold running water, too!

Adam: Speaking of that, I don’t like how my body smells—could we do something to hide that?

God: I’ll let you bathe. Each day. In as much water as you want. And I’ll give you deodorant to boot!

Adam: Oh, and by the way, I want to make my own surroundings—not just a home. I want electronics to put me in another world.

[Now we’re getting nowhere in a hurry!]

This may be a questionable portrayal of God, but it is an accurate portrayal of the Adam who decided that being an immortal in paradise wasn’t good enough for him.

Have all these things made us content?

Or have we used them to feed a passion?

We have a lot of ways of wishing that God had placed us someplace else, someplace different. One of the most interesting books I’ve glanced through, but not read, was covered in pink rosy foliage, and said that it was dealing with the #1 cause of unhappiness in women’s relationships. And that #1 cause was a surprise: romantic fantasies. The point was that dreaming up a romantic fantasy and then trying to make it real is a recipe, not for fulfillment, but for heartbreaking disappointment in circumstances where you could be truly happy. (When you have your heart set on a fantasy of just how the perfect man will fulfill all your desires and transform your world, no real man can seem anything but a disappointing shadow next to your fantasy.)

This is not just a point about fantasies in romance. It is also a point that has something to do with technological wonders, secret societies, fascination with the paranormal, Star Trek, World of Warcraft, television, Dungeons and Dragons, sacramental shopping, SecondLife, conspiracy theories, smartphones, daydreams, Halloween, Harry Potter, Wicked, Wicca, The Golden Compass, special effects movies, alienated feminism, radical conservativism, Utopian dreams, political plans to transform the world, and every other way that we tell God, “Sorry, what you have given me is not good enough”—or what is much the same, wish God had given us something quite different.

Why, in my life, is ______ so difficult to me about ______? (I don’t know; why has she forgiven every single one of the astonishingly stupid things I’ve done over the years?) Why can’t I lose a couple of pounds when I want to? (I don’t know; why do I have enough food that I wish I could lose pounds?) Why am I struggling with my debts? (I don’t know; why do I have enough for now?) Why did I have to fight cancer? (I don’t know; why am I alive and strong now?) Why does I stand to lose so much of what I’ve taken for granted? (I don’t know. Why did I take them all for granted? And why did I have so many privileges growing up?) Why _______? (Why not? Why am I ungrateful and discontent with so many blessings?)

Contentment is a choice, and it has been made by people in much bleaker circumstances than mine.

I write this, not as one who has mightily fought this temptation to sin and remained pure, but as one who has embraced the sin wholeheartedly. I know the passion from the inside, and I know it well. Most of my cherished works on this site were written to be “interesting”, and more specifically “interesting” as some sort of escape from a dreary here and now.

There is enough of this sin that, when I began to repent, I wondered if repenting would leave anything left in my writing. And after I had let go of that, I found that there was still something left to write. C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, alluded to the Sermon on the Mount (where Christ said that if our right hand or our right eye causes us to sin, we should rip it out and enter Heaven maimed rather than let our whole body be thrown into the lake of burning sulfur): Lewis said that the journey to Heaven may cost us our right hand and our right eye—but when we arrive in Heaven, we will find that what we have left behind is precisely nothing. Continuing to repent has meant changes for me, and it will (I hope) mean further changes. But I let go of writing only to find that I still had things to write. I gave up on trying to be “interesting” and make my own interesting private world and found, by the way, that God and his world are really quite interesting.

When we are repenting, or trying to, or trying not to, repentance is the ultimate terror. It seems unconditional surrender—and it is. But when we do repent, we realize, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell,” and we realize that repentance is also a waking up, a coming to our senses, and a coming to joy.

What we don’t want to hear

I would like to say a word on the politically incorrect term of “unnatural vice.” Today there is an effort on some Christians to not distinguish that sharply between homosexuality and straight sexual sins. And it is always good practice to focus on one’s own sins and their gravity, but there are very specific reasons to be concerned about unnatural vice. Let me draw an analogy.

It is a blinding flash of the obvious that a well-intentioned miscommunication can cause a conflict that is painful to all involved. And if miscommunications are not necessarily a sin, they can be painful enough, and not the sort of thing one wants to celebrate. However, there is a depth of difference between an innocent, if excruciatingly painful, miscommunication on the one hand, and the kind of conflict when someone deliberately gives betrayal under the guise of friendship. The Church Fathers had a place for a holy kiss as a salute among Christians, but in their mind the opposite of a holy kiss was not a kiss that was what we would understand “inappropriate,” but when Judas said, “Master,” saluted the Lord with a kiss, and by so doing betrayed him to be tortured to death. A painful miscommunication is bad enough, but a betrayal delivered under the guise of friendship is a problem with a higher pay grade.

Lust benefits no one, and it is not just the married who benefit from beating back roving desire, but the unmarried as well. But when Scripture and the Fathers speak of unnatural vice, they know something we’ve chosen to forget. And part of what we have forgotten is that “unnatural vice” is not just something that the gay rights movement advocates for. “Unnatural vice” includes several sins with higher pay grades, and one of them is witchcraft.

To people who have heard all the debates about whether, for instance, same-sex relationships might be unnatural for straight people but natural for gays, it may be a bit of culture shock to hear anything besides gay sex called “unnatural vice.” But the term is there in the Fathers, and it can mean other things. It might include contraception. And it definitely includes what we think of as a way to return to nature in witchcraft.

Adam reigned as an immortal king and lord over the whole world. He had a wife like nothing else in all Creation, paradise for a home, and harmony with nature such as we could not dream of. And, he was like a little boy with a whole room full of toys who is miserable because he wants another toy and his parents said “No.” And lest we look down on Adam, we should remember that I am Adam, and you are Adam.

We have not lost all his glory, but we are crippled by his passion.

Adam wanted something beyond what he was given, something beyond his ken. An Orthodox hymn says, “Wanting to be a god, Adam failed to be god.” More on that later. Adam experienced the desire that draws people to magic—even if the magic’s apparent promise is a restored harmony with nature. This vice shattered the original harmony with nature, and brought a curse on not only Adam but nature itself. It corrupted nature. It introduced death. It means that many animals are terrified of us. It means that even the saints, the holiest of people, are the most aware of how much evil is in them—most of us are disfigured enough that we can think we don’t have any real problem. There is tremendous good in the human person, too; that should be remembered. But even the saints are great sinners. All of this came through Adam’s sin. How much more unnatural of a vice do you ask for than that?

Trying to restore past glory, and how it further estranges us from the past

When I was visiting a museum promising an exhibit on the Age of Reason, I was jarred to see ancient Greek/Roman/… items laid out in exhibits; what was being shown about the Enlightenment was the beginning of museums as we have them today. I was expecting to see coverage of a progressive age, and what I saw was a pioneering effort to reclaim past glory. Out of that jarring I realized something that historians might consider a blinding flash of the obvious. Let me explain the insight nonetheless, before tying it in with harmony with nature.

When people have tried to recover past glory, through the Western means of antiquarian reconstruction, the result severs continuity with the recent past and ultimately made a deeper schism from the more remote past as well.

The Renaissance was an attempt to recover the glory of classical antiquity, but the effect was not only to more or less end what there was in the Middle Ages, but help the West move away from some things that were common to the Middle Ages and antiquity alike. The Reformation might have accomplished many good things, but it did not succeed in its goal in resurrecting the ancient Church; it created a new way of being Christian. The Protestants I know are moral giants compared to much of what was going on in Rome in Luther’s day, and they know Scripture far better, but Protestant Christianity is a decisive break from something that began in the Early Church and remained unbroken even in corrupt 16th century Rome. And it is not an accident that the Reformers dropped the traditional clerical clothing and wore instead the scholar’s robes. (Understanding the Scripture was much less approached through reading the saints, much more by antiquarian scholarship.) The Enlightenment tried again to recover classical glory, and it was simultaneously a time, not of breaking with unbroken ways of being Christian, but of breaking with being Christian itself. Romanticism could add the Middle Ages to the list of past glorious ages, and it may well be that without the Romantics, we would not have great medievalists like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein. But it was also something new. Every single time that I’m aware of that the West has tried to recover the glory of a bygone age, the effect has been a deeper rift with the past, both recent and ultimately ancient, leaving people much further alienated from the past than if they had continued without the reconstruction. I remember being astonished, not just to learn that two Vatican II watchwords were ressourcement (going back to ancient sources to restore past glory) and aggiornamiento (bringing things up-to-date, which in practice meant bringing Rome in line with 1960’s fads), nor that the two seemed to be two sides of the same coin, but that this was celebrated without anybody seeming to find something of a disturbing clue in this. The celebrations of these two watchwords seemed like a celebration of going to a hospital to have a doctor heal an old wound and inflict a new wound that is more fashionable.

The lesson would seem to be, “If you see a new way to connect with the past and recover past glory, be very careful. Consider it like you might consider a skilled opponent, in a game of chess, leaving a major piece vulnerable. It looks spiritually enticing, but it might be the bait for a spiritual trap, and if so, the consequences of springing for the bait might be a deeper rift with the past and its glory.”

Not quite as shallow an approach to translate the past into the present…

Here is what you might do one day to live a bit more like prehistoric Grecians, or ancient Celts, or medieval Gallic peasants, or whatever. Keep in mind that this is at best half-way to its goal, not a full-fledged return to living like an ancient in harmony with nature to a day, but making a rough equivalent by using what is closest from our world:

  1. However exotic the setting may seem to you, remember that it is a fundamental confusion to imagine that the setting was exotic to those inside the experience. We not only meet new people frequently; we see new technologies invented frequently. In The Historic Setting, people most likely were born, lived, and died within twenty miles, and even meeting another person who was not part of your village was rare. A new invention, or a new idea, would be difficult to imagine, let alone point to. So, for one day, whatever you’re doing, if it feels exotic, avoid it like the plague. Stop it immediately. Don’t read anything new; turn off your iPod; don’t touch Wikipedia. Don’t seek excitement; if anything, persevere in things you find boring.
  2. Remembering that there was a lot of heavy manual labor, and stuff that was shared, spend your nice Saturday helping a friend move her stuff into her new apartment. Remember that while stairs were rare in antiquity, it would be an anachronism to take the elevator. Be a good manual laborer and do without the anachronism.
  3. Remembering how the Sermon on the Mount betrays an assumption that most people were poor enough that houses would only have one room, spend your time at home, as much as possible, in one room of your house.
  4. Remembering that the ancient world had no sense of “Jim’s trying to lose weight and is on an old-fashioned low-fat diet, Mary’s a vegan, Al’s low carb…”, but rather there was one diet that everybody day ate, go to McDonald’s, order a meal with McDonald’s McFries McSoaked in McGrease, and a sugary-sweet, corn-syrup-powered shake.If you just said to yourself, “He didn’t say what size; I’ll order the smallest I can,” order the biggest meal you can.
  5. Remembering that in the ancient world the company you kept were not your eclectic pick, spend time with the people around you. Go to your neighbor Ralph who blares bad ’80s rock because he thinks it’s the best thing in the world, and like a good guest don’t criticize what your host has provided—including his music. Spend some time playing board games with your annoying kid sister, and then go over to visit your uncle Wally and pretend to tolerate his sexist jokes.
  6. Lastly, when you head home do have a good night’s sleep, remember that a bed with sheets covering a smooth mattress was only slightly more common than a Frank Lloyd Wright home is today, go to sleep on a straw pallet in your virtual one room house. (You can use organic straw if you can find any.)

This may seem, to put it politely, a way you would never have thought to live like an age in harmony with nature. But let me ask a perfectly serious question:

What did you expect? Did you imagine dressing up as a bard, dancing on hilltops, and reciting poetry about the endless knot while quaffing heather ale?

G.K. Chesterton said that there is more simplicity in eating caviar on impulse than eating grape-nuts on principle. In a similar fashion, there is more harmony with nature in instinctively pigging out at McDonald’s than making a high and lonely spiritual practice out of knowing all the herbs in a meadow.

The vignette of harmony with nature as dancing on hilltops is an image of a scene where harmony with nature means fulfilling what we desire for ourselves. The image of hauling boxes to help a friend is a scene where harmony with nature means transcending mere selfish desire. There is a common thread of faithfulness to unadvertised historical realities running through the six steps listed above. But there is another common thread:


It chafes against a passion that people in ages past knew they needed to beat back.

Living according to nature in the past did not work without humility, and living in harmony with nature today did not work with humility.

There is a great deal of difference between getting help in living for yourself, and getting help in living for something more for yourself, and living for something more than yourself—such as people needed to survive in ancient communities close to nature—is the real treasure. It is spirituality with an ugly pair of work gloves, and it is a much bigger part of those communities that have been in harmony with nature than the superficially obvious candidates like spending more time outside and knowing when to plant different crops. If you clarify, “Actually, I was really more interested in the spirituality of a bygone age and its harmony with nature,” you are missing something. Every one of those humbling activities is pregnant with spirituality—and is spiritual in a much deeper way than merely feeling the beauty of a ritual.

Perhaps we would be wise to remember the words of the Delphic Oracle, “Know thyself,” which does not say what we might imagine today. Those words might have been paraphrased, “Know thy place, O overreaching mortal!”

And, in terms of humility, that has much more to give us than trying to reach down inside and make a sandcastle of an identity, and hope it won’t be another sandcastle.

Should I really be patting myself on the back?

I try to follow a diet that is closer to many traditional diets, has less processing and organic ingredients when possible, and I believe for several reasons that I am right in doing so: medical, animal welfare, and environmental. But before I pat myself on the back too hard for showing the spirit of Orthodoxy in harmony with nature, I would be well advised to remember that there is far more precedent in the Fathers and in the saint’s lives for choosing to live on a cup of raw lentils a week or a diet of rancid fish.

Saints may have followed something of a special diet, but that is because they believed and acted out of the conviction that they were unworthy of the good things of the world, including the common fare what most people ate. My diet, like other diets in fashion, is a diet that tells me that the common fare eaten by most people is simply unworthy of me. This may well enough be true—I have doubts about how much of today’s industrially produced diet is fit for human consumption at all—and I may well enough answer, “But of course the Quarter Pounder with ‘Cheese’ eaten by an inner-city teen is unworthy of me—it’s just as unworthy, if not more unworthy, of the inner-city teens who simply accept it as normal to eat.” Even so, I have put myself in a difficult position. The saints thought they were unworthy of common fare. I believe that common fare is unworthy of me, and trying to believe that without deadly pride is trying to smoke, but not inhale.

In the Book of James, the Lord’s brother says that the poor should exult because of their high position while the rich should be humble because of their low position. The same wisdom might see that the person who eats anything that tastes good is the one in the high position, and the person who avoids most normal food out of a special diet’s discrimination is in a position that is both low and precarious.

The glory of the Eucharist unfurls in a common meal around a table, and this “common” meal is common because it is shared. To pull back from “common” food is to lose something very Eucharistic about the meal, and following one more discriminating diet like mine is a way to heals one breach of harmony with nature by opening up what may be a deeper rift.

If evil is necessary, does it stop being evil?

Orthodoxy in the West inherits something like counterculture, and there is something amiss when Orthodox carry over unquestioned endeavors to build a counterculture or worldview or other such Western fads. If Orthodoxy in the West is countercultural, that doesn’t mean that counterculture is something to seek out: if Orthodoxy is countercultural, that is a cost it pays. Civil disobedience can be the highest expression of a citizen’s respect for law. Amputation can be the greatest expression of a physician’s concern for a patient’s life. However, these things are not basically good, and there is fundamental confusion in seeking out occasions to show such measures.

Another basis to try and learn from the past

To someone in the West, Orthodoxy may have a mighty antiquarian appeal. Orthodox saints, for the most part, speak from long ago and far away. However, this isn’t the point; it’s a side effect of a Church whose family of saints has been growing for millennia. Compare this, for instance, to a listing of great computer scientists—who will all be recent, not because computer science in an opposite fashion needs to be new, but because computer science hasn’t been around nearly long enough for there to be a fourth century von Neumann or Knuth.

Some people wanting very hard knife blades—this may horrify an antiquarian—acquire nineteenth century metal files and grind them into knife blades. The reason for this is that metallurgists today simply do not know how to make steel as hard as the hardest Victorian-era metal files. The know-how is lost. And the hobbyists who seek a hard metal file as the starting point for their knife blades do not choose old metalwork because it is old; they choose old metal files because they are the hardest they can get. And there is something like this in the Orthodox Church. The point of a saint’s life is not how exotic a time and place the saint is from; the point of a saint’s life is holiness, a holiness that is something like a nineteenth century adamantine-hard metal file.

If there are problems in turning back the clock, the Orthodox Church has some very good news. This good news is not exactly a special way to turn back the clock; it is rather the good news that the clock can be lifted up.

There is a crucial difference between trying to restore the past, and hoping that it will lift you into Heaven, and being lifted up into Heaven and finding that a healthy connection with the past comes with it. The Divine Liturgy is a lifting up of the people and their lives up to Heaven: a life that begins here and now.

The hymn quoted earlier, “Adam, trying to be a god, failed to be god,” continues, “Christ became man that he might make Adam god.” The saying has rumbled down through the ages, “God (the Son of God) became a Man (the Son of Man) that men (the sons of men) might become gods (the Sons of God).” The bad news, if it is bad news, is that we cannot escape a present into the beauty of Eden. The good news is that the present can itself be lifted up, that the doors to Eden remain open.

In some ways our search for happiness is like that of a grandfather who cannot find his glasses no matter how many places he looks—because they are right on his nose.

Men are not from Mars!

I was once able to visit a Mars Society conference—a conference from an organization whose purpose is to send human colonists to Mars.

To many of the people there, the question of whether we are “a spacefaring race” is much weightier than the question of whether medical research can find a cure for cancer. It’s not just that a human colony on Mars would represent a first-class triumph of science and humanity; it is rather that the human race is beyond being a race of complete, unspeakable, and obscene losers if we don’t come to our senses and colonize Mars so the human race is not just living on this earth and living the kind of life we live now. The question of whether we colonize Mars is, in an ersatz sense, the religious question of whether we as a race have salvation. The John 3:16 of this movement is, “Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one does not remain in a cradle forever.”

The Mars Society holds an essay contest to come up with essays about why we should colonize Mars; the title of the contest, and perhaps of the essays, is, “Why Mars?” And, though I never got around to writing it, there was something I wanted to write.

This piece, having a fictional setting, would be written from the perspective of a sixteen year old girl who was the first person to be raised on Mars, and would provide another comparison of life on Mars to life on earth. And the essay would be snarky, sarcastic, angry, and bitter, because of something that people looking with starry eyes at a desired Mars colony miss completely.

What does the Mars Society not get about what they hope for?

When I was a student at Wheaton College, one of my friends told of a first heavy snowfall where students from warmer climates, some of whom had never experienced such a snowfall personally, were outside and had a delightful snowball fight. And they asked my friend, “How can you not be out here playing?” My friend’s answer: “Just wait four months. You’ll see.”

One’s first snowball fight is quite the pleasant experience, and presumably one’s first time putting on a spacesuit is much better. But what my unattractively cynical friend didn’t like about Wheaton’s winter weather is a piece of cake compared to needing to put on a spacesuit and go through an airlock on a planet where the sum total of places one can go without a bulky, heavy, clumsy, uncomfortable, and hermetically sealed spacesuit, is dwarfed by a small rural village of a thousand people, and dwarfed by a medium sized jail. If you are the first person to grow up on Mars, the earth will seem a living Eden which almost everyone alive but you is privileged to live in. And the title of the snarky, sarcastic, and bitterly miserable essay I wished I could write from the perspective of the first human raised on Mars was, “Why Earth?

I’m used to seeing people wish they could escape the here and now, but the Mars Society took this to a whole new level—so much so that I was thinking, “This is not a job for science and engineering; this is a job for counseling!” People were alienated from the here and now they had on earth, and the oomph of the drive to go to Mars seemed to be because of something else entirely from the (admittedly very interesting) scientific and engineering issues. Having the human race not even try to live on Mars was so completely unacceptable to them because of their woundedness.

If you don’t know how to be happy where God has placed you, escape will not solve the problem. In the case of Mars, the interesting issue is not so much whether colonization is possible, but whether it is desirable. Escape may take you out of the frying pan and into the thermite. (What? You didn’t know that astronauts do not feel free, but like tightly wedged “spam in a can,” with land control micromanaging you more than you would fear in a totalitarian regime, down to every bite of food you take in? Tough; a real opportunity to colonize Mars won’t feel like being in an episode of Star Trek or Firefly.)

This is the playing out of a passion, and what the Mars Society seeks will not make them permanently happy. Success in their goals will not cure such misery any more than enough fuel will soothe a fire.

Confucius said, “When I see a virtuous man, I try to be like him. When I see an evil man, I reflect on my own behavior.” Assuming you’re not from the Mars Society (and perhaps offended), do you see anything of yourself in the Mars Society?

I do.

A more satisfying kind of drink

I talked with a friend about a cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, which I like for the most part but where there was a bit of a burr: the author ground an axe against alcoholic beverages fermented by yeast. The stated position of the book is a report of a certain type of traditional nutrition, and the author overrode that when it came to traditions that used rum and such.

My friend said that what I said was accurate: certain more alcoholic drinks were traditional, and the principles of Nourishing Traditions did not support all the ways the author was grinding an axe against yeast-fermented alcohol, just as I thought. However, my friend suggested, the author was right about this. Lacto-fermented beverages, fermented by another ancient process that gives us cheese, sourdough, sauerkraut, corned beef, and the like, which Nourishing Traditions did promote, satisfy in a way that yeast-fermented beverages do not. People, it seems, use beer, wine, and liquor because they remind them of the satisfaction of the more ancient method of fermentation.

I’m not looking at giving up the occasional drink, but something of that rings true—and parallels a spiritual matter. People turn to a quest for the exotic, and that is illicit. But the Orthodox experience is that if you stay put, in the here and now, and grow spiritually, every year or so something exotic happens that is like falling off a cliff, when you repent. And that may be what people are connecting with in the wrong way in the pursuit of the exotic. If you give up on following the exotic, something beyond exotic may follow you.

The idiot

There was another piece that I was thinking of writing, but did not come together. The title I was thinking of was, The Idiot—no connection to Dostoevsky’s work of the same name, nor to what we would usually think of as a lack of intelligence.

I was imagining a Socratic dialogue, along the same lines as Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen? in which it unfolds that the person who doesn’t get it is someone who has great success in constructing his own private world through technology, introspection, and everything else. Etymologically, the word “idiot” signifies someone who’s off on his own—someone who does not participate in the life of civilization—and our civilization offers excellent resources to dodge civilization and create your own private world. And that is a loss.

And being an idiot in this sense is not a matter of low IQ. It is not the mentally retarded I have known who need to repent most, if at all. Usually it is the most brilliant I have known who best use their gifts and resources to be, in the classical sense, idiots.

Some adamantine-hard metal files that may hone us

At the risk of irony after opening by a complaint about words of wisdom from other lands selected for being exotic…

My mother recounted how a friend of hers was visiting one of her friends, a poor woman in Guatemala. She looked around her host’s kitchen, and said, “You don’t have any food around.” Her hostess said, “No, I don’t, but I will,” and then paused a moment longer, and said, “And if I had the food now, what would I need God for?” That woman is wise. Those of us who live in the West pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and probably have a 401(k) plan. Which is to say that “Give us today our daily bread” is almost an ornament to us. A very pious ornament, but it is still an ornament.

If we are entering hard times today, is that an end to divine providence?

St. Peter of Damaskos wrote, in The Philokalia vol. 3,

We ought all of us always to thank God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvelous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual. These include:

  • Wealth, so that one can perform acts of charity.
  • Poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude.
  • Authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgment and establish virtue.
  • Obedience and service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul.
  • Health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God.
  • Sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience.
  • Spiritual knowledge and strength, so that one may acquire virtue.
  • Weakness and ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility.
  • Unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may even be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms.
  • Ease and prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls.
  • Trials and hardship, so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection.

All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.

The story is probably apocryphal, but I heard of an African pastor (sorry, I don’t know his nationality) who visited the U.S. and said, “It’s absolutely amazing what you can do without the Holy Spirit!” That is, perhaps, not what we want to hear as a compliment. But here in the U.S., if we need God, it’s been easy to lose sight of the fact. Homeless people usually know where their next meal is coming from, or at least it’s been that way, and homeless people have been getting much more appetizing meals than bread alone. Those of us who are not homeless have even more power than that.

An English friend of mine talked about how she was living in a very poor country, and one of her hosts said, “I envy you!” My friend didn’t know exactly what was coming next—she thought it might be something that offered no defense, and her hosts said, “You have everything, and you still rely on God. We have nothing; we have no real alternative. So we rely on God. But you have everything, and you still rely on God!” The point was not about wealth, but faith. The friend’s awe was not of a rich woman’s treasures on earth, but a rich woman’s treasures in Heaven. The camel really can go through the eye of the needle, and we may add to the list of examples by St. Peter of Damaskos, that we may thank God for first world wealth, because it gives us an opportunity to choose to rely on God.

Maybe we can add to St. Peter’s list. But we would do well to listen to his wisdom before adding to his list. We have been given many blessings in first world economic conditions, and if our economy is in decline—perhaps it will bounce back in a year, perhaps longer, perhaps never—we no less should find where our current condition is on the list above.

To have the words “Give us this day our daily bread” unfortunately be an ornament is rare, and perhaps it is not the most natural condition for us to be in. Whatever golden age you may like, centuries or millenia ago, there was no widespread wealth like we experience. Our natural condition is, in part, to be under economic constraint, to have limits that keep us from doing things, and in some sense the level of wealth we have had is not the most natural condition, like having a sedentary enough job that you only exercise when you choose to, is not the most natural condition. Now I don’t like being constrained any more than I have to, and I would not celebrate people losing their homes. However, if we have to be more mindful of what they spend, and don’t always get what we want, that may be a very big blessing in disguise.

Dorothy Sayers, speaking of World War II in “The Other Six Deadly Sins” (found in Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World and other essay collections), discussed what life was like when the economy was enormously productive but as much productivity as possible was being wasted by the war effort. What she pointed out was that when people got used to rationing and scarcity, they found that this didn’t really mean that they couldn’t enjoy life—far from it. People could enjoy life when most of their economy’s productivity was being wasted by war instead of wasted by buying things that people didn’t need. She argued that England didn’t have a choice about learning to live frugally—but England could choose to apply this lesson once the war got out. England didn’t, and neither did the U.S., but the lesson is still good.

A recent news story discussed how adult children moved in with their parents as a measure of frugality, where the family was being frugal to the point of planning meals a month in advance and grinding their own flour. And what they found was that living simply was something of an adventure.

An unlikely cue from science fiction?

Mary Midgley, in Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning, says of science fiction and science fiction writers,

But the best of them have understood, as Wells and Stapleton did, that their main aim was imaginative. The were using ‘the future’ as a screen on which to project timeless truths for their own age. They were prophets primarily in the sense in which serious poets are so — spiritual guides, people with insight about the present and the universal, rather than literal predictors. For this purpose, it no more matters whether these supposedly future events will actually happen than it does for Hamlet and MacBeth whether what they show us actually happened in the past. The point of The Time Machine is not that the machine would work, nor that there might be Morlocks [a powerful, privileged technological elite] somewhere, some day. It is that there are Morlocks here now.

Note the last words. C.S. Lewis may quite directly and literally believe in a literal Heaven and a literal Hell, but Lewis understands Midgley’s closing point well, even if he wrote The Great Divorce decades before. He offers an introduction that ends with, “The last thing I wish is to arouse curiosity about the details of the after-world.” He may have no pretensions of knowing the details of the next life, but the reason he writes so compellingly about Heaven and Hell is not that someday, somewhere, we will experience Heaven or Hell. (Even if that is true.) He is able to write with such depth because Heaven and Hell are in us, here and now. And one of the cardinal spiritual factors in The Great Divorce is a cardinal spiritual factor here now. It is called repentance.

In The Sign of the Grail, Fr. Elijah brings George, a Christian, into the communion of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox speak of this as a conversion, but this means something beyond merely straightening out George’s worldview. Fr. Elijah may share wisdom with George, but he is interested in something fundamentally beyond getting George to accept a worldview. He is trying, in all of his various ways, to get George to wake up. It is the same as the blessed spirits in The Great Divorce who are in Heaven and keep saying to visitors from Hell, “Wake up! Wake up!” They do often discuss ideas with their visitors, but their goal is never merely to straighten out a tormented worldview; it is to open their visitors’ spiritual eyes so they will wake up to the reality of Heaven.

In The Great Divorce, visitors come from Hell, visit Heaven, keep receiving invitations to wake up and live in Heaven, and mostly keep on choosing Hell. If it is put that way, it sounds like a very strange story, but it is believable not primarily because of C.S. Lewis’s rhetorical powers, but because of the spiritual realities Lewis knows to write about. I have only heard one person claim to want to go to Hell, and then on the misunderstanding that you could enjoy the company of others in Hell. However, people miss something big about Hell if they think everybody will choose Heaven.

God does not send people to Hell, but the fires of Hell are nothing other than the light of Heaven experienced through the rejection of Christ. Hell appeared as a seed in the misery when, as I wrote earlier:

Adam reigned as an immortal king and lord over the whole world. He had a wife like nothing else in all Creation, paradise for a home, and harmony with nature such as we could not dream of. And, he was like a little boy with a whole room full of toys who is miserable because he wants another toy and his parents said “No.”

The Sermon on the Mount says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” But everyone will see God. God is love; his love is absolute and will flow absolutely. Because of that love, everybody will see God. And the saved will know this as blessing and as bliss beyond description. But to those who reject Christ, the light of Heaven, the light of seeing God, will be experienced as Hellfire. Hell is Heaven experienced through the rejection of the only ultimate joy that exists: Christ.

Repentance is recognizing that you are in a little Hell and choosing to leave by the one way you do not wish to leave. Elsewhere from the quotation from St. Peter, the Philokalia says, “People hold on to sin because they think it adorns them.” The woman addicted to alcohol may be in misery, but she has alcohol to seemingly anaesthetize the pain, and it is incredibly painful to give up the illusion that if you try hard enough and get just a bit of a solace, things will be OK. That’s a mighty hard thing to repent of: it’s easier to rationalize, decide to give it up by sheer willpower (perhaps tomorrow), or make a bargain to cut back to a more reasonable level—anything but wake up and stop trying to ignore that you’re standing barefoot in something really gross, and admit that what you need is not a bigger fan to drive away the stench while you stay where you are, but to step out in a cleaning operation that lasts a lifetime and cuts to your soul.

An alcoholic walking this path craves just a little bit of solace, just for now, and it is only much later that two things happen. First, the cravings are still hard, but they are no longer quite so overpowering. Second, she had forgotten what it felt like to be clean—really and truly clean—and she had forgotten what it was like to be doing something else with her life than trying to hide in a bottle. She had forgotten what freedom was like. And long after she gave up on her way of escaping life, she found she had forgotten what it was like to experience life, not as something to escape, but as something with joy even in its pain.

The gates of Hell are bolted and barred from the inside. This much is true of passion: we think our sins adorn us, and we try to flee from the only place joy is to be found. Fleshly lust disenchants the entire universe; first everything else becomes dull and uninteresting, and ultimately stronger doses of lust lose even the semblance of being interesting. Spiritual lust, the passion that seeks escape from where God has placed us is, if anything, a sin with a higher pay grade than the fleshly lust that is bad enough, but spiritual lust too is the disenchantment of reality, a set of blinders that deflates all the beauty we are given in nature. Spiritual lust is the big brother of merely fleshly lust. Spiritual lust is something really, really, really gross that we need to step out of and get clean. We need to realize that the passion does not adorn us, that the sparkle of an exotic escape from a miserable here and now is, on a spiritual plane, spin doctoring for experiencing the here and now with despair. We do not see that we need not an escape from what God has given us, but gratitude and contentment.

But what if the here and now is not the best here and now? What if it’s with an Uncle Wally who tells sexist jokes no matter how you ask him to stop? What if the people you are with have real warts? There are a couple of responses. You might also think of what your uncle has done that you might be grateful for. You know, like when he helped you find and buy your first car. Or you could learn the power of choosing to be joyful when others act unpleasantly. Or you might read C.S. Lewis, The Trouble with X, and then look at how you might stand to profit from praying, with the Orthodox Church, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Once, when things went from hard times to easy times, one saint complained, saying that easy times rob the Church of her martyrs and her glory. If we are entering hard times, that does not place us outside of God’s reach nor Christ’s promise in the Sermon on the Mount: “For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

I glorify Thee,
Who hast cast Adam out of Paradise,
That we might learn by the sweat of our brow
The joy and the life that Adam scorned
As King of Paradise.
Glory be to the Father
And to the Son and to the Holy Ghost
Both now and ever and unto the ages of ages.
Glory forever.
And glory be to Thee,
Thou who blessest us
For better or for worse,
In sickness and in health,
In the Eternal Light and Love
Who illuminest marriage.
Glory forever.
Glory be to thee whose blessings are here,
Not in an escape,
But in the place wherein Thou hast placed us.
Glory forever.
Glory be to Thee,
Who offerest Eden,
To us men who forever dodge our salvation.
Glory forever.
Glory be to the Father
And to the Son and to the Holy Ghost
Both here and now, and in Eternal Life that beckons us
The Son of God became a man in his here and now in Bethlehem.
In your forever honored place,
From this very moment,
Become a Son of God.
Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near,
Heaven awaits with open arms,
Step out of Hell.
Grieve for your sins,
That grief that holds more in her heart,
Than discovering that the scintillating escape from Hell
Scintillates only as a mirage.
And the repentance you fear,
So constricted it seems from outside,
Holds inside a treasure larger than the universe,
Older than time,
And more alive than life.
Glory beyond glory,
Life beyond life,
Light beyond life,
The Bread from Heaven,
The infinite Living Wine,
Who alone canst slake our infinite thirst,
Glory forever.

Glory be to God on high.
Glory forever.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost,
Both now and ever and unto the ages of ages,
Glory forever.



The most politically incorrect sermon in history: A commentary on the Sermon on the Mount

Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen?

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

Note to Orthodox Evolutionists: Stop Trying to Retroactively Shanghai / Recruit the Fathers to Your Camp!


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At least some bishops explicitly allow their faithful flock to believe theistic evolution, young earth creation, or any of several other options.

This article is not meant to say you can’t be Orthodox and believe in evolution. It is, however, meant to say that you can’t be Orthodox and misrepresent Church Fathers as saying things more convenient to evolution than what they really said.

Two examples of a telling symptom: Fishy, suspicious arguments

Alexander Kalomiros is perhaps a forerunner to Orthodox finding a profound harmony between the Church Fathers and evolution. To pick one of many examples, Kalomiros’s On the Six Days of Creation cites St. Basil the Great as saying, “Therefore, if you say a day or an age, you express the same meaning” (homily 2 of St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation). So Dr. Kalamiros cites St. Basil as clearly saying that “day” is a term with a rather elastic meaning, implying an indefinite length.

Something really piqued my curiosity, because a young earth Creationist cited the same saint, the same book, and even the same homily as Kalamiros, but as supporting the opposite conclusion: “one day” means “one day,” period.

I honestly wondered, “Why on earth?” Why would the same text be cited as a proof-text for “days” of quite open-ended length, but also a proof text for precise twenty-four hour days? So I read the homily of St. Basil that was in question. The result?

The young earther’s claim is easier to explain: St. Basil does, in fact, quite plainly claim a young earth, and treats this belief as non-negotiable. And what Kalomiros cites? The text is talking about something else when St. Basil moves from discussing the Creation to matters of eternity and the Last Judgment. One of the names for eternity is “the eighth day,” and in explaining the timelessness of eternity, St. Basil writes, “Thus whether you call it day, or whether you call it eternity, you express the same idea.” Which is not exactly how Kalomiros quotes him, not exactly.

Kalomiros offers a quote out of context, and translates in a subtle but misleading wording, leading the reader to believe St. Basil clarified that a “day” [of Creation] can just as well be an “age” [of time]. This is sophistry. This is disingenuous. What is more, I cannot ever remember following one of Kalomiros’s footnotes supporting evolution and find an appropriate and responsible use of the original text. When I check things out, little if any of it checks out. And that’s a concern. When someone argues like that, the reader is being treated dishonestly, and deceptive argument is rarely the herald of truth.

Let me quote another of many examples celebrating a harmony between patristic Orthodoxy and evolution, Vladimir de Beer’s Genesis, Creation and Evolution. He writes:

The account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is known as the Hexaemeron (Greek for ‘six days’), on which a number of Greek and Latin Church fathers wrote commentaries. Some of them interpreted the six days of creation quite literally, like St Basil the Great who was much influenced by Aristotle’s natural philosophy. Yet the same Cappadocian father insisted that the scriptural account of creation is not about science, and that there is no need to discuss the essence (ousias) of creation in its scientific sense.[1] Others followed a more allegorical approach, such as St Gregory of Nyssa who saw the Hexaemeron as a philosophy of the soul, with the perfected creature as the final goal of evolution.

It has been my experience that for a certain kind of author one of the cheapest ways to dismiss a Father is to say that they were heavily influenced by some kind of non-Orthodox philosophy. Usually they don’t even give a footnote. St. Basil the Great is a Church Father and one of the Three Heirarchs, and if you are going to downplay whether his position is one we should believe, you should be doing a lot more than due diligence than making a dismissive bare assertion that he was heavily influenced by non-Orthodox forces.

But at least de Beer is kind enough to allow St. Basil to believe in six literal days. I am rather mystified by his treatment of St. Gregory of Nyssa, whose commentary On the Six Days of Creation is here. Are we referring to the same work?

St. Gregory’s commentary is not a allegorical interpretation, such as St. Maximus the Confessor’s way of finding allegory about ascesis and ascetical struggles in the details of the Gospel. It is if anything 90% a science lesson, or an Aristotelian science lesson at any rate, and at face value St. Gregory owes much more of a debt to Aristotle than St. Basil does. (At least St. Gregory spends vastly more time talking about earth, air, fire, and water.) St. Gregory’s On the Six Days of Creation assumes and asserts that the days of Creation were, in fact, literal days. And that’s not the end. St. Gregory of Nyssa explicitly ascribes the highest authority and weight to St. Basil’s work and would almost certainly be astonished to find his work treated as a corrective to St. Basil’s problematically literal On the Six Days of Creation; St. Gregory’s attitude appears to be, “St. Basil made an excellent foundation and I want to build on it!” On all counts I can tell, St. Gregory does not provide a precedent for treating young earth creation as negotiable. De Beers may well have a friend among the Fathers, but St. Gregory is not that friend. And if this is his choice of friends, maybe he isn’t aware of many real, honest friends among the Fathers. St. Augustine may be his friend here, but if the Blessed Augustine is your only friend among the Fathers, you’re on pretty shaky ground.

Examples could easily be multiplied, but after a point it becomes somewhat tedious checking out more harmonizers’ footnotes and finding that, no indeed, they don’t check out.

Why it matters

Have you read much creation science seeking to use science to prove a young earth? The reason I’m asking is that that’s what scholars do when they use patristic resources to prove that Orthodoxy and evolution are in harmony. The kind of distortion of facts that they wouldn’t be caught dead in origins science is the kind of distortion of facts that is routine in those harmonizing Orthodoxy with evolution.

I wrote a thesis calling to task a Biblical Egalitarian treatment of the Haustafel in Ephesians, and it is part of my research and experience to believe that sophistry matters, because sophistry is how people seek to persuade when truth is against them. And when I see misrepresentation of sources, that betrays a problem.

I myself do not believe in a young earth; I am an old earth creationist and have seriously entertained returning to belief in theistic evolution. I stand pretty much as far outside the patristic consensus as Orthodox evolutionists. But I don’t distort the Fathers to shanghai recruit them to my position.

It may well be that with knowledge that wasn’t available to St. Gregory and his fellow Fathers, the intellectual dishonesty and distortion needed to believe in a young earth may be greater than saying, “I know the Fathers’ consensus and I remain outside of it.” That’s not ideal, but it is infinitely better than distorting the Fathers’ consensus to agree with you.

It is better by far to acknowledge that you are outside the Fathers’ consensus than make them agree with you. If you are an Orthodox evolutionist, please stop shanghaiing recruiting ancient Fathers to your camp.

A helpful analogy: What are the elements?

Some Protestants made young-earth creationism almost “the article by which the Church stands or falls,” and much of young-earth and old-earth creationism in Orthodoxy, and evolution, is shaped by that Protestant “article by which the Church stands or falls.”

Today’s young-earth creationism and theistic evolution are merely positions on a ballot in single-issue voting, and single-issue voting that was unknown to the Fathers. There are other issues.

(What other issues are there, you ask?)

Let me give my standard question in dealing with young-earth Orthodox who are being pests and perhaps insinuating that my Orthodoxy is impaired if I don’t believe their position: “Are we obligated to believe that the elements are earth, air, fire, water, and maybe aether?”

If that question seems to come from out of the blue, let me explain:

St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation takes a position we can relate to readily enough even if we disagree:

“And the evening and the morning were the first day.” Evening is then the boundary common to day and night; and in the same way morning constitutes the approach of night to day… Why does Scripture say “one day the first day”? Before speaking to us of the second, the third, and the fourth days, would it not have been more natural to call that one the first which began the series? If it therefore says “one day,” it is from a wish to determine the measure of day and night, and to combine the time that they contain. Now twenty-four hours fill up the space of one day-we mean of a day and of a night; and if, at the time of the solstices, they have not both an equal length, the time marked by Scripture does not the less circumscribe their duration. It is as though it said: twenty-four hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there.

That’s on our radar. What’s not on our radar is how bluntly St. Basil treats his day’s closest equivalent to modern chemistry, and please note that alchemy has nothing to do with this; he does not condemn alchemy as being occult, but chemistry as atheistic:

Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and [bonds], form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting or separating, produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider’s web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Deceived by their inherent atheism it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that was all was given up to chance.

The emphatic alternative he offers is a belief in the four or five elements, earth, air, fire, water, and possibly the aether. This is something he finds in Genesis:

“And the Spirit of God was borne upon the face of the waters.” Does this spirit mean the diffusion of air? The sacred writer wishes to enumerate to you the elements of the world, to tell you that God created the heavens, the earth, water, and air and that the last was now diffused and in motion; or rather, that which is truer and confirmed by the authority of the ancients, by the Spirit of God, he means the Holy Spirit.

St. Basil takes the text to mean more than just that water exists; he takes it to mean that water is an element. Nor is St. Basil the only one to make such claims; as mentioned earlier, St. Gregory’s On the Six Days of Creation is not in the business of condemning opposing views, but it not only assumes literal days for Creation, but the “science” of earth, air, fire, and water is writ large, and someone wishing to understand how ancients could see science and cosmology on those terms has an invaluable resource in St. Basil’s On the Six Days of Creation. Furthermore, the view of the four elements is ensconced in Orthodox liturgy: the Vespers for Theophany, which is arguably the central text for Orthodox understanding of Creation, enumerates earth, air, fire, and water as the four elements. To my knowledge, no Orthodox liturgy ensconces the implicit atheism of modern chemistry.

What are we to make of this? Does this mean that modern chemistry is off-limits to Orthodox, and that Orthodox doctors should only prescribe such drugs as the ancient theory would justify? God forbid! I bring this point up to say that the obvious answer is, “Ok, there is a patristic consensus and I stand outside of it,” and that this answer can be given without shanghaiing recruiting the Fathers to endorse modern chemistry. When science and astronomy were formed, someone was reported to say, “The Bible is a book about how to go to Heaven, not a book about how the Heavens go,” and while it may be appropriate to say “On pain of worse intellectual dishonesty, I must accept an old earth and chemistry as worth my provisional assent,” it is not appropriate to distort the Church Fathers into giving a rubber stamp to beliefs they would reject.

Drawing a line in the sand at a young earth is a Protestant invention that has nothing to do with Orthodoxy, but casting the opposite vote of theistic evolution in a single-issue vote is also short of the Orthodox tradition. In reading the Fathers, one encounters claims of a young earth. However, often (if not always) the claim is one among many disputes with Greek philosophers or what have you. To my knowledge there is no patristic text in which a young earth is the central claim, let alone even approach being “the article by which the Church stands or falls.” Single-issue voting here, even for evolution, is not an Orthodox phenomenon except as it has washed in from Protestant battle lines. If an Orthodox who questions the Orthodoxy of old-earthers is being (crypto-)Protestant, the Orthodox who cites the Fathers in favor of evolution is only slightly less so—and both distort the truth.

The young-earth Creation Science makes scientific evidence bow before its will. The Orthodox evolutionist makes the Church Fathers bow before his will. Which is the more serious offense? “Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution.

“When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.”

One Protestant friend said that I had a real knack for insulting analogies. The comment came after I said of mainstream Evangelical “Christian art” that it worked on the same communication principle as hard porn: “Make every point with a sledgehammer and leave nothing to the imagination but the plot.” And I have used that ability here: I have said that Orthodox evolutionists writing of harmony between evolution and the Church Fathers are treating patristic texts the same way creation scientists treat scientific evidence. Ouch.The Orthodox-evolutionary harmonizers are playing the same single-issue politics game as their young-earth counterparts, and are only different by casting the opposite vote. Ouch.

Is there a method to this madness?

I cannot forbid origins questions altogether, for reasons not least of which I am not tonsured even as a reader, let alone being your heirarch or priest. At least some heirarchs have refused to decide for their flock what they may believe: perhaps people are expected to find God’s hand at work in creation, but the exact mechanism of involvement, and time frame, are not decided. But I could wish something like the theology surrounding the holy mysteries, where in contrast to the detailed, point by point Roman account, the Orthodox Church simply says that at one point in the Divine Liturgy the gifts are only (blessed) bread and wine, and at a certain later point they have become the body and blood of Christ, and beyond that point speculation is not allowed.

There are some questions where having the right answer is less valuable than not asking the question at all. Origins questions in the scientific sense do not loom large in the Fathers, and what little there is appears not to match scientific data. But this is not a defect in the Fathers. It is, if anything, a cue that our society’s preoccupation with science is not particularly Orthodox in spirit, and perhaps something that doesn’t belong in Orthodoxy. Again, Religion and Science Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution.

But for the interim, for people who need an answer and are good enough scientists to see through Creation Science, please do not shanghai recruit the Church Fathers to rubber stamp the present state of scientific speculation. For starters, science is less important than you may think. But that’s just for starters.

Creation and Holy Orthodoxy: Fundamentalism Is Not Enough

“Religion and Science” is not just intelligent design vs. evolution

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

Why Young Earthers Aren’t Completely Crazy

A Fully Functional Windows 95 Emulator That Runs Right in Your Browser

Satire / Humor Warning:

As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.

This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.

It is not real news.


An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism


There is an elephant in the room.But Catholics are very skilled at NOT seeing it.

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What might be called “the Orthodox question”

I expect ecumenical outreach to Orthodox has been quite a trying experience for Catholics. It must seem to Catholics like they have made Orthodoxy their top ecumenical priority, and after they have done their best and bent over backwards, many Orthodox have shrugged and said, “That makes one of us!” or else made a nastier response. And I wonder if Catholics have felt a twinge of the Lord’s frustration in saying, “All day long I have held out my hands to a rebellious and stubborn people.” (Rom 10:21)

In my experience, most Catholic priests have been hospitable: warm to the point of being warmer to me than my own priests. It almost seems as if the recipe for handling Orthodox is to express a great deal of warmth and warmly express hope for Catholics and Orthodox to be united. And that, in a nutshell, is how Catholics seem to conceive what might be called “the Orthodox question.”

And I’m afraid I have something painful to say. Catholics think Orthodox are basically the same, and that they understand us. And I’m asking you to take a tough pill to swallow: Catholics do not understand Orthodox. You think you do, but you don’t.

I’d like to talk about an elephant in the room. This elephant, however painfully obvious to Orthodox, seems something Catholics are strikingly oblivious to.

A conciliatory gesture (or so I was told)

All the Orthodox I know were puzzled for instance, that the Pope thought it conciliatory to retain titles such as “Vicar of Jesus Christ,” “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles,” and “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church,” but drop “Patriarch of the West.” Orthodox complain that the Roman bishop “was given primacy but demanded supremacy,” and the title “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church” is offensive. Every bishop is the successor of the prince of the apostles, so reserving that title to the Pope is out of line. But Orthodoxy in both ancient and modern times regards the Pope as the Patriarch of Rome, and the Orthodox Church, having His Holiness IGNATIUS the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, has good reason to call the Patriarch of Rome, “the Patriarch of the West.” The response I heard to His Holiness Benedict dropping that one title while retaining the others, ranged from “Huh?” to, “Hello? Do you understand us at all?”

What Catholics never acknowledge

That is not a point I wish to belabor; it is a relatively minor example next to how, when in my experience Catholics have warmly asked Orthodox to reunify, never once have I seen any recognition or manifest awareness of the foremost concern Orthodox have about Rome and Constantinople being united. Never once have I seen mere acknowledgment of the Orthodox concern about what Rome most needs to repent of.

Let me clarify that slightly. I’ve heard Catholics acknowledge that Catholics have committed atrocities against Orthodox in the past, and Catholics may express regrets over wrongs from ages past and chide Orthodox for a lack of love in not being reunified. But when I say, “what Rome most needs to repent of,” I am not taking the historian’s view. I’m not talking about sack of the Constantinople, although people more Orthodox than me may insist on things like that. I am not talking about what Rome has done in the past to repent of, but what is continuing now. I am talking about the present tense, and in the present tense. When Catholics come to me and honor Orthodoxy with deep warmth and respect and express a desire for reunion, what I have never once heard mention of is the recantation of Western heresy.

This may be another tough pill to swallow. Catholics may know that Orthodox consider Catholics to be heretics, but this never enters the discussion when Catholics are being warm and trying to welcome Orthodox into their embrace. It’s never acknowledged or addressed. The warm embrace instead affirms that we have a common faith, a common theology, a common tradition: we are the same, or so Orthodox are told, in all essentials. If Orthodox have not restored communion, we are told that we do not recognize that we have all the doctrinal agreement properly needed for reunification.

But don’t we agree on major things? Rome’s bishops say we do!

I would like to outline three areas of difference and give some flesh to the Orthodox claim that there are unresolved differences. I would like to outline one issue about what is theology, and then move on to social ethics, and close on ecumenism itself. I will somewhat artificially limit myself to three; some people more Orthodox than me may wonder why, for instance, I don’t discuss the filioque clause (answer: I am not yet Orthodox enough to appreciate the importance given by my spiritual betters, even if I do trust that they are my spiritual betters). But there’s a lot in these three.

To Catholics who insist that we share a common faith, I wish to ask a question that may sound flippant or even abrasive. A common faith? Really? Are you ready to de-canonize Thomas Aquinas and repudiate his scholasticism? The Orthodox Church’s response to the Renaissance figure Barlaam and Aristotelianism.Orthodox faith is something incompatible with the “theology” of Thomas Aquinas, and if you don’t understand this, you’re missing something fundamental to Orthodox understandings of theology. And if you’re wondering why I used quotes around “theology,” let me explain. Or, perhaps better, let me give an example.

See the two texts below. One is chapter 5 in St. Dionysius (or, if you prefer, pseudo-Dionysius), The Mystical Theology. That gem is on the left. To the right is a partial rewriting of the ideas in the style of Thomas Aquinas’sSumma Theologiæ.

St. Dionysius the Areopagite, “The Mystical Theology” Rewritten in the scholastic style of Thomas Aquinas
Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense that we understand the term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond every assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, it is also beyond every denial. Question Five: Whether God may accurately be described with words and concepts.

Objection One: It appears that God may be accurately described, for otherwise he could not be described as existing. For we read, I AM WHO AM, and if God cannot be described as existing, then assuredly nothing else can. But we know that things exist, therefore God may be accurately described as existing.

Objection Two: It would seem that God may be described with predicates, for Scripture calls him Father, Son, King, Wisdom, etc.

Objection Three: It appears that either affirmations or negations must accurately describe God, for between an affirmation and its negation, exactly one of them must be true.

On the Contrary, I reply that every affirmation and negation is finite, and in the end inadequate beyond measure, incapable of containing or of circumscribing God.

We should remember that the ancients described God in imperfect terms rather than say nothing about him at all…

Lost in translation?

There is something lost in “translation” here. What exactly is lost? Remember Robert Frost’s words, “Nothing of poetry is lost in translation except for the poetry.” There is a famous, ancient maxim in the Orthodox Church’s treasured Philokalia saying, “A theologian is one who prays truly, and one who prays truly is a theologian:” theology is an invitation to prayer. And the original Mystical Theology as rendered on the left is exactly that: an invitation to prayer, while the rewrite in the style of the Summa Theologiæ has been castrated: it is only an invitation to analysis and an impressively deft solution to a logic puzzle. The ideas are all preserved: nothing of the theology is lost in translation except for the theology. And this is part of why Archimandrite Vasileos, steeped in the nourishing, prayerful theology of the Orthodox Church, bluntly writes in Hymn of Entry that scholastic theology is “an indigestible stone.”

Thomas Aquinas drew on Greek Fathers and in particular St. John the Damascene. He gathered some of the richest theology of the East and turned it into something that is not theology to Orthodox: nothing of the Greek theology was lost in the scholastic translation but the theology! And there is more amiss in that Thomas Aquinas also drew on “the Philosopher,” Aristotle, and all the materialistic seeds in Aristotelianism. (The Greeks never lost Aristotle, but they also never made such a big deal about him, and to be called an Aristotelian could be a strike against you.) There is a spooky hint of the “methodological agnosticism” of today’s academic theology—the insistence that maybe you have religious beliefs, but you need to push them aside, at least for the moment, to write serious theology. The seed of secular academic “theology” is already present in how Thomas Aquinas transformed the Fathers.

This is a basic issue with far-reaching implications.

Am I seriously suggesting that Rome de-canonize Thomas Aquinas? Not exactly. I am trying to point out what level of repentance and recantation would be called for in order that full communion would be appropriate. I am not seriously asking that Rome de-canonize Thomas Aquinas. I am suggesting, though, that Rome begin to recognize that nastier and deeper cuts than this would be needed for full communion between Rome and Orthodoxy. And I know that it is not pleasant to think of rejoining the Orthodox Church as (shudder) a reconciled heretic. I know it’s not pleasant. I am, by the grace of God, a reconciled heretic myself, and I recanted Western heresy myself. It’s a humbling position, and if it’s too big a step for you to take, it is something to at least recognize that it’s a big step to take, and one that Rome has not yet taken.

The Saint and the Activist

Let me describe two very different images of what life is for. The one I will call “the saint” is that, quite simply, life is for the contemplation of God, and the means to contemplation is largely ascesis: the concrete practices of a life of faith. The other one, which I will call, “the activist,” is living to change the world as a secular ideology would understand changing the world. In practice the “saint” and the “activist” may be the ends of a spectrum rather than a rigid dichotomy, but I wish at least to distinguish the two, and make some remarks about modern Catholic social teaching.

Modern Catholic social teaching could be enlightened. It could be well meant. It could be humane. It could be carefully thought out. It could be a recipe for a better society. It could be providential. It could be something we should learn from, or something we need. It could be any number of things, but what it absolutely is not is theology. It is absolutely not spiritually nourishing theology. If, to Orthodox, scholastic theology like that of Thomas Aquinas is as indigestible as a stone, modern Catholic social teaching takes indigestibility to a whole new level—like indigestible shards of broken glass.

The 2005 Deus Caritas Est names the Song of Songs three times, and that is without precedent in the Catholic social encyclicals from the 1891 Rerum Novarum on. Look for references to the Song of Songs in their footnotes—I don’t think you’ll find any, or at least I didn’t. This is a symptom of a real problem, a lack of the kind of theology that would think of things like the Song of Songs—which is highly significant. The Song of Songs is a favorite in mystical theology, the prayerful theology that flows from faith, and mystical theology is not easily found in the social encyclicals. I am aware of the friction when secular academics assume that Catholic social teaching is one more political ideology to be changed at will. I give some benefit of the doubt to Catholics who insist that there are important differences, even if I’m skeptical over whether the differences are quite so big as they are made out to be. But without insisting that Catholic social teaching is just another activist ideology, I will say that it is anything but a pure “saint” model, and it mixes in the secular “activist” model to a degree that is utterly unlawful to Orthodox.

Arius is more scathingly condemned in Orthodox liturgy than even Judas. And, contrary to current fashion, I really do believe Arius and Arianism are as bad as the Fathers say. But Arius never dreamed either of reasoning out systematic theology or of establishing social justice. His Thalia are a (perhaps very bad) invitation to worship, not a systematic theology or a plan for social justice. In those regards, Catholic theology not only does not reach the standard of the old Orthodox giants: it does not even reach the standard of the old arch-heretics!

Catholics today celebrate Orthodoxy and almost everything they know about us save that we are not in full communion. Catholic priests encourage icons, or reading the Greek fathers, or the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But what Catholics may not always be mindful of is that they celebrate Orthodoxy and put it alongside things that are utterly anathema to Orthodox: like heartily endorsing the Orthodox Divine Litugy and placing it alongside the Roman mass, Protestant services, Unitarian meetings, Hindu worship, and the spiritualist séance as all amply embraced by Rome’s enfolding bosom.

What we today call “ecumenism” is at its root a Protestant phenomenon. It stems from how Protestants sought to honor Christ’s prayer that we may all be one, when they took it as non-negotiable that they were part of various Protestant denominations which remained out of communion with Rome. The Catholic insistance that each Protestant who returns to Rome heals part of the Western schism is a nonstarter for this “ecumenism:” this “ecumenism” knows we need unity but takes schism as non-negotiable: which is to say that this “ecumenism” rejects the understanding of Orthodox, some Catholics, and even the first Protestants that full communion is full communion and what Christ prayed for was a full communion that assumed doctrinal unity.

One more thing that is very important to many Orthodox, and that I have never once heard acknowledged or even mentioned by the Catholics reaching so hard for ecumenical embrace is that many Orthodox are uneasy at best with ecumenism. It has been my own experience that the more devout and more mature Orthodox are, the more certainly they regard ecumenism as a spiritual poison. Some of the more conservative speak of “ecumenism awareness” as Americans involved in the war on drugs speak of “drug awareness.”

Catholics can be a lot like Orthodox in their responses to Protestants and Protestant ideas of ecumenism; one might see a Catholic responding to an invitation to join an ecumenical communion service at First Baptist by saying something like,

I’m flattered by your ecumenical outreach… And really am, um, uh, honored that you see me as basically the same as an Evangelical… And I really appreciate that I am as welcome to join you in receiving communion as your very own flock… Really, I’m flattered…

…But full communion is full communion, and it reflects fundamental confusion to put the cart before the horse. For us to act otherwise would be a travesty. I know that you may be generously overlooking our differences, but even if it means being lessgenerous, we need to give proper attention to our unresolved differences before anything approaching full communion would be appropriate.

But Catholics seem to be a bit like Protestants in their ecumenical advances to Orthodox. If I understand correctly, whereas Rome used to tell Orthodox, “You would be welcome to take communion with us, but we would rather you obey your bishops,” now I am told by Rome that I may remain Orthodox while receiving Roman communion, and my reply is,

I’m flattered by your ecumenical outreach… And really am, um, uh, honored that you see me as basically the same as any Catholic… And I really appreciate that I am as welcome to join you in receiving communion as your very own flock… Really, I’m flattered…

…But full communion is full communion, and it reflects fundamental confusion to put the cart before the horse. For us to act otherwise would be a travesty. I know that you may be generously overlooking our differences, but even if it means being lessgenerous, we need to give proper attention to our unresolved differences before anything approaching full communion would be appropriate.

If the Roman Church is almost Orthodox in its dealings with Protestants, it in turn seems almost Protestant in its dealings with Orthodox. It may be that Rome looks at Orthodoxy and sees things that are almost entirely permitted in the Roman Church: almost every point of theology or spirituality that is the only way to do things in Orthodoxy is at least a permitted option to Roman Catholics. (So Rome looks at Orthodoxy, or at least some Romans do, and see Orthodox as something that can be allowed to be a full-fledged part of the Roman communion: almost as Protestants interested in ecumenism look at the Roman Church as being every bit as much a full-fledged Christian denomination as the best of Protestant groups.) But the reverse of this phenomenon is not true: that is, Orthodox do not look at Rome and say, “Everything that you require or allow in spiritual theology is also allowed in healthy Eastern Orthodoxy.” Furthermore, I have never seen awareness or sensitivity to those of Orthodox who do not consider ecumenism, at least between traditional communions, to be a self-evidently good thing to work for: Catholics can’t conceive of a good reason for why Orthodox would not share their puppyish enthusiasm for ecumenism. And I have never heard a Catholic who expressed a desire for the restoration for full communion show any perception or willingness to work for the Orthodox concerns about what needs to feed into any appropriate restoration of communion, namely the recantation of Western heresy represented by figures like Thomas Aquinas and not only by Mater et Magistra or liberal Catholic dissent.

Conclusion: are we at the eve of an explosion?

I may have mentioned several elephants in the room. Let me close by mentioning one more that many Orthodox are painfully aware of, even if Catholics are oblivious.

Orthodoxy may remind Western Christians of Rome’s ancient origins. But there is an important way in which I would compare Orthodoxy today to Western Christianity on the eve of the Reformation. Things hadn’t exploded. Yet. But there were serious problems and trouble brewing, and I’m not sure it’s that clear to people how much trouble is brewing.

Your ecumenical advances and efforts to draw us closer to Rome’s enfolding bosom come at a rough and delicate time:

What if, while there was serious trouble but not yet schisms spreading like wildfire, the East had reached out to their estranged Western brethren and said:

Good news! You really don’t need scholasticism… And you don’t exactly need transsubstantiation either… And you don’t need anywhere such a top-down Church heirarchy… And you really don’t need to be in communion with the Patriarch of Rome… And…

There is a profound schism brewing in the Orthodox Church. It may not be within your power to stop it, but it may be within your power to avoid giving it an early start, and it may be within your power to avoid making the wreckage even worse.

The best thing I can think of to say is simply, “God have mercy on us all.”

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

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