Risk Management, for Orthodox Parishes, with Church Mutual

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Risk Management,
for Orthodox Parishes,
with Church Mutual

C.J.S. Hayward
Orthodox Pastoral School
MGMT001: Parish Management and Operations
Risk Management
July 24, 2021
Fr. George Temedis, Fr. Vladimir Pyrozhenko, Nicholar Hantel, Esq.

This paper was written as an assignment for the Orthodox Pastoral School. I am not affiliated with Church Mutual and I do not speak for either Church Mutual or the Orthodox Pastoral School. I received no consideration or request from Church Mutual outside their availability for an interview.


1. Introduction: Speaking with a live human

When I was being received into the Orthodox Church, I was asked if I had questions and I said I was comfortable researching on the Internet. I was fairly strongly advised not to do so; I didn’t ask why not but this was presumably because a catechumen’s research on the web would quickly turn up non-canonical “information.” This is not a concern that affects the topic of this paper so far as I can tell, but something of the principle still applies.

I worked briefly in the insurance agency, and one of the first tasks my boss had me was ask me to read a book that outlined the basics of insurance agencies. One standard feature of insurance is risk management, also called loss prevention or risk control: a principle that, at least some of the time, it is cheaper to have a risk management agent spend time explaining practical ways to play things safer than to pay easily preventable claims (“losses”). Giving your customers a complimentary ounce of prevention is cheaper for insurance companies than paying for a pound of cure. Insurance isn’t just able to help you recover after something has gone wrong. Insurance is also able to help you make less things go wrong in the first place.

I called Risk Management at Church Mutual, available by phone at
(800) 554-2642 (Option 4) Extension 5213, then hit #. If someone else like Claims answers, ask nicely to be transferred to Risk Control. (Risk Control is also contactable by email at riskconsulting@churchmutual.com or on the web at https://www.churchmutual.com/8441/Contact-Risk-Control-Central). I was brielfy on hold before being warmly greeted. I explained my purpose in calling as regards this paper, and was told warmly and plainly that Church Mutual’s Risk Management department is happy to speak with customers or non-customers.

I intend in this paper to cover some of the basics of risk management. However, I would suggest that something like the Orthodox attitude of “Speak with your priest or spiritual father” is appropriate; if you wish to reduce risk for your parish or diocese, check in with a risk management expert. And Church Mutual is willing to talk whether or not you’re a customer.

I provide in section 4 a “feature walkthrough” of basic offerings from the Church Mutual website. I might comment that their website is well-done, and so you may be able to find just what you want from exploring https://churchmutual.com.1

2. Background research on Church Mutual

There are 91 reviews on Church Mutual at https://www.usinsuranceagents.com/reviews/church-mutual/ at 3.91 stars.2 The most common review appears to be five stars. There were multiple disgruntled reviews, one of which stated that the person posting the reviews was almost killed and they denied that person’s claim for one month of compensation. There are multiple reviews written by people who had filed a claim for a significant amount of property damage and were very satisfied with Church Mutual followup after the damage.

There was a Yelp entry, but it was an unclaimed stub with 0 reviews.3

Glassdoor has 78 reviews averaging 3.3 stars, with 57% saying “would recommend to a friend” and 79% saying they approved of the CEO; the company has an A (Excellent) rating by A.M. Best Co.4 The upshot I would take of the reviews were that of a mediocre work environment; there were some contradiction in the reviews (several reviews state that they have a 37.5 hour workweek, while a few people complained about out-of-control overtime), and top complaints were of a cliquish work environment, that mainly hired recent college grads, and was behind the times technologically. But honestly, speaking as someone who worked in information technology (and has written about humane use of technology5), if one of your top complaints is antiquated technology, you’re doing well!

By comparison in terms of ratings, Glassdoor’s page has a sidebar indicating “Top companies for “Compensation and Benefits” Near You” indicating State Farm had 3.6 stars, a BCBS / HCSC at 3.8 stars, “Liberty Mutual Insurance” at 4.0 stars, and “Travelers” at 4.1 stars.

The overall impression I would summarize is that it’s not an excellent workplace, but it’s also not the end of the world. It has been suggested that you don’t get excellent external customer service without excellent internal customer service,6 and the internal customer service raises concerns about how spectacular external customer service will be at difficult points.

However, I would expect it would make sense for parishes to go with a niche insurer who focuses on religious and nonprofit organizations than to go with secular, general insurance providers who don’t “get” nonprofit. The impression I get from the Glassdoor reviews is that working there is halfway to the work environment at a nonprofit, and that would suggest that the corporate culture is that of a place that “gets” religion and nonprofits.

And life at a Church Mutual insured parish can be a benefit. Fr. Gregory Finlon commented in a class discussion,7

[Our rector] has high praise for our insurance company Church Mutual, They give regular updates to keep us aware of changes in law or issues that effect churches. A risk report the addresses both building and personal issues that need to be watched is sent to us regularly. He has regular contact with our agent, who is always available to talk or visit when we have a question or need.

Possibly (I speculate) Church Mutual has made a decision to be unique by freely giving four or five ounces of risk management where a lesser company would stop after one.

2. An interview with Church Mutual Risk Management

The interview below was conducted 07/21/21 with Jordan Mikunda.

Please provide an overview for what Church Mutual offers an Orthodox parish in terms of risk management.

“A plethora of resources, various different topics of resources on the website, anything from COVID-19 response recovery to workplace management and safety. We offer live service; if we don’t have what you ask, we will try to find it.”

What do you most wish Orthodox parishes would understand about risk management?

“Probably the biggest hurdle is that as a religious motif that they want to see the good or the best in people, however as far as risk management concerns, there are people who would take advantage of religious understanding, and understanding that there are people who do have ill will and are looking to do bad things.”

What are your top sources of preventable losses [claims paid for incidents that never needed to go wrong in the first place, driving up prices] with Orthodox parishes?

“Water and temperature losses. We have a free program for our customers we call our CM Sensor 24/7 temperature and water monitoring program. The sensor actually alerts the insured to reduce the damage or prevent damages altogether.”

What can Orthodox parishes do to make your life as an institutional neighbor easier?

“We aren’t specifically looking to make our lives easier, just to serve your needs and your interests.

“We’re here for you.”

Is anything of this different for Orthodox dioceses as well as parishes?

“No. Not necessarily. A lot of this information is pretty universal, and I think it would be applicable to a wide variety of organizations.”

Is there anything else you would like to say?

“Not specifically. Risk and safety are important at organizations where safety is often overlooked, and sometimes there is inadequate staffing. Maintaining adequate safety and risk scenarios could be challenging. We want to have adequate procedures and protections.

“We’re always here to help you.”

Risk Control Agent Jordan Mikunda talked to me. He didn’t have to. But he welcomed me when I explained what I wanted to do, and allowed me to interview him, and really gave 110% of practically everything I asked. Within one minute of our call beginning I sensed that I was dealing with a top-notch communicator. Within two minutes I understood that I was being met with helpfulness, generosity and WIN-WIN negotiation.

4. Resources on the Church Mutual website

Church Mutual has an extensive and well-constructed website at https://www.churchmutual.com that includes multiple blogs and resources related to house of worship (and other) needs. “Risk Control” is the fourth item in the top red menu at their site, and it has subsections including a blog (https://blog.churchmutual.com/), with a “Houses of worship” topic on their blog at https://blog.churchmutual.com/topic/houses-of-worship. Their resource collection is well worth perusing whether or not you are one of their customers.

The “Safety Resources” section at https://www.churchmutual.com/98/Safety-Resources includes:

  1. “COVID Response and Recovery” at https://coronavirus.churchmutual.com/.
  2. “Armed Intruder Preparedness” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/6421/Armed-Intruder.
  3. “CM Sensor 24/7 Temperature and Water Alert System” at https://www.churchmutual.com/sensors/.
  4. “Sexual Abuse Prevention” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/169/Sexual-Abuse-Prevention.
  5. “Wildfire Preparedness” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/17523/Wildfire-Preparedness.
  6. “Cybersecurity” at https://www.churchmutual.com/13474/Cybersecurity.
  7. “Fire Preparedness and Prevention” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/17521/Fire-Preparedness-and-Prevention.
  8. “Injury and Illness Prevention” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/17520/Injury-and-Illness-Prevention.
  9. “Security and Crime Prevention” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/170/Security-and-Crime-Prevention.
  10. “Severe Weather Preparedness” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/179/Severe-Weather-Preparedness.
  11. “Slip, Trip, and Fall Prevention” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/17522/Slip,-Trip-and-Fall-Prevention.
  12. “Transportation Safety” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/178/Transportation.
  13. “Allergy Bands” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/6412/Allergy-Bands-help-keep-people-safe.
  14. “Food Safety” at https://www.churchmutual.com/174/Food-Safety.
  15. “General Risks” at https://www.churchmutual.com/182/General-Risks.
  16. “Playground Safety” at https://www.churchmutual.com/182/General-Risks.
  17. “Volunteer Safety and Management” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/volunteer-safety-and-management.
  18. “Workplace management and Safety” at https://www.churchmutual.com/180/Workforce-Management.

The “Safety Resources for Houses of Worship” page at https://www.churchmutual.com/17529/Safety-Resources-for-Houses-of-Worship includes the following. I am specifically including the same sex marriage / transgender / “marriage equality” entries after reviewing the first one and finding that it was largely informational and treating what issues congregations, specifically including Orthodox, should be aware of:

  1. “Self-inspection Safety Checklist for Worship Centers and Related Facilities” at https://cmgroup.widen.net/s/z8jmcbvlz9/cm0117-2020-04-rc-self-inspection-checklist-for-how8
  2. “Protecting Your Congregation Against an Active Shooter” at https://www.churchmutual.com/dsp/dsp_srVideo.cfm?id=3140.
  3. “Safety Outside Your Worship Center” at
    https://cmgroup.widen.net/s/l6jp9hzbcc/cm0127-2020-04-rc-safety-outside-your-worship-center.
  4. “Crime Proof Your Worship Center” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/dsp/dsp_srVideo.cfm?id=38.
  5. “Make Activities Safer for Your Congregation” at
    https://cmgroup.widen.net/s/cpjgjp8z9x/cm0126-2020-04-rc-make-activities-safer-for-your-congregation.
  6. “Youth Safety and Your Congregation” at
    https://cmgroup.widen.net/s/cpjgjp8z9x/cm0126-2020-04-rc-make-activities-safer-for-your-congregation.
  7. “Safety at Your Playground” at
    https://cmgroup.widen.net/s/smgqsz2pb2/cm0123-2020-04-rc-safety-at-your-playground.
  8. “Playground Safety and Maintenance” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/7428/Playground-safety-and-maintenance
  9. “Join the Band” (food safety) at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/6423/Join-the-Band.
  10. “Avoid food contamination” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/avoid-food-contamination-in-the-kitchen
  11. “Key liability risks for Religious Organizations” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/dsp/dsp_srVideo.cfm?id=3135.
  12. “The Legal Responsibilities of Your Board” at https://www.churchmutual.com/dsp/dsp_srVideo.cfm?id=4178.
  13. “Faith and Law: Understanding Same-Sex Marriage and Transgender Law” at https://www.churchmutual.com/dsp/dsp_srVideo.cfm?id=5188.
  14. “Involvement of Religious Charities in the Political Process” at https://www.churchmutual.com/dsp/dsp_srVideo.cfm?id=5194.
  15. “Marriage Equality Decision Webinar Series – Part 1 Featuring Richard Hammer” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/dsp/dsp_srVideo.cfm?id=5195.
  16. “Marriage Equality Decision Webinar Series – Part 3 Featuring Mark Chopko” at https://www.churchmutual.com/dsp/dsp_srVideo.cfm?id=5197.
  17. “Social Media: Best Practices for Congregations and Teen Ministries” at https://www.churchmutual.com/dsp/dsp_srVideo.cfm?id=3138.
  18. “Safety During Services” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/dsp/dsp_srVideo.cfm?id=43.
  19. “Preventing Fraud and Embezzlement at Your Worship Center – Attorney and CPA Frank Sommerville” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/dsp/dsp_srVideo.cfm?id=3137.
  20. “Fraud in Houses of Worship (from Fraud Magazine)” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/media/pdf/FraudInHousesOfWorship.pdf.
  21. “One Burglary Occurs Every 14 Seconds” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/one-burglary-occurs-every-14-seconds.
  22. “Crime Proof Your Worship Center” at
    https://cmgroup.widen.net/s/rqwvsjdh67/cm0125-2020-04-rc-crime-proof-your-worship-center.
  23. “Best Employment Practices for Houses of Worship – Attorney and CPA Frank Sommerville” at
    https://www.churchmutual.com/dsp/dsp_srVideo.cfm?id=3141.
  24. “Volunteer Safety and Management” at https://www.churchmutual.com/6426/Volunteer-safety-and-management.

The “Houses of worship” section of the blog at https://blog.churchmutual.com/topic/houses-of-worship has, at the time of this writing, the following articles. (Please note that I have deliberately not filtered out e.g. guidance for COVID-safe ways to handle Halloween; I prefer to let you decide what is relevant and I think the historical dimension is valuable.)

  1. “Personnel aerial lifts require special care, regular maintenance, and training” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/personnel-aerial-lifts-require-special-care-regular-maintenance-and-training.
  2. “Preventing injuries to employees” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/preventing-injuries-to-employees.
  3. “Sexual abuse series: Do you have adequate insurance for sexual abuse allegations?” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/sexual-abuse-series-do-you-have-adequate-insurance-for-sexual-abuse-allegations.
  4. “Recognizing the importance of slips and falls on steps and stairs” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/recognizing-the-importance-of-slips-and-falls-on-steps-and-stairs.
  5. “Hurricane safety” at https://blog.churchmutual.com/hurricane-safety.
  6. “One burglary occurs every 14 seconds,” possibly the same as above, at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/one-burglary-occurs-every-14-seconds.
  7. “Working with the media” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/working-with-the-media.
  8. “15-passenger vans require extra care” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/15-passenger-vans-require-extra-care.
  9. “Enter into safety” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/enter-into-safety.
  10. “Risk alert: Lending a hand in hard times” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/lending-a-hand-in-hard-times.
  11. “Spring safety series: Indoor maintenance” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/your-blog-post-title-spring-safety-series-indoor-maintenance.
  12. “Spring safety series: HVAC maintenance” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/spring-safety-series-hvac-maintenance.
  13. “Risk Alert: Catalytic converter theft continues to rise” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/catalytic-converter-theft-on-the-rise.
  14. “A clear path to slip-and-falls prevention” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/a-clear-path-to-slips-and-falls-prevention-1.
  15. “Armed security and your insurance coverage” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/armed-security-and-your-insurance-coverage.
  16. “Planning for the summer at your house of worship” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/planning-for-the-summer-at-your-house-of-worship.
  17. “Protect stained glass windows” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/protect-stained-glass-windows.
  18. “Amazing people doing amazing things” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/amazing-people-doing-amazing-things.
  19. “Stay safe when using social media” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/stay-safe-when-using-social-media.
  20. “Exercise caution with holiday worship” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/exercise-caution-with-holiday-worship.
  21. “Reduce your risk from wildfires” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/reduce-your-risk-from-wildfires.
  22. “Avoid food contamination in the kitchen” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/avoid-food-contamination-in-the-kitchen.
  23. “CM sensor protects you” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/cm-sensor-system-protects-you.
  24. “Avoid frozen pipes this winter” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/avoid-frozen-pipes-this-winter.
  25. “Volunteer safety and management” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/volunteer-safety-and-management.
  26. “Religion and politics: Nonprofits should not endorse political candidates” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/religion-and-politics.
  27. “Trunk-or-treat is an alternative to trick-or-treat” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/trunk-or-treat-is-an-alternative-to-trick-or-treat.
  28. “Cybersecurity infographic” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/cybersecurity-infographic.
  29. “Risk Alert: Proper use of cleaners and safe disinfecting techniques are key” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/risk-alert-proper-use-of-cleaners-and-safe-disinfecting.
  30. “Keep wildfires at bay” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/keep-wildfires-at-bay.
  31. “Don’t let a hurricane devastate your facility” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/dont-let-a-hurricane-devastate-your-facility.
  32. “2020 Supreme Court civil rights case ruling” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/2020-supreme-court-civil-rights-case-ruling.
  33. “Coronavirus – What you need to know” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/coronavirus-what-you-need-to-know.
  34. “Unsafe ladder use can pose serious risk of injury” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/unsafe-ladder-usage-can-pose-serious-risk-of-injury.
  35. “Tips for building projects” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/tips-for-building-projects.
  36. “Insurance terms” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/insurance-terms.
  37. “A clear path to slips-and-falls preventions” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/a-clear-path-to-slips-and-falls-prevention.
  38. “Armed intruder preparedness” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/armed-intruder-preparedness.
  39. “Weather preparedness” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/weather-preparedness.
  40. “Maintenance tips to protect your roof systems” at
    https://blog.churchmutual.com/maintenance-tips-to-protect-your-roof-systems.

5. Conclusion

In this litigious day, nothing can replace checking with your insurer and your counsel. If you think some of my suggestions are helpful, great! Run it by your legal counsel.

I have taken serious effort to make a useful article. There are topics that Church Mutual’s website does not address or does not address fully enough. It is my own opinion that their cybersecurity articles on passwords, for instance, miss some low-hanging fruit. Making a password that you can remember but criminals won’t guess is hard, and the password article(s) I have read that they link to9 do not seem to address either using a password generator such as at https://cjshayward.com/passwords/, or finding and using a good password manager such as mSecure10 for mobile, Mac, or PC; or the free and open source KeePass for desktop (https://keepass.info/).11 The guidance I have been able to find is not enough to get people using one different, good password for every login.

Nonetheless, Church Mutual has worked hard to provide a “plethora” of helpful, useful, and understandable resources, free to use whether you are one of their customers or just an interested member of the general public. In my opinion, it shows, and I am glad that the parish I belong to is insured by Church Mutual.

THIS ARTICLE AND ALL OF ITS SUGGESTIONS ARE FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND ARE PROVIDED BY THE COPYRIGHT HOLDERS AND CONTRIBUTORS “AS IS” AND ANY EXPRESS OR IMPLIED WARRANTIES, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE ARE DISCLAIMED. IN NO EVENT SHALL THE COPYRIGHT HOLDER OR CONTRIBUTORS BE LIABLE FOR ANY DIRECT, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, SPECIAL, EXEMPLARY, OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES (INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, PROCUREMENT OF SUBSTITUTE GOODS OR SERVICES; LOSS OF USE, DATA, OR PROFITS; OR BUSINESS INTERRUPTION) HOWEVER CAUSED AND ON ANY THEORY OF LIABILITY, WHETHER IN CONTRACT, STRICT LIABILITY, OR TORT (INCLUDING NEGLIGENCE OR OTHERWISE) ARISING IN ANY WAY OUT OF THE USE OF THIS ARTICLE AND ADVICE, EVEN IF ADVISED OF THE POSSIBILITY OF SUCH DAMAGE.

1All churchmutual.com links, and links outside of churchmutual.com from the feature walkthrough of their pages, are as seen on 07/20/21 or 07/21/21.

2US Insurance Agents, as seen on 7/21/21.,

5C.J.S. Hayward, The Luddite’s Guide to Technology: The Past Writes Back to Humane Tech!, Wheaton: C.J.S. Hayward Publications 2012-2021, https://www.amazon.com/dp/1731439539.

6Christine Churchill, “Customer Service Institute of America,” https://www.serviceinstitute.com, https://www.serviceinstitute.com/external-customer-service/external-customer-service/, “How External Customer Service Begins with Internal Customer Service”, as seen on 7/21/21.

8As seen on 7/21/21. The expected homepage at https://cmgroup.widen.net gives a not found (404) error, as does https://widen.net; my educated guess is that widen.net is a file hosting service “cmgroup” is owned by Church Mutual in some form and that URLs under https://cmgroup.widen.net are static non-webpage resources such as media files.

10mSeven Software, LLC. 2017-2020. mSecure, version 5.7.2, retrieved from https://apps.apple.com/us/app/password-manager-msecure/id1063795594.

11As seen on 7/21/21.

A Conservative Soliloquy

Cover for Orthodox Theology and Technology: A Profoundly Gifted Autobiography

At various points in Trump’s presidency, my mother would sit down with me and condescend to enlighten me from my naive views of politics, and explain to me Trump’s feet of clay. At one point I told her that she had never during Barack Obama’s eight years of presidency sat down with me to enlighten me about President Obama’s weaknesses. She seemed shocked that I spoke of Barack Obama as having weaknesses, and said that he was so eloquent. I simply said that I had never and nowhere heard a conservative impugn Barack Obama’s abilities as a public speaker. She positively bristled when I said he had ties to Islam. (I held my peace about a bumper sticker I saw a few times that depicted Adolf Hitler and Barack Obama side-by-side and said, “They both gave great speeches.”)

The one possible critique I can think of Obama’s public speaking performance is that he held his cards too close to his vest. When in debates between him and McCain both candidates were asked when life begins, Obama answered, “Go to Hell!” poetically refused to answer the question, saying that that was a question for scientists and theologians that was simply above his pay grade. (Obama retains a master diplomat’s ability to tell you to go to Hell in such a way that you will look forward to the trip.) McCain answered the question: “Conception.” By so doing he doubtless lost a number of people, but McCain answered the question instead of throwing sand in his audience’s eyes. Much of the American public take campaign promises with a 40 pound block of salt, and the term “campaign promises” connotes that promises made when campaigning are not taken seriously as binding moral commitments. However, one of the pillars of political campaign speeches is an obligation to disclose what programs, policies, priorities, and positions a vote for the candidate will be voting for. But that is still the only objection I can even now think of to Barack Obama’s public speaking performance; I suppose that if I watched Fox News (I usually try to avoid all television news and all television), I could find some criticism somewhere that Obama was not charismatic enough or that he failed to give electrifying speeches that drew many people in. However, as far as I am concerned, alleging incompetence in writing, crafting, and delivering speeches that drew people in is off the agenda for serious discussion on the right, left, and center. I may have heard a monk express a criticism during Obama’s presidency of “I still don’t know what he believes.” Denying that Obama made well-executed speeches that attracted people is simply off the agenda, and I have never heard a conservative argue that Obama was not charismatic enough as a speaker or leader.


On the question of origins, which I really only bring in for analogy, concerns origins positions among conservative Orthodox. As far as origins goes (see QUICK! What’s Your Opinion About Chemistry?), I regard my position as having liabilities. I have run into people who have to have a perfect origins positions without liabilities, and they end up convinced that the position they settle on has no faults at all, and in my opinion usually a worse origins position needing, perhaps, that the universe be only a few thousand years old in a position that comes unglued if you become convinced that the universe is billions of years old. If you know that your position on origins has liabilities, you can meet challenges without becoming unglued; you may change your mind about certain things, but there is much less danger that a rough blow may make you lose all faith.

I have never issued a vote meant to declare which candidate was the angel and which was the demon, and I have tended to assume that a vote for anyone I genuinely favored could only be a (de facto) protest vote, with scarcely more nor less traction in the electoral college than voting for Kermit the Frog. All of the elections I have faced have been a matter of finite choices, between two or possibly three candidates that have a fighting chance of winning the election, both of whom have strengths and liabilities.

If you want to know when I mentally checked out from my mother’s condescension to enlighten me about Trump’s faults, it was right after the election, when she recounted with white-hot anger (when she is beyond furious, she has a big unhappy smile, and she had a big unhappy smile then) about how Hilary Clinton had won the popular vote even if the electoral college had gone with Trump, down to reciting the exact count of popular votes for each candidate, down to the last digits. (This is part of why I jurisprudentially accept the electoral college, but I really wince when a Democrat wins the popular vote while a Republican wins the electoral vote.) After that point with my Mom, it simply didn’t occur to me that her attempts to enlighten me about Trump’s feet of clay corresponded to anything out of the ordinary; I would have been more able to take such condescensions seriously if she acknowledged legitimate faults on the part of Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama, like an allegation I had heard that President Obama used the Internal Revenue Service as an Infernal Revenue Service that made Christian charities waste millions of dollars on legal self-defense to keep out of to jail. So far, however, I never remember her owning up to a fault or downside to a Democratic president or candidate, even on a small scale. And I have seen the same white-hot smiling anger that her educated brother believes that what he believes to be literal murder on an epic scale is simply not one political issue among others.


I now hope that Trump is successfully impeached; my pro-life convictions do not allow me to regard a willingness to start a civil war to hold on to power as anything but beyond the pall. I note with sadness that while only one Republican publicly opposed a unanimous consent for Pence to invoke the 25th amendment, a majority (or for that matter anything more than a small handful) appear to be failing to push for Trump’s impeachment. I have a bit of political, jurisprudential squeamishness about invoking the 25th amendment as suggested, as I had political, jurisprudential squeamishness about Illinois handling Blavojevich’s impeachment as being driven by concerns of tremendous unpopularity and not by what would make good precedent legally. I am wary of invoking the 25th amendment to do the job impeachment was made for. But I do believe impeachment is called for, and I am if not especially surprised, at least saddened that after only one Republican blocked unanimous consent for 25th amendment applications, most Republicans are failing to push for impeachment.


Alexander Solzhinitsyn, on the way to seeing the limits of what revolution can accomplish, wrote, “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.” (source—seemingly worth reading).

My next post after reading about Trump’s inciting the riot was:

What Is Wrong With the World

G.K. Chesterton wrote a letter to the editor after a newspaper requested answers to the question, “What is wrong with the world?”

His answer, “Sir, I am.” was the shortest letter to the editor in newspaper history.

St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire a spirit of peace within yourself, and ten thousand around you will be saved.”

Everybody has an opinion about what needs to change after the riot.

Fortunately, with me the one political necessity is within my power: to recognize that “It is a trustworthy saying, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief,'” and to repent of my sins and take them to confession.

(It may be noted that a book contest to come up with the most politically incorrect book was won by a book about Orthodox priest and monk Fr. Seraphim of Plantina: Not of This World, which was pointed out to be barely political enough to be politically incorrect: but the best politics are in fact not of this world.)

But I am preparing for something tomorrow that is more political than my voting.

I am going to confession and own up to my sin as best as I can. And try to do better.


I said to my family, after a Sunday afternoon session where I had been the minority voice, that in the last election Hilary Clinton had always been portrayed with photographs that caught her at her most photogenic, and Donald Trump had always been portrayed in singularly unflattering photographs that looked to me like still photographs from speeches (people who have normal facial and verbal expression have their faces briefly contort to odd-looking expressions, and this is not a specific phenomenon of right, left, or center: a high-quality capture of anyone giving a normal speech on any topic—political or Toastmasters—will have some awfully unflattering still images). Afterwards, I wished I had not said such at the time, and to partly wipe a stain off my face wrote afterwards:

The recent events have been sinking in, and I am now with the Republicans as well as Democrats who broke out in applause after the vote was officially registered.

I now hope Trump is successfully impeached.


Some people may wonder why it took me so long for me to figure out that Trump was not high enough quality to step down after losing an election. The main thing I would say is this:

After attending a liberal Roman university, I commented to the monk I mentioned earlier that I had read First Things, a Roman neo-conservative journal of religion and public life, and I also heard what liberal Romans asserted about Roman neo-conservatives, and I could not deny any individual assertion, really, but they nonetheless gave a roadmap that I couldn’t really connect with any of my reading neo-conservatives in their own words. The monk I was speaking with commented that it’s easier to write off the other party’s members if you stereotype them.

I have noticed that certain candidates rightly perceived as threats by the left (Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump), not long after receiving mainstream attention, had journalism consistently portraying them as stupid. It is His Majesty’s loyal opposition’s sworn duty to oppose, and it is mainstream journalism’s unsworn duty to make conservative politicians who represent a threat look stupid. So when Donald Trump started getting an incredibly hostile reception in the media, my thought was simply “I don’t know what his strengths and weaknesses are; I haven’t seen the minority report.”

That there was hostile coverage of the present conservative President was not any kind of useful information.


I had a conversation with my brother who was and wanted to be somewhat left of center, but wanted to be a bit of an omnivore as far as his intake on current events, and he said with some sadness that on the left he could find coverage almost anywhere from centrist left to far left, but on the right it is difficult to find media coverage between the center and the far right. He can presumably watch Fox any time he wants, but he wants to be able to understand moderate conservative positions and understand what other people think.

I wrote to him after that conversation:

You said that you try to get something of a representative sampling of newspapers, and you have lots of options for journalism on the left, but fewer options for representation on the right that is not far right.

That may be because the main conservative way of understanding is not on relying on journalism, even right-slanted journalism, but reading books and studying history (N.B. I [requested an inter-library loan] and ordered a copy of The Medieval Experience: Foundations of Western Cultural Singularity). [My sister-in-law, my brother’s wife] may be liberal, but she and her Mom’s reservations about using Amazon for all purchasing is not based on just-exposed journalistic findings; it’s based on a knowledge of history and a history-paced argument.

I am reading History of the Byzantine Empire and finding some relief in it; there’s a lot of politics and it is a political history, and seeing some of the bad things that happened there help me be not dismayed at how bad some things are now.

I had also, perhaps in another case of “right lesson, wrong time,” talked about discussion in a book about how a newspaper had given front-page coverage to an alleged gang of black militants taking over a hotel, and continuing to cover police casualties as the shootout unfolded, and then eventually having a buried clarification that there was not a gang of multiple black militants; there was one mentally ill black person who had been dead for a while, and the police casualties were a matter of police continuing to hit each other with their own ricochets. On that point I emailed my brother about the book that discussed this sort of thing happening in journalism and why one might choose not to get bearings from journalism:

One book which you might read, if for nothing else than a slice of [what has informed] my thought, is the ?1974? Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, written by an advertising executive who lost his faith in advertising and then lost his faith in television (Jerry Mander).

I did not mention First Things as conservative journalism, not exactly because I wanted to withhold information, but because I wanted to stress the difference between getting one’s bearings from journalism and getting them from books. (Social media may well be a step below journalism, but I did not explore that; I never in the discussion discussed getting one’s bearings from social media, from which I have mostly checked out.) Mention of that one journal might be helpful after talking about getting one’s bearings from classic, non-current-bestseller books.

I went to spiritual direction and my spiritual director said something that challenged me to go one step further: get my bearings from the Gospel. I mentioned that one article said that a monastic leader had “cryptically” said, “It’s better to read the Bible than the Internet,” which I did not find cryptic at all. He was talking about where it is best to get one’s bearings, even if one should pay attention to secular authorities about what simple quarantine measures may be advisable. And I was advised to back away from an unintended dip into social media.

It has also, incidentally, been commented that people who consume large amounts of (secular) media tend to be more secular.


When the Rush Limbaugh Show went big, I found it an embarrassment and I never found myself speaking with a fellow conservative who did not share that embarrassment.

I am still waiting to find a liberal who finds The Daily Show to be anything but a good dose of clear thinking about today’s events.


I have mentioned earlier, not terribly impressed, that my Mom was shocked when I suggested she should have been able to tell the same sorts of things about Barack Obama as she was telling me about Donald Trump. In the interests of “Turnabout’s fair play,” I’d like to mention a couple of things I don’t respect about Donald Trump, whom I held in light esteem for ages before his political rise. (To take an unlikely quote from Dorothy Parker, “If you’d like to know what God thinks about money, look at the people he gave it to.”)

There is some talent reflected in his being a billionaire, but he reached that status through his casinos, and the vice of gambling is highly destructive. That’s not an honorable way to reach billionaire status, even if it is legal.

I was also aghast at his having police clear the way by any means necessary for him to have a photo opportunity.


There was a long time where politics would be discussed at family dinner, and I would spend long stretches of time with something to say, looking for a social opportunity and quite often with my hand raised and emoting “I have something to contribute,” and I was always, always shut out of the discussion by being socially strong-armed. I eventually sent an email asking people to either let me contribute to the discussion or stop discussing politics in my presence. They mostly stopped discussing politics in my presence at all.

There is some intimidation that comes with being profoundly gifted, especially an outlier, and I might briefly mention that while my whole family is very bright… but my SAT scores were higher than my father’s SAT scores as a high school senior… when I took the SAT in seventh grade! Their social behavior conveyed that they were afraid of letting me speak, afraid that what I had to say might make sense. And that social exclusion helped me tune out what they had to say politically, because whatever they had to say, they were so intimidated, perhaps partly due to giftedness, that they abandoned simple good manners and completely shut me out of getting a word in edgewise at a social function specifically intended for family togetherness.

I might also mention briefly that after I was received into the Orthodox Church, at my next social function my uncle, a Protestant, “Orthodox Presbyterian” pastor, kept on telling me about “agreement” on all “essentials,” and I simply kept my mouth shut. The minor reason was simply that I was tired, and my nonverbal communication should have been “I am not up for this,” but the major reason was that even if I could summon plenty of energy, pushing and having him push back would not have been preferred Orthodox behavior on my part. He was intimidated, and even if I had plenty of energy for a lively discussion I believe I would have still been wisest to act as I did. After that single one-way conversation, he did not press me further.

It has, incidentally, been said that profoundly gifted individuals tend to be “very, very conservative, or at least populist.” As far as why, I at least have had multiple cases of what a sociologist would call a “secondary socialization,” and at least two of them have been secondary socializations that produce strong liberals. My best take on it now is that the standard ways of recruiting someone to the left work very well far into the gifted range, but are less effective in dealing with the profoundly gifted. It tends to run aground. Biblical Egalitarianism recruits via shady rhetoric and, sometimes, loaded language; the average gifted response is to be drawn in, but one possible profoundly gifted response tends towards, “That’s loaded language,” and shady rhetoric does not always catch the profoundly in its noose; sometimes it repels. The usual methods of getting someone to “get with the program” are often shady and often repel. Not specifically that all profoundly gifted are conservative; but profoundly gifted liberals and radicals will be more likely to be formulating tomorrow’s political correctness than passionately caught up in today’s political correctness. And neither do others’ repellent attempts to get me to “get with the program” come from the left alone; see The Seraphinians for a response to a conservative camp that applied a lot of pressure to get me to get with the program.


In connection with asking my mother not to sit down with me and condescend to enlighten me about politics, I made a comment that “Master politicians, like master martial artists, like master chess players, do not take single layered actions. They can’t afford to. This has the [consequence] that if you only understand one layer of a politician’s action, you do not understand the politician’s action.”

When I was at the Sorbonne, my grammar professor commented that he absolutely could not forgive Mitterrand, whom he compared with Niccolo Machiavelli. (Under French electoral conditions, the person with the largest share of the votes wins, which means that if you have 40% of the vote and your opponent has 60%, you can win if you split your opponent’s camp in half.) He talked about how Mitterrand split the right into the right and the far right, and effectively created Le Pen (in other words, a powerful ALT-right candidate who makes Trump look moderate by comparison; one comedy show said, “100% of the votes for Le Pen are bullet holes.”), as a live and politically powerful figure. The specific means he used was to openly give real or imagined preferential treatment and privileged to immigrants, and when people were incensed, insisted that Le Pen be allowed to speak and that his speeches would be covered.

Hello, can we talk about the consummate rudeness of removing statues as a way to give the bolt of lightning needed to bring the Frankenstein of a vigorous and openly racist right-wing faction to power and life? The program to capitally insult Confederate flags and statues is not a single-layered set of decisions!


Some people may be wondering, “How can we get through to you people?” Not everything will work at all times, but I do have advice for ways to limit liabilities to your persuasive power:

  1. Don’t cry “Wolf!”.
    Furthermore, don’t be surprised if our ears are deafened if you do cry, “Wolf!”

    White-hot anger at Hilary winning the popular vote but losing the electoral college is not advisable if you want credibility in drawing attention to Donald Trump’s having feet of clay. And more broadly, if every candidate who represents a live threat to the Democrats’ goals comes across in the media smelling like manure, be prepared for tune-out if you need to draw attention to something that smells like manure.

  2. Don’t assume that political views you don’t respect are born out of naivete.

    There was a profound degree of naivete in assuming I just needed an adult to show me a bit of perspective. I had carefully thought out views. Never mind if they were right or wrong; there was essentially nothing in my political perspective that was just because I didn’t have someone prompt me to reach a better thought out decision. Also, if you condescend to enlighten someone politically, be prepared to be socially received as condescending to enlighten, and not have your points entertained even if the other party is polite in response to your rudeness.

  3. Don’t point out which candidate is the angel and which is the demon, and furthermore, if you do, expect turnabout to be fair play.

    If you’re trying to help someone see Donald Trump’s weaknesses, be willing to be asked to see Hilary Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s weaknesses. If you’re not willing, be prepared to lose credibility. Furthermore, if you want to disqualify Donald Trump for his sexual adventures, be prepared to disqualify Bill Clinton for his sexual adventures. You don’t want to come across as believing that numerous cases of sexual assault are not significant to you in themselves, and only represent a card in your hand to play against a conservative when a conservative commits sexual misconduct. I held and hold a great deal of respect for the one self-identified feminist I met who was dismissive of Bill Clinton because of his sexual misconduct.

  4. Don’t try to manipulate. If you do manipulate, prepare it to backfire, with results other than what you expected.

    The rumor has it that profoundly gifted people have a compensating weakness of “not picking up on social cues.” I do not wish to state whether I agree with that overall, but I will say that to at least some of us, others’ attempts to manipulate us stick out like a fifteen foot high sign in blinking neon. In short, some of us do pick up on social cues when the person we’re communicating with is doing an absolute best to draw our attention away from picking up on social cues.

    I’ve dealt with people who have it stuck in their head that I’m “not picking up on social cues,” and who don’t have any light bulb go on over their heads when I explain the social cues I am acting on. (Normally, when I am told I am “not picking up on social cues” I have been acting on at least one major social cue that the person criticizing me was oblivious to, and my actions make sense given the fuller picture.) I, at least sometimes, am very adept at picking up on social cues that something is wrong socially and that the other person is trying to manipulate me or the like. I do not always do this instantly, but something sits wrong with me when I am being treated manipulatively, and the effect is to drive me away from whatever position you were trying to draw me towards.

  5. Don’t misuse narrow social channels of rebuke.

    There are a couple of male friends at a group that read children’s books aloud that shut me down by misusing trusted channels of social correction when I was profoundly uncomfortable with our reading Patricia Wrede’s feminist fairy tales (I would call them more precisely “anti-fairy tales” in that their whole purpose in being written is to attack what is right, good, and wholesome about real fairy tales.) Later on, the male friend who was closer to me had a live warning about something that was genuinely dangerous and problematic about something I was writing. He used, in what would ordinarily have been a socially appropriate fashion, a trusted channel of communication and was completely caught off guard when I blew him off. But it was a legitimate, trusted manner of communication that he had previously betrayed.

I would underscore “Don’t cry wolf!” Everything I remained wrong about Trump on was an a point where someone had previously cried, “Wolf!” or otherwise destroyed credibility, but assumed full and unimpaired credibility before me when it counted.

Furthermore, if you do have something to say where cries of “Wolf!” have deafened our ears, you would do well to show humility and concede points. Don’t condescend to enlighten a poor sap. Don’t take charge of the other person getting with the program. Don’t show shock at how horrible the other person’s beliefs are. Cries of “Wolf!” get tuned out, and so does taking the posture of a superior straightening out or enlightening a backwards subordinate.

The one more liberal person who affected me most in my views on Trump was the same brother who expressed frustration that he couldn’t find center-right journalism and felt he was missing understanding of how a more moderate conservative might see things. He expressed opinions, including that Trump was “an idiot,” but even that was without deafening pride. More basically, he came over on some other business after I had sent the email expressing hope that Trump was impeached, and offered to be available for conversation, and conversation was precisely what he gave me. Warm conversation that was willing to disagree, but respected me as a human being and never tarred me as an enemy or half-wit. He asked me to understand a couple of points, including that Trump’s efforts to foment a civil war to let him (let’s call a spade a spade) Assume Emergency Powers, but he was open and presented his own perspectives as imperfect. He was the person I approached about getting one’s bearings from media versus classic books, and I don’t know whether my email was taken as convincing, but I did send it with a live hope that he would consider an adjustment to his approach to understanding people he disagreed with, and possibly even investigate non-journalistic sources where he wants to understand how moderate conservatives understand things. (Please note that I am not purporting to be merely a moderate conservative. My point was merely to suggest an adjustment of what kind of resources to research when he genuinely wanted to understand another camp, and complained about slim pickings that were not extremist.)

And if you aren’t willing or able to do that, consider keeping your mouth shut. It’s not just a good policy for outnumbered conservatives. Liberals who have kept their mouths shut achieved this: they did not drive me away or deafen my ears. And compared to people who have condescended to enlighten and straighten out my naive and backwards assumptions, that is really something!

A Few Possible Critiques of the Nature Connection Movement

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

The importance of standard critiques

I remember one ethics class where I commented with deliberate wary tentativeness, “One comment that has been made about the atom bomb is that it didn’t just save lots and lots and lots of American lives, it also saved lots and lots and lots of Japanese lives,” and then added something very important: “…but I don’t know what the standard critiques of this claim are,” bracketing that claim in a considerable degree of unknowing. And I was not surprised, nor did I argue, when a later resource in the course had someone comment in reference to just war, “The claim is not, ‘If we do not do this, this is what they will do,’ but ‘If we do not do this, this is what we will do.'” I have heard some people point out that American politicians had campaigned on a platform of unconditional surrender by the Japanese, but this assertion is a detail of American culture and an irrelevancy if you are going to claim to be within just war theory. (Another unintelligible point on just war terms is the choice to make civilian cities the ground zero of an experiment.) “We campaigned for unconditional surrender” is not a consideration that factors into the principles of just war. Neither jus ad bellum nor jus in bello explains why it is justifiable to reject any surrender short of an unconditional surrender, a condition tantamount to letting infidel trample on the holy city. I do not know what the terms are on which the Japanese emperor sued for peace before the use of the atom bomb, but he did sue for peace before we dropped the bomb, and the burden of proof falls on people who assert it was a matter of just war to detonate nuclear weapons in a push for unconditional surrender rather than try to work with the Japanese emperor for terms of peace, perhaps not all those originally proposed by the emperor, that would deal with the threat but not insist on unconditional surrender and consent to let the infidel trample on the holy city as much as they saw fit.

(It might also be commented that Albert Einstein asked that his theory be used to develop nuclear weapons to stop Hitler, and he was horrified that his work was used against the Japanese, which he did not consider to be picking on someone our own size: “Should I have known, I would have become a watchmaker.” But, culturally speaking, once we started to develop nuclear weapons there was essentially no way culturally we were not going to use them, and if we did not have nuclear weapons available in time to use them against the Nazis, Japan was next in succession.)

My reason for mentioning this is that I added an important qualifier: “but I don’t know what the standard critiques of this claim are.” These are not weasel words. I am no fan of weasel words nor slippery rhetoric: see a dissertation focused on slippery rhetoric. But in a very real sense, what I was saying was that I didn’t understand the right import of the assertion (that nuclear weapons were mercifully quick, and had a far lower body count compared to the anticipated bloodshed of a land invasion where women and schoolchildren were doing combat drills and preparing in every way for a fight to the death), because I didn’t have a situated understanding, in particular knowing what lines of standard critique would be. (I have not heard anyone deny that assertion; the critique I saw essentially said, “No contest that it would be less bloody, but you are using the wrong standard and here is why.”) More broadly, understanding an assertion in the Great Conversation is incomplete if you do not grasp how it is situated in the Conversation, and part of that is understanding standard critiques.

Two senses of nature connection

I did a search for “nature connection critiques” on Google and DuckDuckGo, and Google got very quickly into academic articles having those three keywords but no connection to the nature connection movement, and DuckDuckGo gave nature connection pages without any critiques I could discern.

So I may be blazing a bit of a trail here in trying to situate nature connection.

I would like to begin by making a distinction between two significantly different senses of “nature connection.”

The first sense is an engagement with nature across many times and places, usually without any sense of nature connection in the second sense.

The second sense is an engagement with the nature connection movement’s tools, core routines, etc. The distinction between these is the difference between a general first category and a specific second type. The concerns I raise here mostly regard the second specific type.

I desire greater connection in the first sense, and it is one of the things I hope for in Orthodox monasticism, an arena that normally exposes one to nature a great deal and reaches further. (Perhaps I should say a third and other specific type centered on such things as virtue.)

A glimpse into a larger pattern

One place to start is Coyote the Trickster. Coyote is described in the pages of Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, or at least what he does is described, and I’m not sure how to pin Coyote down (if he even should be pinned down). Is he only an animal as materialist science would understand an animal? That one possibility is the one I would be quickest to reject. Perhaps a coyote, the animal, is special, but what is Coyote? A spirit? A god? An archetype? A familiar? A patron saint? A Platonic Idea? An astrological sign? A totem? One god who is part of a henotheist God or Greatest Spirit in vaguely Hindu fashion?

I think that all of the possibilities above are at least illustrative, but this choice of the coyote writ large is perhaps not best for Christians, and not just because Coyote is coyote writ large. The text asserts Jesus and Buddha represent the Trickster; Jesus the trickster is illustrated by the cleansing of the Temple. Now it would perhaps be unfair to ask the work to do serious Biblical exegesis, but the cleansing of the Temple was one of the least prank-like actions he took. He wasn’t manipulating people; he was deeply offended by irreverent use of the Temple and drove people and animals out without the faintest mercurial intent. Not to say that there is nothing like the trickster in Christ; the story of Christ and St. Photini (“the Woman at the Well”) has St. Photini enlisting Christ’s help in fleeing from her shame, and Christ opening things up until she has been pulled through her shame and runs with no further shame saying, “See a man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Christ?” Christ was mercurial enough that if you tried to catch Christ the Word in some trap of words, you always, always lose. And, perhaps, it is an exegesis of Christ that Orthodoxy has what are called holy fools. But the use of the cleansing of the Temple gives a sense that the text has been conscripted to fit the Trickster archetype. (For that matter, the story of Buddha has his father trying very hard to ensure that he would be a political leader, and he chose instead to go on a quest and found a religion. Perhaps in the cornucopia of Mahayana Buddhism we have Zen masters who may use trickery to teach, but I do not see that Buddha was being a Trickster to choose a divergent career path from what his father wanted.)

And I was trying to think of a good way to present a companion aspect, and I’m not sure I’ve found one. When I was in middle school, one Social Studies question was, if we had lived in the 19th century, we would have braved the hardships to settle the West. And I, little schoolboy that I was, said that the question was irrelevant because the West was already settled by people who had a right not to be killed. My teacher didn’t like that and tried to push me to answer the question on the terms that it was posed, and none of my classmates said anything like that. But to Native Americans, apart from Guns, Germs, and Steel concerns about Europeans carrying diseases Native America had no defenses for, how should Christianity be seen? It was the religion of white Americans who disregarded as basic interests among the Native Americans as life and not being subjected to needless and major suffering, and so it is not a surprise that my brother, a historical re-enactor, talked about one re-enacting group who re-enacted a first contact between white and Native American and who were explicitly Christian, calling themselves The King’s Regiment or the like, and were distinguished for all other re-enactors in that they did not engage in native American spirituality which was understandably laced with something anti-Christian.

Nothing I have listened or read from the nature connection movement is explicitly or directly anti-Christian. Critique may be implied in assertions that reject Christian practice, however nothing I have seen appears to be there for the purpose of facilitating attack on Christianity. However, nature connection is largely grounded in Native American figures, and even if nature connection is mostly secularized, people who dig into nature connection roots beyond nature connection will sooner or sooner run into this. We have, perhaps well outside of Native American culture, seen T-shirts saying:

Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.

But there is something profoundly important besides the humor. As I explained it to a friend at church, if we dug into the Book of Grudges we could probably find that far enough back, his ancestors did nasty things to my ancestors, and far enough back my ancestors did nasty things to his ancestors, but the only things he had needed to forgive me were things I had done personally. That’s not how all cultures work, and that’s not how most or all of the Native American cultures work. The Problem, as seen in Native American cultures, is not just that reservations have 35% unemployment. The Problem is that living conditions in today’s reservations are one link in a continuous chain of maltreatment that is the same thing as the Indian Removal Act and every other form of terrorism since 1492.

I don’t blame Native Americans for this. And I’d be very wary of claiming a teachable moment to impress on these people that Eastern Orthodoxy is not the Christianity of the settlers and it is the #1 religion among indigenous peoples in Alaska, and that my archbishop’s patron saint is one of the patron saints of our land, an Aleut martyr killed by the Jesuits. (N.B. I know a man whose academic career was ended by today’s Jesuits in a singularly unfortunate fashion.) But there are elements in Native American nature connection that conflict with Christianity, and others who dabble in Native American spirituality may dabble in something anti-Christian.

I might also point out that I have looked through wildernessawareness.org and 8shields.org and none of the bios I found let me discern a self-identified Christian of any stripe. I expect that at least a few of the members self-identify as Christian, but if nature connection is just for human beings, and you’re not trying to call people out of Christianity, not having Christians represented is kind of a gap.

A body without a head

The nature connection movement does much of the job of a religion: it does the work of peacemaking without invoking the Price of Peace, its practitioners engage in culture repair without exploring the cultic element of worship, and more broadly it treats what it means to be human without addressing created man as made in the image of God. Possibly there is a failure of complete secularity in pursuing “sacred fires;” I am not completely sure I understand what the word “sacred” means but it is culturally important and best started with a bowdrill or other ancient means. However, I find it difficult to construe the term “sacred fires” as it is used while neutering the term “sacred” to mean something secular.

I might comment in regards to secularity: secularity didn’t arise in Western history because of atheists crying for the Church’s blood; it arose when Western Christianity fragmented and each community treated others as infidel. It arose out of really nasty religious wars as a voice saying, “Can’t we all just get along?” and I call the nature connection movement “secular” as a recognition that it is intended to be appropriate to everyone. I have yet to detect a derisive word from a nature connection leader towards any religious community or tradition. However, this choice of common ground has an anemic dimension, something to do some of the work of a religion, but in a secular way, which psychology does on a larger scale. Orthodox would see this as a body needing a head, and wonderfully animated if we receive it.

Closing words

The final critique I would give, with a challenge, is this: nature connection, as it is pursued, is a body without a head that only becomes richer and deeper if it has a head. I would challenge you to read my book The Best of Jonathan’s Corner, or for a better text, take a rebel author who works in caricatures, who decries Western music and blared Wagner’s opera (“Wagner,” as in, “Wagner’s opera is not as bad as it sounds”), and wrote, The Rape of Man and Nature, and see rebellion against all things Western done right!

Furthermore, these words are not meant to dismiss nature connection in either sense. They are written to family, not meant as taking no prisoners. Much of what is delivered in Native Eyes is an approach to core routines, and core routines are about equally foundational to Orthodoxy. It’s nice to see discussion of engaging in core routines. And it’s nice to see agape or love (or as nature connection has called it, “connection”) in reference to nature. A Christian could summarize ethics as saying we should love God with our whole being, love our neighbor as ourselves, and love nature as our kingdom. Furthermore, if you read closely, you may see that I don’t find any critique of nature connection in the broader and more generic sense. I may question Coyote as totem, and I would gently note that my brother with the “What Would Loki Do?” T-shirt says for that trickster that the line between “Ha ha, fooled you!” and “Ha ha, killed you!” is a remarkably fine line. But I do not see a trickster edge as necessary for nature connection in the first, broader sense. Certainly it is not a necessity for nature connection in Orthodox monasticism, where animals cease being afraid of monks and cease to harm them.

Furthermore, the perceptive reader may note that none of my critique really affects nature connection in the broader sense. Historically, it is a rule in ethics that you don’t forbid what isn’t happening. The New Testament was written in an agrarian society where a large amount of nature connection was assumed. A parable takes its literal sense from a Sower sowing seed; Christ says that he is the Vine and his Father is the Vinedresser, and perhaps no one felt a need to explain something a friend pointed out, that you have to love a vine to prune it well. There were some moral failures common to ancient times and our own; the older Ten Commandments remain relevant. But the fact that the New Testament never condemns disengaging from awareness with nature in favor of an inanimate thing: this does not necessarily prove that the New Testament authors would make such condemnations if faced by today’s issues, but it also doesn’t make silence mean that there is no nature connection implied in the New Testament. The evidence concerning “nature deficit disorder” suggests to the person interested in ascesis that the harm caused by a lack of engagement with nature is a failure with a moral dimension. Furthermore, as has been pointed out, “Silence does not equal contempt.” In the Christian tradition, you have homilies for some religious feast which never mention the occasion for the feast. And this is true for questions that had been explicitly raised and addressed.

The human race is built on a hunter-gatherer chassis. The human race is built on a hunter-gatherer chassis, and we ignore this to our peril. The core insight to the Paleo diet is that the human organism works best on the kind of foods available to a hunter-gatherer, even if it takes extra effort to eat that way instead of MacDonald’s and Cheetos, and also that it is highly desirable to approximate hunter-gatherer exercise. The nature connection movement says that we need more than food and exercise, and as much as doctors may prescribe vitamin D for people who don’t get enough sunlight to synthesize the vitamin the natural way, we need to take added effort to consume vitamin N, Nature, even or especially if it takes going out of our way. There may be a Standard Social Sciences Model which asserts that human nature is infinitely malleable, but it is not, and we can still be biologically alive while living in a way that humans aren’t made to function.

There is an insistence among some that “Biology is not destiny.” Maybe, but biology is destiny to those heedless of the chassis we are running on. The less than ten thousand years of civilization (without which written history is possible) represent an eyeblink next to the four hundred thousand years we’ve had Homo sapiens sapiens and perhaps two million of some form of humans: written history represents less than 2% of the time we have existed as humans, with no significant evolution represented. Freedom, such as is available, recognized is as hunter-gatherers. And this may be a point where the nature connection movement deeply informs the conversation.

The nature connection movement is a voice worth listening to, and I hope these words can help it contribute to the conversation.

Epilogue, written some time later

I have backed away from the nature connection movement.

The core reason why, besides noting whether I have business in the tradition’s core routines, is that when I listened to Seeing Through Native Eyes and read much of Coyote’s Guide to Nature Connection, it seemed like as a whole the offering made sense, but at each particular point along the way I held my nose about the particular part I was reading.

That kind of squeamishness is something I don’t consider wisely ignored.

The Surprising Rationality of the Lie

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When I was at a friend’s wedding, his father mentioned a surprisingly sick story about a boy whose older brother committed suicide, and for Christmas the boy was given a gun as a gift: more specifically, his older brother’s suicide weapon. (I should clarify that my friend’s father was not being sick; his conversation with me on the topic was entirely appropriate…)

In the book he mentioned, Scott Peck’s People of the Lie talks about a personality profile that was characterized by narcissism and several other warped things; surprisingly, at least to me, the single defect the author chose to crystallize what was wrong was that they were characterized by lies. We tend to think of lies today as not the most serious evil, perhaps using an idiom like “not the end of the world.” Peck meant something very serious by characterizing these patients as “people of the lie.”

In one statement that the author does not unpack (probably more because he did not want to slow the text down rather than a failure to understand what was going on), the boy’s mother said, with what I would call narrower entailment than implicature, “Most sixteen year old boys would have given their eyeteeth to have a gun!” This statement is, of course, in an almost literal sense true, in that literally speaking, most sixteen year old boys would be delighted to receive a gun for Christmas. However, it was in a deeper sense false and a lie in that it idiomatically conveys that it was reasonable under the circumstances to believe in good faith that this sixteen year old boy would have been delighted to receive that gun as his Christmas gift. (Interested parties may read me unpack an “emotional plea” with discussion of entailment and implicature in a dissertation.) Such lies, once analyzed, shed light on what is sick in the discussion. An (almost) literally true statement here conveys a lie; the “almost” does not specifically amount to deception but using a metaphor that does not lie, about giving one’s “eyeteeth.” Elsewhere the author complains about a half-truth that conveys a lie. Here I would say that no matter how literally true a statement is, lying is in the author’s mind deeply, deeply characteristic of what has gone wrong.

My specific reason for bringing Scott Peck and People of the Lie has to do with something else, the surprising rationality of the lie. In his book, and in my own life, I might accuse people of lying, but I cannot interpret their behavior as clumsy, random, or unthinking. Scott Peck complains about the “cheapness, laziness, and insensitivity” of making the gun the boy’s Christmas gift. I would speak differently, and here please do not accuse me of speaking against the spirit of Peck’s book, even if I attempt “change from within” (as C.S. Lewis uses the term in The Abolition of Man).

The choice of gift was the result of the parents’ solution to an optimization problem, of what under the circumstances would best advance their campaign. It might have been horrifyingly insensitive to buy him a new, bigger and better gun, but the gun they gave really leaves no doubt. If they had seen an opportunity to make the gift sicker by gluing camouflaged razor blades to the outside of the gun so he would (in a literal sense) cut his hands when he innocently picked the gun up, they would have done so. This was no mere case of giving an ashtray to someone who doesn’t smoke. They could have given him, without thinking, a used Barbie doll from a garage style or a new book in a language he doesn’t read. Or, for that matter, shaved his head and given him a set of combs. A gun, or more specifically this gun, does something else exquisitely well. It says, “Your turn.”

Behavior that seems thoughtless or irrational, from people of the lie, is usually nothing of the sort, perhaps because we assume rationality is a rationality of good faith. So that gun is seen as an astonishingly bad failure in an attempt to give an appropriate Christmas present: cheap, lazy, and insensitive. It is in fact nothing of the sort. Much seemingly irrational behavior is in fact perfectly rational in an attempted solution to the problem of finding a seemingly socially appropriate way to pursue socially inappropriate goals. Behavior may be rational and sick, or rational and treacherous, or rational and warped. But offensive behavior, in a People of the Lie context, even or especially when it seems puzzlingly irrational, is usually rational in the pursuit of a wrong goal. I do not find the young woman’s behavior mystifying, who behaved in seemingly inexplicable ways in receiving therapy. She had plenty of IQ and her behavior makes perfect sense as amusing herself by toying with, mystifying, and frustrating a psychiatrist. Her behavior seems irrational on the assumption that she was approaching a psychiatrist with the goal of bettering herself by receiving real psychotherapy. Once we discard the assumption of good faith seeking psychotherapy, all of her making the psychiatrist sexually uncomfortable (for instance) makes perfect sense as a very intelligent person rationally pursuing an inappropriate goal. (Possibly, though I remember no direct evidence of this, in her mind, she was killing two birds with one stone and getting even, after one or more people insisted she get treatment.)

Elsewhere, if I am recalling the book correctly (I may be conflating two stories), the author complains about professional parents whose line of work required empathy were surprisingly unempathetic in dealing with their children, and appeared to comment that it’s almost as if their goal was to break their son’s spirit, but despite the allegation the author does not take seriously this possible goal. I submit that this guess is right on the money. At one point, their son worked with disabled people and was awarded a trip to a conference which his parents confiscated on the assertion that his room was not clean. The author commented that he would be worried if a son of his age didn’t have a somewhat messy room, and appeared to believe that they believe that confiscating such an award was genuinely proportionate discipline for a messy room. I submit that they found a seemingly socially appropriate way to implement socially inappropriate behavior, and they confiscated the trip and honor because it was a seemingly, or at least arguably, socially appropriate way to break his spirit on terms that even the author of People of the Lie would not equate with a naked and obvious effort to break their son’s spirit.

What this means for the profoundly gifted, or many who are gifted but happen not to be at that echelon, is this. “Confucius say that elevator smell different to dwarf.” Maybe, but Confucius should also say eight foot tall elevator feel different to nine or ten foot tall intellectual giant. In cases where he was treating a child of “people of the lie,” the author usually found the child much less sick, and more of a victim, than parents guilty of aggression. (He talked about the “identified patient,” meaning that in a dysfunctional situation the person labelled as a psychiatric patient may well be the least in need of psychiatric treatment.) Furthermore, as I explored in The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab, meeting someone who is by far the most brilliant person that someone has ever met brings out some insecurities in people. Most of the parents he discusses succeeded in social situations where success requires some genuine sensitivity. The author wonders and is mystified that they didn’t apply their well-developed sensitivity to dealing with their child. I submit that they were perfectly sensitive, but applied their sensitivity in the service of a warped goal.

If you are dealing with a People of the Lie situation, a couple of things. First of all, it may defuse some frustration to move from believing “They are trying to behave in a socially appropriate way but doing a mystifying and painfully bad way of doing it (and reasoning with them doesn’t work),” to “They are rationally pursuing inappropriate behavior in a way they are presenting as socially appropriate (and the results of reasoning with them are inline with this.” It defuses some of “They are being painfully irrational and defy attempts at being rational.” And if what they want is to get your goat, standard psychological advice may apply. Second, it is more effective to work with people on grounds of their actual motivation than a motivation falsely presented. Not a panacea, but it is surely not a panacea to tell people who want to get your goat, in perfectly good faith, “You are hurting me.”

I submit that being willing to consider the possibility of encountering the rational behavior of “people of the lie” can be part of a constructive exercise of Theory of Alien Minds.

Everyday Carry

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A wooden-handled pocketknife with two blades.

My first main Christmas gift that I can remember asking for what I wanted was “a Swiss Army Knife,” by which I meant both the specific brand, and an abundance of features. My Mom found something in the same vein but a whole lot cheaper, a recurring theme, and got me a non-Swiss-Army-Knife pocketknife with a wooden handle and two blades, and I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself I was not bitterly disappointed.

A Woodsman Swiss Army Knife.

The first real Swiss Army Knife I got was a Woodsman, the smallest knife I found that had a scissors. I carried this for a long time until, returning from England, I purchased a Champion and then SwissChamp:

A SwissChamp Swiss Army Knife.

And finally for knives I actually carried, a SwissChamp XLT, which has all the electronic bits of a CyberTool:

A SwissChamp XLT Swiss Army Knife.

But that was around when workplaces started to not allow pocketknives, and even more significantly a new law was passed in Illinois making it easy to post a sticker in a public building saying that weapons were not allowed inside, and all knives, including pocketknives, were now classified as weapons. I began to look at multitools intended to be openly taken through airport security as not being weapons. I started to instead carry a Leatherman Traveler:

A Leatherman Traveler

I’ve had several of these things, and the scissors simply don’t stand up to cutting my fingernails. I purchased a few of these, and Leatherman has a good guarantee but none of them lasted. And I might point out that I never needed to replace a Swiss Army Knife because it broke or wore out. I have heard of these things happening, but I have only ever replaced a Swiss Army Knife to buy more functionality.

I had a fairly long life with a Gerber Dime Travel multitool which is no longer listed on Amazon or Gerber’s site. When it broke, I sent it in for repairs and it was replaced by a bladed Dime multitool, which defeats the purpose.

A Gerber MP600 Bladeless multi-plier.

Most recently, I found a Gerber MP-600 Bladeless (please note that there is also a regular MP-600 tool which comes with blades, so if you order one, be careful to order the specific one you want). It’s a large enough multitool that I would put it in my checked luggage if I took it flying as some of its tools exceed two inches in length, and all the multitools I’ve seen intended to be taken through carry-on airport security limit themselves to tools two inches or less. None the less, it is explicitly designed to be a useful multitool that complies with “no knife” policies. It’s the best of the sort that I’ve found.

Other items I carry are more standard: a smartphone (I paid more to specifically have a larger screen), a smartwatch or outdoorsman’s Casio Pathfinder that was top-of-the-line when I got it and includes a compass which I found very useful, and my wallet.

So what?

There are occasions where it is helpful to have a screwdriver or two available, but what I carry everyday is not “every-day carry” as the concept is understood by people who speak of EDC. As a child or youth, I was frequently tinkering and I made heavy use of my Swiss Army Knife. However, it is not what is practical for most emergencies. I don’t have the obvious everyday carry of maintenance medications for at least a day. I’m looking at putting sandwich bags with morning and evening doses in my glove compartment, but I don’t carry much added carry for everyday emergencies. A lot of every-day carry needs are supplied by a smartphone, which can call 911 or contacts for immediate physical emergencies or less urgent emergencies.

Is there anything we’ve left out?

An icon of Christ Pantocrator.

Yes: Christ and the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ said,

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.

I remember a conversation where my rhetoric was as unclean as it has been, with a man who purchased and trained with a gun to protect his family, and explained that if someone broke in to his home to do harm, he would kill the intruder first and take it to confession second. And I pointed out other more practical measures than a gun to take, such things as motion-activated lights, or a home security system, or psychological measures that would make thieves want to go break into someplace less threatening (a fresh note posted on the door about pet scorpions and pet rattlesnakes getting loose again is terrifying to a thief). But his sense of responsibility began and ended with owning a gun, and he did not show interest in any non-firearm resources to prevent thugs from doing harm.

However, there is a same basic principle that applies, whether you take no survivalist measures, or get a gun, or get lights and a home security system, or get both lights and a home security system: we can never have complete control. That is not available, not in this life, and the same applies if you have insurance for that matter. We will never be in control, and the good news is that we don’t need it. Christ is, and the more we can meet him, the more we prepare ourselves to enjoy the ride.

And this is an invitation to adventure. Ready to roll?

Theory of Evolution Tries to Be More Like Superstring Theory, Dismantles Own Falsifiability

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Superstring physics has abdicated from the throne of emperical science by making predictions so close to prior theory that no one has proposed any idea on any resources we could conceivably get to experimentally test superstring theory against predictions made by its predecessors, but that has not stopped the self-identified science community to place superstring theory on a higher pedestal than any empirical form of science. Now neo-Darwinian evolution has upstaged superstring theory going far beyond it in unfalsifiability.

A philosopher of science explains.

“Karl Popper contributed a landmark concept in the philosophy of science when, observing that adherents of non-scientific theories kept finding fresh proofs of their claims. Popper proposed that quite an opposite principle was the mark of a scientific theory is in fact its falsifiability. The essential concept is that empirical science should make claims whose falsifiability would contradict or hurt the theory. And not all such claims are created equal. The more surprising and unexpected prediction the theory makes and is vindicated by experiment, the better the theory is corroborated, is worthy of serious attention.

“Popper used Marxism as a textbook example of unfalsifiable, meaning non-scientific claims. Marxism originally made testable claims, and those claims turned out to be substantially false. Then Marxists modified their theory so as to make it unfalsifiable. In Popper’s suggestion, this marks a transition from a falsified scientific theory to a theory that was no longer science.”

Our reporter asked, “Does any of this relate to origins questions?”

“Yes,” we were told, “and word on the street that Popper chose Marxism over evolution as an unfalsifiable theory because, understandably, he did not want to be called a Creationist and be fighting a battle on two fronts, seeing that one does not want to be called a Creationist. But now, even evolutionary apologists recognize that when their opponents apply statistics to what, statistically, is asserted by the claim that a breeding pool has acquired and sustained a chain of beneficial mutations and turned into a new life form in a geological heartbeat, evolution has gotten the short end of the stick. The response on the part of evolutionists has been both simple and drastic: point out that some interesting statistics are inaccessible, simply inaccessible on information we have access to, and then amputate all statistical argument at the neck, and refuse to accept statistical critique of evolution at all, thus marking a transition from a falsifiable scientific theory to an unfalsifiable formerly scientific theory.”

Our reporter said, “That’s kind of throwing out the baby with the bath water, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” we were told, “it’s throwing out the baby, the bathwater, and for that matter the whole tub, all for a weak excuse. Mary Midgley said, ‘A disturbance followed when it was noticed that [scientists] had left the whole of evolutionary theory outside in the unscientific badlands as well. But special arrangements were made to pull it in without compromising the principle.’ That was then, this is now. Evolutionary apologists have simply cauterized a line of critique, with little explanation beyond that the unwashed masses get arguments about lottery tickets, and demanded that its opponents stop making a straightforward analysis of what kind of statistical ceiling can be placed on a bunch of things that, on an evolutionary accounts, happened at random and almost all at once. Superstring happens to be an awesome theory that people like that has an unfalsifiable character in. Evolution was made an ex-scientific theory simply by forbidding its opponents a straightforward line of critique.

C.S. Lewis eulogized evolution as a great myth which in principle could not be true.

“Perhaps today we can sing a dirge for the great formerly scientific theory of evolution.”

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Examples of “Forms of Life”

Cover for The Luddite's Guide to Technology

Common sense physics

There was one point where I was conversing with a former thesis advisor, and he asked if I made “allowance for greater ignorance in the past.” My reply was that I did not make allowance for greater ignorance in the past, but that allowances for different ignorance in the past were more negotiable.

The criteria that he seemed to be using was that of people thinking more scientifically; he had a significant scientific background, as I did, and an example he gave was of understanding of Biblical language of the moon turning to blood in terms of conditions of the earth eclipsing the moon that make the moon look red like blood every once in a blue moon. He also talked about how someone not conceptually familiar with nuclear weapons could over-literally interpret language of nuclear weapons “flattening cities” as mistakenly believing that the rubble from buildings left over after an explosion would be smoothly flat; or mistakenly interpret “mushroom clouds” as something one could reasonably extrapolate from inspection of mushrooms.

If his contention is that we think more scientifically, and that this includes less scientific members of society and not just those with good scientific credentials, I agree. A common (or at least understandable) interpretation for a student in the sciences learning some degree of physics might be as quoted from the Linux fortunes:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” — and all was light.
It did not last: the devil, shouting “Ho.
Let Einstein be,” restored the status quo.

The perception may be that Newtonian physics is mathematically speaking the physics of common sense, by contrast to subsequent relativity, quantum physics, and superstring theory, diverge from our common sense. Certainly they are more slippery and don’t just make sense the same way Newton does to an able student with good mathematical gifts, but I would turn things around and say that our version of “common sense” is in part a non-mathematical paraphrase of Newtonian physics. Newtonian physics is easier for inductees, whether or not they aspire to superstring theories; for most common applications the difference between Newton on the one hand and relativity or quantum mechanics on the other, is beyond negligible compared to the other sources of inaccuracy. Mechanical engineers use Newtonian physics for most purposes, even if they consider later theories a closer fit. To us, part of common sense is a non-mathematical paraphrase of Newtonian physics.

Something like this played out in the history of mathematics. Euclidean geometry, one of the original branches of mathematics, had both “axioms” and “postulates.” Today, in a fashion worthy of postmodernism, there is no real distinction between axioms and postulates; the basic idea is that if you are going to do Euclidean geometry you work with how that geometry is framed, and if you want to do some other kind of mathematics, you follow the non-negotiables of that other area of math. However, in Euclid’s formulation, “axiom” and “postulate” had palpably different meanings. Axioms were things that were self-evidently true and not subject to question, while postulates had more the sense of a well-tested educated guess that was used at least for the time being.

Of Euclid’s postulates, one that has received a historically disproportionate attention was the so-called “parallel postulate”, which states that given a line in a plane and a point not on that line, exactly one line passing through that point will be parallel to that line. The first couple dozen or so of Euclid’s theorems do not use the parallel postulate, and two of the more obvious alternatives that people explored were comparable to the geometry of the surface of a sphere (with “line” still being the shortest distance between two points), and a hard-to-visualize space where every point was like the center of a saddle. This latter was worked out in consistent detail by a geometer who is historically respected, Lobachevsky, who worked out the consequences of that alternative to Euclid’s parallel postulate and then published Euclid Freed of Every Flaw, on the thought that the consequences he worked out were so bizarre that Euclid’s parallel postulate had to be vindicated.

And something similar to what I have asserted of Newtonian physics is true of Euclidean geometry. To us, part of common sense is a non-mathematical paraphrase of Euclidean geometry. It is the closest geometry I know to our common sense, and people trying to prove the parallel postulate (perhaps by showing its denial to have absurd implications) were defending a geometry of common sense. Mathematics today may have an attitude of “If you want to play a game of chess, play by the rules of chess; if you want to play a game of go, play by the rules of go,” but the efforts to prove the parallel postulate were in significant (psychological) measure a defense of common sense.

But the idea of geometry as common-sense was perhaps furthest from Euclid’s mind. Euclidean geometry, to the spiritual community that formed it, had something of the character of a religious movement only meant for the elite. It was meant to be an abstract and slippery mental discipline, something that the unwashed masses would be able to grasp.

If this sounds odd, or you’re looking for concrete support, I would point out that the human visual surface is not a Euclidean plane, but curved, partially like a sphere. We humans have never seen a Euclidean visual space, but only a curved geometry close to “surface of a sphere” geometry. In my low-level undergraduate philosophy class, the TA was making the point that we do not always see right angles as right (visual) angles, and stood up on the table and said that only there, standing in the middle of the tables, could he see the table surface as having four right angles. I, pest that I was, made a point of “not even that“: I said that the human visual surface is curved, and if he were to hold an ordinary rectangular sheet of paper in front of a corner, with the paper perpendicular to his line of sight, he would see all four corners of the rectangle whose middle he was standing on as obtuse angles, wider than a right angle, and not summing to 360° as Euclidean geometry would have it for rectangles and other quadrilaterals. (If you are somewhere in the middle of a rectangular room you may be able to see much the same thing by looking at the ceiling and seeing four straight sides and wide angles at all four corners.)

A picture that makes a different compromise in rendering the human visual surface.
A picture that makes a different-from-usual compromise in rendering to the human visual surface.
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But to my knowledge the initial “parallel postulate” initiatives never met either excitement or a sigh of relief that after millenia of bondage to Euclidean flatness, we finally threw off the shackles of planar geometry that fails to accurately model the human visual surface, and have nowfound out the geometry of the human visual surface. Defense of Euclid and the parallel postulate was in full measure a patriotic defense of common sense, and Westerners who have no idea how many sides a triangle has, still retain a common sense substantially shaped by non-visual Euclidean geometry.

Forms of life

I would like to take a slippery concept from Wittgenstein, and paraphrase “form of life” as “a formative assumption so deep you can’t really bring it to mind.” Thomas Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm shift was one where at face value you could point out the dominant paradigm before and after, in that both included something that would be straightforward to take at face value. “Forms of life” do not have this merit, and the Wikipedia is singularly uninformative, telling (and unintendedly demonstrating) only one thing about them: forms of life are slippery.

In a philosophy of religion class, the postmodern professor, who would constantly say “after Wittgenstein,” was asked by one of the students to give an example of a “form of life.” He was stumped, and after a while of watching the expressions in his face, I said, “You’re trying to do something that is almost a contradiction in terms. You’re looking for something so basic it’s hard to think about, but one that students in the class will almost immediately recognize once you point it out, and you’ve mentally rejected several ideas because they’re just one or just the other.” After a bit more struggle, he said that there had been a shift from “procreation being necessary to human flourishing,” to “limiting procreation being necessary to human flourishing.” And I would take this as meeting the nearly impossible job description I outlined.

A “common sense” that is shaped by Newtonian physics, and a “common sense” that is shaped by Euclidean geometry, are examples of forms of life, and if you’ve found my explanations slippery, I’m doing the best I can but I’m not disappointed. Regarding the question of how else something can be, spaces need not be seen as individual parts fitting on one and the same absolute grid. Madeleine l’Engle comments in wonder, possibly in Walking on Water, about a Western medieval icon that showed two saints from different centuries together. As I discuss in Lesser Icons, an icon is its own space, and the reverse perspective is actually surprisingly sophisticated compared to Western expectations. The lines look odd to a Westerner because they converge to a point behind you: you are present and included in the icon. On a secular level, you can visit in someone’s living room, without even thinking about the fact that if you were to bore a hole at a particular angle and keep on going for 463 feet, you would be in someone else’s garage. Just seeing the space is like just seeing the interacting elementary particles in a rainbow or a tree, as Owen Barfield opens his idolatrous history of idolatry.

I once jokingly advised a friend, who was seeing embarrassingly confused questions about basic (Newtonian) physics, that he should answer questions out of Aristotle’s Physics, but in fact Aristotle’s physics makes sense, on a level appropriate to Aristotle, in everyday interactions. If you don’t push a book that’s resting on a table, then push it so that it moves, then stop and it stops moving, Aristotelian and Newtonian physics can both explain this, but the Newtonian explanation has a good deal more levers and pulleys involved before it can explain what we see. The Aristotelian explanation is far simpler, and simplicity is a virtue recognized by science, where Ockam’s Razor is embraced and simple explanations are preferred to complex. I do not say that Aristotelian physics is as good as Newtonian physics for predicting the results of a series of high school physics experiments, but Aristotelian physics is a sort of thing that works like common sense. If we today have a quasi-Newtonian, and non-Aristotelian, “common sense physics”, that is a testimony to how a form of life can change, or how parts of our common sense are actually rather surprising things to find in a culture’s “common sense.”

Another form of life issue, where again our “common sense” is profoundly shaped by the attitudes of nascent science that continue to be formative today, is found in C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, on a point I quote him in The Magician’s Triplet: Magician, Scientist, Reformer:

“No. I had thought of that. Merlin is the reverse of Belbury. He’s at the opposite extreme. He is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something to be dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases. Finally, come the Belbury people who take over that view from the modern man unaltered and simply want to increase their powers by tacking on the aid of spirits—extra-natural, anti-natural spirits. Of course they hoped to have it both ways. They thought the old magia of Merlin which worked with the spiritual qualities of Nature, loving and reverencing them and knowing them from within, could be combined with the new goetia—the brutal surgery from without. No. In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way. Do you know that he is forbidden by the rules of order to use any edged tool on any growing thing?”

What is here posited of Merlin is something the Orthodox Church has, in common with much of the natural law. It is very easy to relate to Nature as a machine. Even the environmentalist claim amounts to something like “Don’t crash the biosphere!” Environmentalists, as the interesting non-exception, want the human race to stop pulling the biosphere to bits. However, their primary vehicle for understanding the environment: science, and more specifically biology, and if they want to stop a particular problematic change from happening, they will (manipulate statistics and) warn about falling dominoes. Now environmentalism may be associated with New Age mysticism; however, at least from my upperclassmen-level environmental science, the view was mechanistic, with the occasional verse of a Psalm about how wonderful the natural world is. By and large, the assertion was that the biosphere has various complex interlocking systems, and it can be destroyed by (in one image endorsed in a video in my class) “throwing parts out of a car without knowing if you need them.” I don’t want to dictate to environmentalists whether or how they should proceed, but I will say that among those in at least tenuous contact with scientific ideas, the rebuttal to “We can take Nature to bits if it won’t work the way we please,” is “We can take Nature to bits and destroy a world where the human race can survive.” It’s not a reversal of the mechanical principle; it’s just a reversal of the retained moral principle.

What I would most immediately say of the Orthodox Church is that she does not have Reformers, at least among the saints. As I explore in The Magician’s Triplet: Magician, Scientist, Reformer, the figure of the Renaissance magus, the ancestor to political ideology as we know it, saw society as a despicable raw material which it was his place to improve. The Reformer follows in the magician’s footsteps and in a slightly tighter focus sees the society of the Church as a despicable raw material which was his place to improve. Orthodoxy does not natively have a concept of “raw material,” and if it is imported, its domain does not apply to the bride of Christ. Orthodoxy is far enough from the triplet of magician, scientist, and reformer not to even venture into the realm of systematic theology, a venture which both Western Catholics and Protestants pursued, even if the Reformers had an earful to say of the specific theology represented by scholasticism. I do not say that no Orthodox saint had a scientific worldview, even apart from worldview being a foreign concept to Orthodox which in better moments Western converts are discouraged from pursuing. However, I do say that Orthodox mystical theology is not a fertile ground for scientific outlooks.

When I was at Wheaton, I bristled when students in chapel spoke of “head knowledge” and “heart knowledge”, “knowledge about” and “knowledge of.” However, part of my conversion involved me recognizing that they were right. In Orthodoxy, the seat of knowledge is in the nous or νους, which could be called “the spiritual eye” (please note that this is my attempt at an appropriate term and not endorsed by the Orthodox Church). The dianoia or διανοια or “discursive reason,” which one uses for logic, exists and has a place, but (as I intruded on one conversation) the spiritual eye is the sun and the discursive reason is the moon. A standard churchman’s claim about academic theology is, like much of academia “hypertrophied [i.e. overgrown] dianoia, darkened nous.” This is part of why Orthodoxy is even further from heavy scientific influences in worldview, more like what C.S. Lewis’s Merlin represents than Merlin himself. Orthodox do far better than magic in working with spiritual and visible Creation.

Another rift surrounds the archetypes of the saint and the activist. It is said in Orthodoxy, “Make peace with yourself and ten thousand around you will be saved.” The activist model is to some degree the air most people breathe today, a desire to change the world. I discuss this, and Orthodoxy’s rejection of the modification, in Farewell to Gandhi: The Saint and the Activist, which contains a deeper discussion than I would see here. I would say that if a desire to better the world naturally translates to some program, you would do well to be mindful of how G.K. Chesterton won a newspaper’s essay contest. The question for the contest was, “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton answered with the shortest letter to the editor in that newspaper’s history: “Sir, I am.” Here I would note a difference in forms of life that is profound, and to someone steeped in a standard amount of activist outlook, the older position can be very difficult to understand. (I might comment that my advisor was involved enough to be a plenary speaker for Christians for Biblical Equality; I do not wish to address what is right or wrong about that organization and its positions, but simply note that his approach to making a difference was partly activist in character. Or maybe it was wholly activist and he was simply showing me his institution’s hard-earned hospitality in dealing with people whose opinions one does not completely share.)

And the saint and activist archetypes are very tellingly shown in one moment at the same university as the previous moment I discuss for forms of life. In the saint archetype, care for the poor is very important: a saying that has tumbled down the ages is, “Feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead!” Furthermore, giving to the poor is under the saint’s archetypal umbrella of ascesis or spiritual discipline, alongside fasting, prayer, church attendance, and so on. Fasting is important, a point which is assumed when people say that fasting only benefits yourself while feeding the hungry benefits others as well as yourself. Meanwhile, the governing assumption of the activist is one of big government, with an unspoken thesis of, “The more important something is, and the more essential that it be done right, the more important it is that it be handled by government programs.”

One textbook for a class on social ethics quoted an Church Father’s exhortation to give to the poor as, without stated justification or defense, the saint giving full warrant to move care for the poor from under the heading of ascesis or spiritual discipline, to the heading of what a statist bureaucracy should be charged with.

I objected, but others did not engage with my objection. Possibly they were not conscious of the saint archetype except as a primitive, confused, and less refined precursor to what is handled much better by the activist model, and possibly they did not so much see my objection and dismiss it, so much as fail to see what my objection was in the first place.

Also in that paradigm I finally spoke up after hearing how nice it would be if we lived in such-and-such prior historical setting and didn’t need clothes. I commented there about something of the form of life that has people be in modern buildings much of the time, so (before telecommuting) certain kinds of work were handled from an office building. In terms of biological origins, the human race has for most of its time lived in the stimulating environment of dense forest, where the human body was one of many things presented to the senses. Today it is relatively easy to find out that among birding enthusiasts, people will detect birds much more quickly, and classify the birds they see with much greater and finer sophistication, than people who have no such outdoor hobby. Among people who grew up in a stimulating outdoor environment will see the whole thing with birding-like eyes. Offices, as discussed in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, are (comparably speaking) sensory deprivation chambers: no winds disturb stacks of paper, nor do birds flit around. The one remaining remnant of a stimulating natural environment is the human body, and this makes offices too often a sexual hotspot: the modestly clothed human body in such a sensory deprivation chamber is actually much more exciting than a totally nude body in a whole, active natural environment, particularly if the latter is what you’ve grown up with. And I commented that prolonged time in mixed company is much more significant than nudity, a point which my teacher quickly corrected to mean that one-on-one time in mixed company was more significant than nudity. But I neither said, nor meant, “one-on-one” alone. That was a retcon, and she knew it.

Examples could with some effort be multiplied, and we are going through a shift today from physical to virtual. From the side that is winning, being plugged in is much better than being isolated; from the side that is dying off it is noted with concern that plugged-in young folk are failing to develop traditional social skills. When the dust has settled on this one it may be difficult to see what could have possibly made life genuinely worth it in times when plugging in wasn’t even an option.

Possibly all or almost all successful social movements, once the desired goal becomes the new status quo, involve a change in forms of life that are all but invisible and unintelligible from the victor’s side.

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Why We Should Believe in Hell

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

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

Doctrine of God

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

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

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

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

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

The odd rabbi out said, “So?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recognizing an exception as an exception

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

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

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

God the Spiritual Father

In God the Spiritual Father, I wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suffering for others

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

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

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

I used to find the close of the Beatitudes sung during the Divine Liturgy hard to accept as real: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” I found it hard to rejoice at verbal abuse.

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

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

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

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

Microaggression, Bullies, and Microkindnesses

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Microaggression

Those of you who know the Wheaton community will know that Rodney Sisco, the Director of Multicultural Development at Wheaton College, was lost to cancer well before retirement age. He was a big person for racial diversity, a big person in the sense of being a moral giant, and a big person who left literal and figurative size 17EEE boots to fill.

I hope people will not find this comparison excessive or scandalous, but one of the comments C.S. Lewis made was that people object to the idea of God dealing with hundreds of millions of people praying all at once was based on a misconception of an eternal God, and an eternal God has just as much attention for you as if you were the only person that existed. Rodney may not have been able to pay attention to millions of people at once, but I have interacted with him at length, as have many others, and he really did treat you, whoever you might or might not be, whites included, as if you were the only other person God created. Again, he left huge Size 17EEE boots to fill.

There was recently a ceremony honoring him, with an open mic at an event streamed to Sisco family members, for people to tell their “Rodney stories.” I told a story, but even among the white minority at the microphones I did not try overall to challenge the standard framing of U.S. race relations, but instead talked about a time when Rodney took a moment I dropped off a gift to extend a full hospitable visit, and although his wife was not there, his sons also met me with great hospitality. (I did not think to say, in full candor, that they made me feel like family.) One of the sons had expressed considerable interest in being an author, and I said for him that I had given one of my books in the care of a Student Development employee to deliver to Rodney’s immediate family and especially the interested son. And this might be technically called “race relations” in the sense of three black males and one white male interacting peaceably and quite amicably and enjoyably, and Rodney seeing a side of me that he hadn’t seen before in that I related as a loving elder to his children, lovingly and fatherly (something that is part of my social behavior but had never come up in my relating to him as one of my own quite loving elders), but it did not fit the framing of interracial relations as the narrative normally flows in America today.

But the whole tone and tenor was dictated with how classic diversity and race relationships are understood, and I would like to take one example of what went on that unnerved me.

There was one young woman who spoke of a “microaggression” with great hurt, and explained how someone who “happened to be a white male” dismissed an idea that she found important that cut her from the heart.

She talked about how she was physically small (I had not noticed until it was pointed out, and admittedly I am significantly taller than her, but she was still something like a foot taller than Christ), “brown” (I had mistaken her for non-Hispanic white, but she clearly conveyed that she identifies as brown), and soft-spoken (me too, even if Toastmasters is changing that). I will mention that once she started speaking, I picked up on the accent of someone who knows at least two languages well.

The idea that she articulated, and was so hurt to have dismissed, was that God cannot be limited to the ideas of a particular time and place. On that point, if I had an appropriate invitation, I might have commented that St. (Pseudo-)Dionysius did a masterful job of engaging that concern, and chapter 5 closes his work The Mystical Theology:

CHAPTER FIVE
That the supreme Cause of every conceptual thing is not itself conceptual.

Again, as we climb higher we say this. It [the Divine Nature, meaning God] 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 light. It does not live 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 in which we understand that 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 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 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, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.

If someone I knew who trusted me raised that concern, that is probably what I would offer to see and raise the other person. (St. Dionysius made so much more an interesting version of de-mythologizing than Rudolf Bultmann.) And I might point out that what she put her finger on has the corollary that the God Who Is Justice is not the hostage of any human conception of justice or equity, including those that are feminist or derive from any other human political ideology or identity politics. And possibly I might suggest that this point needs to be counterbalanced by a recognition that the illimitable God is the one and the same God who became incarnate in a particular time and place, and (as Orthodox understand) continues to become incarnate in Christ’s Body, the Church, at particular times, in a particular way, in sacred history.

And as to the interlocutor who “happened to be a white male,” he might have genuinely not been seeking to slap her down because of her skin color. (I honestly mistook her for a non-Hispanic white.) Admittedly, it is not the best manners to instantly dismiss something that is close to someone else’s heart, but the behavior sounds pretty much as believable to me as something a white male would have said to another white male. Admittedly this person might not have been showing the best social skills, but there is a live possibility in my thoughts that the bloke was being dismissive of an idea as such and not of a person as such or a demographic as such. There is a very live possibility that he was, in an immature way, treating her as an equal. He might have been equally forceful and dismissive in responding to a white male saying the same things, and simply didn’t think, “Female. Short. Soft-spoken. Not a native English speaker; accent suggests brown. Therefore, I need to give a very different answer from what I would normally say to someone else.” She felt self-conscious as an outsider; it is possible that his reply was not shaped by raising the question about whether she was an outsider. Now in addition his reply was also apparently overly rambunctious, rude, and quite unfortunate, and hurt her needlessly. However, the fact that he was not walking on eggshells (apologies for the microaggression against vegans) may have been because he saw her as a fellow student and community member, and treated her like he treated his peeps and homeboys.

It may in fact not have been the case that he thought “I need to be careful in criticizing her ideas because she will think that criticisms of ideas that she values include a negative verdict about her demographic.”

As far as microaggressions go, I would (again, assuming I had an appropriate friendship to be challenging her) invite her to read The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts. That’s a medium-sized slice of the microaggressions I’ve faced in my own life, and I’ve sent five C&D letters after a repeated “No” was not being respected. Not all of the harassment is from white males; some of it is from at white females, and I honestly do not know or care what racial consituents were in the conversation with Fr. Seraphim’s admirers.

Bullies

The topic that I most strikingly remember about Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence was what it said about schoolyard bullies. The assumption I held, and that many people hold, is that bullies believe they are king of the hill and are fully entitled to engage in unprovoked aggression against other children.

What Goleman claimed at least, was that nothing of the sort was going on. Bullies by contrast believe they are victims in a hostile and malicious environment and they need to defend themselves as best they can. So when someone bumps into them in the hallway, this is no accident, but deliberate, intended, hostile, and malicious. And when a bully physically strikes hard against a person that bumps him, intending hurt, that falls entirely under the heading of the bullies’ strict self-defense and is if anything not nearly as forceful as it should be.

The training or therapy endorsed for bullying was to stop being so quick to find microaggressions. In a junior high, children are growing, their bodies are changing, and the children aren’t completely used to the changes. This makes them clumsy, enough so that a crowded junior high hallway is a place where people will bump into each other frequently. Come to think of it, I tend to bump into people when I move through a space crowded with other people, and I’m an adult (but, I am admittedly clumsy). And the unravelling of bullying comes when children stop interpreting things primarily as microaggressions, and recognize that a clumsy bump in a crowded hall is most often meaningless. (Something like this went into a bitter and geeky, “Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by gross stupidity.”) And bullies are to be taught to not be so quickly find microaggressions in a situation where boring clumsiness, lack of empathy, being distracted, and so on. Not that there is never genuine hostility, but a great deal of hurts are caused by clumsiness and other equally boo-ooring factors.

I am reminded in one book, talking about sensitivity, that a long-term employee heard a remark from an executive that affected him enough so that he thought the executive apparently wanted him to resign from the company. When he plucked up his courage to ask clarification, the surprised executive was taken aback and said that the remark he made was a throwaway remark, and he did not have the slightest desire for a truly valued employee to resign. He hadn’t been thinking about, or wanted, the employee to resign. He had just been perhaps insensitive and not aware that what are intended as transparent throwaway remarks by someone who is higher socially are not always treated as the mere throwaway remarks they are intended to be, and are considered to transparently be throwaway remarks for the person who is socially higher. (Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by gross stupidity!)

And here’s the core point that Goleman does not make: if you run the process in reverse of helping bullies not find hostility at all times and everywhere, and run it backwards, there is a standard term for this reverse process.

That reverse process is “consciousness raising.” Consciousness raising is a process of teaching people to use a pair of X-ray goggles to spot microaggressions in more and more places.

There may be room for a legitimate consciousness raising in general, for majorities to recognize that some people they consider to obviously be community insiders consider themselves to be outsiders, and for people in a position of power to recognize that what are intended to be obviously throwaway remarks and not authoritative statements, are less likely to be such. I needed to adjust in listening to this woman and recognize that she saw herself as an outsider to the Wheaton community, because while she communicated very effectively how marginalized she considered herself to be, I regarded her as an insider before she opened her mouth, or rather more an insider to the Wheaton community than I was, because she was an active student, under the Community Covenant, not to mention wearing the full regalia of Wheaton’s Gospel Choir, and I was only an alumnus coming in to visit. Admittedly this was a visit where I was entirely welcome and alumni had been explicitly invited to participate, but still, I was visiting. (Other people are welcome to disagree with this perspective.) This did not change when she opened her mouth and I heard the speech of someone who speaks two or more languages well, and communicates quite powerfully in English.

Microaggressions, and for that part larger-scale aggressions exist, but seeing things in terms of frequent microaggressions is a path to hurt and alienation.

Microkindnesses

I would like to mention two moments that I have been thanked for and been caught completely off guard, having barely registered in my mind as something I had done.

The first was to wander up to a young woman, give my name and shook her hand, and then wandered off; I believe the interaction lasted something like fifteen seconds. The other was with a young woman who had suffered the creepiest tale of sexual violence I’ve heard yet, and I deliberately related to her distantly, but told her very briefly, “I’m praying for you.”

In both cases the women came to me afterwards and gave what was clearly a five minute thank-you they had thought out. In the first case, I was the one other person of several people standing around nearby, and what had registered was that I had just acknowledged her as human, and that was something no one else had done; everybody else had treated her like furniture. In the other woman’s case, I cannot repeat details beyond saying that she was very appreciative of a gesture I would offer to almost everybody, even people who were hurting me. And in both cases it took me a minute to remember what it was that had been so striking.

Perhaps instead of, or perhaps in addition to, looking to avoid microaggressions, we should keep our eyes open to do at least just a little more microkindnesses, like acknowledging another person as human. I thought of my interaction with the first woman to be socially shallow, but I gave her my name, asked her name, and gave her the salute of a handshake, all three of which recognized her as human. The woman was right that this was in fact not a socially shallow interaction, and I had, in fact, given her something no one else of over a dozen people had offered.

In another setting at church, I had begun to offer my arm for stabilization for a white-haired senior as he stepped down for receiving communion. I had been wondering if he thought of it as unnecessary (and he could well enough have gotten by without my help). This self-questioning ended when he thanked me for something that was “so respectful.” What seemed like a very minor offering to me, and dubiously necessary to me, was to him neither a minor offering nor needless.

Let’s opt for microkindnesses, whether or not we think we are touching anyone’s life at all!