Privilege, Painful Privilege—Extreme Privilege

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

One book on what parents willingly forget about adolescence talked about one junior high where there was a murmur among the teachers about what appeared to be some student’s extraordinarily beautiful mother. Then they found out the truth: she was not a student’s mother, but a sixth grade girl who had full-fledged and exquisite adult beauty.

And there was a problem here. Because she was so beautiful, the only place she could enter the social arena was at the top, and the girls already at the top of the social arena had no intent to step aside and make room for her.

She died a drug addict at 16.

This is really a quite different picture than a quote from C.S. Lewis I cite below. And I’ll comment that although I consider myself moderately attractive (and would be moreso if I spent less time eating and more time at the gym), I am quite grateful not to be a celebrity hounded by paparazzi. I’m glad I do not have such looks as Brad Pitt.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we read:

Then she came to a page which was such a blaze of pictures that one hardly notices the writing. Hardly—but she did notice the first words. They were, An infallible spell to make beautiful her that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals. Lucy peered at the pictures with her face close to the page, and though they had seemed crowded and muddlesome before, she now foung she could see them quite clearly. The first was a picture of a girl standing at a reading-desk reading in a huge book. And the girl was dressed exactly like Lucy. In the next picture Lucy (for the girl in the picture was Lucy herself) was standing with her mouth open and a rather terrible expression on her face, chanting or reciting something. In the third picture the beauty beyond the lot of mortals had come to her. It was strange, considering how small the pictures had looked at first, that the Lucy in the picture now seemed quite as big as the real Lucy; and they looked into each other’s eyes and the real Lucy looked away after a few minutes because she was dazzled by the beauty of the other Lucy; though she could still see a sort of likeness to herself in that beautiful face. And now the pictures came crowding on her thick and fast. She saw herself throned on high at a great tournament in Calormen and all the Kings of the world fought because of her beauty. After that it turned from tournaments to real wars and all Narnia and Archenland, Telmar and Calormen, Galma and Terebinthis, were laid waste with the fury of the kings and dukes and great lords who fought for her favor. Then it changed and Lucy, still beautiful beyond the lot of mortals, was back in England. And Susan (who had always been the beauty of the family) came home from America. The Susan in the picture looked like the real Susan only plainer with a nasty expression. And Susan was jealous of the dazzling beauty of Lucy, but that didn’t matter a bit because no one cared anything about Susan now.

There is something of a spiritual seduction in this picture as Lucy is enthralled with the notion of kingdoms being laid waste because of her beauty. But, none the less, this is a romanticized image, not the same as dying of a drug overdose at the age of 16. Lewis becomes more literal about the privilege of being a king in The Horse and his Boy:

“And that’s truer than thy brother knows, Cor,” said King Lune. “For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desparate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”

Lewis didn’t mention paparazzi, or what privilege cost Princess Diana.

Not that I have never had publicity:

My picture on the zipper

I may have had my likeness on the Zipper, but I am grateful not to have received any such attention consistently. I made front-page news in the local newspaper when I ranked 7th in the nation in one contest, but I have never had media attention that long exceeded its welcome. I have been called a “famous author” (though it is not entirely clear to me that this is true), but I have had an autograph requested once that I remember, and not gotten to the point that dealing with autograph requests is a test of my social graces and a chore. I am famous, maybe, but famous à la carte and up to a point, possibly famous enough to have some niceties, but not famous enough that it starts to really, really hurt, like fame does for the people classified as celebrities in tabloids: it seems that only the Dalai Lama (whom one would expect to possess a greater degree of spiritual strength) enters the vortex of tabloid celebrity status without getting sucked into narcotics, weddings that invite the gift of paper plates, or other destructive forces. My experiences with fame have been much lighter—even if I have walked into an area and met a response of, “That’s CJS Hayward!”—I cannot meaningfully say to people with real, industrial strength fame, “I know just how you feel.” I do not know just how they feel, end of discussion.

However, despite that I never had such physical beauty that people envied my face like many do Brad Pitt’s appearance, I have faced unpleasant consequences from people envious of something not too far from my face—not that far behind my face. My face need not inspire envy, but things are not the same for what I do with my brain. And dazzling brilliance inspires the same kind of envy as dazzlingly breathtaking looks: it just (perhaps) takes a little longer for envy’s gears to get rolling than (immediately visible) drop-dead gorgeous looks.

My favorite children’s book was, A Wind in the Door. Charles Wallace, in that book, is described as having an IQ so high it’s untestable by normal means. And such phenomena do exist, in the real world. Our concepts of IQ are rooted in tests originally designed to weed out the stupid, not detect high intelligence, and today if test designers realize that only a profoundly gifted child will answer a specific question correctly, that question will be removed from the test. The group of people having an IQ so high as to be untestable by normal means is a category that encompasses millions, and odds are you’ve met some such person at least once in your life.

(I am also interested in another character, the Teacher Blajeny, whom I will mention but not discuss here beyond providing this link.)

But Madeleine l’Engle, who may have been a heretic but whom I cannot omit from my story because of her being wrong on certain points (“Let he who is without error cast the first stone”), meant the immediate impact of what she said, a child, a six-year-old boy, whose bedtime reading is taken from refereed scientific journals, and who, to help him fit in better in society, reads Darwin. And he is being beat up at school: not because he is trying to be provocative, or for that matter because he is arrogant, but because he talks with people the way he did with family. The schoolteacher asks students what they’re interested in; one mentioned collecting eggs from a farm, another student said their bodies had “skinses” and muscles, and Charles Wallace said he was interested in mitochondria.

For those not up on “the mighty what?”, as his schoolmarm put it, mitochondria are organelles within most of our cells—a microscopic organ of cellular anatomy instead of large-scale organ of whole-body anatomy—and they come to have a place of profound importance in the makeup and even poetic conceits in the story. Madeleine l’Engle wrote in a later work that she had most of the characters in the story, the three Mr. Jenkinses and so on, but they were not moving forward as a story. Someone of her acquaintaince sent her a scientific article on mitochondria, and then things started to really get rolling and fell into place.

But that book was perhaps a fortunate book for me to have as a childhood favorite, errors and all, because Charles Wallace faced a kind of difficulty that has been foundational to my life. There are many more subtle traps than the danger of discussing scientific journal findings in gradeschool. One major challenge surrounds employment. There are some kinds of work that I have learned I am not a good fit for; and I try to avoid them. (One staple of job interview advice is that you aren’t just being interviewed by the company; you are interviewing the company. And you have interest in understanding the company as much as the company does for you.) But there’s another concern of, “What’s going to happen when your boss learns that you are smarter than him?” And one thing I have done in the past is to look through their website, HTML source and all, and write a report suggesting improvements. And that is done because of a double agenda. To a humble boss, this could be less pleasant than some other reports, but it also shows initiative, active research about the company, and a “value added” mentality, all of which are cardinally valuable in an employee. (One of the other staples of job interview preparation is researching and making it clear that you’ve done you’re homework—read the annual shareholder report of a publicly traded company—something usually available just by calling and asking the front desk, or quite possibly off the press section of their website.) To a boss with more narcissism, it is taken as an insult even if it is worded professionally and diplomatically, and the boss who hurls it across the table to a subordinate to address has tipped his hand. Usually my possible future boss’s immediate reaction answers my questions. The guess can be wrong, but the two basic things I try to figure out in an interview are whether the work will be a good fit for me, and how much the boss may need to be the smartest person I’m around when I’m outside the range of talent they have ever worked with.

The tale of The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab tells of essentially every social arena, and the basic difficulties arise well before the end of the bell curve, in every area of privilege. The tale of The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab is (among others) the tale of the millions of people who, strictly speaking, have an IQ high enough to be untestable by normal means, and my suspicion is that the phenomenon does not start with them either.

But there is a difference of orders of magnitude. Let me paint two pictures of deeply snowy roads. There has been and is heavy snowfall; no salt trucks have been out to the road you are on; the roads are treacherous. But the difference is between this situation is that in one case it happens at least once every year, in Illinois, and the other is as happens once a decade or perhaps less in Georgia. Both are situations where you will get in an accident if you drive carelessly or drive as if you had perfect control of your car and the road. But in Illinois, most drivers have seen heavy snow before, and if you are driving slowly and more conservatively, keeping your distance from other drivers, and in general following what defensive driving prescribes for the conditions, you stand reasonable odds of getting to your destination without a scratch. But in Georgia, if you can’t stay off the road, even if you have practical defensive driving reflexes, the other drivers don’t. You are there negotiating a road with people who don’t have even rusty reflexes for driving on much of any snow at all. And defensive driving shouldn’t create you trouble, but it is also no insurance policy for getting to your destination without an accident. (And as a side note, I mean no slight to our neighbors in Georgia; they might well report that we in the North have muffed some things they do well, like having black and white people play together and work together from childhood; Illinois’s status is of course a much more serious shortfalling than having trouble handling rare weather conditions that hit your locale once in a decade or less.)

And the difference between the phenomenon portrayed in The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab may be a bugbear to quite a lot of people, and it is more of a bugbear the further out you go, the difference being the difference between treacherously snowy roads in Illinois and treacherously snowy roads in Georgia. I am sure it is more of a bugbear for the smartest man I’ve met, who besides being considered to have the highest IQ in the ultra-high-IQ community, was (last I checked) working on a cosmology, his Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe (quite different from my own “physics”), while getting his income working as a bouncer at a bar. He may happen to be built like a tank, but I’m grateful that I’ve been able to get at least some money working with computers and stand less in harm’s way than a bouncer is.

The character of Merlin is a wizard, but all things reach their fulfillment in Christ—even Merlin in the longest homily in The Sign of the Grail.

Merlin is thought to be based on the fascinating Desert Fathers, and Merlin’s master was said to be St. Blaise, the heiromartyr of Sebaste, to whom wild beasts came to be blessed and healed of their ailments. And in this respect, St. Blaise is a remarkable figure, but a saint who has quite a lot of company. In the Arthurian legends, hermits play a major role and are often former nobles (Orthodox monastic saints include many nobles), but really all that is truly interesting in Merlin is as a shadow of Christ’s Desert Fathers, of Christ’s saints, and of Christ.

I should also parenthetically comment that my literary identification with Merlin as a character has little to do with being ascribed the role of “Unix wizard.” I grew up playing UltraRogue, spent my time exploring a Unix filesystem when Ultrarogue was not available, and eventually wrote my own Roguelike as a way of cutting my teeth programming. And what relevance being a Unix wizard may have is less through learning the science of computer science, software engineering, and the like, than having one Unix, namely DEC Ultrix, as my home town, forest, and maze to explore.

I have spent the past chunk of time trying to convince myself that an article comparing myself to Merlin is something to avoid. And there are quite obvious reasons: Merlin is not an Orthodox role model, and comparing oneself to someone great… I remember one fellow student at Fordham telling about how she had been in a class where the teacher mentioned a great poet and said, “And I think I can tell because we are both poets…”, and she read over the shoulder of one of her classmates writing in her notebook, “Compares self to [the great poet] on the dubious ground of their both being poets,” and doing her best to hide her smile and laughter. And the obvious Orthodox rebuttal to this work is to say that the Orthodox Church has an incredible treasure of saints, icons, and the saints’ lives, and these are the gold mine from which an Orthodox Christian is to take inspiration, models, and aspirations. And years back, when I was received into the Orthodox Church, I received a diplomatic warning of “I don’t think you’ve fallen into prelest, but you are in danger to,” on my comparing myself to Merlin. And there is more to be said—but this has the sense of more ways for the rational mind to dodge what is in the conscience. And this does have a sense of, “Here is what is in my heart to do, and here are all the reasons I am inventing with my head to dodge it.” And still I am trying to dodge it even as I write.

When I was a senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, one of the senior awards given was, “Most likely to be on [the computer and social hub] Imsasun in 2020,” and the senior was, Jonathan “Merlin” Hayward. I had taken that nickname because Merlin was the most attractive figure I knew in literature, more interesting than anyone else from King Arthur and his court, and while other characters would be held in my heart (Charles Wallace and Blajeny from A Wind in the Door), he was the most riveting fictional character I knew before I read A Wind in the Door. I did not enter the occult, but I did study illusionism, and he stood as a symbol of power.

And it was my senior year that someone asked me if I was the local Unix wizard, and when I hesitated, Scott Swanson said, “Yes.”

Now as I look back, I read the medievalist C.S. Lewis in That Hideous Strength:

What exactly he [Merlin] had done there [in Bragdon wood, where he was believed to be in suspended animation under a university campus] they did not know; but they had all, by various routes, come too far to either to consider his art mere legend and imposture, or to equate it with what the Renaissance called Magic. Dimble even maintained that a good critic, by his sensibility alone, could detect the difference between the traces which the two things had left on literature. “What common measure is there,” he would ask, “between ceremonial occultists like Faustus and Prospero and Archimago with their midnight studies, their forbidden books, their attendant fiends or elementals, and a figure like Merlin who seems to produce his results simply by being Merlin?” And Ransom agreed. He thought that Merlin’s art was the last survival of something older and different—something brought to Western Europe after the fall of Numinor and going back to an era in which the general relations of mind and matter on this planet had been other than those we know. It had probably differed from Renaissance Magic profoundly. It had possibly (though this was doubtful) been less guilty: it had certainly been more effective. For Paracelsus and Agrippa and the rest had achieved little or nothing: Bacon himself—no enemy to magic except on this account—reported that the magicians “attained not to greatness and certainty of works.” The whole Renaissance outburst of forbidden arts had, it seemed, been a method of losing one’s soul on singularly unfavorable terms. But the older Art had been a different proposition.

At my grandparents’ house, I saw a pillow, possibly made, that said, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, I am my mother, after all.” And some time after reading it I realized that I am Merlin after all. I have built a castle in the air: the website at CJSHayward.com. I write: parenthetically speaking, Madeleine l’Engle was asked on a college exam how Chaucer chose a particular literary device, and she wrote in a white heat of fury that Chaucer did not choose a particular literary device at all; that was not how authors worked. And the things I write, and the way of writing, is not of rules, techniques, and methods, but an art and not science of coaxing the pieces I write into being, and of trying, struggling, to get myself out of the way to give them room to speak. To return to That Hideous Strength:

“But about Merlin. What it comes to, as far as I can make out, is this. There were still possibilities for a man of that age which aren’t for a man of ours. The Earth itself was much more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were more like physical actions.”…

“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 point of view, confused. For him, every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead—a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases… In a sense Merlin represents what we’ve got to get back to in some different way…”

And this point describes Orthodoxy. It describes Orthodoxy, and others much more than me; but insofar as I have demonstrated that “every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse,” this offers me no particular distinction in Orthodoxy. It’s like saying that I go to church or say my prayers: of course I do, but this makes me no giant in the community, just a regular member who participates in the community. It has happened, for instance, that I have been given the other end of a leash from a dog who was uncomfortable and afraid of men, and twenty or thirty minutes later I had snuggled with the dog and he was eagerly coming up to other men and smelling their hands. But this coaxing is not just for inanimate nature: it is for all of the creations on my website, creative open source software projects as well as theology and literature. And still this is nothing special about me; not everyone is a writer, but everyone has some area in which it is possible to do such things. The idea of “a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if doesn’t work the way he pleases,” is how Western modernity may view many things, but Orthodoxy holds a different way of relating, a way that is sensationalized and treated as Merlin’s monopoly by Lewis, but it is one aspect of a common Orthodox treasure, exotic in the West perhaps, but historically speaking a meat-and-potatoes set of ways of relating to oneself and nature, domineering when it needs to be (and much more to oneself than to my horse), but a basis for relating to the world that is other than the scientific way to unlearn.

The development of science, their influence today to the point that one can argue today that the problem with theology and science is not that theology is not sufficiently scientific, but that from science, theology in the academy has imbibed things that are toxic to it. Mary Midgley wrote,

It may be easier to see if we notice the way in which the pioneers of [scientific mechanist views] went about reshaping the concept of Nature. Very properly, they wanted to try the experiment of depersonalizing it. With that in view, the first step they surely needed to take was to stop using the feminine pronoun [that had previously seen use, and still sees use when we speak today of “Mother Nature”], or indeed any personal pronoun for ‘Nature’ altogether. But this was not done. We come 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).

This vile image is part of how Western science cut away what is retained in Orthodoxy, a relation to nature that is to some degree personal, even though creation that is ‘logikos’, exists on the level of knowledge, should not be confused with creations that exist, but not to that degree. When monks and nuns approach wild animals and the animals sometimes do their bidding, the animals are never taken to be human: but there is still a relation as to something more personal than cold matter (a word that etymologically signifies ‘mother’ but I digress). I am a bit nervous about some of the things associated with Fr. Seraphim (Rose), but one thing unimpeachable about him is that (as I have heard from a fellow-parishioner whom I respect) when he and another monk, knowing the services, performed the services in their wilderness abode, some deer came by, and when the parts of the service came when the humans at the service would stand or sit down, the deer who came by would stand or sit down. Setting aside all questions about Fr. Seraphim and the “Blessed Seraphim Rose” movement, this is no distinctive feature about Fr. Seraphim or his fellow-monk; it is something woven into the cloth of Orthodoxy and also found on Mount Athos. For Orthodox monastics animals start to behave like kin, and not just in ancient saints’ lives such as that of Fr. Zosima and St. Mary of Egypt. And the report above about deer is not something surprising to someone who knows the greatest Orthodox saints across the ages, but only monasticism here and now: monks and nuns here and now, who count themselves nothing (but whose prayers I would greatly appreciate), would find no great surprise, no shock or culture shock, at how the greatest monastic saints have been served by or otherwise connected with monastics living here and now. Maybe there is a difference between great monastic saints and monks living here and now: none the less, monks living here and now have shown an Adamic closeness to wild easts.

Unlearning science

One sees in social disciplines the claim, “___________ are scientists, and they are every bit as much scientists as people in the so-called ‘hard sciences’ like physics.” The sciences are prestige disciplines, enough so that people in psychology and sociology claim a bit of prestige by showing their embarrassing physics envy, and especially as regards the science-as-worldview approach, sciences represent a step away from Orthodoxy. A large step, big enough that people have a hard time asking, “How else could it be?” Now sciences offer a best guess as to how exactly certain processes happen, and I do not have what a physicist would see as an improvement on current theories in physics. None the less I outline a general bent of natural philosophy that is an answer to the question, “How else could it be?” and in particular “What besides science could it mean to understand the natural world?” This work of philosophy, meaning natural philosophy as the older understanding science once came from, is outlined in “Physics”. There are scare quotes because “Physics” is not physics in the modern sense of the term; it is if anything physics in a sense as old as Aristotle that lies forgotten in the modern world. But the book lies open to us.

Strengths not forged by Orthodoxy

The stories of Merlin have him entering the human race with powers beyond those of the human race; in Orthodoxy, there is a phenomenon of converts coming in with strengths that Orthodoxy itself rarely forged. I got a warning about prelest for thinking of myself as some singular figure in this way, which I am not, but Orthodoxy does not much forge writers, nor aptitude to work with technology. How Shall We Live This Instant? suggests that changing technologies work much more like something liberals can easily deal with than what conservatives can deal with, and suggests that a conservative who can deal with the corcuscating flow of technologies is a “virtual liberal”: there is no loss of credentials as a proper conservative, but a technologically astute conservative can function in a way that comes much more naturally to liberals.

I was quite wrong to think of myself as a singularity in this regard; across the ages, well-functioning Orthodoxy does not produce some strengths. I’m told that all of the saints who bore impressive education were educated outside the Orthodox Church. St. John Chrysostom, for instance, was trained in pagan rhetoric and used his training as a heirarch in the Church; he did not receive an Orthodox rhetorical training and might not have been able to receive such training. And there are other examples among the saints, and among the rest of us. I was sinning to think of myself as a singularity who came in with certain abilities, but I did come in with certain abilities the Orthodox Church does not create itself. Usually when I succumb to pride, it is pride about something that is ultimately a piece of Hell. This time I was proud of something that has a place, although a lesser place than I had thought.

Prophecy

Merlin, in the medieval versions of Arthurian legends, is not called a “magician” or a “wizard;” he is called a “prophet.” The first book that popularized Arthurian legend outside Celtic circles, the 12th century Brut, includes a spectacular set of apocalyptic prophecies that were taken to be legitimate prophecies for centuries after they were written; the Brut, a sort of 12th century “da Vinci Code lite”, is categorized by the Wikipedia as pseudohistory but although doubts were raised about the truth of its stories almost while the ink was wet, it was centuries before almost everyone recognized that it was not history. But as pseudohistory it was not presented as fiction, nor received as fiction, and as a “da Vinci Code lite,” it represented history as people would like it to be. For while a modern text may demonstrate its disconnect from being a proper work of history, no scholar I’ve read has challenged its credentials in storytelling.

I was starting to say that I have, as far as Merlin the prophet goes, any such train of miracles, but then I thought back. It has hardly been my prayer alone, but my prayer with others has brought about healing above a best medical prognosis, and not just once. And it was by faith that I attended Cambridge University when everything was going against me. Student loans, after half of a year’s worth of effort, fell into place one business day before I left to study. And God’s fingerprints have been all around.

Furthermore, prophecy is more than prediction. It is the testimony of Jesus. I asked my Antiochian priest’s blessing to preach a homily, or rather he saw that I was chomping at the bit, and before I preached a stronger version of Do We Have Rights?, he said that spiritual gifts had not ceased, and what I was going to say was, in the strict sense of the term, prophecy. (My homily was responded to by clapping, and the priest, who did not slight me in the least, explained that you do not respond to a homily by clapping.) Now I am under the ROCOR jurisdiction, and in ROCOR even deacons do not preach homilies; it was a special grace to me that I as a layman was permitted to preach as a homily. And the core and goal of CJS Hayward is prophecy: not necessarily that it be heeded and accoladed as prophecy, but that even if it bears few special labels or accreditation, its beating heart is prophecy. And its words about virtue and vice have a stronger claim to prophecy than sensational predictions about the future. Even if some if its words apply to the future, its essential claim to prophecy is to be the testimony of Jesus.

So where does this leave me now? Show me a child’s childhood heroes, and I will show you the man’s heart. Orthodoxy has something much better in the lives of the Saints and other such readings, and I have shown my poverty that I have not got my bearings there. My status even as “Unix wizard” is a little bit tenuous as a claim to be Merlin: I relate to computers and my creations in programming, which are electronic machines and not organic life, as one coaxing a child or stroking a horse. “Unix wizard” may not be a singularity, but I am not a singularity in any obvious sense except that every man is a singularity. (After each, God breaks the mould, even for twins.)

Merlin is said to know “philosophy,” meaning “natural philosophy” or study of the natural world. Part of my critical reception of science (you may call it apostasy if you wish) is to look at what may be natural philosophy without being science. The “Physics” referenced above may be seen as an example of natural philosophy that is not science nor scientific. I have wished to spend more time out of doors, rather than be a “dweller in tents” like Jacob. But the colors on my website of ivy and stone are not a mistake. This website offers, if you will, prophecies in Merlin’s vein. They include:

But these are not the apocalyptic “prophecies of Merlin,” claimed prophecies taken as genuine by some medievals, prophecies like those found in II Esdras, with blood dripping from trees. (Any apocalypse is implied.)

Blaise Pascal said,

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

And yet after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look. All complain, princes and subjects, noblemen and commoners, old and young, strong and weak, learned and ignorant, healthy and sick, of all countries, all time, all ages, and all conditions.

A trial so long, so continuous, and so uniform should certainly convince us of our inability to reach the good by our own efforts…. What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remains to him only; the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable Object, that is to say, only by God Himself.

And if I am comfortable talking to myself in relation to Merlin, perhaps it is because The figure of Merlin, if deepened enough, becomes Christ, by whom every Orthodox is measured. Perhaps I have long struggled to overcome escapism and the passion that is behind all related temptation, but I serve a God who seeks not the eradication of passions, but their transfiguration, and a position of power can be given its place in Orthodoxy.

And I will close the door here before things really get interesting: when I am offered the saints’ lives, who eclipse all the literary characters I loved as a child and who are steady forces for God to re-orient my outlook. In the lives of the saints, I find the beauty that I loved in good fairy tales—or rather, good fairy tales reflect a little bit of the beauty that the saint’s lives are shot through with. The saints’ lives are alike baby food for beginners and strong meat for spiritual athletes.

Someone said, in reference to statements like, “I cannot overemphasize the importance of clear and proper grammar,” that they are quite false: one can overemphasize the importance of grammar by saying that improper or sloppy grammar is a leading cause of cancer, or that exposure to improper grammar substantially increases risk of crack addiction in 16 to 19 year old males. And in that sense it is possible to overemphasize the value of the saints’ lives, and in fact some have unintentionally done so by saying that at some point in time in Russia, peasants learned about Christ and his life, not from the Gospel, but from the saints’ lives. And that is a false exaggeration of how important the saints’ lives are, but provided the Gospel is front and center, there is much that is valuable and important in the saints’ lives.

So this is where I’ve been. I invite you to join me as I move on from here.

Sincerely,
Christos Jonathan Seth “Charles Wallace” “Merlin” “Blajeny” Hayward

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Pride

The Age of Rampant Pride

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.

Psalm 2:1-4, RSV

These words are timeless, and have a singular relevance to our own day, when it is not just the kings of the earth, the rulers, who counsel against the Lord and his Christ, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart, and cast their cords from us.” Times were bad enough when the kings of the earth pursued this occupation: today this pride is the avocation of the rank-and-file, the spiritual vocation embraced by John Q. Public.

Pride has always been present as an adversary to our well-being, but sociologists say that each generation is more “narcissistic” than the last: each generation is more deeply enmeshed in pride. When I was growing up I was urged on all fronts to have a healthy self-esteem; I was to feel I was special. Both these things would alarm the Church Fathers; speaking of “a healthy self-esteem” is like speaking of an alcoholic having “a healthy insatiable thirst for for eighty proof hard liquor.” The next generation after me is the generation that has to have its birthdays and other celebrations be a cut apart from the “ordinary”: the old formula of inviting a child’s friends and friend’s parents, ensuring a plentiful supply of sugary food, and hanging out for a couple of hours just doesn’t cut it. There has to be some special stamp imprinted on it, like a little girl having hours of costume and makeup to dress up as a fairy. To be adequate, a celebration need not merely be a cut above the old formula; it should ideally be a cut above the other “special” celebrations.

Pride has been called “the flaw of Narcissus,” and it is astonishing how well pride is represented and portrayed in the story. Before the end of the story, Narcissus was haughty, even scorning those who adored him—it is the character of pride, not only to view oneself highly, but to scorn others. (And it is the nature of humility, not only to view oneself modestly, but to genuinely admire and respect others.) But the central feature of the story is how Narcissus meets his end: even though no other person assaulted him, he was doomed as soon as he saw his own reflection in the water and stared in rapt fascination at his own beauty, until he pined away to nothing. He died because not even his bodily needs could take his attention from his entranced admiration of his own beauty. (“Narcissus” etymologically comes from “narke”, meaning sleep or drug-like drowsiness, and Narcissus might as well have been on drugs.) If you want a glimpse into the soul of Narcissism, read the myth of Narcissus.

Pick it up by the heart and it is called narcissism, pride, or self-esteem; pick it up by the head and it is called subjectivism. Subjectivism is insisting on believing what you want to believe, even when you know, or used to know, that it’s wrong. The increasing standard of narcissism in people’s lives is matched by an increasing standard of subjectivism at the university, an issue argued by the scholar who wrote C. S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil: An Investigation of a Pervasive Theme. Here “problem of evil” does not refer to theodicy, but subjectivism. Subjectivism says, “I will believe what I want to believe,” and far enough into it, subjectivism says, “I am right and God is wrong.” At a low dose, subjectivism is called “wishful thinking;” at a high enough dose it is called blasphemy. And subjectism comes from pride and builds up pride.

Pride Unfurls and Unfolds

The poison of pride unfurls in many ways.

Gay Pride

Where does “gay pride” fit into this? As a full-fledged member of pride unfurling, and as the wrong medicine. There is a lot of queer pain and suffering, and the idea that being queer is something to take pride in is to seek medication for this. It may be the wrong approach, but just as enough alcohol will seem to solve any problem for the short term, gay pride promises to medicate pain.

And the term is well chosen. It may not call itself subjectivism, but transgendered surgery is an effort to set right what God got wrong. Now gay pride may not on the surface claim to be pride; it may be on every conscious level an effort to come to terms with reality and celebrate who you really are. But pride cannot deliver that; only repentance and humility can make such a delivery. Only repentance and humility can make good on the promise. Narcissism in general is counterfeit coin: the classic Narcissism: Denial of the True Self could well enough have been written about gay pride. I have known one person who faced strong homosexual temptations who was at home with himself and truly happy; he came to terms with who he was, and he did it as ex-gay.

But if you think, “I’m straight; I don’t have to face that issue,” you are wrong. There are many ways we drink the same poison; LGBTQ’s are just honest enough to correctly name their salve as “pride.”

Gnosticism

Gnosticism is another theatre for this to play out in. Some years back, a few lone voices warned that the heresy of Gnosticism was coming back. Now you have to be pretty obtuse to deny a resurgence of Gnosticism; you can say if you want that contemporary attempts to resurrect the heresy are creating another beast altogether, but it is rather provocative to deny that recent years have seen a substantial interest in Gnosticism.

At one level of insight, one may enumerate various ideas and claims found in Gnosticism. At the next level, one may notice that Gnosticism is not a stable system of ideas; it is a process that moves from one point to another, and to study it as a historical phenomenon is to force it into something it isn’t, just as a study of untreated cancer across history would be mistaken, grossly mistaken, to find historical vogues, trends, and patterns in how tumors have grown in different ages in history. But there is one more level of insight worth mentioning.

Gnosticism, at its core, is not powered by a framework of ideas (for that matter, neither is Orthodoxy, even if her ideas are more stable). It offers a good news of escape that hinges on a mood of despair, and Gnostic esoterica are a kind of spiritual pornography, almost, that slakes the thirst of someone thirsting for an escape from despair. And there is bad news and good news for people pursuing such projects. The bad news is that escape is not possible beyond a shimmer that leaves one thirsting; the good news is announced,

Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

John 4:13-14, RSV

The bad news is that escape is not possible. The good news is that escape is not needed, and in the story of St. Photini, the woman at the well, she tried to enlist his help in fleeing from her shame and her pain, and he pulled her through her shame, helping her face what she was trying to flee, and left her running without shame through the whole city, “He told me all that I ever did.”

The despair that builds a thirst for Gnosticism and escape appears in times of plenty; it can also occur in times of economic collapse and loss. But the final assessment applies to both: escape is not possible. But escape is not needed.

Humility

And what does this have to do with pride? As much as the spiritual honesty of humility helps open one’s eyes to the beauty of others and the world (“in humility count others better than yourselves“), pride bears blindness and leaves one seeing a despicable world from which one can only wish escape. Hubris is called blinding arrogance, and it alike blinds you from your weaknesses and blinds you to what is delightful and good in the world around you. Walk far enough along the path of Narcissus, and like him you will find yourself despising those who adore you.

And I would like to comment in particular on “in humility count others better than yourselves.” This is bitter medicine and an insult to our pride. I don’t like it personally, and I’m not sure I’ve seen a person who can read those words and not squirm. I’m not near that spiritual maturity, but for all that I recognize and confess that this is not only Scripture, but that it specifically is a gateway to joy.

“How?”, you may ask: “How on earth?” The answer is almost in the text. If you are proud like Narcissus, you will despise others. And if you despise people, it is awfully hard to enjoy their company. But if, “in humiliy,” you “cosnsider other people better than yourself,” you will learn respect for others who are made in the image of God, and you will enjoy the company of the worst of sinners. Conflicts may happen, but if we follow the supreme humility of one whose (almost) dying words were a prayer for his murderers, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Is there humility beyond seeing the good, and seeking the good, for the people who are trying to kill you?)

Wishful Thinking

Let’s look at a light, seemingly innocuous form of subjectivism: wishful thinking. I wrote of one specific kind of wishful thinking:

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

And I’ve done worse, with wishing I was in the world of Arthurian legends, and I was somehow a knight with the Holy Grail. i even wrote a novel out of that silliness. At least a happy romance and marriage is a natural enough wish; the Arthurian legends and the Holy Grail are not. And this list of two kinds of wishful thinking leaves a lot out. In Exotic golden ages and restoring harmony with nature: Anatomy of a Passion, the passage above continues,

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

And on a banal level, wishful thinking is a way to waste more time at work. for programmers, when you write something and it doesn’t work, it is not the right thing to try again and hope it will fix itself; the right thing to do is investigate what is wrong and fix it. And I was half-shocked when I paid attention to the time and energy I wasted wishfully trying something out again in the wishful hope it would magically fix itself.

Money and Technology

Dostoevsky, in a quote in The Brothers Karamazov that I can’t immediately trace, makes the point that money is something that people will think is good because it reduces their dependence on their neighbors. And while Alyosha indeed acknowledges that more money means less dependence, he sees this as a bad thing: perhaps it is God’s design for people to be dependent on their neighbors and not on sums of money. And this skepticism towards how good money really is is straight from the Bible. To pick one of innumerable quotes, let me cite the most politically incorrect sermon in history:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Sandwiched between words about money are words about the health of one’s spiritual eye, which is darkened if it is greedy or stingy. If, perhaps, it is proud, with such pride as would substitute dependence on money for dependence on one’s neighbor.

The Acceleration of Addictiveness

And whatever cautions the Bible makes about money apply fourfold to our technological labyrinth. The Bible has warnings about alcohol when the strongest drink you could get was at 4% alcohol: weaker than most beer. Today we live in a world when if you have access to alcohol you can probably buy hard liquor at 40% alcohol: a strong enough drink that it is drunk with special little shot glasses that are too small to drink anything one would drink to slake thirst. And it’s not just alcoholic beverages that are on steroids. There’s something about smartphones that is in the same key.

One of the rules at alcohol, whether at 4% or 40%, is that it needs to be used in a discipline of moderation, with restraint. The wrong use is precisely to lay the reins on the horse’s neck and just go with the flow. And smartphones, like the matrix of technologies we live in, need to be used with a discipline of restraint and not lay the reins on the horse’s neck.

Once in a while we get a clue that texting and driving is as dangerous as drinking and driving, but we have not as a society put much more restraint than that. One may occasionally read in a newspaper that texting is eating away at teen’s sleep because the stream of new texts doesn’t shut off at bedtime, but the idea that texting, for instance, should be used in a disciplined way, does not dawn on us as a whole.

It is pride that seeks independence from one’s neighbor, and it is pride that seeks independence from one’s surroundings by means of technology. Back in the days of Walkmans, a friend’s grandmother commented that running with a Walkman is a way of disdainfully detaching yourself from attentiveness to your surroundings: an old tape-eating Walkman was a way to carry your own reality with you. And carrying one’s own reality with oneself is in the service of pride, and not a good thing.

I once thought of writing “The Luddite’s Guide to Technology” and describing how to use technology appropriately. In a word it would have been:

Use technologies in ways that arise from and support spiritual discipline, and do not use technologies in ways that arise from and support pride and other vices, including taking you to an alternate private world.

I stopped my attempt to write it because I was not writing anything particularly good, but I would love to see it written, if only as that summary above.

Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen?

Someone said that the difference between good and bad literature is that bad literature is used to escape reality, while good literature is used to engage reality. I’ve said that television is a pack of cigarettes for the mind, but television can be used to check weather and traffic, which is not at all turning on the television and entering a state where your body burns fewer calories than when sleeping. But it’s not just television. I had originally intended to revise Plato’s famous “Allegory of the Cave” into Plato: The Allegory of the Television, but I ended with a title of Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen? In both cases Plato’s lesson is applied twice to bad use of technology in which the user is twice imprisoned and far from contemplation of God. And so much of the value proposition of special effects movies, smartphones, role playing games, video games, and the like is escape. Reality isn’t good enough, not for the likes of us. We’re tripping over the same root again, the root called “pride.”

And that’s not all.

More could perhaps be said. What has been said about pride and despairing escapism, or pride and Gnosticism, or pride and technology, might as well be said about magic as an attempt to escape reality and enter another reality, however subtle the means. I haven’t talked about spellbound fascination with one’s own inner world. (The inner world is real, and it contains Heaven and Hell, but you’re selling yourself short if you think it’s just a place for “Me! Me! Me!” This is much for the same reason one priest says he doesn’t like hearing people talking about “my life:” his answer is that there is only one life, meaning God’s Life, and either you’re in it or you’re not.) I have not touched the dizzying abyss of postmodernism as spiritual drunkenness adventure, or a curious attitude towards sex that sees children as its liability and places its goodness in entirely the wrong place. On that last score, see the discussion in The Most Politically Incorrect Sermon in History: A commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. But perhaps this is enough meditation on evil.

Holy Humility

Is there anything good to be learned? Yes indeed, the humility that opens our eyes to the beauty of God and Creation. St. John of the Latter asked where humility came from, and wrote only:

Someone discovered in his heart how beautiful humility is, and in his amazement he asked her to reveal her parent’s name. Humility smiled, joyous and serene: “Why are you in such a rush to learn the name of my begetter? He has no name, nor will I reveal him to you until you have God as your possesssion. To Whom be glory forever.”

But if pride has served as an opening point, let us close with humility. One picture of humility is illuminated in Tales From a Magic Monastery:

The Crystal Globe

I told the guestmaster I’d like to become a monk.

“What kind of monk?” he asked. “A real monk?”

“Yes,” I said.

He poured me a cup of wine. “Here, take this.” No sooner had I drunk it than I became aware of a crystal globe forming around me. It began to expand until finally it surrounded him too. This monk, who a minute before had seemed so commonplace, now took on an astonishing beauty. I was struck dumb. After a bit the thought came to me, “Maybe I should tell him how beautiful he is—perhaps he doesn’t even know.”

But I really was dumb—that wine had burned out my tongue! But so great was my happiness at the sight of such beauty that I thought it was well worth the price of my tongue. When he made me a sign to leave, I turned away, confident that the memory of that beauty would be a joy forever.

But what was my surprise when I found that with each person I met it was the same—as soon as he would pass unwittingly into my crystal globe, I could see his beauty too. And I knew that it was real.

Is this what it means to be a REAL monk—to see the beauty in others and to be silent?

This is holy humility. This is what it means to see the image of God in others. This is what it means to “in humility count others better than yourself.

Let us make this our goal.

The Pleasure-Pain Syndrome

Mystical Theology: A Broad Spectrum of Orthodox Prose

Lorem Ipsum

In web design, as in graphic-related design since the 1500’s, it is traditional to use a standard block of text called “lorem ipsum” when you’re trying to see how the page will look graphically and you don’t want to be distracted into reading the text itself. The standard block of “pseudo-text” reads:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

The text above, somewhat shortened and corrupted, comes from a quotation of “de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum”, section 1.10.32, by Cicero, written in 45 BC. The original text interests me not because it is at the root of the standard piece of dummy text, but for what it says (H. Rackham, 1914):

But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of denouncing pleasure and praising pain was born and I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness. No one rejects, dislikes, or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?

The copyright date is 45 BC, were such ancient works to be under copyright, but I’ll take this to be a straightforward statement of the obvious in our day. Let me repeat the last sentence: “But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?” There is a real flaw in this way of looking at things.

The Pleasure-Pain Syndrome

Certain selections of the Philokalia suggest an understanding that imply this statement to be based on a philosophical error. Physical pleasure and pain are tied together, and trying to experience pleasure with “no annoying consequences” is like trying to withdraw money from your bank account without making your bank balance any lower. It’s a get-rich-quick scheme that boils down to poor math skills. It is a sign of confusion to try to separate the sugar rush from the sugar crash.

There are certain points where we are warned of the pleasure-pain syndrome: the warnings children are given about street narcotics is not that they fail to deliver pleasure, but after delivering pleasure they deliver all the pain that comes with it. It’s kind of like Disney’sAladdin, where Aladdin goads Jafar into wishing, “I wish to be an all powerful genie!”, and then tells him, “You wanted to be a genie, you got it! And everything that goes with it!” Shackles appear on Jafar’s wrists, and he is sucked into a lamp’s “itty bitty living space”—if anything, a sunny and optimistic image to compare with “everything that goes with” addiction to street drugs.

The passages in the Philokalia adapting and elaborating St. Maximos Confessor’s teaching make highly emphatic claims about the pleasure-pain syndrome. They very emphatically state that Christ, who was born of a virgin, was conceived without any trace of physical pleasure (sexual or otherwise), and born without pain: a sufficient Redeemer, in other words, needed to be conceived and born outside of the pleasure-pain syndrome. He took the redemptive effects of sufferings he would not earn; other writers have stated that sinless Christ couldn’t have died of ripe old age, but in order to die would have to have a “borrowed” death imposed from outside as occurred in the Crucifixion. Mankind entered the pleasure-pain syndrome in a fall to pleasure and sensuality, and to be rescued from drowning, we need a Savior with one foot solidly planted on the dry land of the shore. This is the extent to which that work frames both our destruction and our salvation in terms of the pleasure-pain syndrome.

Speaking in terms of the pleasure-pain syndrome is not a central feature of Orthodox theology, but dispassion is beyond being a central point; it is crucial and receives center stage not just in the Philokalia but in other classics like The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which is read during Lent as a consistent feature of monastic discipline.

There is a direct and vital relationship between dispassion and the pleasure-pain syndrome: dispassion is a state of spiritual freedom where one is no longer shackled and governed by the pleasure-pain syndrome or any passion allied to it.

There are many ways one could frame things, and the pleasure-pain syndrome does not appear to be a central theme in the Philokalia overall, let alone an encompassing theme in Orthodox spirituality. But the insight is valid, and for that matter may not be distinctively Orthodox. One Orthodox friend explained to me why he had stopped watching movies: he noticed that an hour or two after a movie ended, he found himself in a depression. Jerry Mander may provide a theory as to why in his Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, a 1978 title that is still salient, and the book has no pretensions of speaking from a religious tradition. But he argues at length that when you gaze long into television, television gazes long into you: he makes some rather chilling suggestions about what effect television has on where people look for and experience pleasure (in a word, the argument is, “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”). He suggests that when television provides a major source of pleasure, there are things that follow in its wake. It would not seem too difficult to transpose his basic insights in terms of having a cell phone that occupies your attention all the time. Treacherously addictive Internet porn may be a much worse kind of pleasure than most others one might discuss, but it is not the only one where a pleasure-pain syndrome is at play.

Even if the economy is dire, I am concerned we are in an age of pleasures of all kinds, and these are the pleasures of the pleasure-pain syndrome. The Philokalia discusses people who try to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, and perhaps times have not changed much… or perhaps we have put the problem on steroids. Think about the short, short list of pleasures that were around when the Philokalia was being written, warning of the pleasure-pain syndrome. Then compare that list to today. If it is a basic philosophical error to pursue pleasures and try to avoid invisibly attached pains, and if the observation is true when pleasure means simple foods, then we’ve really put things on steroids if pleasure is TV, movies, smartphones, internet, and so on. It’s not just “friendship with benefits” (or other kinds of more casual sex) that brings pleasure entangled with pain, and there are things about those passages in the Philokalia that seem like they had been written yesterday; the portrayal of human nature remains insightful today (1st century of various texts, 53):

[M]an finds by experience that every pleasure is inevitably succeeded by pain, and so directs his whole effort towards pleasure and does all he can to avoid pain. He struggles with all his might to attain pleasure and he fights against pain with immense zeal. By doing this he hopes to keep the two apart from each other—which is impossible… [H]e is, it appears, ignorant that pleasure can never exist without pain. For pain is intertwined with pleasure, even thought his seems to escape the notice of those who suffer it.

The microcosm of praise

Becoming attached to praises is another example of the pleasure-pain syndrome at work. Mark Twain reportedly said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment,” and he was emphasizing the point partly by exaggerating how long one can live on a compliment. If one does live off of compliments, there’s a problem: one gets hungry again. Praise is very powerful at the beginning, but after time men require stronger and stronger doses. And this may be why the Orthodox leaders I have known give very, very few compliments. They decisively treat other people with love and respect, but they rarely make a minor social compliment to help others feel better. Some of them are not very comfortable when others give them compliments to help them feel better. Some run from it like fire and poison.

One of the basic rules of the Orthodox life is that while monastics are called to abandon all property, the rest of us may own property but are required to own it with detachment. Monasticism aims at being impervious to pleasure and pain alike, but the Bible also provides a foundation for owning things, being married and pursuing ventures, while attempting the difficult work of detachment (I Corinthians 7:29-31, RSV):

I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away.

As regards human compliments, the lesson would seem to be this: Listen, but do not inhale. Do not let compliments become the nourishment you feed off of. Better by far not to receive compliments at all than to become dependent on them as your spiritual food. And you might be particularly cautious about those compliments that are peppered throughout conversation to make you feel better; they are even more treacherous.

Deep Magic

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Emperor’s headsman, the White Witch, incredulously asks the Lion if he does not know the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time: that a traitor must die and if the traitor does not die, Narnia will perish in fire and water. The Royal Lion in fact does know the Deep Magic. And he moves on.

But Aslan also knew something the White Witch didn’t. He knew from withini the Deeper Magic from before the Dawn of Time, that if an innocent victim were willingly slain in a traitor’s stead, even death would begin working backwards: and so the White Witch slew Alsan to her defeat.

There is Deep Magic with pleasure and pain: what you sow, so shall you reap. If you sow pleasure to the flesh, you will reap pain to the flesh. The Pleasure-Pain Syndrome is not the sort of thing you can escape by pleasure.

But there is Deeper Magic, and its supreme example is found in Philippians 2:5-11, RSV:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

St. John’s Paschal homily pours out the Deeper Magic even more plainly:

By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was embittered
When it encountered Thee in the lower regions.

It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.

Amen.

And what is going on here is no unique exception. What is going on here is the supreme instance of a universal law, the same as in the glorified “Hall of Fame” in Hebrews 11, RSV:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old received divine approval. By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts; he died, but through his faith he is still speaking. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his burial. By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king; for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the first-born might not touch them. By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as if on dry land; but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.

By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

The universal law, the Deeper Magic, plays out in Christ, in his saints, and ultimately the whole Church. Never mind that we do not do the feats of saints; we probably shouldn’t try, and it is a trick of the demons to tempt inexperienced monks to take on impossible virtues. If we suffer for Christ, however small the way, it genuinely matters.

A more excellent way

Is there any alternative to the pleasure-pain syndrome?

St. Paul, in the great hymn to love, writes (I Corinthians 13, RSV):

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

The part in bold seemed to me, at least at first glance, like it didn’t belong. But there is something in the passage that hinges on giving up childish ways. Faith, hope, and love are virtues of Heaven, the virtues of Heavenly life lived on earth. Giving up childish ways, in effect, is giving up the quest for earthly comfort. As C.S. Lewis observed, Heaven cannot give earthly comfort no matter how hard we seek it. Earth cannot give Heavenly comfort: you are shopping at an empty store to ask earth for Heavenly comfort. But earth cannot give earthly comfort either: you are still shopping at an empty store to ask earth for even earthly comfort, and in fact stepping into the pleasure-pain syndrome. The only comfort to be had is Heavenly comfort. The words in bold could be paraphrased, “When I was a child, I sought earthly comfort, inescapably embracing the pleasure-pain syndrome. When I became a man, I put the search for earthly comfort behind me—and sought and received heavenly comfort instead.” Those who sow to the flesh will reap pain from the flesh, but those who sow to the Spirit will reap joy from the Spirit. The words about “I put childish ways behind me” serve as a hinge between letting go of the pleasure-pain syndrome, and the virtues of the Life of Heaven begun here, now.

Let us return to the beginning of Cicero’s quotation behind “lorem ipsum:” “But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of denouncing pleasure and praising pain was born…” Can we say that Cicero was right all along? Only if we really stretch his words’ meaning. Saints in pursuit of Heaven’s comfort and Heaven’s joy spurn mere material comfort and are purified through material pain. Arguably the text can be stretched to say that the saints reject pleasure in the pursuit of greater pleasure, and they accept pain likewise in the pursuit of greater pleasure. But something deeper than pleasure is going on, and Cicero’s passage quoted above is stretched to the point of not meaning very much if it is interpreted this way. While the ancients were very open to the idea of finding “Christians before Christ” among the pagans, it is a real stretch to interpret Cicero’s passage as describing a Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many. Perhaps this Son of Man finds the deepest, fullest, richest pleasure there is: but Cicero will not take us there, and his argument is shortsighted with no power to free us from the pleasure-pain syndrome.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God and its heavenly comforts with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin and its pleasure-pain syndrome.

Theology of Play

Most of Christianity that I’ve come into contact with has a well developed theology of work; sometimes called the Protestant Work Ethic, it is summarized in the verse, “Whatever you do, do it heartily, as if unto the Lord.” (Col. 3:23). A mature Christian is characterized by hard work, and I do not wish to detract from that, but there is a counterpart to theology of work: theology of play.

It would probably be easier to defend a point of doctrine involving great self sacrifice – that a Christian should be so loyal to Christ that the prospect of being tortured and killed for this devotion is regarded as an honor, that a Christian should be willing to serve in boring and humiliating ways, that a Christian should resist temptation that takes the form of an apparent opportunity for great pleasure – but I will still state and explain this point: a Christian should be joyful, and furthermore that this joy should express itself in play and celebration.

When Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit, the first word he uses is love. Love will certainly apply itself by hard work. He goes on to describe it as patience, faithfulness, self-control. Patience, faithfulness, and self-control all have important application to hard work. But the second word is joy. If the fruit of the Spirit will yield hard work, it will also yield expressions of joy.

C.S. Lewis said that the greatest thing that the Psalms did for him was express the joy that made David dance. Doctrinal development is one of the reasons that God gave us the Bible, but it is not the sole reason. I would not by any means suggest that omitting Paul’s epistles would improve the Bible, but there is a lot of the Bible that I read for the sheer joy and beauty as much as anything else. Psalm 148, one of my favorite, beautifully embellishes the word, “Halleluyah!” That alone is reason sufficient to merit its placement in the Bible. When the Psalms tell us that we should sing unto Yahweh, it is not telling us of a dreadful and terrible duty that we must endure because God says so. By contrast, it is encouraging an expression of joy. I try to show myself to the world primarily as a person of love, but I have also had a strong witness among the unbelievers as a person of joy; one of the stereotypes of a Christian that I have been glad to shatter is that of a repressed and repressive person. The stereotype says that a person who tries to live by the Bible’s moral standards will have a somber life devoid of joy; I thus try to let the deep and inner joy “I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me…” that the Holy Spirit has placed in my heart show itself to them. Satan likes to take and twist pleasure into enticement for his evils; that does not make pleasure an evil thing. Yahweh made pleasure – the idea that Satan could imagine such a thing on his own is risible (for Satan cannot create; he can only mock) – and pleasure is intended for Christians to partake.

Celebration is something that can certainly come from things going well, but it is not a grave evil that is justified only by exceptional cause; it is a way of life. Some of celebration, some expressions of joy and thanksgiving, are in response to an event we are pleased at and thankful for, and rightly so, but celebration is not something to be reserved for rare occasions. I may be celebrating an event, but Christ is reason well sufficient for celebration; consequently, it is appropriate to celebrate, even when you can’t point to an exceptional event. There is a time to mourn, but a Christian does not need extenuating circumstances as reason to celebrate.

I am not going to attempt to provide an exhaustive list of expressions of joy, and most definitely do not wish to provide commands which must be successively fulfilled to the letter and verified in triplicate, but I think that a few suggested variants of “stop and smell the roses” are in order:

Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while.

Read a children’s book.

When it’s warm, take off your shoes, close your eyes, and feel the grass under your feet.

Stop and remember five things you are glad for; thank God for them.

Drink a mug of hot cocoa. Slowly.

Go go a local art museum.

Hug a friend.

Climb a tree.

Close your eyes and imagine yourself somewhere else.

Sneak up behind a friend who is ticklish…

In addition to these that I’ve pulled off the top of my head, I’d like to look at three recurring, decidedly Biblical expressions of joy, and how many Christians have reacted to them.

  • Singing. The Christian understanding of music is summed up in the words, “Make a joyful noise unto Yahweh.” While it can also be solemn, music was created as a beautiful expression of joy. When Paul encourages the believers to sing to one another, he is not really appealing to a sense of duty, but rather encouraging a celebratory and joyful pleasure in this good gift of God. The jail warden was astounded to find that Paul was happily singing when he was imprisoned; this joy expressed itself in so powerful of a manner that it opened the warden’s ears so that he, too, would gain this welling up of life, flowing into joy. Most Christians sing (even if some of the music has room for improvement); this is good. believe that Yahweh is pleased when he listens. This is Biblical.
  • Dance. One of the expressions of celebration recorded in the Bible, as well as song, is dance.In Exodus, after Israel passed through the red sea and Egypt didn’t, Moses’s song is followed after a couple of verses with the words, “Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after with tambourines and with dancing.” In Samuel, it is asked, “Is this not David the king of the land? Did they not sing to one another of him in dances, ‘Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands?'”, and recorded, “David danced before Yahweh with all his might.” The psalms jubilantly sing, “Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.” and “Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!” In Ecclesiastes, dancing is identified with joy: “…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” Jeremiah issues words of comfort, saying, “Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of merrymakers.” In Lamentation he also identifies dancing with joy, saying, “The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning.”

    It is not without reason that dance is a part of the worship services of Messianic Jews. It is not without reason that a song that has come to us from Africa states, “If the Spirit of the Lord moves in my soul, like David the victor I dance.” The shaker hymn very beautifully states, “Dance, then, wherever you may be, for I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.” Throughout, the hymn describes the walk of faith as a dance. Dancing is a good thing, an act of joy, that has been given to us by Yahweh himself for our good.

    There are a few forms of dance that are essentially sex with clothes in the way, and should be avoided outside of a marital context. Because of the existence of these dances, some Christians have attacked dance as demonic; “Dance before Yahweh” necessitates an interpretation of “Dance alone before Yahweh.”

    This is silly. Celebration is meant to be enjoyed in community; its nature is not a selfish “I like this and I’m going to keep it all to myself,” but a generous, “This is so good that I have to share it with you as well.” This is the mark of a child fully enjoying a lollipop. When holidays and other times of celebration come, people want to be with friends and family, and it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that this is the whole reason that believers come together for worship services.

    Dance, also, should be enjoyed in community.

  • Proper use of wine.In Judges, the vine refuses an offer to be the king over all trees, saying, “Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?” The Psalms likewise describe material blessings by saying, “You cause grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.”, and Ecclesiastes, “Feasts are made for laughter; wine gladdens life…” The Song of Songs, in its description of the erotic, says, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine… How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride! how much better is your love than wine…”, comparisons that would mean little if wine were not understood to be a good thing. Isaiah accuses Israel of apostasy in the words, “Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water.” He Israel to a vineyard created so its master may enjoy its wine; elsewhere appear the words, “On this mountain Yahweh Sabaoth will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” Jeremiah contains Psalmlike words of celebration: “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of Yahweh, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.” Hosea, in sadness at apostasy, makes it clear that wine is a gift from above: “She did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished upon her silver and gold that they used for Baal.”

    Going from the Old Testament to the New, it is seen that Jesus was accused of being a drunkard; for his first miracle, he turned water to wine, thus permitting a celebration to continue.

    Now, it should be mentioned that alcohol is something that merits an appropriate respect and caution; consumed in excess, it is a deadly poison. It has been said that we should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them. Our culture has largely cast aside the virtue of moderation and the belief that a sin could be sin because it takes a good thing to excess (gluttony is not mentioned as a sin very often, and a great many people would be healthier to lose some weight). Not everybody thought this way. The ancient Greeks accorded moderation a place as one of the four cardinal virtues, and Paul named temperance and self-control as the final of the virtues listed as the fruit of the Spirit. Liquor, like most good things, should be consumed in a temperate, controlled, and balanced manner. And, like most good things, it becomes a bane if it is taken out of proper context. It was not without reason that Solomon wrote that wine is a mocker and beer a brawler. This country has age related laws pertaining to alcohol, and they should not be violated Granted that those laws be obeyed, it would be wise to consider to the advice to Jesus ben Sirach, who in his writing said, “Do not try to prove your strength by wine drinking, for wine has destroyed many. As the furnace tests the work of the smith, so wine tests hearts when the insolent quarrel. Wine is very life to human beings if taken in moderation. What is life to one who is without wine? It has been created to make people happy. Wine drunk at the proper time and in moderation is rejoicing of heart and gladness of soul.” Elsewhere comparing wine to music, he regards wine as a good part of celebration.

There are many things that should be made manifest in the life of Christians; community, freedom, and celebration are important. Paul writes in Galatians, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”, in Colossians, “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink…. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’?”, and in I Timothy, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.”

So let us enjoy the gifts that God has bestowed.

(scripture quotations generally NRSV)

“Physics”

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I included Aristotle’s Physics when I originally posted An Orthodox Bookshelf, then read most of the text and decided that even if the Fathers’ science was largely Aristotelian physics, reading the original source is here less helpful than it might appear. The Fathers believed in elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and these elements are mentioned in the Theophany Vespers, which are one of the primary Orthodox texts on how the cosmos is understood. However, even if these are found in Aristotelian physics, the signal to noise ratio for patristic understanding of science is dismal: Aristotle’s Physics could be replaced with a text one tenth its length and still furnish everything the Fathers take from it.

I would like to take a moment to pause in looking at the word “physics.” It is true enough that historically Aristotelian physics was replaced by Newton, who in turn gave way to Einstein, and then quantum physics entered the scene, and now we have superstring theory. And in that caricatured summary, “physics” seems to mean what it means for superstring theory. But I want to pause on the word “physics.” Orthodox know that non-Orthodox who ask, “What are your passions?” may get a bit more of an earful than they bargained for. “Passions” is not a word Orthodox use among themselves for nice hobbies and interests they get excited about; it means a sinful habit that has carved out a niche for itself to become a spiritual disease. And “physics”, as I use it, is not a competitor to superstring theory; etymologically it means, “of the nature of things,” I would quote C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

“I am a star at rest, my daughter,” answered Ramandu. “When I set for the last time, decrepit and old beyond all that you can reckon, I was carried to this island. I am not so old now as I was then. Every morning a bird brings me a fire-berry from the valleys in the Sun, and each fire-berry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as the child that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at earth’s eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance.”

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.

What is a star? I would answer by quoting an icon, of the creation of the stars. The text on the icon does not refer to Genesis at all, but Job 38:7, “…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”:

An icon of the angels rejoicing at the creation of the stars.

The stars in the icon are connected with the six-winged seraphim, the highest rank of angels. The Heavens are an icon of Heaven, and the icon says something very different than, “What are stars if we view them as reductionists do?”

And this article is not intended to compete with physics as it is now understood, or to defend patristic Aristotelian physics against its challengers, or to demonstrate the compatibility of theology with the present state of scientific speculation: words that I choose carefully, because theology is about divine revealed doctrine while science is the present state of speculation in a very careful system of educated guesses, and scientific theories will not stop being discarded for newer alternatives until science is dead. It is therefore somewhat of a strange matter to demonstrate the compatibility of theology with science, as conforming timeless revealed doctrines to the present best educated guess that is meant to be discarded.

Of the nature of things

The central mystery in the nature of things is the divine nature. No man can see God and live, and the divine essence is not knowable to any creature. The divine energies are available, and indeed can deify creation, but the central mystery around which all else revolves is God’s unknowable essence and nature.

This is the central mystery around which everything else revolves, but the divine essence is not part of a larger system, even as its largest part. God lies beyond the created order, and perhaps the greatest failure of Aristotelian physics to understand the nature of things lies in its tendency towards materialism, its sense that you understand things by looking down. Some have said, in introducing Michael Polanyi’s theories of personal knowledge, that behavioralism in psychology does not teach, “There is no soul;” rather, it induces students into investigation in such a way that the possibility of a soul is never even considered. And Aristotelian physics started a trajectory that has lingered even when the specifics of Aristotelian physics were considered to be overturned: you understand the nature of things by looking at them materially. Aristotelian physics, in asking, “What is the nature of this?” leads the listener so as to never even consider an answer of, “Because that is how it functions as a satellite of God.” And the entire phusis or nature of every created being is as a satellite of God: the atheist who says “The very notion of a God is incoherent,” does so with the breath of God.

Headship and harmony with nature

Many Westerners may identify the goal of harmony with nature with the East, but the concept as we have it is essentially Western in nature. Orthodox monasticism may look a lot like harmony with nature to the West: it often takes place in rustic surroundings, and animals are not afraid of monastics: deer will eat from a monk’s hand. But there is a fundamental difference between this and the Western concept of harmony with nature: the harmony does not come from our taking out cue from plants and animals. Monks and nuns are to take their cue from God, and harmony with animals comes from how they take their cue from God.

All creation bears some resemblance to God, and God himself is called the Rock. For every creature there is a logos or idea in God’s heart, that is what that creature should strive to be. But there is a distinction among creation. Some are given the image of God: men and angels, and we exist in a fuller and deeper sense than creatures that do not bear such an image. God exists in a unique and deepest sense, and if we say that God exists, we cannot say that we exist in the same sense, and if we say that we exist, we cannot say that God exists in the same sense. Those who are given the image, who have a human or angelic mind, are more fully nature than those creatures who have do not exist in the same way on the same level. And we who bear the royal image, even if liturgical ascesis removes barriers between us and the rest of Creation, are to take our cue from God our head.

Getting past “the politics of envy”

The concept of headship is a difficult and perhaps touchy one, not least because the only place where people think it applies is the husband being the head of the wife. But it is written into the cosmos in larger letters. St. Maximus the Confessor spoke of five divisions that are to be transcended:

Head Body
Man Woman
Paradise The inhabited world
Heaven Earth
Spiritual creation Tangible creation
God Creation

All these differences are ultimately to be transcended, and many more not listed. But the project of transcending them assumes there are differences to start off with, which we do not transcend by closing our eyes and pretending they are not there. And this feature of creation runs aground what might be called “the politics of envy”, whose central feature is an equality that boils down to saying, “I don’t want anybody to be better than me.

And this brings me to the point of inequality. Not only are the politics of envy toxic, but unequal treatment bears something that the politics of envy would never imagine. The kindest and most courteous acts are most often not those that treat the other as an equal, but those that treat the other as not equal. The man who buys six dozen roses for his wife does not treat her as an equal: the thought would not occur to him to buy six dozen roses for one of his fellow workmen. The mother who holds and comforts a child after a scrape extends a courtesy that would not be extended quite so far for an adult capable of managing moods and life’s scrapes. The greatest courtesies are extended precisely at the point when someone in a position of headship treats someone else, not as an equal, but as the head’s body as in the chart above. The same is implied for authority, or some of the more painful social lessons having to do with profound giftedness. Perhaps people may say “Treat me as an equal” instead of “treat me well,” but it has been my own experience that treating people as equals in an area where they request equality has given social explosions that I could have avoided if I were wise enough to realize that the point where I was asked, “Treat me as an equal,” were precisely the situations which demanded the wisdom not to treat people as intellectual equals that could handle the full force of what I was thinking, but extend some of the most delicate courtesy and social graces. Exactly what is needed is hard to say, but precisely what is not needed is to say, “Great, I’ve found someone gifted in exactly the same way I am,” and launch into the full force of your deepest thought. God does not create two blades of grass alike. He has never created two humans who are equal, but after each, he broke the mould.

Microcosm and mediator

Mankind was created to be a microcosm, summarizing both the spiritual and tangible creation, and a mediator. All the Orthodox faithful participate in a spiritual priesthood, and its sigil is the sacramental priesthood that a few identify. We are called to mediate and help transcend the differences above. Our worship of the God who is Light, and ourselves being the light of the world, is as the vanguard of Creation returning to the Creator, the firstfruits of a world created by and for God.

Symbols

I would like to close on an understanding of symbol. Men are symbols of God; that is what it means to be made in the image of God. The material world is best understood, not as things operating under mathematical laws, but as having a symbolic dimension that ultimately points back to God. The theory of evolution is not a true answer to the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” because it does not address the question, “Why is there life as we know it?” If it is true, it is a true answer to the question, “How is there life as we know it?” The sciences answer questions of “How,” not questions of “Why,” and the world is best understood as having a symbolic dimension where the question of “Why?” refers to God and overshadows the question of “How?”

Even if physics answers its questions with accuracy, it does not answer the deepest questions, and a deeper level has three kinds of causation, all of them personal. Things are caused by God, or by humans, or by devils. When we pray, it is not usually for an exception to the laws of physics, but that nature, governed by personal causes on a deeper level, may work out in a particular way under God’s governance. And the regular operations of physics do not stop this.

Miracles

Miracles are very rare, if we use the term strictly and not for the genuine miracle of God providing for us every day. But the readings for the Theophany Vespers repeat miracles with nature, and they present, if you will, nature at its most essential. Most of the matter in the universe is not part of icons of Christ, his Mother, and his Saints, and yet even outside of men icons are a vanguard, a firstfruit of a creation that will be glorified. Mankind is at its most essential in Christ himself, and the natural world is at its most essential as an arena for God’s power to be displayed. And God’s display of power is not strictly a rarity; it plays out when bread comes out of the earth, when The Heavens declare the glory of God / And the firmament sheweth his handywork. / Day unto day uttereth speech / And night unto night sheweth knowledge.

Sweet Lord, You Play Me False

All of this may be true, but there is an odor of falsity built in its very foundations, to provide an Orthodox “physics” (or study of “the nature of things”) analogous to Aristotle’s original “physics.” Anselm famously wrote the “Monologion” (in which Anselm explores various arguments for God’s existence) and the “Proslogion” (in which Anselm seeks a single and decisive proof of God’s existence). Once I told an Anselm scholar that there had been a newly discovered “Monophagion,” in which Anselm tries to discern whether reasoning can ever bring someone to recognize the imperative of eating, and “Prosphagion,” in which Anselm gets hungry and has a bite to eat. For those of you not familiar with Greek, “prosphagion” means “a little smackerel of something.”

This work is, in a sense, an exploration about whether philosophy can bring a person to recognize the necessity of eating. But that’s not where the proof of the pudding lies. The proof of the pudding lies in the eating, in the live liturgical life that culminates in the Eucharist, the fulcrum for the transformation and ultimate deification of the cosmos. The proof of the pudding lies not in the philosophizing, but in the eating.

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Blessed are the Peacemakers: Real Peace Through Real Strength

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In chapel, a speaker spoke of a person who was asked “Do you know how to play golf?” and answered “Yes, I learned yesterday.” He then went on to speak of one of the simplest of Jesus’s lessons, and how to truly learn that lesson is the work of a lifetime. If I were to be asked if I understand what I am talking about, the best and most honest answer I could give would be “No, but I am beginning to.” For all of my life, I have been shown and have seen that there is something horrible that occurs when a human life without Christ is extinguished, and believed that, if destruction is something God wishes humans to avoid, then he would not place them in situations where it is unavoidable. It is not God’s nature to say “this is to be avoided” and then be unfaithful and not provide a way out: sin is to be avoided and minimized. God always provides a way out. When I sin, it is not because God allowed me to come to a situation where there is no way to act without sin, or even because there was a way out that was beyond my strength, but because I choose to disregard what God in his love and wisdom has provided, and bring pain and destruction to myself and to God. And so I have spent time questioning and studying, and in the past couple of years have stumbled across something that astounds me. At first I saw one means that can work when diplomacy fails, and does not say to any other human being “You are expendible. I will permit you to die.” And then, looking deeper, I have seen that it is not only another way to avoid violence, but that it is the imitation of Christ, and a new understanding of what it means to imitate Christ, to suffer for him, to conquer in his name. From time to time, God has given me affirmations of what I am doing – showing me other Christians who before me have seen what I have discovered, bringing a new light to the darkness that is in causing suffering to another. I have no delusions of being a master of that of which I speak – while I learn, while I progress, I do not see how I will ever be other than a novice before I am in Heaven and no longer see darkly and through a glass – but, at the same time, God has shown me something that is awesome in the true meaning of the word, and it is something that I cannot keep to myself.

The most dangerous assumption is the one that is not realized as such. An assumption that is realized can be strengthened and improved in detail if it is true, and rejected if it is false. The one that is unstated offers the danger of not showing its full glory if it is true, and not offering itself for rejection if it is false. There is an often unrealized assumption that there are ultimately some situations where violence is the only way out (IE where God can’t or won’t use any other means), and furthermore that the choice is between violence and inaction (no other alternatives). Stating that it is an assumption neither proves nor disproves it, but does bring it to light – to consider and judge as an assumption.

The idea that the use of physical force is an evil is a presupposition that is carried throughout this work. All agree violence is preferably to be avoided, not a desirable state, and its means, deception and destruction, bear the mark of darkness rather than the mark of light.

I know fully that the sixth commandment, translated as “Thou shalt not kill.” in King James, used language that would better be translated “You shall not murder.”, a command that left open the possibility of killing in many cases. This does not mean that that moral avenue is still open. The ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” was written in language that specifically spoke of lying in court. This does not mean that a court of law is the only place that a Christian is not permitted to lie. There are many things that were made complete when Christ came, one of which was shifting from inwardly attempting to maintain purity to outwardly evangelizing. In the Old Testament, the prophet had a role calling back the lost sheep of Israel, but to the Gentiles there was no real sense of the Great Commission. Christ’s coming changed that, so that one of the primary responsibilities given to Christians is to win souls. It is with knowledge of this that Paul spoke of becoming a servant to all, ending with “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” (I Cor 9:22)

Each person in this world is either ready to die or not ready to die. A person who is ready to die will not be serving someone who needs to be stopped. I know that there are many soldiers who would rather not fight, who would rather die than kill, and who bear no hatred towards their enemies. At the same, if you would kill, I have this question for you: Can you consider it to be the best possible form of evangelism to look an enemy soldier in the eyes, say “Jesus loves you. He died so that you may be forgiven of your sins and go to Heaven. I love you.” and then, pulling a trigger, send that soldier to Hell?

The early Christian church (before Constantine’s vision) had a strong aversion to the shedding of blood, as reflected by people such as Athenagorus, who said in 180 AD “We [Christians] cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly.” When the Emperor attempted to create a Christian state, a part of the compromise that was introduced was the concept of just war theory: killing is undesirable and an evil under all circumstances, but there are some circumstances when it is not the greatest evil, and inaction and the damage it will cause is a greater evil. This thought is at the center of misunderstanding of pacifism: that a pacifist sits back and does nothing, that pacifism is passivism. I will attempt here to outline the difference between pacifism and passivism. If I succeed, it is only by God’s grace.

If Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had prescribed to the idea that it would be possible to know in advance what is the greater evil and what is the lesser evil, and to choose between, then certainly the lesser of the two evils would have been to bow down _once_ and continue with their many other ministries. The story, however, glorifies their refusal to commit even the smallest evil, and reflects God’s disregard for what is and isn’t humanly possible. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.”, says the Lord. Zech. 4:6

The new law is to love your enemy as yourself, and to forgive the one who injures you seven times seventy, as per Matthew 18:22.

Oftentimes people ask me “Well, God commanded not only defensive wars and even conquest but genocide in the Old Testament; what about those?” Please be assured that, were I to be born before Christ came, I would believe that violence is sometimes allowed. If I were to be born before Christ came, I would probably be an active member of the military, because that is what God commanded of many people and something that my gifts would be suited for. Jesus, however, said “You have heard that it was said: ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute you… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:43,44,48) Before this command, it would have been not only acceptable but a moral duty to strike at some enemies, just as it was not only acceptable but a moral duty to repay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Ex. 21:23-25). With Christ, however, things were completely changed: “You have heard that it was said: ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:38-39) Any action taken in a war must be reconcilable with complete and absolute love for the enemies attacked: loving (“Love does no harm to its neighbor”, Rom 13:10), doing good towards, praying for, blessing.

If you wish to become a warrior, then you will study and try to learn tactics and strategy. An attack that is lacking in planning will fall to a defense that is strategic, even if the attackers have better soldiers and better weapons.

If you wish to use the means of peace (whether or not you believe that they are always sufficient), then just as a warrior must study, you must study the concepts and principles of the means of peacemaking. You must study the tactics and strategy of making peace before even considering to declare it an insufficient tool for a situation where violence is necessary.

Once the men of a village came, running, and told Gandhi that they had run away while the police were raping and pillaging. When they told him that this was because of his instruction to be nonviolent, he hung his head in shame. He would not have been angry with them if they had defended their families by the power of a sword. He would have approved had they stood in harm’s way, calling all injury to themselves without seeking to strike or to harm, to the point of death. But to run away like that and passively leave those who could not run was an act of great and terrible cowardice, the darkest possible answer to the problem. Gandhi – because the Hindu religion sees grey and dark_er_ and light_er_ courses of action (every action falling onto a spectrum) believed that violence was necessary in many situations, in any event infinitely superior to cowardice. I do not believe that God presents a situation that does not have some way out that is free of sin and evil, and so I believe that violence is completely unnecessary to the Christian. The point of this example still stands, however – that cowardice is diametrically opposed to peacemaking.

Random violence for its own sake is not farther from a just war than sitting back and doing nothing is from pacifism. Cowardice is the direct opposite of peacemaking, and a coward CANNOT learn to be a peacemaker without first learning bravery.

Long before one person _ever_ strikes another in a corporeal manner, peace has been breached. The first principle of peace is something that lies much stronger and much deeper than the absence of physical conflict. The Hebrew word “shalom” has come to have the meaning that peace should have – if you have not encountered the word shalom, take “harmony” or “accord” to be a rough English equivalent. When there is truly peace between two people, they love each other to the point of being ready to forfeit wealth, honor, and life. Such peace leaves no room for prejudice and misunderstanding, which scatter as cockroaches scatter at the appearance of light. To establish peace, you do not merely ensure a lack of physical violence (particularly not through intimidation at your own superior capability for violence – “peace through strength” destroys what it wishes to establish), but rather work to remove all traces of hatred and injustice. Peace is not an absence, but the presence of love.

“The greatest of these is love.” I Cor 13:13 Establish love and there will be peace.

Just as a warrior must be ready to sacrifice the life of another by killing, so also, to live by peace you must be ready to sacrifice yourself by dying. This is the heart of the difference between passivism and pacifism. A passivist sits back and does nothing. A pacifist goes out on the battlefield, ready to die. To go out into a battle to kill, with the knowledge that you may die, requires great courage. To go out into a battle, not to kill, but to die, requires greater courage still.

It is obvious that there is a certain power which, in order to harness, it is necessary to take up arms and be ready to kill if need be. What is not so obvious is that there is another power for which it is necessary to put down arms and be ready to die if need be.

It is easy to return love to one who loves. It is not easy to give love to one who hates. And yet to do this impossible task is possible by the grace of God: “I can do everything in Christ who gives me strength.” Phil. 4:13

Christ did not conquer us by threats of fire and brimstone. His message was not centered around “If you do not follow me, you will go to Hell.” (although that is true) He did not torture us until we said “Ok, Ok, I believe.” (although he has the power, the authority, and the right to do so) He rather said “Look how much I love you. Look at what I did for you. Look at what I want to do for you.” He loved us who were his mortal enemies, and conquered us from the inside out: not by force, not by threat, but by love that knew no bounds. When we evangelize – conquering those who are God’s mortal enemies – we do not threaten with Hell or use torture. We show our love, and by the power of the Holy Spirit conquer from _the_inside_out,_ making an ally of an enemy and bringing blessing where God wills. This nature, this love, this manner of conquering is the heart of peacemaking.

In the midst of a world where darkness has its dominion, the powers of light are not overcome. This is not because the power of Satan is weak, but because the power of God is stronger. If you master an enemy by violence, your victory is temporary. If you master an enemy by love, your victory is eternal.

In the study of war and peace, look not only at troubled individuals and nations in the time of war, but also when there is peace – and know, as much as what went wrong when there were battles, what went right when there was love. Formal elaboration of some principles of peacemaking are rare, but its practice is more common than you might think. When you use your body to shield another person from injury, when you place yourself in the path of harm – take the example of the king of Denmark shielding Jews from Hitler – that is peacemaking.

Brother Andrew, while speaking at a chapel here, recounted an an excellent example of peacemaking. He was talking with the leader of a terrorist liberation front who was holding hostages. He reasoned with the leader for a while, talking about how he could not rest if a single brother or sister of his in Christ was in captivity, but did not succeed. Diplomacy failed, as it sometimes will. He did not break into a fistfight, or try to grab one of the guns in the room. What he did do was to ask, “Will you take me in his place? Will you let him go free, and chain me to the central radiator?” The leader was astonished, not believing at first that he actually realized (let alone meant) what he said, and then that Andrew’s house was in order, and that he really was ready to be a hostage. That is acting in Christ’s love.

Love is not weakened or limited by hostility of the ones loved. It would be hollow and worthless if it were only an effective means of dealing with people who love you and take you seriously. Christ came down and died, died not for perfect people who were worthy of salvation (such people would need no such thing), but for people who were walking in the darkness and hated the light. His manifest power is revealed in the ones who have been conquered and transformed by its strength, and so Billy Graham, Jeffrey Dahlmer, and myself who were all repulsive in his sight and fully worthy of Hell have come to be forgiven and made anew. We were God’s enemies, conquered not by a show of force on God’s part (which would have been easy – God could kill me as easily as I lift a finger), but by costly love. He came down in human form and, when he had shown his love in all other ways, showed his love by dying. And, as God conquered us who were his enemies by the power of his love, and made us to be his reconciled sons and daughters, so we must conquer those who are our enemies by the power of his love manifest in us, and make them to be our reconciled brothers and sisters.

Jesus said “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:39) This is not a command to act as if you have no rights and passively let yourself be regarded as subhuman, but rather an insistence on the fact that you do have rights. In the society of that time, a slap on the cheek was not intended as a physical injury but rather as an insult, putting an inferior back in his or her place. The strength of that insult depended greatly upon which hand dealt it: as the left hand was seen as unclean, a slap with the left hand was the insult far greater than one dealt with the right hand. This was reflected in the legal penalties for an inappropriate slap: the penalty for slapping a peer with your left hand was a fine one hundred times the penalty for slapping a peer with your right hand; the penalty for slapping a better with your right hand was a fine while the penalty for slapping a better with your left hand was death. The people Jesus was speaking to most directly were, by and large, slaves and the downtrodden. A slap on the right cheek was dealt with the left hand. To turn the other cheek would leave the master with two options. The first would be to slap the slave again, but this time with the right hand (therefore declaring the slave a peer). The second would be not to slap the slave again (therefore effectively rescinding the first slap). Now, such impudence and sauciness would often tend to bring punishment, but it none the less says “Hey, I’m a human. I have rights. You can’t treat me like this.” It is not an action without suffering for oneself, nor does it inflict suffering on the “enemy”: but it does say and do something in a powerful way.

If you are to be a peacemaker, you must act against any evil – no matter how small it may appear (by human measure – there is _no_ small evil by God’s measure) – whenever you see it. Even if it is not a breach of peace in the military sense, it is a breach of shalom, and should be stopped as soon as possible, so that it does not grow and multiply. If this is done, it will be rare if ever that violent intervention is even a question.

The power of violence is in what it can compel of the body. The power of peacemaking is what it can compel of the soul. If someone commands you to do what is morally repugnant to you, and you use the force of arms to stop that person, then you will probably slay some, and you will certainly make emnity. If instead you use the force of peacemaking – by noncompliance, being disobedient and taking whatever the consequences must be, and by choosing your own suffering over the convenience of obedience – you will not see results as quickly, but your actions will command respect rather than emnity.

If you are to gain the power to successfully intervene with violence, then you must devote resources to equipment and time to training. Time and money thus spent are not spent on humanitarian ends. This is not to say that military technology and research does not have civilian spinoffs, or to say that the precision and discipline within military bodies is not something that can be very useful. Both of these benefits do exist, and are worth taking note (and advantage) of. At the same time, it is necessary to think: Is this really the most powerful and best way to spend this money? Love and active peacemaking are not limited to the well financed. Its power does not come from the investment of scarce monetary resources, but rather through the Holy Spirit, which is anything but a scarce resource. Money is freed to other ends.

Everyone in this discussion agrees that it is better to voluntarily suffer than to inflict suffering on others.

Diplomacy is a powerful thing. It becomes even more powerful if you study the positions of all parties involved, study both their stated desires and what is unstated: their culture, their experience, the motivation behind stating the desires and intentions that they state. Oftentimes goals that appear diametrically opposed will, when examined at the root, reveal a mutually beneficial way of resolution. The power of diplomacy is not, however, absolute, and it depends to an extent on the goodwill of both parties. It is then that either one side must turn back, or that the desires be accomplished at the price of suffering. The usual method of waging wars uses physical force to conquer. The method of peacemaking – to stand in the way of the evil being done against you, and not dodge or resist the blows aimed at you – uses spiritual force which opens a hardened heart.

Love is not the exclusive domain or power of one group. Any individual can bring surprise by an act of love. The power of love, when applied to all ways so that there are no charges of incompletion or hypocrisy, is overwhelming.

Love wishes nothing that it would not accord to another. Greed, the placement of self at the center of the universe, is diametrically opposed to love.

Christ’s resistance and even revulsion at our evil did not cause him to force that evil from us. He rather showed us the better way, and left us to choose between the paths of light and those of darkness. So it is with love that makes peace: it is not forced upon those who believe violence to be the greatest interventive power.

Proclaim Christ at all times, and use words if need be.

Morally, there is not a difference between directly and indirectly causing an action. The one who commissions an assassination is no less guilty than the one who murders in person. Be sure that the actions you support are as pure as the actions you would take in person.

Just as Jesus said not to murder either in body (by breaking the sixth commandment) or in mind (by harboring hatred), peacemaking and love must penetrate both the actions of the body and the actions of the mind completely.

If you oppose someone with peacemaking, you will call to yourself the love and respect of others. Your power is not dependent on the extent of your military might (which is dependent on the extent to which you sacrifice humanitarian ends), but only on the extent to which you love and to which the Holy Spirit has power. In other words, if it fails, it is because God sees more good in that momentary failure than its success.

Peacemaking is more the opposite of inaction than it is of violence. Violence consists of seeing an evil and trying to act to rectify it; the means are imperfect. Cowardice and inaction make no hint of an effort to rectify the situation, and in my view are more reproachable than well meant violence. I have no respect for cowards – including those who dodge military conscription because they are afraid to die or be maimed in battle – but do hold respect for soldiers who have the courage and the desire to rectify which is the heart of peacemaking.

The power of love to conquer a hostile person without harm is a mystery; I would be a great liar if I said that I have always treated others in love. I will say that, when I have acted in a manner that says “You are expendable”, there is a seed of evil and poison, however small, that starts to grow. When I have acted in a manner that does not see the least (by the world’s measure) as expendible, God’s love acting in me has shown power that is beyond my comprehension.

At the heart of violent intervention is a presupposition that you know the hearts of your enemies and that you can predict what can happen, so that the slaughter you cause will be lesser than the slaughter you prevent, and that if you instead intervene with your own blood without physically incapacitating your enemy, God will not work through and bless your actions as much as if you had compromised. When this assumption comes to mind, I believe that God has answered it when he said “Satan is a liar and the father of all lies.” John 8:44, and that that he can and will do “immeasurably more than we all ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20) I am personally offended by the idea that it is necessary to take evil in order to prevent evil, because it carries the implication that God is either a hypocrite (by telling us never to to evil, and having the power to keep us from a choice between acts of evil, but choosing not to) or incompetent (telling us never to do evil, but lacking the power to make this possible). At the heart of peacemaking is faith, faith that without committing any undesirable evil it is possible to conquer the darkness. I have taken too many leaps of faith and landed on solid ground too many times to think that God is unable or even unwilling to grant power to those that will not compromise.

It is said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Whether or not you agree with that – I find a great blessing in both – it is evident that one of the marks of love is that it benefits the one who loves and the one who is loved. Violence does not “do no harm to its neighbor” (I Cor 13:10), but very regretfully does what it hopes to be a minimum of harm to its neighbor. The power of love and peacemaking is such that it brings blessings upon the one who uses it to oppose evil, and the person whose evil is opposed.

Civil disobedience must be loving and sincere in all regards. To hatefully scream while restraining your fists is not enough: you must act in complete love and not harm in the least the person who you are resisting.

When you take an action, always look at why you act.

Love that is ready to die leaves no room to be cowardly.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21

I hope that, if God offers me the honor of becoming a martyr, I would have the courage to accept the honor. As Paul said in Phillipians 1:21, “To live is Christ; to die is gain.”

All Scriptural quotations (except for quotations from the ten commandments) NIV.

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The Patriarchy We Object to

Cover for Yonder

Tell me what kind of patriarchy you object to. As Orthodox, we probably object to that kind of patriarchy as well.

There was one chaplain at a university who, whenever a student would come in and say, “I don’t believe in God,” would answer, “Tell me what kind of God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that kind of God either.” And he really had something in common with them. He didn’t believe in a God who was a vindictive judge, or a God who was responsible for all the evil in this world, or a God who was arbitrary and damned people for never hearing of him. And the chaplain wasn’t just making a rhetorical exercise; he didn’t believe in many kinds of “God” any more than the students who were kind enough to come and tell him they didn’t believe in God. He really had something in common with them.

There was one book I was reading which was trying to recover women’s wisdom from patriarchy. I was amazed when I was reading it, as it talked about the holistic, united character of women’s knowing, and how women’s knowledge is relational, how women know by participating. What amazed me was how much it had in common with Orthodox description of knowledge, because the Orthodox understanding of knowledge is based off an essential unity and knows by relating, participating, drinking, rather than by analyzing and taking apart and knowing things by keeping track of a systematic map.

What Orthodoxy in the West would seek to recover from the West looks a lot like what feminism would like to recover from patriarchy. Part of what may confuse the issue is that feminism lumps together two very different forces as “patriarchy.” One of these forces is classical tradition, and the other is something funny that’s been going on for several hundred years in which certain men have defaced society by despising it and trying to make it manly.

The reason that women’s holistic, connected knowledge is countercultural is something we’ll miss if we only use the category of “patriarchy”. The educational system, for instance, makes very little use of this knowledge, not because patriarchy has always devalued women’s ways of knowing, but something very different. The reason that there’s something countercultural to women’s holistic, connected knowledge is that that is a basic human way of knowing, and men can be separated from it more easily than women, but it’s a distortion of manhood to marginalize that way of knowing. And there has been a massive effort, macho in the worst way, that despised how society used to work, assumed that something is traditional it must be the women’s despicable way of doing things, and taken one feature of masculine knowledge and used it to uproot the the places for other ways of knowing that are important to both men and women. There are two quite different forces lumped together in the category of “patriarchy.” One is the tradition proper, and the other is “masculism” (or at least I call it that), and what feminism sees as patriarchy is what’s left over of the tradition after masculism has defaced it by trying to make it “masculine,” on the assumption that if something was in the tradition, that was all you needed to know, in order to attack it as being unfit for men. “Masculism” is what happens when you cross immature masculinity with the effort to destroy whatever you need to make room for your version of Utopia. What is left of the tradition today, and what feminism knows as “patriarchy,” is a bit like what’s left of a house after it’s been burned down.

With apologies to G.K. Chesterton, the Orthodox and feminists only ask to get their heads into the Heavens. It is the masculists who try to fit the Heavens into their heads, and it is their heads that split. This basic difference between knowing as exaltation and expansion, participating in something and allowing one’s head to be raised in the Heavens, and domination and mastery that compresses the Heavens so they will fit in one’s head, is the difference between what “knowing” means to both feminists and Orthodox, and what it means to masculists.

The difference between Orthodoxy and feminism is this. Orthodoxy has to a very large measure preserved the tradition. When it objects to masculism, it is objecting to an intrusion that affects something it is keeping. It is a guard trying to protect a treasure. Where Orthodoxy is a guard trying to protect a treasure, feminism is a treasure hunter trying to find something that world has lost. It is a scout rather than a guard. (And yes, I’m pulling images from my masculine mind.) Feminism is shaped by masculism, and I’d like to clarify what I mean by this. I don’t mean in any sense that feminism wants to serve as a rubber stamp committee for masculism. The feminist struggle is largely a struggle to address the problems created by masculism. that’s pretty foundational. But people that rebel against something tend to keep a lot of that something’s assumptions, and feminism is a lot like masculism because in a culture as deeply affected by masculism as much of the West, masculism is the air people breathe. (People can’t stop breathing their air, whatever culture they’re in.) For one example of this, masculism assumed that anything in the tradition was womanish and therefore unfit for men, and feminism inherited a basic approach from masculism when it assumed that anything in tradition was patriarchal and therefore unfit for women. It’s a masculist rather than traditional way of approaching society. Orthodoxy has been affected by masculism to some degree, but it’s trying to preserve the Orthodox faith, where feminism has been shaped by masculism to a much greater degree and is trying to rebel against the air its members breathe. Feminism is a progressive series of attempts to reform masculism for women; if you look at its first form, it said, “Women should be treated better. They should be treated like men.” Later forms of feminism have seen that there are problems with that approach, but they have been reacting to a composite of masculism and earlier versions of feminism. Feminism has been a scout, rather than a guard.

I say that feminism has been a scout rather than a guard, not to criticize, but to suggest that Orthodoxy has been given something that feminism reaches for, but does not have in full. It is a bit like the difference between maintaining a car and trying to go through a junkyard with the wrecks of many magnificent things and reconstruct a working vehicle. In a junkyard, one sees the imprint of many things; one sees the twisted remains of quite a few items that would be good to have. And one can probably assemble things, get some measure of functionality, perhaps hobble together a working bicycle. And if one does not have a working car, there is something very impressive about doing one’s best to assemble something workable from the wreckage. It is perhaps not the best manners to criticize someone who has combined parts to make a genuinely working bicycle and say, “But you were not given a working car!”

But in Orthodoxy, there is a very different use of time. Orthodox do not simply spend time filling the gas tank (there are many necessities in faith like filling a gas tank) and maintaining the car (which we periodically break), necessary as those may be. Having a car is primarily about living life as it is lived when you can drive. It is about being able to travel and visit people. It is about having more jobs open to you. If a car isn’t working, dealing with the car means trying to do whatever you can to get it working. It means thinking about how to fix it. And feminism is trying to correct masculism. If a car is working, dealing with the car is about what it can let you do. It’s like how when you’re sick, your mind is on getting well and on your health. If you’re healthy, you don’t think about your health unless you choose to. You’re free to enjoy your health by focusing on non-health-related pursuits.

What does Orthodoxy have to contribute to feminism? To begin with, it’s not simply a project by men. Feminist tends to assume that whatever is in patriarchy is there because all-powerful men have imposed it on women, or to put things in unflattering terms women have contributed little of substance to patriarchal society. That may have truth as regards masculism, but Orthodoxy is the property of both men and women (and boys and girls), and it is a gross mischaracterization to only look at the people who hold positions of power.

Feminists have made bitter criticism of Prozac being used to mask the depression caused by many housewives’ loneliness and isolation. Housewives who do not work outside the home have much more than housework to deal with; they have loneliness and isolation from adult company. And perhaps, feminists may icily say, if a woman under those conditions is depressed, this does not necessarily mean Prozac is appropriate. Maybe, just maybe, the icy voice tells us, the solution is to change those conditions instead of misusing antidepressants to mask the quite natural depression those conditions create. Feminists are offended that women are confined to a place outside of society’s real life and doing housework in solitary confinement. One of the most offensive things you can say, if there is no irony or humor in your voice, is, “A woman’s place is in the house!” (and not add, “and in the Senate!”)

But Orthodoxy looks at it differently, or at least Orthodox culture tends to work out differently. And, like many alien cultures, things have a very different meaning. The home has a different meaning. When people say “family” today, we think of a nuclear family. Then it was extended family, and thinking of an extended family without a nuclear family would have been as odd to people then as it would be odd today to take your favorite food and then be completely unable to eat anything else. Traditional society, real traditional society, did not ask women to work in isolation. Both men and women worked in adult company. And the home itself… In traditional society, the home was the primary place where economic activity occurred. In traditional society, the home was the primary place where charitable work occurred. In traditional society, the home took care of what we would now call insurance. In traditional society, the home was the primary place where education occured. Masculism has stripped away layer after layer of what the home was. In Orthodox culture, in truly Orthodox culture that has treasures that have been dismantled in the West, a woman’s place really is in the home, but it means something totally different from what a feminist cringes at in the words, “A woman’s place is in the house!”

America has largely failed to distinguish between what feminism says and women’s interests, so people think that if you are for women, you must agree with feminism. Saying “I oppose feminism because I am for women’s interests” seems not only false but a contradiction in terms, like saying “I’m expanding the text of this webpage so it will be more concise.” It’s not like more thoughtful Catholics today, who say, “I have thought, and I understand why many people distinguish or even oppose the teachings of the Catholic Church with God’s truth. But my considered judgment is that God reveals his truth through the living magisterium of the Catholic Church.” It’s more like what the Reformers faced, where people could not see what on earth you meant if you said that God’s truth and the Catholic Church’s teaching were not automatically the same thing.

In this culture, someone who is trying to be pro-woman will ordinarily reach for feminism as the proper vehicle, just as someone who wants to understand the natural world will reach for science as the proper vehicle for that desire; “understanding the human body” is invariably read as “learning scientific theories about the body’s work,” and not “take a massage/dance/martial arts class”, or “learn what religions and cultures have seen in the meaning of the human body.” A great many societies pursued a deep understanding of the human body without expressing that desire the way Western science pursues it. They taught people to come to a better knowledge of their bodies—and I mean “of,” not just “about”—the kind of relational, drinking knowledge that feminists and Orthodox value, and not just a list of abstract propositions from dissecting a cadaver (a practice which some cultures regard as “impious and disgusting”—C.S. Lewis). They taught people to develop, nurture, and discipline their bodies so that there was a right relationship between body and spirit. They taught people to see the body as belonging a world of meaning, symbol, and spiritual depth—cultures where “How does it work?” takes a back seat to a deeper question: “Why? What does it mean?” Orthodoxy at its best still does teach these things. But Western culture has absorbed the scientific spirit that most people genuinely cannot see what “understanding the body” could mean besides “learning scientific theories about the body.” And, in this context, it seems like a deceitful sleight of hand when someone says, “I want to help you understand the body” and then offers help in ways of moving one’s body.

But I want to talk about some things that are missed within this set of assumptions. Feminism can speak for women’s interests. It normally claims to. And women are ill-served by an arrangement when people assume that criticism of feminism is at the expense of women’s interests. We need to open a door that American culture does not open. We need to open the possibility of being willing to challenge feminism in order to further women’s interests. Not on all points, but if we never open that door, disturbing things can happen.

If you ask someone outside of feminism who “the enemy” is to feminists, the common misunderstanding is, “Nonfeminist men.” And that’s certainly part of the problem and not part of the solution, but the real vitriol feeds into jokes like “How many men does it take to open a beer?—She should have it open when she brings it to him.” The real vitriol is reserved for the contented housewife who wants to be married, have children, and make a home, and not have a professional career because of what she values in homemaking itself.

Feminism is against “patriarchy.” That means that much that is positive in the tradition is attacked along with masculism. That means that whatever the tradition provided for women is interpreted as harmful to women, even if it benefits women. Wendy Shalit makes an interesting argument in A Return to Modesty that sexual modesty is not something men have imposed on women against their nature for men’s benefit; it is first and foremost a womanly virtue that protects women. We now have a defaced version of traditional society, but to start by assuming that almost everything in the culture is a patriarchal imposition that benefits only men, sets the stage for throwing out a great many things that are important for women. It sets the stage, in fact, for completing the attack that masculism began. (The effect of throwing out things that strike you as patriarchal on a culture has much the same effect as killing off species in an ecosystem because you find them unpleasant. It is an interconnected, interdependent, and organic whole that all its members need. That’s not quite the right way of saying it, but this image has a grain of truth.) Masculism scorned the traditional place for men, and was masculine only in that it rebelled against perceivedly feminine virtue. Feminism does not include a large number of women’s voices in America and an even larger number worldwide—because feminism lumps them all together in “The Enemy.” At times feminism can look anti-woman.

So everything will be OK if we resist feminism? No. First, if the tradition is right—let us say, in the controversial point that associates women with the home—that doesn’t make much sense of today’s options that don’t really let women be women and don’t let men be men. What is the closest equivalent to women reigning in one of society’s most important institions? Is it to be a housewife with a lunchtime discussion group, which seems to work wonders for depression caused by loneliness? Is it for women to keep house and work part time? Is it to work full time, and find an appropriate division of labor with their husbands? I have trouble telling which of these is best, and it doesn’t help matters to choose an option just because it bothers feminists. I think that women (and, for that matter, men) have an impoverished set of options today. Unfortunately, some of the most practical questions are also the ones that are hardest to answer.

Second and more importantly, reacting against feminism, or much of anything else, is intrinsically dangerous. If feminism has problems, we would be well advised to remember that heresies often start when people react against other heresies and say that the truth is so important they should resist that heresy as much as they can. Reactions against heresy are often heresy.

Let me explain how not to respond to feminism’s picture of what men should be. You could say that feminism wants women to be more like men and men to be more like women, and that has a significant amount of truth. But if you dig in and say that men should be rugged and independent and say, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul!”, and women should be weak, passive creatures that are always in a swoon, there are several major problems.

The phrase “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul!” is something that nobody but God should say. Someone greater than us is the master of our fate, and someone greater than us is the master of our soul, and that is our glory. To be a man is to be under authority. Perhaps it irks feminists that the Bible tells wives to submit to their husbands as well as telling husbands to love their wives with the greatest and most costly love. (I’ve heard some first class citizens pointing out that the Bible requires something much heftier of husbands than mere submission—loving and loving their wives on the model of Christ going so far as to give up his life for the Church.) But the tradition absolutely does not say “Women are to be second-class citizens because they are under men’s authority and men are to be first-class citizens because they have the really good position of being free from authority.” To be a man is to be under authority, to be a woman is to be under authority, and to be human is to be under authority. To masculism this looks demeaning because immature masculinity resists being under authority or being in community or any other thing that men embrace when they grow up. But Orthodoxy is a call to grow up, and it is a call to men to be contributing members of a community and to be under authority. To tell men, “Be independent!” is to tell them, “Refuse to grow up!”

What about women? Shouldn’t they be passive and dependent? Let’s look at one of the Bible’s most complete treatments of what a woman should be like. I’ll give my own slightly free translation from the Greek version of Proverbs (31:10-31):

Who can find a valorous wife?
She is more precious than precious stones.
Her husband wholeheartedly trusts her, and will have no lack of treasures.
Her whole life works good for her husband.
She gathers wool and linen and weaves with her hands.
She has become like a trading ship from afar, and she gathers her living.
She rises at night, and gives food to her house, and assigns work to her maids.
She examines and buys a farm, and plants a vineyard with the fruit of her hands.
She girds her loins with strength and strengthens her arms for work.
She tastes how good it is to work, and her candle stays lit the whole night long.
She reaches her hands to collective work, and applies her hands to the spindle.
She opens her hands to the needy, and extends fruit to the poor.
Her husband does not worry about the men at home when he spends time abroad;
All her household has clothing.
She makes double weight clothing for her husband,
And linen and scarlet for herself.
Her husband is respected when he engages in important business at the City Hall.
When he is seated in council with the elders of the land.
She makes fine linens and sells belts to the Canaanites.
She opens her mouth with heedfulness and order, and is in control of her tongue.
She clothes herself in strength and honor, and rejoices in the future.
The ways of her household are secure, and she does not eat the bread of idleness.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, according to the deep law.
Her mercy for her children prepares them, and they grow rich, and her husband praises her.
Many daughters have obtained wealth, and many have worked vilantly, but you have surpassed them all.
Charm is false, and a woman’s [physical] beauty is shallow:
For a wise woman is blessed, and let her praise the fear of the Lord.
Give her the fruit of her labors, and let her husband be praised at the City Hall.

I have several things to say about this text. To open with, I’ll understand if you say this is an intimidating standard to be held up against, but if you say this affirms the ideal of women as passive and delicate, I’m going to have to ask what on earth you mean. Second, if you read the text closely, you can see hints of how important homes were to business and charity. Most business and charity were based in the home. Third, most translations use not quite the right word when they say, “Who can find a good wife?” The word used is not just “good”. It’s a word one could use of a powerful soldier. Fourth, at the risk of sounding snide, the words about not measuring womanhood by physical beauty beat body image feminism to the punch by about three thousand years. Fifth and finally, the text talks about this woman as a lot of things—as strong, as doing business, as farming, as manufacturing. But there’s one thing it does not say. It does not interpret “woman” in terms of “victim.”

There is something somewhat strange going on. If we ask what is the wealthiest nation on earth, it’s the U.S.A. If we ask what nation wields the most political clout on earth, it’s the U.S.A. And if we ask some slightly different questions, and ask what nation feminism has had the most success reforming the culture, the U.S. might not be at the very top, but it’s at least near the top. The same is true if we ask what nation women hold the most political clout in: the U.S. is either at the top or near the top. If we ask what nations women hold the most civil rights, and have most successfully entered traditionally male occupations, the U.S. is probably near the top. Now let us turn to still another kind of question: what are the women in the most powerful, and one of the most feminist-reformed, nations in the world, doing? If we’re talking about uneducated and lower-class women, the answer is simply living life as women. But if we look at educated, middle-class women, the answer tends to be simple but quite different: they are Fighting in the fray for the lowest rung on the ladder of victimization.

To be fair to feminists, I must hastily add that it’s a fray because it has a lot of participants besides feminists. The handicapped, gay, and racial minorities are also fighting, and it seems that everybody wants in. For that matter, a good many able-bodied, straight, white men also want in on the action; many middle-aged white applicants complain that affirmative action has biased the hiring process against them. To many of those who do not belong to an easily recognized victim’s group, the cry is, “When can I be a victim so I can get some rights?” It seems that fighting for the lowest rung on the ladder of victimization has become the American national sport.

It seems like I’m mentioning a lot of paradoxes about feminism. Let me mention something else that concerns me. The term “consciousness raising” sounds like something everybody should support—after all, what could be wrong with enhancing someone’s consciousness? But what does this term mean? To be somewhat blunt, “consciousness raising” means taking women who are often happy and well-adjusted members of society and making them hurt and miserable, not to mention alienated. Among feminists today, the more a woman identifies with the feminist movement, the more hurt and angry she is, the more she seems to be able to see past appearances and uncover a world that is unspeakable hostile to women. For that matter, historically the more feminism has developed and the more success feminism has had reforming society, the more women, or at least feminists, are sure the world is grinding an invisible, or if you prefer, highly visible, axe against women. Are there alternatives to this? What about feminists who say that going back isn’t an option? I’m not going to try to unravel whether there is an escape; I’m focusing on a different question, whether “consciousness raising” contributes to living in joy. If an animal’s leg is caught in a steel trap, the only game in town may be to gnaw off its own leg. The question of, “Is it necessary?” is one question, but I’m focusing on the question of, “Is it basically good?” For the animal, chewing off its own leg is not good, even if it’s the only game in town, and taking women who are happy and making them miserable is not good. You can argue that it is the only game in town, but if it’s a necessary evil, it is still an evil, and naming this process “consciousness raising” is a bit like taking a piece of unconstitutional legislation that rescinds our civil liberties and naming it the “USA Patriot Act.” It’s a really cool name hiding something that’s not so cool. The issue of whether there is anything better is one issue (I believe Orthodoxy is a better alternative), but there are two different issue going on here, and it is not clear that “consciousness raising” benefits women.

I’ve raised some unsettling points about feminism. And at this point I would like to suggest that Orthodoxy is what feminism is reaching for. What do I mean? There are a lot of points of contact between feminism’s indictment of what is wrong with patriarchy and Orthodoxy’s indictment of what is wrong in the West. (Both are also kook magnets, but we won’t go into that.) I mentioned one thing that feminism and Orthodoxy have in common; there are a great many more, and some of them are deep. But there are also differences. Orthodoxy doesn’t deliver women who are hurt and angry; Orthodoxy has a place for women to be women, and for women to enjoy life. Feminism tries to be pro-woman, but ends up giving its most vitriolic treatment to women who disagree with it: we do not have the sisterhood of all women, as feminism should be, but a limited sisterhood that only includes feminists. Orthodoxy has its own vitriol, but there is also a great tradition of not judging; even in our worship people are doing different things and nobody cares about what the next person is doing. We don’t believe salvation ends at our church doors, and in general we don’t tell God who can and cannot be saved. Feminism is a deep question, and Orthodoxy is a deep answer.

That is at least a simplistic picture; it’s complex, but I cannot help feeling I’ve done violence to my subject matter. It seems my treatment has combined the power and strength of a nimble housecat with the agility and grace of a mighty elephant. I would like to close with something related to what I said in the beginning, about knowing.

Christiane Northrup’s Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom talks about how women do not always feel the need to rush and get to the point, not because they are doing a bad job of getting that task out of the way (as necessary but unpleasant), but because to women things are interconnected, and the things a woman says before “the point” are things she sees as connected that add something to the point. This article has some of the qualities Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom finds in women, and I see things as interconnected. Beyond analysis, there is synthesis. If this article discusses many things that are connected to the point, that is not because I am trying to write like a woman would. It’s not something extra that I’ve decided to add; in fact it would be difficult for me to uproot this from how I communicate. And it’s not because I am trying to balance out my masculinity by being more feminine, or be androgynous, or because I’m trying to be woman-like out of a guilt factor. There are other reasons why, but I would suggest that it’s an example of Orthodox manhood at work. Not the only example, and certainly not the best, but my point is that there is an important sense in which Orthodoxy is what feminism is reaching for. But to immediately get to the point would give an impression that is strange and deceptive, and almost completely fail to convey what is meant by the claim. That is why I’ve been spending my time exploring a web of interconnections that help show what that claim means.

Orthodoxy is about helping us to be fully human, and that includes divinely inspired support for both men and women. It is other things as well, but part of why I became Orthodox was that I realized there were problems with being a man in Western Christianity. Orthodoxy is the most gender balanced Christian confession in terms of numbers, and I came to ask the rather abrasive question, “Does Orthodoxy draw more men than Evangelicalism because Orthodoxy understands sanctification as deification and Evangelicalism understands sanctification as a close personal relationship with another man?” I never got much of an answer to that question (besides “Yes”). And even though I’m looking for more in Orthodoxy than help being a man, one of the reasons I became Orthodox was that it is the best environment for being a man that I found. And I’m coming to realize that men are only half the picture in Orthodoxy.

Because everything is connected, if you hurt men, women get hurt, and if you hurt women, men get hurt… and if you think about what this means, it means that you cannot make an environment that is healthy for men but is destructive to women. Nor can you make an environment that is healthy for women but destructive to men. Orthodoxy’s being good for men is not something that is stolen from women. It is good for men because God instituted it as a gift to the whole human race, not only for men.

There are things that are deeply wrong with Western culture. Would you rather be working on an analysis of the problem, or learn to grow into its solution?

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Humor Delivers Pain

Humor Delivers Pain. That may sound like a strange thing to say but listen to me for a little bit. If you look at a joke, and really see why it’s funny, the humor comes from delivering pain. Mark Twain said, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven.

Let me give one example of humor that is funny because it delivers pain.

There was a man who decided he was going to become an icefisher, so he brought a bunch of equipment, got on the ice, and started to drill down a few inches. A deep, booming voice said, “There are no fish there!”

Startled, the man moved over fifty feet and started to drill again. The voice said, “There are no fish there, either!”

The man moved his equipment a hundred feet further, looked around, and the voice said, “Nor are there any fish there!”

The icefisher asked, “Who are you, God?”

The voice said, “No! I’m the arena manager!”

What’s so funny about this? The answer is that we have been slipped a bit of pain, slipped a very large bit of pain in fact: someone who genuinely and dearly wanted to be an icefisher was stupid enough to try to go icefishing in a hockey arena. Let me give another example.

For background to what is a bit of an inside joke, field service engineers enjoy a terrible reputation among a certain type of IT guru who, by the time they call for help, have done enough due diligence to understand the system better than the field service engineers do. And often field service engineers who don’t know how to solve a problem try swapping out parts with known assumed good parts to identify which part is the problem. This is called by the extremely pejorative metaphor, “Easter egging.”

Q: How can you tell if a field service engineer has a flat tire?

A: The car’s jacked up and he’s swapping one of the tires with a spare to see which one’s flat.

Q: How can you tell if a field service engineer is out of gas?

A: The car’s jacked up and he’s swapping one of the tires with a spare to see which one’s flat.

This reminds me of one time I heard a local guru on a call with technical support; he was trying to talk with Dell because they shipped him a computer with visible chunks of dust under the screen. I didn’t hear the other side of his conversation, but I did hear his words: “There’s dust under the screen… And why are we messing with the BIOS [software settings]? … Dude, there’s dust under the screen!” He had to finally speak with the helpdesk employee’s manager to recognize that the computer had been shipped with noticeable chunks of dust under the screen, that this was a problem, and the problem was not going to be solved by fiddling with software or anything else besides removing the dust from under the screen.

His side of the conversation was not intended as humor; it came out that way because it was painful enough that we laugh when we hear it. And the two field service engineer jokes, if they are really two jokes, deliver pain. The first joke delivers pain that a field service engineer will go Easter egging when casual observation would make it clear which tire was flat. The second joke, which uses the first joke as part of its buildup, says, metaphorically speaking, that a field service engineer has no strategies beyond swapping tires, and no concept that there are problems that are not solvable by swapping tires. If the first joke delivers pain, the second joke delivers unbelievable pain. And it’s the same sort of scream as, “And why are we messing with the BIOS [software settings]?”

Let me step back from these minutia to quote the great humorist Mark Twain again: “The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven.” I’m not sure if you’ve noticed this, but on stage at least professional comedians are bitterly miserable. I don’t know about their private life; it could possibly be just an act. But on stage, at least, comedians draw from a well of sorrow, and there is something in the same vein of “Send in the Clowns,” which is not an ode to joy, but a dire bid to anaesthetize misery.

In my own life I have moved from telling jokes a lot, and making jokes for that matter (The Joy of Windows, and a joke I hope the reader doesn’t get), to starting to move away from humor as delivering pain. In my last speech on iPhones and spirituality, I described two Far Side cartoons about television. But the point, the entire point, of their inclusion was not to make my lecture more pleasant. It was to deliver pain. And what I have found in trying to unplug humor as something that slips bits of pain is that my total pain is less, and there is more joy. It was terrifying to contemplate letting go of at least some humor, but what I have found is more freedom and more joy. Which sometimes happens when you let go of something you are afraid to let go.

There is no humor in Heaven, and letting go of humor may be more joyful than we think.

A Glimpse into Eastern Orthodoxy

Cover for The Christmas Tales

Introduction

Do children and adults understand each other? To some degree, and if many adults have lost touch with childhood, there are some who understand childhood very well. But when I was a child, I wanted to write a book about things adults don’t understand about children. (I have since forgotten with what I wanted to write.) There is a gulf. A father can read a Calvin and Hobbes strip, and his little girl can ask what’s funny, and the father is in a pickle. It’s not that he doesn’t want to explain it, and he may be able to explain the humor to another adult, but all of those explanations fail with his daughter. Children often believe that there’s a big secret the adult conspiracy is refusing to tell them. And the adult who is trying to get a child to “be serious” by setting aside “make believe” and dealing with what is “real” is like someone who wears a raincoat to the shower. The things that go without saying as part of being serious are in many cases not part of childhood’s landscape.

In this sense, children understand each other. This understanding is compatible with friendship, liking, hating, being aloof, and several other things, but there are certain things that go without saying, and the things that go without saying are shared. Two young children will have a world where the difference between “real” and “imaginary” is not very important, where they have no power and adults laugh at things the children don’t understand, and where the world is full of wonder. And in that sense two children can understand each other even if they don’t know each other’s heroes, favorite ways to play, and so on and so forth. And adults likewise understand things that can normally be taken for granted among adults.

Before suggesting that Western Christianity (in other words, Catholic and Protestant Christianity) is best understood in continuity with the West, I would like to explain what I mean. There are a good many Catholics and Protestants who try to be critical towards Western culture, and who do not accept uncritically what is in vogue. I know several Western Christians who tried to live counterculturally and not accept sour things in Western culture; I was such a Western Christian myself. So is it fair to talk about the continuity between Western Christianity and the West?

There is a common Western tendency to criticize common Western tendencies. I’ve seen Christians eager to criticize Western tendencies. I’ve also seen liberals who were not Christian eagerly criticize common Western tendencies. For that matter, I don’t remember ever hearing someone use the term “common Western tendency” in a flattering way, even though the West is home to many great cultural triumphs (as well as problems). Criticizing “Western tendencies” is a Western thing to do. Taking a dim view of the culture that raised you is a Western thing to do. Working to create a counterculture is a Western thing to do. The focus of this article is not to rebut the West but to explain the East and describe things Western Christians may not know to look for. The Orthodox classics do not try to be Christian by making unflattering remarks about “common Western tendencies.” For reasons that I will elaborate, I know that there are countercultural Western Christians who strive to construct or reconstruct a Christian culture that is very different from the Western mainstream (I was such a countercultural Western Christian), and I still consider their continuities with the West to be significant. More on that later.

This article explores the suggestion that Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity is best understood in continuity with the East, and Western (Catholic and Protestant) Christianity is best understood in continuity with the West. There are of course continuities between Eastern and Western Christianity. But they usually aren’t the point where Western Christians do not understand Orthodox. There are important ways that a Western Christian understands an Eastern Christian and members of (other) Eastern religions don’t. There are also important ways that members of (mostly) Eastern religions understand each other. The purpose of this article is to explain things that the East naturally understands about Orthodoxy, not to explain everything important about Orthodoxy. The understanding between Orthodox, Hindus, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Buddhists, and many less well known religions is of this kind. And so is understanding within the West, but East and West are different as children and adults are different—not because one is more mature than the other (each can see the other as childish), but because there is a gulf. The understanding isn’t a matter of how many details you know, or agreement on important matters. For that matter, it’s not even a matter of civil disagreement. Understanding another religion is perfectly consistent with fighting religious wars. But there is a gulf that is rarely bridged, and I am trying to bring a spark of understanding of the gulf. I am trying to explain what is shared that Westerns, even Western Christians, need to have explained. And I will be looking at both East and West, at both worlds.

This article is partly Eastern and partly Western, and doesn’t completely belong to either world. It’s meant to give explanations a Westerner would recognize, while addressing important things that a Westerner might not think to ask about. I was raised an evangelical, and I am a relatively recent convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. This means that for better or worse I have a foot in both worlds. I hope to use this position to build a bridge.

The Most Important Thing Is

“Article on understanding Orthodoxy” is a dread oxymoron, a red flag like the phrase “committee to revitalize,” or for that matter a thick commentary on Ecclesiastes 6:11: “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” (NIV)

Orthodoxy is something you understand by doing. If you want to learn to swim, you get in the water with someone who can show you how to swim. So the first thing an article on understanding Orthodoxy can say is that you can’t understand Orthodoxy by reading an article on understanding Orthodoxy. You can understand it by visiting a parish and seeing how we worship, and maybe participating. A book can be a useful tour guide that can help you keep your eyes open for what to see at a historic site, but it cannot substitute for visiting the site yourself. The first thing to do is, if you know someone Orthodox, ask, “May I join you at church?” Orthodoxy is a live community, and the way to understand it is to interact with the community. If you don’t have that live connection, you can search online for a nearby parish (and ignore the error message) (Outside the US). Some parishes (churches) are warmer than others. There are some parishes that unfortunately aren’t welcoming. If a church doesn’t have a sign out in front, that may be a warning. But there are many churches that are welcoming. And don’t worry if everybody seems to be doing things that you don’t understand. There is a great deal of freedom in Orthodoxy, and apart from receiving communion you should be welcome to do (or not do) anything people are doing. Sometimes you will see different members of the faithful doing different things, walking around, entering, leaving. This is because of the freedom in Orthodox worship and a grand tradition of not sticking your nose in what other people are doing. When I first visited my present parish, well before I became Orthodox, I was self-conscious about following what other people were doing and sticking out. In the time that I’ve been Orthodox, I realized that there was no need to be self-conscious, and in fact no one cared that I wasn’t acting like everyone else.

So make a note in your planner, or call a friend who’s Orthodox. Decide exactly when you will make that contact, and do what you need to do to get that in your planner. Actually visiting the site is infinitely more valuable than reading a guidebook about it.

Symbol and Nominalism

Before explaining what symbol is in the East, I would like to talk about what has happened in the West. Symbol in the West used to be close to what it was in the East—like two trees standing tall. Then something called nominalism came along, and cut down the Western tree, leaving a stump of a once great tree. Nominalism is a good part of what has defined the West.

Nominalism was one side in a Western medieval debate, and it was called the “modern way.” The debate was whether categories of things were something real that existed before things and before our minds, or whether categories are things we construct after the fact. What people used to believe, and what the nominalists’ opponents believed, was that a lot more things were real than the nominalists acknowledged. Their opponents looked at the structures we perceive and said, “It’s out there,” and the nominalists said “No, it only exists in your head.” Nominalism was an axe for cutting down most of what people sensed about the world around us. In its extreme form nominalism says that brute fact is all that exists; if it’s not a brute fact, it can only exist in people’s heads. Some scholars will recognize that as a postmodern distinction; nominalism was something that flowered in modernism and bore fruit in postmodernism. At one stage, nominalism defined modernism and the Enlightenment, while at a later stage, people were more consistent and became postmodern.

Another thing that nominalism did was to cut apart the thing that represents and the thing that is represented in a symbol. Nominalism is the disenchantment of the entire universe. Nominalism is a disenchanting force that says, “If you can’t touch it, it can only be in your head,” and the place of symbol was changed from what it once was. Symbol wasn’t the only casualty, but it was one of the casualties.

Imagine two very different surfaces, like the surface of the ground. The first surface, Orthodoxy, is rich in connections, layers, and colors. Imagine that the first surface is textured, like the surface of the earth, while there are not only buildings but great arcs connecting one part to another so that what is present in one place is present in another. A symbol is an arc of this kind, and symbol is not something externally added to reality; it is something basic to what reality is, so that the surface is in fact richer than just a surface and is as connected as a web. If there is something in you that responds to beauty in the surface, or to ways it has become ugly, that is because something inside you is resonating with something out there.

Now imagine another picture, of a surface that is flat and grey, where there is no real order, and any structures and connections you see are only ways of lumping things together inside your head. You can read things on to it; you can imagine structures in its randomness and pretend any two parts are linked; because it has no order, you can project any kind of structure or connection you want, even if this freedom means it is only your particular fantasy. If you find it to be drab and empty, that is a private emotional reaction that says nothing interesting about the drab and empty world, in particular not that it is failing to be in some way colorful like it “should” be. “Should” has no meaning beyond something about our private psychology.

If you imagine these two surfaces—one of them structured, many-layered, colorful, and possessing a veritable web of connecting arcs (symbols), and the other one having only a single grey layer and no connections—you have the difference between what Orthodoxy believes and where nominalism leads. Few people believe nominalism in a pure form; I don’t even know if it is possible to believe nominalism in a few form. Nominalism is more a way of decaying than a fixed system of ideas. Part of what has shaped Western Christianity is the influence of nominalism as the disenchantment of the entire universe. Nominalism disenchants the treasure of a world of spiritual resonance, where symbol and memory have a rich meaning, where a great many things are not private psychological phenomena but something that is attuned to the world as a whole, as much as a radio picks up music because someone is broadcasting the music it picks up.

What was before nominalism in the West, and what is the place of symbol in Orthodoxy now? Christ is a symbol of God, and he is a symbol in the fullest possible sense. How? Christ is not a miniature separate copy of God, which is what a symbol often is in the West. Christ is fully united with God: “I and the Father are One.” God is fundamentally beyond our world; “No man can see God and live.” But “in Christ the fullness of God lives in a body.” And if you have seen Christ, you have seen the Father. Christ visibly expresses the Father’s hidden reality.

The image of God, in which we were all created, does not mean that we are detached miniature copies of God. What it means is that we, in our inmost being, are fundamentally connected to God. It means that we were created to participate in God’s reality, and that something of God lives in us. It means that every breath we breathe is the breath of God. It means that we are to reign as God’s delegates, the moving wonders who manifest God in ruling his visible world.

As an aside, symbol is one important kind of connection that makes things really present, but it’s not the only one. Memory is not understood as a psychological phenomenon inside the confines of a person’s head; to remember something is to make something really present. “This do in rememberance of me” is not primarily about us having thoughts in our heads about Christ, just as saying “Please assemble this cabinet” is not primarily about us seeing and touching tools and cabinet pieces. Saying “Please assemble this cabinet” may include seeing and touching what needs to be assembled, but the focus is to bring about a fully assembled cabinet which not just something in our minds. When Christ said “This do in rememberance of me”, he wasn’t just talking about a psychological phenomenon, however much that may be necessary for remembering; he was telling us to make him really present and be open to his presence, and he isn’t present “just” in our thinking any more than a working cabinet is “just” a set of sensations we had in the course of assembling it. And the idea of “This do in rememberance of me” goes hand in hand with Holy Communion being a symbol in the fullest possible sense: the bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine embodies the body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. All of these are tied together.

Amomg these symbols, a reader may be surprised about one kind of symbol I haven’t mentioned: the icon. Icons are something I tried to overlook to get to the good parts of Orthodoxy; it took a while for me to recognize how much icons are one of the good parts of Orthodoxy. Icons are in fact key to understanding Orthodoxy.

When one bishop is giving a speech, sometimes he will hold up a picture, of a traffic intersection (or something else obviously secular), and then say, “In Greece, this is an icon. It’s not a holy icon, but it’s an icon.”

Part of what icons are in the East is easier to understand in light of what happened to icons in the West, not only religious artwork but painting as a whole. What happens if you ask an art historian to tell the story of Western art after the Middle Ages, roughly from the Renaissance to the Neo-classicists?

The story that is usually told is a story of Western art growing from crude and inaccurate depictions to paintings that were almost like photographs. It is a story of progress and advancement.

Orthodoxy can see something else in the story. Western art became photorealistic, not because they progressed from something inferior, but because their understanding of symbol had disintegrated.

If a picture is real to you as a symbol, then you don’t have to strive too hard to “accomplish” the picture, in the same sense that someone who has never gotten in trouble with alcohol doesn’t have to make an unprovoked lecture on why he doesn’t have a drinking problem. People who use alcohol responsibly rarely feel the need to prove that they don’t have a drinking problem; it’s someone who has a drinking problem who feels the need to make sure you know that his drinking is under control. People who don’t have a problem don’t feel the need to defend themselves, and artists and publics who haven’t lost symbols don’t feel a need to cram in photorealism. When Renaissance artists inaccurately portrayed the place of Christ’s birth as having a grid of rectangular tiles, they were cramming in photorealism. It wasn’t even that they thought they needed photorealism to make a legitimate picture. They went beyond that need to make the picture an opportunity to demonstrate photorealism, whether or not the photorealism really belonged there. From an Orthodox perspective the problem is not the historical inaccuracy of saying that Christ was born in a room with a tiled floor instead of a cave. The anachronism isn’t that big of a deal. From an Orthodox perspective the problem is that, instead of making a symbol the way people do when they really believe in symbol, people were making pictures the way people do when the pictures are unreal to them as symbols. The artists went for broke and pushed the envelope on photorealism because the West had lost something much more important than photorealism.

Good Orthodox icons don’t even pretend to be photorealistic, but this is not simply because Orthodox iconography has failed to learn from Western perspective. As it turns out, Orthodox icons use a reverse perspective that is designed to include the viewer in the picture. Someone who has become a part of the tradition is drawn into the picture, and in that sense an icon is like a door, even if it’s more common to call icons “windows of Heaven.” But it’s not helpful to simply say “Icons don’t use Renaissance perspective, but reverse perspective that includes the viewer,” because even if the reverse perspective is there, reverse perspective is simply not the point. There are some iconographers who are excellent artists, and artistry does matter, but the point of an icon is to have something more than artistry, as much as the point of visiting a friend is more than seeing the scenery along the way, even if the scenery is quite beautiful and adds to the pleasure of a visit. Cramming in photorealism is a way of making more involved excursions and dredging up more exotic or historic or whatever destinations that go well beyond a scenic route, after you have lost the ability to visit a friend. The Western claim is “Look at how much more extravagant and novel my trip are than driving along the same roads to see a friend!”—and the Orthodox response shows a different set of priorities: “Look how lonely you are now that you no longer visit friends!”

The point is that an icon, being a symbol, is connected to the person represented. It is probably not an accident that in the Reformation, the most iconoclastic people were those in whom the concept of symbol as spiritual connection had completely disintegrated. When I was a Protestant, the plainest sanctuaries I saw were the sanctuaries belonging to people who disbelieved in symbols as spiritual connections. If a symbol is not spiritually connected, then reverence to an icon is inappropriate reverence to a piece of wood; Orthodox believe that reverence to an icon passes through to the saint depicted in part because of the connection that is real to them.

There are other things to discuss about icons. Here I want to talk about them as symbols, and symbols in an Orthodox picture—the mental image I drew above that has a web of interconnections, has both spiritual and material layers, and is very different from the (almost empty) nominalist picture. A lot of people who try to understand icons are trying to fit the Orthodox icon into the nominalist picture, or at least a picture where part of the Orthodox framework is replaced with something more nominalist. I want to return to icons later, after some comparisons.

Compare and Contrast

How is Orthodoxy different from Western Christianity? I would like to answer, focusing on evangelical Christianity in my treatment of Western Christianity but referring to Catholicism. I don’t believe evangelical Christianity is the only real version of Western Christianity, but it is the middle of the (Western) road. From an Orthodox perspective, “Catholic,” “evangelical,” and “mainline” (or, if you prefer an alternative to “mainline,” you can say “oldline,” or “sideline,” or “flatline”) represent three degrees of being Western, much as “rare,” “medium,” and “well done” denote three degrees of a steak being cooked. There are important differences, but there is also something that’s the same. Catholicism is like a rare steak, is almost raw in some parts and almost well done in others. A Catholic may be almost Orthodox (certainly a Catholic is not discouraged from trying to be almost Orthodox), and there are a lot of Catholics who believe that Vatican II says that the Reformers were right about everything (or something pretty close to that).

Catholics tend to be sensitive to the differences to Catholic and Protestant (even if they choose not to pay enough attention to those differences). Yet it is common for Catholics to believe that Catholics and Orthodox only differ in the addition of “and the Son” to a creed. Saying that’s the only difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy is like saying that the difference between the Bible and the Quran is only that “Bible” was a French word for “book” and “Quran” is, with remarkable similarity, an Arabic word that can mean “book.” Catholic priests will tell you that Catholics and Orthodox believe almost exactly the same thing, and this is because Catholics know how they are different from Protestants but don’t know where their differences with Orthodox lie. The Reformation took a lot of trends in Catholicism and pushed them much further, but the problem isn’t just that the Reformers pushed them further. The problem is that the trends became a part of Catholicism in the first place. To Catholic readers who have been told that Catholicism is almost the same as Orthodoxy and the two should be joined together—I understand why you believe that and it is what one would expect the Catholic tradition to say. But to the Orthodox that is like saying that the Quran is of a piece with the Bible. You’re looking in the wrong place for the differences between the Bible and the Quran when you try to reconcile them by pointing out that “Bible” and “Quran” both mean book in influental languages. Not only do the differences lie elsewhere, they are far, far deeper.

Western Christianity

Orthodoxy

Sin is understood as essentially crime, and the remedy to sin provided by Christ is understood as being cleared for the guilt of a crime. Hence in Pilgrim’s Progress, for instance, there are elaborations designed to convince you that your crimes (sins) are great, and that you cannot ever clear yourself of these crimes (sins), but Bunyan does not seem to even see the question of whether sin and the consequence of sin are like anything besides crime and criminal guilt. Sin is understood as spiritual disease, and the remedy to sin provided by Christ is understood as healing. The Eucharist is “for the healing of soul and body,” and as the Great Physician Christ is concerned for both spiritual disease and physical disease, and drawing people into the divine life that he gives.
The reformation created mass literacy so that everyone could read the Bible. As a culture, it is heavily oriented towards written text. Someone said after visiting an Orthodox Church that it was the only church he’d been to that didn’t offer him printed material. At least for Protestant churches, a visitor is offered some kind of paper documents; there is a bulletin that is passed out; one of my friends had been a member of church where people said “No creed but Christ!” (which he was quick to point out, is a creed), and then asked him to sign a sixty page doctrinal statement. If evangelicalism is essentially a written culture, then in keeping with the observation that the opposite of a “literate” culture is not “illiterate” but “oral,” Orthodoxy has the attributes of an oral tradition. Many of its members can read and write, but writing has different implications. It’s the difference between a natural environment that includes some things people have created (a campsite) and a basically artificial environment (a laboratory). At the parish where I was accepted into the Orthodox Church, there was no literature rack and no stack of booklets for you to follow along the service. Even where those booklets are offered, incidentally, I prefer to participate without reading what is being said—I think it’s not just economic reasons that the main historic way for Orthodox to follow along a service doesn’t depend on reading.

Part of an oral tradition means things that are alive, things that are passed on that have a different basic character to what can be preserved in a text. This is present in Western Christianity, but it is more pronounced in Orthodoxy.

The written character of the culture is focused on Scripture. It is expected, especially among Evangelicals, that if your faith is strong, you will read Scripture privately.

Catholics and some Protestants do not believe Scripture has sole authority; Catholics assert the authority of Tradition alongside Scripture (“Scripture and Tradition”), and different Protestant groups have different solutions to the problem of how to balance the authority of Scripture and tradition.

Scripture is the crowning jewel of Tradition. Scripture is not something understood apart from Tradition; Scripture is something alive, something dynamically maintained by Tradition and something inspired not only in that the Spirit inspired ancient words but in that he speaks today to people who can listen to him. And Scripture is at its fullest, not read privately, but when proclaimed in Church.

One Orthodox priest tells people, “Reading Scripture privately is the second most spiritually dangerous thing you can do. All sorts of temptations will flare up, you’ll be assailed by doubts, and the Devil will whisper into your ear all these heretical ‘insights’ about the text. It is an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do.”

Some people are intimidated, wonder if they should really be reading the Bible privately, and ask timidly, “Well, I should reconsider reading the Bible privately. But one question. What’s the most dangerous thing you can do spiritually?”

“Not reading the Bible privately.”

There is a set of important questions, “What part of the person do we know with?” “What is knowledge?” “How can knowledge be built in another person?” Let me start with some secular answers:

What part of the person do we know with? We know with the mind, which is what is studied by the secular discipline of cognitive psychology. One big example is the part of us that reasons.

What is knowledge? Knowledge is having true mental representations that correspond to the world. It is the sort of thing we acquire from books.

How can knowledge be built in another person? Knowledge is built, to speak crudely, by opening the head and dumping something in. Now of course we need words/numbers/pictures to do this, but you teach by a classroom or a book.

Now this is a purification of something that is mixed in any Western Christian. It doesn’t even represent postmoderns well; in fact, it describes something postmoderns are trying to get away from. But admitting all these things, there is an element of the above answers in how Western Christians understand knowledge. Many Western Christians do not purely believe these answers, but they do believe something mixed with them.

I’d like to answer the same basic questions as I outlined to the left:

What part of the person do we know with? At least in matters of faith, we know with something that could be called “spirit” or “mind,” a part of us that is practical (the knowing we have when something becomes real to us). This part of the person thinks precisely because it is the center of where we meet God. It is the part of us we use to pray and worship. It is part of us that is connected with God and can only be understood with reference to God.

What is knowledge? Knowledge is when you participate in something, when you drink it in, when you relate to it. Someone’s talked about the difference between knowing facts about your wife, and knowing your wife. The West uses the first kind of knowledge as the heart of its picture of knowledge. Orthodoxy uses the second.

It is normally vain for a person to say, “To know me is to love me.” But there is another reason why someone might say that. To know anything is to love it. To know any person is to love that person because knowledge is connected to love.

How can knowledge be built in another person? Knowledge works from the outside in. The reason the first chapter after the introduction asked you to visit Orthodox worship is that that is how one comes to understand Orthodoxy. We don’t believe in trying to open the head and dump in knowledge. You can’t gain knowledge of Orthodoxy that way. You might be able to learn some of the garments surrounding Orthodoxy, but not the spirit itself. The point of asking you to visit Orthodox worship is that that’s not something important that needs to be added to learning about Orthodoxy. It is learning about Orthodoxy.

By the way, the same kind of thing is true of evangelicalism, even if people are less aware of it. Evangelicalism can never be understood as a system of ideas. An evangelical might only be aware of the ideas to be known, but that can only happen if the participation-based knowledge of the evangelical walk, in other words the Orthodox kind of knowledge, is in place.

I’d like to look at one more specific kind of knowledge, theology. In the West, theology is an academic discipline, and used to be called the queen of the sciences. Theology is a system of ideas, much like philosophy, and every other kind of theology is a branch of systematic theology. It took me a long time to make head or tail of my deacon’s insistence, “Theology is not philosophy whose subject-matter is God,” or of the ancient saying, “A theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.” But that was because I was trying to fit them into my Western understanding of theology tightly tied to a philosophy.

Theology is not the queen of sciences because it is not a science, and only with reservations can it be called an academic discipline. Calling theology an academic discipline is like calling karate an academic discipline (because you can take classes in both at college). Academic theology has a place, and in fact I intend to study academic theology, but the real heart of theology is not in the academy, but in the Church at prayer.

Theology is knowledge. More specifically, it is mystical or spiritual knowledge. It is knowing with the part of you that prays, and that is why Orthodox still say, “A theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.” Theology is knowledge that participates in God, that eats and drinks Christ in Communion, Communion, that seeks a connection with God. And because Orthodox theology is Orthodox knowing, as described above, books can have value but can never contain theology.

In the West, some Christians regard Christianity as a system of ideas. Hence one Catholic author writes, “It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.” If this is not universal among Western Christians, it nonetheless represents one of the threads that keeps popping up. Eastern Orthodox would agree that Christianity is not primarily a mode of feeling; indeed, Orthodox do not believe that feelings are the measure of worship. But we part company with the Catholic author quoted, in trying to fix this by placing a system of ideas where some place emotion.

Orthodoxy is a way, just as many Eastern religions are a way. It is a path one walks. A worldview is something you believe and through which you see things; those elements are present in a way, but a way is something you do. It is like a habit, or even better a skill, which you start at clumsily and with time you not only become better at, but it becomes more natural. But it is more than a skill. It is even more encompassing than a worldview; it is how you approach life. Part of the West says we must each forge our own way; Orthodoxy invites people into the way forged by Christ, but it very much sees the importance of walking in a way.

The West tends to treat society as to a raw material, a despicable raw material, which will begin to have goodness if one puts goodness into it, transforming it according to one’s enlightened vision.

This undergirds not only liberalism but most criticism of “common Western tendencies”, and in particular most Christian attempts at counterculture. This attitude behind counterculture is not only that the Fall has impacted one’s culture, but that there is nothing really good or authoritative about culture unless one puts it in.

Counterculture tends to be seen as essentially good.

In the East, as in the medieval and ancient West, the assumed relationship between a man and his culture is like the relationship between a man and his mother. It is a relationship which respects authority, femininity, and kinship.

This is not to say that one’s culture cannot be wrong. What it is to say is that there is a world of difference between saying, “Mother, you are wrong,” and “You are not my mother! You are nothing but a despicable raw material which it is my position to put something good in by transforming it according to my ideas.” There can in fact be counterculture, but it is not counterculture according to the example of the Renaissance magus, the Enlightenment (or contemporary liberal) social engineer, or the postmodern deconstructionist. It is rather like the wild offshoot into Christ’s body the Church, who regards his mother the Church, and patristic culture, as more authoritative than the culture he was born in.

Counterculture can be seen as a necessary evil.

What the Incarnation Means

In the West, doctrines have worked like elements in a philosophical system, while in the East, the focus is on what doctrines mean for us. There is a difference of focus, more than ideas contained, in the doctrine of the Trinity. The Western emphasis has been on philosophical clarity in describing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Eastern emphasis has been on what the persons of the Trinity mean for us and how we relate to them.

The Church didn’t even spell out a philosophical analysis of the Trinity until almost three centuries had passed and a heresy contradicted what they had always known. The Church had always known that the Son and the Holy Spirit were just as divine as the Father, and it taught people to appropriately relate to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit before it spelled out why people should relate that way.

The Incarnation, God becoming human, is recognized by all Christians who have their heads screwed on straight (and quite a few who don’t). But in the East, believing in the Incarnation isn’t just an idea that we agree with (although that is important). It is something that in practice determines the shape of a great many things in our spiritual walk. It is something that has great practical relevance. I would like to explain some of what the Incarnation means in the East, and that means explaining how the Incarnation gives shape to our spiritual walk.

There has been a saying rumbling down through the ages. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God (Protestant). The divine became man so that man might become divine (Catholic). God and the Son of God became man and the Son of Man that men might become gods and the sons of God. This teaching has mostly fallen away in Protestantism, even if Luther and Calvin believed it, and it is one puzzle piece among others in Catholicism. To the Orthodox it is foundational. The whole purpose of Christ becoming man, and our becoming Christian, is to become like Christ. Furthermore, becoming like Christ does not simply mean becoming like Jesus the morally good and religious man without reference to Christ’s divinity. We don’t split Christ like that. If God wants to make us like Christ, he wants to make us like Christ who is fully God and fully human, and that means that we “share in the divine nature” (as spelled out in II Pet 1:4). It means that if we read Paul talking about the Son of God as meaning divinity, then when Paul talks about us as sons of God he is saying something in the same vein. There are caveats the Orthodox believe that help balance the picture—in particular, we can be made divine by grace, but only God can be divine by nature, ever. We cannot make others divine. God has his essence which is beyond knowing and his energies which reach out to us, but we can never reach beyond his manifest energies to see his essence. Catholics believe in a “beatific vision” that in Heaven we will see God as he truly is. Orthodox call that heresy. God can reach out to us and we can meet him when he reaches out, but it is radically, utterly, and absolutely impossible for us to ever know God as he truly is. Neither our being divine by grace nor our glorification in Heaven can ever overcome God’s absolute transcendence. The Orthodox liturgy and prayers not only take account of sin; they spend more time bringing sin we need to repent of before God, than our being made like Christ. With all these caveats, the basic picture means that the Incarnation is not a one-time unnatural exception, something which runs against the grain of how God operates, or something totally unlike what can happen with us. The Incarnation is a peerless model that established the pattern of what it means to be Christian. Christ as the example of who a Christian should be is the only human who was fully divine, and even the only one to be fully human, but the Christian walk was meant to be, and is, a symbol that both represents and embodies what happened in the Incarnation. Christ is really incarnate in every member of the Church, and the Incarnation is not an anti-natural exception, but the pattern for being Christian. The purpose of being Christian is what Orthodox call “theosis,” or “divinization,” or “deification.”

Part of understanding that Christ became human, and in fact became flesh, requires an understanding of how spirit and matter relate. DesCartes is one of the more Western philosophers. Part of his contribution was a lot of thinking about the famous problem of the “ghost in the machine.” The problem of the “ghost in the machine” is the problem of how our minds can interact with our bodies, once you put mind and body in watertight compartments and assume that they shouldn’t be able to interact. It’s possible to be Western and disagree with DesCartes—but the main Western starting point is that mind and body are things one would expect to be separate.

In the East we don’t have trouble with the “ghost in the machine” problem because we don’t treat matter and spirit as things that are cut off from each other. We believe that matter and spirit are tightly bound together. It doesn’t seem strange to us that our minds can move our bodies—it’s a wonder, as all of God’s works are wonders, but it’s not something illogical.

This understanding means that the Incarnation doesn’t just mean that Christ had a body; it means that Christ was connected to his body on the most intimate level. What the Incarnation means for us isn’t just that Christ’s body, and our bodies, are somehow part of the picture. It means that our bodies are an inescapable part of the picture, and they are very relevant to our spirits.

If you visit Orthodox worship, you may wonder why people stand, cross themselves, bow, kiss icons, and so on and so forth—in short, why their bodies are so active. The answer is that since our spirits and bodies are tied together in the whole person, worship includes the whole person. We don’t just park our bodies while our spirits get on with worship. We might do that if we thought that our minds and bodies were separate, but we don’t. We believe that Christ’s incarnation is a matter of the Son of God, and the man’s spirit, mind, soul, and body making one being, Christ, who was as united as possible. And that means that worship at Church and the broader spiritual walk both involve the whole person.

This integrated view of spirit and matter, and of the Incarnation, helps create the space for icons. I found icons strange at first, largely because as a Western Christian I had no place for icons that was appropriate. Believing that physical matter can have spiritual properties, that an icon can embody a real presence, all seems strange to someone shaped by nominalism and a rigid separation of spirit and matter. But I am learning to appreciate that to an Orthodox, to say that Christ had a body and to say that matter and spirit are tied together paves the way to recognizing that icons are a gift from God. They mean that matter is not cut off from spirit when it comes to our bodies, and they mean that matter is not cut off from spirit in places where we worship. Icons are another part of the incarnate faith of the Orthodox Church, and if you disagree with them, please understand that they are part of the understanding of how the Incarnation tells us practically how the Father wants us to worship him.

When I was a Protestant, the songs I heard in Church were about spiritual themes, and more specifically they are about themes in the Bible that seem spiritual and theological given a watertight idea of spirit. As contrasted to the Psalms, there was almost none of the imagery of the natural world. Orthodox liturgy, which contains a lot of teaching, sweeps across the both material and spiritual creation. One hymn praises Mary, the mother of our Lord, as “the volume [book] on which the Word [Christ] was inscribed,” and “the ewe that bore the Lamb of God.” The frequent physical and nature imagery that seamlessly praises God and rejoices in his whole creation is what being spiritual looks like when spirit is recognized as so deeply connected with the material dimension to our Lord’s creation.

Like other Eastern religions, Orthodoxy has a supportive framework of formal and informal prayer, fasting from foods, ritual worship, hesychasm (stillness) and other aspects of spiritual discipline (which some Orthodox call “ascesis”). These are not “rules,” but they do provide a concrete structure to help people. Partly because Orthodoxy assumes the relevance of matter to being spiritual, Orthodoxy doesn’t just say “Go, be spiritual,” without giving further direction as it doesn’t just say “Park your bodies so your spirits can worship.” The structure provided for spiritual discipline is shaped by the Incarnation, and not only because it addresses the whole person. The spiritual discipline is not very different from other Eastern religions, but the meaning of that spiritual discipline is very different. In Hinduism and Buddhism, asceticism is something you do for yourself, and other people often aren’t part of the picture. When the Buddha decided to turn back and share his discovery with others, he was choosing a second best—according to Buddhism, the best thing would have been to enter complete release (salvation) instead of compromising his own benefit to share his discovery with others. Being good to other people, in Buddhism and in Hinduism tends to be like a boat you use to cross a river: once you have crossed the river, you don’t need the boat any more.

What about Orthodoxy? One Orthodox saying is, “We are saved in community. We are condemned all by ourselves.” Another Orthodox saying puts it even more strongly: “We can’t be saved. The Church is saved, and we can be in it.” Orthodox spiritual discipline is not something that makes ethics unnecessary. The whole point of spiritual discipline is ethical. If I pursue asceticism, the goal isn’t for me to be saved all by myself; it is impossible for me to be saved all by myself, just like it’s impossible for me to have a good friendship all by myself. The goal of asceticism is for the Orthodox to love God and his neighbor, and if someone fails to recognize this, this is a problem. Spiritual discipline is Incarnational because, as much as the Incarnation was an act of love for others, spiritual discipline is oriented to loving with Christ’s own love.

In the West, people see salvation as accomplished through Christ’s cross; in Orthodoxy, we believe that Christ’s whole time on earth, including the cross, saves us. “Incarnation” means not only the moment when the Son of God became a man, but his baptism, ministry, cross, tomb, and resurrection. And thus the Incarnation I have discussed above is not simply the moment when the Son of God became a man, but Christ’s whole coming that saves us.

Ella Enchanted

The movie Ella Enchanted has beautiful fantasy-themed computer graphics. Ella, the daughter of a nobleman, lives in a lovely Gothic-looking house in the middle of a suburban yard, goes down a lovely rustic-looking wooden escalator complete with a rustic-looking peasant turning a manual cogwheel, and is surrounded by stained glass windows and other medieval-looking trappings when she goes to her coed community college and gets into a debate about government policy and racial exploitation. One of the characters is an elf who wants to break out of the stereotype and be a lawyer instead of an entertainer (which is prohibited by law), and one of the nice things that happens at the happy ending is that the elf and a giantess fall in love with each other.

This movie is not just historically inaccurate; it is historically irrelevant, and it wears its historical irrelevancy with flamboyance. Everything you see has a medieval theme. The lovely Gothic-looking architecture, the richly colored medieval-looking clothing, and the swords and armor all tried to communicate the medieval. And it would be horribly unfair to treat the film as a botched version of historical accuracy, because it simply wasn’t playing that game. However much things had been made to look “medieval,” to someone who didn’t understand the Middle Ages, it wasn’t even pretending to faithfully represent that era. It was using the medieval as a projection screen as a whimsical place to address today’s concerns. That was its real job.

That basic phenomenon affects a lot of how the West tries to understand the East, even when it is trying to faithfully represent it. In Ella Enchanted it is intentional, and the effect must be seen to be believed. (But then, that may be too high of a price to pay—as has been said about another movie.) I was appalled when I visited Victor Hugo’s house, heard about Victor Hugo’s fashionable interest in the Orient, and saw an Oriental-themed wooden painting of Chinese acrobats using their bodies to make a V and an H for “Victor Hugo.” China has produced acrobats, and Chinese acrobats are presumably capable of making those shapes with their bodies. But is this China, even allowing for cultural translation errors?

One major thread in most cultures outside the West is a tendency to exalt the whole of society and de-emphasize the individual person; indeed, people are seen without the Western concept of an “individual.” Individualism is historically anomalous, and having acrobats shape their bodies to the greater glory of Victor Hugo would be about as out of place in Chinese culture as a large pro-censorship demonstration would be at an American university. Here and in other places, the “East” is not really the East, even an imperfectly understood East, but a projection screen for use by the West. Ella Enchanted was tongue-in-cheek and knew what was going on, where this was serious (and didn’t know what was going on), but they were both using exotic places as a projection screen rather than something understood in itself.

New Age quotes the East, as well as “anything but the modern West,” and it has its various attempts to create an alternative to traditional society. The East is over-represented in terms of spiritual practices and ideas, but I suggest that the same thing is going on here asElla Enchanted or the supposedly Chinese acrobats celebrating the greater glory of Victor Hugo. In other words, we have a projection screen (in this case, non-Western) being used to project a thoroughly Western approach to life. The forces displayed are much an exaggeration of things that are accepted in Protestant Christianity.

What is the Western element that is found in New Age?

In the West, heresy is understood as condemned ideas. But the word “heresy” comes from a Greek word meaning “choice,” and in the East heresy is making a private choice apart from the Orthodox Church. This can mean rejecting Church teaching, or splitting off from the Church, but the core of heresy is not the destructively false idea but the private choice. (This already has implications for the American definition of religion as a private choice.)

New Age is Gnostic, but there is something interesting in how it departs from ancient Gnosticism. Ancient Gnosticism was not a single, unified movement, but a broad collection of related but quite different movements with conflicting ideas. In this sense it was like New Age, and for that matter there is a certain deja vu between New Age and ancient Gnosticism. What’s interesting is how New Age is unlike Gnosticism.

Gnostics had a lot of different ideas that conflicted not only with Orthodox Christianity but with each other. And they argued. Gnostics argued with other Gnostics and with Christians. Agreeing to disagree was as foreign to the Gnostics as it was to the Orthodox Christians. Saying “That’s true for you, but this is true for me” or “That’s your choice but this is my choice” would be as strange in classical Gnosticism as an escalator would have been in the Middle Ages.

New Age is a choice, and it is even more of a choice than in Gnosticism in its classical forms. Yes, the ideas are often Gnostic. Yes, New Age gives many of its members permission to indulge in magical, sexual, pride-related, and other sins, almost the same list as what ancient Gnosticism gave its members license for. But the essence of New Age is about a choice, the kind of choice that undergirds heresy. You choose (within certain broad parameters) what you will believe, what your spiritual practices will be, and so on and so forth, and the religion you practice is the sum of the private choices you make.

Where does this idea of religion as defined by private choice come from? One gets the impression from the New Age that it is the wisdom of the East to recognize that all religions say the same thing, and that a sort of Western style inquisition wouldn’t happen. And that is true. Kind of.

In English, poetic license is a legitimate aspect of the language. And there isn’t any central authority to approve instances of poetic license, nor can a poet be expelled from the English Speaker’s Guild for abusing the language. But if one simply tears up the English language, it loses its coherence as English. And so there is poetic license in English, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes. And in Hinduism, for instance, there is no centralized authority and no systematic purge of heretics, but that doesn’t mean that a Hindu (or Buddhist, etc.) approves of religion being approached as a salad bar. Leaders in many Eastern religions may say that all religions are equivalent, and Japanese are often both Buddist and Shinto, but most Eastern religious leaders would rather have you be coherently Christian, or Taoist, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or Jain, than simultaneously try to mix being Christian, and Taoist, and Buddhist, and Jain. That kind of incoherence is not very Eastern in spirit, nor is the idea of creating your own religion particularly Eastern.

What does Orthodoxy say? It matters whether or not you are Christian, and it matters whether or not you are Orthodox. But there is a saying that we can tell where the Church is, but not where it isn’t. There is real truth in all religions, and if the Orthodox Church claims to be the fullness of Christ’s Church, she would never claim that Christ’s Church is limited to her walls. And her rules mean something different from in the West; instead of meaning “You must or must not do _______,” they are resources that your spiritual father can use in addressing the specifics of your situation. In Orthodoxy your spiritual father helps decide what you are going to observe instead of you making the decision on your own, but the rules are more guidelines that your spiritual father can use in meeting the specifics of your situation, than rules in the Western sense. “Oikonomia” is an official recognition that your priest can work with you to figure out how Orthodoxy plays out in your situation.

Which brings me to the Reformation. Martin Luther did something original, but it was not the substance of his criticisms. Almost everything he had said was said earlier by someone else; there were things a lot like the Reformation floating around. Nor would Luther claim to have originated his criticisms much more than a baseball coach telling a boy to “Keep your eye on the ball” would claim to be the first one to give that advice. Luther didn’t get his historic position solely by copying other people, but if you seek new criticisms from him, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Did Martin Luther contribute anything new? His criticisms had generally been circulating in the Catholic Church. An Orthodox might say that the Catholic Church had drifted from its Orthodox roots even further since 1054, when the Catholic Church broke off from the Orthodox Church. An Orthodox might interpret the general malaise in the Catholic Church as a malaise precisely because it had drifted from its Orthodox roots, and that the Orthodox Church agrees with the vast majority of Luther’s criticisms (as for that matter the Catholic Church has—it acted on many of Luther’s criticisms). Then what was new about Luther? Is Luther famous for an obscure reason?

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of Popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.

After Luther said this, he split the Church. This is a rousing statement, and it is a rousing statement that contains the heart of heresy. A heretic is not so much someone who has a wrong idea, but someone who has a wrong idea and is willing to split the Church over it. Luther’s distinctive and historic contribution was not levelling particular criticisms against the Catholic Church, but choosing to split the Church rather than go against his conscience, and his understanding of Scripture and plain reason. This choice is at the very heart of heresy.

Luther was a monumental figure, a great hero and a great villain rolled into one. His courage was monumental; so was his anti-semitism. And Luther was a prime example of a heretic. He was a heretic not so much by the points which he had wrong, which are relatively unimportant, but because he defined the Reformation with his precedent of splitting the Church.

So Luther worked to establish the re-established ancient Christian Church, and I am not particularly concerned here with the ways the re-established ancient Christian Church served as a projection screen for ideas that were in vogue at the time. (Somehow, when people re-establish ancient glory, their work ends up with a large dose of ideas that are in vogue with their creators. It happens again and again, and I think it has to do with how the ancient glory serves as a projection screen, much like New Age.) That tendency aside, Luther and the Catholic Church treated each other as heretics for a very good reason. It wasn’t that they weren’t ecumenical enough, or that they needed to be more tolerant, or that they needed to be told they were all Christians and Christianity is Christianity. The reason was something else. I can lament the blood that was shed, but there was a very healthy reason why people went that far against their opponents.

The Catholic Church, along with Luther, and for that matter along with the Orthodox, recognized that there is one Church, bound together in a full communion that cannot exist without agreement in doctrinal matters. Luther’s reconstituted Church and the Catholic Church differed in doctrine and could not have this common basis. If you have two different groups which differ in doctrine, at least one of them is not the true Church. This is for the same reason that if one person says that an airplane is in Canada and another person says the same airplane is in Mexico, at least one of them has to be wrong. They could both be wrong; nothing rules that out. Luther and the Catholic Church might neither be the true Church. But if there are two conflicting organizations competing to be called the true Church, at least one of them has to be wrong, just as an airplane cannot simultaneously be in Canada and in Mexico. Luther and the Catholic Church both recognized this.

What one might have expected, if Luther were simply re-establishing what the Christian Church was in ancient times, was that there would be one and only reformer’s Church. When Luther couldn’t agree with other reformers, they split off from each other, each saying, “We’re the true Church!” “No, we’re the true Church!” It wasn’t long until there were seventy or so different groups, and the claim, “We’re the true Church” could no longer be taken seriously. In retrospect, Luther’s saying “I do not accept the authority of Popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other,” and then moving to Protestant churches was a move out of the frying pan and into the fire. Perhaps Luther could not have foreseen this unintended consequence, but the disagreements and divisions in Luther’s wake made the disagreements of Popes and councils pale in comparison.

At that point, the reformers reconsidered what was going on, but they chose to consider the Church structure generated by the Reformation as valid. There was an unwritten rule: “Whatever you say about churches, it has to approve of what’s happened with the Reformation splintering into many groups that could not be in communion with each other, no matter what Christians have believed about Church since the days of the Apostles themselves.”

The solution they invented included the concept of a “denomination”. The idea was that these different groups were not competitors for the title of “true Church;” instead, they were simply names for parts of the true Church. The true Church was not a unified organism complete with authority as it had been understood from the days of the apostles; it was something invisible and quite independent of formal structures. It’s kind of like there had been a supercomputer club whose charter said that they would have one supercomputer, but they couldn’t agree on which computer was the most appropriate supercomputer, so they violated the club charter by each buying his own computer, and to be able to say they had one computer like the charter said, hooked the computers up and said that the real club supercomputer was something invisible, a sort of virtual computer, that was emulated over the club network—and then said that this is what the original charter really called for. This is not because the reformers read the Bible and this was the best picture they could come up with of what the Church should be. It was much closer to an answer to the question of “How can we re-imagine Church so it won’t look like the Bible condemns the church structures which the Reformation can’t escape?”

Today we have:

  • All denominations point to the same Christian truth.
  • It doesn’t matter which denomination you’re part of, as long as you have faith.
  • It doesn’t matter much whether you stick to one denomination’s prayers, doctrines, and so on and so forth, or for that matter whether you consider yourself a member of one denomination at all.
  • We should pursue the goal of uniting all the different denominations.

But let me change barely more than one term:

  • All religions point to the same truth.
  • It doesn’t matter which religion you’re part of, as long as you have faith.
  • It doesn’t matter much whether you stick to one religion’s prayers, doctrines, and so on and so forth, or for that matter whether you consider yourself a member of one religion at all.
  • We should pursue the goal of uniting all the different religions.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s New Age. It’s the foundation to the New Age movement that all the exotic Asian decor rests on, and it is more Western than most of the West. Or at least there’s an uncanny resemblance between Protestantism and something most Protestants wouldn’t want to be associated with. (Or at least evangelicals wouldn’t want to be associated with New Age. With mainline, er, oldline, er, sideline, er, flatline Protestantism, the line between “Protestant” and “New Age” is often crystal clear, but at other times can be maddeningly difficult to tell the difference.) Beyond all New Age’s Eastern trappings, the heart of the New Age is a non-Christian twist on a very Western way of thinking about religious community. That way of thinking is the Protestant understanding of Church.

Why am I making such a disturbing and perhaps offensive connection? Do I believe Protestantism is as bad as New Age? Absolutely not; I think there’s a world of difference. The answer has to do with something else, something about Orthodoxy that seems strange to many Protestants. What is this something else?

Jesus, in the great prayer recorded before his execution, prayed fervently that all his disciples may be one, and Paul made incendiary remarks whenever he discussed people having different denominations. So it is important for all Christians to be united, and that goes for Orthodox. So why do Orthodox refuse to attend non-Orthodox worship and especially to take non-Orthodox communion? Why do we exclude non-Orthodox from our own communion cups? So why don’t Orthodox recognize that we are just one more denomination, even if we are a very old denomination? Why are there so few Orthodox at ecumenical gatherings?

Something has to give, and Protestants often try to figure out whether the observations about Orthodoxy are what gives, or whether Orthodox really being Christians gives. Which one gives? Neither. Neither the practices that seem so strange to Protestant ecumenism, nor the imperative to Christian unity, give. What give are the Protestant assumptions about what makes Church, that determines what Protestants see as real ecumenism.

I’ve written a long and subtle discussion about Ella Enchanted, New Age, and other things because I wanted to get to this point. New Age may do all sorts of things to get an impression of being Eastern, and it may be chock full of exotic decor. But underneath that decor is something very Western. It is a modified form of Protestant teachings about Church. The similarity between:

  • All denominations point to the same Christian truth.
  • It doesn’t matter which denomination you’re part of, as long as you have faith.
  • It doesn’t matter much whether you stick to one denomination’s prayers, doctrines, and so on and so forth, or for that matter whether you consider yourself a member of one denomination at all.
  • We should pursue the goal of uniting all the different denominations.

and:

  • All religions point to the same truth.
  • It doesn’t matter which religion you’re part of, as long as you have faith.
  • It doesn’t matter much whether you stick to one religion’s prayers, doctrines, and so on and so forth, or for that matter whether you consider yourself a member of one religion at all.
  • We should pursue the goal of uniting all the different religions.

is a disturbing similarity. And most evangelicals wouldn’t touch the second list of statements with a ten foot pole. Yet it is connected to the first statement. The first set of statements isn’t what the Bible says. It isn’t what Christians have believed from ancient times. Its job was to give a rubber stamp to the sort of churches the Reformation created, and serve as a substitute for what the Orthodox believe about Church. And, with modifications, that way of thinking about Church has been perfectly happy to abandon Christianity and help give us the New Age movement.

My purpose isn’t to get you to reject Protestant assumptions about church. But it is my purpose to help you see that they are assumptions, and that Orthodox have worshipped God for two millenia with a quite different set of assumptions. If you can see your own objection to New Age treating all religions as interchangeable, you may be able to see the Orthodox objection to treating all denominations as interchangeable, even if it’s on a smaller scale. And to show why Orthodox do not simply see the Protestant style of ecumenism as necessary to a full and robust obedience to the commandment to Christian unity.

The Focus

In Chinese translations of the Bible, the main rendering of Logos (Word in the prologue to John) is Tao, a concept in both Taoism and Confucianism which is important to Chinese thought and includes the Eastern concept of a Way. In Chinese translations, the prologue opens, “In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God.” Is this appropriate?

“Tao” translates “Logos” better than any word that is common in English, and the real question is not whether it is appropriate for the Chinese to render “Logos” with their “Tao,” but whether it is appropriate for us to render “Logos” with our much less potent “Word,” which is kind of like undertranslating “breathtaking” as “not bad.”

Is it OK to mix Christianity and Taoism? There are important incompatibilities but my reading the classic Taoist Tao Te Ching put me in a much better position to understand Christ the Logos and the Christian Way than I would have otherwise had. God has not left himself without a witness, and Taoism resonates with Orthodoxy.

In fact, there are quite a lot of things that resonate with Orthodoxy; it would be difficult to think of two religions, or philosophies, or movements, that have absolutely no contact. It may be easy to forget this in the West; one of the Western mind’s special strength is to analyze things by looking into their differences. This is a powerful ability. But it is not the only basic insight. Essentially any two grapplings with human and spiritual realities (religions/philosophies/movements) will have points of contact. It isn’t just Taoism that resonates with Orthodoxy. Hinduism is deep and has a deep resonance with Orthodoxy. The fact that I have not said more about Hinduism is only because I don’t know it very well, but I know that it is deep. Catholicism resonates with Orthodoxy even more than Western Christianity as a whole. Platonism resonates with Orthodoxy, and the Church Fathers learned from their day’s Platonism, however much they tried to avoid uncritically accepting Platonism. For that matter, Gnosticism resonates with Orthodoxy. But isn’t Gnosticism a heresy? Yes, and it couldn’t have a heresy’s sting unless it resonated with Orthodoxy. Part of a heresy’s job description is to be confusingly similar to Orthodoxy. Postmodernism resonates with Orthodoxy. I wouldn’t be surprised if some scholar has said, “Orthodoxy is postmodernism done right.”

It should not come as a surprise that feminism resonates with Orthodoxy, evangelicalism, and the Bible. Jesus broke social rules in every recorded encounter with women in the Gospels. And “In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” is profound, and cannot be separated from the rest of the Gospel message. Looking at a historical context and a cultural context where feminism is floating around, where some form of feminism is the air people breathe—in other words, not the Early Church’s context, butour own historical and cultural context (yes, we have one too!), it should come as no surprise that people see the Gospel as moving towards what we now call feminism, a moderate feminism of course, and so people work to develop a Biblical egalitarianism that will coax out the woman-friendly vision the Gospel is reaching towards, and correct certain abuses and misunderstandings of the Bible in its cultural context.

This should not come as a surprise. What I had originally thought to write is as follows: It is entirely understandable to try to adjust Christianity with a moderate feminism and try to help Christianity move in the direction it seems to have been moving towards, from the very beginning, but even if it is understandable it is not entirely correct. It is not entirely incorrect but it is not entirely correct either.

Christ’s robe is a seamless robe that may not be torn. So is the Gospel. The same God inspired “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” and equally inspired, “Wives, submit to your husbands… Husbands, love your wives even as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.” The same God who inspired one inspired the other, and if your interpretation doesn’t have room for both, it is your interpretation that needs to be adjusted, not God’s revelation.

But what about cultural context? That question comes up a lot. And let me share some of what I found in my studies. I set out to do a thesis on how to tell when a book which treats a Bible passage’s cultural context is misusing the context to neutralize a pesky passage that says something the scholar doesn’t like. The first time I heard that someone had made an in-depth study of a pesky passage’s cultural context and it turned out that the pesky passage meant something very different from what it appeared to mean, I believed it. I fell hook, line, and sinker. But after a while, I began to grow suspicious. It seemed that “taking the cultural context into consideration” turned out to mean “the pesky passage isn’t a problem” again and again. And I began to study. That seemed to happen with every egalitarian treatment of one particular important passage—not only that I could find, but that my thesis advisor could find, and my advisor was a respected egalitarian scholar who spoke at a Christians for Biblical Equality conference! There were a lot of things I found about using cultural context, and my advisor liked my thesis. But in the end, there is a simple answer to, “How can you tell, if a book studies a pesky passage’s cultural context in depth and concludes that the passage doesn’t mean anything for us that would interfere with what the scholar believes, if the book is misusing cultural context to neutralize the passage?” The answer is, “There will be ink on its pages.”

“In Christ there is no male nor female” is true, and it is for very good reason that that resonates with feminists. What a Biblical Egalitarian or feminist may not realize is that there is also a truth which feminism does not especially sensitize people to. “God created man in his image” is tightly connected with “Male and female he created them.” There is unity in Christ, and we are called to transcend ourselves, including being male and female. But when God invites us to transcend our creaturely state, that doesn’t annihilate our creaturely state; it fulfills us—just as God’s promise that our bodies which are sown in decay and weakness will be raised in power and glory. Christ’s promise of a transformed resurrection body does not take away our bodies; it means that our bodies will be glorified with a depth we cannot imagine. Christ’s establishment of a Church that transcends male and female does not mean that being male and female is now unimportant, but that God uses them in his Kingdom that is being built here on earth. Men and women are meant to be different, in a way that you’re going to miss if you’re trying to see who is greater than who else. Paul writes, “There are Heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the glory of the Heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and and another glory of the stars, and star differs from star in glory” (I Cor 15:40-41). If star differs from star in glory, so do women differ from men in glory. Men and women are different as colors are different, or as a blazing fire is different from a deep and shimmering pool. This is truth, and if you take the feminist truth alone and not the other side of the truth, you flatten out something that is best not to flatten out—and it makes a bigger difference than many people realize.

That’s what I would have written earlier. What I would have focused on now is different. It seems that when people return to past glory, or try to return to past glory, the past resonates with what’s in vogue, and we don’t pick up on things people knew then that we aren’t sensitive to now, or even worse we pick up on them but neutralize them. (“Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.”) We unwittingly make the past a projection screen for what is sensible to us—which often means what’s in vogue. The Renaissance called for a return to past glory and ended up being an unprecedented break from the past. The same thing happened with the neo-classicist Enlightenment. And something like this happened with the Reformation. When you sever yourself from tradition to get to the past, you’re cutting open a goose to get all the golden eggs.

Part of being Protestant, whether it is evangelical, or the more liberal Prayers of the Cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Christ (note the effort to reach further back than even the Greek New Testament), or deconstruction to get to what a text really meant (so that the text agrees with deconstructionist revisions to morality)—part of all of this is the idea that you dig past the tradition’s obstacles and barnacles to unearth the Bible’s meaning, perhaps a meaning that is hidden from the common multitude who blindly accept tradition. The idea that tradition is a connection to the past seems to be obscured, and sometimes the result seems to be digging a hole with no bottom. There’s no limit to how much tradition you can dig past in an attempt to reach the unvarnished text. And this phenomenon is foundational to Protestantism. There are things that distinguish evangelicals from liberal Protestants, but not the effort to liberate the text’s original meaning. In that sense Biblical egalitarianism is a member in good standing of Protestant positions—not the only one, but one member in good standing. And if past glory has functioned as an ambiguous projection screen, this may mean that Biblical egalitarianism has problems. But it doesn’t doesn’t mean that Biblical egalitarianism is a different sort of thing from Protestantism. It may be an example of how a Protestant movement can misunderstand the Gospel.

Attempts to recover past glory can be for the better. One group of evangelicals, originally in a parachurch organization, came to realize that “parachurch” wasn’t part of how Early Christians operated. There was no parachurch, only Church. So, assuming that the ancient Church disappeared, they agreed to research the ancient Church and each century’s developments and follow them if they were appropriate, and founded the Evangelical Orthodox Church. They went some distance into this process before they ran into a Russian Orthodox priest, and they (the real Church) were examining the outsider, or so they thought… and they found that Orthodoxy preserved the ancient teaching about the Lord’s body and blood, and about Church structure, and… things were suddenly upside-down. The ancient Christian Church had not dried up. It was alive and well; they had simply overlooked it when they tried to re-create the ancient Church. It was they who were the outsiders. And they realized they needed to be received into the Orthodox Church.

My parish was Evangelical Orthodox before it became part of the Orthodox communion, which I think is special. So Evangelical Orthodoxy turned out all right. Why then would Biblical egalitarianism have gone wrong? That’s not the puzzle. The puzzle is Evangelical Orthodoxy. Evangelical Orthodoxy is a surprise much like getting an envelope that says “Extremely important—open immediately!” and finding that it has something extremely important that needs to be opened immediately. Usually “Extremely important—open immediately” is a red flag which suggests that the contents of the envelope are something other than what you’re being led to believe.

But my focus is not to say who’s wrong and who’s right in the Protestant theme of recovering the glory of the Early Church. It’s not even to suggest that tradition is a mediator that connects us with past glory, a living link, instead of an obstacle which chiefly gets in our way. My focus is to talk about something that looms this large in Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy is not understood best as the content of a private choice, any more than learning physics is privately choosing ideas about how the world works. In one sense it’s hard to out-argue someone who says that, but that isn’t a very Orthodox way of thinking. It could be called using Orthodoxy as if it were a private heresy. (Once I wanted to be Orthodox out of that kind of desire, and God said, “No.”) It’s also deceptive to say that a convert Orthodox should select Orthodoxy as a sort of winner in the contest of “Will the real ancient Church please stand up?” which he’s judging. It’s truer to say that that happens for many former evangelicals (including Your Truly) than I would like to admit, but Orthodoxy points to something deeper.

Repentance (which some Orthodox call “metanoia”) looms almost as large in Eastern Orthodoxy as recovering the past glory of the ancient Church looms large in Western Protestantism. For that matter, it might loom larger. And I’d like to comment on what repentance is. This may or may not be very different from Western understandings of repentance—I learned much about repentance as an evangelical—but it would be worth clarifying.

Repentance is not just a matter of admitting that you’re wrong and deciding you’ll try to do better the next time. That’s what repentance would be if God’s grace were irrelevant. But God’s grace is key to repentance. Grace isn’t just something that God gives you after you repent. Repentance itself is a work of grace.

If repentance isn’t simply admitting your error and deciding you want to do better, then what else is repentance? In this case, Orthodoxy becomes clearer if it is compared and contrasted with other Middle Eastern or Eastern religions.

“Islam” means “submission,” and “Muslim” means “one who submits to God.” Submission is not one feature of Islam among others; it is foundational to the landscape, and one of the deepest criticisms of Islam is that the Islamic way of understanding submission, and the Islamic picture of God, effectively deny the reality of man. How does Islam deny the reality of man? God alone contributes to the world’s story. The only real place for us is virtual puppets—not people who help decide what goes into the story. But Islam’s central emphasis on submission is itself something that’s not too far from Orthodoxy.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, one of the defining goals is to transcend the self and become selfless, and both Hinduism and Buddhism believe this requires the annihilation of the self. In some of Hinduism, salvation means that the self dissolves in God like a drop of water returning to the ocean. In therevada Buddhism, to be saved is to be annihilated altogether.

Orthodoxy, by contrast, is deeply connected with the Gospel words, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will find it.” (Mark 8:35) One of Orthodoxy’s founding goals is to become selfless and transcending oneself—offering oneself totally and wholly to God, saying, “Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up, whatever you will to do.” This is how Orthodoxy believes in transcending one’s being male and female: something that is totally offered up to God and which God, instead of annihilating, breathes his spirit into. This is the difference between Orthodoxy on the one hand, and on the other hand Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and even moderate feminism. Unlike Islam’s picture, whoever totally submits to God, or strives for submission, hears God’s voice boom forth, “Come! I want you to contribute to the story of my Creation! I want you to work alongside me!” The goal of Orthodoxy, or one of its defining goals, is to help each person to be fully who God created him or her to be.

What does this have to do with repentance?

Repentance means losing yourself. It means unconditional surrender. Losing yourself for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the Gospel is transformed to mean finding yourself. Repentance is unconditional surrender, and it is one of the most terrifying things a person can experience. It’s much more than letting go of a sin and saying, “I’m sorry.” It’s letting go of yourself. It’s obeying God when he says, “I want you to write me a blank check.” Perhaps afterwards you may be surprised how little money God actually wrote the check for—I am astonished at times—but God insists on us writing a blank check. God tells us to place our treasures, our sins, our very selves at his feet, for him to do whatever he wants, and that is absolutely terrifying. Repentance isn’t letting go of sin. It is unconditional surrender to God. And it’s the only way to transcend the self and become a selfless and transformed “me.”

One pastor used the image (he held up his keys when he said this) that we’ve given God absolutely all of our keys—all but one, that is. And God is saying, “Give me that one,” and we’re giving God anything but that. God demands unconditional surrender, and he calls for unconditional surrender so that we can be free, truly free. In my own life I’ve offered God all sorts of consolation prizes, all sorts of substitutes for what he was asking me, and when I did let go, I realized that I was holding onto a piece of Hell. Before it is terrifying to let go, and then after I let go of my sin, I am horrified to realize that I was holding on to a smouldering piece of Hell itself. A recovering alcoholic will tell you that rejecting tightly held denial is something that an alcoholic will do absolutely anything to avoid—and that rejecting to denial is the only way to be freed from bondage to alcohol. That is very much what Orthodoxy announces about repenting from our sin.

Hell is not something external that will be added to sin starting in the afterlife. Every sin is itself the beginning of Hell. Orthodox theology says that the gates of Hell are bolted, barred, and sealed from the inside. It’s not so much that God casts people into Hell as that Hell is a place people refuse to leave: Hell’s motto may be, “It is better to reign in Hell than serve into Heaven.” Hell is where God leaves people when they refuse to unbolt its gates and open themselves to the Father’s love. I’ve experienced the beginning of Hell, and the beginning of Heaven, and you’ve experienced them both. Every sin is a seed that will grow into Hell unless we let God uproot it, and that means letting him dig however deep he wills.

Repentance needs to be not only admitting to a sin, but an unconditional surrender that leans on God’s grace because apart from God it is beyond us. Repentance needs to be unconditional surrender because only when we give God our last key will we be released from holding on to that one piece of Hell we are trying to avoid giving to God. Repentance is a work of grace, both in God taking the piece of Hell we were clinging to, and in God’s power helping us give us the strength to let go of that one piece of Hell.

That much is true, but this article is incomplete even as a tour guide. I’m not even sure it’s an accurate picture of Orthodoxy. There’s a joyful dance, a dance of grace and ever-expanding freedom, and this article is a still, flat picture of that dance. Everything I describe is meant as Orthodox, but I have flattened out its living energy (which is why this is so philosophical), without doing it justice. The solution is not a better and more complete picture of the dance that will still be flat and still. The solution is for you to see the dance live, whether or not these observations are what God wants you to see. God may want to show you things I’ve never hinted at, or use something I’ve written to help you connect with Orthodox worship, or for that matter use this article as a key to open the treasurehouses of Orthodoxy. But that is God’s choice. And he can also connect you with the here and now as many Orthodox emphasize, or make everyday life more and more a home for contemplation, or pick out other treasures that you need. We don’t know our true needs—God does, and he cares for them.

For Further Reading…

If you’ve read this far and want to know how you can read more, I have not succeeded very well at communicating. I’m not saying there aren’t any good books out there. There are scores and scores, and I’ve even read some of them. I love to read. But please don’t try to read five more books on Orthodoxy so you’ll understand it better. Please don’t.

Go visit a parish. Participate, and come to experience firsthand, for real, what this book is at best a tour guide to. Even if this tour guide helps you see things you might not pick up on your own, it’s only the tour guide. The reality is the life that Orthodox live, and if you come to a service wanting to take something in, I will be surprised if nothing happens. Joining Orthodox worship (even just sitting or standing) and trying to take everything in, is like falling into a lifegiving river, being surrounded by its mighty currents, and coming to contact with a little bit of it. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything that’s going on. I serve at the altar as an adult acolyte, and I certainly don’t understand all that’s going on. But I don’t need to. There’s a saying that a mouse can only drink its fill from a river, and it’s simply beside the point that we can’t drink all the water in the river. We don’t need to. What we can do is take away what we are ready for and drink our fill.

And if you still feel a bit intimidated, like most of this is too subtle to understand—don’t worry. You don’t need to understand it the Western way, by figuring out all the concepts in an article. The Eastern way is to go to an Orthodox Church, and let God teach you over time. If you do that, it doesn’t matter how much or how little this article seemed easy to think about.

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The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount

Surgeon General’s Warning

This and two other works were written when I was half-drunk with Elder Thaddeus’s Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.

There is much that is true and Orthodox in that title, and there is something to its core point, but it is the most occultic book, with strange and awesome powers given to half-conscious thoughts, that I’ve seen yet. This post is retained for archival purposes but it is not particularly recommended as the author does not particularly recommend the book that furnished its inspiration.

A look at India in relation to my own roots and formation

My live story up until now would be immeasurably impoverished if the various ways in which India had entered my life would simply be subtracted. I appreciate Indian food, even if I eat it in a non-Indian (Paleo) fashion. And that is not trivial, but there are deeper ways I’ve been enriched by that great nation. One of these relates to pacifism, where one of India’s giants, one certain Gandhi, is perhaps the best-known person in history as I know it for the strength of pacifism. Gandhi might have said with perfect sincerity, “Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills,” but there is a certain motherlode as old as the hills that Gandhi may have mined that motherlode better than anyone else in history.

My own earliest roots, the brand of Christianity I received as mother’s milk, were in the Anabaptist tradition, and more specifically the Mennonite Church. I have never been a member of the Amish tradition, but I would contrast Amish as they are known today from Anabaptists in the time of the Reformation. Today Amish are seen as quiet, peaceful, and daft in being picky about which technologies they accept in their community.

(Amish are conservative, perhaps seen as a bit daft, and as Weird Al offensively jabs them, says, “Tonight we’re going to party like it’s 1699, not seeing what on earth could be good about partying like it’s 1699.)

But Amish and other Anabaptists were originally the anarchist wing of the Reformation, the Radical Reformers who were radical even in the eyes of fellow Protestants, the Reformation’s Left Coast. That they would have been parodied in the future as “quaint”ly conservative and “please don’t point and stare” would have perhaps astonished Zwingli and his radical wing of the Reformation, and all their opponents, alike.

Before and during college, I went on a bit of a journey and a quest to bolster and advocate for pacifism. I studied the Sermon in the Mount; I read Gandhi write things that I thought only a Christian would write. Gandhi did not only say that his three heroes were Jesus, Daniel, and Socrates; he said that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for the sin of the world, a perfect act. And it was only years later that I learned why Gandhi did not become a Christian, something not given a single stinging word in a single quote I ever saw attributed to Mr. Gandhi.

I was filled with shame when I learned that Gandhi wanted to become a Christian, attended a Christian evangelist’s meeting, and was turned away from being accepted into the Christian faith, because of the color of his skin. And he gave advice to Christians on how to present Christianity to Hindus, including displaying the hard parts very clearly, but he was not willing, after that, to consider becoming a Christian.

I would not have felt shame if I heard that Gandhi simply didn’t ever consider becoming a Christian, or that he found the Hindu mystical tradition deep enough that he would content himself with Hindu roots, or that he would not have considered adopting the religion of the colonial occupiers of India, or other reasons like Hinduism as perhaps the most cosmopolitan of all world religions, or if we may permit an anachronism, Hinduism as the deep tradition that would years later establish India as a software superpower. These are all bearable. But not becoming Christian because a Christian evangelist turned him away—that is not bearable, but shameful.

In my own journey and life practices, the very oldest of the major works on my website, Blessed are the peacemakers: Real Peace Through Real Strength, was from my own search for pacifism. I don’t deny that the nonviolent power that Gandhi described in terms of “satyagraha” or hold onto Truth (from the Sanskrit), nor that satyagraha became incarnate with Indian flesh. “I am a man, so nothing that is human is alien to me,” as an ancient Roman said. The Church Fathers who quickly saw a path that meets its fruition in Christianity in philosophy or Plato is able to read of the practice of satyagraha and nonviolence, and the Indian cardinal virtue of ahimsa that recognizes you are tied to the other person and cannot harm the other without harming yourself, can be coherently interpreted without recognizing what Gandhi took, without compromise, from Christianity and the Sermon on the Mount. If Plato or Platonism can be purified, and someone Taoism can be purified, then perhaps something can be purified from Gandhi and the one nation on earth that established itself as sovereign and independent without shedding a drop of enemy blood.

I would like to briefly stop at C.S. Lewis and what is apparently an attack on satyagraha. The architect of “mere Christianity” as it is established in the West makes the only external addition to what is called “mere Christianity” that is in fact not part of Christianity as it was known then. He describes and condemns a guilt manipulation that one holds oneself hostage to make pity a weapon. And he is the only Protestant writer I have read who, in papers like “Why I am not a Pacifist,” says not only that Christians may wage war but in fact that conscientious exemption is not acceptable in any sense, and pacifists as much as anyone else should be compelled to try their best to kill men in military service. And on that point I really give Lewis an F. Ruling out even alternative service for people who believe it is always wrong to kill is FAIL, at least for someone pushing a comprehensive plan of “mere Christianity.”

A second look at my roots

I mentioned Anabaptism or Mennonites earlier as my earliest roots, and I have revisited them, not as a matter of regression but pushing a divide further. And there are some points of contact. The Anabaptist movement has three self-identified points of distinction:

  1. A “believer’s baptism”, meaning baptism only on adult profession of faith,
  2. A refusal to take oaths under any circumstance.
  3. Pacifism.

On the first point there is a disagreement between Orthodoxy and the Anabaptist tradition; what Anabaptists sought to dismantle in saying “Infant baptism is of the Devil,” is one of many continuities with Orthodoxy that some in the West has opted out of.

On the second point, there is strong agreement. Now in pastoral terms there is an issue of people’s comfort with a teaching, and it is not pastorally helpful to take a teaching someone is not ready to recognize, and ram it down that person’s throat rather than allowing that person to grow to accept the teaching. But as far as oaths go, there was one Athonite monk who refused to take a required oath before testifying in a court of law, and endured without complaint the four months of prison that he was punished with before refusing to take an oath. St. John Chrysostom, called “the moral theologian among the Fathers par excellence,” throughout every work that I have read, keeps on returning to certain moral topics regardless of perception. He keeps on hitting on the necessity of sharing with the poor, and of the theatre “in which the common nature of women is affronted” (think Internet porn, as it existed in the fourth century; to be an actress included being a member of a much older profession), and he more than once drops the hammer on the practice of taking oaths at all.

But as regards the question of pacifism, I regard my own Blessed are the peacemakers: Real Peace Through Real Strength as an interesting early step, particularly as there weren’t too many other pieces playing in the same space that I was able to find. I asked a number of other people for feedback, and I regret my own sophomoric side of dealings with mature Christians who believe in a just war and who in every sense embodied what I advocate for here. (Wheaton College president Dr. J. Richard Chase asked for a copy for his personal files; part of this was undoubtedly kindness, but the kind gesture was against a backdrop where he probably had not seen too many works like it at all, even if he searched for them.) I’ve come back to review it, and there are things I wouldn’t say now in this the very oldest and earliest of my works. But my coming back to it after all these years is not so much a matter of recognizing I was young and idealistic and thinking I am practical and realistic now, but looking again and saying that I did not go nearly far enough.

(Coming back years later deepened in the Orthodox spiritual tradition, or at least slightly less immature, my further knowledge has unlocked things in my earlier position that I could not understand in my early career as a convinced pacifist.)

But let us not demand perfection from everyone, and give one concession, at least, for lawful gun ownership.

A cue from the military that might matter to gun owners

One Orthodox faithful explained gun ownership and challenged people who regarded gun ownership as simply nothing but a passion of anger. And he explained how, as a loving and careful father, he hopes to never fire his gun “live”, but as a loving and responsible husband and father, he knows what he would do if someone broke into his house with intent to do harm. He would bring such killing to confession, but he had his priorities straight.

(Note that this is reasoning about what would happen in an imagined scenario, not what was happening, a distinction which is important in Orthodox mystical theology.)

I have heard gun control advocates talk about how tragic it was when someone heavily armed opened fire on children; I haven’t yet heard a rebuttal after a card-carrying NRA member answered, “Yes, it was tragic not only that that started, but that there was no one lawfully possessing firearms available to stop the crime. Did you hear about one of those many incidents that never appears on television, where for instance a man armed to kill a bear entered a church sanctuary with intent to do ill, and an off-duty security guard who was carrying a firearm legally and with explicit permission of her church shot and stopped a crime?”

And this may be just my observation, but the primary approach to persuasion taken by gun control advocates is to show hard-hitting images of traumatized people after an active shooter met no speed bump even, and the primary approach to persuasion taken by the gun lobby is to mount a logical argument appealing to research and statistics. Now as a mathematician I understand Mark Twain’s point that there are three types of lies (lies, ______ lies, and statistics), and I don’t put my weight onto statistics I haven’t seen investigated, but the question between gun control and gun lobby isn’t a matter of deciding which side has cooked their books. Perhaps the gun lobby has cooked their books: but it is a little sad when only one side of a discussion argues from research, evidence, and statistics.

I may be hypocritical or a freeloading parasite when I say this, but I do not personally own a gun; I never have and probably never will. I have some skill with firearms, but that is beside the point. But I feel safer now that my state has legalized carrying concealed firearms, with a few asterisks about how to opt out on your property. I would rather be in a situation where there are two guns in a room, owned by a criminal and meant for a crime, and one by a law-abiding citizen intending to stop crime in the most drastic circumstances, than only the gun carried by a criminal. I feel safer knowing that gun-using criminals do not know where there is a lawfully carried firearm, and criminals simply do not know if I am carrying a .45 with hollow-nosed rounds.

But if you’re keepinkeeping a firearm by your bed for self-defense, may I ask if you are also, for instance, investing in good night vision? Have you taken the time to install a respectable home security system? This may be slightly less “sexy” than having a powerful gun at hand, but have you established the powerful and immediate deterrent of flooding your home with light (a thief’s worst enemy) if someone approaches?

And have you considered that it may be easier, after training, to hit someone while shooting out a solid stream of pepper spray—especially in poor lighting, where at least without night vision you can’t really aim—than the few rounds in a gun’s magazine? And that the effects on your house are much easier to clean up from a vile liquid than a few bullet holes after a powerful gun has shot through an intruder’s body and hit the wall behind. Killing someone, however justified it may be, is a traumatic experience; even for trained law enforcement professionals, for instance, killing in the line of duty is trauma and good police chiefs can mandate that an officer who has killed in the line of duty get a year’s counseling. Training as a law enforcement professional or soldier does not change the fact that it is traumatic to kill another person. If I had a choice between stopping a dozen innocent men with pepper spray and stopping one guilty man with a shot through the heart, I know which one I would rather remember when I look in the mirror each day.

For a first cue from the military, snipers, who know well enough how to fire a rifle at a paper target, are given one round and only one round to keep with them, carry, hold, and move around, and then after a couple of days are given one shot to take a “hostage situation” (balloon full of oatmeal or whatever) shot. Most fail the first time. With a bit more training and preparation, it gets to one shot, one kill. But it takes some training to get there. I wouldn’t myself trust that with one shot, cold and in a panic, to hit home.

But with all that preface stated, may I ask people who look for safety via firearms to at least take a cue from the military?

Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War c. 500 BC, adapted for the business world in sometimes flaky ways, is arguably the greatest classic in military strategy and usually considered to be less dated than the best of the best from 100 years ago.

If one were to condense the multi-faceted classic into a single sentence, it should probably be one gem taken from the text, “All warfare amounts to deception.” To put it starkly, war is not achieved by killing people, with psychological considerations in any sense being a side issue. War is about deceiving people; killing people has more of a supporting role than anything else. The terms “strategy” and “strategem” are forms of the same basic word; they amount to how to trick the opponent. You don’t win well by killing each other’s soldiers and seeing who has some left over at the end; military forces at any rate fall apart at a third (maybe less) casualties, and rank and file U.S. troops have guns and ammunition intended to seriously wound in the average case, but not kill. (Part of this is love for enemies; part of it is a tactical consideration that if you instantly kill an enemy soldier, you take one man out of action; if you seriously wound a soldier with a wound that may be treatable, you take three men out of action.)

One ancient account talks about how a military leader stripped a force of thousand down to a few hundred, and gave them torches and the shofars that one would use at the head of a host. Then they crept around the host, surrounded it, and blasted the horn. The entire enemy warhost, “like the sand at a seashore for multitude”, fell into deep panic and was routed, falling to each other’s swords (original text).

World War II might have been won under even more dire circumstances, but at least it was not the armies of second-born sons whose blood was poured out like water who won D-Day without strategem. Also contributing to that scenario was an enormous effort to build up rubber balloon versions of tanks at the like, massing to look from the air like the Allies were intending to invade from the point where the English Channel was narrowest, but sent a double agent to keep Hitler believing the D-Day invasion was just a diversion and keeping his main forces to where the channel was nearest and therefore out of the way when the breach was made on Normandy breach.

What does this have to do with home security? Everything. You’re not firing on all pistons if you stop with a gun, and I do not mean that you need more firepower, or really even more gadgets.

Jack MacLean’s Secrets of a Superthief says, on the cover:

“They said I was the best, the one the police called the ‘Superthief.’ Before I went straight I picked every lock, turned off every alarm, found every hiding place. I know how burglars get inside—and gets them out. If you’re smart, you’ll pay attention to what I have to say…”

Possibly the most valuable observation in the text is that home security should be 60% psychological and 40% physical, and it is seriously confused to think that you can win a physical arms race with a thief who wants to get in and isn’t afraid of you. If you change your doors for heavier doors and less glass then a determined intruder will just change an already big crowbar for an even bigger crowbar. Then what other options are there? the book has some options; drawn from it:

Situation: There is an intruder accidentally making sounds in your house, or at least you think it is an intruder.
You say, crossly, with irritation and as much frosty, icy condescension as you can muster, “Yes, Sweetie, I know what the machine gun will do to the walls. I don’t care. I’m going to give 60 more seconds for the SWAT team to get here, and then I’m taking care of it MY way.”

Situation: A thief is casing your back door for possible entrance.
Have a clearly scribbled note on your back door, fresh-looking note that says, “Honey, will you please talk to Billy? He’s let that stupid pet rattlesnake escape his cage again, and right now, I can’t even find that idiotic scorpion! Can you explain to him that this is UNACCEPTABLE?”

(Women have sometimes taken to putting a pair of size 17 men’s boots outside the door each evening.)

Does it work? Perhaps you may not sound entirely believable, but nerves roughened by intruding in unknown situations where you don’t know how people are armed and you could legally be killed tell a different story. (The “Superthief” tells of not being able to count how many terrifying times he heard a barking dog answered by “Shaddap, Max!”

The most implausible note he described, more humorous than believable, was a notice when he wanted people to leave him alone, was a note saying that he had a severe case of crabs, and the crabs were strong enough to break people’s fingers with their claws.

However, it was enough to motivate other convicted felons in prison to simply leave him alone.

There’s a lot that can be accomplished by violence in certain very unhappy circumstances, and Gandhi respected those who use force nobly. Seriously, he did:

The people of a village near Bettiah told me that they had run away whilst the police were looting their houses and molesting their womenfolk. When they said that they had run away because I had told them to be nonviolent, I hung my head in shame. I assured them that such was not the meaning of my nonviolence. I expected them to intercept the mightiest power that might be in the act of harming those who were under their protection, and draw without retaliation all harm upon their own heads even to the point of death, but never to run away from the storm centre. It was manly enough to defend one’s property, honour or religion at the point of the sword. It was manlier and nobler to defend them without seeking to injure the wrongdoer. But it was unmanly, unnatural and dishonourable to forsake the post of duty and, in order to save one’s skin, to leave property, honour or religion to the mercy of the wrongdoer. I could see my way of delivering the message of ahimsa to those who knew how to die, not to those who were afraid of death.

– Gandhiji in Indian Villages by Mahadev Desai

But there is more…

…and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.

“Our social program is the Trinity”

Of all the brief sayings that most mystifies people, “Our social program is the Trinity” may be the most confusing. A social program includes a blueprint for some more or less vaguely Utopian social order, and how by civil war politics it is possible to influence, manipulate, coerce, intimidate, bamboozle a plan to concretely build things on earth. And given such a bulleted list of key features to a social program, it seems an extremely strained reading of the doctrine of the Trinity.

But may I ask: What about devout Christian family communities saying, “Our juvenile correctional system is parents who love each other, stay married to each other, and love and discipline their children?” That’s wordier, but the key point lies in a similar vein. If you go to a staunch Evangelical community, you may not see terribly many prisons, courthouses, correctional officers, and so on and so forth, but the purpose of a staunch Evangelical community is not that it has abundant “department of corrections” responses to a 10-year-old arrested for pushing hard drugs or a 12-year-old arrested for rape; however much there may be support for repentance, an ounce of prevention is worth a much more than a ton of cure, and an ounce of bored children in a less-than-ideal Bible study is worth years of expensive state programs to care for children who have been incarcerated.

And in that sense, prayerful life, or the entire struggle in spiritual discipline, is the Orthodox martial art. Certain threads more than others, but the discipined Orthodox life offers more than a martial art as wholesome homes offers something better than a state Department of Corrections or a doctrine of the Trinity that effectively answers social planners: “There are more things in Heaven and earth, visible and spiritual, than are even dreamed of in your ideologies.”

Orthodox have various statements of how monasticism and the laity are compared, if they should be; I am of the opinion that it is beneficial to monastics to regard laity as fully equal, and laity to regard monastics as immeasurably above them. But some things in monasticism are falsely criticized as “just because it’s monasticism:” taking passages of the Bible at face value is not, or at least should not, be a particularly distinctive feature of monasticism. And some people have said that Lent is just how Orthodoxy should be year round, and it makes sense to say that the bulk of monasticism is just how all Orthodox Christians should be.

Monasticism is privilege.

Monasticism is privilege, easily on par with a full ride scholarship at a top-notch university. But doesn’t it entail poverty, obedience, and chastity? Well, of course. Aren’t they difficult? Yes. But the vow of poverty, of never providing for your future self, is a vow of accepting the Providence who knows and loves you (past, present, and future) more than you could possibly ask. It is one of three medications that carves out a niche for abundant health. Perhaps most laity should observe chastity through faithfulness, but it is the same virtue that powers one practice and the other.

We are to be as the birds of the air, highlighted in the Sermon on the Mount:

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

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Do you think you can add one single hour to your life by taking thought? You might as well try by taking thought to work your way into being a foot taller! 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, 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.

There is something very powerful here, a something that is missed in business as usual in the U.S. Business as usual means heaping up treasures on earth, saying “God helps those who help themselves” (a quotation from Benjamin Franklin not found anywhere in the Bible), to be your own Providence. The idea that we are to do God’s job as our Providence is at times treated harshly by Christ (Luke 12:15:

And [Jesus] said unto them, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”

And he spake a parable unto them, saying, “The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?’ And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.’ But God said unto him, ‘Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?’ So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

I wrote about the husband who owned a gun as a means of being responsible towards his family: but my inward wincing was less that firing a gun is not turning the other cheek, than that he responded out of a spiritual illusion. This side of the Fall, we cannot ever arrange things right, and we do not do well to oust God so that we can get back to steering the helm of our lives ourselves.

It may or may not be appropriate for Orthodox laity to arm themselves, but whatever other reasons there may be for arming yourself, shutting off risk is not one of them. It is non-negotiable that no matter what hedge we surround ourselves with, the sand we grasp will slip through our fingers, and this is actually good news: we have another option, living the Sermon on the Mount, not harmed because we do not have control, and free because we know we do not need to have control, open to a larger world than the constricted world we keep on making for ourselves.

There was a Linux fortune that said, on eloquent terms that I cannot fully reproduce, that there were a bunch of starfish clinging to rocks on the bottom of a rapidly flowing river, holding the rocks tightly and terrified they would lose their grip. Then one of them suddenly let go, was battered against a few rocks, and then finding a place in the flow. And, perhaps in a dig at Christianity, the other starfish who didn’t get it called the one starfish a Messiah and worshiped him while continuing to cling, and remaining terrified of losing their grip on the rock.

(But we are called to do both worship the Man, and imitate him.)

The Sermon on the Mount would almost speak more strongly about violence being unworthy of Christians if it didn’t address violence. The direct mention shadows the overarching theme, where silence speaks more powerfully than words.

But there are in fact words:

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

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

St. Paul’s empatic plea to Christians to not demean themselves and the Church by secular lawsuits against fellow Christians (Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?) is cut from the same cloth.

But there is more.

How does the Orthodox Christian martial art really work?

Returning the theme of monasticism as privilege, one aspect of the depth of monasticism is that monks are not to defend themselves by force. When they are accused, they are not to defend themselves in words, as Christ Himself remained silent before Pilate (Note:…and terrorized Pilate more than any threat could have done). And this is not exactly a mainstream approach in the West. It’s a bit of an oblong concept: something that is a common assumption between the various permutations of pacifism and just war is that, once you’ve decided what are the appropriate means for self-defense, you can and should use the most effective appropriate means to end the danger with minimal harm to yourself and others. It just goes without saying that whatever limits may be, obviously defending yourself with speech is appropriate. But the monastic interpretation of “Ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” is quite simply that we are not to defend ourselves. We are not to defend ourself by means of lethal force; we are not to defend ourselves by means of less lethal force; we are not to defend ourselves even by words; we are not to defend ourselves even in thoughts. Not a single angry thought is permitted to us, and there are two kinds of power that we wield after renouncing power.

The first kind of power, the (relatively) obvious one, is highlighted in a story from A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul:

In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less, a 10-year old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table. A waitress put a glass of water in front of him. “How much is an ice cream sundae?” “Fifty cents,” replied the waitress. The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied a number of coins in it. “How much is a dish of plain ice cream?” he inquired. Some people were now waiting for a table and the waitress was a bit impatient. “Thirty-five cents,” she said brusquely. The little boy again counted the coins. “I’ll have the plain ice cream,” he said.

The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table, and walked away. The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier and departed. When the waitress came back, she began wiping down the table and then swallowed hard at what she saw. There, placed neatly beside the empty dish, were two nickels and five pennies – her tip.

C.S. Lewis’s article, “Why I Am Not a Pacifist” which would be more accurately be titled, for what it says, “Why I Believe No Christian Should Be a Pacifist Nor Have Either Their Church Teachings or Their Conscience Respected As a Conscientious Objector,” dismissed what appeared to be Gandhi’s toolchest as a dog lying in a manger (as in “Aesop’s Fables:” which not only does not eat but also prevents other animals from eating). And it is not clear to me that all of the tools Gandhi used are appropriate: I’m not sure there is ever reason to seek out suffering, and after the Church’s decision to both canonize St. Ignatius (who brought martyrdom down on himself), and forbid future Orthodox Christians from trying to provoke martyrdom, apart from strained readings of the Sermon on the Mount, I can’t remember seeing any subsequent interpretations of hunger strike as appropriate. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount may give us tools, including a Do not resist evil that is never separate from the more foundational Truth in Do not worry, does not justify other tactics such as civil disobedience without direct provocation, or hunger strikes.

There’s plenty of reason for fasting, of course, but fasting is not a tool for straightening out God and his Providence: fasting is a tool to let God straighten you out. And in fact the Sermon on the Mount tells us that fasting, like prayer, should be as secret as manageable. Then it can reach its full power. However, Lewis himself may have furnished the most touching portrayal of Gandhi’s toolbox in Christian literature of all that I have read, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

“Hail, Aslan!” came his shrill voice. I have the honor—” But then he suddenly stopped.

The fact was that he still had no tail—whether that Lucy had forgotten it or that her cordial, though it could heal wounds, could not make things grow again. Reepicheep became aware of his loss as he made his bow; perhaps it altered something in his balance. He looked over his right shoulder. Failing to see his tail, he strained his neck further till he had to turn his shoulders and his whole body followeed. But by that time his hind-quarters had turned too and were out of sight. Then he strained his neck looking his shoulder again, with the same result. Only after he had turned completely round three times did he realize the dreadful truth.

“I am confounded,” said Reepicheep to Aslan. “I am completely out of countenance. I must crave your indulgence for appearing in this unseemly fashion.”

“It becomes you very well, Small One,” said Aslan.

“All the same,” replied Reepicheep, “if anything could be done . . . Perhaps her Majesty?” and here he bowed to Lucy.

“But what do you want with a tail?” asked Aslan.

“Sir,” said the Mouse, “I can eat and sleep and die for my King without one. But a tail is the honor and glory of a Mouse.”

I have sometimes wondered, friend,” said Aslan, “whether you do not think too much about your honor.”

“Highest of all High Kings,” said Reepicheep, “permit me to remind you that a very small size has been bestowed on us Mice, and if we did not guard our dignity, some (who weigh worth by inches) would allow themselves very unsuitable pleasantries at our expense. That is why I have been at some pains to make it known that no one who does not wish to feel this sword as near his heart as I can reach shall talk in my presence about Traps or Toasted Cheese or Candles: no, Sir—not the tallest fool in Narnia!” Here he glared very fiercely up at Wimbleweather, but the Giant, who was always at a stage behind everyone else, had not yet discovered what was being talked about down at his feet, and so missed the point.

“Why have your followers all drawn their swords, may I ask?” said Aslan.

“May it please your High Majesty,” said the second Mouse, whose name was Peepiceek, “we are all waiting to cut off our own tails if our Chief must go without his. We will not bear the shame of wearing an honor which is denied to the High Mouse.”

“Ah!” roared Aslan. “You have conquered me. You have great hearts. Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the sake of the love that is between you and your people, and still more for the kindness your people showed me long ago when you ate away the cords that bound me on the Stone Table (and it was then, though you have long forgotten it, that you began to be Talking Mice), you shall have your tail again.”

On an immediate level, this is what nonviolent resistance may seem to have. But the “big picture” realization was one that I realized in discussion with one friend about “What will you do in situation X [which had not, and has not, happened]?” and I told a joke:

A young man who was a prospective captain of a ship was being quizzed about how he would handle difficulties.

The person quizzing him said, “What would you do if a storm came?”

“I’d drop an anchor.”

“OK; suppose that the anchor gets stuck and won’t come up, and later on another storm came up again. What would you do?”

“I’d drop another anchor.”

“Ok, and if that gets stuck and won’t come up, and later on you see another storm, what would you do?”

“Where on earth are you getting all these anchors from?”

“From the same place you’re getting all these storms from!”

Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims says, “Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out,” and connects with “What would you do in situation X?” and the point I tried to make in Treasures in Heaven: The Inner Meaning of “Do Not Store Up Treasures on Earth. We are not to store up treasures on earth only in things external to our bodies; we are not to store up internal treasures on earth, things that exist in our minds.

One of these kinds of false treasure exists in terms of our perceived need to map everything we do out in advance. One teacher talked about how some scholar claimed to map out what St. Irenaeos would have said in various circumstances that hadn’t happened: “What would St. Irenaeos have said if Adam and Eve, with their immediate children, had not sinned, but their grandchild did?” And regardless of the content of such scholarship, it is imposing on St. Irenaeos something utterly foreign to his mindset. As I have seen the academic community today, it is natural both to ask, “What is …?” and “What would …?” when trying to understand something. In patristic writers, only one of the two basic kinds of questions is valid for understanding something: “What is …?” And no real saint that I am aware of announces that we must have a plan that anticipates every possibility before we act. Part of the point in the Sermon on the Mount is that there is no need for planning. It is as if this dialogue plays out:

God: Will you trust me on this?

Us: I don’t know. I’m trying to trust you, but I really don’t understand what you are trying to do with me here.

God: I know you don’t know. That’s my point. As your Spiritual Father, I am not asking you to do my thinking for for me. I am asking you to trust me. Do you trust me?

Us: I’m trying to fit things together, really I am, and maybe can work together if I am able to work out a plan. Could you work with me on this?

God: I am very interested in working with you. Do you trust me?

It is not my point—and probably not my position—to try to tell fellow Orthodox what saints’ footsteps they may follow. There are warrior-saints, and then there is St. Acacius, mentioned in St. John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent, who obediently served an abusive elder for nine years until he died, and when asked at his grave, “Brother Acacius, are you dead?” called out from beyond the grave, “No, Father, how is it possible for an obedient man to die?” And there are many others of various stripes, a kaleidoscope to the glory of God.

It is not my point—and probably not my position—to tell other Orthodox Christians whether they should join the military, or under what (if any) conditions firearm ownership is appropriate, or other questions regarding violence. I have a hunch that a good set of bright lights that turn on instantly whever someone approaches your house may, at least by itself, provide a more effective deterrent than a gun for when an intruder is already in your house. And it may be a mistake to assume that the real “I’m taking it seriously” way to address threats is something that starts with weapons. However, at least for the sake of argument, I do not wish to give a prescription for how others may relate to violence. But it is my direct wish to challenge the main assumption that keeps popping up when Christians regard violence as the real practical power.

One point regarding the Sermon on the Mount is that this side of Heaven, control that you plan out is simply impossible. The task is not to God’s thinking for him; it is to accept his Providence as intended to bless you entirely, and trust him with the complete trust that the Sermon on the Mount cries out. This may mean being with the birds of the field and the lilies of the field, and being so with (in some cases) or without openness to using violence. And, though this is a lesser point, I’m a little wary of a second assumption that lurks under the covers: “Pacifism is idealistic and appropriate for an ideal world, while sometimes using force is what works in the non-ideal world that we have.” But there is confusion for people stressed and worried to give that line to “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” I’ve had times with more stress in my life, and times with less, and it may more be true that in an ideal world, we wouldn’t need “Each day has enough trouble of its own, but in the rough circumstances in which we live, we need to take things one day at a time, and we need it much more than we would if we were in Paradise.

One ex-military person I spoke with talked about how top brass would keep on waking everyone up at very late night / early morning, sound the alarm, say the USSR was invading NOW, and everybody had to get up and go out to the tanks. And so soldiers would grudgingly walk out, dragging their rifles by the muzzle, and get into the tanks, and the live question in everyone’s eyes was whether the officers would call off the exercise before they got the tanks out and into mud. The live concern here is whether the soldiers would have to clean the mud off the tanks for moving into the field the next morning. And he talked about idealistically believing that if only he and his colleagues trained hard enough, no one would attack anyone else.

I remember hearing a missionary’s kid who grew up somewhere on the African continent saying, “You can’t defeat people who have nothing to lose!” and thinking that that sounded awfully idealistic, something I really wanted to believe but couldn’t, but that was over a decade ago, and since then the U.S. has been involved in multiple wars against third world nations and perhaps won none of them. World War I proudly paraded a mechanized army down to California for a sort of extended field training exercise where the entire mechanized army failed to apprehend the one single Mexican bandit that they were searching for. In Vietnam, the U.S. strategy was, “Our cool gadgets will win this war for us,” the Viet Cong’s strategy was to maximize the war’s unpopularity back home (“ballbuster”: a non-lethal anti-personell mine used by the Viet Cong, just powerful enough to crush testicles), and the present strategy in the present conflict of shooting at ISIL from the air and arming jihadists to fight ISIL jihadists is really less of a military strategy, properly speaking, than an all-American marketing strategy.

Having control this side of Heaven is not possible, and believing that firearms can be a way to opt-out of the conditions Sermon on the Mount addresses in its prescriptions. In that sense gun ownership is dangerous, because even if you accept 100% of what NRA advocates say, you have effectively closed your eyes to some of the bedrock of what the Sermon on the Mount says. In another matter, that of finances, the Fathers are quite clear: “That robe, hanging in your closet, belongs to the poor;” “Feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead.” If your firearm costs you the ability to live the Sermon on the Mount, drop it off at the police department; it is better for you to enter eternal life as killed where a firearm would have let you stop a crime, than to have your whole body (and your gun with it) cast into Hell.

I might briefly comment that I have brief experience with martial arts, and I have consistently noticed that they had become the driest portions of my spiritual life. Firearms and martial arts, if they are to be useful, depend on constant practice and preparation. As the banner for every school but one of Kuk Sool Won, “We need more practice!” At the grandmaster’s school, the banner says, “You need more practice!” The common concensus is that with martial arts, you fight noticeably better within months, but real mastery takesyears, and years, and years. And even then you don’t have a money-back guarantee; any martial arts instructor worth anything will make it clear before you reach black belt level (arguably before you reach anything above white belt) that martial arts instructors will make it abundantly clear that martial arts are no silver bullet; you may be safer in a conflict but not safe against every threat; someone testing for black belt can, if arrogant enough, wind up with a hole in the head. There have been attempts to make something simply easier to learn and remember—Goshin Jitsu is meant to be simple and effective—but keeping up on a martial art just because it might be useful in a fight is a bit like spending a few hours a week practicing a spare profession so that if you happen to lose your job you have a spare profession ready and waiting for you. It’s a lot of work, and it’s no more of a guarantee at that.

And there is a spiritual toll for practicing violence over and over and over. You sink in a lot of time that might be better spent sharpening your skills in your own profession. Aiki Ninjutsu talks about becoming a compassionate protector of others, and talks about building great compassion to offset the incredible destructiveness of the techniques. With all due respect, I need to give all the compassion to others that I can give, without preventably siphoning it off to offset other considerations. Perhaps you can numb or ignore what it feels like to practice violence on others and have others practice violence on itself; and martial arts have an occult ambiance; the concept of ki / qi / chi is a Buddhist practice, not really Christian, and there is a good case to be made that it’s magical, even without taking a common sense look at the philosophies Eastern martial arts draw on, which are almost invariably laden with an occult dimension.

…and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.

Thoughts Which Determine Our Lives

Much of what I wrote in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: Beyond The Secret and the Law of Attraction relates here. After Providence, here is perhaps the core payload for what is the Orthodox martial art.

The English word “practice” has two senses. One is, as a musician says, “I’m practicing,” meaning, “I am taking time to make dry runs at this skill and sharpen it as much as possible.” Or one speaks of a doctor “practicing medicine,” meaning “I am exercising and doing the proper live activity in my profession.” I will use the terms musician-style-practice and doctor-style-practice to distinguish the two meanings

With both firearms and martial arts, you need to practice to keep an edge, practice in the sense of the musician-style-practice. Competence requires an ongoing time sink. But live doctor-style-practice, comes very, very rarely.

One communication textbook talked about what your odds were for being assaulted on your way home: 1 in 10, 1 in 100, 1 in 1000, or 1 in 10,000. The point was that the more TV you watch, the more you overestimate the chances of suffering a violent response. The heaviest TV viewers expected a 1 in 10 chance of assault. The actual figure was the 1 in 10,000 per night figure. Notwithstanding shows glamorizing a highly romanticized view of law enforcement—when did a police show ever depict an officer filling out an hour of paperwork, or spending a day doing a daily grind of dull responsibilities—police officers draw their weapons (excluding training) perhaps once every few years.

In the musician-style-practice, you only practice very, very rarely, even including officers. No matter how much preparation it takes to keep a sharp edge, live doctor-style-practice is, and should be, very rare.

The discipline of nepsis or spiritual watchfulness over thoughts, has more than one relevance, but a nepsis that watches for and cuts off warring thoughts at the first is invaluable. Though this is a different meaning than when I last saw it, “They say that if you must resort to violence, you have already lost.” Read my article Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: then read Elder Thaddeus’s original Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives and learn to appreciate your warring thoughts in deeper ways.

It may seem almost “sexist” that the blame, or at least attention and corrections, should be placed entirely on one side, yours; but this dark cloud hides an astonishing silver lining. If the correction is only put on one side, so is the power to change and make the situation better. Perhaps most (not all) conflicts include a feedback loop of escalating anger (and one that most or all truly good martial artists know how to shut down, by for instance meekly saying, “You’re the tough guy”—and this was a third-degree black belt who meekly and submissively opted out of having to be the tough guy). There is a classic enlightenment exercise where a group of sailors stand in a ring, with instructions to touch the shoulder of the soldier exactly as yours was pressed. And someone touches one of the sailors lightly, with one light finger press. The “equal to what happened to me” results in a heavy finger press, and before too long at all the light touch has become a meaty, and nasty, punch. It is very hard at times, but love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who despitefully use you: but you have the power, many times, to shut down the escalating unmerry merry-go-round that others will not step off of. Not that this is only for pacifists; I have seen soldiers beautifully live out of this power, and people who weren’t specifically soldiers but believed in a just war (a western concept that never really took in Orthodoxy even though Orthodoxy never really places an expectation of becoming a pacifist). If Elder Thaddeus’s sage advice could be summed up in a single maxim, it might be Proverbs 15:1: “Anger slays even wise men; yet a submissive answer turns away wrath: but a grievous word stirs up anger.”

Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye only ends by making the whole world blind.” each day and practicing our nonviolent thoughts (doctor-style-practice) a watchfulness in thoughts that is alert to snuff out smoulders when it is small rather than heroically deluging a burning house, is harder up front, but far easier down the road.

It sounds small, but the results down the road are anything but small.

Holy and blinding arrogance

Elsewhere in The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes:

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

And this is far from what the Orthodox Church has to offer. Do we need to know the demons? No. The Philokalia may say as much about demons as any Orthodox writing may have, but we are allowed arrogance such as Sun Tzu would have considered a fatal weakness. As regards the demons, we are to be really, properly, truly, and blindingly arrogant, like the Orthodox elder who was speaking with a novice about a strange clatter the novice heard in a courtyard and told the novice, “It is only the demons. Pay it no mind.” This is cut from the same cloth as the liturgical references to “the feeble audacity of the demons.” The mind takes the shape of whatever it contemplates, hence St. Paul’s words, Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. We should look at Light, not darkness; live the Sermon on the Mount, and then, and not before, will we understand that the Light knows Himself and the darkness; the darkness knows neither itself nor the Light. If the spiritual eye receives things that make an impression on it, it matters what items it receives impressions from. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light: “single” in this context is cut from the same cloth as the Beatitudes that Orthodox chant in Liturgy, confessing in abbreviated form the entire Sermon on the Mount.

It has been said, “You can choose your options, but you cannot choose the consequences of your actions.” You can choose whether to look at Light or darkness: in so doing you may choose, by gazing on the Light, to be filled with peace, or to gaze deeply into darkness (and have darkness gaze into you) by training your eyes on the whirlpool of circumstances all of us face. The option is not presented to try to do God’s thinking for him, and analyze and work out how we will handle the future, and instead of darkness have all of the joys of peace that beholds the Light of God.

O that we could reach far enough into overreaching arrogance that we could, like saints old and new, look upon good and bad people and only see the beauty of the image of God in each!

Conclusion

A lot has been covered here; the past few paragraphs narrate what, in a very specific sense, can be done as the Orthodox martial art. Broadly and in a deeper sense, holiness matters.

We live in turbulent times, as did Elder Thaddeus, who wrote, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, a gift given to me by a friend who gave a very modest recommendation: “It’s not terribly deep, but I find it helpful.”. After reading it and writing, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: Beyond The Secret and the Law of Attraction, I came up to him and told him he’d undersold it. It wasn’t long before he agreed.

We live in turbulent times, and probably more turbulent and rougher as time goes on. But there is an alternative to being whipped out in the vortex of our times and surroundings. (Elder Thaddeus had many sufferings and was repeatedly taken prisoner by Nazis.) We have a choice about whether we will be sucked into it. It might not seem like it, but we do. Psychologists advising addicts say that you have more power than you think. If we are attentive and refuse to consent to thoughts, perhaps praying to God to save us from this temptation, and if we are in anger, praying for God’s every blessing. This is not a quick overall process: it may be something that is a minute to start, and a lifetime to master. But though it may take years and years and years to master, but improvement may start much faster than months.

In Treasures in Heaven: The Inner Meaning of “Do Not Store Up Treasures on Earth”, I try to unpack a small mystical slice of Blessed are the poor in spirit. There is bodily poverty, and monastics are blessed when they let go of physical possessions. But we have many false treasures in terms of ideas in our heads, and the letting-go of these false interior treasures is in step with why my previous parish priest said, “When we are praying, we should not have very good thoughts; we should have no thoughts.” And this has a poverty that is hard to come by. But once you have tasted it, earthly treasures taste suddenly flat. You’ve drunk something purer.

Beyond the Deep Magic of violence

When aggression and violence are met only with meekness and love, what results can be truly powerful. Evil is not always stopped from harming and killing no matter where you fall: witness Satan’s defeat in the martyrs, who are not in any sense killed because they are not good enough as Christians. Martyrdom is implemented by the Devil’s work, but the victor in martyrdom is always and ever in the Lord and in the triumphant martyr entering Heaven in glory as a son of God. What happens in martyrdom, but quite a few other places as well, happens when the Deep Magic of violence runs its course, but when it has run its course, the Devil’s work is transfigured into something immeasurably far beyond anything that the practical nature of violence can hope for. And its primary application is not reserved to the most extraordinary moments in a well-lived life, but the warp and woof of the daily living of those who practice it, be it on ever so small a scale!

Seeing as are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,
And such and heavenly treasures are set within our reach,
Let us ever reach,
Further Up and Further In!