The Evolution of a Perspective on Creation and Origins

Cover for Origins Questions: Creation, Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Orthodoxy

Adapted from a mailing list post. I’ve still left it as clunky as when it was first written.

In the interests of providing a fuller picture, and perhaps letting other list members understand why I hold a perspective that seems hard to explain in someone who has given thought to the question, I have decided to give an account of how I came to my present position. A serious attempt at representing the cases for and against different perspectives — even the case for my own perspective — is beyond the scope of this letter; I intend to state, without tracing out in detail, my present perspective, but not to give arguments beyond a scant number without which the plot would be diminished. That stated, I am attempting, to the best of my ability, to write with the kind of honesty Feynman describes in “Cargo Cult Science” [in his memoirs Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman]— not a selective account of facts designed to optimize persuasive effect, but (after combing through my memory) as comprehensive an explanation as I can provide without reproducing arguments, one that includes details that will hurt my persuasive impact every bit as much as those that would advance whatever facade I might expect to hold the most compelling influence. I am attempting to place chronological events in chronological order, explicitly noting the exceptions. If there are relevant details (‘relevant’ from the perspective of any side of the debate, not just my own) that are not reproduced here, it’s because I couldn’t find them after looking for them.

My earliest remembered belief, from childhood, was of a six day young-earth creationist view. I read from the Bible, and I think I read some conservative Christian children’s material, although I can’t remember what; I don’t remember it explicitly arguing for a young-earth view so much as assuming it, and warning readers about hostile science teachers when it came to evolution. My father (who holds a doctorate in physics and teaches computer science at Wheaton College) believes in an old earth, but has not (so far as I know) committed to details of theories of the origin of life in a sense that would interest a biologist; in a discussion a year or two ago, I remember him responding to Wheaton’s President’s perspective that some origins questions are purely exegetical by saying, “Science is ahuman discipline; theology is a human discipline.” (I would not put things that way exactly, but I am providing it as an example of the situation I grew up in.) I don’t specifically remember my mother saying anything about origins questions. The only time during my childhood I can recall a Christian adult trying to influence my thought about origins-related questions was when I looked at my Bible, which had a timeline of different figures and events in the Jewish lineage, with estimated years for different people, and then at the far left had the Creation, the Fall, and some other event (I think the Flood or the Tower of Babel), for which no estimated date was given. Assuming a linear relationship between position on the timeline and time, I extrappolated a date for Creation, and my Sunday School teacher tried to explain to me that I couldn’t do that, that that wasn’t using the figure properly. I don’t know what she believed about origins questions, just that she tried to dissuade me from misreading a timeline. At any rate, my beliefs congealed after I had enough mental maturity to understand the details of the Genesis 1 account, and before I had serious contact with scientific findings or with the Biblical-theological case that the natural order is subject to legitimate exploration and discovery.

Sometime in middle to late childhood — I think before eighth grade, but I’m not positively sure — I read a long Christianity Today article about origins questions, following a “four views” format. I remember that theistic evolution was included, and that one of the respondents was Pattle Pun, a biologist at Wheaton; I have vague, inconclusive rememberances that one perspective was progressive creation, and that one of them might have been six day, young-earth creationism, but I’m not sure on either of the last two accounts. After reading it, my beliefs began to shift. I don’t remember exactly what I believed when the process of shifting was going on; to fast forward a bit, I do remember the resting point they came to and stayed for quite a while. It was a theistic evolution account, drawing on quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and intermittently including a belief in distinctly supernatural punctuations to equilibrium. Ok, end of fast-forward; back to chronological order.

In eighth grade (I was attending Avery Coonley School, a private magnet school for the gifted), the yearlong biology course was taught by Dr. John A. Rhodes, a biologist and the school headmaster, a man for whom I hold fond memories. Early in the course, Dr. Rhodes made a very emphatic point that we should tell people at prospective high schools that we were taught from BSCS Blue, which was widely recognized as the best biology text to be taught from (I believe it to have probably been a high school text; math, at least, was broken into one year advanced and two years advanced). I don’t have independent confirmation on this claim, and perhaps a teacher who wanted to de-emphasize molecular biology in favor of other branches of biology might have preferred another text, but he was very emphatic that the text was what I would call the biological equivalent of an O’Reilly technical book.

When it came to the beginning of the chapter on evolution, Dr. Rhodes commented that he was always interested in hearing new theories on questions of origins, and I wrote him a letter stating what I believed at the time. He thanked me, and a couple of class periods later told me that he’d enjoyed reading it. I was preparing for a battle of wills, and found nothing of the sort; I doubt if he believed anything similar to what I believed (before or after), but he provided an open atmosphere and encouraged inquiry.

Some time (I have difficulty dating this as well, but it appears to have been after I was first exposed to serious arguments for believing in something besides young-earth creationism, probably after eighth grade biology, and before my beliefs came to a theistic evolution attractor in high school) I was browsing at the library — not looking for anything specific, just trying to find something interesting and stimulating to read. I found a book from the Creation Research Institute, and read with interest the back cover, which stated that it explained powerful scientific evidence that showed that the world was created in six days, a few thousand years ago. This was exactly what I was looking for. I checked it out and started reading it.

I didn’t get a quarter of the way through.

I was disgusted by what the book presented as arguments and evidence; however much I might have liked to have something I could claim scientific evidence for my young-earth beliefs, I didn’t want it that badly. (Reading that book was part of why I had no reservations in putting Creation Science in front of my “If it has ‘science’ in its name, it probably isn’t” list.)

I skipped freshman year, and entered the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy as a sophomore. (For those of you not familiar with IMSA, it’s a high-powered magnet school; a master’s degree is required to teach, and several times the senior class has gotten the highest average ACT score in the nation. When I went to Wheaton, I was able without difficulty to start off in 300-400 level courses, and I was puzzled as to why so many people had warned me about college being tougher than high school.) There was a lecture by Dr. Pine (staff scientist; didn’t teach any classes) on science and pseudo-science, one that was abrasively naturalistic, and began by saying “It’s OK not to be a scientist; George Washington wasn’t a scientist,” but later parts of which would only make sense under an assumption that science has a monopoly on legitimate inquiry into those questions it concerns itself with (or something equivalent for discussion purposes). His name was a symbol of arrogant scientism even among those who weren’t familiar with the scientism/science distinction, and I remember (when talking about the lecture with an aquaintance) my friend commenting that there were a lot of people offended by that lecture. The lecture wasn’t focally concerned with origins questions, Dr. Pine having focused more of his attack on things like ESP, but I wanted to include this in the record.

Senior year, we had university biology; it wasn’t an AP course in that it wasn’t geared towards the AP tests, but it was a college-level course. I don’t remember the text for this one, but (under the circumstances) I think it was about as competently taught, by people who knew what they were talking about, as one could reasonably guess. (This was after my belief had settled.)

At Wheaton, my Old Testament class covered a few exegetical theories on interpreting the beginning of Genesis (i.e. the gap theory, which says that the Genesis chronologies are accounts with significant gaps), albeit not in a manner that would be interesting to a biologist; they would be equally compatible (or incompatible) with Darwinian and Lamarckian evolution. I remember in particular the time given to the Ten Plagues in Israel’s deliverance from Egypt; massive energy was given to a forced interpretation that would reconcile the Biblical account with an explanation that a materialist could easily swallow (i.e. the water turned to blood was an explosive bloom of some sort of reddishly colored micro-organism in the waterways), and I would rather that the teacher have said, “The ten miraculous plagues are too much for me to swallow,” than “I will rescue the ten miraculous plagues by explaining how they were ten ordinary disasters that weren’t miraculous at all.” (Readers may perceive a degree of intellectual dishonesty in my own version of theistic evolution; such an accusation probably has some degree of truth to it, but I will not try to address it here.) This, and the other two classes mentioned below for completeness, did not alter my perspective so far as I remember.

I took an environmental science elective, and the course material made sporadic reference to evolution (for that matter, one video began with a beautiful quotation from a Biblical psalm about the wonder of the natural order), but neither the teacher nor the texts made a serious attempt to address origins questions, being much more concerned with explaining (part of) how the environment works, and how to be a responsible citizen minimizing unnecessary environmental degradation.

The last class I am mentioning for the sake of completeness of record is my philosophy of science class. Evolution was discussed in so far as the history of scientists accepting the theory is interesting to a philosopher of science; there were no arguments made for or against it, apart from a brief comment in a discussion where one student used the acceptance of Darwinian evolution as an example of a good decision on the part of the scientific community.

To wrap up this part of the discussion, I transferred out of Wheaton for reasons of conscience, and finished up my bachelor’s at Calvin, and did a master’s in applied mathematics at the University of Illinois. I did not have occasion to revise my beliefs concerning origins questions until some time later, and to properly explain exactly what opened up the question again, I need to give a little more background.

There was one Saturday Night Live where the news announcer said, “Michael Bolton just came out with his new Christmas album. [Pause] Happy birthday, baby Jesus! I hope you like crap!”

Being somewhat aloof from pop culture, it took me the longest time to get it through my head that Michael Bolton was not a Christian artist. By that point, I had written in my dictionary:

Christian Contemporary Music, n. A genre of song designed primarily to impart sound teaching, such as the doctrine that we are sanctified by faith and not by good taste in music.

One thing that has distressed me to no end is that much of today’s Christian culture (popular sense, not anthropological sense) is garbage. What Dante and Handel produced is cherished on artistic merits by people openly hostile to their beliefs; the same cannot be said for the contents of John’s Christian Bookstore. I don’t want to analyze historical causes or implications, but it is something I find to be quite embarrassing — and one of the reasons I spend so much time on writing, namely to be one person who produces Christian art that is not trash.

At any rate, there was one point where I was browsing the web, searching for provoking Christian musings — and wading through one banal, syrupy, intellectually juvenile posting after another. I was quite bored, and kept searching long after I should have given up — and then read an article entitled, “Abortion: A Failure to Communicate”, and sat there, stunned.

The article made an argument why, from a pro-life perspective, it is not helpful to say “Save the children!”, argue that a foetus is a child rather than unwanted tissue, or erect a place called “New Life Adoption Center”. The particular argument (or even issue) is not why I was stunned. I was stunned because the article represented an intellectually mature, nuanced, and insightful perspective, and raised points that made sense but which were not at all obvious trivialities. Once I got over being stunned, I poked around and found out a bit more about the site hosting it — an anthology site called Leadership University at www.leaderu.com. In the following days, I looked around and found a number of stimulating articles.

After reading a while — and enjoying it thoroughly — I paid attention to something I had not previously looked at, that the site had a science section. That seemed somewhat strange; I wasn’t surprised at sections for humanities disciplines, as thinking Christianly makes a big difference in the humanities, but why science? My Dad shared both faith and enjoyment of heavily mathematical disciplines (math, computer science, physics) with me, but he had never hinted at what e.g. “Christian physics” would mean — nor had anyone else I knew of — so I clicked on the link to find out what on earth the site listed as a distinctively Christian way to think about science.

My estimation of the site dropped by about ten notches when I saw a list of titles attacking Darwinism. So this otherwise serious and intellectually responsible site had stooped to host Creation Science. I left the computer in disgust.

Some time after that, I began to experience quiet, nagging doubts — doubts that I was not being fair to Leadership University or even to those articles by dismissing them (and assessing penalty points) without consideration. I could see no justification for stooping to Creation Science, for trying to rehash a battle that was decided and over, but at the same time, there was no other point at which I had looked at the site and regretted taking the time to read an article. If a friend (whom I had hitherto known to be trustworthy) were to say something I found hard to believe, wouldn’t I consider him to have earned the benefit of the doubt? So I went back to the computer, expecting to read more Creation Research Institute-style materials, and met with yet another surprise.

I expected to see an attack on Darwinism. I hoped (but did not expect) to instead see something that would live up to Leadership University article standards. What I found was an attack on Darwinism that lived up to Leadership University article standards, and it produced a lot of cognitive dissonance in me.

Some years before, I might have jumped at an argument that Darwinism was seriously flawed. Not now. Darwinian evolution was a part of my education, and (if I did not go into naturalism) an argument that Darwinism was much more flawed than I had been led to believe, affected me as would an argument that any other major scientific theory was much more flawed than I had been led to believe — it had some very troubling implications. So I looked through several articles, hoping to find a fatal flaw — and the hope waned.

I was not open to resolving the question based on the online articles, but the articles disturbed me enough that I very distinctly believed that there was a question in need of resolution. So, not too much longer, I poked around until I found Philip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial and, a bit later, Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, hoping to find justification to persist in my previous belief, but even more hoping to resolve the inner tension between believing (and wanting to believe) one thing, and seeing evidence that appeared to suggest another.

Reading Darwin on Trial fleshed out what was sketched in the articles. (Darwin on Trial took me an afternoon to read, and I am probably not a fast reader by Megalist standards; Darwin’s Black Box took me a day.) The articles, at least at Leadership University, do not provide what I would consider a basis to decide; they outline the argument, but the length restriction makes it hard to make an argument without holes. The book, on the other hand, had the room to argue systematically and carefully. Its arguments were sufficient to dislodge me from the resting place I had found, and the best metaphor I can use to describe the subsequent sifting of thoughts is a loss of faith.

In a conservative Catholic family, perhaps pre-Vatican II, a child grows up to believe that if the priests say it, speaking officially, it is true — perhaps there is room for miscommunication and the like, but there is a basic faith that the mouth of a priest is the mouth of an oracle. In a contemporary scientific schooling context, a student is taught to believe that if the science teachers say it, it is a bona fide attempt to convey the truth as best understood by the scientific enterprise. There are any number of basic nuances — miscommunication, error, intentional simplification for any of several obvious reasons, the teacher articulating the views of one position in a controversy — but, as with the Catholic family, there is a basic faith (even if it’s not put that way, a mistrust of faith and authority being one of the items on the catechism) that the teacher represents the best science can offer, and so (for instance) if evolution is portrayed as an established theory that explains reasonably well everything one would expect it to explain, then that must be true.

It is that faith which I lost.

There is one example that particularly sticks in my mind. I am not going to call it ‘typical’, with the accompanying implication that I could easily pull half a dozen other examples that serve my point equally well; there are a number of other examples, and this is the one made the most forceful impression on me.

One example that occurred in both my textbooks — as best I recall, they both had photographs to illustrate camouflage effects — concerns pepper moths in England. Before the Industrial Revolution, the majority of pepper moths were white, with a significant minority that were black. Come the Industrial Revolution, when everything was blackened by soot, the proportions shifted, so that the majority of pepper moths were black, with a significant minority that were white. Then, after the Industrial Revolution had run its course and things were no longer covered with soot, the proportions again shifted, so that the majority of pepper moths were white, with a significant minority of black moths. This is given as a supporting example of “evolution”.

Johnson does not treat “evolution” as one amorphous mass; he regards the distinction between microevolution and macroevolution as significant, including that evidence of one is not necessarily evidence of the other. Neither he nor anyone else I’ve read challenge microevolution (or the existence of natural selection as an influence on what survives — though he suggests that natural selection is a conservative force). What is specifically challenged is macroevolution, and whether natural selection constitutes a generative force that is responsible for the diversity of life now on this planet.

The pepper moth example shows natural selection in action; what it does not show is that natural selection is a creative force that causes new kinds of organisms to appear. If black pepper moths were unknown before the Industrial Revolution, and then (once the smoke started billowing) a mutation (one that hadn’t occurred, or at least hadn’t survived, before) introduced a black gene into a previously all-white pool, and the new kind of moth started to take over for as long as trees were covered with soot — then this would constitute a small-scale instance of evolution as a generative force. As it is, both kinds of moths existed before, during, and after the Industrial Revolution, in significant numbers — nothing even went extinct (at least in the pepper moth population). This provides evidence of natural selection in some form, but to present it as evidence of “evolution” is presenting evidence of one claim as evidence of two or more distinct claims, at least one of which is not supported by the evidence — a practice that is, at best, sloppy, and at worst, deceitful.

(This one claim, by itself, is not fatal; it would be in principle possible to present a collection of examples so that natural selection, microevolution, and macroevolution all have their corresponding support; I am not presenting it to establish a case so much as to illustrate a picture.)

My disappointment at my teachers’ presentation of undue optimism about macroevolution was not nearly as significant as my own disappointment at myself, and my having believed it. Perhaps it would have been easier to merely be angry at my teachers, but I was not angry; my chief disappointment was with myself.

After I had to some extent regained my bearings, I read Darwin’s Black Box, which provided one major new concept not addressed by Darwin on Trial, and several examples of that concept (irreducible complexity), and started talking about it on IMSA alumni notesfile forums.

What I saw there was, for the most part, shock and outrage that anyone dare question Darwin’s truth — most ridiculed what I was saying without providing counter-argument; one person, when I discussed the Cambrian explosion, suggested that it could have been caused by mutagen exposure. Mutagen exposure is a hypothesis I’m willing to entertain (stranger things have happened), but when I started doing some Feynman calculations to show how astronomically low the odds are of mutagen exposure producing Cambrian explosion effects, after first saying, “Suppose I claim to be able to predict lottery numbers, and suppose for the sake of argument you can rule out charlatan trickery on my part. After one success, I have your attention. After two successes, you say, ‘What a bizarre coincidence!’ Is there any number of successful guesses (subject to one guess per minute and an assumption of my death in fifty years) that will lead you to believe that you may not know how I’m doing it, but it’s not luck?” — and he said that at most a dozen would suffice, and then I showed how much lower the chances of raw mutagen exposure producing the Cambrian explosion would be than the chance of successfully guessing twelve consecutive lottery numbers — at which point he backed up and said, “There are some things we can never know.”

The one exception was a microbiology graduate student. He read the arguments I drew from the other sources, and commented that I seemed well-read and that the arguments seemed plausible. Part of that is being diplomatic, but I don’t think it was diplomatic politeness covering disrespect or distaste — he didn’t want to commit to a position without first taking an unhurried investigation of the question (which I didn’t want to do either — the web articles didn’t convince me of any conclusion besides that I should read the unabridged take on them).

What is my present position? Let me list a few things that I presently hold, subject to revision if and when I encounter further evidence or indications that my past analysis is less valid than I thought:

  • Old earth/universe.
  • Microevolution as a consistent force in our time and probably at ages past, probably a conservative force.
  • Sudden appearance and disappearance of species, such as has not been accounted for in evolutionary theory so far as I know (perhaps acknowledged in punctuated equilibrium, but not accounted for — saying that changes happen off camera in 100,000 year geological eyeblinks, without explaining why, doesn’t constitute a valid theory).
  • Irreducible complexity in living organisms due to intelligent design, and in many cases not explained by any known plausible evolutionary scenario.

This is not a scientific theory so much as a framework, a partial specification; it represents a move away from naturalistic evolution as the complete answer and does not represent a fully detailed alternative — I think other people should work on that; I just haven’t invested in it myself. It is like, after having long believed a story about an event, coming to believe that the story is false — another explanatory story does not automatically spring up, although in a scientific community the rejection of one theory as flawed leads to the appearance of other theories to take its place, perhaps involving a shift in framework — witness the ultraviolet catastrophe. If I were a biologist working on a theory of origins, I would try to take this framework and extend it to the point of being a falsifiable theory —Darwin’s Black Box at the end addresses some issues towards constructing falsifiable theories, suggesting the sort of questions to ask in the process. There might be material to be mined in cryptanalysis; a codebreaker who sees a pattern is constantly asking whether the pattern represents a step towards cracking the code, or is only fool’s gold. The concept of p-values may be relevant.

[Remaining specific point, responding to other post, deleted for privacy concerns.]

-Jonathan

Post Script, May 5, 2003: Since I posted this some time back, I have learned that leading members of the MegaList have become increasingly involved in the Intelligent Design movement.

I do not believe I can take more than incidental credit for this; I believe they are persuaded, not by my eloquence in a small number of posts, but because the evidence itself suggests things which a purely Darwinian account has trouble explaining.

Read more of Origins Questions: Creation, Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Orthodoxy on Amazon!

Oops… Could the Western Rite Please Try Again?

Cover for Fighting Dragons: Works of Theology and Polemics

Fr. Cherubim has left a considerable wake; the tip of the iceberg is in his contribution to a wave of committed Evangelicals deciding that being Orthodox is an indispensible aid to pursuing their cottage industry of reconstructing the ancient Church. The sycophant excitedly commented, “Yes; there was an article on this phenomenon in The Onion Dome. It was a bit like that article in The Onion, um, what was it… there was a woman, a strong woman, who overcame years of childhood abuse to become a successful porn star…”

Followers of Fr. Cherubim (Jones) Demand His Immediate Canonization and Full Recognition as Equal to the Heirophants

The Western Rite: “Chaotic Neutral” Orthodoxy

When I played Dungeons & Dragons in high school , one of the cardinal rules surrounded alignments: “Lawful Good”, “Neutral Good”, “Chaotic Good”, “Lawful Neutral”, “True Neutral”, “Chaotic Neutral”, “Lawful Evil”, “Neutral Evil”, and “Chaotic Evil”. Each of these alignments was quite different from each other, but there was a common undergirding: no matter what alignment you play, you pick a course of action and you stick with it. You may be a hero or a villain; you may be believe in organized cooperation or the power of the individual, but whatever your choice may be, you are shirking due diligence as a role playing gamer unless you pick a course of action and stick with it.

Except for one exception. “Chaotic Neutral” isn’t exactly a matter of picking a course of action and sticking it with it. “Chaotic Neutral” role play can be described as “You can do anything you want, as long as you don’t do it twice,” and it is the closest alignment to acting like a hero one day and a villain the next. It has a bad reputation among gamers, perhaps because it disproportionately draws gamers who want to dodge proper handling of one cardinal aspect of game play, and quite possibly may dodge due diligence in other areas as well. And the Western Rite seems in large measure to be the “Chaotic Neutral” of Orthodoxy.

Q: Why do some Protestants keep trying to reconstruct the ancient Church?
A: The “Great Apostasy”

If you are trying to understand Protestant Christianity, one of the key features you should understand is the “Great Apostasy”, even if the term is unfamiliar to many Protestants today. Today the Internet is in working order, and regardless of what may happen in the future, it would be a strange thing to seek out venture capitalists now to help fund the great endeavor of reconstructing the Internet. It doesn’t make sense to “reconstruct the Internet” unless the Internet is dead, which it isn’t. And it also doesn’t make sense to try to “reconstruct the authentic ancient Church” unless the ancient Church died and left no surviving continuation into our day.

The Reformers asserted that there were serious problems in the Catholic Church they knew, and on that score many loyal Romans agreed with them. (For that matter, there are problems in Orthodoxy today—real problems.) What the Reformers asserted was something stronger: some time between the days of the Apostles and their days, the genuine Church had vanished altogether, on some accounts very soon after the Apostles passed away, and this belief impelled them to a great project of scholarly research and antiquarian reconstruction to reconstruct the (genuine) ancient Church. And so we have the Evangelical cottage industry of trying to reconstruct the ancient Church, which only makes sense if the Church had vanished and, in Orthodox terms, there was no living Tradition whose milk we should turn to nurse from. It is not an accident that the Reformers abandoned Church vestments in favor of scholar’s robes; understanding the Bible was no longer through reading the words of holy saints, but through secular antiquarian research. (This attitude still holds in the secular discipline of Bible scholarship today.)

Q: And why does the Western Rite keep trying to reconstruct Western Orthodoxy?
A: Their own version of the “Great Apostasy.”

The Western Rite’s project does make some sense here: the Western Church did in fact go through a Great Apostasy, and while I have never heard someone from the Western Rite find a Great Apostasy and say that the Orthodox Church has died out in Antiochian, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Georgian, etc. living Tradition, none the less it is not a provocative thing to say that the West was once canonically Orthodox and has ceased to be that.

But in my conversations with Western Orthodox and what I have read, the plumbline of Orthodoxy is always a Protestant-style reconstruction of Western Orthodoxy from the time the West was Orthodox. Hence one asserts, for instance, that the vestments used follow the pattern of the time when East and West wore the same liturgical vestments, before the East changed. And this is not an isolated example; things keep coming up where the offered reason for a decision is that this is closest to what historical lessons tell us things were like in the ancient Church. It is a Protestant tune that is foreign to non-Western Rite Orthodox, and it keeps coming up.

Converts from the same tradition

One thing that concerns me is that Western Rite Orthodox are by and large not former Roman Catholics, but former Anglicans: one who understood Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism would be much more wary of former Anglicans practicing the Western Rite than former Romans. But let us waive that aside.

One point of spiritual danger for converts to the Orthodox Church is to overly associate with other converts from the same place, an arrangement that seems to invite subtle regressions to how the former confession places things. I have heard friends commenting how an Orthodox group of former Catholics was getting a bit unhealthy, and I have seen it in a mailing list of former Evangelicals. The Western Rite is largely a group of former Anglicans, and subtle (and maybe not-so-subtle) bits and pieces of Anglicanism seem to keep cropping up.

The Western Rite was unknown until St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco started to create it on his own authority; it is not a continuous, living tradition preserving Orthodoxy, and here nature abhors a vacuum. Converts practicing Western Orthodoxy, not in a position to nurse from the bosom of a living rite of Eastern Orthodoxy, willingly or unwillingly regress to the milk of an Anglicanism whose Archbishop of Canterbury is a Druid. (Some have said that the Anglican way is not via media as proclaimed, but “cut, copy, and paste.” But let us leave that aside.)

Must I adopt a foreign culture?

Christ did not invent baptism, nor did John the Baptist. Baptism was practiced in Judaism for the reception of non-Jewish pagans into Judaism: it was bringing in someone who was unambiguously portrayed as an outsider. What Christ did that was distinctive was to say that baptism is for everyone, Jew as much as Greek pagan. We all start outside.

The introduction to Bishop NIKOLAI’s Prayers by the Lake speaks of “the Christ-fighting Slavic soul”: Russians and Serbs need to swim upstream. And I remember a discussion with one Serb on Facebook who was a devout Orthodox and corrected my assumption that he had grown up in Orthodoxy: he grew up an atheist and learned that the giants of Serbian history were all Orthodox, and then discovered something much bigger than nationalism when he discovered Holy Orthodoxy.

One of the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy is that in Catholicism, philosophy and culture can be swapped in and out; Thomism is is a usual standby but Patriarch JOHN PAUL was a phenomenologist. In Orthodoxy, however, philosophy and culture are not something you change like a garment, and the Orthodox Church in its way keeps alive philosophies and cultures long after the West apostasized. Today’s Western culture boasts a millenium of apostasy and is scarcely closer to tenth century England than it is to present-day India. If you’re going to aim for what Western culture was when it was still Orthodox, you have at least as far to go as if you join an Orthodox Church and start to absorb its culture along the way.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but former Catholics and Protestants can only enter the Church as reconciled heretics; we may wish it were some other way, but former Anglicans (among others) are reconciled heretics who particularly need to submit to the Church as one shaped outside of her ways.

Is there any alternative?

Let’s leave aside generalities for just one moment and talk in the specific. My priest is a protopresbyter or archpriest within ROCOR, and a former Anglican deacon. He is glad that he was not immediately ordained when he entered the Orthodox Church, but spent some time as a layman growing Orthodox roots. And not to put too fine a point on it, but I have never heard him argue, in Western Rite style, “This book says that this is how something was done in the ancient Church, so we should implement a program of change to restore this part of ancient Christianity.”

Not that he has any particular desire to throw out the old; he’s rather conservative. But one particular decision he has made is interesting. As well as being a priest he is a physician, a doctor who treats patients at the extremes of pain and suffering, and he has brought together an icon shrine devoted to one of the “holy unmercenary physicians”, saints who healed without charge. And he has placed, very near together, an icon of the ancient Roman St. Panteleimon next to a hand-painted icon of the twentieth century Blessed St. Luke. Another icon shows all of the holy unmercenaries across all the centuries, and as it so happens, the specific saint the corner is named after is St. Panteleimon. From the same fount as this icon corner comes a priest who will accept wisdom from a saint of any century, and again, I have never heard him argue, “This is what my book research says about how things were way back several centuries ago, or nineteenth century Russia or whatever, so we should change what we are doing to reconstruct the past.”

Looking at all the reconstruction of Western Orthodoxy that looms so large in the Western Rite, and seeing such an incredibly Anglican demeanor among Anglican converts who do not seem to really see themselves as reconciled heretics, wild olive branches grafted onto the Vine, leads me to want to say, “Oops… Could the Western Rite please try again?”

Read more of Fighting Dragons: Works of Theology and Polemics on Amazon!

Friendly, Win-Win Negotiation: Interest-Based Negotiation and “Getting to Yes”

Getting to Yes: How to Negotiate Agreement Without Giving In

The negotiation classic Getting to Yes: How to Negotiate Agreement Without Giving In introduces something called “interest-based negotiation” and presents it as the ultimate power tool for adversarial negotiations where the other party has the upper hand. And it may well be that power tool, but some of the best mileage I’ve seen has been in friendly negotiations, and business world problem solving.

Getting to Yes opens by discussing two main styles of negotiation that occur to people: hard and soft negotiation. Hard negotiation is a matter of taking a position and insisting on it: playing hardball. Soft negotiation, more characteristic of friendly negotiations, still involves taking a position, but being very flexible.

Getting to Yes presents a third option, that of interest-based negotiation. Individual positions taken by either side of the table are ordinarily poorly suited to the interests of the other side; and interest-based negotiation involves uncovering what the basic interests of the two sides of the table are, and then problem solving to, as best as possible, satisfy the interests of both sides of the table. Getting to Yes speaks of being hard on interests, soft on positions.

Examples from the world of information technology

It’s obvious, in the context of a negotiation between bosses and stakeholders on the one hand, and information technology on the other, that a stakeholder or boss has interests involved in negotiating what information technology professionals will do for them. What is less obvious is that information technology professionals also have interests. These interests include interests that amount to good engineering concerns, including a realistic solution, avoiding technical ways of painting themselves into a corner, and solving the problem in a way that will work well for stakeholders. (If a cobbler makes a shoe that fits comfortably, the customer will make fewer requests for adjustments than if the shoe pinches.)

On this last point, it might be remarked that initial solutions (positions) proposed by stakeholders should be viewed with suspicion. When someone non-technical tries to design a technological solution, there is a real danger of a solution that looks good on paper, but amounts to a shoe that pinches. One time my brother, then a database administrator, commented that on his team there was a system administrator who, when he was asked something that amounted to, “Is there a way to—”, would rudely cut the person off and say, “Stop. Tell me what you want to have accomplished.” And he gave an excellent example of interest-based negotiation, even if it is a better way to avoid being curt.

The example he gave was, if there was concern about a disk filling up, someone asking, “Is there a way to run [the Unix command] ‘df’ every five minutes and send it to the system administrator’s pager?” And there are several things wrong with that position. First of all, this was a little while ago when there weren’t smartphones with high-resolution screens. The Unix ‘df’ command is designed around a full (text) screen, producing half a page or a page of text (probably more given their environment), and decidedly not optimized to quickly give useful information on a pager. It would require scrolling to see if the ‘df’ output represented a problem or not. And constant messages that require digging to see if they mean anything important amount to spam from the system administrator’s view: the fact that one more verbose message was sent to the pager means nothing particularly interesting to a system administrator. And that spam risks a real “boy who cried wolf” syndrome, with the system administrator having no clue when a real problem is occurring.

Not that there is any need for helplessness if disks fill up. There might even be a better solution that would use pagers. For example, there could be some monitoring tools that page a system administrator if a disk reaches some threshold of being too full, or if disk usage is growing too quickly. The basic issue is one that people can take steps to deal with. But the system administrator’s blunt “Stop. Just tell me what you want to do,” was almost kindness in disguise; it was meant to pursue the mutual interest of solving a problem as well as possible, as opposed to a solution that amounts to, “I’ve solved the problem badly; now you go implement it.”

The system administrator’s blunt response when he sensed positional negotiation was, “Stop. I don’t even want to hear your position. Just tell me your interest and let me address that.”


For another, slightly more technical example, there was a system administrator at our company who had written an asset tracking program, and later on I was charged with writing a purchase order system. When the system was shaping up, he said he wished his asset tracking system could simply go away, superseded by the new purchase order system.

The general consensus was that the order tracking system was tolerable, and the CTO consulted with some people from other companies and said nobody had really done better than tolerable like our asset tracking. The system administrator wanted me to replace his asset tracking program, and my expectation was that I might be able to do a little better than him, but not a lot better. And I think he was modest about the solution he had pulled off given what he was dealing with. I told him, at a social meeting, “The reason my program is crisp and clear and your program is messy, is that the problem my program solves is crisp, clear, and simple, and the problem your program solves is messy and hard.” And I could see a smile and shining eyes on his wife’s face, but my remark was not intended as a merely polite statement. As we did business, the problem of purchase orders was cut and dry, and I didn’t have to make any especially hard judgment calls: mostly it was straightforward adaptation as requests came in. By contrast, the tracking system covered assets and components, venturing into territory the purchase order didn’t touch, and the territory of assets and components came with genuinely fuzzy and difficult border cases, where you had to draw lines about what was an asset and what was a component and deal with subjective factors that the purchase order system never touched.

Once the two systems were up and running, it looked like that meant duplicate data entry. It would have been an option for me to write a replacement asset tracking system, but I think my co-worker was being genuinely modest about a real achievement, and it did not seem obvious to me that my replacement for a working system would work better. We looked at publishing data from the asset tracking system to purchase orders, and then set things so that entries in the purchase order system were automatically carried over to the asset tracking system. That solution was one that was stuck with: it did not involve, as had originally been suggested, that the asset tracking system would be superseded by the purchase order system, but it did address the basic interest: no need for duplicate data entry. The asset tracking system was made aware of entries in the purchase order system, and the solution addressed the various interests. Including, one might like to add, that the company would lose none of the benefits of a respectable, solid existing system, which would now be working better than ever.

An example from private life

In one family I know, the parents decided that their son could own a pocketknife (he owns a couple), but not carry anything dangerous. That may be a sensible decision, but it was annoying to the son, and I understood his frustration: I know what a Swiss Army Knifemeant to me when I was younger, and still to some extent means to me now. Besides being practical, a Swiss Army Knife is a nifty device, dipped in coolness. And I could identify with his being frustrated that his parents would not let him carry either pocketknife: not because he specifically wanted something dangerous, but because he wanted coolness.

For Christmas I gave him a Leatherman multi-tool designed to be useful and cool while still being something you could carry through TSA-approved airport security. It only has a few features as far as multitools go, but it has enough, and he greatly appreciates the gift. It satisfied both his desire for something cool, and his parents’ concern that what he carry not be dangerous, and so he carries it now.

In a non-work interaction at work, my boss received a copy of Hello World! Computer Programming for Kids and Other Beginners, a book that introduces the powerful language Python with pirates and ninjas, and I asked him if I could borrow the book for a few minutes to copy bibliographic information. His reply was “Let me send you an email,” and forwarded me a promotional email with a coupon code worth $20 off the book’s price if you ordered by such-and-such a date. In this friendly negotiation, I took a position and my boss responded in a way that would address my interests better than my initial position.

Step one: Identify the interests
Step two: Problem solving

All of these negotiations have an element of problem solving. The first step is to identify interests. If someone comes to you with a position, which happens 99.9% of the time, it is a position motivated by interests, and you need to appreciate those interests. Anthropology-style observation, if you know how to do it, helps. Being empathic and trying to see what benefit someone’s position will bring them helps. As much as possible, bring interests out into the open so they can be addressed.

A win-win solution may not always be possible; the pie may not be big enough for everyone even if they cooperate. (Getting to Yes may be of some help here.) But a win-win outcome will be more often found by trying to address interests than simply starting with positions, staying with positions, and only doling out who makes what concession to the opposite position. And creative problem solving can help address those interests once they have been identified: for my brother’s workplace, system administrators can be automatically notified, including by pager, when any of several identified red flags is tripped. Being dangerous is not intrinsic to being a cool multitool: therefore one can search for a safety-friendly multitool. Is there a hidden opportunity in interests that have been identified? Check and see.

Conclusion

Interest-based negotiation is not always easy; Getting to Yes provides few examples: one of these few has two sisters arguing about an orange, splitting it, and then one sister ate the inside of her half and the other sister used her half of the rind to bake a pie. And the introduction states that stories are hard to find. Part of my effort here has been to provide examples, taken out of my experience because that’s what I know, even if it would be best to have third person stories and avoid stories that present me as a hero. But the rewards for at least trying for interest-based negotiation are worthwhile. And, as stated at the top, Getting to Yes may present interest-based negotiation as the central power tool for a hostile negotiation where the other party is more powerful than you, some of the best mileage I’ve gotten out of it has been in friendly negotiations with other people who share some of the same goals. And this is true inside and outside of the business world.

It’s worth recognizing negotiation as negotiation: not all negotiations have a dollar amount. And once a friendly negotiation is recognized, identifying interests can be a powerful tool to obtain win-win results.

Is there a place where you could use friendly, win-win, interest-based negotiations more?

Monarchy

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I wanted to give a meditation on the mystical theology of kings and monarchs.

As a starting point, I would point out that bishops rightly wear the regalia of the Byzantine Emperor, and the government of the Orthodox Church is monarchical: her bishops are monarchs. And I would like to make a few observations about my own bishop, for whom I am grateful: His Grace Bishop Peter of Cleveland and Ohio (ROCOR). He offers a point of departure for understanding monarchy.

His Grace Bishop Peter’s public bearing is quite regal, and he receives honor publicly. But privately he acts differently, and in quite the opposite way as a Hollywood celebrity who is sympathetic and modest in front of the camera and haughty in private. Quite the opposite, His Grace Bishop Peter is a monk, and like a good monk he tried to run away when he found out he was going to be made bishop. He sleeps in a chair, in a modest apartment. One gets the impression, not so much that he is a bishop, but that he is a monk fulfilling the obedience of serving as a bishop when he would rather live as a more ordinary monk—the kind of monk who may be the best kind of bishop!

All this is in accord with the Philokalia, which prescribes that monks who are in authority publicly act as their office requires, but privately not see themselves as any greater than anyone else. Perhaps some may covet the office of bishop because they see in it a chance to see themselves as greater. But that is something that cannot exist. In a certain sense Bishop Peter’s fine robes are meant for others to see and not him: I may admire how great he is, and be edified, but he may not do so, and it is spiritual poison if he does. There really is something great about being clergy, or bishop, or king, but that greatness should be invisible to the person in the office. It is a trustworthy saying, and worthy of all acceptation: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” Being a bishop or king is no exemption to this rule; if anything, it is a greater demand. Being in office does not make it legitimate to see yourself as better; it just makes this spiritual poison harder to avoid and a greater threat. I may admire how fine His Grace Peter looks in his vestments, and be spiritually nourished by it, but to him it would be poison: there exists no legitimate spiritual license for self-admiration, not even if you are a bishop or a king!

I have coveted the status of being a knight; when Google AdWords advertised “English titles of nobility”, I wish my eyes had not lingered. But this is folly. Wishing a title without responsibilities is like hoping to be married without a spouse. And I think that confusion is a sign of our times: perhaps people have always coveted honor, but if men covet honor when they are taught to be humble, what will they do when schools teach “self-esteem” and pastors encourage “Godly self-respect”? Now to enter a role of service, as servant leader, is another matter: ordination is not at its core about acquiring the honor of a title as entering a role of service (the whole “servant leadership”), and the title that is conferred is for the benefit of others; the honors conferred are a gift to those the candidate is to serve. To be clergy or monarch is privilege, but the privilege is for others, not for oneself. The question, “Is the king for the kingdom, or the kingdom for the king?” is rhetorical: the king is for the kingdom. The reason the Orthodox practice is to have bishops selected from among monks is not an indictment of marriage; St. Peter the Apostle, the Rock upon whom Christ built his Church, had a mother-in-law, and every bishop today is less than him. That monks are to be chaste is one part of a deeper reality: a monk is to be a whole burnt offering without remainder, and the reality in the Orthodox Church is that married men may be among the clergy, but its highest rank in particular is chosen from the monks who are peculiarly called to die to the world and be a whole burnt offering without remainder.

The Akathist to the Theotokos tells of the Magi, “The sons of the Chaldees saw in the hands of the Virgin Him Who with His Hand made man. And knowing him to be the Master, even though He had taken the form of a servant, they hastened to serve Him with gifts, and to cry to Her Who is blessed… Rejoice, Thou Who didst enlighten the initiates of the Trinity!” There is a a link here. The sons of the Chaldees came bearing gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Each of these gifts is an emblem: gold of royalty, frankincense of divinity, and myrrh of suffering or sacrifice. And in this trinity of gifts, you cannot rightly pick up one without picking up the others. Every Christian must bear his cross, and if you read the lives of the saints, those who are fragrant with Heaven’s incense are fragrant after a life with deep suffering: they are fragrant with myrrh as sacrifices. And if the question is, “What is a king?” one answer would be, “One whose spirit is gold, but gold that is of one substance with frankincense and myrrh.” It is confusion to want to be a king, but have gold without myrrh. Better to recognize that kingship, divinity, and suffering are of the same substance as they appear in the great hymn to humility:

Let this mind be in you,
Which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God,
Thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation,
And took upon him the form of a servant,
And was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man,
He humbled himself,
And became obedient unto death,
Even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him,
And given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
Of things in heaven,
And things in earth,
And things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.

Here is humility. Here are gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Mystical theology to live out

There is something we are missing if we understand monarchy only as a system of government. The Orthodox Church has words about how oil is used to anoint kings and priests, but these words are from when all the faithful are summoned to be anointed in Holy Week. The image we are made in is not only divine: it is royal. Myrrh is the emblem of sacrifice, of human approach to the divine; oil is the emblem of the divine approach to humans, and it is no mistake that anointing chrism is for all Christians: from ancient times Christ, which is to say the Anointed One, was understood to be anointed with the sacred oil that made prophet, priest, and king. And from ancient times the Church sees that anointing as given to Christians too. It is fashionable to claim a Facebook profile religious affiliation that over-modestly says, “Follower of Jesus”; I have wished it would be appropriate to answer with a stated affiliation of, “Alter christus: ‘follower of Jesus’ means ‘another Christ’!” But that could be over-forceful.

If we are kings, what are we kings of? One chief answer is that we are kings over our work. Whether we be working professionally, or homemaking, or learning how to grow up, or job hunting, or retired and volunteering, all of us are called to work and to work is to reign in the activity of the royal image. Secondly, we are called to rule over ourselves in ascesis. The “Sol Invictus” claim of “I am the master of my fate, I am the master of my soul” is an obscene parody; in quite a different way, in the ascesis of our lives, God summons us to serve as bishop and monarch over ourselves and our passions, conquering them and ultimately being God’s co-worker as they are transfigured. He who says “stewardship” says “royal reign”: if we are to be careful stewards of our time, treasure, and talent, we are to reign faithfully in these, and in other areas of life, in our relationships and in our solitude, we are to reign. And this is real reign.

When I was a graduate student in theology, I winced when people tried to pay me a compliment by saying that by my obscure sources and scholarly rigor I had a real, serious understanding of the Bible, and they merely had a lightweight, devotional understanding of the Bible. I respected the humble appreciation, but this was an entirely backwards understanding. The Bible in its real and dynamic form is used liturgically and devotionally; my difficult scholarly commentaries had a place but were something dead compared to the living devotional use of the Bible. “In humility consider others better than yourself” is spiritually sound, but I winced that people could say that my academic exercises were serious Bible study and their devotional reading was second-rate and fluffy. And in like fashion, monarchy is misunderstood if it means only that one person out of many exercises a political reign. It is a basic spiritual reality, and God summons all of us to be prophet, priest, and monarch.

A potent warning

I have written elsewhere:

Seekest thou a mighty deed,
Our broken world to straighten out?
Seek it not! Knowest thou not,
That the accursed axe ever wielded in the West,
To transform society, with a program to improve,
Is a wicked axe, ever damned,
And hath a subtle backswing, and most grievous?
Wittest thou not that to heal in such manner,
Is like to bearing the sword,
To smite a dead man to life therewith?
Know rather the time-honeyed words,
True and healthgiving when first spoken,
Beyond lifesaving in our own time:
Save thyself,
And ten thousand around thee shall be saved.

In our time and place, this warning is one well worth heeding. One poster I saw showed a picture of Hitler and said, “Politicians. The best argument for monarchy yet.” I find it awfully hard to say that we live under an optimal government. But it’s an impulse shared with a Western half-converter to organize a manifesto to restore monarchy. A manifesto is an axe to depose kings; it is a fundamental error to try to approach monarchy through political activism as promulgated by the West for when you really care and want to make a difference. The fundamental error is almost:

Category Mistake, n. An assumption embodied in an inappropriate question, inquiring about an undefined attribute, such as, “Is yellow square or round?”, “Is the doctrine of the Trinity calm or excited?”, or “What was the point of that speech?”

To those who are convinced that kingship is ordained by God, I would recall Christ’s sharp question: “Which is greater, the gold of the temple, or the temple which makes that gold sacred?” The gold of earthly kingdoms may be sacred as liberal inventions are not. But the temple of the Kingdom of Heaven is greater, and that is a Kingdom that is established in us. Perhaps it is best to have both the gold and the temple that makes the gold sacred, but that does not mean we should leave the temple so we can bring some gold to be made sacred in it. The Sermon on the Mount bids us, impels us, commands us, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.If there is to be a God-ordained restoration of monarchy, it will be one of “all these things” that “shall be added unto you.” It is a matter of “Save thyself, and ten thousand around thee will be saved.” If you leave this to be practical, you are picking up an axe that cannot but lay waste when its backswing hits.

There may be said to be two archetypes, the saint and the activist. The saint lives to contemplate God; even if this means a life of Ascesis (as one monk described monastic life, “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up,”), and never reach contemplation in its pure sense, laity in the world live for contemplation. By contrast, the activist lives to change the world, and the activist impulse is like a hydra: cut it off once, and it resurfaces in two other places. But it is not lawful to Orthodox. Many Orthodox saints have changed the world, but this was only because their goal was the goal of contemplation. Orthodoxy has no saying, with the activist, of “Try to make a plan a reality, and you may save ten thousand people.” She only says, and can say, “Save yourself, and ten thousand around you will be saved:” Orthodoxy is not served by the activist, only by the saint.

And be advised that the wicked axe, ever damned, works just as well when people try to recover past glory as when people try to create something new. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, neo-Paganism, are but reincarnations of one single phenomenon: people trying to recover long past glory, break off continuities with the immediate past, and separate themselves in a schism further from the recent and ancient past alike. If you reconstruct monarchy, be ready for a backswing that will leave a society further, not closer, to the glory of human monarchy.

But there is another option. Save thyself, and God will change the game.

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Why Study Mathematics?

One question which is raised by many people is, “Why should I study mathematics?”. The question is usually asked from a perspective that there is probably no good and desirable reason for the speaker to study mathematics, but he will tolerate the minimum required because he has to, and then get on to more valuable and important things.

I readily acknowledge that there are many math classes which are drudgery and a general waste of time, and that many people have had experiences with mathematics which give them good reason to hold a distaste for the discipline. However, it is my hope that I may provide readers with an insight that there is something more to mathematics, and that this something more may be worthwhile.

Let’s begin by looking at the reasons that the reader may already have come across for why he should study mathematics:

  • There are certain basic computational skills that are needed in life. People should be able to figure out whether a 24-pack of their favorite soda for $3.89 is a better or worse deal than a 12-pack for $1.99.
  • It builds character. I suffered through mathematics for such-and-such many years. So should you.

Of course, nobody explicitly says the second reason, but it may very well seem that way—like one of the hush-hushed truths that the Adult Conspiracy hides from students the same way it hides the fact that there is no Santa Claus from little children. And the first reason is something that many non-mathematical administrators believe.

But those are not the real reasons that a mathematician will give for why a nonmathematician should study mathematics, and what kind of mathematics a nonmathematician should study.

The first question which should be addressed is, “What is mathematics really about?”

The answer which many nonmathematicians may have is something along the lines of, “Mathematics, at its heart, is about learning and using formulas and things like that. In gradeschool, you learn the formulas and methods to add, subtract, multiply, and divide; then in middle school and high school it is on to bigger and better formulas, like the formula for the slope of a line passing through two points. Then in college, if your discipline unfortunately requires a little mathematics (such as the social sciences requiring statistics), you learn formulas that are even more complicated and harder to remember. The deeper you go into mathematics, the more formulas and rote methods you have to learn, and the worse it gets.”

The best response I can think of to that question is to respond by analogy, and my response is along the following lines:

A child is in school will be taught various grammatical rules, sentence diagramming, and so on. These will be drilled and studied for quite a long while, and it must be said that this is not the most interesting of areas to study.

An English teacher who is asked, “Is this what your discipline is really about?”, will almost certainly answer, “No!”. Perhaps the English student is proficient in grammar, but that’s not what English is about. English is about literature—about stories, about ideas, about characters, about plots, about poetic description, about philosophy, about theology, about thinking, about life. Grammar is not studied so that people can suffer through learning more pointless grammar; grammar is studied to provide students with a basic foundation from which they will be able to use the English language. It is a little drudgery which is worked through so that students may behold an object of great beauty.

This is the function of the formulas and rules of mathematics. Not rules and formulas so that the student is prepared for more rules and formulas, but rules and formulas which are studied so that the student can go past them to see what mathematics is really about.

And what is mathematics really about? Before I give a full answer, let me say that it is something like what English is about.

The one real glimpse that someone who has been through high school may have had of mathematics is in the study of geometry. There are a few things about high school geometry that I would like to point out:

  • In geometry, one is given certain axioms and postulates (for example, the parallel postulate—given a line and a point not on the line, there is exactly one line through the given point which does not intersect the given line), definitions (a circle is the set of points equidistant (at an equal distance) from a given point), and undefined terms (point, line). From those axioms and postulates, definitions, and undefined terms, one begins to explore what they imply—theorems and lemmas.
  • In geometry, rote memorization is not enough—and, in fact, is in and of itself one of the least effective approaches to take. It is necessary to understand—to get an intuitive grasp of the material. Learning comes from the “Aha!” when something clicks and fits together—then it is the idea that remains in the student’s memory.
  • Geometry builds upon itself. One starts with fundamentals (axioms, postulates, definitions, and undefined terms), and uses them to prove basic theorems, which are in turn used along with axioms and postulates to prove more elaborate theorems, and so on. It is like a building—once the foundation has been laid, beams and walls may be secured to the foundation, and then one may continue to build up from the foundation and from what has been secured to the foundation. Geometry is an edifice built on its fundamentals with logic, and the structure that is ultimately built is quite impressive.
  • Geometry is an abstract and rigorous way of thinking. (More will be made of this later.)
  • Geometry is about creative problem solving. The aforespoken edifice—or, more specifically, what is in that edifice—is used by the geometer as tools with which to solve problems. Problem solving—figuring out how to prove a theorem or do a construction (which is a special kind of theorem)—is a creative endeavor, as much as painting, musical improvisation, or writing (and I am writing as one who does mathematics, paints, improvises, and writes).

Imagine a dream where there are many pillars—some low, some high—all of which are too high to step up to, and all of which are wide enough to stand upon.

Now imagine someone dreaming this dream. That person looks at one of the pillars and asks, “Has anyone been on top of that pillar?” Then one of the Inhabitants of his dream answers, “No, nobody has been on top of that pillar.” Then the person looks at another of the pillars, which has a set of stairs next to it, and asks, “Has anyone been on top of that pillar over there?”. The answer is, “Yes, someone has, and has left behind a set of steps. You may take those steps and climb up on top of the pillar yourself, if you wish.”

And this person continues, and sees more pillars. Some of them stand alone, too high to step up to, and nobody has been to those. Others have had someone on top, and there is always a set of steps which the person left behind, by which he may climb up personally. And the steps go every which way—some go straight up, some go one way and then another, some seem to almost go sideways. Some are very strange. Some pillars have more than one set of steps. But all of them lead up to the top of the pillar.

The person dreaming may well have the impression that one gets atop a pillar by laying down one step, then another, then another, until one has assembled steps that reach to the top of the pillar. And, indeed, it is possible to climb the steps up to the pillars that others have gone to first.

But that impression is wrong.

And the person sees what really happens when the guide becomes very excited and says, “Look over there! There is a great athlete who is going to attempt a pillar that nobody has ever been atop!”

And the athlete runs, and jumps, and sails through the air, and lands on top of the pillar.

And when the athlete lands, there appears a set of stairs around the pillar. The athlete climbs up and down the stairs a few times to tidy them up for other people, but the stairs were produced, not by laying down slabs of stone one atop another, but by jumping.

Then the guide explained to the dreamer that the athlete had learned to jump not only by looking at the steps that others had left, but by jumping to other pillars that already had steps, instead of using the steps.

Then the dreamer woke up.

What does the story mean?

The pillars are mathematical facts, some proven and some unproven.

The pillars that stand alone are mathematical facts that nobody has proven.

The pillars that stand with steps leading up to them are mathematical facts that have been proven.

The steps are the steps of proofs, the little assertions. As some of the steps are bizarre, so are some proofs. As some pillars have more than one path of steps, so some facts have more than one known proof.

The leap is a flash of intuition, by which the mathematician knows which of many steps will take him where he wants to go.

As the steps appeared when the leap was made, so the proof appears when the flash of intuition comes. The athlete then tidied up the steps, as the mathematician writes down and clarifies the proof, but the proof comes from jumping, not from building one step on another.

The athlete was the mathematician.

Finally, the athlete became an athlete not only by climbing up and down existing steps, but also by jumping up to pillars that already had steps—one becomes skilled at making intuitive leaps, not only by learning existing proofs, but also by solving already proven problems as if there were no proof to read.

As one philosophy major commented to me, “Mathematicians do proofs, but they don’t use them.”

That flash of insight is the flash of inspiration that artists work under, and in this sense a mathematician is very similar to an artist. (What do a mathematician and an artist have in common? Both are pursuing beauty, to start with…)

This character of mathematics that is captured in geometry is true to geometry, but the actual form that it takes is largely irrelevant. Other branches of mathematics, properly taught, could accomplish just the same purpose, and for that matter could just as well replace geometry. Two other disciplines which draw heavily on applied mathematics, namely computer science and physics, have essentially the same strong points. I would hold no objections, for that matter, if high school geometry classes were replaced by strategy games like chess and go.

Mathematics is about puzzle solving; I would refer the reader to works such as Raymond Smullyan’s The Lady or the Tiger? and Colin Adams’s The Knot Book: an Elementary Introduction to the Mathematical theory of Knots. There are many people to whom mathematics is a recreation, consisting of the pleasure of solving puzzles. If mathematics is approached as memorizing incomprehensible formulas and hoping to have the good luck to guess the right formula at the right time, it will be a chore and a torture. If it is instead approached as puzzle solving, the activity will yield unexpected pleasure.

My father has a doctorate in

physics and teaches computer science. He has said, more than once, that he would like for all of his students to take physics before taking his classes. There is a very important and simple reason for this. It is not because he wants his students to program physics simulators, or because there is any direct application of the mathematics in physics to the computer science he teaches. There isn’t. It is because of the problem solving, the manner of thinking. It is because someone who has learned how to think in a way that is effective in physics, will be able to think in a way that is effective in computer science.

This applies to other disciplines as well. Ancient Greek philosophers, and medieval European theologians, made the study of geometry a prerequisite to the study of their respective disciplines. It was not because the constructions or theorems would be directly useful in making claims about the nature of God. Like physics and computer science, there was no direct application. But in order to study geometry, one had to be able to think rigorously, analytically, critically, logically, and abstractly.

Thinking logically and abstractly is an important discipline in life and in other academic disciplines that consist of thinking—it has been said that if you can do mathematics, you can do almost anything. The main reason mathematics is valuable to the non-mathematician is as a form of weight lifting for the mind. Even when the knowledge has no application, the finesse that’s learned can be useful.

To the non-mathematician, mathematics is a valuable discipline which offers practice in how to think well—both analytic thought and problem solving. Mathematics classes will most profitably be approached, not as “What is the formula I have to memorize,” but with ideas such as those enumerated here. The nonmathematician who approaches a mathematics class as an opportunity for disciplined thought and problem solving will do better, profit more, and maybe, just maybe, enjoy the course.

It is my the hope that this essay have provided the nonmathematician with an inkling of why it is profitable for people who aren’t going to be mathematicians to still study mathematics.

He Created Them Male and Female, Masculine and Feminine

Cover for Knights and Ladies, Women and Men

God is the Creator and Origin of all. Leaving out of address the Problem of Evil, there is nothing good which does not issue from him.

That stated, God does have the power to create something which is both new and good, a good which is not in himself. That is an implication of the extent to which he is the Creator.

I would point to the material, physical world as a prime example of this. We are created as carnal creatures, and that is good. It is a gift given to us, and any spirituality which shuns or disdains the physical is a lie.

The physical, though, was wholly created. In history, after the Creation in Eden, God the Son became incarnate by the virgin Mary, but now (God the Father and God the Holy Spirit) and then in the three persons of God, God (was) an aphysical spirit.

When I speak of God as being masculine and not feminine, I am not asserting that femininity is an evil characteristic, or unreal, or something else of that order. Femininity was created as good. I am simply speaking of God as being masculine and not feminine.


I think that the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang (although not perfect for this purpose — look far enough in writings, and you will find lots of weird mysticism that wanders from truth) is capable of illuminating the matter a great deal. (I will, rather than refute, simply leave out what is inconsistent with Christian teaching)

First of all, the thought of Yin and Yang is greatly present. Something highly similar is embodied in that the structure of most languages intrinsically speaks of masculine and feminine; if I were writing this in French, at least half of the words would be masculine or feminine. It is not another superficial detail; it is a manner in which the world is seen.

Yang is the masculine, active principle; Yin is the passive, feminine principle. In a landscape, Yang is the great mountain which thrusts out and stands because that is the nature of its solid presence; Yin is the flat land or the valley whose quiet nature is there. Yang is rough and solid, the might and majesty of an organ played sforzando, the deep echo of tympani, the firmness of a rock. Yin is the soft and supple, the peacefulness of an organ (key of F) played gedekt, the sweet resonance of a soprano voice, the pliancy of velvet and water. Yang is constant and immutable; Yin is conformant and polymorphic. Yang gives; Yin receives.

The relation between God and man is the relation between Yang and Yin.

God is HE WHO IS, the rock and foundation. In God is such power and authority that he commanded, “Let there be light,” and it was so. It is God whose mere presence causes mountains to melt like wax, at whose awesome presence the prophet Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me, for I am destroyed.”

God created a garden, and placed man in it, telling him to receive; he forbade eating one of the two trees in the center of the garden (the other was the Tree of Life) only after telling them to enjoy and eat freely of the trees.

Again to Noah, God gave salvation from the flood.

Abraham, God called.

Moses, God bestowed the Law.

David, God promised an heir.

Israel, God sent prophets and righteous men.

In the fullness of time, God sent his Son.

“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth. Yahweh Sabaoth is with us; The God of Jacob is our fortress.”

Righteousness is not something we earn; it is something Jesus earned for us when he offered one perfect sacrifice for all time. Works come because “we are sanctified by faith and faith alone, but faith which sanctifies is never alone.” The forgiveness of sins is a pure and undeserved gift; the power to obey, by the motion of the Spirit is a gift. All who accept and abide in these gifts will be presented spotless before God the Father, as the bride of Christ to feast with the bridegroom in glory, joy, and peace for all eternity. Christ, like the phoenix who dies only to shoot forth blazing in new glory, afire with the power of an indestructible life, offers this life to us, that we also may receive it.

The thread running through all of these things, through the words “Ask and receive, that your joy may be complete,” indeed through all of Scripture from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, is, “I love you. Receive.”

To ask if God is more like a man or more like a woman is a backwards question.

The answer instead begins by looking at God.

God is the ultimate Yang.

“All creatures embody Yin and embrace Yang.”

-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Man, next to God, is Yin. It is only in comparison with each other that the human male is Yang and the human female is Yin; both are very Yin in the shadow of God.

It is something of this that is found in the passages that most explicitly speak of the imago dei:

“God created man in his image; In the image of God he created him; Male and female he created them.”

Gen. 1:27

“With [the tongue], we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, made in God’s image.”

James 3:9

“…[the man] is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man…. In the Lord, however, man is not independant of woman, nor is woman independant of man. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.”

I Cor. 11:7-9, 11-12

Now, before I proceed, let me issue a clear statement that this does not bear an implication of murder of a woman is no big deal, men are moral entities but women are chattels, or some other such nonsense. The Golden Rule is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” not “Do unto other males as you would have them do unto you;” indeed, the Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s letters, etc. were addressed to women as well as men. I could devote space to a detailed explanation of why it is wrong to treat women as subhuman, but I do not think that that particular problem is great enough now (at least here/in formal thought) to need a refutation, although it certainly merits a sharp reproof when it does appear.

The picture painted is one of the male being a Yin-reflection of God, and (here in a manner which is not nearly so different, and is essentially equal) the female being a Yin-reflection of God and man.

It is all humanity to which obedience means being Yin to God’s Yang, being clay which is pliant and supple in the hands of the potter. It is, in my opinion, one of the great graces, along with becoming the sons and daughters of God, that the Church is/is to be the bride of Christ. (Note that in the Old Testament and the New Testament alike, the metaphor is quite specifically bride, not ‘spouse’ in a generic sense and never ‘husband’.)
The relation between God and man is the relation between Yang and Yin; God is more Yang than Yang. The difference dwarfs even the profound differences between human male and female. There is a sense in which the standard is the same; even in the passages in which Paul talks about this order, there is nothing of a man having a macho iron fist and a woman being a nauseating sex toy. Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as if to the Lord,” comes immediately after some words that are quite unfortunately far less cited: “Believers, submit to one another in love,” and the following words to husbands make an even higher call: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up to her.” Elucidation elsewhere (“Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them,” Col. 3:19) speaks at least as plainly; the passages addressed to wives telling them to submit are quite specifically addressed to wives, and not to husbands. The words, “Husbands, here is how you are to impose submission on your wives and keep them under control,” do not appear anywhere in Scripture.

To have a man who is macho and dominant, whose ideal of the ultimate form of manhood is Arnold Schwarzenegger carrying around a Gatling gun, or to have a woman who is wishy-washy and insubstantial, who is “so wonderfully free of the ravishes of intelligence” (Time Bandits), is disagreeable. It is, however, not at all disagreeable because “All people are essentially identical, but our phallocentric society has artificially imposed these unnatural gender differences.” It is not anything close to that.

It is rather that macho and wishy-washy both represent an exceedingly shallow, flattened out (per)version of masculinity or femininity. It is like the difference between an artificial cover of politeness and etiquette over a heart of ice, and a real and genuine love.

The solution is not to become unisex, but to move to a robust, three dimensional, profound, and true masculinity or femininity. There is a distinctly masculine, and a distinctly feminine way to embody virtue. It is like eating a hot casserole as contrasted to eating a cool piece of fruit: both are good and solidly nourishing, but they are different.

[note: I handwrote this document, and decided to type it later… a part of this next paragraph will have the same effect as Paul’s words, “See what large letters I am using as I write with my own hand,” in the tiny print of a pocket NIV… I am choosing to leave it in, because its thought contributes something even when the script is lost]

I know that I am not the perfect image of masculinity — there is a good deal of both macho and effeminacy in me — but there is one little thing of myself that I would like to draw attention to: my handwriting, the script in which this letter is written. It should be seen at a glance by anyone who thinks about it that this was written by a male; rather than the neat, round letters of a feminine script, this script bears fire and energy. I draw this to attention because it is one example of (in my case) masculinity showing itself in even a tiny detail.

A good part of growing mature is for a man to become truly masculine, and for a woman to grow truly feminine; it is also to be able to see masculinity and femininity.

Vive la différence!

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Knights and Ladies

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I would like to talk about men and women and the debate about whether we are genuinely different or whether this aspect of our bodies is just packaging that has no bearing on who we are. I would like to begin by talking about three things:

  • “Egalitarianism,” which says not only that men and women are due equal respect but the differences are differences of body only and not differences of mind, heart, and spirit.
  • “Complementarianism,” which says that there are real and personal differences, and men and women are meant to complement each other.
  • Why the debate between egalitarianism and complementarianism is like a car crash.

Egalitarianism, Complementarianism, and Car Crashes

I was in a theology class when the professor argued emphatically that for two claims to contradict each other, one must be the exact opposite of the other. With the example he gave, it sounded fairly impressive, and it took me a while to be able to explain my disagreement.

Saying, for one claim to contradict another, that one must be the exact opposite of the other, its mirror image, is like saying that you can only have an auto collision if the two cars are the same kind of car, with the same shape, and they must be perfectly aligned when they hit each other—because if there’s part of one car that doesn’t touch the other car, then there hasn’t been a real collision.

That is simply wrong. In the world of cars, only the tiniest fraction of collisions are two identical cars, hitting each other dead center to dead center. When there’s a collision, it is usually two different things which hit off center. And the same is true of ideas. Most collisions in the realm of ideas are two very different things, not mirror images. What happens is that one piece of one of them, perhaps the leftmost edge of the bumper, hits one piece of the other, and in both that one piece is connected to the whole structure. There is much more involved in the collision, on both sides, than that one little bit.

A debate many Christians care about, the debate between the feminist-like egalitarians and the more traditional complementarians, is interesting. (I’ll say ‘complementarian’ for now, even though I don’t like the term.) It is interesting as an example of a debate where the collision is not between mirror images. Egalitarianism is not the mirror image of complementarianism, and complementarianism is not the mirror image of egalitarianism. They are very different beasts from each other.

Although this is only the outer shell, egalitarians are usually better communicators than complementarians. Most egalitarians make an explicit claim and communicate it very powerfully. Complementarians usually have trouble explaining their position, let alone presenting it as compellingly as egalitarians do. This has the effect that people on both sides have a much clearer picture of what egalitarian stands for than what complementarianism stands for. The egalitarian claim is often backed by a coherent argument, while the complementarian claim may have Biblical proof texts but often has little else.

I would like to try and suggest what complementarians have so much trouble explaining.

Colors

When I took a cognitive science class, the professor explained a problem for cognitive science: ‘qualia’. A computer can represent red and green as two different things. As far as theory problems go, that’s easy to take care of. The problem is that the computer knows red and green are different only as we can know that two numbers are different. It can’t deal with the redness of the red or the greenness of the green: in other words it lacks qualia. It can know things are different, but not experience them as really, qualitatively different.

Some people can only hear complementarianism as rationalising, “White is brighter than black.” Yet it is foundationally a claim of, “Red is red and green is green.”

I don’t like the term ‘complementarian.’ It tells part of the truth, but not enough—a property you can see, but not the essence. I would suggest the term ‘qualitarian,’ for a belief in qualia and qualitative differences. The term’s not perfect either, but it’s describing some of the substance rather than detail. From here on I’ll say ‘qualitarian’ rather than ‘complementarian’ to emphasise that there are qualia involved.

With that mentioned, I’d like to make the most unpalatable of my claims next, and hope that if the reader will be generous enough not to write me off yet, I may be able to make some coherent sense.

The Great Chain of Being

This is something that was important to many Christians and which encapsulates a way of looking on the world that can be understood, but takes effort.

God

Angels

Humans

Animals

Plants

Rocks

Nothing

The Great Chain of Being was believed for centuries. When the people who believed it were beginning to think like moderns, the Great Chain of Being began to look like the corporate ladder. If there were things above you, you wanted to climb higher because it’s not OK to be you if someone else is higher than you. If there were things above you, you wanted to look down and sneer because there was something wrong with anything below you. That’s how heirarchy looks if the only way you can understand it is as a copy of the corporate ladder.

Before then, people saw it differently. To be somewhere in the middle of the great order was neither a reason to scorn lower things nor covet higher places. Instead, there was a sense of connection. If we are the highest part of the physical creation, then we are to be its custodian and in a real sense its representative. If we are spirits as well, we are not squashed by the fact that God is above us; the one we should worship looks on us in love.

Unlike them, our culture has had centuries of democracy and waving the banner of equality so high we can forget there are other banners to wave. We strive for equality so hard that it’s easy to forget that there can be other kinds of good.

The Great Chain of Being is never explained in the Bible, but it comes out of a certain kind of mindset, a mindset better equipped to deal with certain things.

There’s an old joke about two people running from a bear. One stops to put on shoes. The other says, “What are you doing?” The first says, “I’m stopping to put on tennis shoes.” The second says, “You can’t outrun the bear!” “I don’t need to outrun the bear. I only need to outrun you.”

One might imagine a medieval speaking with a postmodern. The medieval stands in his niche in the Great Chain of Being and stops. The postmodern says, “Why are you stopping?” The medieval says, “I want to enjoy the glorious place God has granted me in the Great Chain of Being.” The postmodern says, “How can you be happy with that? There are others above you.” The medieval says, “Not all of life is running from a bear.”

What am I trying to say? Am I saying, for instance, that a man is as high above a woman as God is above an angel? No. All people—men, women, young, old, infant, red, yellow, black, white—are placed at the same spot on the Great Chain of Being.

The Bible deals with a paradox that may be called “equality with distinction”. Paul writes that “In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek”, yet claims that the advantage of the Jew is “much in every way.” Biblical thinking has room to declare both an equality at deepest level—such as exists between men and women—and recognize a distinction. There is no need to culturally argue one away to defend the other. Both are part of the truth. It is good to be part of a Creation that is multilayered, with inequality and not equality between the layers. If this is so, how much more should we be able to consider distinction with fundamental equality without reading the distinction as the corporate ladder’s abrasive inequality?

One writer talked about equality in relation to containers being full. To modify her image, Christianity wants all of us to be as full as possible. However, it does not want a red paint can to be filled with green paint, nor a green paint can to be filled with red paint. It wants the red and green paint cans to be equally full, but does not conclude that the green can is only full if it has the same volume of red paint as the red paint can. It desires equality in the sense of everyone being full, but does not desire e-qual-ity (being without a qual-itative difference), in the sense of qualia being violated.

Zen and the Art of Un-Framing Questions

May we legitimately project man-like attributes up on to God?

Before answering that question, I’d like to suggest that there are assumptions made by the time that question is asked. The biggest one is that God is gender-neutral, and so any talking about God as masculine is projecting something foreign up on to him.

The qualitarian claim is not that we may legitimately project man-like attributes up on to God. It is that God has projected God-like attributes down on to men. Those are different claims.

A feminist theologian said to a master, “I think it is important that we keep an open mind and avoid confining God to traditional categories of gender.”

The master said, “Of course. Why let God reveal himself as masculine when you can confine him to your canons of political correctness?”

I can’t shake a vision of an articulate qualitarian giving disturbing answers to someone’s questions and sounding like an annoying imitation of a Zen master:

Interlocutor:
What would you say to, “A woman’s place is in the House—and in the Senate!”?

Articulate Qualitarian:
Well, if we’re talking about disrespectful, misogysnistic… Wait a minute… Let me respond to the intention behind your question.

Do you know the Bible story about the Woman at the Well?

Interlocutor:
Yes! It’s one of my favorite stories.

Articulate Qualitarian:
Do you know its cultural context?

Interlocutor:
Not really.

Articulate Qualitarian:
Most Bible stories—including this one—speak for themselves. A few of them are much richer if you know cultural details that make certain things significant.

Every recorded interaction between Jesus and women, Jesus broke rules. To start off, a rabbi wasn’t supposed to talk with women. But Jesus really broke the rules here.

When a lone woman came out and he asked for water, she was shocked enough to ask why he did so. And there’s something to her being alone.

Drawing water was a communal women’s task. The women of the village would come and draw water together; there was a reason why this woman was alone: no one would be caught dead with her. Everyone knew that she was the village slut.

Her life was dominated by shame. When Jesus said, “…never thirst again,” she heard an escape from shamefully drawing water alone, and she asked Jesus to help her hide from it. When he said to call her husband, she gave an evasive and ambiguous reply. He gave a very blunt response: “You are right in saying you have no husband, for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”

Yowch.

Instead of helping her run from her shame, Jesus pulled her through it, and she came out the other side, running without any shame, calling, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!”

There’s much more, but I want to delve into one specific detail: there was something abnormal about her drawing water alone. Drawing water was women’s work. Women’s work was backbreaking toil—as was men’s work—but it was not done in isolation. It was something done in the company of other people.

It’s not just that one culture. There are old European paintings that show a group of women, bent over their washboards, talking and talking. Maybe I’m just romanticizing because I haven’t felt how rough washboards are to fingers. But I have a growing doubt that labor-saving devices are all they’re cracked up to be. Vacuum cleaners were introduced as a way to lessen the work in the twice-annual task of beating rugs. Somehow each phenomenal new labor-saving technology seems to leave housewives with even more drudgery.

I have sympathy for feminists who say that women are better off doing professional work in community than doing housework in solitary confinement. I think feminists are probably right that the Leave It to Beaver arrangement causes women to be lonely and depressed. (I’m not sure that “Turn the clock back, all the way back, to 1954!” represents the best achievement conservatives can claim.)

The traditional arrangement is not Mom, Dad, two kids, and nothing more. Across quite a lot of cultures and quite a lot of history, the usual pattern has kept extended families together (seeing Grandma didn’t involve interstate travel), and made those extended families part of an integrated community. From what I’ve read, women are happier in intentional communities like Reba Place.

Interlocutor:
Do you support the enfranchisement of women?

Articulate Qualitarian:
Let me visit the dict.org website. Webster’s 1913 says:

      Enfranchisement \En*fran"chise*ment\, n.
         1. Releasing from slavery or custody. —Shak.
  
         2. Admission to the freedom of a corporation or body politic;
            investiture with the privileges of free citizens.

         Enfranchisement of copyhold (Eng. Law), the conversion of a
            copyhold estate into a freehold. —Mozley & W.

WordNet seems less helpful; it doesn’t really mention the sense you want.

      enfranchisement
           1: freedom from political subjugation or servitude
           2: the act of certifying [syn: certification] [ant: disenfranchisement]

If I were preaching on your question, I might do a Greek-style exegesis and say that your choice of languages fuses the egalitarian request to grant XYZ with the insinuation that their opponents’ practice is equivalent to slavery. Wow.

I think you’re using loaded language. Would you be willing to restate your question in less loaded terms?

Interlocutor:
Ok, I’ll ask a different way, but will you promise not to answer with a word-study?

Articulate Qualitarian:
Ok, I won’t answer with a word-study unless you ask.

Interlocutor:
Do you believe that women have the same long list of rights as men?

Articulate Qualitarian:
Hmm… I’m trying to think about how to answer this without being misleading…

Interlocutor:
Please answer me literally.

Articulate Qualitarian:
I’m afraid I’m going to have to say, “No.”

Interlocutor:
But you at least believe that women have some rights, correct?

Articulate Qualitarian:
No.

Interlocutor:
What?!?

Articulate Qualitarian:
I said I wouldn’t give a word-study…

Is it OK if I give a comparable study of a concept?

Interlocutor:
[Quietly counts to ten and takes a deep breath:] Ok.

Articulate Qualitarian:
I don’t believe that women have any rights. I don’t believe that men have any rights, either. The Bible doesn’t use rights like we do. It answers plenty of questions we try to solve with rights: it says we shouldn’t murder, steal, and so on. But the older Biblical way of doing this said, “Don’t do this,” or “Be like Christ,” or something like that.

Then this really odd moral framework based on rights came along, and all of a sudden there wasn’t a universal law against unjustified killing, but an entitlement not to be killed. At first it seemed not to make much difference. But now more and more of our moral reasoning is in terms of ‘rights’, which increasingly say, not “Don’t do this,” or “You must do that,” but “Here’s the long list of entitlements that the universe owes me.” And that has meant some truly strange things.

In the context of the concrete issues that qualitarians discuss with egalitarians, the Biblical concept of seeking the good of all is quietly remade into seeking the enfranchisement of all, and so it seems that the big question is whether women get the same rights as men—quite apart from the kind of situation where language comparing your opponents’ behavior to slavery is considered polite.

Interlocutor:
Couldn’t we listen to, say, Eastern Philosophy?

Articulate Qualitarian:
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in Eastern philosophy. The contrast between Confucian and Taoist concepts of virtue, for instance, is interesting and worth exploring, especially in this nexus. I’m really drawing a blank as to how one could get a rights-based framework from Asian philosophy. And I’m not sure African mindsets would be much more of a help, for instance. Even if you read one Kwaanza pamphlet, it’s hard to see how individual rights could come from the seven African values. The value of Ujima, or collective work and responsibility, speaks even less of individual rights than, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Interlocutor:
Ok, let me change the subject slightly. Would you acknowledge that Paul was a progressive?

Articulate Qualitarian:
Hmm… reminds me of a C.S. Lewis book in which Lewis quotes a medieval author. The author is talking about some important Greek philosopher and says, “Now when we come to a difficulty or ambiguity, we should always ascribe the views most worthy of a man of his stature.”

Lewis’s big complaint was that this kind of respect always reads into an author the biases and assumptions of the reader’s age. It honors the author enough to think he believed what we call important, but not enough that the author can disagree with our assumptions and be able to correct us.

When we ask if Paul is a progressive, there are two basic options. Either we say that Paul was not a progressive, and relegate him to our understanding of a misogynist, or we generously overlook a passage here and there and generously include him as one of our progressives.

It seems that neither response allows Paul to be an authority who knows something we don’t.

On second thought, maybe it’s a good thing there aren’t too many articulate qualitarians.

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus… and Gender Psychologists are from the Moon

When pop psychology talks about gender, it is trying to make academic knowledge available to the rest of us. An academic textbook by Em Griffin illustrates Deborah Tannen’s theories, saying, “Jan hopes she’s marrying a ‘big ear’.” This thread is picked up very well in popular works.

William Harley’s His Needs, Her Needs is a sort of Christianized Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Harley devotes a full chapter to explaining that one of the most foundational needs for a husband to understand is a woman’s need for listening. He devotes a full chapter to convincing husbands that it is essential that they listen to everything their wives want to say. It was perhaps because reading this work (and Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, part of You Just Don’t Understand, etc.) that I was shocked when I reread C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. It was much more than Mother Dimble’s words, “Husbands were made to be talked to. It helps them concentrate their minds on what they’re reading…”

The shock was deep. It wasn’t like having a rug pulled out from under your feet. It was more like standing with your feet on bare floor and having the floor pulled out from under your feet.

The gender books I’d read, both Christian and non-Christian, made a seamless fusion of the basic raw material, and one particular interpretation. The interpretation was as hard to doubt as the raw material itself—and one couldn’t really see the fusion as something thatcan be questioned. It was like looking at a number of startlingly accurate pictures of scenes on earth—and then realising that all the pictures were taken from the moon.

That Hideous Strength suggests an answer to the question, “How else could it be?” I’m hesitant to suggest everyone else will have the same experience, but…

If we look at a Hollywood movie targeting young men, there will be violent action, a fast pace, and a sense of adventure. A movie made for young women will have people talking and delving into emotions as they grow closer, as they grow into more mature relationships. If we sum these up in a single word, the men’s movie is full of action, and the women’s movie is filled with relationship.

Aristotle characterized masculinity as active and femininity as passive. It seems clear to me that he was grappling with a real thing, the same thing that shapes our movie offerings. It also seems clear that he didn’t quite get it right. Masculinity is active. That much is correct. But femininity is not described by the absence of such action. It’s described by the presence of relationship. It seems that the following can be said:

  • Aristotle was grappling with, and trying to understand, something real.
  • Even though he’s observing something real, his interpretation was skewed.

These two things didn’t stop with Aristotle. If a thinker as brilliant as Aristotle fell into this trap, maybe gender psychology is also liable to stumble this way, too. (Or at least today’s gender psychology stumbles this way. If you’re willing to listen to people who look and talk a bit different and are a bit older than us, Charles Shedd’s Letters to Karen and Letters to Philip are examples of slightly older books worth the time to look at.)

Christian Teaching

About this point, I expect a question like, “Ok, men reflect the masculine side of God. But don’t you have a place for femininity, and can’t women reflect the feminine side of God?”

This is a serious question, and it reflects a serious concern. Many Hindus believe that everything is either part of God or evil: your inmost spirit is a real part of God, and your body is intrinsically evil and illusory like everything else physical. I’m told that Genesis 1 was quite a shocker when it appeared—not, so much, because it says we’re made in the image of God, but because after the stars, rocks, plants, and animals were created, the text keeps on saying, “And God saw that it was good.” That’s really a staggering suggestion, if you knew the other nations’ creation stories. The Babylonians believed that the god Marduk killed the demoness Tiamat, tore her dragon carcass apart, and made half of it the land and half of it the sky. So your body and mine, every forest, every star, is part of a demon’s carcass that happens to be left over after a battle.

Please think about this claim for a minute, and then look at part of Genesis 1:

  • Creation didn’t happen as a secondary result of divine combat. God created the world because he specifically wanted to do so.
  • Physical matter, and life, and everything else, is good.
  • God made us in his image. Only then was his creation very good, and complete.

One thing that comes out of these things is that God can create good. God created the physical world without being physical. Our bodies, indeed the whole natural world, are good, because God created something outside of himself. Femininity is like this, only much more so. Femininity is a created good, and it is much more beautiful, more mysterious, more wondrous, more powerful thing than physical matter. People are the unique creation where matter meets spirit—no other creation can claim that. Women are the unique point where spirit meets the very apex of femininity.

Every woman is a mystery, and every man is a king. To be a Christian man is to be made like the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. There is something kingly and lordly about manhood. Part of this is understood when you realize that this does not mean domineering other people and standing above them, but standing under them, like the servant king who washed feet. The sign and sigil of male authority is not a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns.

But all this is a hint. I give sketch here and there, and I hope less to provide an inescapable logical framework than suggest entry points that can look into the Bible and see these things.

I’d like to give a glimpse of the qualities:

Qualia

Lord Adam, Dragonslayer

If you could see Adam, you would see a knight, in burnished armor brightly gleaming, astride a white horse. What you wouldn’t see is why the armor shines brightly. It is not burnished by him, nor any other human hands, but the claws of the dragons he wars against. Under his helmet is a lion’s mane of thick hair and beard. Under his breastplate are scars, some quite close to his heart.

This knight errant yearns for quests. Something difficult, something dangerous, something active. Some place to prove himself by serving in a costly way. He longs for that battle when his blood will mingle with that of his fellow warriors and he may at last embark on the last great adventure.

He has a lord above him, to whom he owes allegiance and honor. He is also a mentor, turning his face to a squires whom he focuses on and draws up. He draws them, as he was drawn, out of the comfort of home, into the mysteries of life, and into the company of men and society to reconnect more deeply. He has tried to explain that siring a child is something an impudent youth can do, but being a spiritual father is the mark of a man.

Once his mind is on a task, it moves forward from beginning to end. It moves with the force of an avalanche. He does one task at a time, and wants to do it well.

There is another side to his seriousness. He can be deadly serious, but there is a merry twinkle in his eye. His force and his energy are too much to contain, and he is capable of catching people off guard. (Especially in his practical jokes.) Like the lion, he is not safe and not tame; he is both serious and silly, and can astound in both. When he plays with children, playing with him is both like playing with a kitten and playing with a thunderstorm.

To his lady Adam turns with reverence. She is a wonder to him. The extravagance of the quests she bids him and he embarks on, is a spectacular offshoot of his more quiet service in private. Though Adam would never see it this way, he is taller when he bows and kisses her hand, and richer when he gives her a costly gift.

His honor is his life, and wants to live and act as a son of God. He believes that faithworks, and strives to show virtue and behave in a manner worthy of Christ.

Favorite Scripture Passage:
“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.”

A Quote:
“God, give me mountains to climb and the strength for climbing.”

Lady Eve, Poet’s Heart

If you could see Eve at her best, she would be beside a fire, inside a great hall. She would be stoking a fire with one hand, another hand would call forth forth music from a silver harp, another hand would be writing a letter, and she would use both hands to embrace the sorrowing child on her lap in comforting love. And she would do this lightly, joyfully, with a smile from the other side of pain. Though Eve sits still, one can almost see her dancing. It would take time to see all her many layers of beauty… if that were even possible. What is the secret behind her enigmatic smile? What deep mysteries lie hidden in her heart of hearts?

Her beauty is as a rose: a ladder of thorns leads up to a flower so exquisite as to be called God’s autograph. She toils hard, and it is difficult to see lines of pain in her face only because she has worked through them so that they have become part of her joy. She knows a mother’s worry, and she looks on others with a mother’s caring eyes. She looks with the joy on the other side of sorrow.

Her home is her castle, and it is a castle she tries to run well. Adam… well, dear man as he is, he isn’t very good with managing resources. She runs the castle in an orderly and efficient manner, and as the lady in charge, she handles well a great many things that her lord wouldn’t know how to begin doing. The castle is their castle, of course, but there are things that need attending to so that Adam can continue slaying dragons. Yet to say that is to put last things first. The reason she handles so many taxing details is that Adam is the light of her life, her king and her lord, her bright morning star.

She turns to her loom as a place to make wall hangings. At least, that’s what someone would say if he missed the point completely. She makes beautiful wall hangings, but there’s more.

The loom is a centering place for her, a quieting place. After other things happen that take processing, she settles into that peace. Her heart is quieted as she lets it all sort out.

That quieting is not far from her mystic’s heart. She is mystery and lives in connection with the mystery of faith. There is One she is closer to than her lord, and presence, mystical communion, dwelling in the presence of the divine, is precious to her.

Favorite Scripture Passage:
“Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

A Quote:
“Little surprises and big hugs and kisses.
Musical dances and bright reminisces,
Quiet with stories and roast leg of lamb,
People who value me for who I am,
Something to say and someone who will hear it,
A home in good order and a mystical spirit,
Warm fireside chats and a minstrel who sings,
These are a few of my favorite things.”

CJS Hayward, with thanks to Martin, Phil, Mary, Xenia, Patrick, Yoby, Mom, and Kathryn.

Read more of Knights and Ladies, Women and Men on Amazon!

The Incarnation: Orthodoxy, Islam, and the Reformation

The central, root difference between Orthodoxy and Islam is that Orthodoxy affirms the Incarnation wholeheartedly and Islam wholeheartedly denies it. If you want to see what difference believing or not believing in the Incarnation makes, look at the differences between Orthodoxy and Islam.

As a point of departure, I would like to look at something about Islam that is not entirely obvious to many people in the West. As I write, the U.S. is involved in Iraq and this issue looms large in not only U.S. but world politics. I don’t want to write lengthy comments on whether war is ever appropriate, or, if war can be appropriate, whether there were appropriate reasons for the U.S. to fight, or whether or not the U.S. has brought genuine good things to the Iraqi populace, or exposing inhuman treatment of prisoners. Those may be well enough worth discussing, but the single issue that concerns me here is the U.S. endeavor to endow Iraq with “freedom and democracy.”

That rally, that cry—to bring “freedom and democracy” to Iraq—had me wincing well before I heard about Guantanamo Bay. Quite simply, there is a more profound cultural insensitivity in trying to bestow democracy on part of the Islamic world than one can easily explain. It is obvious enough that starting a rumor about flushing the Quran down a toilet is patently offensive. What is harder to explain is why trying to install democracy may be a bigger gaffe.

What in Islam could be offended by democracy? The answer is a first glimpse of what difference the Incarnation makes, but the connection is not at surface level.

Western observers in the Islamic world talk of an “IBM,” an acronym for inshallah, meaning, “It will happen if Allah wills it and it will not happen if Allah does not will it, and you don’t really have much say in whether Allah wills it,” bukra, meaning, “Tomorrow; it can be done tomorrow; it need not be done today,” and malesh, meaning, “It was fated; it was doomed to happen that way.” When you understand inshallah, bukra, malesh, you understand something that runs very deep in Muslim culture.

G.K. Chesterton, in Heretics, writes a chapter called Omar Khayyam and the Sacred Vine. Omar Khayyam was a 12th century Iranian thinker who studied under a famous Imam, but is not necessarily the image of a good, devout Muslim: he was a renegade Muslim, if he really was a Muslim, and the point Chesterton is trying to make is a criticism of Omar who (on Chesterton’s indictment) advocates heavy wine-drinking to blot out a miserable universe. Chesterton writes:

Of course, the great part of the more stolid reproaches directed against the Omarite morality are as false and babyish as such reproaches usually are. One critic, whose work I have read, had the incredible foolishness to call Omar an atheist and a materialist. It is almost impossible for an Oriental to be either; the East understands metaphysics too well for that. Of course, the real objection which a philosophical Christian would bring against the religion of Omar, is not that he gives no place to God, it is that he gives too much place to God. His is that terrible theism which can imagine nothing else but deity, and which denies altogether the outlines of human personality and human will.

“The ball no question makes of Ayes or Noes,
But Here or There as strikes the Player goes;
And He that tossed you down into the field,
He knows about it all—he knows—he knows.”

A Christian thinker such as Augustine or Dante would object to this because it ignores free-will, which is the valour and dignity of the soul. The quarrel of the highest Christianity with this scepticism is not in the least that the scepticism denies the existence of God; it is that it denies the existence of man.

In this aspect, Omar retains something significant from Islam. Renegade as he may be, there is something from Islam deep in his bones: God, the Player, will act as he will, and it is a fundamental error to think that our Yes or No makes a difference. And even in a renegade Muslim with little respect for popular piety, this foundational attitude remains.

By contrast, as I write, Today’s Vile Attack on Christianity is Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and ilk, and it would be a stretched argument to say that Pullman is trying to be Christian. Far from it; he provides Today’s Vile Attack on Christianity, but there is something very different from Khayyam. Pullman retains a profoundly Christian assumption: that his actions matter, that he can make a difference in the world. No one I’ve read has suggested that Pullman is fatalistic and treats the religious beliefs he hates as doomed to be there and that no endeavor he could make would matter or make a difference.

Philip Pullman is a renegade against popular Christianity, and Omar Khayyam is a lesser renegade against popular Islam, but they both retain something significant of the piety they rebel against. Pullman, on a very deep level, lives out the Christian belief that his Yes or No in fact matters for something, and Omar retains unchallenged the understanding that God alone may say Yes or No. This is the same conviction in the inshallah, bukra, malesh that it is not our place to say Yes or No, or at least say a Yes or No that makes an actual difference.

If it is not our place to say Yes or No, then what is democracy? Democracy can take some different forms, but its basic premise is that people can and should say a Yes or No that amounts to something, and whether it is a direct democracy, a representative democracy, or something else, the root idea is to empower people to say Yes or No… which, in other words, is to usurp the office of God in the eyes of many Muslims.

As far as insensitivity goes, the nearest equivalent I have been able to think of if someone were to conquer the U.S., would be decide that the best thing for our traditions would be to install a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. And that still does not capture an offense of a political assumption that, on many Muslim understandings, amounts to blasphemy.

If you want to know what this has to do with the Incarnation, let me ask you a question: What does the Incarnation mean if we are denied the freedom to say a significant Yes or No, if it is the very opposite of the truth to say that God created us to be his conversation partners?

One of the biggest things it means is that, if Christ had freedom to issue a real and significant Yes or No, this is as a special exception because he was God that does not have a direct bearing on our lives. If Christ alone had real freedom, the truth of this is a philosophical truth but not a practical truth that directly helps us live human lives. Christ’s divinity is not connected to our humanity, and it turns out that his humanity is dubiously connected to our humanity: which is to say, we are somewhat short of the Incarnation.

History may forget most people whom it does not call movers and shakers; God has numbered the hairs on our heads, and he forever remembers every person who has ever lived and indeed every action, every choice, every Yes or No as eternally significant choices as we choose between Heaven and Hell. This is to say that our freedom matters, and if Christ made a holy exercise of his freedom, this is the supreme example of human freedom with every relevance to our lives: an Incarnation that is not simply a philosophical truth, but has practical relevance to daily living.

More explicitly, the Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation is not, “Something that had not happened one second before the Annunciation when Mary conceived the Son of God, and something that was completely finished one second after that conception.” That almost approaches saying that building the United States of America was something that had not started one second before the first person signed the Declaration of Independence, and something that left nothing more to do one second after the last person signed that Declaration. Or it is like saying that once an inventor has a working prototype of some invention, all the real work has been taken care of—with no mention of the work that had to take place each time an invention like the light bulb, the car, or the computer became no longer a curiosity in an inventor’s lab, but saw widespread use in the community at large. It is a fundamental mistake to read the Bible, and read about the Church as the body of Christ, among other things, and think that the Incarnation ends with the Son of God becoming fully man in the conception of the Annunciation, and does not include Christ becoming Incarnate in the Church. The Incarnation is ultimately the Incarnation of Christ in the Church, in Christians whom the Bible rightly calls sons of God, and finally the whole Creation.

Once it is understood that we are created to be part of Christ’s Incarnation unfolding, that we are created to be co-workers with God and co-heirs with Christ, given a freedom to which God assigns eternal significance and created for the express purpose of being God’s conversation partners, then it may be easier to see that Islam with its inshallah, bukra, malesh and its renegade proclaiming—

The ball no question makes of Ayes or Noes,
But Here or There as strikes the Player goes;
And He that tossed you down into the field,
He knows about it all—he knows—he knows.

—then it is possible to see that the denial that we are given the place to say Yes or No is not random; it is part of the logic working out in Islam’s fundamental rejection of the Incarnation.

Now I would like to introduce another point. Is Islam better at being monotheist than Trinitarian Christianity? I would like to give an image for that.

I’ve heard the image that it is a fundamental error to say, excluding created spirits, that someone who doesn’t believe in God would count the number of items in the universe, everything from galaxies down to protons, and arrive at a number—let us say, 1,000,000,000,000,000—and the person who believes in God simply arrives at one more—let us say, 1,000,000,000,000,001: the person who doesn’t believe in God arrives at one number, and the person who does believe in God simply counts one more.

That error has been called idolatry; it’s the same kind of error as going into a plant that manufactures Bibles, and after being shown the machines that lay out the paper and the printers that lay down ink, asking to be shown, alongside the paper and ink, the spiritual authority that is being put into the Bibles. The spiritual value of the Bible is not the sort of thing that is ordered as a material used to make Bibles, and it is a fundamental error to ask to be shown the spiritual meaning the same way one could ask to be shown the glue or cloth materials used for binding. It is something of the same kind of error in thinking that God is one more thing that can be counted as material objects are counted—and Orthodoxy and Islam alike would really wince at the idea that God is one more thing that lets you reach a total of 1,000,000,000,000,001 objects in your counting.

The next step of this argument is as follows: if material counting is something you misuse by applying it to God, then denying that the Trinity is still one God may be the same kind of error as counting God as one more physical thing. God is beyond material counting, but this means more than denying “God is one more thing.” It may mean that if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God, the Oneness of God is so great that it is uninjured even by the Incarnation of God the Son. If the Oneness of God is on a higher plane my having one pen on my desk, perhaps it is on high enough of a plane that it is not threatened by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being the One God.

God is transcendent: he transcends, is beyond, anything and everything to be found in all creation. That is part of why, when we say that God is One, we mean something different from counting one pen—and something deeper. And part of this transcendence is something like heat. Depending on how tough we are, we might, or might not, be able to pick something up after it is hot from prolonged sunlight. Few of us would want to pick up a heavy black crowbar that has been soaking in summer sun and heat on the asphalt. Most of us want oven mitts, or some surrogate like a folded towel, to pick up something that has been in a hot 450° oven—it’s too hot to touch with bare hands. But even a good oven mitt has limits: I would not want, even with the best oven mitt I’ve used, to reach into a blacksmith’s furnace and pull out a large piece of iron so hot that it’s getting mushy. But there is something about the one God that is transcendently hot: hotter than red-hot iron, hotter than white-hot iron, hotter than a river of rapidly boiling steel, hotter than the heart of the sun, hotter than the Big Bang. The transcendent God is hotter than the heat of fire, plasma, and the Big Bang.

Many of the controversies in early centuries of the Christian Church were about Christ as the bridge between God and his Creation—because if the divine nature is of such heat, then the Creation needs an oven mitt to be in contact with its Creator. Arius proposed one solution, that the oven mitt was the foremost and unique creation. The Orthodox response was that this wasn’t good enough: a created oven mitt could insulate against a created heat, but only a truly transcendent bridge, or oven mitt, or mediator, could allow us to meet God without being destroyed: not only the fiery coal, but the oven mitt must be absolutely and fully divine. And here we can glimpse why the Orthodox Church found Trinitarian theology so necessary: she found, in fact, that the one God, if the logic is worked out and he is properly understood, to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that the doctrine of the Trinity is the radical understanding of the One God.

I mention this to guard against a reaction some may have: the reaction that says that Islam really believes in one God, while Christianity has to cross its fingers to say that. Now let me continue:

There are some people who believe that Islam is later than Christianity and extends Christian beliefs: Islam is Christianity with things added. This is quite the opposite of the truth! One way to see beyond this point is to ask the question, “What is said in Islamic worship that an Orthodox would wince at saying? And what is said in Orthodox worship that a Muslim might wince at?”

There are a number of things in Islamic worship that an Orthodox would believe: God is said to be One, to be merciful, to be the Creator of the world, and so on and so forth, and all of this the Orthodox believes. What the Orthodox would not be able to say, in good conscience, is that Muhammed is God’s Prophet. That would come close to the one thing that an Orthodox would squirm about agreeing to.

Now what about a Muslim in an Orthodox “divine liturgy”? God is said to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mary is praised as the Mother of God, icons are warp and woof to worship, and saints, perhaps called divine, share in the glory of God. Even the term “divine liturgy” may not be liked. And each of these is related to the Incarnation.

The Orthodox Church realized the doctrine of the Trinity as something it could not deny, precisely in the wake of wrestling with questions about the Incarnation. Perhaps it would be doubtful to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is a mere part of the doctrine of the Incarnation. What would not be doubtful is to say that the doctrine of the Trinity was articulated out of the Orthodox Church wrestling with heresies which gave a deficient understanding of the Incarnation. The Church proclaimed the doctrine of the Trinity after affirming what might be called “maximum Christology,” that Christ was everything he could be: maximally divine, maximally human, maximally united, and maximally preserving the divine and human even as they were united.

Now we get into territory some Protestants may be uncomfortable with: the great and scandalous phrase, “Mother of God.” Some may be eager to point out that “Mother of God” reflects a Greek term, theotokos, which might more accurately be translated as “Birth-Giver of God,” as “tokos” refers to birth better than the full freight of the English “mother.” In fact one could go further: “tokos,” in Greek, is a word used to describe both the person who gives birth and the one who is born, and on out-of-context, legalistic grounds, “theotokos” could mean “the one to whom God gave birth,” and one could make a mirror image of that switch to say that Christ, o prototokos twn nekrwn (Rev. 1:5), is “the dead’s chief birthgiver,” dodging the more sensible and customary rendering that he is “the firstborn from among the dead.”

This kind of cleverness is all very nice, but it is unhelpful in understanding the theology. The reason the term “theotokos” is significant is something that happened in Arius’s wake. Arius said that Christ was “a creature, but not as one of the creatures,” a unique first creature through whom God created every other, lesser creature. The Church’s response was, in essence, “If that is Christ, he is an oven mitt that will be incinerated if it touches the divine fire. Not good enough.” In Arius’s wake, it was clearly on the table that Christ had to be considered fully divine, and fully human. But one person, Nestorius, said that Christ was fully divine and fully human, but not quite fully united. The controversy came to a head when Nestorius said that Mary could and should be called, “christotokos,” “Mother of Christ,” but that it was absolutely inappropriate to call her “theotokos,” “Mother of God.” The verdict of the Church was that Nestorius had divided the Christ, because he would let the Mother of Jesus be called the Mother of Christ, but he denied that Christ was united enough that you could actually go so far as to say that she was simply the Mother of God.

The decision to call Mary the Mother of God is a move to protect the unity of Christ—that what could be said of the man Jesus could be said of God the Son, and what could be said of the Son of God could be said of the man Jesus. This is why some Christians speak—correctly—of the crucified God, because Christ is so united that it was inescapably God who was crucified if Jesus was crucified, and by the same token Christians insisted on speaking of God the Son, because Christ is so united that it is inescapably God who was born in her womb if she was the Mother of Jesus.

The reason Nestorius could only call Mary the Mother of Christ, and not the Mother of God, was because his christology drove a wedge between Jesus the man and God the Son that caused him to pull back from the full force of “theotokos.” Is it a valid response to try to be picky about the Greek and say that “theotokos” is really more accurately translated “Bearer of God”? If you’re really that concerned about linguistics and Greek, possibly, but in my experience that kind of argument is a matter of “Everybody has two reasons for everything he does—a good reason, and the real reason.” The good reason is a linguistic concern that goes above and beyond the call of duty of meticulous precision in translation… but a real reason is one of the fixations, almost one of the theological allergies, that arose out of the medieval Catholic West being very concerned about ferreting out idolatry, that Mary the theotokos receives reverence that God alone should receive. This is a sensible enough objection, if you forget how far Incarnation goes: Mary the theotokos gave Christ his humanity, and he gave her something in the exchange. But the force of the argument may leave it legitimate in English to call Mary “the Bearer of God,” but provides no theological justification to say, “On a purely material level, I have to acknowledge that Mary gave birth to God, but I am absolutely not going to say that Mary exercised the spiritual office of motherhood to the God to whom I technically have to acknowledge she gave birth.” If the theology is acknowledged that is behind saying that Mary gave birth to God, full stop, it is by the same argument necessary to say that she exercised the full human and spiritual office of motherhood to God, full stop. This is how the logic of the Incarnation unfolds.

And the logic unfolds. The parents of Mary, the Mother of God, are remembered as “the ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna,” and the icon depicting James, considered “the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19), has in Greek, “o adelphotheou:” “the brother of God.” And there is a deeper way that this logic unfolds.

The Incarnation is to happen in each person. Saints are people in whom the Incarnation shines brightly, but we were made for the Incarnation. Some exemplars who provide shining examples of the Incarnation are held forth as saints, but we were all made for divine, uncreated life they share in. The saints live lives out of the Incarnation, and they are part of how the Incarnation is shown to us.

In Orthodox worship, there may or may not be explicit words spoken about icons, but even if not a word is spoken about icons, actions may speak louder than words. A Muslim visitor to Orthodox worship will see something very different from the inside of a mosque, which may be adorned by quite beautiful abstract patterns, but in which anything like an icon is forbidden: pictures as such are forbidden, and it is in particular forbidden to make pictures of Mohammed: perhaps quite a perceptive rule reflecting an insight that a picture of Mohammed would not be likely to be, in the Western sense, simply a nice, inspiring picture on a wall.

What exactly is going on with icons may take some time to understand, but a Western visitor may notice that Orthodox seem to be treating icons differently from just a nice picture on a wall. The Orthodox do not simply stand back with an admiring gaze; they interact with the pictures and kiss them. There may be a line of people standing to pay respects to an icon, and people walking into the temple may almost seem like they are introducing themselves to the icons or greeting them, as one may greet friends one meets in a room.

Orthodox have traditionally called icons “windows of Heaven,” and I would like to take a look at what that means. One obvious meaning today is that they are spiritually a view into a larger world, and I would not discount that. People like to work, and perhaps work better, in an office with a window, and I would not discount that either. But it may help to look at some layers of that image that are harder to see today.

Artificial lighting has been around for a long time: lanterns were good enough in Edison’s time that when he invented the light bulb, many people responded, “Why do we need it? What does it give that an oil lantern does not?” But in fact light bulbs do something that is not in easy reach for candles and lanterns. If you have entered an Orthodox temple when all electric lights were off, there may have been dozens of lit candles—possibly hundreds—but this did not stop the room for being very dark. If you’re in a dark room and can barely see by candlelight for an hour a day, it may seem memorable and romantic; but a candle offers “just enough light to get by,” rather than “as much light as you really want,” and before the light bulb became common, work and activities tended to stop when the daylight fled: if you want to wrap something up, candlelight may give you more time, but if you want enough light to go full steam ahead, then you must either have daylight or a bright, electric light. Only with the electric light can it be common and ordinary for people to be working or playing well into the night, not particuarly caring about the hindrance of there being no sunlight worthy of the name. Before the light bulb, inside as well as out, you needed sunlight to really see outside, and you needed sunlight to really see inside. Given all this, let me ask a question: what more is a window if you can’t flip a switch and turn on the lights?

A window, without having lights, was almost everything that a light bulb is to us. Have you ever woken up, groggy, and fumbled around for the light switch? Have you ever noticed, during a power outage, how hard basic tasks become when you try, for instance, to use a windowless bathroom? Have you ever tried, at a friend’s house, to find the light switch for the bathroom when that part of the house is dark? We have good enough light bulbs that we can fail to understand how hard it is to function in darkness. But in a world without light bulbs, windows are the light bulbs. You don’t just look out the window to see what the weather is like; you can see inside because of the light that comes through windows.

There is another insight to be gathered from glass panes. Today, if one visualizes a window, it seems almost by definition to have a glass pane that provided another layer between what was inside the window, and what was outside. It was not always that way: if one looks at the great age of stained glass windows in the West, saying that a window normally has a glass pane is like saying that a wristwatch is normally a unique creation handcrafted by a master jeweller. (For ages, people knew how to make glass, but making glass was prohibitively expensive, and glass itself was rather precious.) I have seen handcrafted timepieces in museums, and if I had a year’s salary to blow, I could get a master jeweller’s unique creation, but my normal expectation when I see a wristwatch is that it’s mass-produced just like my wristwatch. Today a wristwatch is normally mass-produced, and before a couple of centuries ago a window was normally without glass. In another age, if the bugs were bad enough, a window might let light in through a covering, perhaps of vellum, that would let the window serve as a light bulb without making the insect count that much worse. Quite often, a window didn’t just let in light. It was also something that let in wind and the outside world: it was something wind could blow through.

To say this much is to miss something important, and something that does not particularly require a history-lesson: the “window of Heaven” is like a window one looks through to see a loved one one has been waiting for. Icons are not landscapes raised to a higher spiritual plane, or purely architectural, or a still life. All of those may make beautiful art, but if icons are windows of Heaven, they show people. They may show Christ, or his mother, or his saints, or angels, or people at a decisive moment, or the Trinity as shown through three angels. Most are icons of saints. This is to say that most icons are icons of people in whom Christ has become Incarnate… and icons are part of the Incarnation unfolding.

The Orthodox understanding is that you are missing the point of the Incarnation if you affirm that the Son of God became fully a man, but then deny the maxim of the ages, “The Divine became human that the human might become divine. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God. God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that men might become gods and the Sons of God.” To say that the Incarnation happened in Christ but is not to happen in us is worse than saying, “The operation was a success, but the patient died.” It is more like, “The grandmaster in chess played brilliantly until he reached an invincible position but then resigned in defeat,” or, “The operation was a success, but the physician refused to save the patient’s life,” or “The medical researcher discovered the perfect cure for cancer and then refused to share his results or let them save lives.” Since the earliest centuries the Orthodox Church has believed that the Incarnation did not stop when Mary bore the God-Man in her womb. Christ is meant to be Incarnate in Christians in every age.

(I’ve noticed that some of my friends list their Facebook “Religious Views” as “Follower of Jesus.” There’s something in that modest way of putting it that tempts me to list my own views as, “Orthodox Christian: ‘Follower of Jesus’ is another way of describing an alter Christus, Latin for ‘another Christ’!”)

Christ is the Savior and Lord of the whole Creation: there is indeed something very special about being human, but the sanctifying reach of the Incarnation is a sanctifying reach that extends to matter. The rule elsewhere in theology is that the deepest symbols are symbols that represent and embody what they represent, and it is the Orthodox experience that icons are just that degree of symbol.

One Protestant student at an Orthodox seminary mentioned, as a local oddity, that when he said he didn’t venerate icons, asked him if he believed in the Incarnation. To him the question was a complete non sequitur. But the Orthodox spiritual experience is that the veneration of icons is part of the Incarnation unfolding, and saying that you believe in the Incarnation but not that the Incarnation unfolds into icons, is a bit like saying that you want to be a scholar but don’t want to be troubled with reading books.

I would like to make one last remark about culture and the Incarnation, before shifting focus, from being primarily concerned about Orthodoxy and Islam, to being primarily concerned about Orthodoxy and the Reformation.

At least of the major groups of Orthodox Christians is Arabic. In the Arab world, there is a strong Muslim majority, but many parts of the Arab world have a significant Christian minority, and more specifically an Orthodox minority.

One aspect of different cultures are rules about touch—when it is and isn’t permitted, among other things. As may be guessed, the devout Muslim practice has much stricter rules than American culture, at least about men touching women: if I were to be introduced to a devout Muslim woman in many parts of the Arabic world—which is something of an if, as those cultures see many fewer reasons why such an interaction would be appropriate; the idea of “just hanging out” would seem strange—a devout Muslim woman may well place her hand on her heart and make a slight bow as a gesture of respect and acknowledgment, but shaking hands would be a big deal, and probably seen as at best questionably appropriate. In general, the lines of what would be considered appropriate would call for much less interaction, and even a tap on the shoulder would not obviously be “no big deal.” There are very different rules on touch, and a handshake with palm against palm is emphatically not “no big deal.”

The Arabic expression of Orthodoxy shows some Muslim influences; in some ways, it would be rather surprising if it didn’t. However, as regards touch, it is relatively common for Arab Christians to greet one another with kisses, including men and women giving each other kisses: this can be part of normal social interaction or of the Divine Liturgy.

If you are wondering what relevance this has to do with religion, as it seems obviously a cultural detail, it is one example of what an anthropologist would call “culture” being tied to worship and its implications. Such a kiss as is found in Arabic forms of Orthodoxy is also found in Slavic forms of Orthodoxy; the practice may differ slightly, and greeting with kisses may be more associated with special events, but both practices are the same reality.

In the Greek New Testament, the main word for worship literally means to emphatically kiss or bow. That may not survive in English translation, but there’s something there, and it is not an accident. In Orthodox worship, to kiss an icon is to display reverence that ultimately points to God: John the Damascene and others have been very clear that the respect you show to an icon passes through to God. It is an extension of the Incarnation. A kiss between Orthodox Christians is not simply a cultural detail; it is connected to the kiss given to icons, and it is connected to reverence to one in whom Christ is, to some degree, Incarnate. Orthodox speak today of people as living icons, and though this manner of speech has not always been in fashion, there is a connection between a kiss saluting an icon that is ultimately of Christ, and a kiss saluting a fellow believer who is being transformed into the likeness of Christ. And what is particularly interesting about Arabic forms of Orthodoxy is that the “custom” has survived over a millenium of Muslim rule. (It’s really not just a custom; if it were “just a custom,” it would not have survived nearly so long.)

Having looked at Orthodoxy, Islam, and the Incarnation, my point has not really been to say that Islam does not believe in the Incarnation; that much could be deduced from any decent encyclopedia entry on the topic. My real point of interest has been to look at exactly how Islam does not believe in the Incarnation: not only would devout Muslims be disturbed by the idea that God could become Incarnate, or that that would be fitting to God, but Muslim culture very clearly and consistently works out what it means to refuse to entertain the Incarnation. Actions not only speak louder than words; they also speak in more detail than words, and they can reveal things that words do not.

Now I would like to turn my attention from Orthodoxy and Islam, to Orthodoxy and the Reformation.

Perhaps this is setting limits on Protestantism, but most of the conservative Protestantism I know—or, rather, all—believes on philosophical grounds every finding about the Incarnation from the Church Councils. Every one of the Christologies that was deemed inadequate—including some I have not mentioned—is something Protestants and the better Reformers dismiss as out of bounds. What I have hinted at by referring to maximum Christology is something considered non-negotiable: Reformers may not ascribe definitive authority to the Church Councils in the sense that Orthodox do, but the findings about the Incarnation are effectively treated as “If you don’t believe this, you’re not Christian.” And so it would seem odd to question how much the Reformers believed in the Incarnation, but that is exactly what I want to question.

How much of what I have said about Islam could be said of the Reformation, or parts of it? I was thinking of Calvinism at some early parts of this essay. I cannot say that Calvinism encourages a fatalism that is languid about action. The “Protestant work ethic” we proverbially speak of is in fact a Calvinist work ethic, and Calvinists are often hard workers. Calvinist scholars proclaim in word and deed that “thinking Christianly” is a big deal. It would be a mistake to say that this aspect of Calvinist practice could have nothing to do with their theology. Therefore, what I have said earlier about Islam being conducive to inshallah, bukhara, malesh should not be applied to Calvinist Christianity.

As I have encountered it, Calvinism does not live a fatalistic life.

However, that does not take away a profound point of contact: Islam does not lead people to believe that they were created to be conversation partners for God, fashioned to contribute to the conversation. Calvinism is less than enthusiastic in trumpeting a theology of human contribution; some very serious Calvinists express the concern that if we believe we can contribute to our conversation with God, we have, in the title of one book, “No Place for [God’s] Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism” and if we understand God as sovereign, we can contribute nothing but a rubber stamp to God working in us. And in that regard, Calvinism, a bit like Islam, falls subject to Chesterton’s critique: “It denies the existence of man.”

And in that regard, Orthodoxy can raise the question of how far Calvinism really believes in the Incarnation.

My own experience with the Mennonite Church—even a Mennonite Church relaxed enough to encourage artistic impulses—is that the Mennonite Church worked out, very consistently, what it means to say that images can have no helpful spiritual reality. What I saw and experienced extended well beyond images: it meant that “spirit” and “matter” were in almost separate compartments: there was a special exception for people who were composed of both spirit and matter, and there was a phenomenal miracle when the Son of God became man, but these were exceptions that ran against the usual course of things.

In Orthodoxy, our physical world is pregnant with spirit: men are both matter and spirit because we are the microcosm a crowning jewel to Creation. We are the masterpiece of an excellent corpus, not a pearl crowded by worthless sand, and there is a mountain of differencve between saying “They’re all pretty good, but this one is the best,” and saying, “This is the only good one—the rest are atrocious.” It is the same difference as the difference between saying that spirit and matter are in separate water-tight compartments separated by a chasm except in the case of humans, and saying that the material world was made to share in spiritual glory, and that spiritual and material Creation are woven into the same masterwork with mankind as its ornament and jewel. This difference parallels the difference between saying on the one hand that there’s normal human life and then there’s one exception, Christ, who is so unlike what we normally mean by ‘human’, and on the other hand saying that Christ is the apex of human existence, the one man who fully lived the stature the human race was created for, the one whom St. Paul calls “the last Adam” (see I Cor. 15:45-49).

What I saw in Mennonite spiritual practice was that the iconoclasm was a microcosm of a world where people alone of the whole Creation bridged a chasm that otherwise separated spirit and matter, and the Incarnation was an exception: I never heard, “The Divine became human that the human might become divine.” The denial of Incarnation in icons left a spiritual world with no place for an Incarnation that was to take place in people: the Incarnation began and ended when the Son of God became a man.

And now on to the holy kiss.

I remember being shocked when an Orthodox friend mentioned, in a matter of fact way, that Orthodox Christians greet each other with kisses to celebrate (in this case) Pascha, and that this was rooted in the Biblical words about greeting one another with a holy kiss. This was so different from anything I had seen among Protestants, and I would like to talk about the contrast.

The best way I can concisely describe how the holy kiss was viewed is that, when Evangelicals want to give an example of cultural wackiness that somehow ended up in the Bible, there is one standard example that comes up: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

I found the response when I suggested that those words be taken seriously to be essentially the same among the faithful and among (conservative) Bible scholars at Cambridge: if you say that “Greet one another with a holy kiss” should be given attention as part of God’s revelation, you might as well have sprouted a second head. The response from both groups was essentially culture shock: if I pressed my point, people might see that there was a point worth making, perhaps tell me I was on to something—but even when I pressed my point at Cambridge, not one scholar acknowledged my point that the verse admitted a study for doctrinal content. If I was to study the holy kiss in the Bible, it had to be a study of a cultural and historical detail, used for studying the Bible as a historical document, rather than as something doctrinal, spiritual, or otherwise relevant for us today. I wanted to do a spiritual and doctrinal study, and that was not allowed except as doctrinal and spiritual elements would occasionally come up in a study of history and customs.

My point in mentioning this is that people didn’t just disagree when I said “Greet one another with a holy kiss” is revelation and of spiritual benefit; it was so far out of the realm of things people could conceive as being taken seriously that it caused culture shock: my first battle was never about being agreed with; it was getting my position to be taken seriously. This seems to offer a very strong pedigree in saying that the holy kiss does not have much of a proper theological place to be put in. And if the holy kiss is a practice that derives from the Incarnation—if it is connected to the kiss of reverence that feeds into a major Greek term for worship of God—then this near-total inability to conceive of “Greet one another with a holy kiss” as God’s revelation for us is a near-total lack of needed and Incarnational soil for that practice to be planted in or grow out of. And this would seem to be another area where the Reformation attempts an unwavering and absolute faith in the Incarnation, but is very ill-prepared to live out a classical unfolding of the conviction.

When I was at Calvin, I remember one professor laying theological foundations. To address the question, “What were we made for?” he gave the answer, “Worship and culture,” only he deliberately gave it in Latin: “Cultas et culturas.” The reason is that, in English, ‘worship’ and ‘culture’ may be two separate words, but in Latin they spring from the same root, and the Latin exposes the connection. There may, or may not, be other things I disagree with him about. I don’t disagree with the point he was making there; I think it is beautiful, and I might press it further by saying that worship becomes incarnate in culture: worship gives its practical expression in culture. A culture bears witness to the nature of whatever God or god(s) its society worships. It bears a profound witness.

My thesis for much of this paper is that Orthodoxy demonstrates the unfolding of the Incarnation, and Islam demonstrates the unfolding of denying the Incarnation. There are many other factors at play, but several details about Orthodox practice and culture demonstrate what practical belief in the Incarnation may look like, and several details about Islamic practice and culture demonstrate what practical rejection of the Incarnation may look like. And if so, this may raise some very interesting questions about the Reformation and even the more conservative Protestant Christianity.

As far as ideas and statements go, absolute and full belief in the Incarnation is non-negotiable across the board for different forms of Protestant Christianity: there may be a lot of difference between the more conservative heirs of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, but asserting what the Councils asserted about Christ and the Incarnation remains entirely non-negotiable, and probably will remains so for as long as conservative Protestant Christianity is around.

However, in terms of cultural working out, there is real question about how far Protestant Christianity lets the Incarnation unfold: I have read very few Protestants solidly deny that the Incarnation ends with Christ, and in practical terms, many would agree to disagree with Calvinism over the question of free will, but I have het to hear the question of whether Calvinism, in denying man anything to contribute to his salvation save a rubber stamp, denies the reality of man and in so doing cuts down the Incarnation. None of the Evangelical critiques I’ve read of Calvinism say that Calvinism jeopardizes the Incarnation. That the Incarnation could unfurl so that it is right to call Mary the Mother of God, or direct reverence to saints—even Protestants who agree to disagree may be a bit squeamish, and the idea that this is a proper consequence of the Incarnation, almost its purpose, is not one that comes up. Icons as one feature of a sanctified cosmos with Christ as its head (Eph 1:22), don’t come up, and it is my impression that where there are no icons, there is a chasm between matter and spirit, and the unity of spirit and matter in Christ and the human person may be an exception rather than the highest example. There may be other issues to be raised as well: is the doctrine of the Invisible Church a doctrine of the Virtual Incarnation? The common thread running through these things is that the Incarnation may be asserted on a philosophical level by Protestants, but it does not seem to unfur as it might as the concrete culture plays out. The cultural shape of Protestant Christianity raises questions about how much practical belief there is in the Incarnation.

If the question is, “Where do we go from here?” the answer might be in the closing words of Mark 9:17-24 (RSV):

And one of the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a dumb spirit; and wherever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.”

And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”

And they brought the boy to him; and when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.

And Jesus asked his father, “How long has he had this?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.”

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!

Lesser Icons: Reflections on Faith, Icons, and Art

Cover for The Best of Jonathan's Corner

C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader opens with a chapter called “The Picture in the Bedroom,” which begins, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Not long into the chapter, we read:

They were in Lucy’s room, sitting on the edge of her bed and looking at a picture on the opposite wall. It was the only picture in the house that they liked. Aunt Alberta didn’t like it at all (that was why it was put away in a little back room upstairs), but she couldn’t get rid of it because it had been a wedding present from someone she did not want to offend.

It was a picture of a ship—a ship sailing straight towards you. Her prow was gilded and shaped like the head of a dragon with a wide-open mouth. She had only one mast and one large, square sail which was a rich purple. The sides of the ship—what you could see of them where the gilded wings of the dragon ended—were green. She had just run up to the top of one glorious blue wave, and the nearer slope of that wave came down towards you, with streaks and bubbles on it. She was obviously running fast before a gay wind, listing over a little on her port side. (By the way, if you are going to read this story at all, and if you don’t know already, you had better get it into your head that the left of a ship when you are looking ahead is port, and the right is starboard.) All of the sunlight fell on her from that side, and the water on that side was full of greens and purples. On the other, it was darker blue from the shadow of the ship.

“The question is,” said Edmund, “whether it doesn’t make things worse, looking at a Narnian ship when you can’t get there.”

“Even looking is better than nothing,” said Lucy. “And she is such a very Narnian ship.”

“Still playing your old game?” said Eustace Clarence, who had been listening outside the door and now came grinning into the room. Last year, when he had been staying with the Pevensies, he had managed to hear them all talking of Narnia and he loved teasing them about it. He thought of course that they were making it all up; and as he was far too stupid to make anything up himself, he did not approve of that.

“You’re not wanted here,” said Edmund curtly.

“I’m trying to think of a limerick,” said Eustace. “Something like this:

Some kids who played games about Narnia
Got gradually balmier and balmier—”
“Well, Narnia and balmier don’t rhyme, to begin with,” said Lucy.

“It’s an assonance,” said Eustace.

“Don’t ask him what an assy-thingummy is,” said Edmund. “He’s only longing to be asked. Say nothing and perhaps he’ll go away.”

Most boys, on meeting a reception like this, would have either cleared out or flared up. Eustace did neither. He just hung about grinning, and presently began talking again.

“Do you like that picture?” he asked.

“For Heaven’s sake don’t let him get started about Art and all that,” said Edmund hurriedly, but Lucy, who was very truthful, had already said, “Yes, I do. I like it very much.”

“It’s a rotten picture,” said Eustace.

“You won’t see it if you step outside,” said Edmund.

“Why do you like it?” said Eustace to Lucy.

“Well, for one thing,” said Lucy, “I like it because the ship looks as if it were really moving. And the water looks as if it were really wet. And the waves look as if they were really going up and down.”

Of course Eustace knew lots of answers to this, but he didn’t say anything. The reason was that at that very moment he looked at the waves and saw that they did look very much indeed as if they were going up and down. He had only once been in a ship (and then only so far as the Isle of Wight) and had been horribly seasick. The look of the waves in the picture made him feel sick again. He turned rather green and tried another look. And then all three children were staring with open mouths.

What they were seeing may be hard to believe when you read it in print, but it was almost as hard to believe when you saw it happening. The things in the picture were moving. It didn’t look at all like a cinema either; the colours were too real and clean and out-of-doors for that. Down went the prow of the ship into the wave and up went a great shock of spray. And then up went the wave behind her, and her stern and her deck became visible for the first time, and then disappeared as the next wave came to meet her and her bows went up again. At the same moment an exercise book which had been lying beside Edmund on the bed flapped, rose and sailed through the air to the wall behind him, and Lucy felt all her hair whipping round her face as it does on a windy day. And this was a windy day; but the wind was blowing out of the picture towards them. And suddenly with the wind came the noises—the swishing of waves and the slap of water against the ship’s sides and the creaking and the overall high steady roar of air and water. But it was the smell, the wild, briny smell, which really convinced Lucy that she was not dreaming.

“Stop it,” came Eustace’s voice, squeaky with fright and bad temper. “It’s some silly trick you two are playing. Stop it. I’ll tell Alberta—Ow!”

The other two were much more accustomed to adventures but, just exactly as Eustace Clarence said, “Ow,” they both said, “Ow” too. The reason was that a great cold, salt splash had broken right out of the frame and they were breathless from the smack of it, besides being wet through.

“I’ll smash the rotten thing,” cried Eustace; and then several things happened at the same time. Eustace rushed towards the picture. Edmund, who knew something about magic, sprang after him, warning him to look out and not be a fool. Lucy grabbed at him from the other side and was dragged forward. And by this time either they had grown much smaller or the picture had grown bigger. Eustace jumped to try to pull it off the wall and found himself standing on the frame; in front of him was not glass but real sea, and wind and waves rushing up to the frame as they might to a rock. There was a second of struggling and shouting, and just as they thought they had got their balance a great blue roller surged up round them, swept them off their feet, and drew them down into the sea. Eustace’s despairing cry suddenly ended as the water got into his mouth.

I don’t know that C.S. Lewis was thinking about icons or Orthodoxy when he wrote this, and I am reluctant to assume that C.S. Lewis was doing what would be convenient for the claims I want to make at icons. Perhaps there are other caveats that should also be made: but the caveats are not the whole truth.

I am not aware of a better image of what an icon is and what an icon does than this passage in Lewis. Michel Quenot’s The Icon: A Window on the Kingdom is excellent and there are probably more out there, but I haven’t come across as much of an evocative image as the opening to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I don’t mean that the first time you see an icon, you will be swept off your feet. There was a long time where I found them to be clumsy art that was awkward to look at. I needed to warm to them, and appreciate something that works very differently from Western art. I know that other people have had these immediate piercing experiences with icons, but appreciating icons has been a process of coming alive for me. But much the same could be said of my learning French or Greek, where I had to struggle at first and then slowly began to appreciate what is there. This isn’t something Orthodoxy has a complete monopoly on; some of the time Roman Catholic piety can have something much in the same vein. But even if it’s hard to say that there’s something in icons that is nowhere else, there is something in icons that I had to learn to appreciate.

Icon of the Holy Transfiguration, Anonymous
Icon of the Holy Transfiguration, Anonymous

A cradle Orthodox believer at my parish explained that when she looks at an icon of the Transfiguration, she is there. The Orthodox understanding of presence and memory is not Western and not just concerned with neurons firing in the brain; it means that icons are portals that bring the spiritual presence of the saint or archetypal event that they portray. An icon can be alive, some more than others, and some people can sense this spiritually.

Icons are called windows of Heaven. Fundamental to icon and to symbol is that when the Orthodox Church proclaims that we are the image of God, it doesn’t mean that we are a sort of detached miniature copy of God. It doesn’t mean that we are a detached anything. It is a claim that to be human is to be in relation to God. It is a claim that we manifest God’s presence and that the breath we breathe is the breath of God. What this means for icons is that when the cradle Orthodox woman I just mentioned says that she is there at the Transfiguration, then that icon is like the picture of the Narnian ship. If we ask her, “Where are you?” then saying “Staring at painted wood” is like saying that someone is “talking to an electronic device” when that person is using a cell phone to talk with a friend. In fact the error is deeper.

Icon of the Glykophilousa (Sweetly-Kissing) Mother of God, Anonymous
Icon of the Glykophilousa (Sweetly-Kissing) Mother of God, Anonymous

An icon of a saint is not intended to inform the viewer what a saint looked like. Its purpose is to connect the viewer with Christ, or Mary the Theotokos, or one of the saints or a moment we commemorate, like the Annunciation when Gabriel told humble Mary that she would bear God, or the Transfiguration, when for a moment Heaven shone through and Christ shone as Christians will shine and as saints sometimes shine even in this life. I don’t know all of the details of how the art is put together—although it is art—but the perspective lines vanish not in the depths of the picture but behind the viewer because the viewer is part of the picture. The viewer is invited to cross himself, bow before, and kiss the icon in veneration: the rule is not “Look, but don’t touch.” any more than the rule in our father’s house is “Look, but don’t touch.” The gold background is there because it is the metal of light; these windows of Heaven are not simply for people to look into them and see the saint radiant with Heaven’s light, but Heaven looks in and sees us. When I approach icons I have less the sense that I am looking at these saints, and Heaven, than that they are looking at me. The icon’s purpose is not, as C.S. Lewis’s picture, to connect people with Narnia, but to draw people into Heaven, which in the Orthodox understanding must begin in this life. It is less theatrical, but in the end the icon offers something that the Narnian picture does not.

It is with this theological mindset that Bishop KALLISTOS Ware is fond, in his lectures, of holding up a photograph of something obviously secular—such as a traffic intersection—and saying, “In Greece, this is an icon. It’s not a holy icon, but it’s an icon.”

Door (KPOYETE), CJS Hayward
Door (KPOYETE), CJS Hayward
(Not a holy icon, but an icon)

That, I believe, provides as good a departure as any for an Orthodox view of art. I would never say that icons are inferior art, and I would be extremely hesitant to say that art is equal to icons. But they’re connected. Perhaps artwork is lesser icons. Perhaps it is indistinct icons. But art is connected to iconography, and ever if that link is severed so that art becomes non-iconic, it dies.

Another illustration may shed light on the relation between iconography and other art. The Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ to Orthodox. It is not simply a sacrament, but the sacrament of sacraments, and the sacrament which all other sacraments are related. And there are ways the Orthodox Church requires that this Holy Communion be respected: it is to be prepared for with prayer and fasting, and under normal circumstances it is only received by people who are of one mind as the early Church. It encompasses, inseparably, mystic communion with God and communion with the full brothers and sisters of the Orthodox Church.

How does an ordinary meal around a table with family compare? In one sense, it doesn’t. But to say that and stop is to miss something fundamental. Eating a meal around a table with friends and family is communion. It is not Holy Communion, but it is communion.

A shared meal is a rite that is part of the human heritage. It persists across times, cultures, and religions. This is recognized more clearly in some cultures than others, but i.e. Orthodox Jewish culture says that to break bread is only something you do when you are willing to become real friends. The term “breaking of bread” in the New Testament carries a double meaning; it can mean either the Eucharist or a common meal. A common meal may not have Orthodox making the same astounding claims we make about the Eucharist, but it is a real communion. This may be why a theologian made repeatedly singled out the common meal in the Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Education Day publication to answer questions of what we should do today when technology is changing our lives, sometimes for the better but quite often not. I myself have not made that effort much, and I can say that there is a difference between merely eating and filling my animal needs, and engaging in the precious ritual, the real communion, of a common meal around a table.

If we compare a common meal with the Eucharist, it seems very small. But if we look at a common meal and the community and communion around that meal (common, community, and communion all being words that are related to each other and stem from the same root), next to merely eating to serve our animal needs, then all of the sudden we see things that can be missed if we only look at what separates the Eucharist from lesser communions. A common meal is communion. It is not Holy Communion, but it is communion.

In the same sense, art is not the equal of sacred iconography. My best art, even my best religious art, does not merit the treatment of holy icons. But neither is art, or at least good art, a separate sort of thing from iconography, and if that divorce is ever effected (it has been, but I’ll wait on that for how), then it generates from being art as a meal that merely fills animal, bodily needs without being communion degenerates from what a common meal should be. And in that sense I would assert that art is lesser iconography. And the word “lesser” should be given less weight than “iconography.” I may not create holy icons, but I work to create icons in all of my art, from writing to painting to other creations.

In my American culture—this may be different in other areas of the world, even if American culture has a strong influence—there are two great obstacles to connecting with art. These obstacles to understanding need to be denounced. These two obstacles can be concisely described as:

  • The typical secular approach to art.
  • The typical Christian approach to art.

If I’m going to denounce those two, it’s not clear how much wiggle room I am left over to affirm—and my goal is not merely to affirm but embrace an understanding of art. Let me begin to explain myself.

Let’s start with a red flag that provides just a glimpse of the mainstream Christian view of art. In college, when I thought it was cool to be a cynic and use my mind to uncover a host of hidden evils, I defined “Christian Contemporary Music” in Hayward’s Unabridged Dictionary to be “A genre of song designed primarily to impart sound teaching, such as the doctrine that we are sanctified by faith and not by good taste in music.”

May God be praised, that was not the whole truth in Christian art then, and it is even further from being the whole truth today—I heartily applaud the “Wow!” music videos, and there is a rich stream of exceptions. But this doesn’t change the fact that the #1 selling Christian series today is the Left Behind series, which with apologies to Dorothy Parker, does not have asingle book that is to be set aside lightly. (They are all to be hurled with great force!)

If I want to explain what I would object to instead of simply making incendiary remarks about Christian arts, let me give a concrete example. I would like to discuss something that I discussed with a filmmaker at a Mennonite convention a couple of years I converted to Orthodoxy. I did not set out to criticize, and I kept my mouth shut about certain things.

What I did do was to outline a film idea for a film that would start out indistinguishably from an action-adventure movie. It would have one of the hero’s friends held captive by some cardboard-cutout villains. There is a big operation to sneak in and deftly rescue him, and when that fails, all Hell breaks loose and there is a terrific action-adventure style firefight. There is a dramatic buildup to the hero getting in the helicopter, and as they are leaving, one of the villain’s henchmen comes running with a shotgun. Before he can aim, the hero blasts away his knee with a hollow-nosed .45.

The camera surprisingly does not follow the helicopter in its rush to glory, but instead focuses on the henchman for five or ten excruciating minutes as he curses and writhes in agony. Then the film slows down to explore what that one single gunshot means to the henchman for the remaining forty years of his life, as he nursed a spiritual wound of lust for vengeance that was infinitely more tragic than his devastating physical wound.

The filmmaker liked the idea, or at least that’s what he thought. He saw a different and better ending than what I envisioned. It would be the tale of the henchman’s journey of forgiveness, building to a dramatic scene where he is capable of killing the hero and beautifully lets go of revenge. And as much as I believe in forgiveness and letting go of revenge, this “happy ending” (roughly speaking) bespoke an incommensurable gulf between us.

The difference amounts to a difference of love. Not that art has to cram in as much love, or message about love or forgiveness, as it can. If that happens, it is fundamentally a failure on the part of the artist, and more specifically it is a failure of a creator to have proper love for his creation. My story would not show much love in action, and it is specifically meant to leave audiences not only disturbed but shell shocked and (perhaps) sickened at how violence is typically shown by Hollywood. The heartblood of cinematic craft in this film would be an effort to take a character who in a normal action-adventure movie is faceless, and which the movie takes pains to prevent us from seeing or loving as human when he is torn up by the hero’s cool weapon, and give him a human face so that the audience feels the pain not only of his wounded body but the grievous spiritual wound that creates its deepest tragedy. That is to say that the heartblood of cinematic craft would be to look lovingly at a man, unloving as he may be, and give him a face instead of letting him be a faceless henchman whose only purpose is to provide conflict so we can enjoy him being slaughtered. And more to the point, it would not violate his freedom or his character by giving him a healing he would despise, and announce that after his knee has been blasted away he comes to the point of forgiving the man who killed his friends and crippled him for life.

Which is to say that I saw the film as art, and he saw it as a container he could cram more message into. That is why I was disturbed when he wanted to tack a happy ending on. There is a much bigger problem here than ending a story the wrong way.

I don’t mean to say that art shouldn’t say anything, or that it is a sin to have a moral. This film idea is not only a story that has a moral somewhere; its entire force is driven by the desire to give a face, a human face, to faceless villains whose suffering and destruction is something we rejoice in other words. In other words, it has a big moral, it doesn’t mince words, and it makes absolutely no apologies for being driven by its moral.

Then what’s the difference? It amounts to love. In the version of the story I created, the people, including the henchmen, are people. What the filmmaker saw was a question of whether there’s a better way to use tools to drive home message. And he made the henchman be loving enough to forgive by failing to love him enough.

When I was talking with one professor at Wheaton about how I was extremely disappointed with a Franklin Peretti novel despite seeing how well the plot fit together, I said that I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. He rather bluntly interrupted me and simply said that Peretti didn’t love his characters. And he is right. In This Present Darkness, Franklin Peretti makes a carefully calculated use of tools at his disposal (such as characters) to provide maximum effect in driving home his point. He does that better than art does. But he does not love his characters into being; he does not breathe into them and let them move. It’s not a failure of technique; it’s a failure of something much deeper. In this sense, the difference between good and bad art, between A Wind in the Door and Left Behind, is that in A Wind in the Door there are characters who not only have been loved into being but have a spark of life that has been not only created into them but loved into them, and in Left Behind there are tools which are used to drive home “message” but are not in the same senseloved.

There is an obvious objection which I would like to pause to consider: “Well, I understand that elevated, smart people like you can appreciate high art, and that’s probably better. But can’t we be practical and look at popular art that will reach ordinary people?” My response to that is, “Are you sure? Are you really sure of what you’re assuming?”

Perhaps I am putting my point too strongly, but let me ask the last time you saw someone who wasn’t Christian and not religious listening to Amy Grant-style music, or watching the Left Behind movie? If it is relevant, is it reaching non-Christians? (And isn’t that what “relevant” stuff is supposed to do?) The impression I’ve gotten, the strong impression, is that the only people who find that art relevant to their lives are Evangelicals who are trying to be relevant. But isn’t the world being anti-Christian? My answer to that is that people who watch The Chronicles of Narnia and people who watch Star Wars movies are largely watching them for the same reason: they are good art. The heavy Christian force behind The Chronicles of Narnia, which Disney to its credit did not edit out, has not driven away enough people to stop the film from being a major success. The Chronicles of Narnia is relevant, and it is relevant not because people calculated how to cram in the most message, but because not only C.S. Lewis but the people making the film loved their creation. Now, there are other factors; both The Chronicles of Narnia and Star Wars have commercial tie-in’s. And there is more commercial muscle behind those two than the Left Behindmovie. But to only observe these things is to miss the point. The stories I hear about the girl who played Lucy walking onto the set and being so excited she couldn’t stop her hands from shaking, are not stories of an opportunistic actress who found a way to get the paycheck she wanted. They are stories of people who loved what they were working on. That is what makes art powerful, not budget.

There’s something I’d like to say about love and work. There are some jobs—maybe all—that you really can’t do unless you really love them. How? Speaking as a programmer, there’s a lot of stress and aggravation in this job. Even if you have no difficulties with your boss, or co-workers, the computer has a sort of perverse parody of intelligence that means that you do your best to do something clearly, and the computer does the strangest things.

It might crash; it might eat your work; it might crash and eat your work; it might show something weird that plays a perverted game of hide and seek and always dodge your efforts to find out what exactly is going wrong so you can fix it. Novices’ blood is boiling before they manage to figure out basic errors that won’t even let you run your program at all. So programmers will be fond of definitions of “Programming, n. A hobby similar to banging your head against a wall, but with fewer opportunities for reward.”

Let me ask: What is programming like if you do not love it? There are many people who love programming. They don’t get there unless they go through the stress and aggravation. There’s enough stress and aggravation that you can’t be a good programmer, and maybe you can’t be a programmer at all, unless you love it.

I’ve made remarks about programming; there are similar remarks to be made about carpentry, or being a mother (even if being a mother is a bigger kind of thing than programming or carpentry). This is something that is true of art—with its stress and aggravation—precisely because art is work, and work can have stress and aggravation that become unbearable if there is no love. Or, in many cases, you can work, but your work suffers. Love may need to get dirty and do a lot of grimy work—you can’t love something into being simply by feeling something, even if love can sometimes transfigure the grimy work—but there absolutely must be love behind the workgloves. It doesn’t take psychic powers to tell if something was made with love.

I would agree with Franky Schaeffer’s remark in Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, when he pauses to address the question “How can I as a Christian support the arts?” the first thing he says is to avoid Christian art. I would temper that remark now, as some Christian art has gotten a lot better. But he encouraged people to patronize good art, and to the question, “How can I afford to buy original paintings?” he suggests that a painting costs much less than a TV. But Schaeffer should be set aside another work which influenced his father, and which suggests that if Christian art is problematic, that doesn’t mean that secular art is doing everything well.

Edward the Confessor Penny
Penny, Edward the Confessor (1042-1066)
An example of coinage that shows icon-like medieval figures, instead of photograph-style modern portraits. Other ancient and medieval examples abound.

When I was preparing for a job interview with an auction house that deals with coins and stamps, I looked through the 2003(?) Spink’s Catalogue of British Coins. (Mainly I studied the pictures of coins to see what I could learn.) When I did that, a disturbing story unfolded.

The Spink’s catalogue takes coins from Celtic and Roman times through medieval times right up through the present day. While there are exceptions in other parts of the world, the ancient and early medieval coins all had simple figures that were not portraits, in much the way that a drawing in a comic strip like Foxtrot differs from Mark Trail or some other comic strip where the author is trying to emulate a photograph. Then, rather suddenly, something changes, and people start cramming in as much detail as they could. The detail reaches a peak in the so-called “gold penny”, in which there is not a square millimeter of blank space, and then things settle down as people realize that it’s not a sin to have blank space as well as a detailed portrait. (On both contemporary British and U.S. coinage, the face of the coin has a bas-relief portrait of a person, and then there is a blank space, and a partial ring of text around the edge, with a couple more details such as the year of coinage. The portrait may be detailed, but the coinmakers are perfectly willing to leave blank space in without cramming in more detail than fits their design. In the other world coinage I’ve seen, there can be some differences in the portrait (it may be of an animal), but there is a similar use of portrait, text, and blank space.

This is what happened when people’s understanding of symbol disintegrated. The effort to cram in detail which became an effort to be photorealistic is precisely an effort to cram some reality into coins when they lost their reality as symbols. There are things about coins then that even numismatists (people who study coins) do not often understand today. In the Bible, the backdrop to the question in Luke 20 that Jesus answered, “Show me a coin. Whose likeness is it, and whose inscription? … Give what is Caesar’s to Caesar, and what is God’s to God,” is on the surface a question about taxes but is not a modern gripe about “Must I pay my hard-earned money to the Infernal Revenue Service?”, It is not the question some Anabaptists ask today about whether it is OK for Christians’ taxes to support things they believe are unconscionable, and lead one pastor to suggest that people earn less money so they will pay less taxes that will end up supporting violence. It’s not a question about anything most Christians would recognize in money today.

It so happens that in traditional fashion quarters in the U.S. today have a picture of George Washington, which is to say not only a picture but an authority figure. There is no real cultural reason today why this tradition has to be maintained. If the government mint started turning out coins with a geometric design, a blank surface, or some motto or trivia snippet, there would be no real backlash and people would buy and sell with the new quarters as well as the traditional ones. The fact that the quarter, like all commonly circulated coins before the dollar coin, has the image of not simply a-man-instead-of-a-woman but specifically the man who once held supreme political authority within the U.S., is a quaint tradition that has lost its meaning and is now little more than a habit. But it has been otherwise.

The Roman denarius was an idol in the eyes of many Jewish rabbis. It was stamped with the imprint of the Roman emperor, which is to say that it was stamped with the imprint of a pagan god and was therefore an idol. And good Jews shouldn’t have had a denarius with them when they asked Jesus that trapped question. For them to have a denarius with them was worse on some accounts than if Jesus asked them, “Show me a slab of bacon,” and they had one with them. The Jewish question of conscience is “Must one pay tax with an idol?” and the question had nothing to do with any economic harship involved in paying that tax (even though most Jews then were quite poor).

Jesus appealed to another principle. The coin had Caesar’s image and inscription: this was the one thing he asked them to tell him besides producing the coin. In the ancient world people took as axiomatic that the authority who produced coinage had the authority to tax that coinage, and Jesus used that as a lever: “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God’s the thing that are God’s.”

This last bit of leverage was used to make a much deeper point. The implication is that if a coin has Caesar’s image and we owe it to Caesar, what has God’s image—you and I—are God’s and are owed to God. This image means something deep. If it turns out that we owe a tax to Caesar, how much more do we owe our very selves to God?

Augustine uses the image of “God’s coins” to describe us. He develops it further. In the ancient world, when coins were often made of precious and soft metals instead of the much harder coins today, coins could be “defaced” by much use: they would be rubbed down so far that the image on the coin would be worn away. Then defaced coins, which had lost their image, could be restruck. Augustine not only claims that we are owed to God; he claims that the image in us can be defaced by sin, and then restruck with a new image by grace. This isn’t his whole theology for sin and grace, but it says something significant about what coins meant not just to him but to his audience.

During the Iconoclastic Controversy, not only in the East but before the overcrowded “gold penny”, one monk, who believed in showing reverence to icons, was brought before the emperor, who was trying to suppress reverence to icons. The emperor asked the monk, “Don’t you know that you can walk on an icon of Christ without showing disrespect to him?” and the monk asked if he could walk on “your face”, meaning “your face as present in this coin,” without showing the emperor disrespect. He threw down a coin, and started to walk on it. The emperor’s guards caught him in the act, and he was brutally assaulted.

These varying snapshots of coins before a certain period in the West are shapshots of coins that are icons. They aren’t holy icons, but they are understood as icons before people’s understanding of icons disintegrated.

When I explained this to one friend, he said that he had said almost exactly the same thing when observing the development or anti-development of Western art. The story I was told of Western art, at least until a couple of centuries ago, was a story of progress from cruder and more chaotic art. Medieval art was sloppy, and when perspective came along, it was improved and made clearer. But this has a very different light if you understood the older art’s reality as symbol. In A Glimpse of Eastern Orthodoxy, I wrote:

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!”

Photorealistic perspective is not new life but an extravagance once symbol has decayed. That may be one problem, or one thing that I think is a problem. But in the centuries after perspective, something else began to shift.

The Prophet Elias, Anonymous
The Prophet Elias, Anonymous
Before photorealistic perspective.

There is rich detail and artistry in this icon of the Prophet Elias. To those making their first contacts with Orthodox iconography, it may seem hard to appreciate—the perspective and proportions are surprising—but the things that make it something you need to learn are precisely the gateway to what an icon like this can do that mere photographs can never do.

The Dream of Joachim, Giotto
The Dream of Joachim, Giotto
Medieval art is beginning to become photorealistic.

In Giotto’s painting of the dream of Joachim, one can see something probably that looks like an old icon to someone used to photorealistic art and probably looks photorealistic to someone used to icons. Not all medieval art is like this, but this specific piece of medieval art is at once a contact point, a bridge, and a hinge.

Madonna of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci
Madonna of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci
Renaissance photorealism.

Leonardo da Vinci’s art is beginning to look very different from medieval art. In some ways Leonardo da Vinci’s art is almost more like a photograph than a camera would take—Leonardo da Vinci’s perspective is all the more powerful for the fact that he doesn’t wear his grids on the outside, and in this picture Leonardo da Vinci makes powerful use of what is called “atmospheric perspective”, giving the faroff place and above the Madonna of the Rocks’ shoulder the blue haze that one gets by looking through a lot of air. Hence Leonardo da Vinci’s perspective is not just a precise method of making things that are further away look smaller.

When Renaissance artists experimented with more photorealistic perspective, maybe they can be criticized, but they were experimenting to communicate better. Perspective was a tool to communicate better. Light and shadow were used to communicate better. It’s a closer call with impressionism, but there is a strong argument that their departure from tradition and even photorealism was to better communicate how the outsides of things looked in different lighting conditions and at different times of day. But then something dreadful happened: not only artists but the community of people studying art learned a lesson from history. They learned that the greatest art, from the Renaissance onwards, experimented with tradition and could decisively break from tradition. They did not learn that this was always to improve communicate with the rest of us. And so what art tried to do was break from tradition, whether or not this meant communicating better to “the rest of us”.

The Guitar Player, Pablo Picasso
The Guitar Player, Pablo Picasso
Art that has disintegrated from photorealism.

In at least some of Pablo Picasso’s art, the photorealistic has vanished. Not that all Pablo Picasso art looks this way: some looks like a regular or perhaps flattened image. But this, along with Picasso’s other cubist art, tries to transcend perspective, and the effect is such that one is told as a curiosity the story of a museumgoer recognizing someone from the (cubist) picture Picasso painted of him. Of all the pictures I’ve both studied and seem live, this kind of Pablo Picasso art is the one where I have the most respect for the responses of people considered not to be sophisticated enough to appreciate Pablo Picasso’s achievement.

Some brave souls go to modern art museums, and look at paintings that look nothing like anything they can connect with, and walk away humbled, thinking that they’re stupid, or not good enough to appreciate the “elevated” art that better people are able to connect with. There’s something to be said for learning to appreciate art, but with most of these people the problem is not that they’re not “elevated” enough. The problem is that the art is not trying to communicate with the world as a whole. Innovation is no longer to better communicate; innovation at times sneers at communication in a fashion people can recognize.

The Oaths of the Horatii, Jacques Louis David
The Oaths of the Horatii, Jacques Louis David
“High” art that communicates to ordinary people.

In an age before television, Jacques Louis David’s depiction of the oaths of the Horatii was extraordinarily powerful political communication, even political propaganda. Jacques Louis David combines two things that are separate today: elevated things from classical antiquity, and a message that is meant to communicate to ordinary people. A painting like one of Jacques Louis David’s was the political equivalent of a number of television news commentaries in terms of moving people to action.

The Franky Schaeffer title I gave earlier was Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts; the title I did not give is Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, which has disturbing lettering and a picture of a man screaming on its cover art. If there is a deep problem with the typical Christian approach to arts (and it is not a universal rule), there is a deep problem with the typical secular Western approach to arts (even if that isnot a universal rule either). A painting like “The Oaths of the Horatii” is no more intended to be a private remark among a few elite souls than Calvin and Hobbes; Calvin and Hobbes may attract the kind of people who like other good art, but this is never because, as Calvin tells Hobbes about his snowman art which he wants lowbrows to have to subsidize, “I’m trying to criticize the lowbrows who can’t appreciate this.”

The concept of an artist is also deeply problematic. When I was taking an art history class at Wheaton, the professor asked people a question about their idea of an artist, and my reaction was, “I don’t have any preconceptions.” Then he started talking, and I realized that I did have preconceptions about the matter.

If we look at the word “genius” across the centuries, it has changed. Originally your “genius” was your guardian angel, more or less; it wasn’t connected with great art. Then it became a muse that inspired art and literature from the outside. Then “genius” referred to artistic and literary giftedness, and as the last step in the process of internalization, “genius” came to refer to the author or artist himself.

The concepts of the artist and the genius are not the same, but they have crossed paths, and their interaction is significant. Partly from other sources, some artists take flak today because they lead morally straight lives. Why is this? Well, given the kind of superior creature an artist is supposed to be, it’s unworthy of an artist to act as if they were bound by the moral codes that the common herd can’t get rid of. The figure of the artist is put up on a pedestal that reaches higher than human stature; like other figures, the artist is expected to have an enlightened vision about how to reform society, and be a vanguard who is above certain rules.

That understanding of artists has to come down in the Christian community. Artists have a valuable contribution; when St. Paul is discussing the Spirit’s power in the Church, he writes (I Cor 12:7-30, RSV):

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?

I would suggest that the secular idea of an artisan is closer to an Orthodox understanding of an artist than the secular idea of artist itself. Even if an artisan is not thought of in terms of being a member of a body, the idea of an artisan is one that people can accept being one member of an organism in which all are needed.

An artisan can show loving craftsmanship, can show a personal touch, can have a creative spark, and should be seen as pursuing honorable work; however, the idea of an artisan carries less bad freight than the idea of an artist. They’re also not too far apart: in the Middle Ages, the sculptors who worked on cathedrals were closer to what we would consider artisans who produced sculptures than being seen as today’s artists. Art is or should be connected to iconography; it should also be connected to the artisan’s craft, and people are more likely to give an artisan a place as a contributing member who is part of a community than artists.

If we look at technical documentation, then there are a number of believable compliments you could give if you bumped into the author. It would be believable to say that the documentation was a helpful reference met your need; that it was clear, concise, and well-written; or that it let you find exactly what you needed and get back to work. But it would sound odd to say that the technical writer had very distinctive insights, and even odder to say that you liked the author’s personal self-expression about what the technology could do. Technical writing is not glorified self-expression, and if we venerate art that is glorified self-expression, then maybe we have something to learn from how we treat technical writing.

If this essay seems like a collection of distinctive (or less politely, idiosyncratic) personal insights I had, or my own personal self-expression in Orthodoxy, theology, and faith, then that is a red flag. It falls short of the mark of what art, or Orthodox writing, should be. (And it is intended as art: maybe it’s minor art, but it’s meant as art.) It’s not just that most or all of the insights owe a debt to people who have gone before me, and I may have collated but contributed nothing to the best insights, serving much more to paraphrase than think things up from scratch. Michel Quenot’s The Icon: A Window on the Kingdom, and, for much longer, Madeleine l’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art have both given me a grounding. But even aside from that, art has existed for long before me and will exist for long after me, and I am not the sole creator of an Orthodox or Christian approach to the arts any more than a technical writer has trailblazed a particular technique of creating such-and-such type of business report. Good art is freedom and does bear its human creator’s fingerprints. Even iconography, with its traditional canons, gives substantial areas of freedom to the iconographer and never specify each detail. Part of being an iconographer is using that freedom well. However, if this essay is simply self-expression, that is a defect, not a merit. As an artist and writer, I am trying to offer more than glorified self-expression.

This Sunday after liturgy, people listened to a lecture taped from Bp. KALLISTOS Ware. He talked about the great encounter at the burning bush, when God revealed himself to Moses by giving his name. At the beginning of the encounter, Moses was told, “Take off your shoes, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” Bp. KALLISTOS went on to talk about how in those days, as of the days of the Fathers, people’s shoes were something dead, something made from leather. The Fathers talked about this passage as meaning by implication that we should take off our dead familiarity to be able to encounter God freshly.

I was surprised, because I had reinvented that removal of familiarity, and I had no idea it was a teaching of the Orthodox Church. Perhaps my approach to trying to see past the deadness of familiarity—which you can see in Game Review: Meatspace—was not exactly the same as what Bp. KALLISTOS was saying to begin a discussion about receiving Holy Communion properly. Yet I found out that something I could think of as my own private invention was in fact a rediscovery. I had reinvented one of the treasures of Orthodoxy. Part of Orthodoxy is surrender, and that acknowledgment that anything and everything we hold, no matter how dear, must be offered to God’s Lordship for him to do with as we please. Orthodoxy is inescapably a slow road of pain and loss. But there is another truth, that things we think are a private heresy (I am thinking of G.K. Chesterton’s discussion) are in fact a reinvention, perhaps a crude reinvention, of an Orthodox treasure and perhaps an Orthodox treasure which meets its best footing, deepest meaning, and fullest expression when that jewel is set in its Orthodox bezel.

There are times when I’ve wanted to be an iconographer (in the usual sense). I don’t know if that grace will ever be granted me, but there was one point when I had access to an icon painting class. When I came to it and realized what was going on, I shied away. Perhaps I wanted to learn to write icons (Orthodox speak of writing icons rather than painting them), but there was something I wasn’t comfortable with.

Parishes have, or at least should have, a meal together after worship, even if people think of it as “coffee hour” instead of thinking of it as the communion of a common meal. The purpose is less to distribute coffee, which coffee drinkers have enough of in their homes, than to provide an opportunity (perhaps with a social lubricant) for people to meet and talk. That meeting and talking is beautiful. Furthermore, a parish may have various events when people paint, seasonally decorate, or maintain the premises, and in my experience there can be, and perhaps should be, an air of lighthearted social gathering about it all.

But this iconography class had lots of chatter, where people gathered and learned the skill of icon painting that began and ended with a prayer but in between had the atmosphere of a casual secular gathering that didn’t involve any particularly spiritual endeavor or skill. Now setting my personal opinions aside, the classical canons require that icons be written in prayer, concentration, and quiet. There are reasons for this, and I reacted as I did, not so much because I had heard people were breaking such-and-such ancient rule, but more because I was affronted by something that broke the rule’s spirit even more than its letter, and I sensed that there was something askew. The reason is that icons are written in silence is that you cannot make a healthy, full, and spiritual icon simply by the motions of your body. An icon is first and foremost created through the iconographer’s spirit to write what priests and canons have defined, and although the iconographer is the copyist or implementor and not original author, we believe that the icon is written by the soul of the iconographer—if you understand it as a particular (secular) painting technique, you don’t understand it. That class, like that iconographer, have produced some of the dreariest and most opaque icons, or “windows of Heaven”, that I have seen. I didn’t join that class because however much I wanted to be an iconographer, I didn’t want to become an iconographer like that, and in the Orthodox tradition you become an iconographer by becoming a specific iconographer’s disciple and becoming steeped in that iconographer’s spiritual characteristics.

Years ago, I stopped watching television, or at least started making a conscious effort to avoid it. I like and furthermore love music, but I don’t put something on in the background. And, even though I love the world wide web, I observe careful limits, and not just because (as many warn) it is easy to get into porn. The web can be used to provide “noise” to keep us from coming face to face with the silence. The web (substitute “television”/”title=”Jonathan’s Corner → Library”music”/”title=”Jonathan’s Corner → Library”newspapers”/”title=”Jonathan’s Corner → Library”movies”/for that matter, “Church Fathers” for how this temptation appears to you) can be used to anesthetize the boredom that comes when we face silence, and keep us from ever coming to the place on the other side of boredom. When I have made decisions about television, I wasn’t thinking, on conscious terms, about being more moral and spiritual by so doing. I believe that television is a pack of cigarettes for the heart and mind, and I have found that I can be creative in more interesting ways, and live better, when I am cautious about the amount of noise in my life, even if you don’t have to be the strictest “quiet person” in the world to reap benefits. Quiet is one spiritual discipline of the Orthodox Church (if perhaps a lesser spiritual discipline), and the spiritual atmosphere I pursued is a reinvention, perhaps lesser and incomplete, of something the Orthodox Church wants her iconographers to profitably live. There is a deep enough connection between icons and other art that it’s relevant to her artists.

When I write what I would never call (or wish to call) my best work, I have the freedom to be arbitrary. If I’m writing something of no value, I can impose my will however I want. I can decide what I want to include and what I want to exclude, what I am going to go into detail about what I don’t want to elaborate on, and what analogies I want to draw. It can be as much dictated by “Me! Me! Me!” as I want. When I am creating something I value, however, that version of freedom hardly applies. I am not free, if I am going to create fiction that will resonate and ring true, to steamroll over my characters’ wishes. If I do I diminish my creation. What I am doing is loving and serving my creations. I can’t say that I never act on selfish reasons, but if I am doing anything of a good job my focus is on loving my creation into being and taking care of what it needs, which is simultaneously a process of wrestling with it, and listening to it with the goal of getting myself out of the way so I can shape it as it needs to be shaped.

There is a relationship that places the artist as head and lord of his creation, but if we reach for some of the most readily available ideas of headship and lordship, that claim makes an awful lot of confusion. Until I began preparing to write this essay, it didn’t even occur to me to look at the human creator-creation connection in terms of headship or lordship. I saw a place where I let go of arbitrary authority and any insistence on my freedoms to love my creation, to listen to and then serve it, and care for all the little details involved in creating it (and, in my case, publishing it on the web). All of this describes the very heart of how Christians are to understand headship, and my attitude is hardly unique: Christian artists who do not think consciously about headship at all create out of the core of the headship relation. They give their works not just any kind of love, but the particular and specific love which a head has for a body. If art ends by bearing the artist’s fingerprints, this should not be because the artist has decided, “My art must tell of my glory,” but because loved art, art that has been served and developed and educed and drawn into manifest being, cannot but be the image, and bear the imprint, of its creator. That is how art responds to its head and lord.

To return to spiritual discipline: Spiritual discipline is the safeguard and the shadow of love. This applies first and foremost to the Orthodox Way as a whole, but also specifically to art. Quiet is a lesser discipline, and may not make the front page. Fasting from certain foods can have value, but it is only good if saying no to yourself in food prepares you to love other people even when it means saying no to yourself. There are harsh warnings about people who fast and look down on others who are less careful about fasting or don’t fast at all and judging them as “less spiritual”. Perhaps fasting can have great value, but it is better not to fast than to fast and look down.

Prayer is the flagship, the core, and the crowning jewel of spiritual discipline. The deepest love for our neighbor made in God’s image is to pray and act out of that prayer. Prayer may be enriched when it is connected with other spiritual disciplines, but the goal of spiritual discipline and the central discipline in creating art is prayer.

There is a passage in George MacDonald where a little girl stands before an old man and looks around an exquisite mansion in wonder. After a while the old man asks her, “Are you done saying your prayers?” The surprised child responds, “I wasn’t saying my prayers.” The old man said, “Yes you were. You just didn’t realize it.”

If I say that prayer drives art, I don’t just mean that I say little prayers as I create art (although that should be true). I mean that when I am doing my best work, part of why it is my best work is that the process itself is an act of prayer. However many arbitrary freedoms I would not dare to exercise and deface my own creation, I am at my freest and most alive when I am listening to God and a creation about how to love it into being. It is not the same contemplation as the Divine Liturgy, but it is connected, part of the same organism. The freedom I taste when I create, the freedom of service and the freedom of love, is freedom at so deep a level that a merely arbitrary freedom to manipulate or make dictatorial insistences on a creation pales in comparison to the freedom to listen and do a thousand services to art that is waiting for me to create it.

“He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (I Jn 4:20, RSV). If an artist does not love God and the neighbors whom he can see and who manifest the glory of the invisible God, he is in a terrible position to healthily love a creation which—at the moment, exists in God’s mind and partially in its human creator, but nowhere else. This is another way of saying that character matters. I have mentioned some off-the-beaten-track glimpses of spiritual discipline; this leaves out more obvious and important aspects of love like honesty and chastity. The character of an artist who can love his works into being should be an overflow of a Christian life of love. Not to say that you must be an artist to love! Goodness is many-sided. This is true of what Paul wrote (quoted above) about the eye, hand, and foot all belonging to the body. Paul also wrote the scintillating words (I Cor 15:35-49, RSV):

But some one will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

These are words of resurrection, but the promise of the glorious and incorruptible resurrection body hinge on words where “star differs from star in glory”. An artist’s love is the glory of one star. It is no more the only star than the eye is the only part of the body. It is part of a scintillating spectrum—but not the whole spectrum itself!

I would like to also pause to respond to an objection which careful scholars would raise, and which some devout Orthodox would sense even if they might not put it in words. I have fairly uncritically used a typically Western conception of art. I have lumped together visual arts, literature, music, film, etc. and seem to assume that showing something in one case applied to every case. I would acknowledge that a more careful treatment would pay attention to their differences, and that some stick out more than others.

I am not sure that a better treatment would criticize this assumption. However, let’s look at one distinctive of Orthodoxy. One thinks of why Western Christians talk about how the superficial legend goes that the leaders of (what would become) Russia went religion-shopping, and they saw that the Orthodox worship looked impressive, and instead of deciding based on a good reason, they went with the worship they liked best. Eastern Christians tend to agree about the details of what people believe happened, but we do not believe the aesthetic judgments were something superficial that wasn’t a good reason. We believe that something of Heaven shone through, and if that affected the decision, people weren’t making a superficial decision but something connected with Truth and the Light of Heaven and of God. We believe that worship, and houses of worship, are to be beautiful and reflect not only the love but the Light and beauty of Heaven, and a beautiful house of worship is no more superfluous to light than good manners are superfluous to love. The “beauty connection” has not meant that we have to choose between good homilies, music, liturgy, and icons. A proper Orthodox listing of what constituted real, iconic art may differ from a Western listing, and there’s more than being sticks in the mud behind the fact that Orthodox Churches, by and large, do not project lyrics with PowerPoint. Part of what I have said about icons is crystallized in a goal of “transparency”, that the goal of a window of Heaven is to be transparent to Heaven’s light and love. Not just icons can be, or fail to be, transparent. Liturgical music can be transparent or fail to be transparent. Homilies can be transparent or fail to be transparent.

I’ve heard just enough bad homilies, that is opaque homilies that left me thinking about the homilist instead of God—to appreciate how iconically translucent most of the homilies I’ve heard are, and to realize that this is a privelege and not a right that will automatically be satisfied. The opaque Orthodox homilies don’t (usually) get details wrong; they get the details right but don’t go any further. But this is not the whole truth about homilies. A homily that is written like an icon—not necessarily written out but drawn into being first and foremost by the spirit, out of love, prayer, and spiritual discipline, can be not only transparent but luminous and let Heaven’s light shine through.

Some wag said, “A sermon is something I wouldn’t go across the street to hear, but something I’d go across the country to deliver.” I do not mean by saying this to compete with, or replace, the view of homilies as guidance which God has provided for our good, but a successful homily does more than inform. It edifies, and the best homilies are luminously transparent. They don’t leave the faithful thinking about the preacher—even about how good he is—but about the glory of God. When icons, liturgy, and homilies rise to transparency, they draw us beyond themselves to worship God.

My denser and more inaccessible musings might be worth reading, but they should never be read as a homily; the photographs in my slideshow of Cambridge might capture real beauty but should never be mounted on an icon stand for people to venerate; my best cooking experiments may be much more than edible but simply do not belong in the Eucharist—but my cooking can belong at coffee hour. The Divine Liturgy at its best builds up to Holy Communion and then flows into a common meal (in my culture, coffee hour) that may not be Holy Communion but is communion, and just as my more edible cooking may not be fit for the Eucharist but belongs in a common meal, I am delighted to tell people I have a literature and art website at CJS Hayward which has both short and long fiction, musings and essays, poetry, visual art, and (perhaps I mention) computer software that’s more artistic than practical. I have put a lot of love into my website, and it gives me great pleasure to share it. If its contents should not usurp the place of holy icons or the Divine Liturgy, I believe they do belong in the fellowship hall and sacred life beyond the sanctuary. Worshipping life is head and lord to the everyday life of the worshipping faithful, but that does not mean a denigration of the faithful living as lesser priests. The sacramental priesthood exists precisely as the crystallization and ornament of our priestly life in the world. As I write, I am returning from the Eucharist and the ordination of more than one clergy. Orthodox clergy insist that unless people say “Amen!” to the consecration of the bread and wine which become the holy body and the holy blood of Christ, and unless they say, “Axios!” (“He is worthy!”) to the ordination, then the consecration or the ordination doesn’t happen. Unlike in Catholicism, a priest cannot celebrate the Divine Liturgy by himself in principle, because the Divine Liturgy is in principle the work of God accomplished through the cooperation of priest and faithful, and to say that a priest does this himself is as odd as saying that the priest has a hug or a conversation by himself. The priest is head and even lord of the parish, but under a richer, Christian understanding of headship and lordship, which means that as the artist in his care he must listen to the faithful God has entrusted to his inadequate care, listening to God about who God and not the priest wants them to become, and both serve them and love them into richer being. (And, just as it is wrong for an artist to domineer his creation, it is even more toxic for a priest to domineer, ahem, work to improve the faithful in his parish. The sharpest warning I’ve heard a bishop give to newly ordained clergy is about a priest who decided he was the best thing to happen to the parish in his care, and immediately set about improving all the faithful according to his enlightened vision. It was a much more bluntly delivered warning than I’ve said about doing that to art.) The priest is ordained as the crystallization and crown of the faithful’s priestly call. The liturgy which priest (and faithful) is not to be cut off when the ceremony ends; it is to flow out and imprint its glory on the faithful’s life and work. Not only the liturgical but the iconic is to flow out and set the pace for life.

Art is to be the broader expression of the iconic.

Icon of the Trinity, Rublev
Icon of the Trinity, Rublev
One of the greatest icons in the Orthodox treasury

Read more of The Best of Jonathan’s Corner: An Anthology of Orthodox Christian Mystical Theology on Amazon!

C.S. Lewis, 𝑇ℎ𝑎𝑡 𝐻𝑖𝑑𝑒𝑜𝑢𝑠 𝑆𝑡𝑟𝑒𝑛𝑔𝑡ℎ: Science and Magic, Spirit and Matter, and the Figure of Merlin

Revisited Some Time Later

I’m not quite taking this down, but this is a mediocrity.

Better reading would be A Pilgrimage from Narnia, A Comparison Between the Mere Monk and the Highest Bishop, or The Angelic Letters.

I write as someone who grew up first having my father read The Chronicles of Narnia to my brother and me at bedtime (my Mom recounted how Matthew and I were wide awake even when my father was nodding off), then reading The Chronicles of Narnia again and again, and eventually reading practically every essay, book, and story of Lewis’s that I could get my hands on. I’ve read “Dymer” and The Discarded Image and am aware of one and only one major work of Lewis’s that I have not read, a textbook that to my knowledge has not been superseded. I have been told that I write like an Englishman; if that is true, it is much more probably Lewis’s influence than anyone else.

And, as Orthodox, I have written A Pilgrimage from Narnia and backed away from Lewis’s objective of “mere Christianity”. I still respect Lewis, but the Orthodox Church has a great many treasures and some of them are not even hinted at when he presents standard Christianity.

The Abolition of Man is a short book and is my favorite among Lewis’s nonfiction writing. I could wish it were much longer. That Hideous Strength corresponds to The Abolition of Man, at much greater length, and is expressed through masterful fiction instead of the prose argument of The Abolition of Man. For a long time I have considered it the deepest of his fiction.

But I here write another Pilgrimage from Narnia.

Having finally gotten around to finding what to do with free time after some generous time off from holidays and recuperating from sickness (my job and my boss are really good), I reread C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, in the hope that it would inspire something for me to write. Partway through I imagined a work consisting entirely of questions about how Druidry is envisioned in That Hideous Strength. And in the end I arrived at inspiration for something to write, albeit not something I either welcomed or envisioned.

A physics teacher or show, I don’t remember which, said that the Holy Grail of physics would be a so-called “Grand Unified Theory”, which would essentially mean that everything we know about physics could be boiled down to a set of equations that could be written on one half of a side of a sheet of paper. And something, in a perverse way, is true for ancient Druids. Almost everything we reliably know about them could be written on one half of a sheet of paper. They are almost unknown from historical sources, and almost equally inaccessible to archaeological knowing: one source, cited in the Wikipedia article, says, “not one single artefact or image has been unearthed that can undoubtedly be connected with the ancient Druids.”

Now there were ancient writers about Druids; Roman Caesars had something to say about the Druids of Gaul. But if their accounts were written today, they would be called Orientalist and dismissed even for grounds other than political correctness.

For those not familiar with the label of ‘Orientalism’, I would recall a conversation I sat in on at Cambridge, with German student who was researching for a thesis on 18th century English Orientalist views on China, and a Chinese student. The Chinese student, understandably enough, thought the German student would know a fair amount about China. But she did not, or at least she said she did not. And perhaps the German student was understating her knowledge: perhaps her flawless command of the English language was accompanied by a flawless command of English manners. But she very well may not have known anything real about China: not because she was an academic professional slouch, but simply because Western Orientalist views of China are so far disconnected from life in China that even extensive understanding of China would not shed much light on Orientalism as studied.

Orientalist views are a projection: Charles Baudelaire’s “tout n’est que l’ordre, luxe, calme et volupté” (“there is nothing but order, luxury, calm, and voluptuousness”) really tells us nothing about any of the Asian constellation of cultures, and much about… Charles Baudelaire. Trying to read Orientalist sources to understand the people described is like trying to read a book of dirty jokes to understand the psyche of beautiful women. A “beautiful woman” in dirty jokes is only a projection of male desire, and unrefined male desire at that; beautiful women may exist well enough but their psyches are not to be found from dirty jokes, and Orientalism is far enough from reality that it actually makes sense for a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University, studying English Orientalism about China, to simply not attempt to understand much of Chinese culture: she might have been saving her elbow grease for topics that would actually illuminate her understanding of English views of China, and China and Chinese culture themselves were not among them.

The Roman reports we have of ancient Druids may illuminate something about Rome, although we have much knowledge of Rome already; they are Orientalist and do not tell us much about Druids. And again, what we reliably know about ancient Druids can fit on one half of one side of a sheet of paper.

Now what, in specific, did I find haunting about That Hideous Strength? Not all of it, and for that matter there is much in the book that is not objectionable; Lewis describes it as a counterpart to The Abolition of Man, which is deep and truthful through and through. But there is an occult bent, not entirely hidden, and there was something that made my skin creep this time through when Venus’s influence on Ransom’s house is elaborated by saying that there is a lot of copper to be found around it. A quick Google search later for “Venus copper alchemy” turns up what I already really knew: that there is some identification between Venus and copper in alchemy. (I didn’t go beyond the first search engine results page. Nor am I convinced it would have been particularly wise.) The Melchizedek mentioned is the immortal Melchizedek of alchemy, not the prefiguring type of Christ in the Bible.

As a rule, Lewis sticks to what he, and a great many in his wake, calls “mere Christianity.” That is, he tried as a rule to stick to those things that Christians had held in common for twenty centuries, and while a couple of clarifications to this might be given, in The Chronicles of Narnia Aslan appears somewhat as a traveler from afar; the question of who Aslan’s mother might be and what significance she might hold is never even whispered and the reader is drawn into the narrative in such a way that the question probably never arises in the reader’s mind. And with a nod of recognition to the fact that the Chronicles of Narnia are not a deliberately concocted allegory (and that it betrays a profound misunderstanding to read the book as a coded catechism), there is a reason the reader is never invited to even think about Aslan’s mother: the question of who Christ’s mother is, how great or small, and what it means for her to be great, has been an area of disagreement among Christians. Orthodox venerate her primarily as Mother, Catholics as Virgin, Puritans saw an ordinary mortal woman who is not to be venerated on pain of idolatry, and perhaps many Protestants today see as an “agree to disagree” matter, that is, not an essential question to Christianity. With obscure exceptions, Lewis rarely if ever discusses the place of the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, because “mere Christianity” such as he tried to limit himself to meets a bit of obstacle in the question of who is Mary and how we should relate to her, because there has been no “mere Christian” agreement such as Lewis argues, and the question is significant enough that any stance in it is profound, specifically including “It’s been centuries now. Can’t we just agree to disagree?”

I should like to clear away a distraction now and say that I am not bothered by Lewis’s portrayal of devils, nor am I bothered by the presence of devils in the fictional work corresponding to The Abolition of Man, in which devils are not explicitly mentioned. In thatsense the fictional portrayal is, if anything, more true than The Abolition of Man, as the project and doctrines critiqued in The Abolition of Man are, to put it bluntly, inspired by diabolical plans. To anyone who objects to the discussion of devils in Lewis’s work, I would say that Lewis understands spiritual struggle and his discussion of devils is true to the mark, or more pointedly that the one work which is the Orthodox Church’s canonical anthology of post-Biblical spiritual classics is the Philokalia, and the Philokalia spends more time discussing devils and their operations than any other work I’ve read. The fact that Lewis portrays diabolical plans as impinging on human history is no irresponsibility as a novelist, nor need it be chalked up to poetic conceit. If Lewis were to deny that his story of a diabolical assault on the earth were an unreal kind of story to tell, plenty of Orthodox at least might say that even if Lewis were to present it as a poetic conceit, it is no more a fantastic kind of thing to introduce to a story than Mary and Jane Studdock’s getting hungry and tired.

Now the book, being labeled “a fairy-tale for grown-ups” by its author, should be given room for poetic license. However, amidst explanation of things that are mere Christianity and which were already under attack when Lewis wrote the book, is separated by no clear divider by Lewis from the less popular elements of mere Christianity that he defends. And these speculations are not Orthodox, nor Catholic, nor Methodist, nor Calvinist, nor Anabaptist, nor any major thread of what he considered mere Christianity, but occult in character, and these may be the most seductive passages in a book that seduces well enough with Truth. A discussion surrounds Merlin and related topics:

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.

But if the only possible attraction of Bragdon lay in its association with the last vestiges of Atlantean magic, this told the company something else…

The paragraph may make some readers want to read the book. Now I can accept something like Lewis’s poetic conceit, if it is poetic conceit. I do not see the division between Merlin’s age and our own, or whatever older thing there may have been that had a last survival in Merlin’s age. Animism or old-fashioned paganism are different from the Renaissance magus or today’s neo-Pagan as a virgin is different from a woman divorced. The man who practices the animism he learned at his mother’s knee as a member of his tribe or clan is a very different picture from the Renaissance magus, who bears a sword with which to cut through their society’s Gordian knots, and a messianic fantasy with it. The traditional animist is embedded in the fabric of his society’s existence; the Renaissance magus stood over and against society, viewing it as a rather despicable raw material to be used in Utopian plans; it is the Renaissance magus whose mantle left behind has created what we now know as political ideologies. “(though this was doubtful) been less guilty”: animism and Renaissance magic alike put men in thrall to devils, and one hears of a missionary starting to converse with a local who knew the Bible, and nervously being pulled aside, and rightly told that he was a witch doctor. But I had rather find myself in the company of the traditional animist, who had no messianic fantasy about how to transform the world, than a magus. And in that qualified sense I agree to a point that is connected to Lewis’s, even though it differs and may differ significantly.

There are phrases and sections that give a thrill. At one point it is mentioned that Ransom’s company has a knowledge of XYZ point of Arthuriana that orthodox Arthurian scholarship would not reach for several centuries. But when I look at things in the book that thrilled me most, they seemed if anything to be poisoned. A lost world is a haunting reality; this is true of any finished epoch in history but the Atlantean society and magic Merlin represents are doubly exotic.

The blaring obvious

Perhaps most obvious of the ways that the story is occult is its Arthurian themes. I have read quite a lot of medieval Arthurian legends by today’s standards, quite a lot: the Brut, Chrétien de Troyes, and Sir Thomas Mallory, but that only scratches the surface of even just the medieval tellings. The best way I can think of concisely describing Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is as a terse thousand page synopsis of the library’s worth of sources Mallory himself read. Now any serious student of the Arthurian legends will acknowledge that Mallory didn’t just abridge; he made transformations of his work and rendered cycles of romances to be a little more like a novel. And I wrote my own riff on the Arthurian legends in The Sign of the Grail, and the best way I can describe that is that I tried to write a Christian treatment of the Arthurian legends, and even in my successes I found the thing I was attempting was impossible. (I have not read Robert de Borron, arguably the medieval author I should most have read as he made the most effort to draw the legends into the Christian fold.) And there are things absent from the narrative that are abundantly present in the legends: the Puritan critique I am aware of is not that magical phenomena lurk around every corner and supply practically every plot device, nor the married flirting of courtly love (my brother years ago asked me, “If [Sir Lancelot]’s such a great knight, how come he has a crush on the queen?”), or for that matter of open adultery such as the story of Tristram and Yseult that was drawn into Arthurian orbit, but rather the Puritans raised objections to unending pages of open manslaughter. I would, off the cuff, place the combats between knights as at least half of Mallory and easily half of the Brut, as combat with it being a frequent occurrence for two mighty knights to hack each other to death’s door and be well a fortnight later. In that regard the legends are comparable to a U.S. R-rated action-adventure movie: there may be sex, but the bulk of the R comes from violence.

But the Arthurian legends are deeply occult, and it takes no heresiologist who has studied occult symbols to find treacherous occult symbolism behind seeming innocence. It is plain on a naive reading that magic and magical phenomena is a pillar of Arthurian foundations. And at the risk of a daft comparison between Lewis and myself, I will mention that Lewis also neglects completely the interminable fighting of medieval Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, and the central Arthurian figure Lewis brings is not Ransom (who has enough transcendence and wonder of his own), but Merlin, who is the riveting center of attention in the company of Ransom before he is awakened and even more rivets attention on himself once he has entered the picture in the most direct sense. One definition of a rounded character in literature is not about having such-and-such many attributes defined, but of believably surprising the reader. Lewis’s Merlin is perhaps the most concentrated character in believable surprises in all of the literature I have read; he far eclipses the other characters, even Ransom, in a book whose characters are rounded enough. That Hideous Strength represents the culmination of a trilogy of which the first two books are not in particular Arthurian; Lewis does a deft job of shifting courses between Out of the Silent Planet to Perelandra, where the Unman appears and tells his tales to an Unfallen Eve, although here, even as he uses the symbolism of Mars and Venus much as John Gray does, he has two genders. In That Hideous Strength he discusses “the Seven Genders” in a way unconsciously unsettling to someone who had embraced his use of astrological symbolism in Perelandra the two genders covered are in fact two basic realities we would do well to acknowledge; in That Hideous Strength this is diluted and the genders represent more seven generic qualities than gender or sex as we know them; this is no gender rainbow, or at very least no conscious gender rainbow, but it muddies the foundation laid in Perelandra. And when Lewis joins That Hideous Strength to the other two, deftly, he incorporates an element that is arguably more occult than the stories or supernatural plot element to be found in the other two books. He welds in the Arthurian legends, and the central Arthurian character in the book is the most magical, the Devil’s son (though this attribution is denied in the text). And the result is more occult than the astrology, which a perceptive reader of Lewis and the Middle Ages—and not the average Joe C.S. Lewis fan—is not about what is called (in a muddy term) “judicial astrology,” the casting of horoscopes to inform a day’s decisions, but something more like a worldview where the influences of the planets did the job of science as an overall enterprise, and “judicial astrology” was more like the specific application of science in engineering: perhaps a valid distinction if Lewis was writing for other medievalists only, but a subtle and not-at-all-obvious distinction given the fact that C.S. Lewis was probably the twentieth century’s best loved Christian author and Perelandra and That Hideous Strength were written for a reading public who had no clue of the distinction between today’s (judicial) astrology and the outlook represented by medieval astrology as a whole. C.S. Lewis did write, I believe in the well-named The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, that people in the Middle Ages or more probably the Renaissance would be astonished that astrology was lumped in with magic by readers today: magic asserted human power, while astrology asserted human impotence. Any number of such subtle distinctions can be made, but they are overly fine to the majority audience of the twentieth century’s most popular Christian writer, the overwhelming majority of whom do not have enough history to understand how you can use and apparently endorse major astrological themes without being in the same league of the “Star Scrolls” sold in vending machines that I as a little boy wanted so much and my mother firmly forbade.

Now it may be asked, “Did you not read the label? Lewis offered a fairy tale for grown-ups.” And this categorization both is and is not true; it seems to represent a fair description where categories break down. The characterization and plot are those of a modern novel; the only novel-length book I have read that I would characterize as a fairy tale is Phantastes, by Lewis’s role model, George MacDonald. Psychological as opposed to a more mythic motivation moves all of the characters; Lewis does deal in archetypal characters and fills The Chronicles of Narnia with the repentant traitor, the apostate: but he does not deal in the minutia of their psychology. He does deal with the minutia of how Mark Studdock comes to reject the N.I.C.E. and of how Jane Studdock refuses to be open to the embrace of a child. Of my own writing, The Fairy Prince hovers on the allegorical, and does not hover over the minutia of its characters’ psychology even when a profound change is implied. Firestorm 2034 is speculative fiction, looks at its characters’ psychology, and I would only with reservation call it a fairy tale. (If I were to choose a term for it, it would be “culture fiction”, a term applicable to some degree to most of my fiction.) If I were to bring a paragraph’s description of That Hideous Strength into a fragment of a sentence, I’m not sure I could do better. But That Hideous Strength is a novel, some of the best speculative fiction around, but not a fairy tale.

And all of this is beside the point. The basic moral question that I raise here is, “Does That Hideous Strength arouse a haunting lust for things occult?” And if it does, this represents a flaw, whether or not it may also be called a fairy-tale for adults. Arousing impure desire is a flaw to Christian writing, and this is not just true of sexual lust. There are other lusts around, and merely sexual lust is somewhat dwarfed by lusting for magic (or, really, magick), which is properly called an unnatural vice. And this latter thirst is a propeller inThat Hideous Strength.

A complication: Turning back the clock?

The rough draft as I created it had a section that I later took out; partly because it was loosely connected with the main point as originally envisioned, and partly because a friend’s disagreement suggested that it might be a liability to include. After thinking further, I wish to re-include it:

There is some speculation in the book that, if not specifically occult, is at least speculation and not mere Christianity:

“But about Merlin?” asked Mrs. Dimble presently.

“Have you ever noticed,” said Dimble, “that the universe and every little bit of the universe, is always hardening and narrowing and coming to a point?”

His wife waited as those wait who know by long experience the mental processes of the person who is talking to them.

“I mean this,” said Dimble in answer to the question she had not asked. “If you dip into any college, or parish, or family—anything you like—at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren’t quite so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point where there is even less room for indecision and the choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder…”

The Orthodox Church may know of a decisive turning point in the Incarnation of Christ, and perhaps others, but not of less elbow room by the year. If anything, in Orthodoxy in my time and locale, things are a free for all compared to the sharp Church discipline of the ancient church. Sins are lightly forgiven that would have a period of penitence of years’ exclusion for communion. There are multiple bishops in any number of cities, and while things might not usually match the former Anglican free for all in the Western Rite, today’s Orthodoxy looks like a madhouse compared to better times—until you recognize why nineteenth century Russia has been called a Gnostic wonderland with everything to satisfy damnable curiosities, and the great Christological Ecumenical Councils of the fourth century were called, not because there was a golden age, but precisely because of how serious the problems were. The state of Orthodoxy today may look like a madhouse by historic standards, but still a Heaven that has beckoned in Orthodoxy in every age beckons now. Despair is no more an option than the legalism of “True Orthodoxy” or “Genuine Orthodoxy.” There is if anything more elbow room today than historically, certainly more this year than last year.

Some qualifications may be needed: once one knows that Bultmann did not invent de-mythologing and over a millenium earlier St. (Pseudo-)Dionysius did a much better job of it, it is recognized as inappropriate to read Genesis 1 as meaning that God spoke with physical lips and a tongue. Certainly God commanded: but anthropomorphism of the Father is forbidden as icons of the Father are forbidden. (The interesting truth is not that the Father may not be directly portrayed, but that the Incarnate son may, and in fact should, be portrayed.) And likewise for actions. The entire process of maturity includes a Vinedresser who prunes branches, and part of this pruning is that some things may not be done. As St. Paul famously said, “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put childish things behind me.

And there are other things that could complicate things. Christ counterculturally held a child as the model for entering into the Kingdom; when he chose his disciples, the last, “as one untimely born” (i.e. as a miscarriage) had top-notch scholarly learning; apart from St. Paul, Christ selected a diverse group of apostles who were children as far as book-learning was concerned. But more to the point, if we accept the process of maturity as described in the paragraph above, it must be remarked that this is a truth of personal development: I as a child appropriately spoke, understood, and reason as a child, but my coming to an age to put childish things behind me do not mean that it is wrong for the youngest members of my parish to speak, understand as a child. And my childhood was not license for my grandparents to behave as befits a child. Things may grow sharper with people’s processes of maturity; or may not: but this is a personal process, not a universal law. And on the key point under discussion in this passage, concerning magic and the relationship between spirit and matter. I have suggested earlier, in contradistinction to Lewis’s timeline portrayal, that the opposite of the Renaissance magus is not a member of some almost-forgotten College of magic that has left traces on our literature, but was becoming extinct in the sixth century, but animism, as learned at a mother’s knee and as practiced by cultures since before recorded history and continues to be practiced today.

Let me quote more of the same passage:

“Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time… Even in literature, poetry and prose draw further and further apart.”…

“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…”

My Orthodox response, is “That’s not what Rome would call a doctrinal development. It’s a Western perversion.” Regarding the first point on literature, we are indeed more specialized but as regards Bible translation we are worse. The King James Version is my preferred translation when I am reading in English, even though I have read any translation I wanted to. Someone has said, “The problem with the King James Version is the translators’ shaky grasp of Hebrew; the problem with all modern translations is the translators’ increasingly shaky grasp of English.” The issue Lewis was concerned about in The Elephant and the Fern Seed has changed only by further specialization. And the difference between the King James Version and modern translations is that the King James Version is the work of Renaissance men, polymaths who were both scholars of original languages and wordsmiths in their own right, and often quite devout. By contrast, the average modern Bible translator is a specialist of the sort Lewis raised concerns about in The Elephant and the Fern Seed, a specialist in ancient language and culture who is no published wordsmith at least. This is not a good thing, and that is part of why even though the King James Version used language that was old-fashioned when the translation was new, it has not been superseded in quality, even though the NIV (Now Indispensable Version) has exceeded it in current sales. Poetry and prose indeed grow further apart, to their detriment. Part of why G.K. Chesterton has his own following is that his prose never really leaves poetry behind; I’ve seen a Calvinist quote a passage from Chesterton that explicitly condemns Calvinism, partly because even though it condemned his beliefs it brought together the best of poetry and prose and bore a truth he could (in general) recognize. Now it may be commented that half-poetic prose is rare and Chesterton is significant partly as an exception. I would not contest the point. But however much the separation of poetry and prose may be a fact in Western historical development, it is not history sharpening all things, nor is it permanent. Fashions in education today may well create super-specialists far more than generalists, but my point is that this is a shift in fashion, and a point of how Western history has played out, but not the next step in the world’s process of improvement.

And a similar, but deeper, disturbance is in the difference between Merlin’s coaxing and stroking compared to the modern man’s view of a machine that is to be pulled to bits if it does not satisfy. And on that score Merlin is not a member of a College that was vanishing even in late antiquity, but a figure who agrees with Orthodoxy about the nature of Creation. Not, of course, in any sort of magic being lawful. But given the basic options of coaxing and pulling to bits, the Orthodox relationship is that of coaxing, and I tried to commit to writing how Orthodox view Creation in “Physics.

To give a hint and just illuminate things a little, I would comment that the more devout or higher up in the heirarchy a person is, the better with animals. It is a commonplace that animals, including wild animals, do not disturb monastics. I do not ask you to believe it, but even one journalist talked about eating lunch at Mount Athos, having a monk tell visitors not to worry about more than one boar in the bushes, and then telling his visitors, “Let me know when you’re done with your melons and other food, and I’ll give the signal.” So the people finished their lunches, threw down their melon rinds as expected, and then the monk spoke and the boars devoured the rinds and other food remnants (all of the while not harming any of the people). Less spectacularly, there was one monastery which I used to visit, and I am told, though I did not see this myself, that the deer would approach and eat from the monastics’ hands. I do know that I was visiting the monastery, in major deer hunting country where one wore a fluorescent orange hat and I lost count how many gunshots I heard, that two deer let another person and me approach within thirty feet of them. They slowly got out of our way after that, but they could have been keeping a whole lot more of a respectful distance than they did. The senior monk told me that the deer knew they were safe at the monastery. And even with domestic animals, I remember visiting someone and being told that the cat was bite-happy and would only settle down into the arms of clergy and monastics—I was advised to set the cat down. But I have in general been able fairly easily to make friends with animals—a dog that had been used as bait for pit bulls started by nervous barking, and ended by laying on his back in a condition of complete vulnerability, hoping for a good scratch. And I remember one time when a friend was moving in; all the rest of the friends were asked to carry things but I was handed the end of a leash and told the dog was uncomfortable and afraid of men. But even though at the beginning the dog was very clearly unhappy to be at the opposite end of his leash from me, I kept coaxing him by my actions and twenty minutes later he snuggled up with me, and to my astonishment approached the other men in our group, sniffing hands and otherwise making doggy efforts to make friends. I don’t believe this is some special or unique personal ability; clergy, monastics, and devout Orthodox faithful may or may not consider themselves good with animals, or even particularly interested in them, but when animals enter the picture, they are usually able to connect. In Lewis’s story it may be poetic conceit that Ransom can have a chat with Mr. Bultitude or a tiger and they would thereafter be safe enough company, but that bit of imagination is in continuity with something real, if perhaps less spectacular.

This account is inadequate, but part of the picture has to do with headship. “Headship,” as used in Evangelical circles, refers to a debate of whether a husband and wife are equal as regards authority or whether there is a relationship between husband and wife that is somewhat like that of the head and the body. To affirm it, in egalitarian circles, is taken to afford husbands a domination that greatly injures what is good for women. And the overall reply to that is perhaps not, as John Piper said, that the ways husband and wife serve each other mirror the ways Christ and the Church serve each other, and if this distinguished service is removed from marriage, marriage ceases to illuminate Christ and the Church. A better reply is to say, the full picture of headship is so far out of your orbit that it is probably pointless to press this point on its own.

There is a head-body relationship portrayed in Scripture and developed in the saints, which sees (this list is open-ended):

Head Body
God Christ
Christ The Church
Christ Mankind
Heaven Earth
Holy of holies Sanctuary
Paradise The rest of the inherited world.
Contemplative Active
That which meets God Ordinary reason
Spiritual wisdom Practical wisdom
Archetype Image
Eternity Time
Sunday, the Eighth Day The whole sacred week
New Testament Old Testament
Christ’s return in glory Christ’s first coming with glory veiled
Christ Mature men
Husband Wife
Man Woman
Adult Child
Spiritual Creation Material Creation
The spiritual sense of Scripture The literal sense of Scripture
Spirit Body
Mankind Nature
Vinedresser Vine
Worker Work
Gardener Garden
Mother Home
Master Pupil
Pastor Flock
But absolutely not
Renaissance magus Nature
Renaissance magus Society
Renaissance magus Magic

The difference between the first long list and the second short list hinges on a single Greek word, katakurieuo used when Christ said that Gentile authorities “lord it over” those beneath them, but such is not permitted among Christians. And the term is not an exact match here; we are told in Genesis to domineer the creation, but there is a difference: domineering leadership can have a place and has to have a place (as, for instance, when a small child tests whether the rules are real), but there is an ocean of difference who domineers as a fierce medicine to free and nurture a disciple, and one who leads to make others an extension of his ego, or domineers to break a soul. And even when domineering is lawfully exercised, it is the exception, not the rule. The spirit of katakurieuo is the normal baseline in the Renaissance magus and mercy the exception; the servant leadership based on Christ is the normal baseline in all of these headships and an iron rod the exception. If there is an iron rod, it is much sooner applied to oneself than others—which is also not shared by the magus.

And there is a further point in St. Maximus the Confessor: all of these differences are to be transcended. In Christ there is no longer male nor female. In Christ even the distinction between created man and nature on the one hand, and uncreated God on the other, is transcended. The transformation reaches that far.

What was lost rejected dismantled in the Scientific Revolution

The birth of science was heralded through the metaphor of sexual violence to a woman, personified Nature. As to why this was, let me draw an analogy with marriage. Marriage is a profound thing and leaves an indelible mark, so that there is no way to hit an Undo and Reset button and simply restore the mere friendship that preceded the romance. And the very depth of its mark is attested to in the absolute misery of either side of a divorce, of feeling squashed like a bug, and pouring anger over everything in the relationship. Coarse jokes attest that you can’t simply wipe away a marriage and be where you started: “A wife is only temporary. An ex-wife is forever.”; “When two divorced people sleep together, there are four people in the bed.” The relationship can be torn apart, but it is deep enough of a thing that you can’t just reset it to how things were before.

Something as deep as a divorce with the older way of relating to Nature is found in early modern science, and that is why there are all the sexually violent lurid imagery about torturing and raping the personification of Nature. Mary Midgley, in Science as Salvation, argues:

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, 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).

Now this odd talk does not come from a few exceptionally uninhibited writers. It has not been invented by modern feminists. It is the constant, common idiom of the age. Since historians began to notice it, they have been able to collect it up easily in handfuls for every discussion…

This exceedingly foul imagery, persisting over time, attests to the durability and depth of the relationship that was being destroyed. Its vileness is like a divorce, ripping apart what cannot simply be dropped by dropping a personal pronoun. It is grieving, of a perverse sort: those who would object that for someone, “every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse,” can’t undo that relationship simply by dropping personification in speech in nature. The old relation to nature could only be dropped by ripping apart the persona of nature. Those who take Newton’s mathematical work to be a manual of rape may be wrong, but they are less wrong than you might think. And if Lewis’s fictional Merlin lived from “every operation on nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse,” know that this is not a last survival in an ancient world of something far more ancient, but a common treasure held by East and West alike until centuries after the Great Schism, and held by the Orthodox Church today.

The lot of de-mythologizers

Is there room for the de-mythologizing discipline of science? Orthodox are on very shaky ground to dismiss de-mythologizing disciplines altogether. As was hinted at earlier, one of the most profound texts in the history of science is a profound and much more interesting de-mythologizing enterprise than the sciences founded with modernity, and with people who demean their discipline with the physics envy that says they are just-as-much-scientists-as-people-in-the-so-called-hard-sciences-like-physics (a claim that is very demeaning if is false, and much more demeaning if it happens to be true). The enterprise of de-mythologizing as we know it followed up a de-anthromorphized physics in Newton with a de-anthropomorphized psychology in behaviorists like Skinner. And no Orthodox can complain about de-mythologization as such; one of the most singular of the Church’s texts finds its climax in the words,

The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing…

So this is what we say. The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. He is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. He is not in any place and can neither be seen nor be touched. He is neither perceived nor is he perceptible. He suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. He is not powerless and subject to the disturbances caused by sense perception. He endures no deprivation of light. He passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the senses may be aware. None of all this can either be identified with it nor attributed to it.

Again, as we climb higher we say this. He is not soul or mind, nor does he possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is he speech per se, understanding per se. He cannot be spoken of and he cannot be grasped by understanding. He is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. He is not immovable, moving, or at rest. He has no power, he is not power, nor is he light. He does not live nor is he life. He is not a substance, nor is he eternity or time. He cannot be grasped by the understanding since he is neither knowledge nor truth. He is not kingship. He is not wisdom. He is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is he a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. He is not sonship or fatherhood and he is nothing known to us or to any other being. He falls neither within the predicate of nonebeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know him as he actually is and he does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of him, nor name nor knowledge of him. Darkness and light, error and truth—he is none of these. He is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to him, but never of him, for he is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of his preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; he is also beyond every denial.

However, this great classic needs to be placed today alongside a much lesser work such as is found in the following little chapter of the heart-warming Everyday Saints and Other Stories:

In Egypt, in whose ancient Christian past there had once been many grand monasteries, there once lived a monk who befriended an uneducated and simple present farmer. One day this peasant said to the monk, “I too respect God who created the world! Every evening I pour out a bowl of goat’s milk and leave it under a palm tree. In the evening God comes and drinks up my milk! He is very fond of it! There’s never once been a time when even a drop of milk was left in the bowl.”

Hearing these words, the monk could not help smiling. He kindly and logically explained to his friend that God doesn’t need a bowl of goat’s milk. But the peasant so stubbornly insisted that he was right that the monk then suggested that the next night they secretly ewatch to see what happened after the bowl of milk was left under the palm tree.

No sooner said than done. When night fell, the monk and the peasant hid themselves from the tree, and soon in the moonlight they saw how a little fox crept up and lapped up all the milk until the bowl was empty.

“Indeed!” the peasant sighed disappointedly. “Now I can see that it wasn’t God!”

The monk tried to comfort the peasant and explained that God is a spirit, that God is something so completely beyond our poor ability to comprehend in our world, and that people comprehend His presence each in their own unique way. But the peasant merely stood hanging his head sadly. Then he wept and went back home to his hovel.

The monk also went back to his cell, but when he got there he was amazed to see an angel blocking path. Utterly terrified, the monk fell to his knees, but the angel said to him:

“That simple fellow had neither education nor wisdom nor book-learning enough to be able to comprehend God otherwise. Then you with your wisdom and book learning took away what little he had! You will doubtless say that you reasoned correctly. But there’s one thing that you don’t know, O learned man: God, seeing the sincerity and true heart of this good peasant, every night sent the little fox to that palm tree to comfort him and accept his sacrifice.”

I cannot call this story the equal to the climax to St. Pseudo-Dionysius’s greatest work. I cannot. But in our de-mythologized age, we much less need to beat such a drum even more than see what the learned monk could not: that God accepted and drank the milk offered to him, perhaps by means of a fox. And we can show kindnesses to God when he suffers, perhaps in the person of our neighbor. It is a loss to say that God does not suffer when you are standing by a neighbor who is suffering and you can help. God does not suffer in himself, but he does suffer in our neighbor, and when we meet Christ’s Judgment Throne we will find that the way we treated the suffering is how we treated Christ. Really, most of us have more productive things to do than de-mythologize things further.

The temptation here is to campaign for a program of re-mythologizing life, to call out, “Stop burning down the rainforests in South America! Reforest the Sahara!” And, for reasons discussed in Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a passion, this is a solution worthy of a magus and a spiritual dead end. What we may have instead, on a much smaller nuanced level, is a layer of spiritual awareness. One monk, who for exceptional reasons was working not on Mount Athos but at a U.S. print shop, discussed the unstable and unreliable print machines, and he talked about massaging and coaxing, and how you do not curse a machine that will not cooperate: those curses are real and have an effect. And I would specifically point out that a machine is about as far as you can get for a matter-based machine, understood by the laws of physics, and such a kind of thing as an early modern scientist would project onto much larger screen. He was not, for instance, talking about how to coax a tomato vine in your garden. He was talking about how to handle a machine, and while I do not remember him using the word ‘love’, the upshot of his discussion was that even a machine is something you govern through love. And he did not present this in particularly romanticized terms; it was a matter of fact man describing what work was like.

“Mother” and “matter” come from the same archaic root; in earlier ages the distinction was not so sharp. And we would do well to look on this whole creation on us as our mother, much as when we step into a temple we are stepping into an icon. I do not wish to push the point too far, but in the absence of a magus-paradigmed reform programme, we can open the doors of our heart to God, to our neighbor, to Creation, to everything we are able to love, and let God work with us.

What more are we to do to a right relationship? I think it’s more of what sanctified relationships will do to us.