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:
But there is something profoundly important besides the humor. As I explained it to a friend at church, if we dug into the Book of Grudges we could probably find that far enough back, his ancestors did nasty things to my ancestors, and far enough back my ancestors did nasty things to his ancestors, but the only things he had needed to forgive me were things I had done personally. That’s not how all cultures work, and that’s not how most or all of the Native American cultures work. The Problem, as seen in Native American cultures, is not just that reservations have 35% unemployment. The Problem is that living conditions in today’s reservations are one link in a continuous chain of maltreatment that is the same thing as the Indian Removal Act and every other form of terrorism since 1492.
I don’t blame Native Americans for this. And I’d be very wary of claiming a teachable moment to impress on these people that Eastern Orthodoxy is not the Christianity of the settlers and it is the #1 religion among indigenous peoples in Alaska, and that my archbishop’s patron saint is one of the patron saints of our land, an Aleut martyr killed by the Jesuits. (N.B. I know a man whose academic career was ended by today’s Jesuits in a singularly unfortunate fashion.) But there are elements in Native American nature connection that conflict with Christianity, and others who dabble in Native American spirituality may dabble in something anti-Christian.
I might also point out that I have looked through wildernessawareness.org and 8shields.org and none of the bios I found let me discern a self-identified Christian of any stripe. I expect that at least a few of the members self-identify as Christian, but if nature connection is just for human beings, and you’re not trying to call people out of Christianity, not having Christians represented is kind of a gap.
A body without a head
The nature connection movement does much of the job of a religion: it does the work of peacemaking without invoking the Price of Peace, its practitioners engage in culture repair without exploring the cultic element of worship, and more broadly it treats what it means to be human without addressing created man as made in the image of God. Possibly there is a failure of complete secularity in pursuing “sacred fires;” I am not completely sure I understand what the word “sacred” means but it is culturally important and best started with a bowdrill or other ancient means. However, I find it difficult to construe the term “sacred fires” as it is used while neutering the term “sacred” to mean something secular.
I might comment in regards to secularity: secularity didn’t arise in Western history because of atheists crying for the Church’s blood; it arose when Western Christianity fragmented and each community treated others as infidel. It arose out of really nasty religious wars as a voice saying, “Can’t we all just get along?” and I call the nature connection movement “secular” as a recognition that it is intended to be appropriate to everyone. I have yet to detect a derisive word from a nature connection leader towards any religious community or tradition. However, this choice of common ground has an anemic dimension, something to do some of the work of a religion, but in a secular way, which psychology does on a larger scale. Orthodox would see this as a body needing a head, and wonderfully animated if we receive it.
The final critique I would give, with a challenge, is this: nature connection, as it is pursued, is a body without a head that only becomes richer and deeper if it has a head. I would challenge you to read my book The Best of Jonathan’s Corner, or for a better text, take a rebel author who works in caricatures, who decries Western music and blared Wagner’s opera (“Wagner,” as in, “Wagner’s opera is not as bad as it sounds”), and wrote, The Rape of Man and Nature, and see rebellion against all things Western done right!
Furthermore, these words are not meant to dismiss nature connection in either sense. They are written to family, not meant as taking no prisoners. Much of what is delivered in Native Eyes is an approach to core routines, and core routines are about equally foundational to Orthodoxy. It’s nice to see discussion of engaging in core routines. And it’s nice to see agape or love (or as nature connection has called it, “connection”) in reference to nature. A Christian could summarize ethics as saying we should love God with our whole being, love our neighbor as ourselves, and love nature as our kingdom. Furthermore, if you read closely, you may see that I don’t find any critique of nature connection in the broader and more generic sense. I may question Coyote as totem, and I would gently note that my brother with the “What Would Loki Do?” T-shirt says for that trickster that the line between “Ha ha, fooled you!” and “Ha ha, killed you!” is a remarkably fine line. But I do not see a trickster edge as necessary for nature connection in the first, broader sense. Certainly it is not a necessity for nature connection in Orthodox monasticism, where animals cease being afraid of monks and cease to harm them.
Furthermore, the perceptive reader may note that none of my critique really affects nature connection in the broader sense. Historically, it is a rule in ethics that you don’t forbid what isn’t happening. The New Testament was written in an agrarian society where a large amount of nature connection was assumed. A parable takes its literal sense from a Sower sowing seed; Christ says that he is the Vine and his Father is the Vinedresser, and perhaps no one felt a need to explain something a friend pointed out, that you have to love a vine to prune it well. There were some moral failures common to ancient times and our own; the older Ten Commandments remain relevant. But the fact that the New Testament never condemns disengaging from awareness with nature in favor of an inanimate thing: this does not necessarily prove that the New Testament authors would make such condemnations if faced by today’s issues, but it also doesn’t make silence mean that there is no nature connection implied in the New Testament. The evidence concerning “nature deficit disorder” suggests to the person interested in ascesis that the harm caused by a lack of engagement with nature is a failure with a moral dimension. Furthermore, as has been pointed out, “Silence does not equal contempt.” In the Christian tradition, you have homilies for some religious feast which never mention the occasion for the feast. And this is true for questions that had been explicitly raised and addressed.
The human race is built on a hunter-gatherer chassis. The human race is built on a hunter-gatherer chassis, and we ignore this to our peril. The core insight to the Paleo diet is that the human organism works best on the kind of foods available to a hunter-gatherer, even if it takes extra effort to eat that way instead of MacDonald’s and Cheetos, and also that it is highly desirable to approximate hunter-gatherer exercise. The nature connection movement says that we need more than food and exercise, and as much as doctors may prescribe vitamin D for people who don’t get enough sunlight to synthesize the vitamin the natural way, we need to take added effort to consume vitamin N, Nature, even or especially if it takes going out of our way. There may be a Standard Social Sciences Model which asserts that human nature is infinitely malleable, but it is not, and we can still be biologically alive while living in a way that humans aren’t made to function.
There is an insistence among some that “Biology is not destiny.” Maybe, but biology is destiny to those heedless of the chassis we are running on. The less than ten thousand years of civilization (without which written history is possible) represent an eyeblink next to the four hundred thousand years we’ve had Homo sapiens sapiens and perhaps two million of some form of humans: written history represents less than 2% of the time we have existed as humans, with no significant evolution represented. Freedom, such as is available, recognized is as hunter-gatherers. And this may be a point where the nature connection movement deeply informs the conversation.
The nature connection movement is a voice worth listening to, and I hope these words can help it contribute to the conversation.
Epilogue, written some time later
I have backed away from the nature connection movement.
The core reason why, besides noting whether I have business in the tradition’s core routines, is that when I listened to Seeing Through Native Eyes and read much of Coyote’s Guide to Nature Connection, it seemed like as a whole the offering made sense, but at each particular point along the way I held my nose about the particular part I was reading.
That kind of squeamishness is something I don’t consider wisely ignored.
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.
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.
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:
And finally for knives I actually carried, a SwissChamp XLT, which has all the electronic bits of a CyberTool:
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:
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.
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.
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?
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?
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-from-usual compromise in rendering to the human visual surface.
Contact me if you would like to own this
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.
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.
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 peacably 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:
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.
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.
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!
Introduction: A study of secularization
Thomas Dixon in Theology, Anti-Theology, and Atheology: From Christian Passions to Secular Emotions, offers a model of societal secularization intended to be a more robust than just seeing “theology vs. anti-theology,” “theology vs. theology in disguise,” or “theology vs. anti-theology in disguise.” He argues for a process that begins with full-blooded theism, such as offered by almost any strain of classic Christianity, and then moves to “thin theism,” such as Paley (today think Higher Powers), then “anti-theology” that is directly hostile to theism, then “atheology” which is alienated from theological roots but is merely un-theological, “in much the same way as a recipe in a cookery book is un-theological.”
Dixon, like a good scholar, provides a good case study explored at greater length in his dissertation, and I am very interested in the case study he chose. He looks at the formation of a secular category of psychology, and the steps that have been taken to depart from older religious understandings situating the concept of passions, to a secular concept of emotions. The development of the secular category of emotions serves as a microcosm of a study of a society’s apostasy (a term Dixon does not use in his article) from understanding aspects of life as features of religion, to covering similar territory in terms of what is explained, but understanding things on secular terms, disconnected from religion. (Much prior to the transition Dixon documents, it’s difficult to see what the West would make of psychobabble about “Feelings aren’t right. They aren’t wrong. They’re just feelings.“)
If I may summarize Dixon’s account of the apostasy, while moving the endpoints out a bit, in the Philokalia, passions are loosely sin viewed as a state, with inner experience (and sometimes outer) related to how we live and struggle with our passions. Orthodox Christians have quite an earful to give (and sometimes the maturity not to give it) if someone from the West asks, “What are your passions?” In an Orthodox understanding, taken literally, that question has nothing to do with activities we enjoy and get excited about (unless they are wrong for us to engage in). It is more the matter of a habit of sin that has defaced their spiritual condition and that they are, or should be, repenting of. That is one of the more “Western-like” points we can take from the Philokalia; another foundational concept is that many of the thoughts we think are our own, and make our own (such as authentic handling of non-straight sexuality as is broadly understood today), are the unending attempted venomous injections of demons and we need to watchfully keep guard and destroy what seems to be our own thoughts. This is not present, nor would be particularly expected, in Dixon’s account. However, the “before” in Dixon’s “before and after” clearly situates what would today be considered feelings as markers and features of spiritual struggle, spiritual triumph, and spiritual defeat. The oldest so-to-speak “non-influence” figure Dixon attends to lived his life well after the Orthodox eight demons, that attack us from without, were revised to become our own internal seven deadly sins.
The first alternative Dixon studies is a concept of emotion that is paper-thin. The specific text he studies, which is remarkably accurately named, is Charles Darwin’s The Expressions of Emotion in Man and the Animals. The title does not directly herald a study of emotion, but the expressions of emotion, with an a priori that diminishes or removes consideration of human emotional life being distinctive (contrast Temple Grandin, Animals in Translation; she believes very much that animals have a psyche, but takes a sledgehammer to all-too-easy anthromorphization of animal psyches). Furthermore, an emotion is something you feel. Emotion is not really about something, and emotional habits are not envisioned. Darwin’s study was a study of physiologically what was going on with human and animal bodies approached as what was really going on in emotion.
Later on, when atheology has progressed, this begins to change. After a certain point people could conceive that emotions are about something; another threshold crossed, and you could speak of emotional habits; another threshold crossed, and you could regard a person’s emotional landscape as healthy or unhealthy. All of this fits Dixon’s category of atheology if one is using his framework. There remain important differences from either the Philokalia or the earliest models Dixon studies: it is today believed that you should let emotions wash through you until they have run their course, an opinion not endorsed by any framing of passions that I know. However, I would recall G.K. Chesterton on why it was not provocative for him to call the Protestant Reformation the shipwreck of Christianity: the proof is that, like Robinson Crusoe, Protestants keep on retrieving things from the Catholic ship.
Perhaps the fullest atheological rediscovery of the concept of a passion I am aware of is the disease model of alcoholism lived out in Alcoholics Anonymous. The passions are, in the Philokalia, spiritual wounds or diseases of some sort, and the dominant metaphor for a father confessor is that of a physician or healer. While the important term “repent” is not included in the wording of the twelve steps, the twelve steps paint in powerful and stark relief what repentance looks like when it puts on work gloves. The community is in many ways like a church or perhaps is a church. Steps may be taken to qualify strict doctrine, but the teaching and resources are a sort of practical theology to help people defeat the bottle. (One thinks of Pannenberg’s essay “How to Think About Secularism” suggests that secularism did not arise from people grinding an axe against all religion; it arose from people wanting to live in peace at a time when it was mainstream to wish that people on the other side of the divide would be burned at the stake.) There is a bit of haziness about “God as I understand him,” but this is decidedly not the result of hazy thinking. The biggest difference between Alcoholics Anonymous and the Orthodox Church may be that Alcoholics Anonymous helps with one primary disease or passion, and the Church, which could be called Sinners Anonymous, doesn’t say, “Hi. I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.” It believes, “Hi. I’m Joe, and I’m the worst sinner in history.”
Where is the Orthodox Church in all of Dixon’s study?
At a glance, there may not be much visible. The Orthodox Church is not mentioned as such, the text seems to focus on English-speaking figures from the 17th century onwards, and the only figure claimed by the Orthodox Church is the Blessed Augustine, who is first mentioned in a perfunctory list of influences upon authors who retained significant grounding in older tradition. (The next stop seems to jump centuries forward to reach Thomas Aquinas.) The text does not seem to have even a serious pretension to treat Orthodoxy as far as the case study goes. Furthermore, while passions were and are considered important in Orthodoxy, the theological affections that counterbalance theological passions in the “before” part of “before and after” are obscure or nonexistant in Orthodox faith.
However, there is something that would feel familiar to Orthodox. To the Orthodox student in a Roman university, there may be the repeated effect of a Catholic student conspiratorially explain that the Roman Catholic Church has been doing that was daft and wrong, but now Rome is getting its act together, has progressed, and has something genuinely better to offer. To Orthodox, this whole topos heralds something specific; it heralds the dismantling of one more continuity that Rome used to have with Holy Orthodoxy. And while Dixon does not discuss “Catholic” or “Protestant” as such and does not even have pretensions of treating Orthodoxy, he offers a first-class account of Western figures dismantling one more continuity with Holy Orthodoxy. To many Orthodox, the tune sounds all too familiar.
In Orthodoxy, all theology is “mystical theology”, meaning what is practically lived in the practice of Holy Orthodoxy. Systematic theology is off-limits, as a kind of formal book exercise that is not animated by the blood of mystical theology.
Clinical psychology offers what Dixon terms quasi-theology, and I would more specifically term quasi-mystical theology. Not all psychologists are clinical practitioners; there are a good number of academic research psychologists who explore things beyond the bounds of what a counselor would ordinarily bring up. For instance, academic psychology has developed theories of memory, including what different kinds of memory there are, how they work, and how they fit together. These are not only more detailed than common-sense understandings, but different: learning a skill is considered a type of memory, and while it makes sense on reflection, the common, everyday use of “memory” does not draw such a connection.
This is a legitimate finding of research psychology, but it falls outside of common counseling practice unless the client has some kind of condition where this information is useful. Clinical practitioners attempt to inculcate aspects of psychology that will help clients with their inner state, how to handle difficulties, and (it is hoped) live a happier life. All of this is atheology that is doing something comparable to theology, and more specifically mystical theology; the speculative end is left for academics, or at least not given to clients who don’t need the added information. In Dixon’s framing, some atheology is additionally quasi-theological, meaning that it offers e.g. overarching narratives of life and the cosmos; he mentions science-as-worldview as one point. Clinical psychology offers a different, humbler, and vastly more powerful quasi-theological project. It offers an attempt at a secular common ground that will let people live their lives with the kind of resources that have been traditionally sought under religious auspices. As far as the Philokalia as the Orthodox masterwork for the science of spiritual struggle goes, at times the content of clinical psychology runs parallel to the Philokalia and at times it veers in a different and unrelated direction from the Philokalia, but it is almost a constant that clinical psychology is intended to do Philokalia work that will help overcome bad thoughts, preventable misery, regrettable actions, being emotionally poisoned by people who are emotionally poisonous, etc. There is of course an additional difference in that the works in the Philokalia are concerned with building people up for eternal glory, but clinical psychology is meant to build people up for a positive life, and that much is common ground.
What is a religion? Can religion be secular?
Q> With so many religions [in India], how do you stay united ?
A: A common hatred of stupid Americans.
The term “religion” etymologically comes from Latin, “religare”, which means to bind. It is the same root as in “ligament” in the human body, which do a job of connecting bones to each other. And while the FAQ list contains some astonishingly silly questions, there is some degree of insight reflected in a realization of many religions in India leading to a question of, “How do you stay united?”
I bristled when I read scholars saying that courtly love and chivalry was the real religion of knights and nobles late in the Middle Ages, but some years later, the claim makes a lot more sense to me. The medieval versions of Arthurian legend I read before and during The Sign of the Grail repeatedly talked about how people didn’t love (in courtly fashion) anything like the days of King Arthur, which is a signal warning that courtly love was present in a sense that was unthinkable in the claimed days of King Arthur’s court. The first widespread version of Arthurian legends outside of Celtic legend were in the twelfth century; the dates reported, with mention of St. Augustine of Canterbury, put Arthur as being in the sixth century. The number of intervening centuries is roughly the same as the number of years between our time and the tail end of the medieval world.
Furthermore, I have not read Harry Potter but I would offer some contrasts. First of all, Harry Potter is produced, offered, and among the more mentally stable members of the fan base, received as a work of fiction. The version of King Arthur that first swept through mainland Europe was a work of pseudohistory produced mostly out of thin air, but was presented and received as literal history. Secondary, Harry Potter mania is not expected to be a fixture for all of a long lifetime: the cultural place we have is like nothing else in its heyday, but it is a candidate for a limelight that shone on many other things before it and is expected to shine on many things after it. The Arthurian legends were more of a Harry Potter without competition. Today one can walk in the bookstore and see fantasy novels representing many worlds; Arthurian legends tended to absorb anything beside them that was out there (like the story of Tristan and Yseult, included in Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur). It might be pointed out that the present Pope as of this writing is named after a medieval Western saint, Francis of Assisi, who was named under the inspiration of France and more specifically French troubadours. I am not sure where the troubadors’ lyrics began and ended, but Arthurian legends entered the vulgar (i.e. common, instead of Latin) tongue in France and troubadours were part and parcel to what spread. Notwithstanding that the Arthurian legends take place in England, they are to this day as well-known, or better-known, in France, than the story of the (French) Roland and his paladins. The Roman Catholic Church forbade reading “idle romances,” meaning, essentially, all Arthurian literature, but it seems that, in the circles of courtly love, the active endeavors of chivalry were much more on the front burner with Christianity assumed to be on the back burner, and chivalry was more of one’s real religion to knights and nobles than Christianity.
One Orthodox student, perhaps not making himself particularly well-liked in a theology program by complaining about Karl Rahner’s reliance on Western analytic philosophy (one particularly memorable cart-before-the-horse heading was “The presence of Christ in an evolutionary worldview”), and was answered by saying that it was to reach the unbeliever. He responded and said that he did not see why the common ground between all world religions was Western analytic philosophy. The professor said that it was to reach the unbeliever in us. The student said that Western analytic philosophy did not speak to the unbeliever in him. (The conversation moved on from there, but without uncovering any particular reason why Western analytic philosophy should fit the job description Rahner was conscripting it to do.)
In psychology today, the common ground that is legitimately given the job of a secular and artificial religion in a sense of what common ground binds us together is material derived by Buddhism and Hinduism (whether or not their incarnations would be recognized by the religious communities). Jainism is omitted perhaps because of a lack of familiarity with Indian religion. (The term “yoga,” for instance, means a spiritual path, in which sense it would be natural for a Christian to claim to be practicing the Christian yoga, but yoga in the usual sense is lifted from Hinduism. As to whether Orthodox may practice yoga, as always, ask your priest; I do not see why Christians need yoga, but many priests are much more lenient than I would be.) What is presented in psychology today is a secular religion, not specifically requiring one to reverence certain deities or providing as complete a moral code as world religions, and for that matter expected to be markedly different than the secular religions offered ten years in the past and ten years in the future, and no less meant to do a religion’s job because it is concocted.
Why are we seeking mindfulness from the East?
Perhaps because we because we have dismantled it in the West.
Fr. Thomas Hopko’s “55 Maxims for the Christian Life”:
- Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
- Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
- Practice silence, inner and outer.
- Sit in silence 20 or 30 minutes a day.
- Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
- Live a day, or even part of a day, at a time.
- Be grateful.
- Be cheerful.
- Listen when people talk to you.
- Be awake and attentive, fully present wherever you are.
- Flee imagination, analysis, fantasy, figuring things out.
34 is not the only item that exhorts us to be mindful.
But we are rediscovering mindfulness after having dismantled it at home. One friend talked about how his grandmother complained about Walkmans, that if you are running through natural surroundings and listening to music, you are not paying due attention to your surroundings. There has been a stream of technologies, from humble, tape-eating Walkmans to the iPod’s apotheosis in an iPhone and Apple Watch pairing, whose marketing proposition is to provide an ever-easier, ever-more-seductive, ever-more-compelling alternative to mindfulness. Now an iPhone can be awfully useful (I have a still-working iPhone 7), but using technology ascetically and rightly is harder than not using it at all, and Humane Tech only reaches so far.
One CEO talked about how she wanted to share one single hack, and the hack she wanted to share was that her mother gave you her full attention no matter who you were or what you were doing. And evidently this was something the CEO considered important both to do and to invite others to do. However, her mother’s behavior, however virtuous, and virtuously mindful, was nothing distinctive in her generation, nor was it presented as such. Even with no concept of mindfulness as such, people in her mother’s generation were taught in life, faith, and manners to give mindful attention to everyone you dealt with.
G.K. Chesterton exposes the sadness of laboring in the prison of one idea, and something similar might be said by laboring in the prison of one virtue, especially if that is not a cardinal virtue that opens to a vista of other virtues. Mindfulness, for instance, is much more worthy of attention when viewed as part of an Eightfold Noble Path of interlocking virtues. A TED talk about what makes people beat the odds, presented as original research to a virtue the presenter calls “grit,” which (however much research is done) is quickly recognizable as the standard virtue of perseverance.
There may be hope for a TED talk about an interlocking family of virtues. Tim Ferris’s talk about Stoicism does not discuss virtue as such, but does introduce the oblong concept that life lessons learned in ancient times can be relevant and useful today, and discusses Stoicism as the substance of a play George Washington used to strengthen his troops, and discovered as a kind of ultimate power tool by some of the top coaches in the NFL.
The first book of the Philokalia, moved to an appendix by formerly Protestant editors, was misattributed to one saint and the stated reason for its banishment was that it was spiritually insightful but not written by a Christian; it was Stoic and not Christian in certain respects. That may be true, but the Philokalia is universally human and its authors have usually been quick to borrow from, and respect, Stoic virtue philosophy.
One influential book from the West is Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. C.S. Lewis gives its reception a cardinal place in The Discarded Image, and contests a tendency to have to choose between Boethius’s Christianity and his philosophy. Both should be taken seriously, and the book, among other excellences, shows a Christian who has profited from the best pagan philosophy had to offer, including important Stoic elements.
We’ve seen a TED talk that doesn’t name virtues but shows enthusiasm for ancient philosophy in which virtues were important. Perhaps someday we may have a TED talk about an ancient or modern family of virtues.
“Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic,” is fundammentally not an “affirmation.”
I would like to look at the phrase, “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” to dismiss two ideas that might already be obviously ridiculous.
The first is that it’s sadistic, Alcoholics Anonymous rubbing member’s noses into the dirt because of some cruel glee. The practice of introducing yourself as an alcocholic is part and parcel of a big picture intended to free alcoholics from a suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, perhaps reminding members that someone who has been fifteen years sober can return to bondage to alcohol. Furthermore, the main intended beneficiary of saying “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic,” is simply the alcoholic who says it.
The second is that it’s wishful thinking. Perhaps there are some confused people who believe that it would be nice to be drunk all the time and drink more and more. However, for someone who knows the incredibly destructive suffering alcoholism inflicts on oneself and those one loves, it is an absurdity to think of “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” as a way to talk something into being, for someone who’s been stone cold sober lifelong to wish to be in cruel slavery to alcohol. “Hi, my name’s Joe, and I’m an alcoholic” being an “affirmation” of wishful thinking belongs in a Monty Python sketch. The introduction as an alcoholic falls under the heading of facing already present reality.
“Here is a trustworthy saying which deserves acceptance: Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” Such said St. Paul, and such is enshrined in two brief prayers before communion. Confessing oneself the chief of sinners is not a positive affirmation: but it is a handmaiden to being one Christ died for, and another saying which has rumbled down the ages, “The vilest of human sins is but a smouldering ember thrown into the ocean of God’s love.” The confession as the chief of sinners is not an endpoint. It is a signpost lighting up the way to, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” However vile the sins one owns up to, they are outclassed in every possible way by the Lord who is addressed in, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (“Mercy” is said to translate chesed, a Hebrew word usually translated as “lovingkindness.”)
How do modern psychological affirmations look to a theist? A bit like trying to nourish yourself by eating cotton candy, but I’d really like to give more of an argument than an unflattering comparison. The introduction to Seven Habits of Highly Effective People describe a shift in wisdom literature (written and other materials about how to live life well; the concept heavily overlaps both theology and psychology). The shift is from a character ethic, which says that you get ahead by moral character or moral virtue, to a personality ethic which does not call for submitting to inner transformation, and whose hallmarks include exhortations to “Believe in yourself.” (Since Covey wrote his introduction, the jobhunting world is not the only arena to undergo a second fall into a personal brand ethic, but affirmations have not gotten to that point, or at least not that I’m aware of.)
Spirituality and organized religion
One Orthodox priest mentioned, for people who want to be spiritual but express distrust of organized religion, “If you don’t like organized religion, you’ll love Orthodoxy. We’re about as disorganized as you can get.” But he also had a deeper point to make.
That deeper point is that “objection to organized religion” is usually at its core “objection to someone else holding authority over me.” And that is deadly, because someone else having authority over you is the gateway to much of spiritual growth.
Spirituality that is offered as neutral, and has been castrated enough not to visibly trample any mainstream demographic’s religious and spiritual sensitivities, may have some effect, but true growth takes place outside of such spiritual confines.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World almost opens on “spirituality.” He discusses its vacuity, and how it exacerbates an already secular enough life. The reader is directed to him for what one might have that is better than taking a secular life and adding spirituality.
For lack of knowledge my people perish
I would like to take a moment to talk about mental illness.
The teaching of the Orthodox Church on what we understand as mental illness (see some “hard pill to swallow” prayers), as articulated by an Orthodox MD/PhD, is that the terrain we frame as mental illness has already been analyzed and addressed. Mental illnesses, or what are called such, are tangles of passion. But the psychiatrist was clear that he could and did prescribe medications to lessen patients’ suffering.
One bugbear that needs to be addressed is the idea that if you are suffering from mental illness, you need more faith, and/or you just need to snap out of it. Now all of us really need more faith, and if you suffer from a mental illness, you obviously should pray. However, trying to pray hard enough to make it go away may not work any better than trying to snap out of it.
Now, with caveats, I would recommend Orthodox Christians with mental illness to see a psychiatrist and/or a counselor. Their methods can be very effective, and for all my writing about ersatz religion, they can significantly reduce suffering.
The caveat I would give is not theologically motivated. It is that there are excellent psychiatrists and counselors, but psychology is a minefield, with counselors who will tell you to use pornography and masturbate. If I were looking for a provider, I would do research and/or ask someone you trust to do research for you (if, for instance, you are depressed enough that it’s difficult to get out of bed). And if your provider seems to be acting inappropriately or displaying incompetence, it may be the entirely right decision to switch providers.
However, there is one piece more that the secular category of psychology does not understand. Mental illness can improve dramatically when you delve into new layers of repentance. While it doesn’t work to just try harder to have more faith, as you walk the Orthodox journey of repentance you will see things to repent of, and some of that repentance can slowly help untangle the knot of passions that the Fathers of the Philokalia knew, and St. Isaac the Syrian, a saint who has benefitted many mentally ill people.
The reason this section is titled “For lack of knowledge my people perish” is that we usually don’t see what we need to repent of to work at that level. We don’t know the steps. The solution I would expect is to work hard to repent, and make your confession include that one sin that you are wishing to forget when you confess. But walk on the journey of repentance: Repentance is Heaven’s best-kept secret. Monasticism is rightly called repentance, but the treasure of repentance is for everyone.
For those for whom this is a live option, the care of a spiritual director receives a central endorsement in Orthodox Psychotherapy, a classic which says that if patristic spiritual direction were to be introduced today, it would not likely be classified as religion so much as a therapeutic science. A good, experienced spiritual director who is familiar with mental illness as understood in Orthodoxy can be a much better alternative to fumbling around until you find out what sin you need to repent of and reject to turn your back on a particular point of mental illness. “For lack of knowledge my people perish” can be greatly alleviated by a spiritual director who understands classic Orthodox teaching on mental illness.
One more thing: a wise Orthodox protopresbyter said, “Avoid amateur psychologists. They usually have more problems than the rest of us!”
There are other things I do not wish to treat in detail. After it has been observed that clinical psychology often takes a person who is miserable and raise that person to feeling OK, but not rise above feeling OK, there has been a “positive psychology” meant for everyone, to help people rise above OK and make use of great talents. I would comment briefly that monasticism is both a supreme medicine for those of us who need some extra structure, and a school for positive excellence, and the latter is more central than the former.
In terms of “Christian psychology,” Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No is consistently violent to Biblical texts in the process of presenting secular boundaries as Christian. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is ludicrous hyperbole, and not properly understood until it is recognized as ludicrous hyperbole, in which the Good Samaritan goes through a road infested by brigands, gambles with his life when he gives in to what would ordinarily be the bait to brigands’ oldest and deadliest trick in the book, and so on. It was made to make the listener who asked Christ, “Who is my neighbor?” profoundly uncomfortable. Cloud and Townsend, however, present the Good Samaritan as giving a moderate and measured response, and asks us to imagine the rescued victim asking the Samaritan to give even more, and the Good Samaritan wisely saying, “No.”
If you have to be that violent to the Bible to make it agree with you, you’re almost certainly wrong.
And there are other things. I’m not going to try to detail life without thinking in terms of boundaries, beyond saying that Christianity, and almost certainly not only Christianity, has a concept of “Love your neighbor as yourself” that unfolds into right relations with other people, but without psychology’s concept of boundaries.
Let me mention one more point.
Perhaps most striking of all was a session under the heading of honesty, and showed a TED talk where a psychiatrist shared (in retrospect and in context, this seems like a deliberate name-drop) that he was named after his father, a Baptist minister. Then he came out as an illegitimate child, and I would like to repeat why my own parents do not like the term “bastard.”
While they wanted to teach polite language, my parents did not object to the term “bastard” because it is forceful enough to be a rude word. They objected to the term “bastard” because the term refers to someone who did not and could not have any say or any agency in a wrong decision. If there is a term forceful enough to be a rude word in this context, and the relevant act was consensual, the abrasive word should refer to the parents and not the child. And now that we’ve mostly retired the use of words like “adulterer” and “fornicator”, we have an abrasive term for the victim who had no choice in a matter and not those who made the victimhood and the victim. If the worst TMI delivery in the TED talk was that the psychiatrist was an illegitimate child, one could have answered, “Well, Christ was also born from a scandalous pregnancy.” But in fact this is not all the TMI psychiatrist was “sharing.”
Back to the TED talk. Coming out as a bastard was a softening up of the audience for behavior in which the psychiatrist genuinely did have agency. He then came out as a philanderer; he did not use any negative terms, but talked about honesty and authenticity when he opened up to his wife, now his 2nd ex-wife whom he presents as not really harmed, and shared to her, of himself, that he was both married and dating. It was, to adapt a striking phrase from Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a confession with total absence of contrition or repentance.
No light bulbs went on above staff members’ heads when patients complained that this was the most autistic version of honesty they had yet seen endorsed by a mental health professional, and explained that you don’t open a coat and say “Here’s all there is to see, whether or not seeing it will help you,” or that you don’t bleed all over a casual acquaintance who asks “How are you?” in passing; as sometimes has to be explained to the autistic patient, it is rarely a shirking of due honesty to withhold a full-strength informational answer in responding to a merely social question.
And perhaps no light bulbs should have gone on over staff heads because the session on honesty had nothing to do with honesty. Staff members were in fact not ignorant of the major concept of “negative politeness” and that right speech usually both conceals and reveals. Ostensible “honesty” was just how an unrelated payload was delivered.
To spell it out, the payload is that whatever sexual practices you find yourself most drawn to pursue, and others pursue, is your real, authentic self, and honesty takes that as a non-negotiable foundation. The lecture was devoid of any clear or even vague reference to any stripe of queers (or whatever they are called this week), and if the speaker’s philarendering tried out dating a guy, he did not disclose this point. But as much as coming out as an illegitimate child paved the way for coming out as a philanderer, accepting his coming out as a philanderer on the terms he presented was masterfully crafted to pave the way to saying the only real payload to that TED talk: “The sexual practices you are most drawn to engage in are your real, authentic self, and authenticity starts with accepting these practices as its foundation,” and if one labors under the delusion that a successful straight marriage is what happens when one man, and one woman, lay the reins on the horse’s neck, one is in a position that has little to no ground to dissent from a position of, “If you allow straight marriage to be authentic, you have to give queers the same right too.”
The entire session ostensibly offered to teach honesty was itself treacherously dishonest.
(Queer advocacy has long since been baked into the societal common ground that psychology deems inoffensive to all religions.)
Conclusion: Beyond solipsism
The goal and lesson of psychology is quite often solipsistic. There are exceptions: positive psychology may cover three versions of the good life, the last and deepest version being the meaningful life, a non-solipsistic life of service to others. (Though this is seldom covered in psychology, service to others gives a real happiness). However, a session on boundaries covers how to establish and maintain our own boundaries, but probably does not cover respecting other boundaries, including when someone draws a boundary when you think it would be so much better not to establish the boundaries. The further you go, the tightest the constriction of solipsistic self-care. The endgame approached by most pillars of counseling psychology is a client with self-contained happiness.
In Orthodoxy, we do one better: “Only God and I exist.”
“Only God and I exist.” What does that mean? In a nutshell, the only standing that ultimately matters is your standing before God. Now the Orthodox Church has various forms of mediated grace, and that mediation may be included. However, the only one you need seek to please is God; if you are pleasing God, it doesn’t matter what people may do, or even the demons. Arrogance has a place; we are summoned to be rightly and properly arrogant of the demons in pleasing God. And trample them.
One major difference between ancient Judaism and its neighbors was that, as God’s people knew, there was only one God, and our problem before him was sin; if one has sinned, the one and only necessary remedy was atonement. The polytheistic neighbors believed in something much less rational, not to mention far less humane, was that one could do things that offended one or more gods, and the solution to this situation was to appease the offended deity, but unfortunately what appeased one deity could offend another. The unfortunate picture was much like the fool’s errand of being on friendly terms with everyone in a bickering junior high.
St. Moses is in fact one who confessed what Orthodox believe as “Only God and I exist.”
Once one has crossed that ground, and found that there is only one God to serve and offer our repentance, we move beyond the junior high of our life circumstances… and find that the one God is in fact the Lord of the Dance and the Orchestrator of all Creation. And this time everything besides onself again becomes real, but not ultimately real. There are billions of people in the world whom we should love, and we should show virtue and politeness to all we meet, but in the end only God has the last word.
Psychology offers a narrower and narrower constriction if you take it a guide to living with others. “Only God and I exist,” by contrast, opens wider and wider and wider, in a solipsism that is vaster than the Heavens that it, also, embraces. It is a solipsism in which you are summoned to dance the Great Dance with your neighbors and all Creation!
If you need psychology and psychiatry, by all means, use them. But remember that only God and you exist!
I would like to begin a discussion with reference to things tinged with the occult by asking a question: “Is life empty or full?”
Is Gnosticism empty or full?
I write this because (Note: “sexy” content warning) Protestant author’s Philip Lee’s Against the Protestant Gnostics says that Gnosticism defies historic analysis because it is not a historical phenomenon (I would suggest that a history of Gnosticism would be a bit like a history of the process of untreated cancer), and it equally defies philosophical analysis because it does not approach the status of a consistent philosophy. Having thus rejected the two standard academic ways of knowing, he said that Gnosticism hinges on a mood of despair.
The good news of Gnostic escape is good news only if life is empty. It holds all the appeal chewing off a limb does to an animal caught in a trap.
Its marketing proposition offers nothing to desire if life is full. To an audience who finds life to be full, the marketing proposition of Gnosticism, rightly understood, holds all the appeal of a having an amputation for no real reason.
In between those poles, people may be significantly happy but still find Harry Potter enticing. However, let’s look at archetypal poles.
Gnosticism is like spiritual pornography or crack cocaine: it seems to sparkle with joy but gives less and less, and creates more and more misery. And it is the disenchantment of the entire universe: first it disenchants and destroys the ability to enjoy anything else, then it disenchants and destroys the ability to enjoy even itself. Or as St. Basil said of merely fleshly lust, lust is like a dog licking a saw: it tastes pleasure [and there is a feedback loop, but the pleasure it brings is the pleasure of its own increasing woundedness. This is writ large in the spiritual lust that Gnosticism and its kin inflict. Gnosticism is a recipe for unhappy people to become much more unhappy.
I have been afraid to let go in the unconditional surrender of repentance, then when I have let go, I realized, “I was holding on to a piece of Hell!” (In the Philokalia it is said that people hold on to sin because they falsely believe it adorns them.)
The cup is full
Do you believe that the world was created good, that the opening chapter of Genesis rightly says of everything before humanity, “And God looked and saw that it was good,” and of man, “And God looked and saw that it was very good?”
I ask because among Protestants, and for that matter Orthodox, I do not remember hearing people speak of “this good world.” Inevitably, I have only heard people speak of “this fallen world.” Even the great G.K. Chesterton, whose writing opens eyes to all sorts of good things, says that the Fall is the one Christian dogma that can be empirically verified. Is the Fall really more important than that the world exists created by God? As an old hymn says, trying to be God, Adam failed to be God; God became man, to make Adam God. Each one of us is the chief of sinners, but does this outweigh that Christ died for each one of us? Is it not true that beauty is forged in the eye of the Beholder?
God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that men and the sons of men might become Gods and the Sons of God, as the saying has rumbled down the ages.
I really am concerned about something more than agreeing that God’s Creation, including man, is good, or very good. Accepting it is a point of doctrinal philosophy is beside the point. Or maybe it’s not OK to deny that God’s Creation is good, but accepting it as a point of doctrine is really, really not enough.
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, as explored in God the Spiritual Father.
As at least one priest I know has insisted, at great length, that everything that comes to us is either a blessing from God, or a temptation which has been allowed for our strengthening (temptation in Orthodoxy means both a provocation or enticement to sin, and a trial or difficult situation, and the two are not really that different).
And this world we are in is created by God as good. Occult religion today is often themed to appear as a nature religion, but the occult enterprise relates to both nature itself, and the protecting veils built in to nature, as vile and repugnant. That is still true if your approach to insider trading and overriding nature and its limits is primarily based on what you do with plants. And by the way, unnatural vice is in patristic usage an umbrella term that covers a whole lot more than just gay sexuality. Unnatural vice also includes contraception… and by the way it also includes the occult. To the best of my knowledge, every ancient heresy that was occult and escapist, such as Manicheanism, Docetism, or a million Gnosticisms, said that matter was evil. And really, it’s hard to seek occult escape if you snuggle into God’s creation like a warm blanket.
The belief that God created Creation as good means, among other things, that Creation itself is something like a warm blanket. It means, if I may say so, that if you are in communion with the Orthodox Church, you are not only in communion with living men; you are in communion with Christ and his Mother, but ultimately the whole of Creation, the sky and stars and seas, and even in a certain sense more in communion with heterodox than heterodox are with themselves. Patristic writing contains innumerable warnings about the world and even pampering our bodies, but writers occasionally make one thing clear: the term “world” refers to our passions (in Protestant terms, our state of sin), and here (most of) the problem really is in the eye of the beholder.
I have studied French at the Sorbonne and theology at Cambridge in England, and there was a desire to escape into a kind of European Narnia that I was all too reluctant to leave. I remember my Mom commenting, years back, and with bewilderment, that a large percentage of children surveyed would rather be rich and unhappy than poor and happy. Her basic attitude to that finding was, “Huh?” But it really was true that most respondents would rather be rich and unhappy than poor and happy.
During my time in England in particular, I remember knowing I was unhappy, but preferring to be unhappy in Europe rather than something I did not have then, being happy in America. But God has worked with me ever so patiently, and during the more recent times in my life, I have had genuine, long-term happiness.
I am happy now, and it did not really perturb me that I was not able to stay on a pilgrimage to Mount Athos but had to return to the U.S. even though I had come to the Holy Mountain with a blessing to stay.
When I traveled to Mount Athos, I texted the above picture to immediate family members, and said, “This is better than Dungeons & Dragons,” and meant every word. But not because the picture was breathtakingly beautiful, in an Old World fashion: I mean it just as much here, in America, without escape.
Perhaps what I can offer is this: I have sold or tried to sell role playing as a child’s make-believe practiced as an adult. To that characterization I would say, “Yes; but what is appropriate in childhood is not always present as an adult.” I have not heard of a young child needing dice to make believe.
What I have experienced as the foundation to role playing games is vicarious living through a character. You pretend to be someone else, somewhere else.
That lands us in escapist territory, even if the degree of escape is limited.
And let me be clear: I know the demon personally.
Oh, and by the way, everything I say about Dungeons & Dragons applies to Harry Potter, too. The difference, if it is a difference, is that Dungeons & Dragons is a geek phenomenon, while Harry Potter is very mainstream.
Overall the effect of such seizing vicarious control is to close a person up rather than open the person up, on which point I would quote the poem, Open:
How shall I be open to thee,
O Lord who is forever open to me?
Incessantly I seek to clench with tight fist,
Such joy as thou gavest mine open hand.
Why do I consider thy providence,
A light thing, and of light repute,
Next to the grandeur I imagine?
Why spurn I such grandeur as prayed,
Not my will but thine be done,
Such as taught us to pray,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come:
Thy will be done?
Why be I so tight and constricted,
Why must clay shy back,
From the potter’s hand,
Who glorifieth clay better,
Than clay knoweth glory to seek?
Why am I such a small man?
Why do I refuse the joy you give?
Or, indeed, must I?
And yet I know,
Thou, the Theotokos, the saints,
Forever welcome me with open hearts,
And the oil of their gladness,
Loosens my fist,
Little by little.
God, why is my fist tightened on openness,
When thou openest in me?
In the Dungeons & Dragons I played, there was surrogate battle with monsters, governed by rules and an algorithm that humans could follow. On the Holy Mountain, there was real battle with monsters: the demons, or devils, or dragons. Victory in surrogate battles with dragons was always smaller, and of less than human stature. Victory in real battles with the serpent genuinely left me stronger. In I rejected and broke free of manacles that had shackled me for ages. Everything that happens to us is either a blessing from God, or a temptation which has been allowed for our suffering. In Dungeons & Dragons terms, I made level and came back in joy and triumph.
And by the way, do not be surprised if I assert that demons and their attacks are with us incessantly: that may not be how today’s secular psychology understands things but that is how the Fathers understands things: but it is how unseen warfare is waged in the Philokalia, an anthology which has more information on the activities and operation of demons than I have seen in any other source.
Introduction: Alchemy and Questionable Moral Character
I would like to open with a disturbing passage from Mary Midgley’s Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning. I might briefly mention that Midgley is no feminist; she is a conservative whose chief influences are Plato and Aristotle.
We come here to one more of the strange compensatory myths, dreams, or dramas that are my theme. The literature of early modern science is a mine of highly-coloured passages that describe Nature, by no means as a neutral object, but as a seductive but troublesome female, to be unrelentingly pursued, sought out, fought against, chased into her inmost sanctuaries, prevented from escaping, persistently courted, wooed, harried, vexed, tormented, unveiled, unrobed, and ‘put to the question’ (i.e. interrogated under torture), forced to confess ‘all that lay in her most intimate recesses’, her ‘beautiful bosom’ must be laid bare, she must be held down and finally ‘penetrated’, ‘pierced’, and ‘vanquished’ (words which constantly recur).
Now this odd talk does not come from a few exceptionally uninhibited writers. It has not been invented by modern feminists. It is the common, constant idiom of the age. Since historians began to notice it, they have been able to collect it up easily in handfuls for every discussion.
Or as I heard approvingly quoted many times by teachers at the liberal enough Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, “We place Nature on the rack [i.e. a particularly nasty instrument of torture] and compel her to bear witness.”
Let’s talk about Sir Isaac Newton for a moment. He was the founder of physics as we know it, and the co-founder of calculus. Also, he was a world-class academic bully. All his scientific endeavors were side projects next to his involvement in alchemy, and he has been called, “Not the first of the scientists, but the last of the magicians.” He also, late in life, acquired a position of authority, bypassed certain checks and balances, and saw it to it that dozens of men died a slow and painful death.
(Some of us might detect a note of envy in that any and all effort he made to produce gold were failures even for him. At the same time, the men he destroyed were “coiners” or forgers who made at times remarkably convincing imitations of officially minted gold coins.)
Did I mention that messianic fantasies were standard issue for scientists then?
In fact there weren’t just messianic fantasies for scientists and alchemists. The original hope people saw in calculus was not, as today, a branch of mathematics that holds place X in the creation of new mathematicians and place Y in practical applications. It was rather hoped to be a tool where, as I quote, “there should be no more need for disputes among philosophers than among accountants,” because all differences of opinion could be resolved through straightforward use of calculus. The Utopian vision was a precursor to Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, only Hesse seemed very skeptical about how well something like this occult pipe dream would really play out for society.
My friends, the foundations of science smell bad, and alchemy with them.
Alchemy in the Limelight
Some time over ten years back, and much to my later chagrin, I wanted to illustrate a point and deliberately chose alchemy, as a jarring image, to illustrate it.
Later, I was one of the voices saying that alchemy was coming out of the closet. Here I would point out that semiotics defines a “sign” to be “anything that can be used to lie,” including not only words but posture, clothing, furniture, activities, etc. When I was working at the American Medical Association headquarters, there was a quilt hanging by the cafeteria, looking in every way quaint, domestic, and conservative… and explained dozens of alchemical symbols. (Did the AMA forget it was founded to shut down homeopathy as an occult medicine?)
Some years after that, I was saying simply that alchemy was out, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. And now I have stopped making such statements because they are superfluous. I have been told by Christians that alchemy was the bedrock nascent science was founded on.
Alchemy as a Strategy to Grow Whilst Dodging Spiritual Work
Why grind an axe against alchemy? The critique can be stated in six English words: “Sorry, kid. You need elbow grease.”
I do not in cany sense wish to say that all religions say the same thing; that is ultimately a degrading way to say that no world religion says anything significant. However, there appears to be a widespread sense that we need elbow grease. The Hindu concept of the Royal Science of God-Realization does not work without elbow grease; it is scarcely more nor less than a structure and plan for elbow grease. The Buddha may have simplified Hinduism to an astonishing degree, but his eightfold noble path calls for, among other things, various dimensions of elbow grease. Even the apparent exception of staunch Evangelicals who believe with Luther that we are sanctified by grace alone and through faith alone (and, though it is not relevant here, that the Bible alone has authority), also have an expectation that if you have healthy and living faith, you will produce elbow grease, and for that matter you will produce quite a lot of elbow grease. Evangelicals may categorically deny that elbow grease can save, but they set the bar pretty high as far as world religious traditions go for how much elbow grease a genuine member should be producing.
Alchemy offers a dangerously treacherous and seductive shortcut. Its marketing proposition is to offer a shortcut to spiritual transformation, a technique in lieu of inner work, but a that does not legitimately work. It certainly didn’t work in Newton’s case; if we return to the Sermon on the Mount’s “by your fruits you shall know them,” Sir Isaac Newton’s moral character is the character of a false prophet on a capital scale.
There was one unenlightened book commenting about how ironic it was that an alchemist was to be spiritually transformed somewhere beyond greed before being able to transmute metals to gold. And so, it said, one of the requisites to produce gold ironically being to have let go of desiring gold. I do not find irony, and I find a point of contact with Orthodox iconography. The idea of ridding oneself of greed before being ready to create gold recalls a (possibly G.K. Chesterton) comment I have failed to track down, that a particular desire was like a spiritualist’s desire to see a nymph’s breasts and not that of a run-of-the-mill lecher, and I fail to see irony in the expectation to transcend greed. I am not here concerned with whether that makes sense to desire, but in Newton’s case it did not work!
I do not condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute lead to gold.
I do condemn alchemy because it so completely failed to let Newton transmute his own heart to gold. (That is, incidentally, something that many, many non-alchemists have done.)
There was an Oprah Winfrey-endorsed book The Alchemist which on the back had a quote from ?Bill Clinton? saying something like, “When I read it I felt like I was awake and the whole world was asleep.” Friends, you do not want to feel like that. One of the usual signs you are coming to a spiritual breakthrough is that you are repenting.
Alchemy Is Deeper Than Hinduism? Huh?
In The Alchemist, a religious studies scholar studied all the world’s religions, which he summarily dismissed in favor of alchemy. Sorry, no. There may be religions in the world that are shallower than alchemy; but alchemy is a consolation prize, particularly as compared to Orthodox Christianity and Hinduism. G.K. Chesterton didn’t even mention alchemy when he said, “If you are considering world religions, you will save yourself a great deal of time by only considering Christianity and Hinduism, because Islam is just a Christian heresy, and Buddhism is just a Hindu heresy.”
I have heard Christian critiques of Hinduism, some of them sharp. One person at a theology faculty who was a Hindu before becoming an Orthodox Christian suggested that if I really want to understand Hinduism, I should focus less on a reconciliation between monotheism and polytheism and the striving for purity one encounters in modern commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, and instead read Kali’s Child. I have in fact not read the title yet, but Kali is a demon-goddess who wears skulls on her necklace, and the special blessing she bestows is madness. The point the scholar was making is that you don’t understand Hinduism until you understand the place of tantrism, which is trying to get ahead by something forbidden, much like alchemy today.
But for all this, Hinduism is still deeper than a whale can dive, and I am drawing a complete blank as to a reason to summarily dismiss even Hinduism in favor of alchemy. Possibly there are Hindus who also practice alchemy; Hinduism is cosmopolitan as far as religions go. And as far as Christianity, it only really occurs in The Alchemist as trappings to validate occult activity.
Even the Marketing Story Fails to Have Constructive Character Development
But I find it noteworthy and interesting how character development occurs in a book meant to let people covet alchemy. For the protagonist, there is no really positive change in character development; the character development in the book is only debauchery. Apart from occult sin, the hero grows more and more caught up in himself in pride; what are presented as the blunders he makes along the way are when he loves and acts out of consideration for others and forgets devotion to the polestar of his monumental pride. In the end, which may modify classical alchemy, the student is as much an alchemist as the master, and ends just as much infested with pride. He cannot transmute lead to gold or live forever because those are not part of his path in alchemy; but he acquires massive gold even if he cannot create it, and his lack of moral character matches his master.
Gnosticism, Alchemy’s Undying Cousin
Philip Lee, in Against the Protestant Gnostics, is a Protestant pastor who concludes, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” He suggests that historical study of Gnosticism is irrelevant because Gnosticism, as he reads it, is an ahistorical process that may keep recurring historically, but is not really historical. (I would loosely compare this point to why one does not study the history of the process of decomposition in untreated corpses.) He also says that Gnosticism is not fruitfully studied as a philosophy or system of ideas, because the process goes through ongoing changes of belief and over time later beliefs can and do contradict earlier beliefs. But while he knocks out two obvious scholar’s tools with which to approach Gnosticism, he leaves something solid. He suggests that all Gnosticism hinges on a mood: despair. This means more specifically a despair that can only hope as framed by escape and escapism.
Christians who read the Bible may be deaf to how shocking it was to open the Bible with a chapter repeating, “And God saw what he had made, and it was good,” and after man was created, “very good.” To my knowledge, no other Ancient Near Eastern Creation story tells the like. Marduk tore the evil dragon Tiamat’s body in two and made half into the sky and half into the earth. If that is so, our bodies are despicable. The same is true for an account of the world being produced, as best I recall, as a projection from vile sexual behavior.
Against these, Christianity tells us the world is the good Creation of a transcendent good God, and there is a very real sense that to be in communion with the Orthodox Church is to be in communion with not only God and choirs of angels and fellow Orthodox, but whales and rocks and stars and trees. Sin and its effects may be real enough: but however much we need repentance from sin, the goodness God bakes into Creation runs deeper.
Gnosticism, including alchemy, seems enticing to a certain mindset, but it is a route for unhappy people to reach an even more unhappy position.
I might note that while there are differences in the phenomenon of Gnosticism, the evil character of the world we live in, and the consequent framing of salvation that amounts to some exotic escapism, is remarkably consistent across times and schools. As Yoda said, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”
It might be found that repentance for an alchemist may only to a certain measure be about spiritual practices I don’t even want to know: it may be waking up to being placed in a world that is in and of itself good and finding that the need for escape is more apparent than real and becomes even less important as the healing balm of repentance soaks in.
Escapism wants something that’s not part of the world, and anything you can acquire as real gives only an ephemeral satisfaction. Repentance from this passion in most cases won’t help you acquire wants that you don’t have. It may instead help you “acquire” and appreciate those that you actually do.
Let me close with a poem. It was written a few years ago, but if anything it is more, not less, relevant today.
How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?
The cold matter of science—
Exists not, O God, O Life,
For Thou who art Life,
How could Thy humblest creature,
Be without life,
Fail to be in some wise,
The image of Life?
Lead and silver and gold,
The vast emptiness of space and vacuum,
Teems more with Thy Life,
Than science will see in man,
Than hard and soft science,
Will to see in man.
How shall I praise Thee,
For making man a microcosm,
A human being the summary,
Of creation, spiritual and material,
Created to be,
A waterfall of divine grace,
Flowing to all things spiritual and material,
A waterfall of divine life,
Deity flowing out to man,
And out through man,
To all that exists,
And even nothingness itself?
And if I speak,
To an alchemist who seeks true gold,
May his eyes be opened,
To body made a spirit,
And spirit made a body,
The gold on the face of an icon,
Pure beyond twenty-four carats,
Even if the icon be cheap,
A cheap icon of paper faded?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Whose eyes overlook a transformation,
Next to which the transmutation,
Of lead to gold,
Is dust and ashes?
How shall I speak to an alchemist,
Of the holy consecration,
Whereby humble bread and wine,
Illumine as divine body and blood,
Brighter than gold, the metal of light,
The holy mystery the fulcrum,
Not stopping in chalice gilt,
But transforming men,
To be the mystical body,
The holy mystery the fulcrum of lives transmuted,
Of a waterfall spilling out,
The consecration of holy gifts,
That men may be radiant,
That men may be illumined,
That men be made the mystical body,
Course with divine Life,
Tasting the Fountain of Immortality,
The transformed elements the fulcrum,
Of God taking a lever and a place to stand,
To move the earth,
To move the cosmos whole,
Spiritual and material,
Returned to God,
And how shall I tell an alchemist,
That alchemy suffices not,
For true transmutation of souls,
To put away searches for gold in crevices and in secret,
And see piles out in the open,
In common faith that seems mundane,
And out of the red earth that is humility,
To know the Philosopher’s Stone Who is Christ,
And the true alchemy,
Is found in the Holy Orthodox Church?
How Shall I Tell an Alchemist?